The Fall of Babylon

The Sunday Sermon:  Second Sunday of Easter – April 28, 2019

Scripture:  Revelation 1:1-8

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The Fall of Babylon

We continue this week in our Eastertide journey through the book of Revelation.  I admonished those who were last week, saying that they, that you, need to actually read this book.  You probably won’t, but you should.  It’s not about the end of the world.  It’s not about a Second Coming that allows violence and destruction and death to conquer the life, non-violence, and creation that the First Coming of God in Christ established.  It is about transformation, re-creation.  We will understand the Revelation of John and share the second coming only by coming to terms with the fact that the first coming was the only coming and getting with the program.

            The more I read and study, and then teach and preach this writing, the more I believe John himself came to terms with that reality.  This writing, this revelation, is his attempt to tell the Christians at the end of the first century that God will prevail because God did prevail, conquering sin and death in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We faithfully celebrated Easter only four weeks ago.  We must only remain steadfast in our faith – in our trust in and fidelity to the Way of Life that Jesus of Nazareth lived and died for.

            Last week, with the sounding of the seventh trumpet in our scripture reading, we were brought (once again) to the End.  By the close of the twelfth chapter of Revelation, all that is supposed to happen at the end-times victory of God happens:  The Kingdom comes, God Godself comes, the dead are raised, the last judgment is held, the good are rewarded, the corruption of creation is destroyed, there is a sense of restoration and fulfillment (Interpretation, “Revelation.”  150).

“The Kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.”

Chronologically, things can proceed no further.  We have been through the final plagues (twice, actually, if you’re reading!) and reached the End.  There is a sense in which the writing could end here, as the first readers and hearers may well have supposed it would (150).  And yet … here we are.  Back this week still in the book of Revelation, so … the writing hasn’t ended, John is not done, even though the message has been delivered.  God has done, again, what God has always done and will always do.  What remains is for us to do what we must do.  The challenge of our lives as children of God and disciples of Christ:  to live faithfully, to destroy Babylon.

Pray with me.  And listen now for the Word of God.  Read Revelation 18:1-4.  The Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

“Come out of Babylon, my people …”  What is Babylon?  We’ll get to that answer this morning, so we may “come out” of it.

What follows the eleventh chapter of Revelation is an extended section that is not at all a chronological continuation of the preceding visions.  It’s not a conclusion of them either.  What happens in the chapters of this week is a kind of flashback and fast-forward all at the same time, from before the creation till the end of time.  John is “revealing” to us what has always been and always will be in the human made world of God’s good creation.  He believes that the Christians in Asia Minor, and we, need to keep the decisions we must make in perspective – the perspective of eternity.

These chapters in his writing provide a “behind the scenes” look at the powers of evil at work in the world.  He uses the mythology of his day and of his world to tell a variation of the universal story of how the forces of darkness, disorder, and death rebel against the divine order, kill or seize the newborn king and establish a rule of darkness (151).  The Roman Emperors used this mythology to their great gain, claiming their rule as the “Golden Age” and casting themselves in the role of the god Apollo.  Nero actually erected a statue to himself as Apollo.  Coins had the radiance of the sun god emanating from the emperor’s head.  Roma was the goddess, the emperor was the son who kills the dragon which represents the power of chaos. 

John recasts the story, of course, providing new identities for the characters, and using two worlds to make sense out of one:  Heaven and Earth.  On the side of the forces of good are the woman, the child, Michael and the angels, the Earth itself, the “brethren,” and of course, God.  The villains in the cosmic drama are the dragon and the beasts from the sea and from the land the Great Harlot, and, of course, “Satan.”  The woman who labors to bring forth the child brings to mind Mary, the mother of the Messiah.  But she’s more.  She’s Eve, she’s Israel, she’s Mary, she’s the church, anything and anyone who brings forth God’s anointed.  The woman’s child is God’s anointed, the Messiah, the Christ in every age.  The child is snatched away and taken to God at birth, escaping the dragon by dying to new life.

Michael and the angels fight against the dragon as “war breaks out in heaven.”  Michael defeats the dragon and throws it down to earth.  John does not want the churches he writes to in Asia Minor to imagine that miraculous help will save them from persecution and death.  They (we) have work to do, too.  Nature, including humanity, is the good creation of God and has its role to play in salvation history.  The Earth is not just the stage, but an actor in the drama.  In chapter twelve, verse sixteen, the Earth comes “to the help of the woman.” 

A beast rises out of the sea.  It evokes images of Rome, but like the woman that began this epic story, it is much more.  It is the inhuman, anti-human arrogance of empire which finds expression in Rome, but not only there.  Where are the inhuman, anti-human arrogant forces at work in the world today?  A second beast rises out of the earth, a false prophet.  As the Holy Spirit leads people to live a life in tension with the norms of this world, this beast/false prophet enables them to fit into the economic structures of this world.  All misinformation from this creature tempts us to idolize human empire. 

And, of course, one of the most well known acts of this false prophet is to mark everyone who would follow it.  “It is the number of a person.  Its number is six-hundred sixty-six” Rev. 13:18 says the writing.  This text about the “mark of the beast” has been a happy hunting ground for religious quacks and sensationalizers (161) and its important to say a quick word.  One of the most well known explanations for more serious interpreters is found in the Ancient Jew’s practice of working out the numerical values of letters.  The numerical value of the name Nero Ceasar in Hebrew is 666.  There is a rather complex calculation involved in getting to this explanation.  John was writing in Greek, but in order for the number of Nero to add up to 666 it would have to be rendered in Hebrew.  Would Greek readers have known the Hebrew spelling and been able to calculate the numerical value of the Hebrew letters?

Another interpretation of “the mark” notes that the number seven used throughout Revelation in relation to angels, churches, seals, trumpets, and bowls implies completeness.  The number six three times over (666) falls one short of the number of perfection.  The number “666” is a threefold falling short of perfection.  It has many of the “hallmarks of truth,” and so it can easily deceive.  This beast is “near to perfection” but what it lacks makes it opposed to God. 

We have been “marked by the Lamb” back in chapter seven, with a  “seal on (our) foreheads.”  Whatever our interpretation of the mark of the Beast, we are supposed to be alert in discerning the nature and costs of our commitments to anything other than the will of God in the Way of Christ.  That’s not enough to undo the decades of other interpretations of “666” that have provoked our imaginations and stoked our fears, but it must serve for now, because now … the Fall of Babylon begins.

You see, the hidden actors that drive all the heroes and villains involved in this “behind the scenes” look at the powers of evil at work in the world are God Almighty and a shadowy creature who provokes and prompts the evil incarnate in the world.  John first refers to the latter in his opening letters to the churches and identifies him throughout his writing most often as Satan, but also as the devil, or the accuser.  “Satan” is a proper name for what was originally in Hebrew scripture a fairly generic word for “adversary.”  There are three passages in our Old Testament in which this “accuser” is given an identity as one of the angels in the heavenly court who help God “test” human beings, but even these passages don’t speak of “Satan” as the personification of evil.

No, it was during the “intertestamental period,” the time between the writings in our Old Testament and New, a period of about 400 years after the writing of Malachi in 420 BCE and before the appearance of John the Baptist in the first century CE, it was during this period that the figure of Satan emerged in Jewish tradition.  Jewish monotheism didn’t allow this “Satan” to be a second God, but “it” became this leader of all evil spirits, and had its own kingdom of darkness that opposed the kingdom of God.  And though not as “full blown” as he will become even later, by the time the New Testament “opens,” Satan was the one who tempts humanity to discord, violence, immorality, and overall opposition to God and God’s kingdom on earth.

Early Christianity used this shadowy figure, this mythical Satan, to express its belief that evil was more than the simple “accumulation of individual sins” against God.  Evil was “embodied” in the social structures of human beings, in the conflicts of religious communities, and (most especially for John in Revelation) in the institutionalized evil of the Roman Empire.  John doesn’t go into any “origin stories”, but he does write a pretty traditional scenario for the destruction of the devil and all his influence in the world and its people, specifically the Christians of the churches in Asia minor, and by extension two thousand years later, Satan’s influence on us.

As we noted at the very beginning of the message this morning, the decisive battle has already been fought and won in the Christ event that John writes of in the first twelve chapters.  The systemic and structural powers of evil, “Satan,” has been defeated in the heavenly court.  In John’s fantastical “behind the scenes” look in the chapters we’re in this morning, he reveals to us that this evil still has power on earth.  Knowing its days are numbered, it is still wreaking havoc through its agents of destruction – the dragon, the beasts, the Great Harlot – Rome itself (or any empire in any age).

Though John is not concerned with the origin of this evil, he is profoundly concerned with the effects of it, and in this section of the apocalyptic story he is telling, believe it or not, he’s trying to offer encouragement to faithful Christians suffering in the midst of it.  It’s dangerous language because we so desperately want to take it literally as something that happened long ago, or because we can step into a “devil-made-me-do-it” responsibility for our own actions.  Many of us have simply rejected talk of “Satan” as superstitious, unreasonable, or even unfaithful.  But understood properly, taken seriously but not literally, Satan language and imagery can give us some pretty profound theological truths, insights and affirmations.

The power of evil is bigger than individual sins.  John consistently speaks in political and national terms when we he talks of Satan.  In chapter twenty, he calls it “the deceiver of nations.”  We can understand it today as a systemic failure that influences us quite apart from our own creation as children of God.  It urges us to live in service to ourselves, to live in fear of others, to categorize and demonize in order to control and suppress all that is not “us.”  Cosmic is not too big a word.  “Dragon” is not too bizarre an image when we take this language seriously, not literally.

I read one of the most provocative and challenging interpretations of the malevolent forces at work in our lives and the world this week.  In New Testament Apocalyptic published in 1981, Paul Minear, professor of Biblical Theology and Director of Graduate Studies in Religion at Yale divinity School noted that “to treat any human enemies as ultimate enemies constitutes deception of the first order” (108) by Satan.  In this way of understanding evil, perhaps the main function or John’s Revelation to the world is to disclose to the Christians in Asia Minor and all of us today our real enemy.  It was not the Jews and Romans harassing them, even imprisoning and killing them, that are the real enemies.  It is not the people we, today, want to demonize and hate.  No, they too are victims of the real adversary – the inhumanity in each one of us that entices us to idolize the values of Empire that dehumanize everyone, in every age.

The Fall of Babylon will happen, can only happen, when we understand what it is.  It is not a person, or a group of people, or even any worldly political power.  It is the inhuman, antihuman arrogance that tempts humanity to discord, violence, immorality, and overall opposition to God and God’s kingdom on earth in any age.

“Come out of her, my people, So that you do not take part in her sins,             And so you so not share in her plagues.

Babylon must fall so that a new heaven and a new earth may come.  That ‘s what awaits us next week.  “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and keep what is written in it.”  May it be us. Amen.

Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / May 19, 2019