Revelation 4:1-11: I Can’t Imagine

August 15, 2021
Joanna Harader

*You can watch a video version of this sermon on YouTube.

I was delighted this week to learn that Rita Dove has a new book of poetry coming out. It has one of the best titles I ever heard: Playlist for the Apocalypse.

While I was on retreat, I came across this striking line in a poem by Christine Valters Paintner about COVID-time: “You had never imagined before / how tedious the apocalypse / would sometimes be.”

Apocalypsis. That’s the Greek name for this book we’re reading from today: the apocalypse. We’ve come to use the word “apocalypse” to indicate some kind of terrible end-of-the world scenario. But the original Greek meaning has nothing to do with end-times destruction. It means, as you see in your English Bible translations, revelation—unveiling.

I hope some of you had a chance to watch the video that was linked to in this week’s newsletter about apocalyptic biblical literature. While Revelation is the only book that is entirely apocalypse, there are many places in scripture where people have visions that reveal, that unveil, a truth about God. In fact, John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, generously borrows from such visions. You heard from Isaiah 6 at the beginning of the service; another image of the throne room of God and the winged creatures crying “holy, holy, holy.”

In Ezekiel 1, the prophet has a vision of four winged creatures who each have four faces: the face of a human, lion, ox, and eagle. Sound familiar? The images in Revelation are startling to us, but they would have been familiar to those well-acquainted with the Jewish scriptures. All of the symbolism with the creatures and the numbers and the stones is part of the apocalyptic genre; part of the way people tried to gain some insight into the Divine, to unveil what was shrouded in mystery.

Another aspect of apocalyptic literature, which is especially important to us as we wade into the depths of Revelation, is that it is highly political. It has some parallels with contemporary fantasy and science fiction. I’m thinking of writers like Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood—I know there are many others—who address some of the most pressing political issues of the day through stories of alternative times and places. The fantastical elements provide, to a certain extent, a sort of plausible deniability.

If the emperor managed to get ahold of John’s writings and took offense at the visions presented, John could just say, “Oh, Emperor, this has nothing to do with you. It’s about heaven and imaginary creatures with a bunch of eyes.”

But, the book of Revelation is absolutely about the Roman empire—and how Christians should relate to empire. The author, John, has a particular concern in this area because he is, as he writes, on the island of Patmos. This is not a tropical vacation. We don’t know all the details, but John says “I . . . was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” We assume it was some sort of political exile. So he is thinking a lot about his faith in relation to the governing authorities.

The Roman empire presented a sticky situation for Jews and Christians because, as monotheists—people who were committed to the worship of only one God—they would not participate in the cultural practice of emperor worship.

Ever since Augustus had ended a bloody, 200-year civil war and established the Pax Romana—about 30 years before Jesus’ birth–the people of the empire had revered, and even worshiped, the emperor. One commentary I read was eager to point out that such worship was mostly imposed by the people themselves, considered the price they had to pay for the version of peace and security they lived under.

I suppose there was a lot of peer pressure to go along with emperor worship. You’ve probably felt this kind of thing: with the pledge of allegiance in schools or the national anthem before a public event or, if you’ve ever vacationed someplace like Branson, the cheers for the military and flag veneration everywhere you turn. There are no government officials wandering Silver Dollar City making sure every show starts with the American flag. The people are happy to do it. And you feel . . . awkward if you’re not quite on board.

So, yes, I’m sure many Roman citizens enthusiastically participated in emperor worship. And also, the powers of government totally encouraged, even demanded, that the people worship the emperors. Pontius Pilate (you remember him from Jesus’ crucifixion) brought icons of the emperor into Jerusalem and caused a whole big to-do. Emperor Nero, in the middle of the first century, erected a 120-foot statue in Rome that depicted himself as the god Apollo. Before him, Emperor Caligula had cut off the heads of various god statues and replaced them with heads resembling his own. The people may have propelled the cult of emperor worship, but the emperors themselves, in many ways, compelled it.

I realize this is a lot more historical context than I generally give in my sermons. (And there’s a whole lot of context I’m leaving out—the Roman empire was a hot mess, to put it mildly. If you’re feeling bad about the political state of the US right now, just read about ancient Rome.) But I believe a faithful reading of the book of Revelation requires attention to the historical situation. When John’s fantastical visions are pulled out of their political and historical context, we end up with really problematic theology about vaccines carrying the mark of the beast and specific people being the antichrist and every news headline being read as a sign of the end times.

Within the historical context, however, this might be the most Anabaptist/Mennonite book in the entire Bible. I hope you can hold some of this literary and historical context in your mind as we go through our entire 4-week series on Revelation. For now, I want to look more closely at the verses from chapter 4 that Patrice/Karen read for us. This part of the vision where the elders are “casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.”

This week I started reading a book by former Anabaptist Mennonite Seminary President J. Nelson Kraybill called Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation. He spends some time in the introduction talking about the practice of emperor worship, and then says, “Before going further . . . read Revelation from beginning to end.” And because I’m a good student, I put down Kraybill’s book and picked up my Bible and started reading.

And while there is definitely a lot of interesting material in the first chapters of Revelation, it was here in chapter four, verse ten, where I was stopped in my tracks: “the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne.”

In a culture that relies on emperor worship to maintain civic unity and peace, John presents an image of people who wear crowns bowing down before the one true God. These people removing their crowns sing: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power.” It is no coincidence that emperor Domitian—who, as John writes, is either currently or very recently the emperor–insisted that people refer to him with the title “lord and god.”

This image John presents of the Divine throne room is not only strange and, perhaps, a bit unsettling, but it is incredibly subversive. According to this vision, worldly powers are not to be worshipped, but are ultimately part of God’s creation that owes God worship and praise. Kraybill writes that the visions of Revelation 4 and 5 set out “alternative patters of allegiance and worship.” We could dig into what all the animals and numbers and stones mean, what the symbolism is, but the bottom line is that everyone and everything owes worship to God. And that is a claim that threatens the very foundation of the Pax Romana.

I say this is a very Mennonite text because I think the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition—not exclusively, but to a larger extent than most other Christian traditions—has paid attention to the forces of empire over the years. We care about how the forces of empire hurt God’s people and God’s creation and the ways those forces pressure us to be less than faithful to the way of Jesus.

The earliest Anabaptists were persecuted for their refusal to baptize infants, which was much more than a theological issue in the 16th Century. Infant baptisms were a census mechanism. By refusing to baptize babies, the early Anabaptists disrupted the state’s ability to collect taxes and conscript people into the military. Over and over again, Anabaptists’ refusal to participate in war and, in some cases, even to pay taxes that support war, have subverted the political powers of the day, called out the false peace of empire, and provided a witness against the cult of emperor/empire worship.

For us as contemporary readers of Revelation, I think the central question is this: What does it mean in our context to refuse, and even subvert, the cult of empire worship?

“Joanna,” you might say, “what are you talking about? Nobody worships emperors anymore.” Except I doubt many of you would say that, because you understand that the cult of empire is alive and well in 21st Century America.

The empire of the economy is making the rich richer and the poor poorer, creating a situation where some people do not have enough to live while others have more than they can possibly spend.

Recent news on climate change reminds us just how much we are willing to sacrifice to the gods of economy, convenience, and comfort. We are destroying not only the environment, but our own health and our very lives.

The empire of individualism and individual rights claims lives through COVID and gun violence and fragmented communities.

The empire of security insists that we need “protection” at any price.

The empire of political parties demands unquestioning loyalty and party-line votes.

The empire of nationalism demands allegiance to country over compassion for people and even over faithfulness to God.

We may not have an emperor going around sticking his head on statues, but we certainly have plenty of powers demanding allegiance.

And what would it look like if the lion/ox/human/eagle creatures oozing eyes were to lead these crowned powers in worship of the one true and holy God—the God who offers love and peace and compassion to all?

What would it look like for our nations, our political parties, our individualistic ideologies, our criminal justice systems, our economies, to remove their crowns and bow down before a God who insists on universal love, who expresses power through vulnerability, who grants a peace beyond what any empire can offer?

What would it look like?

I can’t imagine. I can sooner picture the crazy winged creatures and the emerald rainbow than a world where the powers bow down to the God of grace and mercy.

I can’t imagine.

But that’s why we have prophets like John of Patmos. Because they can imagine. They can share God’s revelation, God’s unveiling, with us. And while we can’t fully grasp it, we can find some peace in just knowing the vision exists.

I can’t imagine.

But that’s why we have worship. We have this odd time each week when we gather together to try. To try to turn ourselves a little more away from the empires of the world and a little more toward God. To try to imagine what a world better oriented to God might look like. To try to figure out how we might be even a small part of that turning.

I can’t imagine. And probably you can’t imagine. But maybe, together, we can imagine. Just a little bit.