3rd Sunday in Advent
St Barbara’s; 11.12.16
Rev Tulo Raistrick
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago when we began our series of three sermons on Revelation that it was a book that could be both baffling and disturbing in its use of imagery. Well, today’s reading from Revelation 13 falls into both categories. It contains some pretty bizarre pictures. A beast coming out of the sea with ten horns and seven heads, with the body of a leopard, the feet of a bear and the mouth of a lion; and another beast, coming out of the earth, with two horns, the voice of a dragon, and the body of a lamb. What is this all about?
Some have wondered whether John, like prophets of other religions of the time, had taken an hallucinogenic drug, to have created such images.
However, strange though many of Revelation’s images are to us today, they would not have been quite so weird to the people of 1st century Turkey that John was writing to.
If I was to show a 1980s cartoon of a bear and an eagle to a child, they may just think it was a rather strange picture about nature. But to take it at its face-value would not only give it a superficial reading – it would be entirely erroneous. Because we are familiar with the visual clues and symbols, we would know the cartoon has nothing to do with nature – it is all about two huge super-powers at the height of the cold war.
Likewise, Revelation is packed full of first century visual symbols that we may struggle to get but John’s original readers certainly did. And in a minute we will begin to see how this applies to Revelation 13.
But before we get to that, we may well ask, why didn’t John just write a straight-forward account? Why all the bizarre images?
Well, one could ask, why bother to make a film, when you could tell a story by a simple factual bullet point list? The simple answer: good films capture our imagination; they give us arresting visual images that live long in the memory; they connect with us at an emotional as well as intellectual level; and convey truth in a way that a simple bullet point list cannot.
Just so with Revelation. John’s letter was the nearest thing to cinema of the day. Read out to congregations across Turkey, it would have fired people’s imaginations and transported them into a different world. There’s little doubt his message would have stuck, even after just one hearing – this was heady, emotional, memorable stuff. And when you are trying to communicate something that transcends words, that is so extraordinary, a simple bullet point list of facts just won’t cut it, whilst soaring images strike home at a much deeper level.
Like many films, the book of Revelation has a familiar theme, the battle between good (or in this case, God and the people of God) on the one hand, and evil on the other. Unlike most films, we are told who wins at the beginning as well at the end (but more of that next week). But after the awe-inspiring start with visions of the risen and glorified Christ, we are thrown into the tumult and chaos of evil and judgment. The battle comes to a head in chapters 12 to 14. In chapter 12, the dragon (used in most Jewish and pagan religions of the time to symbolise evil) is thrown out of heaven and comes to earth. In chapter 14, there is the ultimate triumph of the Lamb of God over evil on earth, mirroring his defeat in heaven. But chapter 13 is the conflict in the in-between time, the conflict between good and evil before Christ’s ultimate return and victory that we look forward to in Advent. Chapter 13 is the present.
So what does it have to say to us? What of those strange beasts that we read about?
The first beast emerges from the sea, a place of chaos. On its heads are ten crowns, already an image of political power. Its weird make-up of beast, leopard, bear and lion, match the creatures the prophet Daniel used many centuries earlier to represent the four world empires of his time. John’s readers would have immediately seen the connection – John was speaking about a political and military empire that was greater and stronger than all four of those ancient empires put together, and in their day, living under the rule of Roman might, it was clear who John was referring to.
The people of Turkey on the whole greatly benefitted from the rule of Rome. Roman rule brought peace, prosperity and order, but John does not want the Christian community to be fooled. Everyone may be bowing down to worship this great power, but ultimately, in its attitude to God, it is blasphemous. It is something to be opposed not welcomed.
We get further evidence of that with the arrival of the second beast, a lamb. It is quite clearly a parody of Christ, the lamb of God. Whereas Christ comes to the world to point us to God and to worship him; this lamb of Revelation 13 comes to turn people’s focus to worshipping the basis of human power. For that was exactly what was happening throughout the cities that John was writing to. Temples were being built, places of worship being erected, for the specific purpose of worshipping the Roman Emperor. Not only was he a political leader; he was now a God to be worshipped. The first church to receive John’s letter was in Ephesus, a city where a huge statue of the Emperor Domitian had just been unveiled, that all were being commanded to worship. Even the heart-blood of economic life, the trading guilds, were becoming centres of emperor worship. If one refused to participate, then one rapidly became destitute.
John’s words to the churches in this context are sobering. Be patient and faithful. Do not give in to the might or the charms of human power, but stand your ground, hold to the truth, even though that may lead to persecution, and even death.
So what does this have to say to us today?
Firstly, that in these in-between times before Christ comes again, we need to refresh the way we look at the world. John challenges us to look again at the prevailing assumptions and sources of power in our world – are they really that good? What about the inherent, often subliminal, values and messages of our society? What messages for example are being communicated about human worth? Are we implicitly valued for our wealth, our usefulness, our likeability? John encourages us to step back and identify the beast within our own world today.
Secondly, we need to hold institutions of power to account. We all know that well-used phrase “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Whether it is the power of government or the way power is exerted at work or the power and influence we may hold in our families, we can all too easily be tempted to use power to promote individual or sectional interests, at the expense of others. We can easily see aspects of the beast reflected in the tyrannical regimes of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, but the Roman Empire, like our own governments, was seen as largely benevolent by its subjects. We need to ask to what extent our own state represents the beast, and to what extent we as Christians are willing to go along with economic and political systems that serve our own ends at the expense of the poor. We need to ask whether power that is exerted in the workplace or by other institutions we come into contact with – hospitals, care homes, schools, church, even our families – needs to be challenged. John leaves us in no doubt – where we come across the abuse of power we must stand against it.
But to challenge power, and the abuse of power, inevitably comes at a cost. It is not easy, as any of you who have taken a stand for what is right will know. As the church in other parts of the world that daily suffers persecution and indeed martyrdom knows too. John’s vision does not pretend otherwise. Indeed, that persecution and suffering is inevitable for the faithful is one of the strongest themes of John’s whole letter.
There is no promise of an easy life. Revelation encourages us to stand firm, to be patient and faithful. To resist the beasts of evil, whatever form they may take. There is no promise of an easy life, but there is a promise of a better future, a future that as we will see next week, is worth all the travails of this present life.