September 30, 2018

Proper 21

Genesis 28: 10-17; Psalm 103: 19-22; Revelation 12:7-12; John 1:47-51

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon.  The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.  The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

            What a bizarre reading.  A dragon? Angels?  War in heaven?   This doesn’t sound like the Bible, it sounds like The National Enquirer!  What do we do with this language, can we make sense of it?  Is it relevant?  I am going to try my best to answer those questions.

            A good place to begin might be to identify what kind of book Revelation is in the first place.  Revelation falls into a particular genre writing, called “apocalyptic literature.”  Apocalyptic literature was pretty popular back then.  I used to think that was odd until walking through a bookstore one day I noticed that they had an entire section of the store dedicated to a particular genre of writing called “paranormal teen fiction.”  Basically teen romance novels involving werewolves and vampires.  Suddenly apocalyptic literature doesn’t seem so strange, does it? 

The word “apocalypse” comes from a Greek word which simply means “to reveal.” A book in the Bible like Revelation is considered apocalyptic because it reveals a world to the reader previously unseen. 

            So this language about dragons, wars, the angel Michael (who is pictured on the cover of your worship bulletin this morning and whom you can read about more on the last page of your worship bulletin if this sermon is already boring to you).  This language about war in heaven, angels, and dragons is meant to be revelatory – it is meant to show us a world we’ve never seen before, kind of like if you go to a theater that has a large curtain in front of the stage before the performance.

            Before the performance, you don’t know what is behind the curtain, do you, because the curtain is drawn – it forms a wall between the audience and what is behind it.  You can guess.  You can think of the actors or the set pieces or props that might be behind the curtain, but you don’t really know what is behind it until the curtain rises and the performance begins.  When the curtain on the stage rises – that is an apocalyptic moment – it is a great revealing – it’s a revelation – of what lies behind it.

            That is what apocalyptic literature sets out to do.  That is what our reading today sets out to do.  So what is revealed?  What do we learn?  I have identified three revelatory moments.

            Revelation #1 Perhaps most obviously, we learn how uncomfortable this language of the dragon (who is the Devil, or Satan) is.  I saw you all roll your eyes and squirm in your pew when I read those  verses earlier – I know you all and how uncomfortable this talk about dragon slaying angels is.  Modern, progressive people don’t talk about this.  Are we meant to take it seriously? 

A second revelation I have concerns the problematic nature of the story itself.  There is a war in heaven between Michael and all the angels and the dragon and the solution to this great war is that the dragon and all the forces of evil are kicked out of heaven, which is great for them, but bad for us on earth, because guess where the dragon and all of its followers end up – here!  Earth!  Something else that is revelatory about this reading is that it is an attempt to explain why evil exists.  This mythological explanation may seem crude. 

            Finally, a third revelation is in regard to the church, which throughout history has used demonic and punitive imagery for good reason – it brought great financial profit.  Several hundred years ago, a clergy person could open Revelation and threaten good church going folks of eternity in hell, but also that that eternity could be reduced with a financial gift to the church.  Putting the fear of hell into people was tremendously profitable for the church in the middle ages.  As an example, Johann Tetzel was a 16th century Dominican friar, famously was quoted saying “when the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs."  Fear of hell helped build a lot of grand cathedrals in Europe. 

            So the symbolism of evil in the Revelation is problematic.  But it is also purposeful.  This language is purposeful in that it pulls the curtain back, allowing us to comprehend and understand forces at work that upset and subvert our lives.  There are so many in our world today.  What would the author of Revelation today reveal to a 21st century culture that addicted to chemicals and technology?  I don’t know.  Perhaps the voice of Revelation’s author spoke a century ago through a wise German philosopher, who said that “the best slave is the one who thinks he is free.”  That’s my revelation.  I know many of us, including myself, are here today thinking that we are free, because we haven’t allowed the curtain to pull itself back, revealing that really we are enslaved.  We are enslaved by fear.  Enslaved by anger.  Enslaved by resentment.  The list just goes on and on – and still somehow we think we’re free.

            The dragon symbolizes that which stands between people and the divine presence of God.  Revelation works because it seeks to unmask, it seeks to unveil the power evil holds in this world so that we can see it, rebel against it, and no longer be enslaved to it.  As an example, corporations spend billions of dollars in advertising each year just to convince us that we are worthless, that we are without value, that we are without importance, unless we buy their product - spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like.  How is that not evil?

            I will close with this: it is no coincidence that when Jesus was crucified, the large curtain hanging in the Jerusalem Temple – the curtain which blocked off the Holy of Holies, the holiest part of the temple, from everyone else except the clergy on certain holy days – this curtain which maintained the mystique of an institution and kept ruling elite clergy in power – that curtain was torn in two when Christ was crucified.  It was an apocalyptic moment – a revealing.  The curtain raised.  All was revealed.  Nothing, not evil, not death, nothing separated humankind from God.

            May we see with new eyes the world God reveals to us.  May we be courageous together, to unmask evil, and, with God’s help may we all be emancipated, no longer slaves, but free.  AMEN.