Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Presence and Promise: Conquering by Sacrifice

For sixteen chapters in Revelation, we read what is commonly known as the vision cycles. We heard one of these visions last week - that of the four horsemen. Throughout these visions, gruesome and frightening as they may be, the salvation community continues to praise God. We heard this last week in chapter 7 - that those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” continue to “worship God day and night.” There is also the promise that cosmic calamities, or the forces of evil at work in the world, or the final destruction at the end of time will overwhelm those who identity and security are found within  nor the final destruction at the end of time will overwhelm those whose identity and security are found in God and the Lamb.

Today, we hear of another vision. This time of the two beasts. Our reading today is from Revelation, chapter 13. I’m picking up at the very end of chapter 12.

Then the dragon stood on the seashore, and I saw a beast coming up out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads. Each of its horns was decorated with a royal crown, and on its heads were blasphemous names. The beast I saw was like a leopard. Its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. The dragon gave it his power, throne, and great authority. One of its heads appeared to have been slain and killed, but its deadly wound was healed. So the whole earth was amazed and followed the beast. They worshipped the dragon because it had given the beast its authority. They worshipped the beast and said, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”

The beast was given a mouth that spoke boastful and blasphemous things, and it was given authority to act for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to speak blasphemies against God. It blasphemed God’s name and his dwelling place (that is, those who dwell in heaven).

It was also allowed to make war on the saints and to gain victory over them. It was given authority over every tribe, people, language, and nation. All who live on earth worshipped it, all whose names hadn’t been written—from the time the earth was made—in the scroll of life of the Lamb who was slain. Whoever has ears must listen: If any are to be taken captive, then into captivity they will go. If any are to be killed by the sword, then by the sword they will be killed. This calls for endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints.

Then I saw another beast coming up from the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but it was speaking like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence. It also makes the earth and those who live in it worship the first beast, whose fatal wound was healed. It does great signs so that it even makes fire come down from heaven to earth in the presence of the people. It deceives those who live on earth by the signs that it was allowed to do in the presence of the beast. It told those who live on earth to make an image for the beast who had been wounded by the sword and yet came to life again. It was allowed to give breath to the beast’s image so that the beast’s image would even speak and cause anyone who didn’t worship the beast’s image to be put to death. It forces everyone—the small and great, the rich and poor, the free and slaves—to have a mark put on their right hand or on their forehead. It will not allow anyone to make a purchase or sell anything unless the person has the mark with the beast’s name or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom. Let the one who understands calculate the beast’s number, for it’s a human being’s number. Its number is six hundred sixty-six. --Rev. 13:1-18 (CEB)

Throughout history images of animals have often been used as symbols to send different messages or to represent certain things.

Dogs in art, as one example, have not always been considered man’s best friend. From the earliest times up to the Renaissance, their qualities were mixed - from vigilance and faithfulness and wisdom, to anger, lechery, and greed. Titian used the idea of a dog as treacherous for this scene in the Last Supper, as he paired Judas with a dog to symbolize the disciple’s betrayal of Jesus.

The rabbit, as another example, has a long-standing symbolism for - no surprise - lust. However, because of the rabbit’s ability to reproduce often, there was also a myth that they could procreate without a partner. This led to another interpretation - that the animal signified the virgin birth and chastity as shown in another 16th century painting by Titian, entitled Madonna with Rabbit.

The peacock is one more example. Here in this painting called The Adoration of the Magi, by Fra Angelica and Fra Filippo Lippi, it represents immortality.

We use animal symbolism today, too. If I were to put up an image of a bear and a bull, what immediately comes to mind? They are symbols of the stock market. And what about these two images - an elephant and a donkey? Both are used in political cartoons, representing each of the political parties.

This is what is happening in today’s reading. We find the beast from the sea and his associate online represent a political authority that has become as destructive as a beast. The monster has been set up as the ultimate authority - a power that is to be worshiped above all else. For the author, this beast represents the Roman empire. But it is symbolic of any human institution that sets itself over and above God, at any point in history. And it describes conditions that we, too, know to be true about our world. 

One characteristic of the image is that one of the beasts gives power and authority to another more powerful and frightening. The nature of this evil - or Satan, personified in our today’s reading as a dragon - is that it goes against the desire of Jesus to free all people from tyranny.

Another characteristic of the beast is that the whole earth follows it. Because the gathering of numbers is essential and people are far too often swayed by the movement of a crowd or community. And, for evil, a movement desires to divide or to set people against each other in order to gain or preserve power and authority is a way that is contrary to the love of God and of God’s will to unite people through love and shared sacrifice. 

One more characteristic of the beast is that it mounts a full-scale assault on the agents of God. The evil here is that it is not enough to mislead followers, but evil must also discredit, incapacitate or even kill those who strive for good. 

Evil works covertly and surreptitiously to undermine the work and the power of God. In chapter 13, the author of Revelation portrays the Roman political system in this way to ask people about their highest loyalties. When we listen to the news, which in this past week seems so challenging and frustrating and disheartening, do we believe that this destructive system has become invincible? That evil has won out? That’s what the people in this chapter of Revelation are thinking.

But that is not what the Revelation sees. It sees that the beast is the opposite of the Lamb, who gives us our true identity. It sees that the beast conquers by tyranny, but that the Lamb conquers by the sacrifice that frees. It sees that the mark of the beast is the opposite of the seal of God and of the Lamb.

All of these images challenge us to ask to whom we truly belong: do we belong to the forces that destroy? Or do we belong to the Lamb who saves and liberates?

May we, through the power of the Holy Spirit, be and live as those who have been washed and freed in the blood of the Lamb, to worship God day and night. Amen.  

Preached August 29, 2021, online with Grace & Glory, Prospect, and Third, Louisville.
14th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Revelation 13:1-18, John 12:30-32

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