The language of Revelation scared teenage me to death. There was a time prior to 1995 when I was sure (to my way of looking at things) I wasn’t “ready” to be a Christian, but I knew I needed to be. During this period, the imagery of John’s Apocalypse haunted me. This universe of cosmic monsters, bloody battles, falling stars, red moons, and red tides weighed heavily on me. I remember that night in Spring, when I was buried and resurrected with Jesus in baptism, I came home to the same house I’m living in now, sat in nearly the same spot that I now occupy, and read Revelation from start to finish, ecstatic that I no longer needed to fear its words.
It should go without saying that I didn’t actually know much of anything about Revelation back then. My fear owed more to an overactive imagination, driven by countless “meeting sermons” about people dying on their way to be baptized, but I’ve grown up a little since then, and while I still don’t know a whole lot about Revelation – don’t trust anyone who says they do! – I’ve learned a little more.
I’ve learned that Revelation is a fantastical retelling of the Exodus story. It is a story about God hearing the cry of his people in the darkness of their experience and going head to head with the gods of the world, bringing liberation. It is about what happens whenever the Empire of this age – that ancient beast, mounted by the harlot of Babylon – rises against the Kingdom of the Lamb that was Slain. As Randy Harris summarizes the book, Revelation teaches us, “God wins. You need to pick a side. Don’t be stupid.”
The monsters of Revelation no longer scare me, but as I reflect on the book, they do raise another set of concerns. In the Exodus story, Egypt was the global super-power and under her oppressive reign, the weak, powerless, and marginal cried out to God. In Revelation, the beasts that served the great, satanic dragon represented the might and power of Rome that dominated the known world with bread, and circuses, and swords. The cry came to God from those who were crushed by the machinations of the Empire’s beastly power. God acted against those who hold all the power – and greedily so – in favor of those who had none. In a similar way, Mary sang in her Magnificat that in her child, God was bringing the powerful down and raising up the weak. He was sending the powerful away empty handed and filling those who had nothing with good things.
One of the perennial sins I commit when I read Scripture is that I associate myself with the good guys. Of course, blessed Mary is pronouncing a good word on me – even though I’ve never been hungry a day in my life; even though I was born with more privilege and power than most other people in our world could even dream up. I look at Egypt and decry the evil of the Empire that dehumanizes and oppresses the other for its own exploitative ends. I do this almost instinctively without ever wondering about the true cost of the “must have” items that line my closets, shelves, walls, and storage units. I look at the Roman beast and condemn its power without ever stopping to wonder if I might be part and parcel of the same satanic system.
Nowadays, when I read texts like Revelation (or the Exodus or the Gospels), I’m trying to put myself in the proper place and read it for what it is worth from that perspective. That is, I’m learning to remember that I’m situated on top of the pile and that is a precarious place to read Scripture. It’s not impossible to read (and follow!) from that starting place. After all, none of us chose to be born where we were on the pile and unless we forget, “Nothing is impossible with God!” But it does bring its own set of attendant sacrifices, concerns, temptations – and even blessings.
I’m not scared by the beasts of Revelation anymore. If anything, I’m leery of the ways they might look like me. But, I am mindful of the word we’ve received from the Lord, “Come out of her, my people, so that you don’t take part in her sins and don’t receive any of her plagues” (Revelation 18:4).
Lord, you have redeemed me from the Empire. By your Spirit form me in such a way that you take the Empire out of me. Amen.