May the Force of Be With Us
A sermon based on Revelation 7:9-17 *
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 12, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I have long been a fan of the Star Wars movies, not because my first child was born on “May the Fourth,” but because good and evil are embroiled in cosmic combat in a way that there is always hope that good will prevail. We root for good, for the light side of the Force, in each of those movies. Star Wars may seem to us to have a modern story line, but the genre of cosmic conflict has very ancient roots. It’s a story humans have told and retold throughout history. By the time of the New Testament there had long been stories of gods battling in the heavens, light forces versus dark forces.
In one well known Greco-Roman story a monster named Python tries to destroy the god Apollo before he is even born and when Apollo grows up he and Python duke it out in a cosmic battle that Apollo wins, because the Light side of the force is with him. That should sound somewhat familiar, it’s the Luke Skywalker versus the Emperor story. If we read the whole Book of Revelation we find the story line there too. In fact, today’s reading – that Robin read so nicely– reminds me of the final scene of the first released Star Wars movie which ends with many nations and peoples gathered as the light Force’s victory and peace are joyfully celebrated. Those images in the movie are akin to those in our Lectionary Lesson, there is peace and the light side of the Force– God– has wiped away the tears from the eyes of those who follow good and defeated the dark force of empires.
See the Book of Revelation is, if nothing else, a story about light verses dark; of good defeating evil. And there’s a long history of humans telling stories of the dark side of the force duking it out with light side of the force for the good of all creation. Marcus Borg refers to the genre as the “Ancient Cosmic Combat Myth,” where a God (or gods) of light, order and life fight against a god or gods of darkness, disorder and death (Borg 282). The author of the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos, knew the ancient cosmic combat myth and formulated his book from it. Just as the storyline works for us in Star Wars, it worked for early Christians– John’s audience. But John was not just a story teller, he was very much a poet and a Christian theologian, so his story has amazing images, symbols, metaphors and Jesus-the-Christ in it.
My advice to those having trouble reading Revelation (we all do) is to try to think of it as a Star Wars or Greek-god like poem, and see if it makes more sense. John can be heard to set Jesus in the ancient role of Apollo, the role George Lucas gives the Skywalkers. John gives Caesar the ancient role of the monster, Lucas gives that role to the Emperor and his minions. The stories are not exactly alike, yet, they are very much alike.
John of Patmos and his listening audience were Jewish communities still reeling in the catastrophic trauma of Rome having decimated Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. In response John wrote the story in Revelation creatively re-framing the cosmic combat myth, with symbols representing the dark force of Rome led by Caesar facing off against the Light Force of God led by Jesus–with cosmic justice resulting in the end. John not only wrote at a time when there was a known cosmic conflict genre he wrote when apocalyptic stories were popular in Jewish communities like those John addressed Revelation to. The apocalypse genre of that era was read aloud and communicated messages by alternative world visions and exaggerated images “to heighten a sense of urgency and call readers to commitment and action.” (716 Fortress). John incorporates the apocalypse genre into Revelation along side the cosmic combat myth.
Revelation is not chronologically linear which can be confusing to us modern linear thinkers, but the story’s thrust as a whole is that God triumphs over evil– as the Fortress Commentary on the New Testament more specifically puts it, “The Lamb Jesus . . . defeats evil and leads [us]. . . out of the unjust empire, personified as a dragon.” Think: Luke and Leia defeat Jabba the Hut. Really. It is okay to do that to wrap our heads around the story’s strangeness that can hold its own with any scene in Star Wars.
While the thrust is good verses evil, John tells the story in such a way that he makes these more refined, still relevant-to-this-day, points about Christianity, among them the Truth that Christ is Lord; Caesar and beastly powers like Rome never are. The Truth that God will act to overthrow all Caesars and beastly powers. And the truth that therefore we should “persevere, endure, be confident, take heart and have faith.”( Borg, 278). Those are the on-the-money points.
But John also makes points that if taken literally are not on the money, points that have distracted readers for two thousand years. Revelation can be read to evidence John seemed to really think that the Temple fall and events in his time signaled an end time where good cosmically defeating evil was just about to unfold . . . back then. In that respect, John differs from both Jesus and George Lucas neither of whom is likely to have believed that an imminent end time second coming was on the immediate horizon. To the extent Revelation claims to predicate an end time happening in the first century A.D it was clearly wrong, and remains wrong.
All of this complex stuff that Revelation raises is complicated to deal with. Consequently when Revelation texts come up in the Lectionary (like today) many pastors tend to select another text. It is not easy to explain the story is a cosmic combat poetic myth filled with oddities in the beings and ideas and dark happenings, which include the untruths of end time predictions and non-Christ-like suggestions that God and Jesus have violent plans. Plus we have to face the fact that Revelation has in our life time been further unlovingly misused to claim God is going to make it hell of earth for non-believers “left behind” after HE raptures those with the right belief– which is always the belief of the mis-user of the text. All of that complexity can get in the way of the Truth that is in Revelation. Simply put, Revelation takes a lot of work and willingness to not check our brains at the door . . . to be open minded.
Over the years there have developed basically three choices when it comes to dealing with the Book of Revelation, the first and most popular one seems to be to just ignore it. The second choice is to adopt a Millennialist interpretation. It’s the one most of us have probably heard of or maybe even choose. That choice is hard work too. It requires belief that God’s certain plan for the future is set out in the words of human written text that we have to puzzle through – or find a code breaker– to accurately “divine” the details of God’s plan.
Millennialists believe the words of Revelation literally reveal when the cosmic combat myth will actually unfold, not in a story or movie, but literally in real life. In the popular 1970s Millennialist book The Late Great Planet Earth, Hal Lindsey and Carole Carlson explained how The Book of Revelation’s signs were unfolding back then. Their original decoding showed that in the 1980s we would experience the violent end times Revelation revealed. I was probably 14 when I read it and I found it unloving and unbelievable even before the 80s decade proved it untrue. God and Jesus planning the destruction of humankind on a mass scale belies Jesus’ teachings, and First Corinthians 13 and the God who is Love that I experienced as a youth and ever since.
Hal Lindsey’s grip on clergy and churchgoers that I knew back in the 1970s was one of the factors that led to my leaving church for twenty years. No God of love I could imagine could plan and unleash what Lindsey – or more modern Millennialists– portend. I am unable to believe in a God who acts unloving, or for that matter, breaks the laws of nature that creation runs by with magic and mythical beasts. That is decidedly not the God I experience or the God of Jesus in the Gospels. So– and no one has to agree with me– I have long chosen to reject the Millennialist interpretation of The Book of Revelation. The God I know does not use violence, does not persecute non-believers, does not hide messages in code, and does not use supernatural methods to break the laws of nature even to triumph over evil. I also reject the existence of–a lesser deity Satan whose very existence would prove monotheism wrong. (Borg, 273). In my experience creation has more than enough awe and wonder and evidence that God defeats evil with non-violent love. So I not only reject the notion of Satan existing, but of a God who has concocted a supernatural cosmic combat plan to destroy humans in order to save them . . . AND put the plans in A mystical code waiting to be deciphered.
If God was violent and using supernatural powers then Good Friday would have seen Jesus take on the likes of Rome with legions of fire breathing angels, not legions non-violent of love. What is the point of Jesus’ life, teachings, death and Easter resurrection if God’s always had in mind a planned cataclysmic future? The Millennialist approach makes no sense in the Light of Easter. So, I reject it. If I do not ignore Revelation and I do not accept the Millennialist interpretation, what other choice is there? I choose to approach Revelation like we do the rest of the Bible, honoring its historical context and the author’s likely intent and information he had and conveyed, all the while filtering it with Jesus’ Gospel of love and his – and our– God of Love.
This Progressive Theological approach begins with facts. We know John of Patmos was writing to his contemporaries not long after the Temple was destroyed by the dark forces of Rome headed at one time by the evil Emperor Nero who burned Rome; persecuted Christians; was the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors who ruled in Jesus’ Day; and was the one who (before he died) sent the army that destroyed the Temple. We know in John’s day, a dark Empire dominated the world, in defiance of the light force, a force that was– and is– with Christ.
We know too that poets and story tellers like John wrote in dramatic symbols and metaphor. As I already mentioned apocalyptic writers like John wrote to orally communicate messages by alternative world visions, exaggerating images with a sense of urgency and a call to commitment and action.
We also know that John’s letter was meant for those who listened to his message back then. It is beyond reasonable doubt that any codes, symbols or metaphors were intended for John’s audience–we can still find meaning in them, but we must begin with finding meaning for them. This necessarily means that if there are predictions then that John is forecasting their future and not some other generation’s . . . And guess what? That’s what he claimed to be doing. In the very first sentence of his book John tells the audience the revelation is set out to show them “what must soon take place.” A couple of verses later he reiterates the book is for them now “for the time is near.” Then at the end of the book John circles back and states he is revealing something soon to those then living. In short, predictions in Revelation were meant for then, not now. “Then” being around the end of the first century A.D. All of this means that whatever Truths we might find in the Book of Revelation we cannot ignore the first truth stated by the author that it was for his audience and pertained to THEIR time!
Think about it. Why would John write a letter that had no meaning to his audience? If he was describing events in a distance future, the words would be babble to them – just as they are babble to us when taken out of the time it was meant for. John’s intent as a Christian leader was to send a message to other Christians of his day, not to us.
That makes sense and it fits John’s own words. Plus if we dig around we can also find the symbolic imagery referencing realities of his day. For instance, it was common back then to assign numbers to letters in a human made code called gematria. The famous 666 “mark of the beast” decodes as Caesar Nero, that infamous emperor of Rome who headed up the dark side of the force. Similarly Revelation references to a great prostitute named Babylon who rides the beast of seven mountains, which John’s audience would know was a reference Rome, the beastly behaving empire centered in a city built on seven mountains. And Rome was the “Babylon” of John’s day because it destroyed the Second Temple, like Babylon destroyed the first. John and his audience heard the fantastical magical beast in Revelation as Rome, the dark empire that Christ with the Force of good would stop. Even though John is wrong about the end time coming, he was not wrong about the empire being the dark side of the force, or Christ being the light side of the force.
At the end of Revelation John evokes images of a New Jerusalem. A new creation on earth where every nation, and their leaders, live and walk in the light of God. The gates of that new city are open to whole world, no bars based on belief or class or skin color or gender or age or sexuality. It’s God’s dream that we heard last week in our lesson from Isaiah 65 and Pastor Anna’s sermon. The is the dream of God in Isaiah, in the teachings of Jesus, in much of the Bible. It is a dream about a peaceful place and a peaceful people.
It is John’s churches dream. It is our dream too. As Marcus Borg puts it in his great chapter on Revelation in Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, “it speaks of the reunion of God with humankind, thereby overcoming the exile that began in Eden.” Our text today supports that interpretation. First we are told that a great multitude from every nation, tribes, peoples and languages are with God and that, with Christ, God will shelter ALL of them. Then
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
That’s Truth we can get behind, believe in, hope for, pray for and act to bring about.
The end time may not have come if that was what John literally predicted, and it may not be coming soon, but The Book of Revelation nonetheless captures the Truth . . . the Truth that peace is God’s aim and God’s dream for us and for all of humanity. The truth for us is, Christ is Lord, that God acts to overthrow beastly powers and that we should therefore have faith. It is what the force of good and God and Light drives us toward. May the Force be with us.
* This sermon was greatly influenced by the ideas in Marcus Borg’s book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, pages 265-296, and Fortress Commentary on the New Testament, pages 715-766.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2019 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED