In this sign conquer (a sermon on Revelation 5 for Presbyterians)
Rev 5: 1-14
How many sermons have you heard on the book of Revelation?
I’m afraid I’ve heard too many sermons on Revelation … What I want to do today is try and persuade you to look at Revelation again, try and capture something of why it is one of the most inspiring books in the New Testament… once you get over (or perhaps get used to) the exotic and outlandish images and visions, and get some clues as to what the book is really about. My excuse, is that the passage we read today is one of the keys to the whole book.
First some background: Revelation was written some time in the second half of the first century by a preacher called John (about whom we know very little) from the Island of Patmos. It was written to small discipleship groups (church’s) in what we now call Turkey. It was probably not written when Christians were actually being fed to the lions, although scholars disagree on the matter, but it was certainly written when Christian’s were a small minority in a powerful empire, which happened to be very threatened by their presence. The fact that their life was so different meant that their mere existence was a challenge to the power of the Roman Empire over the minds of its citizens. Even if they were not actually being killed, that possibility is always there. They were subversive by their very lifestyle which was turning the world up-side down. So they risked martyrdom.
It was written in dangerous times (not just physically, but spiritually dangerous) to these small groups of Christian… perhaps a bit like us, but more subversive, more of a threat to the fabric of their society.
I guess we can hardly claim to be suffering from persecution. There’s no such thing as coming full circle. The so-called secular world in which we live has been profoundly shaped by Christianity. It’s different now. The danger and seduction of the empire is more subtle you might say. But I think there is an element of parallel for us, as the seductions of our new world empire become more overwhelming. I suspect that the book of Revelation will become increasingly relevant to those of us who remain to bear witness.
There are real existential crises driving this strange book. They are wondering: What is happening to history? Will we survive? Will non-violence ultimately conquer the world?… Will the end end up justify the means? Or will God conquer in ways that are consistent with God’s own purposes? And will we be part of that?
Who will conquer? What can we hope for? The word ‘conquer’ is an important word in the book of revelation as they try and make sense of their struggle to be faithful.
Do you ever wonder what the world is coming to? Do you ever wonder what is the meaning and direction of history?
This is the base line, the question behind all the strange visions. Sometimes from a modern readers point of view the strangeness of the visions distracts us from the message. And it’s important to understand the genre of what we read. It’s not to be read literally, it is theology dramatized in the poetry of the ancient world (apocalyptic language) and the grand symbolic ways of imagining the spiritual world. But the point is not fantasy. It’s not about escapism. It’s all about locating their life in history. There is a future at stake… but the book is not predicting the future by giving us a set of secret codes for what is happening now in the 21st century (so we might be one step ahead of whoever the latest antichrist is imagined to be). The future that the writer is grappling with (in his Spirit-led imagination) is the future for that endangered species called Christian – on the one hand an immediate future of a deceptive empire and considerable violence and chaos and, on the other, an ultimate future in which they can hope – best summed up as ‘the conquest of the slaughtered lamb’.
So the question of history is driving the visions of Revelation… But for John of Patmos the secret to history is Jesus Christ. And the secret to Jesus Christ is first introduced in the way he is named.
1:4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
This word ‘witness’ or ‘testimony’ (like the word ‘conquer’) comes up again and again in Revelation. In the Greek it is the word martos – the same word we get martyr from. And it’s no accident. For Jesus role as witness is associated closely with his death. His faithful and true witness is a witness to the death. As is the witness of many, like John of Patmos, who (according to the very first verse of the book) bear witness to his witness. There’s every chance that their life, like his, will end in death.
Today’s reading is the centre-piece of the book of Revelation…
It symbolizes the turning point in history. The spiritual world is waiting – the image is of a kind of heavenly court. And the spiritual world is waiting for someone to open the scroll, to make sense of the scripture, of the ‘total revelation of God’s will and plan for the world’ [Finamore]. Of course it’s not just the spiritual world that is waiting. It’s also the persecuted Christians who are struggling to make sense of their lives. They desperately want someone to break open the plan of God… to tell them where God is in their struggles.
They have some expectations. They are waiting for a lion – ‘The lion of the tribe of Judah’ – a strong and royal messiah – one who will take the world by storm for God. But no lion is forthcoming and John, the writer is weeping bitterly, then he sees in the midst of the court a “Lamb, standing as if it had been slaughtered”. I’m not sure how you stand ‘as if you have been slaughtered’… (but you can’t argue over details with this kind of poetic licence). Immediately the spiritual world breaks into chorus with a new song:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you set free for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on the earth.”
The Lamb clarifies the means of conquest, not only who will bring history to its proper conclusion, but how. The Lamb conquers by his faithful witness, even to death, to the point of being slaughtered. In his refusal to fight violence with violence, to respond in kind to the world he simultaneously reveals the lie which controls the world, the nasty truth about humanity, and the wonderful truth about God and in so doing conquers the world. And this death, says John of Patmos, sets free, ransoms people of every kind and language and culture. His witness to the truth of God liberates others to do the same. There’s a beautifully ironic church billboard that I once saw which reads: “The Meek shall Inherit the Earth – if its ok with you”
John of Patmos says: The meek SHALL inherit the earth… ready or not.
In the ancient world, if you refused to fight violence with violence you were slaughtered… For the writer such a refusal… such courageous and stubborn and determined persevering witness would conquer. And the witnesses who follow Jesus the faithful witness, will be part of that conquest. As I suggested last week. To refuse to retaliate, to lower oneself to forgive, to confront ones enemies with forgiveness, is not the weak thing to do, it’s the hardest thing anyone can do. It’s the vulnerable thing – which is what meekness is all about. But for John of Patmos it is the power of God which controls history. That is the faith that John of Patmos wrote out of. What God provides in the faithful life of Jesus is symbolised by a Lamb, who in his ultimate act of witness conquers the world.
Thinking of moments that seem to shape the history of the world… you might remember the story that when Constantine was about to cross the Tiber he had a vision of a cross and heard the words ‘in haec signo vinces’ – in this sign conquer. And so he put the sign of the cross at the head of his armies and killed thousands in the name of God at the battle of Milvian Bridge. The cross became for him a servant of the sword (and the rest they say is history). But John of Patmos sees another history. Jesus, in John’s vision, has a sword coming from his mouth. His mouth, his witness is his means of conquest, and ultimately he speaks with his death. John of Patmos believes that the sign of the cross conquers but in its own strength, precisely by resisting any temptation to take up the power of the sword.
What happens in your world now, if you refuse to fight violence with violence? If you refuse to respond in kind when you are attacked verbally, or abused or undermined? What happens? What happens if you respond differently, more vulnerably, in a way that strives towards reconciliation rather than revenge?
The book of Revelation gives us two role-models. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah who never turned up to make sense of the scriptures (to open the scroll) and the slaughtered Lamb, who alone could open the scroll, who alone could witness to the truth of God and set people free precisely in his witness to the point of death, setting people free by his blood.
I believe it is appropriate in the run up to Anzac Day, as we remember so many who have died in violence that we ask again which sign will conquer. Where does God’s future lie? Do we (as individuals or as a church) really have faith in the slaughtered-lamb or do we instead imagine there are much more effective technologies to create a better world.
Bruce Hamill 17.4.10