Thursday, April 18, 2013

Reflections on the text: Revelation 7:9-17

Read the text here: Revelation 7:9-17
Pablo Piccaso - "Weeping Woman"

An audio recording of my sermon on this text can be found here: Wartburg Parish Website
The Great Ordeal
It might be good to take a moment to review where we are after two weeks in this challenging series of lessons from the Book of Revelation.  We are focusing on the text from the standpoint of first determining what it meant for the author and his initial audience and then, once we have that understanding we can more easily see the implications for us in our lives and in our situations.  When we do this we begin to see that this book is not the strange and complex series of violent predictions of the end of the world that many have come to see in this book, rather this is a pastoral letter of comfort and challenge to a community of congregations, sent to them by their pastor.  It is not written in code, but rather the images clearly address very practical issues of how to live as a Christian in the context of a world that can be either completely indifferent or viciously hostile.  The Book of Revelation is therefore a book of hope and a book that challenges the communities to live in ways that reflect the incredible love that God has shown to them through Christ.
In Chapter one we learn that John of Patmos was writing to seven churches in Asia Minor.  He writes out of pastoral are and concern.
1st – He was concerned for those who were experiencing both overt and subtle persecution for their faith.  The persecution tended to come not from the top down (initiated by the Emperor himself), which is what we usually assume, but was rather initiated by the friends and neighbors of the Christians.
2nd Some Christian communities, when faced with these kinds of potentially difficult and dangerous situations, responded by giving in and going along.  They assimilated their faith into the culture so as not to draw attention to themselves or create problems.
3rd The last group had gone beyond assimilation and moved into complacency.  For them their faith was private and had nothing to say about how they lived their lives in the world.  They could see no conflicts between participating fully in the broader culture and being a Christian. 
Do any of these sound familiar?  They should!  We continue to struggle with the issues of how to live our faith in the world.  And we too struggle with subtle and even overt persecution, with temptations to assimilate and many of us are very complacent!  To these communities – and to us - John of Patmos offers comfort, encouragement, challenge and admonishment!  We who are called to follow Christ are to live lives that have different priorities and whose lives reflect love and grace and humble service!
For John of Patmos the claims and promises of the Empire were hallow and fake.  In a startling image in chapter 5 the author is encouraged to turn around in order to see the powerful “lion” who is the victorious one and who holds all power and majesty (vs. 5-6).  Now the “lion” was a popular image often associated with the Empire or Emperor.  The lion is powerful and strong and victorious.  Few can stand in the face of a lion.  Of course, it would make sense that a lion would symbolize the power and glory of God!  But when John turns around, what does he see?  Not a lion – but a lamb - “A lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.” Of all the animals to use as a symbol of God’s power and victory and glory we have the weakest and most vulnerable animal that can be imagined.  John is saying clearly here that those of you who think that you are secure and safe because you look to power, glory, victory and violence to protect you better think again.  Do you think that the strength and power and wealth of the Empire will protect you and give you the good life?  Think again!  True strength is found in weakness; power is found in love; wealth is found in poverty; victory is found only in defeat.  And all of this is symbolized by the Lamb!
John goes on to make this point even more strongly as the lamb proceeds to break the seven seals on the scroll.  One after another the seals are broken and what comes forth from each seal is yet more imagery revealing the utter futility in looking to human power and wealth for salvation and security.
Seal #1 – The 1st Horseman carrying a bow – symbolizing power through conquest – but the rider is not a Roman (Roman soldiers didn’t use bows), he is from outside the empire and thus symbolizes how futile it is to look for security from conquest and violence.  Those who do are themselves at risk of being victims of violence and conquest.
Seal #2 – The 2nd Horseman – lifts the illusion of Peace through Strength: Pax Romana.  This is a lie.  True peace can never come through strength.  Peace forged out of violence, oppression, injustice and conquest will always be an unstable peace.  Don’t look for security there.
Seal #3 – The 3rd Horseman – This rider carries a set of scales.  Scales were used in everyday commerce.  Are you looking to wealth, possessions and economics to provide security?  There is no security to be found there.
Seal #4 – the 4th Horseman – is death! Death comes to those who rely on power, conquest, peace through strength and economics for security.
Seal #5 and #6 – Now we see the martyrs and the victims of oppression and violence, the innocent victims of mindless violence of all ages crying out for justice.  They are joined in this (6th seal) by the whole of creation.
Then it all comes to a halt.  Before breaking the last seal a voice comes forth commanding that nothing be done to damage the earth and sea and that time be given to call to all people to receive the mark of the servants of God.  The breaking of the seals begin a movement towards human beings destroying themselves, but God stops this movement with grace.  And the mark of the servants of God is nothing less than the sign of the cross that has been marked on each of us in our baptism.  Not only is God NOT intent on destroying the world, but God will not allow human beings to bring the world to utter destruction too.
The final part of this vision is the great multitude robed in white.  Those who have come through the “great ordeal.”  And what is the great ordeal?  It is human life in a world where the horsemen have run amok.  It is God who holds the last world (see verses 15 through 17) and this last Word is a word of abundant and overwhelming love and grace.
In 1937 Pablo Piccaso created a series of works called “Weeping Women.” These were studies that were to be a part of his larger work entitled “Guernica” that was created in response to the horrible bombings on that Basque city as a part of the Spanish civil war.  The suffering and devastation was unbelievable.  In the “Weeping Women” we have an image of women whose losses are so extreme that their grief has disfigured them and even the handkerchief they hold has become a part of their flesh which they are consuming in their grief.  This is an image of those who are revealed crying for justice at the breaking of the 5th seal; and they are also a part of the great multitude who have come through the great ordeal and upon whom God showers his love.  And we too can stand with them.  For we continue to live in a world where power and wealth and violence and oppression and injustice run rampant. 
John’s message is then for us as well – where do you look for security?  Do you expect that power or violence can provide security, or wealth and possessions and economics will make life secure?  Think again, says John of Patmos.  Think and remember and then turn to the one who truly provides the ultimate security that comes only through love and grace.  This security is provided by the Lamb who will shepherd and care and love and who will wipe away every tear.

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