Texts: Revelation 5, 13
On Wednesday I walked home for lunch as I often do. I went to the back of our yard to open the gate on the coop for our four chickens to roam around the larger fenced in area. As I approached I noticed the loose soil and scattered feathers, a clear sign that a night invader had dug its way in and made a kill. This was not the first time this has happened, and as I buried the remains of the chicken I asked the same kinds of questions I’ve asked before. I wondered what kind of animal had done the killing. I wondered if there’s even more we need to do to protect the chickens, or if this is just an inevitable thing that will happen from time to time. I wondered if more protection for the chickens equated to a more prison-like existence for them. I wondered if humans had never domesticated animals if this chicken, in its more wild incarnation, would have been safely roosting overnight up in a tree somewhere in southcentral Asia. Or if it would have been fierce enough to at least ward off the predator, rather than the defenseless creature we’ve bred it to be. Mostly, I was again confronted, in a graphic way, with what happens when a predator does its thing at the expense of its prey.
I wasn’t planning on bringing the chickens into this week’s sermon, but this unfortunate backyard farming incident feels like an appropriate lead in to one of the dominant themes of Revelation – the contrast between the Lamb and the Beast.
When John writes his pastoral letter / apocalyptic vision to seven churches in his region, he uses imagery from the animal world to speak about human realities. For a modern day analogy, turn to the commentary section of the newspaper and watch each day as the donkeys and elephants play out the drama of contemporary politics through the imagination of political cartoonists.
John’s concern is not about the two party system of a so-called democracy, but rather the nature of life in a conquering empire for those who have given their allegiance to one who died at the hands of that very empire – more like a predator and prey situation. The imagery John uses to describe the empire is borrowed from an earlier Jewish writer, one of the first to develop the category of apocalypse. In Daniel chapter 7 we read about Daniel’s fantastical vision of four different beasts, each one rising to power and then giving way to the beast after it. The beasts had represented the long line of empires that the Jews had lived and suffered under. First the Babylonians, then the Medes and Persians, and then, at the time of Daniel’s final writing, the Greeks. The culmination of Daniel’s vision was a description of a fifth power – quite unlike the others – one like a son of man, like a human being. In other words, the inhumanity of the rule of the beasts was about to give way to a humanizing force, one who ruled with justice and mercy. It was a beautiful, hopeful, faith-filled vision which had sustained Daniel’s people even though it didn’t come about in their lifetime.
Now John, living under the sway of an even larger empire, the Romans, samples Daniel and other Hebrew prophets to portray the beast of his age, which rises out of the sea, with its many heads and horns representing the various emperors who had run the show. Living at a time when emperor worship was in full swing, John also sees a second beast serving as something of a propaganda machine for making the inhabitants of the earth worship the first beast.
A beast of course isn’t a species of animal, like a bear, or a raccoon – which I think is our problem with our chickens – but it communicates the point: It is wild and predatory. It is dangerous and tricky, especially since that second beast had horns like a lamb, so innocent seeming, so gentle seeming. But it spoke like a dragon. What might appear as a keeper-of-the-peace, and for-your-own-good, is actually ready to tear your apart if you don’t fall in line. Part of what Revelation reveals is the evil which parades as good. John will later use other images to reveal the true nature of the empire, like the Great Whore of chapter 17 and Babylon the Great of chapter 18.
If this were a three hour lecture and not a sermon, or if this were a multi-week Sunday school series, now would be the time to look into some of the specific history of early Christianity in the Roman world. We could note that Christians were by no means constantly persecuted, mostly too small and insignificant to register as a threat. We could look at a burst of intense local persecution for Christians living in the city of Rome when a devastating fire broke out in the year 64. Rumors suspected the Emperor Nero of starting the fire himself in order to clear the city for a grand building project. But Nero pointed to the small sect known as Christians as the ones to blame, a convenient scapegoat, much like the way religious fundamentalists have blamed gays or immigrants for 9/11 or any of the large hurricanes; or the way Jews have carried blame at different points in history for society’s ills.
Nero’s rampage against Christians was vicious, and tradition holds that both Peter and Paul were killed during this time, but Nero’s public credibility was about as strong as those who blamed 9/11 on gay people. Nero was eventually pronounced a public enemy by the Roman Senate itself, fled, and most likely died by suicide. Since his death happened out of public view, a myth emerged that Nero would come back to life and reclaim the throne. Two decades later some wondered if the harsh emperor Domitian might be the resurrected Nero. John’s reference to one of the heads of the beast having received a mortal blow but being healed is most likely a nod to this Nero myth, as is the number of the beast, 666, which is the numeric value of Nero Caesar in Hebrew, a language in which the letters are also used as numbers.
The more one studies the realities on the ground in the first century Roman world, the more John’s Revelation and the symbols within it start to make sense as a pastoral letter written to these seven churches.
We could also note that the oldest surviving record we have of a Roman official describing Christian worship comes from a letter written by Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor in what is present day Turkey. The letter was written in the year 112 CE, addressed to Emperor Trajan. (The full letter, and Trajan’s brief reply, can be read HERE.) In the letter Pliny notes he’s never dealt with Christians before and wonders whether it should be a crime in itself to bear the name of Christian, or whether they need to have actually done something wrong to be considered guilty. Part of the letter provides a fascinating description of early Christian worship from Pliny’s point of view, like an anthropologist observing a foreign culture. Pliny the Younger reports: “They had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by an oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery and adultery, to commit no breach of trust. And after this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind; but they had in fact given up this practice since my edict, issued on your instructions, which banned all political societies. This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave women, whom they call deaconesses. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.” An early description of your spiritual ancestors…
Revelation is written in its final form after Nero and before Pliny the Younger and Trajan’s exchange and it’s unclear whether anything resembling active persecution was happening at that time. What is clearer is that the practice of emperor worship had become widespread, and that questions of allegiance and devotion were front and center for Christians. In Revelation, where one directs one’s worship, to whom and what one gives one’s allegiance, is a matter of life and death. And like other apocalyptic literature of the time, of which there was much, the options for worship are presented dualistically, as a matter of choosing one way over another way.
We tried to play with this idea in the call to worship. We don’t live in a country in which our leader demands that we personally acknowledge him as a son of god, to be obeyed without hesitation, but there are other powers which call us to place our faith in them: The nation state, technology, military might, money. Worship has to do with the devotion we give to certain powers over our life, and worship as a collective act has a tremendous influence in shaping a society. We could go as far as saying worship has always been and continues to be the glue that holds us together. We have to believe a common myth, give allegiance to a common god, even if that god is as secular looking as modern capitalism. You must have faith that the invisible hand of the market will give each their due. If you question it, you’re a heretic.
I suggested last week that not only is Revelation a pastoral letter to churches, but it’s also something of a fifth gospel, since it claims to be a Revelation of Jesus Christ. So we should expect the same kind of upside down kingdom alternative that we see Jesus offering in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The same kind of values-flip that Jesus presents to his disciples when he tells them, “You know that among the Gentiles (Romans) those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant of all” (Mark 10:42-45). Jesus taught that he would be present in what society considers “the least of these” (Matthew 25).
James Cone has written, “There can be no Christian speech about God which does not represent the interest of the victims in our society” (Speaking the Truth: Ecumenism, Liberation, and Black Theology, pp. 7-8). James Cone is a theologian who speaks out of the African American experience. He’s written books with titles like A Black Theology of Liberation, Martin and Malcolm and America, and more recently The Cross and the Lynching Tree. That last title, the cross and the lynching tree, is a message in itself about the kinds of connections to be made between persons and groups of people who have suffered unjustly throughout history. James Cone says, “There can be no Christian speech about God which does not represent the interest of the victims in our society.”
Other African American writers have noted how the music of the slave spirituals, the blues, and even hip-hop have been expressions of the soul of an oppressed people reaching toward divine redemption. Howard Thurman noted that in singing the spirituals the “people forged a weapon of offense and defense out of a psychological shackle. By some amazing but vastly creative spiritual insight the slave undertook the redemption of a religion that the master had profaned in his midst.” (Deep River, 1945, p. 36)
After John’s introduction (chapter 1), his individual letters to the seven churches (chapters 2 and 3), and his vision of the divine throne room (Chapter 4) – we are into chapter 5 with the scroll with the seven seals, which appears to represent the unfolding of history itself. Who is worthy to open the scroll? Who can break the seals and peer at the sorrowful march of time and all the suffering and injustice it has held? Who can hold and unroll the scroll in such a way as to bring an end to all this madness? Nobody. John says, “No one in heaven or on earth (living people), or under the earth (dead people) was able to open the scroll or to look into it.” And John begins to weep bitterly because no one was worthy to open the scroll.
But a guide tells him that the Lion who has conquered can open the scroll.
Well, a lion is a pretty good animal to have on your side. If any animal can take down the beast, I’d put my money on the king of the jungle. And this is where the upside down gospel irony goodness comes into play. When John looks, he sees not a lion, but a lamb. The lion who has conquered is a lamb, and the lamb is standing as if it had been executed, and it has seven horns and seven eyes and all that lovely seven stuff that the Bible digs. And everyone all around is singing praise and glory to the Lamb. The slaves and the martyrs and the untold anonymous masses are singing their spirituals and their hip hop and their Anabaptist hymns in praise of the way of the Lamb.
It may be true that history is written by the victors, but it’s also true that the music is written by the victims of history.
Here is a great Revelation. This isn’t a story of two opposing beasts going at it, the most vicious and best armed declared the Lord of history. It’s the story of the beasts in their many forms, and how they are defeated by a seemingly helpless lamb, who is the only one worthy to open the scroll, to unlock the flow of history, to participate in the story in such a way that brings life, to mend what has been torn. Only Frodo can carry the ring, because he’s the only one who won’t become the very evil he is seeking to destroy. Or, if you prefer, only the magic of self-giving love first demonstrated by Lily Potter for young Harry can ward off the killing curse of Voldemort. Not to suggest complete overlap here, but on these point it’s the same mythic framework, the same big story that you either believe or don’t. Who gets our devotion, the Lamb or the Beast? Who do we pattern our lives after? To which do we lift our voice in praise?
John’s Martin’s reflection/response can be heard in the audio at the top of this manuscript, beginning at the 21:40 mark.