What Are We Looking For?—Ted Grimsrud
Shalom Mennonite Congregation—Harrisonburg, VA
Isaiah 51:1-3; Hebrews 2:5-9; Revelation 1:1-6
One of my favorite songwriters is Bruce Cockburn. The song of his that came to mind as I thought about this sermon is one called “Child of the Wind.” He has this great couple of lines: “Little round planet in a big universe; sometimes it looks blessed, sometimes it looks cursed; depends on what you look at, obviously; but even more it depends on the way that you see.” Even more, it depends on the way that you see.
In a nutshell, this is what I think matters when we look at the Book of Revelation. What is the way we see? First of all, what is the way we see Revelation itself? What are we looking for when we look at Revelation? And then, what does Revelation tell us about the way to see this “little round planet” and this “big universe”? Is it, are we, blessed or cursed?
I want to read a couple of texts about “looking” to prepare us for a short passage from Revelation. Then I would like to take a few moments for you all to say what you are looking for when you look at Revelation. What would you expect to find there?
First, this is Isaiah 51:1-3, words spoken to Israel in exile about the healing that God will bring to their brokenness. “Listen to me, you that pursue justice, you that seek the Lord. Look to the to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for there were only two when I called them, but I blessed them and made them many. For the Lord will comfort Zion; God will comfort all her waste places, and make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.”
My second text is from the book of Hebrews, and speaks also to people of faith who are wondering when full healing will come to the world. “Now God did not subject the coming world to angels. But someone has testified somewhere, ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet.’ Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. However, in the world right now, we do not see everything in subjection to God’s will for creation, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was also made lower than the angels, but is now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might bring healing to us all.”
And now, the beginning words from the Book of Revelation. “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.
“John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom of priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”
So, John invites us to read and to listen to the words of this book. As you pick it up (or open your ears), what do you look for?
The book of Revelation has the reputation of being about whistles and bells, great drama, the shattering of the old and forceful entry of the new. Some people welcome these visions. When I first became a Christian as a teenager, I was taught to read Revelation as predicting a very bloody future period of Tribulation that could begin at any time—that that was to be welcomed as part of God’s work to bring ultimate salvation (and condemnation) to the human race. Wars and rumors of wars, the likelihood of a nuclear holocaust, these were all foretold in Revelation; let’s praise God when they happen. This is the message of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth (the largest selling of all books published in the US during the 1970s). This is the message of Tim LaHaye’s phenomenally popular Left Behind books.
Well, other people who also read Revelation as being about violence, catastrophe, and the shattering end of life as we know it, are appalled by these visions. Jonathan Kirsch, who is a writer for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a best-selling “expose” of Revelation recently called, A History of the End of the World. He characterizes the core message of Revelation in this way: “The moral calculus of Revelation—the demonization of one’s enemies, the sanctification of revenge taking, and the notion that history must end in catastrophe—can be detected in some of the worst atrocities and excesses of every age, including our own. For all of these reasons, the rest of us ignore the book Revelation only at our impoverishment and, more to the point, at our own peril.”
For whatever reasons, both Lindsey and Kirsch read Revelation looking for it to contain a message of violence, severe judgment, and condemnation for God’s human enemies. In my series of sermons I want to present a reading of Revelation that follows from looking for something else.
We are well-advised, I think, to read Revelation looking for guidance as we live amidst wars and rumors of war, imperial violence, and threats to creation itself. However, I think we need to take with utmost seriousness Revelation’s place in the New Testament, and in the Bible as a whole. The message of the Bible finds its sharpest and clearest expression in these brief words of Jesus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.”
I believe that if we read Revelation looking for confirmation of Jesus’ words, if we read Revelation looking for inspiration to make those words the center of our response to the world around us, if we read Revelation looking for a sense of hope that as we follow Jesus’ command and (like he did) face strong resistance from the powers that be in our societies God will not abandon us—then, we will be able to make sense, the best sense, of the “words of this prophecy.”
It truly does depend on how we see. I think of the little Christmas story that Leo Tolstoy wrote about Papa Panov. Papa Panov had a dream the night before Christmas that on the next day we would see the Christ child. He expected this encounter to be one with the mighty and wonderful Baby Jesus of his pious imagination. Well, throughout the day as he awaits the Christ child, he meets many people, a number of them people in need—a young mother, a hungry transient. The kind and generous Panov cares for each person who crosses his path, all the time awaiting the exciting entry of Baby Jesus. As time passes, he begins to wonder, but that does not stop his generosity and kindness. But then the day ends, and he goes to bed in sadness. In his dream, though, the reality of the Christ child is revealed to him: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40).
This is kind of what’s actually going on in Revelation, I think. Now we do need to pay attention to the crazy and at times overwhelming visions in Revelation. But we must not let them distract us from the basic message of the book. And we are given important clues to this message right away in the opening verses.
We are told at the get go that this book is “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” So, whatever else we think we see here, it all needs to be oriented back to this original point. How do these visions help reveal Jesus Christ?
Now, we could be like an apocalyptic Papa Panov, looking for visions of the all-conquering, overwhelmingly violent Christ coming in the clouds to dominate his enemies and reward his friends—with the sense that the best motivation for becoming his friend is fear of eternal torture in the fires of hell. And fundamentalists like Hal Lindsey and skeptics like Jonathan Kirsch will find plenty of supportive visions.
However, if we are looking for something else, something that helps us love our neighbor and have confidence that such love goes with the grain of the universe and is worth suffering for if need be, what will we find?
Drop down to verse five of chapter one, our first description of Jesus. This is part of John’s opening confession, “grace and peace” from the One who is, was, and is to come, from the seven spirits, and from Jesus Christ. Now notice how Jesus is described: “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth,” who “freed us by” his self-sacrifice.
The term “faithful witness” could also be translated “faithful martyr.” The Greek word is matrys; it has the clear sense of Jesus’ faithful life embodying love of neighbor that led to his execution by the Romans. The image here, from the start, is of the suffering servant, the faithful witness to God’s love who came to care for others.
The victory that matters, the one affirmed right at the start and, as it turns out, throughout the book, is won by Jesus’ “blood,” that is, his willingness to remain faithful to the ways of love and compassion even to the point of execution by a state that stood against such love and compassion when it challenged the status quo.
Revelation portrays two distinct kinds of “victory,” or “conquering.” This is a key theme that John self-consciously emphasizes throughout the book. Jesus “conquers” through self-sacrificial love. The Roman Empire, the powers-that-be, conquer through domination. Writers such as Hal Lindsey and Jonathan Kirsch, opposed as they may be in terms of their own politics and religion, stand together in misinterpreting the meaning of the visions of violence and catastrophe in Revelation. Ultimately, these visions expose the evil of the Beast, the Roman Empire, all empires (including the American Empire). The wars and rumors of war reflect the opposite of God’s will.
God’s will, from start to finish, is seen in the “faithful servant” who, through his faithfulness, reveals authentic power and thereby is accurately confessed as “ruler of the kings of the earth.”
I will mention only two other, later, visions of Jesus, that confirm what I am saying—that what is revealed in this book is Jesus the suffering servant, not Jesus the conquering avenger. In chapter five, John weeps because he does not believe that anyone will be found who can open the scroll that contains the message of the consummation of history. He is told not to weep, someone has been found. So this is the key moment, really, of the entire book. Who is worthy to open the scroll?
John hears, mighty, conquering king. But what does he see (again, the key element of sight, of revelation)? He see a Lamb, standing (that is, resurrected) as if slaughtered (that is, executed by crucifixion). This Lamb, who conquered through persevering love, can open the scroll and therefore is worthy to be praised by all creation.
Then, a second climactic moment comes in chapter 19. For some time in the book, we read of anticipations of a great final battle, the “battle of Armageddon.” All the armies of the powers-that-be gather for this battle. In the book-of-Revelation-as-violent reading, this is the key moment in the entire book.
However, in the Revelation-as-revelation-of-Jesus reading, we see something different when we get to the “battle scene.” The savior rides forth on a white horse, as if to battle. But he is armed only with a sword coming out of his mouth—that is, the word of proclamation of the good news of God’s love. And before he gets to the “battle,’ he is clothed in “a robe dipped in blood” (19:13)—that is, his blood has already been shed.
The act that frees us from the Powers, that wins the battle, is what Revelation 1:5 speaks of: Jesus’ faithfulness to the point of execution, vindicated by God’s raising him from the dead. And this has already happened. So the “Battle of Armageddon” is simply a matter of the Powers of evil being gathered up and thrown into the lake of fire. And—a reference always missed by the Revelation-as-violent interpreters—the kings of the earth (the paradigmatic enemies of God in the book as a whole) do not end up in the lake of fire but rather in the New Jerusalem (21:24). The consequence of Jesus’ victory—won by his love—is not punishment of human enemies but their healing.
The book of Revelation does have big hopes; it dreams amazing dreams. It portrays the fall of Babylon. We will spend more time with this symbol, Babylon, in future sermons. For now, I will simply say that I understand this dream of Babylon’s fall a dream of the end of systems of domination, of the end of nations pouring their wealth (and their children) down the rat hole of militarism, of the end of neo-liberal economics that impoverish the billions and destroy the earth for the sake of further enriching the already rich. This is what Revelation hopes for.
Revelation, though, in hoping for the fall of Babylon, also hopes for the healing of Babylon’s human apologists. The generals and capitalists and presidents who do the Beast’s bidding are seen themselves to be in bondage to evil Powers. When those Powers are destroyed, their human servants are freed. The kings of the earth find healing. This is what Revelation hopes for.
And Revelation hopes for a transformed earth and a transformed heaven—where, drawing on other biblical imagery, the lamb and lion rest together and where weapons of war are beat into tools for cultivating the earth and where the boots of tramping warriors are burnt.
This message of hope is crucial in understanding the revelation of Jesus Christ that John reports in this book. But what truly matters for us is to recognize that the means to these goals, the outcomes the book points to and all followers of the Lamb hope for—the goals are all achieved through the self-sacrificial love of the Lamb. The “conquering” that achieves authentic victory throughout Revelation happens only through the power of consistent love. It is Jesus’ faithful witness and God’s nonviolent vindication through resurrection.
And, throughout the book, John’s readers are exhorted in only one direction. They are not to fight the Beast’s violence with violence of their own. They are not to seek to conquer the Beast using his methods. They have a very simple, but of course extraordinarily challenging calling: follow the Lamb wherever he goes.
The last half of chapter one leads in chapters two and three. First, John reports a vision of Jesus as present among the churches. Then, he reports seven specific messages to different churches. I will focus on the content of those messages next month. Now, I want to conclude today’s thoughts with a suggestion of the practical concerns that lay behind John’s visions.
The purpose of this “revelation,” with its critique of the domination system and its affirmation of the victory of the Lamb, is to challenge communities of faith—as we will see in the seven messages.
John is not wanting to give us predictions about the future, to stimulate us to pray for wars and rumors of war, and certainly not to drive us to label our human enemies as subhuman in a way that justifies violence against them.
John wants us to realize that we need each other and that we human beings and our communities are the center of the action in the big drama he portrays. God’s answer to the chaos and violence the Powers have unleashed on earth is to form small peaceable communities that know God’s love, experience it in their common life, and share this love throughout the world.
The “revelation of Jesus Christ” challenges us certainly to discern the ways of the Beast and to resist them with our whole being. But even more, it challenges us to the positive task of living humane lives.
I think of the story told by several of the key figures in Czechoslovakia and Poland at the time of the end of Communist domination in Eastern Europe. They did not set out to bring down the Beast through their efforts. They had seen others try in earlier years and end up crushed. No, they simply sought to create space to be human in their day to day lives, and to expand that space as occasion arose.
I think that is the kind of strategy that fits best with the message of the Book of Revelation. It is not the big drama that is ultimately at the center—it’s the choices here and now to make our home with the Lamb, to follow him in day to day life, and to realize that indeed this little world we live in is a blessing and not a curse. That is how the Lamb calls us to see.