Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Revelation 5: 1-6, 11-13)
Most ministers I know are not generally thrilled with preaching the book of Revelation. We tend to think it’s about endings – the ending, actually – and who wants to preach on that? Add to that the inherently confusing nature of the book – all of the signs and symbols and visions, things most of us think we are supposed to interpret literally. There is a biblical understanding of Revelation and there is a cultural understanding of Revelation; and more times than not it’s the cultural understanding – or misunderstanding – that wins out. This misunderstanding infuses so much of how we view not only our faith but the very world in which we live – everything from heaven and hell to life and death, even to what’s happening on the geopolitical stage.
Case in point: if I were to ask you to name two things you think of when you think of Revelation, chances are you’d say the rapture and the antichrist, right? Here’s the thing: you can read Revelation from cover to cover and you will never find the words “rapture” or “antichrist” anywhere in there. Not once. Instead, you have to flip back a few pages to 1 & 2 Peter to find “antichrist,” a term the writer uses to refer to someone teaching incorrect doctrine in the early church. And in the writer’s opinion, these teachings were “against Christ” – in other words, anti-christ. Now we, of course, have made it out to be son of Satan and the arch nemesis of apocalyptic horror movies. But if we are talking about what’s in the Bible – which is what we should be talking about – an antichrist was nothing more than a misguided teacher.
And rapture? “Rapture” was a concept developed not by an inspired writer of scripture thousands of years ago but an 18th-century Baptist preacher named John Nelson Darby. Darby’s claim to fame was developing this massively detailed Biblical worldview by stringing together random verses from the Old and New Testaments to create a cosmic timeline concluding with the world’s demise and the faithful being taken up into the sky. What he did was kind of like you and me going to our favorite buffet and choosing a little bit of this, a little bit of that, some of this over here, some of that over there; piling it all on our plate and calling it a meal. Once again, if we’re talking about what’s in the Bible, we will not find the word “rapture” or anything remotely rapturous in Revelation.
The truth is, I’m one of those pastors who loves preaching Revelation because I believe there is a good word in here that is just begging to be shared. But in order to find it we first have to know the story behind it. And that story is the story of the early church trying to make it in a Roman-empire world, a world where the powerless were dominated by the powerful through military might and fear.
And that right there is where I think we miss the mark when it comes to Revelation. For while we are followers of Jesus, we are also citizens of one of the most powerful geopolitical forces of our time. We are essentially straddling two worlds; and when push comes to shove we are more like empire than not. We cannot easily shake that part of our identity. And that’s the rub. Because Revelation was not written for empire, it was written about empire. We are not its audience.
Which means the only way to truly get a sense of Revelation is to read it not as a person of power and privilege – like we are – but as a person on the margins, as someone on the outside looking in. Someone like Jethro and Balaam, like Rahab and Mordecai, like Cornelius and Lydia and the Syrophonecian woman and those amazing five daughters of Zelophehad. Some of the best commentaries on Revelation are written by theologians and preachers from the third world – Africa and especially Latin America. These people, certainly more than us, know what it’s like to be on the outside looking in, and the harrowing dangers of power fueled by fear.
Take the infamous four horsemen of the apocalypse – which actually is in Revelation. We’re told that the white horse conquers, the red horse makes war, the black horse unleashes famine, and the pale green horse brings death. If you’re an “end-of-days” believer on the lookout for four colored horses riding across the plain, you’re probably going to be disappointed.
That’s because these aren’t actual horses. Like pretty much everything in Revelation, John of Patmos is writing in symbols, writing in a way that people on the margins will understand but those in power – like us – will not. So when it comes to these four horses, he’s writing symbolically about the natural progression of the horrific devastation of empire wreaked on the faithful and anyone who stands in their way – they are conquered, they are victims of unrelenting warfare, they suffer disease and famine from that warfare, and they eventually die.
Citizens of the Roman empire were either patrons of the system or casualties of it. Not only that, but everything about the Roman empire focused on expanding that empire with unwavering loyalty and allegiance to the emperor – one was required to “have faith” in the emperor in the same way you and I have faith in God. And to be part of the empire was to support a never-ending quest, on all fronts, to literally conquer the world.
In fact, the word “conquer” comes into play big-time in our passage. John of Patmos is painting this scene: a vision he has of God’s holy throne and a scroll that no one is worthy enough to open. Which bums John out – because when this scroll is opened, we are told, God’s justice and righteousness will rule the world. And John is understandably upset that no one is “powerful” enough to do this.
But then he is told that “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has already conquered.” There’s that word, conquer. Incidentally, “lion” is a classic Jewish symbol of power. No one’s ever heard of a puny lion, right? John is thinking that this Lion is a no-brainer to open the scroll.
But back to the word “conquer.” Are you ready for this? In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word for “conquer” is Nike. Spelled: N-I-K-E. Which of course in our day and time we pronounce as what…….? Nike was the Roman goddess for Victory, and it probably wouldn’t surprise us to learn that she was symbolized by a little swoosh emblem; pretty much the same that adorns our shoes and clothing and just about anything where the motto “Just Do It” applies. In fact, “Just Do It” is a pretty good summary of Nike power. Nike wasn’t just celebrated, it was worshiped. It was the motivating force behind the empire’s rule and expansion. It embodied the very heart and soul of the ancient world’s greatest power.
So the image John encounters here is a commanding one: a Lion, King David, Nike-like power – this is who is expected to open the scroll, this is presumably who will take on the Roman empire and deal it a final blow. And it makes sense, right? Power versus power, might versus might, two boxers in the ring and the strongest comes out on top.
Because that’s the way the world works, isn’t it? If you’re in the schoolyard and a heated argument breaks out and a punch is thrown, you can pretty much guarantee there’s going to be a second. If one nation has x-number of missiles, the other makes X-number plus one more. If a political candidate becomes the subject of harsh rhetoric in a TV ad, they’re going to respond with the same vitriol. If an armed gunman with hate in his heart walks into a school and starts shooting people, it could’ve all been avoided, some will claim, if the people in that room were armed themselves.
Fighting fire with fire. Nike versus Nike. It’s what John expects. It’s what we all expect, and so it’s what we typically get.
Except it isn’t what John gets. As the writer of Revelation looks behind the throne to see this “power” he’s told will prevail – a power he understandingly expects to be all Nike-like – he instead sees something else. He sees a lamb. A lamb, people! And not just any lamb. The actual Greek word suggests a diminutive creature, the runt of the lamb litter. I love the way one biblical scholar puts it: he calls it Fluffy. Fluffy the little runt lamb. Fluffy the lamb who, as we read on, is slain; which is frankly what we’d expect.
So let’s take stock of what we have here in the fifth chapter of Revelation, shall we? In three words: Nike meets Fluffy. The classic symbol of victory and conquest; versus a slaughtered, helpless, minuscule runt of a lamb. World power versus “lamb power.”
Imagine if you were one of those Christians living in mid-first century Palestine, trying to be faithful in a Nike-fueled world where you were ostracized, marginalized, disregarded, persecuted. A world of personal irrelevance and fear. What would you have made of cute little Fluffy? I mean, besides being cute. Is that who you’d want in your corner? Would you have believed that the ways of nonviolence and grace could really stand a chance in a world sold out to violence and conquering and heartlessness?
How about today? Can Fluffy ever be good enough when the world dishes out its “Nike-ness?” Can “lamb power” really make a difference in the ongoing battle against things like inequality and violence and racism and hate? Can Fluffy help someone fighting tooth-and-nail with their addictions? Does “lamb power” matter to someone held captive by their painful past and the demons that rage inside?
Yes, yes, yes, and yes.
And you want to know why? Because while there is no doubt a great difference between Nike and Fluffy, that difference has nothing to do with who is more powerful. Nothing. We do not serve Jesus by being more powerful; we serve Jesus by being more faithful. Let me say that again: we do not serve Jesus by being more powerful; we serve him by being more faithful. So when people of faith choose to adopt the language and nuances of Nike power – which is happening right now in the rampant Christian nationalism rising all around us – when we let that happen, we lose a part of our collective soul.
And that, my friends, is the fundamental difference between Nike and Fluffy; between the world’s power and the power of the lamb:
- Nike tells us that “the one who dies with the most toys wins.” Fluffy tells us that our worth is not determined by what we own but by who we belong to.
- Nike tells us that strength and power and domination are what bind us together. Fluffy dares to tell us that we are bound together in sacrificial love.
- Nike tells us that a person’s identity is derived from their place in the world. Fluffy tells us that a person’s identity comes from simply being a child of God.
- Nike suggests that “if you are not with us, you’re against us.” Fluffy has the courage and faith to call into question who the “us” really is.
- And Nike, as we all know, tells us to “just do it.” Just do it! But Fluffy calls us to put aside our wants and desires, and focus on fulfilling God’s mission in the world.
I have an image of lamb power that is forever seared into my brain. It’s displayed on the bookshelf in my office at home. It’s a picture that was taken on June 4th, 1989 near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. On that day, you recall, Chinese troops entered the square and killed tens of thousands of students who were peacefully protesting there. You may also recall that, in a sermon I’ve preached before, I shared that I was in Beijing when it happened. So this picture bears special meaning to me.
In it, a row of Chinese tanks are making their way to the square – you only see one or two, but there are a dozen or so in line. And yet they’re unable to move, these tanks; because of one man – a single man – who is standing in their way. He’s not a soldier, he’s not wearing armor or a helmet or armed with a bazooka or gun. White collar shirt, black pants, that’s it.
The picture is powerful on its own. But in the YouTube video you can find, you see the lead tank move to the right to go around the man, and then you watch in shock as the man moves to block it. There’s a few moments of uncertain pause between Nike and Fluffy. And then the tank moves back to the left, and the man counters. And then, amazingly, you watch this man climb on top of the tank – on top of the tank! – and bang on the metal hatch as if to reason with the soldier inside that this is not right, that he doesn’t have to do this, that there really is a more excellent way.
That, my friends, is how Fluffy opens God’s scroll and releases God’s kingdom on this earth – lamb power at its diminutive finest! Indeed, what would our world look like if we all truly followed the way of the lamb.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.