Delivered at Ames UCC
on August 27, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
Please join us Sundays
at 10:30 a.m.
All are welcome.
I am so tired of being jerked around. I am so tired of having my days and my nights hijacked by headlines. I am sick of the incivility in the public square and nauseous from the increasingly punitive nature of public policy. And I resent, I resent to my core, the energy I must expend to reclaim my time from those who would distract me from sharing and working for the good news that there is enough for all.
In other words, I get, to a small extent, where John of Patmos is coming from.
John of Patmos, was a Jewish follower of Jesus living as a refugee under the violent rule of the Roman Empire in 90 CE. John of Patmos was in shock from seeing his homeland of Jerusalem conquered—again—and the house of God on earth, the temple, destroyed—again. He was baffled by the willingness of others who claimed to follow Jesus to compromise with that Empire, to go along to get along. As he eventually writes, this is an empire that makes statues more important than people!
John of Patmos is also terrified that the world is coming to an end.
So, he takes all of that emotion—his rage, his sorrow, his questions—to God. Where are you, God? Why have you let this happen, God? What are we to do, God?
He takes it all to God in meditative prayer and this scripture that we now call Revelation is how he heard God answer.
As I shared two weeks ago, Revelation is not unique in its content or aims. All prophets use metaphor to try to explain what God is like and how far from God the world becomes. John’s language is just more concentrated, wild, and coded.
As a man without a nation watching emperors declare themselves divine, John has to find a balance between sharing his message and not getting killed. So rather than decry Rome directly, he speaks of Babylon and they were an earlier empire to conquer Jerusalem and destroy her temple.
When he talks about the mark of the beast, he is not talking about a mystical tattoo with lethal properties. He’s likely referencing about the license that local merchants had to acquire and even wear in order to participate in Rome’s economy. That, or Roman money itself, which featured gods, making them blasphemous idols.
And when he describes hope as taking the form of a slaughtered lamb that can walk and talk, he is reminding the followers of Jesus that the power we should seek out, the power with which we should conspire, is not imperial. It is divine. That broken lamb is an embodiment of divine power. And so embodied, we are reminded that divine power is so weird, so contrary to our concepts of power, that those of us who are going along to get along might not even notice it among the broken, the wretched, and the maligned.
But it is there.
And it is opening again scrolls of truth that urge us to create the liberation that must precede reconciliation with God and each other.
That is what John’s vision, still wild and coded, lays out between the lamb and today’s New Jerusalem. In the chapters we skipped, horsemen carry war, murder, famine, and plague into the world. Stars fall and monsters rise up. A pregnant woman in delivery is chased by a dragon. War breaks out in heaven itself.
This is how oppressive the world has become, John of Patmos is saying. Heaven is having to defend itself from our evil. Supremacy enshrined and enacted by the state is like a plague-bearing dragon that hounds the weakest and decent to their deaths even as they are trying to give life.
But then there is the end. This new Jerusalem sees the refugee returned to her homeland, clean, healthy, strong. Water, God’s primal partner in creation, flows in dazzling ripples through the heart of the land. Trees blossom, bear fruit, and restore families. There is no more danger in the new Jerusalem War is done. Every need is met. No longer marked by Empire, people can for the first time actually see God. We are in the garden once more.
So how do we get there? Is John of Patmos predicting that God will make it happen? No.
John wasn’t a prophet in the sense of foretelling a specific future at a specific time. He was, like all of our Biblical prophets, interpreting the now in light of God’s promises and our lies.
There is absolutely nothing in our stories, from Genesis through Revelation, that can lead us to believe God is going to come in and fix up the mess we have made. Instead, God invites us through the Ten Commandments, better translated as ten teachings, to live together in a particular way: with generosity of spirit and material resources.
God’s power is that which lures the haves away from their greed. God’s power is that which invites the have nots to demand what they need.
If we want to see that New Jerusalem, the first step is ours. It looks to me that by being here today, you already know that.
You’ll remember that at the beginning of Revelation John criticizes churches that are complicit with the regime. I don’t think we could be counted in their company.
We are not perfect, but we are, for everyone who goes to the library or the police station or the post office, a very public, brick-and-mortar, flesh-and-blood counter narrative to the to the false narratives of limited resources and racial superiority that empires (and the empire-aspiring) use to frighten people into submission.
Here, by sharing your time, your talent, and your treasure—be it in worship, a business meeting or Bible study or the upcoming candidate accountability sessions and Pridefest—you are growing our capacity to collectively stand strong against predatory dragons.
Here, you are not just praying for but actually making a home for the refugee, clean water for all, and trees whose fruit is not so strange.
I know that at times it may not feel fast enough. John of Patmos certainly gives voice to that impatience, too.
In our offertory song today, you’ll hear Ben, Amanda, and Brett sing a portion of Hebrews 11:
What is faith but being sure of what we hope for? A world that is yet to be, that we may not live to see.
Feeling impatient, feeling sick, and tired, and resentful, feeling John of Patmos’ rage, is the beginning of our response to God’s invitation. They are at times the only fuel we have for building a beloved community we will not live to see.
Give thanks for everyone here today. Give thanks for the choice each and every one of us made to come out of the shadows thrown by flags and statues and torches.
Give thanks to the God that does not use power for dominion but, instead, ever and always invites us to use diving power to give up what we merely want, to share what everyone needs, and to live together in love.