A Summons to Sobriety David A. deSilva November 1, 2003 Revelation 14:6-13 I love Revelation. I always have, since the first time I read it in junior high school. I love it because it invites me into another world, a highly imaginative and vivid world of heaven and the abyss, of the heavenly court and the whore drunk with blood surrounded by her minions, of plagues poured out in a measured and inexorable rhythm, and of rhythmless, timeless pauses of refreshment as the redeemed are gathered to the Lamb and sing in endless praise. I love it because everything can be seen so clearly for what it is in that other world, whether good or evil, whether harmful or healthful. There is no doubt about what choices and actions will make for security and favor and what choices and actions will bring the doer down to the pit. I love it because it is full of scenes of worship – worship that goes on around the throne of God and of the Lamb day and night without rest – and it invites me into that worship as I join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, singing “Holy, Holy, Holy!” I love it because, in it, Jesus still speaks to his churches – not as a distant voice in Palestine, whose teaching is preserved in the Gospels, but as the Glorified Lord of the Church who walks among his churches and makes his voice heard by the Spirit. I value it most of all because, as I let its visions open up my vision, it gives me a hope of seeing this world as God sees it. For that “other world” into which Revelation invites us is none other than this world around us, seen in another light, seen from the center of Light rather than from our limited perspective and all our all-too-easily deceived eyes. This is precisely what John wanted to do for his congregations, to let them see their world from God’s perspective, so that they might respond to it out of God’s vision for humanity and not as pawns of the prince of this age. He models thus the task of all Christian leaders – to get so close to God and to seek the mind of God so fully that they can see their situation in the light of God, and communicate this perspective to their sisters and brothers so as to identify and enable faithful action. Revelation has been engaged from a number of, shall we say, diverse hermeneutical approaches. My own is based on a few basic presuppositions. First, John is not lying when he says that he writes to seven congregations in the Roman province of Asia. There are seven real communities of real Christians reading this prophetic word toward the end of the first Christian century, and Revelation speaks to them first of all. Second, Revelation does not so much seek to be interpreted as to interpret. This text is not a code to be broken, but a hermeneutical key to the world of those seven congregations in Asia Minor, to help them interpret their world in light of God’s just decrees. Revelation accomplishes this by inviting these Christians to consider their situation as it is illumined by a number of broader contexts. John sets the hearers’ situation in the context of the witness of Scripture. Revelation is a delight because of its creative recombination of so many diverse Old Testament traditions, brought together to answer questions like: What is God’s character? What has been the record of God’s dealings with self-exalting empires in the past? What are the lessons of history, and how do they shed light on the players and dynamics in the hearers’ situation? John sets the hearers’ situation in the context of a large story, from Satan’s rebellion against God and defeat in the heavenly places to God’s forthcoming interventions, especially God’s judgment of all creation. John sets the hearers’ situation in the context of broader spaces. Often the Christian’s vision is blurred because “the world is too much with us,” too real, too loud, too imposing. John rips open the all-too-opaque skies so that the Christians can see heavenly realities again with equal vividness, and learn afresh that they are not a powerless minority, but moving in tune with myriads of angels and the company of the redeemed throughout time. Revelation 14:6-13 is a hinge point in this vision, looking backward at the issue of worship and fixing one’s heart on the right center, looking forward to the destiny of Babylon and those who ally themselves with the wrong center. Not only does it capture the essence of the whole message of the book, it lends itself especially well to the typical Protestant sermon. Three declarations by angels and a final pronouncement of favor by the Spirit translate rather easily into the requisite three points and a poem. The first angel proclaims his “eternal gospel.” The people of the seven churches had heard announcements of good news before. The public euangelion or “good news,” for the same word was used in honorary inscriptions, greeted the accession of the emperor Vespasian after the civil war of 68-69 AD, which resulted in a restoration of peace and security as a new family took the seat of empire. But the congregations had gathered around a different, subversive “Gospel” that acclaimed Christ Jesus as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Revelation 19:16). It is to this “good news” that the first angel subscribes, proclaiming the coming change of government as God comes in judgment. He makes this announcement to “every nation and tribe and language and people,” a phrase that deliberately recalls the way in which Nebuchadnezzar had tried to unite all his empire in the worship of the great golden idol on the plain of Dura (Daniel 3), the very paradigm followed by the beast who seeks to do the same within his empire (Revelation 13:7-8). For John saw the Lamb and the Beast in a great contest over humanity – dividing “peoples, nations, languages, and tribes” into those redeemed by the Lamb and those joined to the Beast and worshiping its image. The angel cries out, “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water” (Revelation 14:7). The angel calls us to consider, “Where is our center?” Are we honoring God, the source and sustainer of our very life, as God merits? Are we following God and obeying God as people mindful of God’s judgment, or do we allow more temporal concerns to determine for us what is most advantageous? John opened this vision as a door cracked open in the heavens to allow us to see God Himself, enthroned at the center of the universe, with the order of angels swirling about Him in endless adoration and obedience, worshiping day and night without rest (Revelation 4–Revelation 5). The center of the universe is not here in our little city; it is not in the affairs that occupy us day by day; it is not in America or in her capital city. It is beyond this world, at the throne of God. Angels by the myriad know where the center of their lives is, and they flock around it, never abandoning their station except to do God’s bidding. The first angel calls us to seek always to fall in line with that cosmic order, even as we are surrounded by the forces of chaos that break with God’s order in favor of demonic deviancy and disorder. He provides two good reasons why we should do se in every circumstance. First, God loved us into being and provides for our every need. As the Creator, to whom we owe our whole existence, God merits our honor and obedience in every moment, in every place. Second, God is coming as Judge, and he will hold all beings accountable for how they used this gift of life, whether to honor God or serve themselves. Keep God at the center; fix him there in your minds and hearts; fall in line with the angels and archangels in frequent and constant worship throughout the day and in the night watches, and you will be on sure paths for eternity. The second angel follows close behind, announcing the inevitable fate of the City that set itself against God: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication” (Revelation 14:8). It was not the first time that this prophetic word was spoken. Isaiah had announced it long ago, as he perceived the destiny of another self-glorifying empire that had trampled God’s people and suppressed God’s truth (Isaiah 21:9). Babylon fell, and Babylon will fall. I cannot help but think how this image was misused during the oil crisis and the Gulf War. I’m awash with anticipation to hear what new propagandistic purposes this text will be made to serve if we do in fact go to war with Iraq. However grand his pretension are, and however much wickedness he has perpetrated, Saddam Hussein is not Babylon, but simply another symptom of the disease that is Babylon, that has plagued human civilization from the beginning, from the first gross display of human pretentiousness in the face of God at Babel itself. John will go on to describe Babylon at length in Revelation 17–Revelation 18. Babylon displays a self-glorifying arrogance, pride in a sense of destiny divorced from submission to the will of God. She sucks the world dry of its resources through gross and conspicuous consumption, to the impoverishment of many. She imposes “peace” by violence, mistaking pacification for peace-making. She suppresses the prophetic voices, murdering the witnesses to God’s economy and God’s desires for justice among all the human family. As this vision interpreted the world of those early Christians, they could not help but see Roman Imperialism and its ideology described here in the light of God. John pulls off the stately dress of the goddess “Roma,” exposing her underside, the way she has intoxicated all her political partners and subjects with her myth of peace, of divine destiny, of a new golden age. “She has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication” (Revelation 14:8). The word rendered “wrath” here represents the Greek thymos. Thymos is what men displayed on the battlefield when, forgetting the danger to life and limb, they plunged themselves headlong into the thick of battle to devour the enemy. Thymos is what my colleagues and I display on the racquetball court as we leave our cautions and reservations behind and get caught up in the rush. It’s not “wrath,” although thymos can express itself as anger. Thymos is a violent upsurge of emotion, a heady forgetfulness of the consequences as one gets fully caught up in the moment. Empire, John says, does that to people. In Rome’s imperial agenda, the well-being of whole populations got lost. The telling of the truth about the One God and God’s control over history and demand for exclusive worship got lost. The making of a just peace got lost in favor of the quick and intoxicating peace through bloody victory. She made all her partners, anyone who would get in bed with her and abandon themselves to her, drunk with this thymos. I read an editorial recently that spoke of America’s intentions toward Iraq as nothing less than another step toward empire, establishing our abiding presence in the middle of a strong, anti-American bloc. The article reported on how, in the wake of the collapse of our only real competition, America has positioned itself internationally for empire. Although the whole point of this editorial was to awaken readers to the costs of maintaining empire, I have to admit that I found the prospect of a new American Empire strangely appealing, a vision that, for a moment, promised to bring order to this unruly world. If we run the world, our way of life will be all the more secure; perhaps we can even make wars to cease in all the earth. It’s an ideal that has the potential to arouse thymos. But in that thymos, the truth of God would be lost, for only God can bring order to this world; only God can make wars to cease in all the earth. As long as any nation has pretensions to empire, the Whore pours out her golden cup of abominations and intoxicates the minds of men and women. Another angel will call to God’s people in Babylon later in this vision, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues” (Revelation 18:4), for if you are going to drink from her cup, you might as well plan on making it a double, since God will provide as a chaser the cup of God’s thymos, mixed in judgment, sure to make the head spin (Revelation 14:10). We are challenged to examine carefully our participation in the land of our sojourning, to investigate carefully the effects of our policies. Do we enjoy a peace purchased and maintained by violence? Do we enjoy luxuries that impoverish others? Do we enjoy or profit from that which has been gained only at the cost of despoiling the earth? Do we put our trust in an earthly country, its strength, its economy, its sense of destiny? John will not allow us to do so innocently, but splashes the cold water of baptism on our faces, pours the black coffee of God’s values down our throats, and calls us to shake off our intoxicated stupor and look at our world with clear eyes and clear minds. A third angel follows the first two, declaring the high cost of compromise, of prostrating and prostituting oneself to a system that works against God’s purposes for humankind. “Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name” (Revelation 14:9-11). This third angel again makes Daniel 3 echo in our minds, for there it was decreed on the plains of Dura: “whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire” (Daniel 3:6). John also knows that his congregations face significant pressure to participate as good citizens in their cities as part of the empire, and that the rewards for doing so are significant. But even if steadfastness towards God comes at great cost, collusion with the kingdoms of this world comes at a far greater cost. Many of our sisters and brothers in many countries across the globe accept dispossession, detention, even death rather than receive their society’s stamp of approval, whatever form that mark might take. Perhaps their witness will embolden us to a more radical obedience to God and to the Lamb; perhaps our cognizance of the consequences will ultimately motivate us to take seriously John’s call to cut ourselves loose from everything that our society approves and praises but that God has decreed, or Jesus taught, against. The third angel speaks a hard lesson, but one that also invites us – no, impels us – to think all the more fully “outside the boxes” of what our society has told us is acceptable for religious people, to be all the more ready to do the radical things Jesus calls his followers to do. The cost of cutting a deal with the world is just too great. The course to choose is presented quite simply. Keep the commandments of God; keep faith with Jesus (Revelation 14:12). All of Revelation’s visions can be reduced to the promotion of these core values, and to helping us “see,” quite literally “see,” how obedience toward God’s revealed standards and absolute loyalty to Christ will always be advantageous, no matter what the cost in temporal terms. The pronouncement of “favored status” that closes this passage reinforces this. “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.”‘ Death is a greatly feared evil. It is a symptom of the curse. But being “in the Lord,” having lived “with the Lord” and “for the Lord,” makes death a victory, whether the death of a pious old age or the death of an early martyrdom. The United Methodist funeral service includes a prayer in which we ask God to help us “live as those who are prepared to die, and to die as those who go on to live.” The voice from heaven and the voice of the Spirit remind us this life and the all-too-visible world are not our final home nor our ultimate audience. We are invited to strut and fret our hour upon this stage not to please the worldly-minded, but to seek the applause of heaven. Keep God at the center. Sober up and repent from any and all collusion with the Babylons of the world. Refuse to pay the high price of a compromised discipleship. It is a call for endurance, but the only hope we have for abiding rest in the presence of God and the reward of deeds well done. ______________________________________ David A. deSilva is Professor of New Testament and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, OH. 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