text for this morning comes from Revelation 5, verses 11 through 14:
I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne
and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of
myriads and thousands of thousands, 12singing
with full voice,
‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honour and glory and blessing!’
13Then I heard every creature in heaven and on
earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them,
‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honour and glory and might
for ever and ever!’
14And the four living creatures said,
‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshipped.
with all the budget cutbacks we are experiencing here in Oregon, not
only now to social services and education but in prosecution of crimes
and people being released from jail early (and in some cases very
dangerous and lethal criminals), the war in Iraq that was supposed
to have been over a year ago, what now, 110 deaths of U.S. service
personnel, just this month over 1,000 Iraqis killed. The
presidential campaign that is now upon us and all of the mudslinging
that entails (and there's undoubtedly more and worse yet to come).
It seems to me that this is a good time for us to reflect on Revelation
as a way of taking our minds off the troubles of the world! Kind
of like fixing a broken leg by hitting your head with a hammer J.
of the things I try to do in my preaching every year is to take a book
of the bible and explore it in depth. And this year in the
lectionary, Revelation is the epistle reading for the Sunday's of Easter
-- the Sunday's between Easter and Pentecost. So I thought it'd be
a good time for us to take an in-depth look at Revelation, and I'll be
spending some time on it over the next few weeks. You may want to
be studying that on your own.
I want to begin with a rather presumptuous claim. And that is that
I will assert that the most popular interpretation of the book of
Revelation is completely, 180 degrees wrong.
know me, you know that I like to give a lot of latitude for how we
interpret things, how we approach things. When I say 'this is the
way I understand something', you're free to understand it differently --
that's OK, you don't have to agree with the Pastor. When I take a
stand on a biblical or controversial issue in our community, you can
disagree with me. That is absolutely OK. You know, Colonel
Custer thought he didn't have anything to fear from Chief Sitting
Bull. The captain of the Titanic thought he had nothing to fear of
the icebergs of the North Atlantic. You have nothing to fear of
me! I'm not Chief Sitting Bull or an iceberg.
believe this (and I hold this as deeply as I hold my faith in
God): that there are many legitimate ways to read Revelation and
there is only 1 wrong one. And that wrong one says that Revelation
is about the future, or more specifically, that it is a prediction about
the future end of the world.
it is not my intent to devote this series of sermons to proving that belief
wrong. Rather to uphold an alternative point of view.
Because our biggest problem in the mainline church is not denying the
doomsday prophecies that people find in Revelation (we're OK with that),
it's more that we have nothing to offer as an alternative. So when
it comes to interpreting Revelation, we are either silent or we discount
it as just simply too bizarre.
after the first service said "Oh, this is going to be
fun!". Yeah, in a way, I think it is.
There's nothing new with this problem, at least in the protestant
church, because we've had a problem with Revelation ever since the
Reformation. Martin Luther did not want to include it in his
translation of the bible -- he said it would be better if they could
throw it into the river. John Calvin wrote a commentary on every
book of the bible except for Revelation. And Ulrich Zwingli,
another one of the great reformers, even said it was not worthy of
scriptural status. And it's precisely because we haven't known
what to do with it that we have it allowed it to be co-opted by the
prophets of doom who have shaped it to fit their image of a vengeful
God bent on destroying the wicked and the world right along with it.
my goal over the next 4 or 5 weeks is to give you a completely different
image of Revelation. To reclaim Revelation as I believe it was
intended to be read. As a story of God's radical love for the
world. A love so great, that it would overcome the power of evil
and transform this world (not replace it) into the image
of God's dwelling place.
as such it is one of the most powerful and compelling stories of the
bible and therefore should not be avoided, disregarded, or shunned by
well-meaning Christians. It should be embraced and celebrated as a
witness to the good news of Jesus Christ, wholly consistent with our
understanding of the love of God.
having told you where I want to go, let me just briefly say why I
consider the other route of interpretation (that of the predictions of
the end of the world, the road more traveled, if you will) to be
completely and totally, without a doubt, wrong. Now you can go
there if you want, you can take that route. There's lots of chairs
on the deck of the Titanic -- that's fine if you want to take one.
I'm just not going on that voyage with you.
of all, note the timeframe in the introduction. We consider Revelation likely to have been written towards the end of
the first century, by John who was exiled on the island of Patmos.
Not to be confused with the author of the 4th gospel. But John
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, 2who testified to the word of God and to the
testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.
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.
Note: This is an important clue -- many scholars today think
that Revelation was intended to be read in its entirety. To be
performed, really, as a drama.
I don't know you mean when you say 'the time is near', but I know what I
would mean by that. I don't know precisely what John meant by
that, but I have a hunch that when he writes "what must soon take
place" that he thought it would soon take place.
you think, writing at the end of the first century, he thought
"soon" and "near" meant 2,000 years or more in the
future, then either you must A) redefine those terms as something
different than common understanding, or B) you must work for the FBI as
an anti-terrorist intelligence expert, assessing the risk of a terrorist
attack in the United States in the summer of 2001! You know, it'd
be 'soon', but we don't have to worry about it.
don't know how vague the terms might be in Greek but I do know
this: John was writing a message of hope for the followers of
Christ in his time to encourage them to hold fast to their faith.
How encouraged do you think they would be if his message is 'just
hang on, all the trial and tribulation will be over in about 2,000
years'? Not very encouraging, I don't think.
Revelation is full of symbols. Everyone agrees on that. The
question is how do we interpret those symbols and in what century do we
place them? And the answer I think is very clear, or it should
be. They describe Rome at the end of the first century.
Example: remember the mark of the beast -- what number that
is? 666, right. 666, Chapter 13, fits a well-known method of
using a numeric code for each letter of the alphabet. And in that
code, 666 equals "Caesar Nero". The first Emperor to
engage in widespread persecution of Christians.
example: In chapter 17, the beast is associated with a woman
identified as Babylonia the Great, mother of whores, who sits on a beast
with 7 heads that are then identified as 7 mountains. Rome is
well-known as the city of 7 hills. Rome is often portrayed in
Roman art and literature as a woman. Early Christians often
referred to Rome as Babylonia, because Babylonia was the one that
destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in the 6th century before Christ,
just as Rome was the one that destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in the
year 70 C.E.
John clearly sees the Roman Empire as the beast which is the central
figure opposed to God throughout Revelation. When you read
Revelation in that historical context of the late first century, a time
when the Roman Empire was particularly oppressive to the Christians, to
foreigners and other minorities, it makes perfect sense.
it fits other literature of the period portraying this epic struggle
between the cosmic forces of good and evil. To use a modern image,
it is simply an ancient version of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.
There's one very big difference. This is not a fantasy, not a
fairy tale to be read for entertainment. It is the very real story
of the ultimate conflict between the powers of the world and the will of
God. Those powers of the world that are represented by Rome and
symbolized by that mighty beast, stand in direct contrast to Christ,
symbolized by the Lamb. And not just any Lamb, a slaughtered Lamb.
this is the real shocker of Revelation, for it is counter-intuitive:
how does a Lamb defeat a beast? How does
a cross become a crown?
me take you back just a little bit. Chapter 4 opens with a vision
of God upon the throne. It's a very grandiose vision, you can read
it for yourself. And in the right hand of God (beginning of
Chapter 5) is a scroll. A scroll with seven seals. Seven is
a very important number throughout Revelation. Seven is the number of
perfection, of wholeness, of completeness. But there is no one who
is found in all of creation worthy to open the scroll. And John,
who not only sees this vision and is telling it for us, he participates
in the vision. He is caught up in it. Much like the prophet
Isaiah, in the 6th chapter of Isaiah. And John begins to weep
because there is no one worthy to open the scroll. And one of the
elders, before the throne, says to him "Do not weep. See the
lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered so that he can open the
scroll." A lion makes perfect sense, doesn't it -- a lion to
oppose the beast. A lion is powerful, king of the jungle.
C.S. Lewis uses a lion for his image of Christ in the Tales of Narnia.
then someone pulls a switch-a-roo on us. We're expecting a strong,
powerful beast, the lion to come forward to open the scroll and instead
we read in the very next verse: "Then I saw between the
throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb
standing as if it had been slaughtered". And thereafter, it
is the Lamb who is the central figure, and the lion completely
gospel of John, I would remind you, portrays Jesus as a paschal lamb, as
the lamb that is sacrificed to save the people in the Passover event to
free the people from Egypt. And so too here. How on earth,
not just in heaven, is this Lamb going to stand up to the beast of
Chapter 13? And the answer is: just do it.
stick with me just a moment. Revelation opens, you may remember,
with 7 letters to 7 churches. When I was in Turkey last Fall we
got to visit a number of those communities that are mentioned in
Revelation. And in each one of those letters there is a conclusion
in which a promise is given for the followers who are victorious, who
are conquerors. And the word for victory, for conquer, is 'nike'
in the Greek, a word that all of you know, and know how to spell!
We just pronounce it differently. Although the Nike here has
nothing to do with tennis shoes. Remember, Nike is the Roman
goddess of victory. And when we were in Turkey, our tour guides
showed us all the places where this goddess (normally depicted with
wings and with a laurel wreath), was just throughout, just portrayed
everywhere. These were the signs that the Roman government put up
to show who was in control, who was victorious, who was in power.
so we read here, the followers of Jesus are Nike. That power of
Rome, displayed through the goddess of victory, is depicted in
Revelation as the power of the beast to make war, to destroy, and to
kill. That's how victory was achieved by Roman standards.
Nike is used to describe the victory of those who follow the Lamb, it is
not by war (violence) that they conquer, but by the blood of the Lamb
and the word of their testimony. This is what Ward Ewing,
president of Episcopal Seminary in New York, calls "Lamb
Power". Lamb power is the power of vulnerable but strong love
to change the world. It is the self-sacrificial giving of
Rossing, in her new book "The Rapture Exposed", writes:
"we constantly must choose between the way of the Lamb and the way
of the beast. Living by Lamb power means we accept the cross as
the ultimate expression of love. Lamb power is the power of our
acts of hope and non-violent resistance, our songs and solidarity to
overcome the terror of the beast."
using the slaughtered lamb instead of the lion as the symbol of God's
victory over the imperial power of Rome, Revelation subverts the Roman
goddess of victory and the power and violence on which is it
this slaughtered lamb, the antithesis to Nike (the goddess of victory),
whose only weapon is the sword of the mouth (in other words, the
tongue), is not just Lord of some little obscure religious group.
John says in our text for this morning, first of all that there are
myriads of myriads, thousands of thousands, singing with full voice,
worthy is the Lamb to receive -- count them -- power and might and
wisdom and glory and honor and blessing and wealth. Seven
attributes normally given to Caesar. And then we hear 'every
creature in heaven and earth and under the earth and in the sea [pretty
all-inclusive list] all creatures of our God and king lift up your voice
and with us sing to the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be
blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever'.
I cannot imagine any clearer way of saying: Jesus, not Nike, is
the victorious one. Christ, not Caesar, is Lord of all.
that is the message of Revelation to the Christians at the end of the
first century, what is the message of Revelation to us today in the
beginning of the 21st century?
I said, there are many correct and legitimate ways one can interpret
Revelation, and only 1 wrong way. And let me add to that one
caveat: I do not believe Revelation predicts the future, just as
much as I do believe (in the very depths of my soul) that it does
describe the present all too well.
read in that context, Revelation is as scary as you-know-what.
And, it is the greatest story of hope and good news ever told.
Stay tuned, much more on that to come.