Living the Dream
Well, that just got weird. Hearing these bizarre and fantastic visions it is hard to imagine them as real, and yet it seems equally as hard for some of us to try to understand them in any other way. Repeatedly throughout Western history these visions have influenced literature and art as we have attempted to wrestle with these powerful images. Yet we truly do not know if these writings were coded messages, or an actual dream, or even the result of some medicinal herb, mushroom or flower!
And even though Martin Luther only agreed to include John’s Revelation in the Bible as a tool to critique the Roman Catholic Church – and John Calvin didn’t even include it in his commentaries – the church has kept these writings in the canon of scripture for centuries.
So, I maintain the position that the Revelation of John at Patmos was an expression of faith in Jesus as God’s self-revelation. And, I want to remind you what we’ve been focusing on over the last few weeks.
First is the idea that our end – our purpose, our reason for being – is discovered through Jesus. What I mean is that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth we receive an example for living, and we see the power of God demonstrated in ways that can transform our lives and give us hope. That hope assures us that loving God, even giving our lives in service to God, is something worth doing. And then last week we went a little deeper into the idea that our salvation from sin is assured through the blood of Jesus – not because God needs a sacrifice, but because God wanted us to know how far God would go to demonstrate God’s love. In the sacrificial love of Jesus, God chose not to destroy us for our rejection of God, but instead to show us how large – and yet how personal – God’s embrace can be.
So with that in mind we turn to today’s readings. And I want to get some of the issues and questions out of the way. So, in this particular vision we have some things that are fairly obvious metaphors. A monster rises from the sea. The sea is generally understood as chaos, the part of creation that God left as a veritable toxic waste dump with terrible creatures. In fact, later visions of a new heaven and earth exclude the sea altogether.
The beast had all kinds of animal parts representing various earthly powers and divine attributes, and the mix of creature parts probably held some influence from Babylonian mythology. It had several heads and horns and crowns that represented earthly kingdoms, particularly Roman Emperors. One of them was wounded, but (unlike the lamb who is slain) it was not dead or risen from the dead. And all the people were amazed by its power and they worshiped it.
Now the beast came from a dragon, which is described in ch 12 as Satan, and it seems that we are being told that “resistance is futile”. If you’re going to be taken captive, so be it. You can fight it, but you’ll die. This conflict is itself an invitation for people of faith to be willing to endure suffering and conflict.
As we skip down a bit to ch 14, we find those that have the name of God and of the lamb written on their foreheads are being set aside. It’s a little troubling that part of their credentials is the fact that they are men who have never been sexually intimate with a woman, but they actually represent the purity of God’s choices as seen in us. They also look a lot like those that would be preparing for battle by abstaining from certain pleasures and steeling their will for the fight.
Now, before we go any further, I’d like to suggest that we consider the perspective of Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch theologian and philosopher who is said to have had some influence on Martin Luther. He has been quoted saying, “There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other.”
I would say that expecting John’s visions to come true would be an example of living in a dream world. I would say that recognizing the theme in this text of oppressive systems of government – and other social systems – and naming the systems of oppression that we face today is an example of facing reality. But I would also say that God is calling us to step up and challenge those powers – knowing that it will cost us – so that those who are limited by others can become truly free!
While I think this is something that we must find ways to do on our own, I believe we must continue to seek new ways to demonstrate the liberating presence of God as a congregation. There is no end to the metaphors I could make for our common strength. We can talk about the combined power of candles in the dark, or the way that plants and animals demonstrate strength in numbers, but in John’s vision he heard music, and it was a song that only those who bore the name of God could sing!
And we have a unique voice. We believe in a God of grace and mercy that chooses us regardless of our worth or merit. We believe in a God that is present in suffering and whose will is for all to be saved from the limitations of human sinfulness. While we struggle with the idea that some might not be saved, we leave that up to God to handle. And we focus on responding to God’s love the best that we can. We don’t believe that we are more correct than any other branch or congregation of believers, but we believe that we working to become more faithful every day than we were the day before.
And more than that we know, deep in our bones, that God is at work in our relationships and in our connections with others who follow Christ. This is the song that we must sing! And even as we learn it and share it and belt it out with all of our hearts, we must continue to write it with God. And as we write it, we must continue to call one another “beloved” as we “get through this thing called life.” Because it is only by recognizing others as God’s beloved that we can see their needs as our needs.
Only by seeing their needs as our needs can we worship something other than power, because we love power! We love power because it makes us feel safe, and that’s not a bad thing. Seeking safety is a primal instinct that God gave us to help us survive. And no matter how we insulate ourselves, the wolf is always at the door. But the question John’s vision is asking us today is this, in our desire to become safe have we become the wolf?
For we do love and crave power. We love the power of our nation. We love the power of personal freedoms. We love feeling like we are the ones to determine our own destinies, because we do it so well.
That is, we do it well until we realize that we have become credit poor, over-extended, and unable to pay our bills. We do it well until the Dr. tells us that without certain changes we won’t have any more choices to make. We do it well until we realize that our choices have become centered around a bottle or a video game or our financial security or any center of value other than our God. We do such a great job determining our own destinies until the needs of a child change our concept of what we need, or our hearts are broken by need or loss or compassion for someone that we can’t find a way to help. We do such a great job until we realize that it’s not our job to determine our own destinies.
Whether you believe in fate or destiny or absolute freedom, there are more things out of our control than there are under our control. There is yet chaos in our world. There are greater evils and personal rebellions against God. Evil and malice and selfishness are real – and they have power in this world – but theirs is a limited power. And we have been set aside and called to fight against powers like these that oppress and limit others. But ours is not a conventional war. Our weapons include endurance, and obedience to God, and demonstrations of God’s love.
For our job is not to determine and secure our own bright, happy, perfect future. Our job is to anticipate the world that God is creating. Our job is to remember the things that are permanent and unlimited – faith, hope, and love. And in the end, we will do more than “get through life.” We will be taken away, swept up in what God is doing –even here, even now – and all to the glory of God! Amen.