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Revelation II: Warring Myths

 
 

Pastor James Clarke’s second sermon in the series about Revelation is “Warring Myths.” The scripture readings are: John 18:33-36 and Revelation 7:9-17. Sunday, April 17, 2016.

Listen to this sermon here.

 Revelation is a collection of visions experienced by John of Patmos (not to be confused with the author of the Gospel According to John). The visions also include numerous metaphors and codes that the people who first read Revelation would understand, but we do not. Pastor Jim’s purpose is to help us to see Revelation less as a threat, and by learning more about it, to see it as even a means of grace.

This morning I want to talk about the worlds we inhabit. What places, cultures, realms, universes make up our lives? The Church is an example of one of these worlds that we inhabit. Frequently, we hope. There are many worlds in a person’s life.

Being a fan of a sports team becomes a world we inhabit. Look at the Seahawks! Speaking of football: Do we remember the advertisements for the NFL about how the NFL means “family?” That, my friends is myth making and the stuff of religion. What do the words “Beaver Nation” mean? Is it a kind of family too?

Does everyone know what Cos-play is? People gather dressed up as favorite Anime characters – “costume-play”. If we had a screen I’d show you some pictures. Has anyone ever been to a Star Trek convention? Or one of the events about video games? Mine craft can become a world children and youth inhabit. They probably dream about it.

But this is not just about kids. Wall Street is a world we inhabit. I knew a person in a former church who was active in high frequency trading. It was his job. He worked at home – and it was his world. TV shows become worlds to inhabit. Even channels. Bravo is in a world of its own. Biblically these are called “kingdoms”.

At the time of Jesus the best word for what I am metaphorically calling “worlds” was “kingdom”. When Jesus says in John’s gospel:  “My kingdom is not of this world,” He isn’t talking physically, or objectively, or historically. He is talking spiritually and Pilate doesn’t get it. He responds saying: “So you are a king.” To which Jesus says: “You say that I am.” Or, in the Message:  “You tell me.” Implying that they are talking past each other as if they live in different universes.

I said two weeks ago that if we want to even get a glimpse of the meaning of Revelation, we have to get out of our heads and enter into the spiritual world of John of Patmos.

Essentially Jesus is saying to Pilate the world I inhabit – which he calls the Kingdom of God – is not at all a part of the world which you inhabit, the Kingdom of this world, which is the world of money and power and fame – competition and violence, greed and dominating others.

Jesus is not saying that his “world” is elsewhere – up in the sky, in heaven, at a different time. Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is near. This Kingdom of God – the world Jesus inhabits – is present – here, now and close up. Right alongside the kingdom of this world. Think of parallel universes. Both are real, both are present and accessible. But they do not meet. This is how John of Patmos sees reality.

In Revelation, John envisions two Kingdoms: Empires and Forces in the world. (Remember George Lucas got the idea of the Force in “Star Wars” from Revelation.) Two cities:  Babylon and Jerusalem representing two different myths or stories that give meaning to life.

John speaks of dreams and visions and of futures, but his focus is on the world he lives in now and the powers that inhabit it and the world’s people live in. Particularly, for John, the worlds inhabited by the Christians he addresses in the seven Asian churches. John’s purpose was to “reveal” the truth of reality to the people in those churches. Revelation means to unveil or reveal. Even “apocalyptic” before it means the end, means to reveal.

Every world we inhabit, in this world, has a story – a myth – that presents its meaning and power. Sports has a mythology that centers around “winning is everything”. Do we all remember Vice Lombardi’s famous quote? “Winning isn’t the most important thing it’s the only thing.”

When coaches started handing out trophies to all participants, they forgot the myth. And do we see what happened? It didn’t work. For a while I had a dozen small plastic trophies on our bookshelf that were hard to dust. So I tossed them without a single complaint because they had no power.

But the trophy for winning the NCAA women’s basketball tournament has power – it’ll be put in a trophy case at the University of Connecticut along with the other ten they’ve won. It really should be passed down to the team that was ranked second at the end of the year, and what was that team…. I wonder?

Wall Street has a mythology – not that different from sports. It too is about winning and accumulating – scarcity – efficiency- growth….. and monopoly. The idea that the person who has the most toys in the end wins is an expression of the Wall Street myth.

Music tells a story and has a myth. Doesn’t Rap have a story to tell? And Country? What is the story of the Blues? Is it like Praise song – upbeat and happy?  Nooo. “My baby left me.”  “Woke up this morning…” “The thrill is gone…” If blues songs were put in the Hymnal they would go in the section: Strength in Tribulation.

BB King says that everybody’s got the blues at some time or another. And Albert King talks about “blues power”. This, too, is the stuff of mythology and religion. And the Blues really does have power. But I digress….

In Revelation, there are two Empires… powers… forces in the world. The Empire of this World and the Empire of God. The Empire of this world is embodied by Rome, the dominant power in the world. Physically, with its armies. But even more importantly for John… spiritually with its myths and stories.

In Revelation, John of Patmos is challenging the myths of the Roman Empire – the way of worldly empire – and offering an alternative and subversive myth based on the Empire of God.

In Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther’s book: Unveiling Empire:  Reading Revelation Then and Now, they identify five myths of Rome used to retain its power over the world.

The first myth is the idea of worldly Empire itself. The assumption that someone has to be in charge in the world. Today this myth lives in the idea of the superpower, which we, in the United States either adopt or have placed upon us, that some strong nation must be able to control things. The myth of Empire is what gets us into every problem in the world.

Rome was able to rule – and legitimize their rule by claiming this myth – someone has to be in charge. This developed into what is called the Divine Right of Kings that God chose the one who would be in charge.

That, by the way, is how ISIS thinks. ISIS is trying to resurrect Islamic Empire, the

Caliphate, using their own mythology about the infallibility of the Koran and the superiority of Islam. It is the divine right of kings on steroids.

John’s counter-myth is the Empire of God in which no one dominates others. In which there is no partiality, where all are equal and where compassion rules. Which of these myths do we choose?

The second myth is called Pax Romana – the Peace of Rome – because Rome ruled the world so successfully, there were fewer wars. That is, there was peace. The myth is, when someone is in charge and dominates others, there will be peace. This is peace by force.

But John doesn’t see it that way – he has visions about and writes about the beasts – and Babylon. And about the violence they carry out on all people. Just because there are not overt wars does not mean there is peace. There is systemic violence. Think of apartheid – when the whites were in charge. There was peace, right?

In contrast to the beasts and the dragons, John lifts up the image of the Lamb of God. The people expected a lion, but got a lamb, and a bloody one at that! This is the power of weakness, of sacrifice. Jesus did not resist the violence of the world with more violence, but followed the way of weakness and sacrifice even to the Cross!

Which myth do we chose to live by? Which world will we inhabit? That of the domination of others or the way of weakness and sacrifice?

The third myth is that of Victory – winning is everything. What, we thought that myth started with Vince Lombardy? The Roman legions were worse than women’s basketball at the University of Connecticut – which I call “the beast.” Alabama football. The Oregon Ducks backed by Phil Knight of Nike. There’s a beast for you! They lived for conquest. They felt called to conquest. Beat the enemy to a pulp and we will be satisfied!

John’s counter-myth is what one must expect:  Love you enemies. Can we imagine the Romans hearing this? And they did! And it was one of the reasons they thought the Christians were nuts – bonkers – in some other universe. Indeed, another universe…. Which do we choose?

The fourth myth was the myth of Loyalty. Like in the military – for Rome was a militarized society. The bonds of loyalty kept the society together and ultimately everyone was loyal to Caesar. But who are Christians to be loyal to? Remember, Jesus is the Son of God – not Caesar.

The early Christians stopped sacrificing at the Imperial Temples and it got them into trouble because the early Christians followed a counter-myth. That was faith in Jesus Christ. It isn’t loyalty to one’s superiors, abiding the wishes of the Godfather, or giving ultimate fealty to Caesar that was the glue that kept society together. In God’s Empire it is trust, love, faith in Jesus Christ that holds not only society, but the universe together. And John asks, where is our faith?

The fifth and final myth mentioned by Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther is the myth of Eternity. For the Romans, Rome was eternal, and Caesar was God. The Romans told their subjects that if they participated in Rome, being good subjects and sacrificing at the Imperial Temple. they would know Eternity.

To which John said, no way! Every worldly empire dies. Indeed Rome died. The Tang Dynasty dynastied out. The Ottoman Empire ended. Babylon fell. The British Empire shrunk. The Persians were purged. The Empire of Japan was a disaster. The Byzantines lasted a long time but they surrendered in 1453. Even the Mongols were vanquished. And one day the United States will be no more too.

John’s counter-myth was of course that Eternal Life is in God and God alone – in and through Jesus Christ. When John writes to the seven churches, in Asia he is writing to Christians he believes are wishy-washy about the Empire of God. He is writing to people who he thinks are living in two worlds: the Empire of this world and the Empire of God.

They want their luxurious life and to be saved too. He calls them lukewarm, like today’s politician who claims God, but hides the truth; who quotes scripture in “One Corinthians” but lives for power and riches. He writes to people he thinks aren’t really aware of the worlds they inhabit, who haven’t thought out their real priorities. Church members who give a pittance to the church and charity, and drive off with the most expensive and fuel guzzling car on the lot.

Revelation is not about what will happen at the end of the world. Actually that might be easier, but to read it literally – to read it that way is to trivialize it.

It is much easier to try to breed an unblemished cow because the Bible says one must be sacrificed for Jesus to come again (true story) than it is to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask, “What worlds do I inhabit…. And are any of them greater than the Empire of God?

Push Revelation off into the future – spout off about who will win… I mean be saved and who won’t. It’s still out there somewhere. And we can go off in our gas guzzling car assured that we are amongst the elect. Eat at the most posh restaurant in town and feel blessed. Lukewarm – inhabiting both Empires.

It’s another thing to look at our plates to consider how we feel about the role of the United States in the world and to risk actually talking about it. To pray about how we feel about winning and losing. To question the power of the world of Wall Street in the lives of people.

To live by the Weakness of God in Jesus Christ and not by the way of domination in the world. To think about where the Empire of God is right here and now. Not in some fairy tale in the future, but in the way we live every day.

Have any of us seen the TV show on the National Geographic cable channel featuring Morgan Freeman entitled, The Story of God? Freeman journey’s around visiting people from various religions asking them questions – one question pre episode. In one episode the question is about the Apocalypse: Why do people wait for the end of reality? At the end of the episode he says this:

The Apocalypse is not about war, it’s about enlightenment. It’s not about death – it’s about a state of mind and heart that helps us see the truth. Not some far off day of judgment. It’s here and it’s now.

And, hey… ya gotta believe Morgan Freeman ‘cuz he was God once…

I would never want to meet John of Patmos. He’s really severe. He won’t coddle any excuse. From John of Patmos I would fear piercing eyes asking, to what are you giving your life?

And here’s an irony about Revelation. We avoid it because we think it is scary. But it is scary for the wrong reasons. People are scared of hearing about the awful and violent end of the world. But Revelation is not about a terrible future as it is about our lives now. It asks about the worlds we inhabit now. What myths do we live by? Is winning everything? Where is our family?  Is it in the NFL? Or in the Communion of the Church?

I think these sorts of questions are scarier than the Rapture. And it isn’t far away at all. It’s right here and now. What are the worlds we inhabit? Which Empire do we choose?

And the worst thing about all of this is I know that John of Patmos would tell me that whether I like it or not, Beaver Nation will someday be no more!

Amen.

 

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