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Lamb Power

First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
Daniel E. H. Bryant
April 25, 2004

Revelation 5:11-14

The text for this morning comes from Revelation 5, verses 11 through 14:

11 Then 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, singing,
‘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.

 

Well, 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.

One 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.

And 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.

You 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.

But 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.

Now 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.

Someone 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.

So 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.

And 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.

Now, 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.

First 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 writes:  

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, 2who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.

3 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.

* 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.

Now 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.

If 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.

I 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.

Secondly, 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.

Another 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.

So 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. 

Further, 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.

And 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?

Let 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.  

But 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 disappears.

The 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.

Now, 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.

And 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.

When 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 Christ.  

Barbara 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."

By 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 based.  

Furthermore, 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'.

Now I cannot imagine any clearer way of saying:  Jesus, not Nike, is the victorious one.  Christ, not Caesar, is Lord of all.

If 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?

As 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.

And 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. 

 


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