Hard Times in the Empire

The Third Sunday of Easter

Revelation 1:4-8

John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come…

Today we begin an Easter Season Sermon series called “Good News for Hard Times,” and we could use some of that, couldn’t we?  Because these are hard times.  For more than two years we have been suffering through a global pandemic.  Many of our members have been sick; some of them have died.  But just when we thought the worst of it was over we got the news that Russia had invaded Ukraine.  We haven’t been directly involved in that war but many of us have been prayer warriors, asking God to help and heal the people of Ukraine.  On this side of the world inflation has risen to levels we haven’t seen in forty years; the stock market has been on a roller coaster ride; and don’t get me started on the price of gas.  I saw a meme recently where someone was wearing a face mask over his eyes.  It said, “The CDC is now recommending the use of masks to prevent heart attacks at the gas pumps.”  These may not be the hardest times we have ever lived through, but they are certainly hard.  We could use some good news.

So, turn with me if you will to the Book of Revelation (laughter).  What?  You don’t believe Revelation is the obvious choice for people going through hard times?  Let me assure you, this book that was written specifically for people who were going through hard times.  Scholars believe it was written near the end of the First Century, AD, when Christians were suffering persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire.  The Emperor, Domitian, wanted every citizen to say, “Caesar is Lord!”  He thought he was divine.  But the Christians of that time insisted on saying, “Jesus is Lord!”  As a result Domitian had many of them locked up in prison, boiled in oil, or put to death by the sword.  You think you’re going through hard times?  These people were going through hard times!  They needed a word of hope, and they got it from a man named John.

We don’t really know who he was.  Many scholars refer to him simply as “John of Patmos,” because that’s where he was, on the rocky island of Patmos, about sixty miles off the coast of Asia Minor, exiled for his faith in Jesus Christ.  Whoever he was, he cared for his fellow Christians suffering persecution.  He wanted to send them a message of hope, but it wouldn’t be easy with the Roman government watching his every move, censoring his every word.  He had to find some secret way to get his message across.  And so, like every good pastor, he looked to the pages of scripture for inspiration and he found it in the Book of Daniel.

I don’t know how much you know about Daniel.  It, too, was written for people living in hard times, specifically for the people of Israel living in the Second Century, BC.  The king of Syria, a madman named Antiochus Epiphanes, had invaded Israel.  He wanted to “Hellenize” the Jews, that is, force them to adopt Greek culture and customs, to give up the Hebrew language, the practice of circumcision, and the worship of God.  Some of the Jews were giving in, and that’s when the author of Daniel, like every good pastor, turned to the Bible for inspiration.  He found it in the story of the Jewish exiles who had been carried away into captivity in Babylon.  He began to write the stories of a few Jewish heroes who held onto their faith even when a foreign king threatened them with death.  You may remember from Sunday school the story of Daniel in the lion’s den, or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.

The first half of the book is filled with those inspiring stories, but in the second half of the book the author begins to record a series of mysterious dreams and visions.  Listen to this one: “I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings…”[i]  Sound familiar?  Yes, it sounds exactly like the Book of Revelation!  Or, rather, Revelation sounds exactly like it.  But the author of Daniel may have gotten his inspiration from the prophet Ezekiel, who actually lived during the time of the Babylonian Exile, and who starts his book with a vision of a bright cloud and flashing fire and four living creatures who “sparkled like burnished bronze.”[ii]

Whenever you find dreams and visions in the Bible, you find a kind of literature called apocalyptic, and it is written specifically for people who are going through hard times.  You can find examples of it in other books—in Isaiah, Joel, Zechariah, and even in the Gospels—but the best examples are in the second half of Daniel and the Book of Revelation.  It comes from the Greek word apokalypsis, which means “to reveal,” or, literally, “to remove the cover from.”  I like to think of it like this: like coming home at the end of the day and smelling something good coming from the kitchen.  You go back there and see a pot simmering on the back burner of the stove.  You lift the lid of the pot—you apo kalypsis—and see what’s cooking for supper.  It looks and smells delicious.  But apocalyptic literature is different.  When you lift the lid of that pot what you see and smell is anything but delicious.  But in scripture, most of the time, the ones who have it coming are not God’s people but their enemies: the ones who are making things so hard for them.

Let me take you back to the Book of Daniel for a moment.  The author writes about beasts coming up out of the sea, each one with a certain number of horns.  What he’s writing about, actually, are the different empires that emerged in history and the kings who ruled over them.  We know this because the visions in the Book of Daniel precisely parallel the history of the ancient world right up to the time of Antiochus Epiphanes.  They describe the conquests of Alexander the Great and the four generals who succeeded him.  They describe the power struggle on both sides of Israel, between the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria.  They describe Antiochus Epiphanes as one who will “speak words against the Most High, and wear out the holy ones of the Most High, and attempt to change the sacred seasons and the law.”  If you were reading this in the Second Century BC and thought it was written in the Sixth Century BC you would be amazed at the precise parallels between the visions of Daniel and what actually happened in history, right up until the Archangel Michael steps down from heaven and crushes Antiochus Epiphanes and all his forces.  That part didn’t actually happen.  But it allowed scholars to pinpoint the moment when history gave way to hope, and confirm the date of this book as somewhere right around 168 BC.

I remember learning this in seminary and being blown away by the idea that this biblical writer, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was combining history and hope in a way that would strengthen and encourage the people of God.  In that sense it was like preaching, but instead of filling his sermon with colorful illustrations, the author of Daniel had filled his sermon with dreams and visions.  This is typical of apocalyptic literature.  It says, “Things may be bad now.  You may be wondering if they will ever get better.  But I’m telling you they will.  God is still on his throne, and God has not given up on his people.  You just have to remain faithful.”  Which isn’t easy in hard times, but it also isn’t impossible.  Those people Ezekiel was writing to?  They made it through the Exile.  Those people the author of Daniel was writing to?  They made it through the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes.  And those people John was writing to, those who were suffering through the persecution of Caesar Domitian?  Well, let’s take a closer look.

The passage that Allison read earlier, from Revelation 1, is actually last week’s reading, but it serves as a helpful introduction to this series.  The author identifies himself only as John, but he addresses his apocalypse to “the seven churches that are in Asia,” and that is a brilliant strategy: before he gets into the visions that will comprise the major portion of this book he takes time to encourage each of the seven churches with words from Jesus himself.  “Get ready,” he says.  “Prepare yourselves for what is about to come upon the earth, because it is going to be like nothing you have ever seen.”  Can you imagine how we might respond, if we got a letter from Jesus addressed to the church in Richmond, telling us to get ready?  Don’t you think we would do it?  “Look!” says John, “He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.  So it is to be.”[iii]  And so, we had better get ready.

But after John has shared the words of Jesus with each of the seven churches he writes, “After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’”  John sees some strange things up there.  Some people think he may have spent too much time breaking rocks in the hot Mediterranean sun.  He sees a throne, and someone sitting on the throne who dazzles the eye like a jewel.  Around the throne are 24 elders, twelve of them representing the tribes of Israel and the other twelve representing the disciples of Jesus.  And he sees four living creatures standing around the throne, one like a lion, one like an ox, one like an eagle, and one like a man.  All these creatures do, day and night, is say, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” as the 24 elders fall on their faces and cast their golden crowns before the one seated on the throne.

Today’s reading from Revelation 5 comes from that heavenly throne room, where John sees a lamb standing as if slaughtered, and this may explain why this particular passage was chosen for the Season of Easter, because slaughtered lambs don’t usually stand up again, crucified Messiahs don’t usually get up out of the grave, but here is this lamb standing there, and John says, “I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!  (when we all get to heaven, right?  What a day of rejoicing that will be).[iv]  Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’”

Take that, Caesar Domitian.  You may be King of the World now, but one of these days you are going down, and the only one left standing will be the lamb who was slaughtered.  You see?  This is good news for hard times.  It is a reminder to those Christians who were being persecuted that their suffering wouldn’t last forever.  If they could just hold on a little longer, if they could just remain faithful, God would deliver them yet.

That’s apocalyptic literature, and it’s different from prophecy.  I read an article last week that said, “Prophecy believes that this world is God’s world and that in this world His goodness and truth will yet be vindicated….  The apocalyptic writer despairs of the present and directs his hopes to the future, to a new world standing in essential opposition to the present.”[v]  When I read that I thought, “Well, I must be a prophet.  Because I still believe in this world.  I still believe that God’s kingdom can come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  You’ve heard me: I keep on telling you to look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven, and then roll up your sleeves and get to work.  I believe the KOH can actually come to RVA.[vi]  The apocalypticist is different.  The apocalypticist doesn’t see any hope for the world as it is.  He’s like that scientist who believes a gigantic asteroid is going to hit the earth and there is nothing we can do.  Our only hope is that God will do something, that God will save us.  Otherwise, we are doomed.

I am not an apocalypticist; I’m a prophet.  I still believe in this world and in our ability to make a difference.  But you may not be in the same place.  You may not have that same kind of hope.  Your world may be so broken that you don’t see any way of putting it back together again.  If so, then the Book of Revelation may be good news for you.  Because no matter how bad things look the writer of Revelation believes that one day God Almighty is going to get up off his throne, and when he does the earth beneath our feet is going to shake.  And then God is going to roll up his sleeves, he’s going to reach up with both hands, he’s going to take hold of the wheel of human history and then begin to turn it ever so slowly in the right direction, until everyone who is on the top is on the bottom, and everyone who is on the bottom is on the top, and everything that has been broken is repaired, and everything that has been ruined is restored, and everything that has been lost is found.  We can’t do that.  Only God can do that.  But in the pages of this beautiful and often neglected book the author insists that one day—one day!—God will do exactly that.

Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Daniel 7:1-4, NRSV

[ii] Ezekiel 1:4-7

[iii] Revelation 1:7, NRSV

[iv] One of the anthems of the day was “When We All Get to Heaven”

[v] “Apocalyptic Literature,” Wikipedia

[vi] Our acronym for “Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia”