A Journey through Revelation. #9 – The Fall of Babylon. Revelation 17
Sermon by Rev. Dr. Rolf D. Svanoe
It was just one week ago that the nation was gripped with lottery fever. It was the largest jackpot in history- $1.6 billion. I’ll admit it. We bought two tickets. There’s probably some entertainment value from playing. It is fun to fantasize what you would do with all that money. There are all kinds of get-rich-quick schemes. Some of them like the lottery are legal. But what if someone approached you with a scheme to make some easy money, but you had to do something that you suspected wasn’t quite right or maybe against the law? What would you choose? On the one hand, wouldn’t it be nice to get out of debt and not have to worry about your financial future? On the other hand, would you be willing to sell your soul to get there?
I say this because that’s the kind of dilemma we are presented in our reading today. We’ve been on this journey through Revelation and we’ve encountered all kinds of bizarre images and symbols. Some of those symbols are hard to understand. And some of those symbols are just hard to stomach. The image we have today is one of those symbols that is revolting and disgusting to our modern sensitivities. John presents us with two major symbols to understand the Roman Empire he was living in. A few weeks ago, we talked about the beast with seven heads. The beast conquers and imposes its will on countries with violence and uses fear and threats to enforce loyalty. Today we have the second image John uses to describe the Roman Empire. He calls it a whore, a prostitute who seduces the world with promises of wealth and pleasure.
I want you to think of these two images like the carrot and the stick. The beast represents the stick and the whore represents the carrot. If the stick won’t get you to worship Caesar, the carrot might seduce you into it. Why not deny your faith and participate in the Roman economy? Get rich. Celebrate Rome and all things Roman. Worship their gods and goddesses.
Let me tell you about one of those goddesses. Her name was Roma and she was the patron goddess of Rome. Her image was everywhere. She sat on a shield and wore a helmet and held a scepter. She was portrayed as victorious, strong and proud. She was the divine protector of Rome. But the prophet John didn’t see her that way. He used language that showed what he really thought of Roma. He called her a whore.
Here is another way to think of this. When you see the Statue of Liberty, you immediately know that symbol represents the United States. You also associate Lady Liberty with a certain set of values like purity and compassion, hospitality and welcome, refuge and shelter to the persecuted and the impoverished. But what if someone showed a picture of Lady Liberty dressed in a bikini with a boa around her neck, a cigarette on her lips, and instead holding a torch, she was holding a martini glass? It would be offensive to us. We call that a lampoon. The artist would be sending a message that Lady Liberty stands for a different set of values. That is the sort of thing John was doing here with the Roman goddess Roma. John portrayed her in the most vulgar and degrading terms. He was sending a message counter to the propaganda of the Roman Empire. He was revealing the truth about the Roman Empire and its values.
Let me tell you another story that illustrates this. In 2004, the people of Ukraine were electing a new president. Viktor Yushchenko was running as a challenger to the ruling party. He was comfortably ahead in the polls, but on the day of the election the ruling party tampered with the voting results. The official news source came on the evening broadcast to announce the result. “Ladies and gentlemen, we announce that the challenger, Victor Yuschchenko has been decisively defeated.” In the lower right-hand corner of the TV screen was a smaller box with a young woman who was an interpreter for the deaf. Her name was Natalia Dmitruk. As the news reporter read the lies of the regime, Natalia Dmitruk refused to translate that. Instead, she signed another message. “I’m addressing all the deaf citizens of Ukraine. They are lying and I’m ashamed to translate those lies. Yushchenko is our president.” The deaf community mobilized. Word began to spread. A protest was organized and after a few weeks, they forced a new election, and Viktor Yushchenko became president.
It seems to me that this is exactly what the prophet John was doing. He is like that sign interpreter in the little box telling the truth, revealing what was really going on. In spite of a huge propaganda machine by the Roman Empire, John was revealing that Rome was nothing but a drunken seducer whose end would come quickly.
John is actually standing in a long tradition of the ancient Hebrew prophets. They often used sexual immorality as a metaphor or symbol to describe God’s unfaithful people. It wasn’t about sex. It was about idolatry and chasing after other gods. It was about their lack of faithfulness and trust in God. For John, Rome was either a beast who threatened Christians with violence, or Rome was a Seducer who used the promise of luxury and wealth to entice Christians away from their faith in Christ. Would you sell your soul and turn your back on Jesus in order to get ahead, to be rich and prosperous? These were some of the choices that were facing ancient Christians. They are the same choices we Christians face today. There is nothing wrong in being rich, but it is how we get rich that makes all the difference in the world. If we have to compromise our faith in Christ and our values in order to become wealthy, then it isn’t worth it. John wants us to think deeply about the world we live in. Reject the beasts. Reject the seducers. Follow the Lamb. Trust in Jesus Christ. Jesus has conquered.
When we are baptized, we are asked three questions, or our parents are asked those questions for us if we are too young. “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?” To each question, the response is- I renounce them! To put it into John’s language, we are invited to reject the beast and follow the Lamb.
John made a prediction about the Roman Empire. He showed Christians the natural end of this violent and degraded Empire. It is a disgusting picture he paints. “And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings they and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire.” The picture is ugly and revolting. John intends it to be that way to make Christians turn away from Rome and turn to Christ. What John is trying to show us here is that any empire, any nation or institution that is built on lies and fear, on violence and injustice, it has within it the seeds of its own destruction. It will eventually reap what it has sown. Its people will hate the inequality and injustice and they will rise up to overthrow it.
We could say the same thing about a family. Parents, do your kids obey you because they fear you, or because they love you? Maybe it’s a mixture of both. But a family based on fear and violence has within it the seeds of its own destruction. We could say the same about a workplace. Do you give your employers your best effort because you fear them, or because you love and respect them? Some of us have had some horrible bosses and we stay in a job because we need the income. And let’s talk about God. Do you believe in God because you’re afraid if you don’t you will spend eternity in hell? Or do you believe in God because your heart has been captured by God’s unconditional love for you and the grace given you in Jesus Christ? That’s why I follow the Lamb. That’s why I come to worship every week, to be reminded that God loves me and that my sins are forgiven. That Good News has the power to change our hearts.
John has a message for us today. Build your family on a foundation of love and respect. Build your community on a foundation of justice and fairness and compassion for the poor and needy. When people are loyal out of love and not out of fear, that is a strong bond that will not be broken. When we build on a foundation of love, then we are following the Lamb. We are using Lamb power. That is especially true when we speak truth to the beasts of our world and meet their hatred with non-violence, with sacrificial love and forgiveness. We need to reject the beasts and bullies of our world. We need to reject the seducers of our world who try to get us to sell our souls with promises of making us rich.
John has a word of hope. If you are in a difficult place in your life, if you are going through challenging times, don’t give up. Maybe it seems like you are facing a beast in your life. Don’t give up. Maybe it seems like you are being strongly tempted to cut corners or cheat just to get ahead. Don’t give in. John’s message to you is that the Lamb has conquered. Jesus has conquered. Love is stronger than violence. Kindness is stronger than hatred. Follow the Lamb that was slain. That word is as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago.