My reading and research preparing for this week were different than normal.
See, I began looking around, counting horns and heads. I looked at President Obama, but couldn’t find any horns, so guess he must not be satan. I realized I have seven screens, of computers and phones and TVs, that I look at a lot, and wondered if those seven faces of technology matched seven heads of the beast.
It got worse: it talks about one who looked like the lamb but spoke like the dragon, uttering blasphemy, using godly language but in reverse, for falsehood and leading astray. With that, boy, did I worry that was actually talking about the church, the ELCA. What if we ourselves are the beast?!
Although stuff on the internet could support any of those hypotheses, to me it was leading in an unpleasant direction, so I tried another approach. I investigated 666, playing biblical cryptoquote by assigning a number value to each letter. Nevermind that interpreters have long figured that 666 was the value for Nero Caesar, a terrible Roman emperor at the time Revelation was written. It’s more fun to keep adding, discovering that people have found 666 to be the value of popes and of Hitler and of Ronald Wilson Reagan for having six letters in each of his names, and also for Barney, the big purple dinosaur. With all of those speculations, it seems the beast is really on the loose, tearing through history, spreading its progeny, even infecting our homes. Lord, help us!
If that seems maybe a little silly in its wild guesswork, that’s right where we should be for this hard, strange chapter from our Bible’s last book, not thinking we’ve got the accusations figured out, but using it to question and redirect our lives to God.
Like much else in our Bible, we benefit from using something that wasn’t written for us. It was written for a time and place of persecution, when Christians were oppressed by the Roman Empire and were actually being thrown to the lions in the gladiator pit.
Yet, many somehow still claim the exact opposite about Revelation. In trying to decode the symbolism of a many-headed beast and expecting it predicts the future, that means that anybody who read Revelation before Hitler or the United Nations or whatever had no idea what it meant. It would’ve been useless.
That’s precisely the reverse of the repeated refrain throughout the book: Let anyone with an ear listen! The book isn’t written as a secret for only one future point in history. It’s written trying to disclose a secret, to broadcast the good news, to continue a reminder.
And the amazing thing is that the message continues to be useful. Somehow, this crazy book with all of its strange imagery of wrath and terrors all around continues to have a message that speaks good even to us now.
Yet a sure way to screw up the message is to treat it as a forecast instead of a metaphor. Think of it this way: If we say, “it’s going to rain cats and dogs,” metaphorically, that is understood as a fancy way of saying that when you look out the window, it’s really going to be raining heavily. If you tried to treat it as a forecast, however, you’d be waiting for dogs and cats literally to be falling from the sky.
Well, Revelation is like that. If we tried to break it down to its simplest message, cutting through the metaphor and fancy imagery and lots of special effects, essentially it’s trying to say: following Jesus is worth it, so keep at it.
With that, let’s return to our reading for today, not trying to decode and dis-cover, which isn’t the point, anyway. Let’s listen for the basic message.
So there’s a powerful entity, and it seems everyone is excited about it, thinking nothing could be better than this. Now, that which you love and trust above all else is a pretty fair definition of what your god is, right? And this so-called god makes that even clearer by blaspheming the true God, making false claims. It’s aided by another, who can do miraculous stuff. Further, the so-called god makes demands. It affects the economy. It creates fear and causes death. It lays claim to people’s lives.
Unpacking that, we can see that calling it a beast intends to repel us. The so-called god appeals to many others; only our insight enables us to see it as repulsive. Again, as metaphor and symbol, it remind us that this ugly so-called god is not our good God.
It works that way with numbers, too, 666 and 42 months. If 7 is a number of wholeness (like 7 days in a week), then 666 and 3½ years emphasize imperfection, a lack of godliness.
The same with the term antichrist. It’s not literally looking for red horns and a pitchfork. Instead, antichrist is a term that just means against Christ, anti-Christ. So if we’re being led away from God and astray from following Jesus, then no matter what it is, it is anti-Christ and is evil. (Actually, the term antichrist isn’t in this reading or anywhere in Revelation, but only in the letters of John, where it describes allegedly corrupt other Christians!)
Again, rather than expecting that we’ll see some multi-headed beast emerging from the ocean and then be able to say, “uh oh,” or claiming it needs to be a massive dictator misses most of the point. It’s a question of competing loyalties. To return to our list that included Obama and an entertaining dinosaur and technology, any of those have potential to lead us astray, to distract our attention from God, even if they work what we’d call miracles, like the amazing things that our cell phones do.
So do you need a sermon about putting away your cell phone, about not trusting that more than all else? Or not calling a political figure a savior? Or about not getting so distracted by the things that entertain you?
Or think about the economic restrictions in our reading, where the saints fared worse. What if being a Christian meant that old pattern of taking sabbath and resting on Sunday? Or what if it meant not profiting from exploiting workers or causing violence or destroying the environment? What if it was wrong to benefit at the expense of increased inequality for the poor? Any of those would make it harder for us to fit into the dominant global economy, to make money on retirement investments, to make purchases without hardly thinking about such consequences.
So do you need a sermon warning you against the beastliness of finance?
We are asking those questions, because we live in such a different culture than when Revelation was written. We might say that it’s easy to be a Christian now. We don’t worry about getting killed. We’re not ostracized or shunned in a marketplace. Mostly we fit in with the rest of culture.
But maybe that also should make us realize it’s hard to be a Christian now. If we don’t stand for a different economy, if we don’t oppose killing, if we’re not standing against oppression. If we look so much like everyone else that they can’t recognize our lifestyle as different and we can even forget at times that we’re Christian.
In that way, the clearest line of our reading might also be the most helpful. Verse 10 ends, “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” That’s a calling, a message, a sermon we do need. And it’s also the shape of the rest of Revelation. See, just picking the hard, scary chapter out of the cycle leaves us without the assurances, without the constant reminders of good news. This is really a beautiful book of blessing and encouragement for times of crisis.
For the people at that time, the question was whether faith was worth it. If they could be killed for their trust in Christ, if they suffered because of it, was there any point in continuing on? If God didn’t stop their enemies, did it mean those violent forces had won?
That fits our questions of illness and death. Should we put our faith instead into medicine and hospitals that can at least prolong life, if not save us? Is God too weak to be of any assistance? Is our faith pointless in those times, since it doesn’t offer a cure?
Why continue in faith, why trust, when it seems pointless? That’s even broader nowadays. When there are so many good distractions and fun activities, church often tries to respond by being as entertaining. Or when so much seems helpful and rewarding, when so many offer education and edification, the church often claims that we teach values best and we truly enjoy a life of loving service.
Yet with that, we have to admit that this all gets complex. Cell phones are not strictly evil. Church is not always the best for service projects. President Obama may do both good and bad.
But none of that is the center of our faith. The central message of Revelation is Jesus. In him, evil has been overcome, is already getting knocked out. That is the mortal wound in the reading. Jesus has brought the end of evil. It’s still persistently struggling to get its way, in spite of the cross and even until now. But it will not, cannot triumph. What is wrong in the world does not have the last word. In spite of death and suffering, in spite of horsemen that seem to spread war and disease and disasters and economic injustice ever more broadly across the earth, that is not what is ultimate.
Ultimately, you are redeemed in Christ. Not the powers of the world, but the Lamb who was slain, is the one on the throne forever. And unlike beastly powers that try to conquer by killing, it is by dying that the Lamb is victorious. Jesus died for you, and conquering death he lives for you. He will bring you through all of this, holding on to you, you and all creation, and he will be with you eternally, in spite of any current evidence to the contrary. That is why Easter hymns proclaim things like, “the strife is o’er, the battle done, now is the Victor’s triumph won” and “Thine is the glory, Risen conqu’ring Son. Endless is the vict’ry Thou o’er death hast won.”
The point of this is for you to cling to that promise when you need it, when things seem so terrible and hordes of devils fill the land. Just as much, it’s for when you’re so distracted that you’re not enduring in the faith.
And with that, we point toward the baptism this morning, because it ties in closely to Revelation. We heard about people bearing the mark of the beast on their hand or forehead. Exactly counter to that will be the mark of Christ on baby Matthew’s forehead, which is mentioned at the start of the next chapter after our reading. By later today, the smell and signs of that oil will no longer be apparent. But God’s mark, God’s claim on Matthew will last forever. It will persist through his struggles in school. It will be there when he seems like a little demon and is driving his mom crazy. It will be there even if it seems like he’s been attacked by an illness, or even if life gets so messed up that he could wonder if he’s cursed. It will be there as a reminder if he’s ignoring faith and not living as a saint. It will be there many long years from now when he dies. And it will be there as we rise together to experience the new life, the fullness of the new creation, that Christ has won for us eternally. That mark of Christ claims him and you, to be an assurance through it all.
That’s what Revelation is about. That’s what faith is about. That’s who Jesus is for you.
Hymn: Awake, My Heart, with Gladness (ELW #378)
We also used images from The Brick Testament to help with visualizing the unfamiliar story!