To fully appreciate the idyllic scene from Revelation this morning, we
Well, it was not pretty. Here’s a whirlwind tour through Revelation.
The Book of Revelation is really a letter, a letter written by a man named John to the churches of Asia Minor. It is a good sixty years or more after Jesus’ death and resurrection, so we are dealing with the second generation of Christians.
John is fearful that this second generation is losing the passion of what it means to follow Jesus. The Jesus path is a difficult and wildly counter-cultural one in the Roman Empire. The state religion had become the worship of the Emperor himself. He was regularly called “lord” and “son of god.” A serious Christian knew that she or he could only say those things about Jesus. Jesus was “lord” and “Son of God,” not the Emperor. But to believe that opened up one’s self to ridicule, ostracism or even physical danger.
This reality is causing many Christians to find ways to “get along with” the Empire. This absolutely horrified John and out of his horror he has an extended vision and this vision becomes the content of his letter. All through his vision, his imagination is using bits and pieces of the visions of his ancestors. He does not really have anything new to say other than the evil that the prophets saw has not changed, nor has God’s steadfast desire for love to reign.
His vision begins with a glimpse of heaven and the two characters who will dominate his vision: the One who sits upon the Throne, and the Lamb who was Slain. In heaven they draw together the whole creation to worship in peace—from all tribes and languages and peoples and nations, John says.
The Lamb who was Slain but who is also Living is identified as the One who has changed the world, offering a transformation from the ways of the Empire to the ways of God. He alone is worthy to be trusted. The Lamb is given a scroll with seven seals which he gradually opens, revealing the reality of world of John’s day, plagued with war and prejudice and famine and sickness and natural disaster. These are the things either the Empire is responsible for or about which it can do nothing.
It is enough to drive one into despair, but at this point John is given a further vision of where the story is headed: a multitude too great to count and a creation restored at home and at peace with their Creator.
But then John is shown how bad it can and will get, what it will take to confront the Empire and defeat it. All that is good on the earth is symbolized by a woman who is giving birth, a symbol of divine and human working in harmony to create anew. But evil is afoot in the form of a dragon, whom John identifies with Satan and the devil. Satan, meaning “the accuser” and the devil, meaning “the deceiver;” the One who strips people of their dignity and then deceives them into a life based on fear and threat and rivalry and death. But the archangel Michael arrives on the scene and the dragon is defeated in heaven, only to be thrown down to the earth, to vent his rage.
There he joins his earthly companion, the Beast, and another beast we might call the “Son of the Beast.” These clearly represent for John the empire itself, and its seduction of people into dependence and worship of it alone.
What follows is a depiction of the great struggle both within us and all around us of evil and good. John’s vision is of a struggle on every scale—cosmic, earthly and personal—a struggle that is meant to say to us, this is where you are headed if you let the Empire determine your life for you. You are going to have to wake up and choose sides and it will be very, very hard, even dangerous. Evil will not go down easily mostly because so many people continue to be deceived.
But just when we thought all was lost, and that even God had turned to the ways of irrepressible wrath, a voice cries out, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” The Empire cannot last. In the end it will die by its own hand, having sown the seeds of its own destruction: injustice and oppression and the reign of power by abuse cannot last. The dragon and the beast are destined to lose.
Then that great multitude that no one can count which John keeps seeing, cries out in words that Handel so famously put to music: “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns!” And a rider on a white horse appears in the vision with a tattoo on his thigh that says, “King of kings and Lord of lords.” And with this conviction the Beast and all who refused to embrace the truth rather than deception are eternally defeated.
And after “a thousand years,” which simply means “this will take awhile,” the dragon himself is defeated and not far behind him death itself and hell itself. It is all gone, everything that is against us. Everything in rivalry with God, never to rise again, which John calls the “second death.”
And with all that accomplished John says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” and the holy city coming down out of heaven from God, and this time God comes along and pitches a tent among us and heaven and earth are joined.
And there is once again a river of life as in the garden in the beginning. And the tree of life, no longer forbidden, providing nourishment for all and then that somewhat odd vision, “and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
Now if you had been reading or hearing Revelation right along you would have believed that the nations had been destroyed long with the Empire. But no. They were not destined for wrath but for healing, and they will be healed as they gather around and under the tree, this particular tree, which is the tree of life. To gather under the tree of life is to gather around life itself, to leave behind all that we thought would save us but lead only to despair and death.
The thing we can discover through the great ordeal is that we belong together, different as we are. John does not see difference destroyed. He sees difference healed of any way of living that leads to indignity and injustice and war and death. And he is pleading with us, so urgently, you do not have to give in to the way of the Empire. You can choose the way of the Lamb. See, here is where it leads. Home. With God. And a multitude no one can count.
Last week I talked about the need for us to pay attention to what our Omega stories are. What is the future to which we think we are heading? And who are we headed there with? How are we being deceived by the forces of control and judgment and death? Can we be committed to and remain committed to the river, the tree, of life? Even if it costs us dearly? John’s clear answer is, “Yes,” together with the great multitude and the Lamb who was slain but is alive.