[For the past two years, one of the projects I have been working on is an updated take on the book of Revelation. I have preached a series of sermons at Shalom Mennonite Congregation that is nearing its completion. The next step (between November and next July) will be to expand the sermons by thinking more about how Revelation directly speaks to our present day, especially for those of us living in the United States. I hope to have at least one book that results from this work. As preparation for the sermon finale November 17, I will put up a series of posts that highlight the main points of each sermon. I have been writing on Revelation off and on for a long time. This time through is reinforcing much of what I have seen before, but with some new insights that help me to see Revelation as even more helpful and radical than I had perceived earlier.]
1. The Twenty-First Century According to Revelation (Introduction)
What an interesting time to think about the Book of Revelation. Contrary to Revelation’s cultured despisers, and contrary to the Left Behinders, and contrary to the timid and fearful people in the pew who simply think Revelation is too scary and confusing to be worth paying attention to—I believe that Revelation provides extraordinary insights for those of us who want to respond creatively (and peaceably) to the spiral of violence all too apparent in our world right now.
In this introductory post, I propose one element of Revelation to be especially relevant: Revelation’s vision of worship. I have boiled Revelation down to six short paragraphs. Read them now and imagine how Revelation might speak to our violent world.
Revelation in six paragraphs
The revelation of Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, firstborn of the dead, and ruler of the kings of the earth. To the church at Philadelphia, “I know you have little power, yet you have kept my word and not denied my name. Because of your steadfast endurance, I will make you a pillar in God’s temple.” And to the church at Laodicea, “You say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing. You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”
I saw the right hand of the one seated on the throne holding a scroll. I began to weep because no one could open this scroll. But I was told, do not weep, the Lion of the tribe of Judah can open the scroll. Then I saw a Lamb standing as if it had been slain. He went and took the scroll from the one who was seated on the throne. The creatures and multitudes from all the nations cry out: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.”
Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seals to the scroll—and terrible riders came forth: warfare, famine, and horrific disease. Then, I saw a great multitude that no one could count from every nation crying out, “salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb.”
Then, I saw a beast rising out of the sea. The whole earth followed the beast and worshiped the dragon who had given his authority to the beast. “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” Then, I looked, and there was the Lamb standing on Mount Zion. With him were a multitude numbered, symbolically, 144,000 (that is, the multitude from every nation). They sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders.
Then I saw foul spirits, coming from the mouth of the dragon, go abroad to the kings of the whole world to assemble them for battle against God. Then I saw the seventh angel pour his bowl into the air. A loud voice came from the throne, saying “It is done!” God remembered great Babylon, who received the fury of God’s wrath. Babylon will be thrown down—“your merchants were the magnates of the earth, and all nations were deceived by your sorcery. In you was found blood, of prophets and of saints, and of all who were slaughtered on earth.”
Then I heard the voice of a great multitude, “Let us rejoice, the marriage of the Lamb has come. His bride has made herself ready; to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure.” Then (and finally) I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven. The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamb is the Lamb. The nations shall walk by its light, and the kings of the whole world will bring their glory into it. Amen.
“National Security” as a Spiritual Issue
I want to focus on the part of our spiral of violence that relates to national security issues: militarism, nationalism, international conflict, power politics, wars and rumors of wars. We are talking about a spiritual issue here. Why is it that when so many people long for peace—remember the remarkable outpouring of mass sentiment against the threatened American invasion of Iraq back in the early days of 2003—it so difficult to attain?
We actually have in Revelation a call to constructive engagement, not a call to escape. Can we imagine a world of peace and with that imagery work for such a world? Or will a failure of imagination reinforce our inclination toward passivity and fatalism? Revelation was written to address precisely this question.
Worship and Politics (According to Revelation)
Revelation addressed the imaginations of first-century followers of Jesus. But it did so in ways that are relevant for us today. Those Christians lived in the midst of the world’s one great superpower, the Roman Empire. And some, at least, could live fairly comfortably (remember the words to the church at Laodicea). The Empire’s “peace” rested on a bedrock of profound violence, but this violence could be ignored.
True followers of the Lamb, though, will not ignore the trail of blood. They will recognize the violence of Rome and oppose it—even should that disrupt their comfort. This is the basic message: you have two ways of being in the world, the way of the Lamb or the way of the Beast; the way of compassion or the way of domination. Should you choose the way of compassion, you will sing the deepest song of the universe.
Revelation contains, amidst its plagues, judgments, and general wrathful chaos, visions of worship throughout the book.
In chapter seven, right after the first series of plagues characterized by warfare and mass injustice, a multitude worships, from all nations, beyond counting. These are those who went through trauma due to their commitment to the way of peace. They resisted the power politics of Rome and its trail of blood and share in Jesus’ own witness of self-giving love that countered the violence of the kings of the earth.
Chapter 13 shows a seemingly all-powerful Beast running roughshod, irresistible in his domination. “Who is like the beast and who can fight against it?” This is the answer: “There was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion! And with him were 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads….They sing a new song before the throne….These follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” The 144,000 have been identified as the countless multitude from all nations back in chapter 7.
This vision of worship contrasts the way of the Beast in chapter 13 with the way of those who follow the Lamb wherever he goes in chapter 14. That is what the worship in Revelation is about. Political choices that shape ways of living in the present world. Revelation’s worship is not a religious act that unites people who live ethically contradictory lives—those who live like the Lamb sharing a hymnal with those who live like the Beast. Rather, worship empowers the living of the way of peace amidst the plagues in active resistance to the domination of the Beast.
Worship in Revelation has to do with discernment, it has to do with ethical clarity, it has to do with the Lamb and with others who seek to follow the way of peace. Worship in Revelation empowers peaceable people against the violence of the Powers.