Texts: Revelation 18.1–2, 21–23, 19.1–3, 9 and Luke 21.20–28
Today, the lectionary invites us to flirt with tales and prophecies of the end of days. We are drawn by our readings into an imaginary future world in which the great city of Babylon is destroyed, and in which the “son of man will come in a cloud in great power and glory”. How can we get to the heart and the truth of what all this rich imagery is telling us.
Reading the Bible literally is a risky path to take. You may remember the name Harold Camping, for example. Mr Camping was an American preacher and Christian radio host who predicted that the world would end on the 21st of May 2011 (at 6pm in the afternoon, incidentally). Many of his followers were so convinced that they sold up their homes and ploughed all their savings into the cost of the advertising campaign, to persuade Americans of Mr Camping’s message. Sadly, for them, the world didn’t end – and they were left penniless and often in great debt.
You see, the problem with reading the Bible literally is that this is not what its original writers intended, by and large. The ancients used myths as lenses through which we can see our own paths to transformation and growth. What do we mean by the word ‘ myth’? Scholar Marcus Borg offers an interesting definition. He says, “Myth is stories about the way things never were, but always are”. Wise people read myths as insights about the human condition, which have the power to transform us. Consider these words by the New Testament scholar Dominic Crossan, “My point…is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally”.
So what are we to make of the rich imagery with which the lectionary confronts us today. I doubt you would be very happy if I did a line by line analysis of both passages! So, let’s just take the Revelation passage as an example of how wise people should read the Scriptures.
By the time John was writing the Book of Revelation, the city of Babylon had been dead as a political and economic force for at least 300 years. Some historians think it was more like 600 years. So when John uses imagery of Babylon being cast into the sea because, I quote, “your merchants were the magnates of the earth, and all nations were deceived by your sorcery” there is no way John is talking about the literal city of Babylon (whose dusty ruins you can visit for yourself in modern-day Iraq). Babylon, for John, is rather a figurative city, a myth which stands for all systems, economic and political, which crush the life out of ordinary people.
John is painting a picture, not making a specific prediction, of a world in which mighty merchants and those who deceive through, for example, the sorcery of propaganda will be replaced by what John calls, ‘the marriage feast of the Lamb’. Again, John is not literally saying that humanity will be invited to sit around a table, watching a Lamb getting married! What he is saying is that God’s purpose is for all humanity to be united with God, through God’s way of life as lived out in Jesus, also known as the Lamb. The ‘marriage’ of which John speaks is the marriage of humanity with the purposes of God.
Rather than a prophecy of some fictitious ‘end-time’, the Book of Revelation is an invitation for us to take an inward journey, into ourselves. We are asked to contemplate what kind of person we aspire to be. Do we want to be numbered with the ‘merchants who were the magnates of the earth’? Or do we want to be those very being is united, like in a marriage, to God’s purposes? We have to ask ourselves how much longer we will collude with the world’s false promises (like ‘owning new things will make you happy’).
There’s an old acrostic which the early Christians used. It was the word ROMA – the Italian name for Rome. Early Christians used those four letters, R.O.M.A. to stand for ‘radix omnium malorum avaritia’. It means ‘ avarice is the root of all evil’. Marcus Borg explains, ‘Roma - empire - is the embodiment of avarice, the incarnation of greed. That’s what empire is about. The embodiment of greed in domination systems is the root of all evil’. Wise Christians are invited to examine themselves for avarice, and other ‘sins of the flesh’ to seek out and destroy any internal attitudes which steer us away from the goal of living in love with God.
You see, God loves us already and has always loved us, from before the dawn of time. The Christian life is not about believing certain things about God, or trusting particular words about God. That would be salvation by syllables. Rather, it’s about perceiving what is fundamentally true, at the heart of God – that God loves us already, and then seeking to live our lives in that relationship. The Christian life is about waking up to and intentional choice to live in an ever-deepening relationship with God.
If we really were to take God’s transforming Way seriously, then there would truly be, in the words of today’s Gospel reading, “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea…”. The end of the world of man may well involve momentous events – wars over scarce resources on a dying planet, at the very least. But the kind of upheaval which Jesus describes is not literal. The signs in the sky, and the roaring of the sea which he describes are signs of the spiritual transformation of humanity. The Son of Man will come among us ‘as on a cloud’ – stealthily, silently, into every human heart – and as we saw on Sunday, one person at a time. The transformation will be no less momentous, as every human heart is gradually, gently, loving, turned towards the purposes of God, so that every knee will bow, and every tongue proclaim that Jesus is Lord.
But don’t expect to witness any avenging angels hurling the archaeological ruins of Babylon into the sea like a millstone! Amen.