The Book of Revelation is full of strange and sometimes disturbing
imagery. This will be the first of 4 sermons that I'm going to give (a
little mini-series) on Revelation during this period. It's going to be
in 2 parts -- today and next Sunday, then we're going to skip a couple
weeks because of other things, and then we'll pick up again on the first
2 Sunday's in May.
The Book of Revelation describes a vision given to John while in exile
on the island of Patmos, just off the western coast of Turkey. And I've
been to Patmos, when I was on sabbatical in 2008.
I discovered I was
evidently not the only Duck fan :)
And if you want to spend the rest of
your life in exile, well, and island like Patmos is not a bad place to
And if you've been there, you can visit the cave of the Apocalypse.
Now there's a monastery built on the site of the cave, but that's where
tradition says John wrote Revelation, wrote the 7 letters that were sent
to the churches throughout Asia Minor. And then the vision, which begins
in chapter 4 of Revelation, it tells of this fantastic vision of the
throne of God where the prophetic scroll that will reveal the so-called
'end-times' is then unveiled.
So I want to read for you the first half of chapter 5, a slight change
from the bulletin, of Revelation:
Then I saw in the right hand
of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and
on the back, sealed with seven seals;2and I saw a mighty angel
proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and
break its seals?’ 3And no one in heaven or on earth or under the
earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it.4And I began to
weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or
to look into it. 5Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep.
See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has
conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’
6 Then I saw between
the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb
standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven
eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the
earth. 7He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one
who was seated on the throne. 8When he had taken the scroll, the
four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the
Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which
are the prayers of the saints. 9They sing a new song:
‘You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
10 you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth.’
So the perfect illustration, I think, for this
text, is not the icons of the Greek Orthodox church which you will find
scattered across the island there in Patmos:
But I really think it's
April's children's moment last week :) Comic books, right? If you
weren't here, you missed a great one, as she compared and contrasted the
super-heroes of comic books with the super-heroes of scripture. And
challenged us to figure out which was which.
But I was seriously
disappointed that she left out one -- Preacher Man!
Speedier than a
bible translation! Almost as fast as a discernment process :) This one
was done for me by Monica McKenzie, Ron McKenzie's wife, after they came
back from Mexico.
But seriously, what I'm suggestion is that the
best way to understand Revelation is to see it as an ancient comic
book. No joke. So what are comic books? They're stories of
super-heroes who overcome super-villains. As depictions of the perennial
struggle between good and evil. And so they take real-world issues and
magnify them into these super-large, other-worldly struggles, which
often reflect, you see, our own struggles here on earth. And that is,
in essence, what Revelation is all about. To read it as a literal or a
factual description of future events is one of the greatest fabrications
of biblical mis-interpretation fostered upon gullible people of faith.
And one of the things that happens when you
literalize biblical literature never meant to be taken literally is that
you end up with bizarre images which are often comical. Take the image
of the lamb from this text. Did you read it carefully? 7 eyes? 7
horns? I mean, the image is so creepy we dare not leave it on the
screen for very long.
Even Albrecht Dürer, the great German artist,
has a wood carving of Revelation 5, where you see the whole scene with
the 24 Elders and the 4 living creatures are all there.
And if you look
up close at his lamb, indeed, it has 7 eyes and 7 horns.
But at least Dürer lived 2 centuries before the enlightenment -- they hadn't even
figured out that the earth revolves around the sun (rather than the
other way around), and for all Dürer knew, the heavens could be
somewhere just beyond the Moon, right? Because after all, Columbus had
just discovered the New World, somewhere beyond the Atlantic ocean. So
who's to say it wasn't out there somewhere.
But our understanding of the world has changed
significantly from that of 1492, let alone that of 92, which is when we
think the Book of Revelation was written. Thus, to read it as if
nothing has changed is like asking Christopher Columbus to steer a
modern-day cruise liner. Or fly a 747.
So the first thing we have to do to understand a
book like this is to read it in light of its historical context, and to
apply the images in it to that context. And it's abundantly clear when
you do that, and this is very well-known among bible students and
scholars, that many of those images and symbols are taken directly out
of the Roman Empire. For instance, the infamous number of the beast --
666 -- is widely understood to symbolize the Emperor Nero. And other
images, like the 7 horns and the 7 eyes are allusions to other biblical
passages. And so John is not describing the physical appearance of a
divine mythical being, he's making a spiritual connection to the visions
of Hebrew scripture. The God of creation is the God of history, the God
of time. The God of Genesis is the God of Revelation, you see.
Thus, the Christian communities to whom and for
whom John was writing could take confidence in their struggles with that
Empire, that Christ, not the Emperor, was the ultimate authority and
power on the throne. That's the message of Revelation.
So while Revelation may be a comic book about
the struggle between good and evil under the rule of ancient Rome, that
does not mean we can just ignore it as some religious fantasy in the
mind of one delirious man on the island of Patmos. Because it's still a
part of our scripture and it reveals to us spiritual insights that are
not only right-on, they are essential for our time.
And so I want to focus this morning on the big
truth with a capital "T" from Revelation, which I think we need in our
time, and suggest its relevance on one of the big perplexing problems we
face today, and that is the pervasion of guns and violence in our
So I decided to read the first half of chapter
5, rather than the second half, because of one striking image. In his
vision, John reports that this mighty angel says to him "The lion of
Judah has conquered", and therefore this victorious, mighty lion is the
one who can open the scroll to reveal its contents and to set the events
in motion. But what does he see? It's not a mighty lion at all, is
it? He sees a lamb. And a slaughtered a lamb. So how are we to
understand that image?
In 1998, Judy and I went to Scotland, we had an
opportunity to attend the national assembly of the Church of Scotland as
part of their international delegates. It was held in Edinburgh. We
left the kids in the care of my mother (they were in grade-school at the
time), and we were eating dinner when I heard on a T.V. someone say
"Springfield Oregon". It is not a good thing when you hear the name of
your town in a foreign country on the evening news. We sat and watched
in horror as these images of Thurston high school and Kip Kinkle were
played on the screen. We immediately rushed back to our room and called
home -- we had to talk to Mom and our kids, to make sure they were OK.
The next morning, a picture of the Kinkle family was in the paper, this
is the time when you don't want to see the Oregon Duck, right?
I passed a note to the Chair of the assembly,
asking to rise on a point of personal privilege. That was granted.
Asking for their prayers, I spoke to the 1,000 delegates gathered there,
asking them to pray for the families of Thurston high school. The
newspaper reports the next day said that I choked back tears as I made
"an impassioned appeal to keep children in their country safe from
As I discovered, it was an appeal that I hardly
needed to make to that crowd. Because Scotland had been through it's own
version of Newtown, just two years earlier, when a mentally ill man
murdered an entire classroom full of kindergarten children. 16
children, and their teacher, in Dunblane, Scotland. Only, the response
in the United Kingdom to that tragedy vastly differed from here in the
Because the following year, they imposed very strict gun
controls that made handguns essentially illegal in the United Kingdom
(oddly with the exception of Northern Ireland, but that's another
issue). And the result is, deaths from firearms in the United Kingdom
are among the lowest in the world -- 1/40th of the rate here in the
United States. Less than 1 per million of population.
Well, since that time (in 1997) when that law
was passed in the United Kingdom, the Brady Campaign (named for Jim
Brady, who was severely wounded in the assassination attempt on Ronald
Reagan) lists on their web site 41 pages of school shootings alone, over
200 shootings in the United States. That's over 12 per year, since
1997. I mean, everyone recognizes that this is a problem that we have
to do something about. But how do we solve this?
The Scotland solution -- to just ban all these
weapons -- is not an option for us because of the 2nd amendment. So one
side wants to post armed guards in every school. The other side wants
more robust and comprehensive background checks, limits on the types of
weapons and ammunition. Missing in this whole discussion, I think, is a
serious look at the spiritual issues behind the whole question.
And the first spiritual issue that I think we
need to address is the correlation between power and fear. The greater
our fear, the higher our need for power to protect ourselves. Whether
we're talking about individuals or nations. And so fear is one of the
driving forces behind gun sales, and manufacturers know this, they
benefit from all of the fear in our society. And the irony is, study
after study and study has shown that firearms in homes dramatically
increases the odds of injury by a firearm. For instance, in 1998, a
study found that a gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used in
a suicide, a homicide, an assault, or an unintentional injury than it is
to be used in self-defense. 22 times more likely.
In 2009, there was a study that found that gun
owners are 4.5 times more likely to be assaulted with a gun than non-gun
owners. And even though statistically the majority of us would be much
safer without guns, at the same time I know there are those situations
in which one feels a legitimate need for that kind of protection. I
have a sister who packs a 44. Believe me, she is not a person you want
to mess with :) But where she lives, in a very remote area, and the
unsavory characters she has to deal with, I don't blame her in the least
But here's why I suggest it's a spiritual
issue: what does it mean to say "In God we Trust" if we're going to
rely on weapons for our safety? I mean, can we have it both ways? The
gospels say a lot about fear and power. The first words of the angels,
to the frightened shepherds is what? "Do not fear, for unto you is born
this day a Savior". Jesus says "Do not fear those that kill the body
but cannot kill the soul". He tells a father of a dying girl "Do not
fear, only believe". Removing fear is one of the central points of our
Regarding power, Jesus tells Pilate the only
power he (Pilate) has is that that has been given to him by God. We
pray in the Lord's Prayer that God's is the kingdom, the power, and the
glory, forever and ever. When we rely on our power, rather than God's,
to counter our fear, we are more prone to use it wrongly. Be it in
invading countries in search of non-existent weapons of mass
destruction, or protecting our teenage daughters from the amorous
affections of a would-be suitor (as was the case of the Oregon father in
the news this week who used his gun to scare off the unwanted visitor --
invited by the young girl -- and subsequently he was cited for the
illegal discharge of a firearm).
When fathers thing using guns is the appropriate
means to influence their daughter's choice of boyfriends, we have a
serious problem. And my point is that if you take an issue like
parenting, or relationship with your spouse or significant other, or
your disagreement with your teacher or your boss, whatever that
relationship is, if there's any kind of dysfunction, tension, conflict,
does anyone believe that introducing a gun into the situation is going
to help it?
The problem may not be the gun itself, but the
gun makes the problem that much worse.
The second spiritual issue is violence. I mean,
we're a culture awash in violence. We glorify violence from video games
to entertainment to sports. When a basketball coach thinks cursing and
throwing basketballs at his players is the way to teach them how to
play, are we surprised when fights break out in the game? When
teenagers use their phones to post a sexual assault of a classmate
online, we have failed not only to protect that young woman, we have
failed to provide the moral and spiritual guidance for those youth.
When bullies become victims in crimes of retaliation, that's not justice
served, that's injustice multiplied. When more Americans are killed
every 2 two years by firearms in this country than were killed in the
entire Vietnamese war, and we refuse to change the way we do business,
we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Now, evidently one of the things I told that
Scottish church assembly that was recorded in that newspaper story was
this: "When I was preparing to come to Scotland, one of my congruents
who had recently visited there told me of the bloody Scottish history.
The irony is, I found this country to be very loving and peaceful. It
is my own home that is filled with blood".
So you may ask: what about Revelation? Is it
not filled with blood and violence? Yeah, it is. So I want to say 3
quick things about that.
First of all, the violence in Revelation is all
of the comic book variety -- super-heroes against super-villains. Yeah,
there are victims in the process, of human blood. But even then, it's
Second, Revelation takes the culture of
violence, as practiced by the Roman Empire, to such an extreme level,
that it reveals the absurdity of such violence in a way that would make
Quentin Tarantino blush. And as such, it's not a validation of violence
but a condemnation of it.
Third, the super-hero figure of the slain lamb
is the anti-dote to the world's violence. The one who reveals that true
victory comes from enduring, not perpetuating, the violence.
Lastly, the final vision of Revelation, when we
come to the end of the book, is of a world at peace. Where death will
be no more. That is the ultimate utopian vision of God's desire for our
world. A world without death is another way of saying a world without
violence. To worship the slain lamb, not the lion, is the hold up as
our example the crucified Christ. Not as a martyr for whom we seek
revenge, but as our Lord whom we follow in humble service to our
brothers and sisters.
Ultimately, it says lamb-power, not lion-power,
is what will save us.
So if God's vision is for a world free of
violence, how do we best work toward that end? How do we show our trust
of God in that vision? And these are issues I know with enormous
implications for both personal decisions and public policy. Every
individual has to make their own choices based on their individual
circumstances, value, and faith. We must be careful of judging those
who make different choices than our own.
But in areas of public policy, we should also
not be shy of advocating for those decisions that will best help us
create the kind of society we would want not just for ourselves, but for
our children, and our children's children. My hope and prayer is that
the goal of a violent-free world, as envisioned by John on that peaceful
island of Patmos, will be the one that guides us in making it so.
May it be.