Dear Preachers:It isn’t often that we get a reading from Revelation in our Lectionary selections. If you are like me, you probably haven’t preached from it very much – if at all. Perhaps your biblical reading doesn’t include Revelation as well. Here is a chance to do something about that, so I will focus on the first reading and add some notes I found helpful about this feast.
When I did prison ministry at San Quentin in California, I was struck by how many of the inmates who read the Bible favored the Book of Revelation. What was it that they found so attractive in its exaggerated and stark symbolism – in a biblical book that most Christians seem to avoid? I came to realize they were drawn to its description of the harsh struggle between good and evil that permeates the entire book. They found it comforting to hope that the larger punishing system in which they lived would someday be overthrown, along with all the powers of the world. This was reassuring news both to the early Christians suffering under the Roman persecutions and the men in North Bloc at San Quentin. It is reassuring news for all of us who struggle against the powers of "the dragon" in our world.
Another attraction for the inmates, it seemed to me, was that they believed they knew the code: that they could figure out the symbols and metaphors so prevalent in Revelation. Somehow, they felt part of an inner circle with special knowledge – everyone else was outside that circle. They even used this "knowledge" as a way of feeling superior to those in their same situation. But whatever misinterpretation they may have made of Revelation, you could understand their attraction to this book of visions and prophecies. The book speaks to people suffering under extreme external pressures.
The early Christians, for whom this book was written, were being forced to venerate the Emperor. Not to do so had, not only religious ramifications, but political as well. Christians were asked to choose one Lord to serve – a choice had to be made. If they chose in favor of their Christian belief, they could have paid for it with their lives. Revelation is not an abstract book of fantastic imagery and other-worldly events. It was written to help Christians remain faithful and to offer reassurance that the Lamb (or as in today’s reading, the child) would be triumphant.
Is it any easier for us to believe and for our faith to flourish? A casual perusal of just this day’s newspaper tells us of still more racist incidents in our land; replays of the January 6th insurrection; the Taliban’s suppression of civilians, especially women, in Afghanistan; environmental degradation; hardened conflict between our political parties, etc. We have to ask the question, "Who is in charge here anyway?" We look around the world and are shocked by the scale of evil we see. Which force will win out? Are we believers on the side that will prevail, or is our seeming small human effort going to pale into insignificance before the "red dragon with its 7 heads and horns"?
Revelation intends to assure us that goodness will win. Like the early Christians we may be tempted to drop out of our faith commitments in the light, allure and power of the opposing forces. Who is the Sovereign we Christians follow? God is and we want and can be faithful to the biblical God of justice – the One who will set things right. Revelation then, invites us to set our gaze, not on our hardships and calamities, but on God. The power of the beast is awesome, its tail sweeps away a third of the stars in the sky. But the child being born is protected by God and will triumph.
While there is no secret code to this book to help us in its interpretation, the language does appeal to our imagination and makes it possible to interpret it in many ways. The struggle is clear and the threat of evil, devouring all that is good, is real and very ominous. A new people, the Christian community, are being born amid great pain and struggle. But despite the threats to its existence, the child is caught by God and is safe. No bible reader could miss the allusions to the Hebrew scriptures. Just as the God of the Jewish people protected them, so God continues to protect the new people of God. God’s Word is not past tense, but actively protecting and recreating the community for which Jesus gave his life.
The community John has in mind is experiencing extreme hostility. They are being encouraged through this book to trust that God knows their plight and will come to their rescue. Evil shall not triumph. It is no wonder then, that on this feast of the Assumption, this reading is linked to Mary’s "Magnificat." Mary’s rejoices in the saving work of God, "scattering the proud...casting down the mighty from their thrones...." Here biblical faith, expressed in two different forms, voices the same hope in God. John is not writing a prediction of specific future events, as some today claim, but is trying to encourage and console Christians in his day for their very present suffering. He writes to help them and us keep faithful and to assure us that God’s rule and justice will prevail.
The church celebrates the Assumption of Mary today. We see in her a model for our faith. We too give birth to Christ in our world. We are reminded that though Christ suffered, he has been kept safe by God, to whom he has returned and will come to bring us all to that place of protection and life. So, the dragon is not triumphant. The Christian is ready to say in the midst of the battle against evil’s many manifestations, "Now have salvation and power come." The God of our assurance is offering that assistance to us now in our present struggle.