(this is a first draft of a sermon i'm preaching for a homiletics class on the book of revelation. i figure i might as well be honest... )
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this book. Revelation 22:18-19
Wandering on the outskirts of heresy is about right for me. Czeslaw Milosz
I have been warned. According to the author of the Book of Revelation, if I tinker with its prophecies, I am inviting seven angels to drench me with bowls full of God’s wrath. If I challenge the place of these violent images in the canon of the Christian faith, I will be cast out from the new Jerusalem, excommunicated into a lake of fire.
I have been warned, just as every reader of the Book of Revelation has been warned. There’s no resisting the prophecies; they are what they are, and imbedded into the very text is a safeguard against equivocation. This is not a take it or leave it situation, it’s either take it or suffer explicitly detailed consequences by God’s own violent hand.
I have been warned. I understand the power inherent to canonical text, the protection granted to books considered legitimate accounts and interpretations of the gospel of the One whom we call Christ. In relation to the Book of Revelation, I am a powerless.
But sometimes the powerless resist anyway.
Why resist this book? It is part of the Holy Bible! Am I not committing a terrible folly, indeed, an unforgivable sin, by refusing the authority of the Revelation to John of Patmos? After all, I understand the context in which the book was written. Oppressed people crave vindication, and the pages of the book of Revelation delivers heaping servings of fiery hot vindication. God will save you, the author promises to his community. Furthermore, God will unleash fury and torment upon those who are evil—upon those who have persecuted believers. Just believe and worship the one God, and endure the tribulation until the newborn Jerusalem materializes from heaven.
Even as I appreciate the intent of John and the horrific plight of oppressed persons, this book is phenomenally dangerous, in its original context and in every other context to which it might speak. The Book of Revelation repeats an ancient myth that still persuades people today. That myth is the lie that God is a violent God, a God imbued with murderous wrath. According to Rene Girard, this terrible lie is the reason why so many cultures have sacrificed animals and humans. Humans convince themselves that their problems—not enough rain, foreign invasion, interpersonal conflict—are the result of an angry God. To satiate God’s anger and to restore harmony to their communities, human groups select an innocent victim as the scapegoat, the chosen one to bear the brunt of discord on behalf of the community. This perfect lamb or young girl is slaughtered, a victim of the lie that God demands violence.
The gospels take this pervasive myth and turn it upside down. On the surface, everything looks as though it is following the pattern of scapegoating and sacrifice. Jesus, with his revolutionary teachings, disrupts the Roman-occupied Palestine. He is crucified even though he is an innocent man. Only in the story of this slain lamb, God is not requiring the sacrifice. Because Jesus is the Christ, the incarnation of the Ground of All Being, God suffers on the cross—God suffers as a slaughtered scapegoat. Just as the curtain of the temple was torn in two, so was the atrocious lie that God condones violence. The crucifixion of Jesus was a repudiation of violence, and the subsequent resurrection of Christ means for us that even after suffering the worst humanity has to offer, God chooses to give us life. Life is gospel, not death. Forgiveness is gospel, not vengeance.
The Book of Revelation takes the gospel and twists it, not out of malice but out of habit. It is human habit to long for vengeance, human nature to stand watch by the lake of fire as our enemies are tossed in headfirst. We have been taught a better way by Jesus, who claimed such intimacy with God that he called him Father. In our own day, if we witnessed a father torturing his children, we would intervene and do all we could to protect the children from their abusive father. The angry father might protest, explaining that the children were thieves and deserved their harsh punishment. No, we say. No child deserves to suffer pain, not the least at the hands of her own parent.
Why should we not be angry at the book of Revelation? The God who created us and has known us since were curled in our mother’s womb does not desire death for a single creature. I know this deeply, in the innermost chambers of my heart. The book of Revelation denies this, and I believe it tells us more about humanity’s predilection for violence than about the One who suffered as a result of our bloodthirsty furor.
I for one take on the warning posed by John of Patmos. The quest for justice and peace is never without consequences, and many who have resisted violence through the potent force of nonviolence have themselves experienced persecution and death. If my fellow Christians curse me for blasphemy, I will take it as my cross to bear. If we believe that God was present through Jesus as he suffered under Pontius Pilate, if we trust in the goodness and grace of God, my friends, how can we allow the penultimate image of the Creator to be one of mayhem and cruelty? Let us not bow in worship to a God entangled in a myth of violence. Let us worship a God who is the giver of life. With that I borrow John’s words with confidence: Amen, Come, Lord Jesus.