“Unmasking empires in our midst…” – Gospel and Sermon for Sunday May 8, 2022

Here’s the manuscript for today’s sermon:

Some of the most popular movies out there right now are the Marvel movies.  While I haven’t seen Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, I understand it’s pretty wild.  Fantastic scenes, people with incredible powers, magic, villains who dream of ultimate power.  

Some Marvel cinematic adventures are even crazier – take the most recent series, Moon Knight, that includes wild creatures, gods, a powerful villain reigning judgment and destruction on people as they try to create an empire, and a main character with a split personality that made the viewers wonder what was real and what was not.  

John’s revelation could easily be made into one of those movies.  Apocalyptic writing has this type of feel to it.  Revelation has deep symbolism, fantastic creatures, evil forces imposing destruction in pursuit of power, and good triumphing over evil.  

Revelation is one of those books of Scripture that seems so utterly crazy and so it’s easy to dismiss and put aside.  Yet, Revelation is so very important.  Revelation is the inspiration for so much of our worship liturgy. 

And it’s not surprising really when we take a moment to consider that, according to Michael Williamse, “Revelation is a series of seven scenes of worship (the third one being today’s reading) in which glory is ascribed to God.  More than any other New Testament book, Revelation resounds with worship and praise of God.  Revelation unfolds a theology of power – who holds the key to the future, with whom does real power rest and who is therefore worthy of worship?  Against the claims that real power rests with Rome and with Caesar, Revelation shows that ‘the future belongs not to the Roman emperor…but only to Christ who was crucified for the salvation of humankind.  Real power rests with Christ.”  

But hey, Rome has been gone for centuries, so what’s the point of reading Revelation any longer, right?  

Last week I talked about empire and how we face many empires who all claim the same thing that Rome did:  They claim that they have the real power in life and are therefore worthy of being worshipped, listened to, and complied with. 

Last week I mentioned that everyone is disposable in an empire.  Everyone.  Even the people who think they are at the top of the pyramid with full control.  

It’s believed that John wrote Revelation at the end of the first century CE, possibly around the year 96.  Domitian was the emperor at that time.  And he was known for his cruelty.  He started the second great persecution of Christians in the empire.  He was the 11th Roman emperor.  And of those 11, only 3 died of natural causes.  The other 8 died as a result of murder or suicide.  Most often the guy who would take over was responsible for the murder.  You want to talk about insanity, that’s a system that is insane.  Everyone is expendable.  And with a history like that, who in their right mind would think they would be exempt from the same result?  

And if this is the case for those in positions of great power, then what do you think that means for everyone else in an empire?  We’re all disposable to an empire.  Empires will lie to our faces and tell us that they care about us, promise to protect us from enemies, and provide for us.  

But the reality is that in an instant, an empire will throw you under the bus and run over you when you are inconvenient, or you begin to ask questions and express doubts.  When you stop worshipping the empire and giving your money over to it.  When you stop making it the core of your beliefs, and when you stop making decisions based on what the empire or its representatives say you will do or believe.  

Every empire that has ever existed casts out or kills off anyone who gets in the way.  It’s the one thing you can count on and predict with an empire.  Oh, but pastor, we don’t live in a time of empires.  This doesn’t apply to us any longer.  Sure.  

It really doesn’t matter if we are talking about traditional empires like Rome, or financial empires and economic systems that act like empires, or business empires, or media empires, or cultural empires, or social and societal empires like racism, misogyny, sexism, white supremacy, or religious empires like Christian nationalism that blaspheme God by using God for their own purposes to gain political power and impose their beliefs on everyone else, or any other type of empires you can think of.  

And yet, given this history, why are so many so quick to kneel down at the altar of empires and worship them?  As if they can save us?  As if what they offer is something life giving?  As if what they offer is godly in any way shape or form.  If what these empires have to offer is godly, then our view of God is really messed up. Are we as insane as the Roman Emperors to think that the same thing won’t happen to us that happened to them?  Really?  

You see, the good news proclaimed in Revelation isn’t an effort to convince the empires to change.  They won’t!  It’s not a message to those who prop up empires, who are convinced that their salvation lies in those empires, or who worship at the altars of empire and are willing to sacrifice everyone else on behalf of an empire.  No.  

Rather, as Wess Daniels says – “Revelation…is concerned with unmasking the powers of empire, alternative liturgies that empire uses to shape and form its adherents morally, and those who, like the Lamb, stand in its way and refuse to worship the empire (Revelation 5 and 13).”

In other words, it is a message of hope and encouragement for believers and followers of Jesus.  It’s a message that says that the insanity won’t win, that it can’t, and that it will collapse under its own weight of craziness.  But it is also a realistic message that tells followers of Jesus that this insanity is destructive and deadly and we will suffer the consequences of this insanity, but we will not be alone.  And that it will get worse before it gets better.   

Revelation is relevant to us today.  Our world is just as insane as it was when John wrote Revelation.  I don’t know what else to call it.  Whether we are talking about leaders who threaten the stability of the world by threatening an extension of war and possibly nuclear war, or leaders in positions of power that pass empire oriented laws, or people who will use violence to force others into empire-like submission, or people who have a firmly held belief in the ends justifying the means and are willing to carry that out, or in people who willingly and without remorse lie and mislead people, or in people who use the name of Jesus to bolster their own agendas and pursuit of power over people, or in truly insane conspiracies that lead people down paths that are antithetical to God’s kingdom.  

Just like Revelation was a word of encouragement and hope for people resisting and refusing to worship the empire when John wrote it, Revelation serves to give us hope and encouragement as we resist and refuse to worship at the altars of empires that exist today.  

It comes down to this – who is the center of our life?  Is it an empire, or is it Jesus?  Whose voice are we going to listen to – an empire and its spokespeople, or Jesus?  Which vision of community are we going to be a part of – an empire that forms community by sorting people into us and them, or God’s Kingdom that is made up of the great multitude from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples and languages who are standing before the throne of God and before the Lamb, crying out in a loud voice saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”  

Who’s altar are we going to kneel at and offer our lives up to – an empire that will willingly sacrifice you for its own survival, or are we going to be with the angels who stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures that fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”  

What the empires of this world offer are lies that leave us hungry and thirsty, poor and oppressed, in bondage and enslaved.  Jesus invites us into his kingdom with the multitude who worship God day and night in his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.  They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat. 

No empire can ever offer that.  Not even close.  Remember that when you hear the proclamations of empires in our world and from those who serve and represent those empires.  Their message promises a fraudulent version of freedom, defeat of unending enemies to blame, a community of us versus them in which misery loves company.  But beware, all that comes at a great cost to you and everything and everyone you love.  

Why?  Simple.  Who is at the center of it all?  The empires of the world love to put themselves at the center – forcing us to orient everything we do based on them.  

But instead, it is the Lamb who is at the center of the throne that will be our shepherd and he will guide us to springs of the water of life.  And God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

Jesus offers us the Kingdom of God, invites us in.  Sets us free from the bondage of the empires of this world.  And how do we find his Kingdom?  We listen to his voice.  His sheep hear his voice.  He knows them and they follow him.  Listen to his voice.  It is Jesus who has real power.  It is Jesus that is worthy of worship.  Look up, like John in Revelation, and see the great multitude that no one can count from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb worshipping God and the Lamb.  That’s what we are invited to.  Thanks be to God. 

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