(Revelation 5: 1-6, 11-13)
I’ve enjoyed the conversations I’ve had with some of you over the past week about this sermon series on the book of Revelation we began last Sunday. You’ve told me that you’re glad to get a different take and a new understanding. You’ve expressed surprise that the words “antichrist” and “rapture” are nowhere to be found in the book. You’ve mentioned that the river and tree of life in the 22nd chapter are beautiful images that remind us of the sovereignty of God and that God wants to restore and renew the world, not destroy it.
One comment, though, has stuck in my mind the most: I’ve never thought of the Roman empire as being other than a good thing before. And it’s true; we typically don’t, do we? Nowadays we revere ancient Rome as a major contributor to modern society in culture and art and literature. We have them to thank for the calendar we use and our form of government. We think of amazing architecture and a modern road system. So much of the pinnacle of human civilization thousand of years ago still bears its mark today.
But progress, as is sometimes the case, does not come without a price; and so there’s a darker side to the Roman empire that the early Christians knew all too well. It’s hard to see – unless we take time, as we talked about last week, to pull back that curtain; to “unveil” what was previously hidden from view. And when we pull back the curtain on Rome, what we see is an empire that ruled its people completely and ruthlessly, showing no mercy and obliterating anything and anyone who got in their way.
Images of the horrors of Roman rule are found throughout the book of Revelation. For instance: I’m sure you’ve heard of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, right? There’s the white horse that conquers, the red horse that makes war, the black horse that unleashes famine, and the pale green horse of 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 John of Patmos is writing about. They are symbols of the Roman empire and the effects of its brutality on the Christian faithful and anyone who got in their way – they were conquered, they were victims of unrelenting warfare, they suffered disease and famine from that warfare, and they died.
Citizens of the Roman empire were either patrons of the system or casualties from it. The gap between the powerful and powerless was monumental. Everything about the Roman empire focused on expanding that empire with unwavering loyalty and allegiance to the emperor. One “had faith” in the emperor in the same way you and I have faith in God – and those who did not share that faith were either ostracized or persecuted. 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 today. John of Patmos, the writer of Revelation, is painting this scene for us: 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, it says, God’s justice and righteousness will rule the world. And John is understandibly 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? And tied to the great King David of Israel, John is thinking that this Lion is a no-brainer to open the scroll.
But back to the word “conquer.” Let’s pull the curtain back a little bit on that word, shall we? Prepare to have your mind blown! In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word for “conquer” was 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 way of summarizing Nike power. Nike wasn’t just celebrated, it was worshipped. 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 who is presumed will take on the Roman empire and deal it a final blow. And it makes all sense in the world, does it not? Power verses power, might verses 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 missles, the other makes X-number too, and then throws in a few more, you know, just in case. Which causes the first to do the same. If a political candidate becomes the subject of harsh rhetoric in a television ad, they’re going to respond with the same vitriol. If an armed gunman with hate in his heart walks into a church basement and starts shooting people, it could’ve all been avoided, some have said, 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 word in Greek here suggests a very diminutive creature, the runt of the lamb litter. I really like the way one esteemed biblical scholar and theologian depicts it: he calls it Fluffy. Fluffy the little runt lamb. Fluffy the lamb who, as we read on, is slain; slaughtered even.
So let’s take stock of what we have here in the fifth chapter of Revelation, shall we? If we are looking to summarize what John of Patmos encounters in the midst of this grand vision, this is what we’ve got: Nike meets Fluffy. Nike meets Fluffy! The classic symbol of victory and conquest; verses a slaughtered, helpless, minuscule runt of a lamb. World power verses “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, ignored, 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 would’ve wanted 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 on-going battle against things like inequality and injustice and racism and terrorism? Can “lamb power” 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?
You know, one of the reasons I think it’s so hard for us to “get” Revelation as Christians living in North America is that, at heart, we are people of two narratives. On one hand we share a narrative with our brothers and sisters in the early Church who suffered at the hands of an oppressive empire. We are conneted to them down through the centuries because their story – this story – is our story.
And yet, at the same time, we also share a narrative with the empire, for we are a people of today’s empire. You can argue that other superpowers are on the rise, but we are undeniably a product of the 20th century’s greatest power. We have the empire to thank for our very way of life. That is our narrative, too.
And so that makes things a little complicated, doesn’t it? I mean, we’ve been known to sing in the same worship service how Jesus is the “worthy lamb that was slain” – and how we are “onward Christian soldiers marching as to war.” We speak of Christ’s self-sacrificing love, while sometimes using Christ’s love as a battering ram to force our ideologies and agendas onto the culture at large. If this “Fluffy” is really the symbol of hope that we, 21st century Christians, are supposed to be pledging our allegiance to, we’ve got some sorting out to do.
When people of faith adopt the language and nuances of Nike power to encounter and act in the world, we lose a part of our collective soul. Because while there’s a great difference between Nike and Fluffy, that difference has nothing to do with who is more powerful. 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. God’s kingdom on earth is not revealed because we force anything on anyone – God’s kingdom comes about when we speak the truth in love.
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.
For me, there is an image of lamb power that is seared into my brain and trumps all others. I see it every day; a picture framed and hanging on the wall in my study. It 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 a year ago, I shared with you that I was in Beijing when it happened. So the picture bears special significance 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 wth a bazooka or gun. White collar shirt, black pants, that’s it. The picture says it all.
But there’s also a YouTube of this, and if you watch it, you see the lead tank move to the right to go around the man, and then 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 unveils God’s kingdom on 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 Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!