Apocalypse Now? Worship
Rev. Donnell T. Wyche – August 30, 2020
Today, I’m continuing with our sermon series on Revelation, called, Apocalypse Now?
Over the past two weeks, Pastor Marissa has helped us understand the nature, genre, and theme of Revelation, John’s letter to struggling churches to help them make sense of the violence, pain, and deception of our world in light of the end of the story: God’s good rule over all the nations of the earth (Revelation 21).
Today, I’ll conclude our series by considering what’s needed as we wait for God’s good rule over all the nations of the earth: Imagination and Resistance.
From Revelation 12 to 20, John offers some quite vivid imagery: there are seven signs (symbols) including the cosmic battle, the earthly battle, the lamb’s army, and the great choice: resist Babylon to follow the Lamb or follow the Beast and suffer its defeat. Then there’s the seven bowls leading up to the epic battle of Armageddon. From there, John lays out the Fall of Babylon and the Final Battle. In between these dramatic events are dragons, swords of justice, horsemen, marks of the beast, and more dragons.
Most of the images that emerge in the letter are intended to dramatically illustrate to first century believers (and to us) what’s really going on behind the apparent peace and prosperity of the time, and what’s at stake when the people of God choose to endure persecution for the sake of their witness. It is only through imagination, worship, and witness that the church shares in Christ’s mission to win the whole world for God’s glory (21:24-26).
I want to focus on two images that emerge: the mark of the beast and the whore of Babylon because they are related.
11Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon. 12It exercised all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed. 13And it performed great signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to the earth in full view of everyone. 14Because of the signs it was given power to perform on behalf of the first beast, it deceived the inhabitants of the earth. It ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived. 15It was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. 16It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, 17so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.
18This calls for wisdom. Let those who have insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.
As John shifts from the seven trumpets to a series of visions, he’s invoking these symbols to help reveal the powers behind these forces at work within the world.
John is clear: this is a beast — a collaboration of political power and religious sanction, what we might call: civil religion. This civil religion falsely claims to represent the true God and God’s will. “This is a beast,” he says.
Shema. Shema. (Listen closely).
When John’s readers heard this letter, I’m sure they had Rome in their minds, but the beast here in Revelation
“is not merely ‘Rome’… It is the inhuman, anti-human arrogance of Empire which has come to expression in Rome—but not only there… All who support the cultural religion, in or out of church, however Lamb-like they may appear, they are agents of the beast. All propaganda that entices humanity to idolize human Empire is an expression of this beastly power that wants to appear Lamb-like.”
John says, shema, listen. Don’t get in league with these beasts. I have a revelation, in the end, Rome and every other Empire that follows will fail. Don’t take the mark of this beast, don’t give it adoration, loyalty, devotion, allegiance, anything that belongs to God.
When John gets to the mark of the beast, 666, symbolically it’s a parody of perfection.(3 sets of 7 Divine Judgements). It was an anti-shema.
Look at what John is doing, he places the mark of the beast on the foreheads and hands, he’s contrasting the Shema.
Within Israel there was a prayer that was an affirmation of God’s singularity, called the Shema. It was recited daily. It was a reminder to the people of who God was and who they were within God’s world.
4Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
Listen. Pay Attention. Focus.
The systems of this world that couple political power and religious sanction and claim to represent the true God and God’s will are beastly.
In one view, the mark of the beast has us looking or hunting for a coming regime that will force us to do something we shouldn’t. John is saying, wait, the Empire is already established. It is already at work. It’s a corrupt system and the people of God should resist it.
John is encouraging struggling churches with how to see themselves in Empire, how to navigate the lies, violence, pain, and suffering of our present time. If anything, John is warning us that nations become beasts when they exalt their own power and economic security as a false god — they will demand total allegiance.
John is just echoing Psalm 20:7:
7Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
8They are brought to their knees and fall,
but we rise up and stand firm.
9Lord, give victory to the king!
Answer us when we call!
Despite its claims to divine status—sanction, mission, protection—empire is always ultimately opposed to the one true God and those who represent the true power of God that is manifested in the life and death of Jesus. Empire will eventually resort to anything necessary, including lethal violence, to silence the powerful pro-God, counter-imperial witness of the faithful (17:3).
What Revelation tells us is Empire requires devotion and allegiance, something that is reserved for God. Revelation invites us to consider how we are living in this present day and age. It’s not enough for us to just have the words of God written on our foreheads and hands if we refuse to allow it to be written on our heart. How will we live in this present day and age? Will we live fully devoted and aligned with Empire or will we resist.
Which brings me to the whore of Babylon in chapters 17-18.
One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. 2With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.” 9“When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her. 10Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry… 11“The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore— 12cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; 13cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves.
14“They will say, ‘The fruit you longed for is gone from you. All your luxury and splendor have vanished, never to be recovered.’ 15The merchants who sold these things and gained their wealth from her will stand far off, terrified at her torment. They will weep and mourn 16and cry out… (Revelation 18:9–10)
It would be a mistake, John offers, to assume that the judgement of Babylon is limited to “them” as if there is no “us” in Babylon. When we can see ourselves clearly, we might discover that we have gone into Babylon. Living in Empire, John says, can blind us to reality that we are being called out. “Come out of Babylon.” This is a call to economic divestment. This economic judgement is on the individual, family, and congregational level. John is offering that economic faithfulness at a minimum requires us to inspect what we do with our money. We are not innocent. “John understood that a person cannot share in the profits of domination without also sharing in its crimes.”
John is sharp in his critique because neither nationalism nor consumerism are fruits of the spirit. John says, “If it involves buying or selling goods,” Revelation subjects it to question. Is this a business that directly or indirectly promotes the rich and exploits the poor? Then come out of Babylon. Do not join yourself to the whore of Babylon. Does it harm the earth or other human beings? If so, then Revelation 18 addresses it. Come out of Babylon. Do you not join yourself to the whore of Babylon. Remember this letter was addressed to the church as well, “Will you carefully consider the sources and means of your income?” Are you investing in people and their general welfare or are you exploiting them to amass wealth and power, then come out of Babylon, church.
Come out! Do not join yourself to the whore Babylon.
How we spend money we have earned is under review in Revelation 18. Are we participating in systems of lust, whether material or sexual, systems of dominion and exploitation, systems trafficking in humans? Do our ways of spending benefit the least, the last, and the lost? Do they promote justice and the healing of the nations? Do they reflect our convictions about the reign of God and the Lamb? Or do they reflect the values and practices of Babylon, practices that are anti-God and anti-human, whose values are antithetical to the essence of the Gospel? Revelation 18 prompts us to think through these sorts of issues and to do something explicitly, perhaps even radically Christian, about them.
There is an invitation for us to divest ourselves from these anti-God and anti-human systems. John warns us that we cannot turn a blind eye to economic injustice whether near or far. If we benefit, then we also share in the judgement of Babylon.
John invites us to resist the Empire. This resistance takes many forms and shapes, but it starts with us understanding that Empire will eventually be defeated by those who enjoyed power within Empire or by God. A system that is built on conquest, war, death, and famine is not life-giving. It is anti-life. John knows this. God know this. The question is, do we? Do we trust in the name of the Lord our God? If so, then as James, the brother of Jesus says, show me your receipts.
Two reflections as we make our way forward.
Invitation to practice Sabbath as a form of resistance. The Liberating God can be trusted. Over and over again, God is saying, “I can be trusted. I will provide for you, without needing anything in return.” This is who I am. I am the God who rescued you. I will take care of you. I will provide for you. This is the God who is victorious over our enemies. I will show the way. This is the God who calls us to Sabbath. This is the God who has everything we need.
Generosity as a form of resistance against Babylon. A friend of mine shared with me how they were choosing to live within Empire, which was to check themselves on how they use money. It was a binary choice, do I use money to amass wealth and comfort for me and mine, or do I try to divest myself of this allegiance to money. This realization is helping them to live simpler lives – not living beyond their means. Any excesses are given away.
What’s in the way for us to be form, shaped, and discipled by our trust in the Lord our God? Let’s hear the Psalm again,
7Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. (Psalm 20:7)