This morning we enter into the world of Revelation. It’s not a path we often tread. It’s not a book of the Bible we often visit. Someone has said that all of the books of the New Testament signal “something of world-shaking significance bursting over the horizon of human experience.” All of them speak of Resurrection – each in its own way. The Gospels tell the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – and invite us to experience that life in our life. The Epistles of Paul (and of others) are letters – a community in conversation about the meaning of the Cross and Resurrection – how they transform the life we live today and our hope for tomorrow.
The book of Revelation offers a vision and speaks in imagery that is extravagant and bewildering. It is an “apocalypse” – that’s actually the Greek word for Revelation. Revelation is Apocalypse – an unveiling. Apocalyptic works often describe a cataclysmic unveiling – the end of one era – and the opening up another. In Revelation, we see what appears to be an all-out battle between the powers of good and evil – there is a dragon descending on a birthing mother, a beast from the deep, a lamb on the throne, a lake of fire, and a new city descending from the sky – nothing less than a new heaven and a new earth. Revelation invites us to enter into its imaginative world and experience for ourselves the new thing bursting forth.
But with all of these wild images swirling around, it can be disorienting – as an apocalypse often is. We need some place to ground ourselves – some steady place to stand and make meaning of what we see. I’m going to suggest that we stand with the communities for whom Revelation was first written, and make meaning from there. They are a hurting people. Revelation speaks to them in over-the-top imagery, because they are people who have experienced over-the-top suffering. They need to know that there is a power bigger than all the powers that do them harm.
Now, we don’t know the specifics of who they were. Revelation names seven communities and hints at their struggles. But from the broad sweep of Revelation, we can tell that these are communities experiencing persecution and misery. They live in an imperial world, and they are not the Empire. The Roman Empire would have worked to exploit and extract from their communities all the wealth it could – leaving them impoverished and downtrodden. What’s more – the Roman Empire required its subjects to worship the Emperor as God. But these communities worshipped a different God – the God of Israel made known in the Risen Christ. In their worship, they resisted Empire. One writer describes this community as “poor, marginalized folks trying to survive, resist, and refuse assimilating into the Roman Empire,” all at the peril of their lives.
If we need an image of what that might look like, Brian Blount suggests that we might think of enslaved African-Americans resisting the institution of slavery, even as they suffered under its body-crushing power. Dietrich Bonhoeffer invoked Revelation as a call to Christians to resist the death-dealing apparatus of the Holocaust. We might think of the people of Ukraine – with an Empire bearing down on them, whose sadistic strategy is destruction of everything in its path – resisting with their bodies and their lives.
The people are experiencing larger-than-life suffering. Revelation answers that with larger-than-life hope. In Revelation, a new power is birthed into the world. The power of Resurrection engages the power of empire, as the multitude perseveres through empire’s onslaught – with “visions of God’s power and grandeur” and ultimate vindication.
In the midst of all that, this morning’s Scripture opens up into this expansive vision of a multitude gathered together worshipping God. In the midst of this pitched battle, a spacious calm. Notice what we see. Notice the expansiveness and inclusiveness of the multitu