Delivered at Ames UCC
on August 13, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
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Our scripture is full of fantastic beasts, cataclysmic events, and magical/miraculous imagery: A talking snake in Genesis’ Eden. A talking donkey in the book of Numbers. A whale that can swallow Jonah whole and then still spit him out. A flood that destroys the world. Ten plagues that free the slaves. An angel that balances Jesus atop the temple. Water becoming wine.
But the beasts and cataclysms and magic and miracles of the book of Revelation are so concentrated, they can sound so extreme, that today I’m mixing up the order of worship a bit by integrating Dan’s reading of the scripture with my teaching/preaching on it. And thank you to Ben and Barbara for the sung preview.
But before we get to Revelation, let’s get to its author: John of Patmos.
JOHN OF PATMOS
John of Patmos was a Jewish man from Jerusalem who at the time of his vision-writing, about 90 CE, was living on an island—Patmos—off the coasts of Turkey and Greece. As a Jew from Jerusalem writing in the year 90, this John may well have witnessed the final destruction of the Jewish temple in the year 70.
Remember that, for Jewish people during the temple period, the temple was the home of God on Earth, the nexus between this world and another. It was literally and materially an intersection between the sacred and the profane. And the Romans crushed it. The Romans closed the door.
In doing so, the Romans didn’t just insult the Jewish people, they attacked God. Their destruction of the temple was not only aggressive warfare, but the height of sacrilege and blasphemy, too.
Imagine how we would feel if a foreign nation burned this house of God to the ground. Though we understand God to be everywhere, we still come to a particular place to practice that relationship. How bitter, how angry, how venomous might we feel toward those who took it from us?
John of Patmos leaves Jerusalem, possibly in exile, possibly as a refugee. But he cannot escape the violence of Rome. When John is on the mainland of Turkey, he is constantly confronted by celebrations of Rome’s violence. He even has to look at a statue of the man who took the temple down.
Kind of like how Black and Native Americans have to look at statues of genocidal generals and Presidents throughout the US.
John also has to contend with a culture that has come to revere the Roman emperors as divinities. Wasn’t it enough for God to be taken away, now they have to put themselves in God’s place? John is surrounded by insults to God and the hubris of rulers. He is a body under threat, a soul under attack.
And then he has a revelation.
John of Patmos is not unique in that sense. His revelation is much like those of Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel and dozens of others that did not make it into any “final” version of the Bible. Revelation, also known as apocalypse, was a style of prophecy and writing meant to make sense of history and give voice to what God might yet do. It has a lot of fire and makes use of Jewish numerology. Today you’ll hear the number seven a lot: That is the number of perfection. And it involves being in an altered state.
SON OF MAN
At the beginning, John describes being “in the spirit” when he hears a trumpeting voice giving him instructions. On looking for the source of the voice, he sees the “Son of Man,” a human-like being in radiant white with fiery eyes, surrounded by lampstands as in the now-demolished temple in Jerusalem.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.(Revelation 1.17–20)
So John of Patmos transcribes letters to seven churches on the mainland that are being led astray by false prophets and others who would have them assimilate and cooperate with the enemy empire. And then, as we heard Ben and Barb sing,
…I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal. Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. (4.1–7)
No one can see God and live. That’s why Moses talks to a bush and Jacob wrestles with an angel. Likewise, John of Patmos can only describe the divine realm in analogy. He did not physically go to God, but spiritually. And when in that state, he experiences something like jewels, like crystal, creatures like a lion, ox, and eagle. Our minds and our language are only human, so John of Patmos relies on the creatures and beauties of his world to try to convey the varieties and beauties of divine presence.
The revelation continues:
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; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then 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.” (5.1–8)
The contents of this scroll are so dangerous that none, not even the elders of God, will even try to break its perfect seal. But John of Patmos holds such hope for that scroll. He is desperate to know its news and so is left aggrieved, sobbing. A celestial elder reassures him. The elder reassures John of Patmos that there is still a messiah, an anointed one of a destroyed temple, a defeated nation, a withered line that will release the scroll’s truth.
The intersection between God and humanity may have been ruined by Rome, but God will still find a way to redeem God’s people.
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. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When 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.
Here it is, here is the hope. And it is a deranged sheep. It is a grotesquerie of the imagination. A slaughtered lamb with seven eyes and seven horns standing up is a horror. Not Jesus the healer and teacher. Not the radiant son of Man who opened the gate at the beginning of the vision. But this thing, this hobbled, contrary to the natural order, abnormality itself.
I get that we can’t really see God. I get that John of Patmos’ inner eye had only the language of his life to work with. But I do not want to see this. I don’t imagine any of you do, either. So why look any longer?
John of Patmos is terrified that the world, not just his world, but the whole world is coming to its true end at the hands of the power-mad, self-aggrandizing and self-deifying leaders of the Roman empire and the people who presume they are superior for having been born of that nation. Feel free to read as much as you like about our current situation into that. I’m not over-interpreting—it’s all right there.
Like Job, like the author of Lamentations, like the authors of the Psalms, John is questioning why and where God is in the midst. We are asking the same questions today. Because the world has not, in John of Patmos’ time or in our own, worked particularly well. Things get so bad on Earth, so familiarly, and tediously, and lethally bad because of humans and how we like to wield power.
Thankfully, God’s power is not like ours.
It does not accrue for the sake of the few. It is not oppressive. The Psalmist writes that God hates the lover of violence (Psalm 11.5). But sometimes the extremes of human power command so much of our attention that we need an equally extreme image to redirect our vision to God’s truth.
Even though we may prefer to spend our time with buddy Jesus, radiant Jesus, even the crucified Jesus, the hope those Jesuses represent is easily diluted by familiarity and human power. The only reason the cross is our symbol rather than the butterfly and the bread is precisely because Jesus’ execution was co-opted by the Roman empire.
This distorted lamb, on the other hand, is a graphic reminder of God’s Otherness and just how different all of God’s ways are from our own.
The answer John of Patmos receives to his whys of pain and wheres of God’s power is an extension of the one Jesus gave before Rome crushed him: Among the weak there is strength. Among the humble, might.
John of Patmos’ hope for salvation from a violent and abominable empire and every human being complicit with it is that divine paradox, the paradox of the divine. So is ours.
It doesn’t always have to use John’s language of monsters and mayhem—evil has those pretty well used up.
But as we look for hope, as we look for faithful corrections to unholy assertions of human power, take refuge not in denial, nor in self-righteousness, nor in defensiveness. Those are the shelters of empire and the foot soldiers of that empire.
Take refuge in the power that even in its weakest state is stronger than any state. Take refuge in a power as subversive as a butterfly and universally filling as bread. Take refuge in the God that is just beyond our vision, waiting for us to be angry enough, desperate enough, ready enough to act on that scroll of liberation.