Power in Weakness —Ted Grimsrud
Shalom Mennonite Congregation—Harrisonburg, VA
1 Corinthians 1:18-23; Revelation 2:8-11; 3:7-13
What gives us hope? What do we hope for? How confident are we that “everything will turn out okay”? These are my questions for this morning. Easy ones!
It was just a bit more than twenty years ago that I published my first book, Triumph of the Lamb, a study of the book of Revelation. I will never forget the wonderful feeling when the first package of the freshly printed volumes came to our house.
I’ve been looking at this book a bit lately since I started this new sermon series on Revelation. The scary thing about publishing stuff is that once you let it go, you can’t take it back….There’s actually a lot in that book that I still like; though the writing makes we wince at times.
I haven’t changed my views a lot. I think I wrote mostly the right things. However, there is one area where I was a lot more confident back then than I am now. In my book, I affirm that “everything will turn out well in the end.” I actually struggle with having so much certainty these days. I now find hope to be a bit more of a complicated thing. But there still are truths that I find in Revelation that I do feel confidence in. And I think they are hopeful. That’s what I want to talk about today—what Wendell Berry calls “difficult hope.”
Before setting out my reflections, though, I want to read from several short biblical passages and ask you to share a few of your thoughts about hope. What do you associate with the word “hope”? Think about that as I read. These three texts are not directly addressing the theme of hope; in fact, they may not seem to have much to do with hope at all. So you don’t necessarily need to try to fit your thoughts about hope with these readings. But I will try to do so in a bit….
First I will read from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being liberated it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to liberate those who truly hear. For Jews demand signs and Gentiles demand wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who do hear, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human might.” (1 Cor 1:18-23)
In Revelation, chapters two and three, we find messages to seven churches in southwestern Asia. These were actual churches, and John names here the issues that the book as a whole seeks to speak to. Most of the messages mix praise of the congregations with criticism. Of the seven churches, however, two receive only praise (Smyrna and Philadelphia). Being attentive to these two may help us see something of what the “Revelation of Jesus Christ” is about.
“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life: I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.” (Rev 2:8-11)
“To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens: I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power and you have kept my word and have not denied my name. Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. I am coming soon; hold fast to what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” (Rev 3:7-13)
So, what do you think of when you think of “hope”?…
I recently read a fascinating book by a writer named A. G. Mojtabai called Blessed Assurance: At Home with the Bomb in Amarillo, Texas. This book talks a lot about hope—in ways that I found very disconcerting (though also illuminating). Mojtabai, who identifies herself as a Jew from New York, back in the early 1980s set out for Amarillo, Texas, to try to understand how the people in that city felt about hosting the Pantex plant, where all nuclear weapons in the United States had their assembly completed.
She had no idea ahead of time what she would end up learning. She talked with a number of workers and top administrators in the plant and realized that just about everyone she talked with, all people involved with making weapons of mass destruction, each one was a Christian. This surprised her because she associated Jesus with peace and love of enemies, not with nuclear weapons. So she started asking more questions, and ended up spending a good deal of time in Amarillo churches and in conversation with a number of the town’s leading preachers.
Mojtabai heard over and over again about the “blessed hope” that God would “rapture” believers out of the world, and then use the nuclear weapons as tools of God’s judgment on the unbelievers who remained. The “hope” she heard about, often drawing directly on the book of Revelation, was hope in the violence of God, God’s victory over the forces of “evil” through demolishing them (and the earth they live on).
This “hope” was summarized by one of the people Mojtabai talked with in this way: “I think that this age will end in a world war—Armageddon. I’m not setting any dates, but I don’t see anywhere in the future when we’re going to—the lambs and the lions are going to lie down together—short of—That will eventually come, but this other will come first. What we’re dealing with is just our fallen nature.”
“Hasn’t that changed?” Mojtabai asked.
“That comes when Christ comes.”
“But what was the First Coming for?”
“Well, He came to be Messiah, but He was rejected. All through the Bible is forecast the time that He’ll come in triumph, and all people will bow before him.” At that time, Christ will finally triumph over Satan. “And then it is that the world will be inhabited only by saved people with a perfect nature. That’s when swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.” (145-46)
These are, of course, widespread beliefs. They are what I fervently believed as a young adult. The power of Mojtabai’s book is to show the close juxtaposition of this kind of “hope” with the easy willingness of Christians working at Pantex and living in Amarillo to pour their energies into creating nuclear weapons that can destroy the world—and to do so with few if any moral qualms.
As I read about the link between futuristic theology and the affirmation of nuclear weapon production, I was struck with two crucial problems with such theology—and with interpretations of Revelation that reflect this theology. One is a fatalistic view of God’s destructiveness toward creation. The second is a profound minimizing of Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection.
The futurists believe strongly in God’s sovereignty, God’s control of history. They believe God has told us in biblical prophecy well ahead of time what precisely God will do to end the world to bring in God’s kingdom. These events are set in concrete. God has no choice but to destroy the physical world through incredible amounts of violence that obliterate human life—men, women, and children—and all other life forms on earth (including the lap dogs like our Sophie and Trika).
What I don’t understand is why a sovereign God is forced to destroy the physical creation, the flora and fauna, the human beings made in God’s image—why must a sovereign God destroy what God values so much in order to bring salvation? I think there is a terrible contradiction here. This God is not sovereign, this God is captive to the violent imaginings of a theology utterly in bondage to the myth of redemptive violence—the myth that victory comes only through killing and dominating.
To hold to this kind of theology, a Christian must find a way to marginalize Jesus. Mojtabai, who is Jewish, shames Christians, it seems to me, when she returns time and again to the question—didn’t Jesus’ first coming mean anything?
Here are words from another of her conversations. “I am convinced that no one can change the course of this world,” declares Rev. Jones. “I believe this world is on schedule. Exactly on schedule. And, before long, Jesus will come. And everything that happens in our world is part of the second coming of Jesus.”
All efforts at social change are at best, mere bandaids. “We’re dealing with a symptom, rather than a problem,” Jones believes. “The problem is we’re living in the last days. The Lord’s going to say: I’m sick and tired of what’s going on down there. I’m coming for my church. Jesus is coming for his bride.” Nothing will be solved until Jesus comes.
“But Jesus did come,” is Mojtabai’s continual response.
Going from church to church in Amarillo, she writes, the impression is unavoidable: some of the most ardent born-again Christians are writing Christianity off as something that did not, could not work—at least not in the First Coming.
“Brother, we’ve not seen hard times like shall be when God comes to settle score here on earth,” Rev. Jones preaches. “God’s going to do something to this earth. Man, I’m not going to be here. I’m going to be in glory with Jesus ’cause I’ve been saved. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be here. I want to be in glory.” (154)
I’d say this view is problematic—to put it mildly. The more I study Revelation, the more convinced I am that its “revelation of Jesus Christ” intends precisely to counter Rev. Jones’s kind of fatalism. Jesus’ first coming did matter. Decisively. The “revelation of Jesus Christ” tells us, to use Mojtabai’s words, that Jesus did come. The message of chapter one of Revelation, the message of these letters to the seven churches (especially to the seemingly “weak” churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia in chapters two and three), the message that lies at the heart of this “revelation” is that Jesus did come—and that’s precisely what we need to know.
When Jesus came, he revealed God’s way of victory. When Jesus came, he set the path for his followers to take (the path of persevering love at all times). When Jesus came, he conquered the powers of death and evil through love and love alone.
The revelation in the book of Revelation is about the nature of power. We see this in chapter one. Jesus—because of his faithfulness to the death—is confessed as ruler of the kings of the earth. We see this in chapters two and three. Rewards are promised without qualification to the “poor and weak” churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia. Judgment is promised to the self-satisfied and “powerful” church of Laodicea. We will see this in chapter five. The lamb opens the scroll that contains history’s outcome—again, because of his faithfulness to the death.
When the plagues and wondrous visions begin rolling out in chapter six, we must keep this core message always in mind. Revelation is about the nature of true power—and true power is seen in weakness and vulnerability. The churches must understand the nature of true power, and the visions are meant to further this understanding.
So, what is hopeful about this? Is the New Jerusalem a literal promise for our future? Can we count on everything working out fine in the end? Or is it more a metaphor for the general truthfulness of the Lamb’s way of life—with no information beyond that about future events? I used to think of it more literally; now I am not so sure. I don’t really know how much hope I have in the future. I wonder if being too certain about the outcome might carry with it temptations to “make it so” by force….
I would say with confidence, though, that Revelation (like the gospels) gives us something that we may indeed hope in—to the point of basing our lives on this hope. The hope is this: the way of peace is the only possible way to life. If we want to live right now (in the full sense of the term “life”), we must love and forgive and care and practice restorative justice and be generous and be compassionate. This way is intrinsically life-full—we may hope in this.
This is how I understand the promises to these two churches. To Smyrna: Jesus is the first and the last, who was dead and came to life. Jesus was the faithful witness whose commitment to shalom did not waver in the face of his arrest, torture, and execution by the empire. He was so full of love, so full of life, that the Powers could not conquer him.
I hope I don’t spoil things for any of you who might want to read Harry Potter and haven’t yet. But the conclusion to that story is profoundly Christian, I think. Harry “wins” because his affirmation of love makes him willing to die. This affirmation, even when it might lead to death, defeats the powers of death and evil, for whom the way of love is foolishness.
Jesus promises the Smyrnans, “be faithful until death and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10). This is how you will conquer. “Faithfulness” as in following the path of Jesus’ persevering love—such faithfulness frees one from the fear of death, fear that leads to all kinds of moral compromises.
To Philadelphia: Jesus “opens and no one shuts [and] shuts and no one opens.” His faithfulness led to God’s vindicating him and exalting him. His weakness led to the kind of power that cannot be defeated. Jesus’ ability definitively to open and shut comforts his followers as they face suffering and challenges due to their witness to peace in a violent world.
Jesus promises the Philadelphians, “if you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God” (3:12). By “conquering” Jesus means: remain faithful to the path of peace in face of hostility and temptations to turn aside. And to be a “pillar in the temple of my God” is actually to be at home in the New Jerusalem, the city of God’s presence which will have no temple other than God and the Lamb themselves (21:22). Jesus’ basic message here is that as the Philadelphians follow Jesus’ way of power in weakness, even as they suffer for doing so, they are becoming people who will be fully at home in God’s true temple—the community of life.
I understand these promises to be saying that the means in life, the way we live, matter much more than the ends, the outcomes. When we live according to the ways of peace, we recognize that there is no way to peace, but that peace is the way.
This message of living peace, of course, comes straight from Gandhi as well. For Gandhi, the means were absolute—we seek healing and victory only by means of persevering love, not by means of compromising on our core values for the sake of achieving some absolute goal. Martin Luther King learned this lesson from Gandhi—and from Jesus.
But we must ask, did Gandhi and King “win”? What hope do we draw from their stories? I believe the stories are ambiguous—both men were murdered, dying too soon. Their faithfulness did not lead to the full achievement of their central goals—though they definitely made amazing progress.
However, they do give us a basis for hope—the same basis Jesus gives us. We can’t know how things will turn out (the universe is open and God’s power is non-coercive). However, the victories won by Jesus, Gandhi, and King are the only victories worth having. Winning in the ways they did is intrinsically life-full even if it is incomplete. Maybe that’s the best hope we can have. Amen.