The Book of Revelation is Political: Jesus, Empire, and Immigration in the US

The Book of Revelation is Political: Jesus, Empire, and Immigration in the US May 7, 2019

The following is a sermon I preached at Clackamas United Church of Christ, near Portland, Oregon.  The primary scripture texts was John 21:15-19 and Revelation 5: 11-14. You can read the text or watch the video below.

The book of Revelation is weird.

We began discussing Revelation at Bible Study recently. One person offered this thought to our group: that John, the author of the book, had taken some, let’s just say for the sake of this sermon, “medicinal” herbs, before he wrote it.

And he is not the first person to come to that conclusion.

In fact, the book of Revelation was one of the last books to make it into the Bible. That’s because our ancestors in faith also thought it was really weird. They were concerned about officially placing it into the Bible because they feared that people might take it too literally.

Sometimes I think their fears were well-founded and they should have left it out. But they concluded that there was something true and important in this book.

In the original language, the book of Revelation is actually called the Apocalypse. When you hear the word apocalypse, you might instantly think of end of the world destruction. But I want to invite you to remove that from your mind.

The word apocalypse does not necessarily refer to the end of the world. Apocalypse literally means “unveiling” or “revealing.” The revealing aspect of the apocalypse is where we get the term revelation.

The idea is that something about God has been veiled and Revelation is unveiling it.

In first-century Judaism during the time of Jesus, there was the great Temple of Jerusalem. And inside the Temple was a room called the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies was hidden by a veil, a sheet that hid the inner sanctum of the room. It was thought that God’s main dwelling place on earth was in the Holy of Holies, but only the High Priest could enter that room and he could only enter it once a year. For everyone else, this room was hidden from sight. And so the presence of God was veiled.

But here’s the thing: when Jesus died on the cross, the Gospel of Matthew says that the veil in the Temple was torn in two. The veil was destroyed so that what was hidden about God was revealed, now in plain sight for everyone to see.

The cross and book of Revelation are like Toto in the Wizard of Oz. They pull the curtain back so that we can all see what’s really happening behind the scene in God’s throne room.

Revelation is unveiling what God is like. And part of the weirdness of Revelation is the strange claim that God is like a lamb who was slaughtered.

This is weird. If I were to use animal imagery for God, I would never think of a slaughtered lamb. I would think of a roaring lion. But our passage claims that in the heavenly throne room, John saw every creature in heaven and on earth singing honor and glory and might to God and God’s kingdom, which is primarily symbolized as a slaughtered lamb.

This is the radical shift that Revelation makes. God is like a slaughtered lamb, not like a roaring lion. To put it in more literal human terms, God is like the crucified Jesus who takes human violence upon himself and offers forgiveness in return.

And this is where the book of Revelation gets political. The early Christians lived in the Roman Empire. And the Roman Empire, like every Empire and nation, wanted ultimate loyalty from its subjects, including religious loyalty. The Roman Empire basically said that people could worship their gods however they wanted, but there was one caveat. They also had to make sacrifices to the Emperor in order to show their ultimate loyalty to him. People had to sing honor and glory and might to the Emperor.

For the book of Revelation, God and politics were about a way of life. And Revelation makes a contrast. One way of life was the Kingdom of God. It was symbolized by a peaceful and vulnerable Lamb. The other way of life was the Roman Empire. It was symbolized by fierce Eagle.

The early Christians got together and said, “Yeah, Rome has its eagle. But that’s so cliché. Every nation has either a violent eagle or a lion and every nation ends up being destroyed by its own violence. Those who live by the sword die by the sword. And so we’re going to follow the Lamb. We are going to sing honor and praise and glory not to Caesar and his empire, but to Jesus and his realm of God. Because when you are singing to the Lamb, it means you are not singing to the Emperor.”

But we should know that there are risks involved in singing praise to God and not to the Emperor, which leads us to our Gospel passage. The resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples. He asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And three times Peter answered “Yes.” Jesus responded by sending Peter on a mission to feed Jesus’ sheep. And who are Jesus’ sheep? Everyone, but especially those who are vulnerable and in need.

Jesus sent Peter on a mission that was bigger than himself – to feed Jesus’ sheep. And Jesus sends us on the same mission. So much of our political and consumer culture is about feeding only ourselves. You know, buy more stuff because that will make you happy. Take care of number one. Don’t feed “others.” Instead, live in fear of “others.”

Rarely are we ever given a mission that is bigger than ourselves and bigger than our fears. But Jesus sends us on that mission. It’s a mission to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

If Peter became serious about feeding Jesus’ sheep, he would participate in a mission bigger than himself. But the risk would come because singing praises to God means you don’t sing praises to the Empire. Sometimes this looks like civil disobedience. And so Jesus warned Peter that the day might come when someone would fasten a belt around Peter and drag him to a place he did not want to go. And that place was Peter’s death.

And we know that all of Jesus’ disciples were persecuted and all but one was killed. All for feeding Jesus’ sheep.

Does that sound weird to you? I mean, why would Jesus’ disciples be killed or persecuted just for helping people? For feeding Jesus’ sheep?

Let me give you one modern day example of how this works.

Last year, Kristen Perez-Villanueva and Jose Arnoldo Sacaria-Goday walked through the Arizona desert to escape violence and desperation in their homeland and seek a better life in the United States.

Along their journey, they came to a town in Arizona named Ajo and an organization called “No More Deaths.” No More Deaths seeks to help undocumented immigrants by providing them with resources they need to survive.

Scott Warren leads No More Deaths. He says that faith plays a large role in his organization’s commitment to helping undocumented immigrants. He is singing in the chorus of God’s heavenly throne room. He is feeding Jesus’ sheep.

And in the United States, singing in the chorus and feeding Jesus’ sheep is risky, especially under an administration “with an ever-increasing show of force at the border [and that] continues to force migrants to take more dangerous routes” because of physically and psychologically damaging policies like family separation. Unfortunately, the administration is also cracking down on “those providing humanitarian aid.”

And so the United States government arrested Scott Warren, accusing him of providing Kristen Perez-Villanueva and Jose Arnoldo Sacaria-Goday with “food, water, bedding, and clothes over three days.” Warren is on trial, charged with harboring and helping undocumented immigrants. Or we might put it like this, the United States government has charged Scott Warren for feeding Jesus’ sheep.

And here’s the point: When the book of Revelation claims that all creatures sing glory to God and to the Lamb, it means that they aren’t singing glory to the political authorities. And there are times when feeding Jesus’ sheep isn’t the easy thing to do. There are times when it is risky. But the mission to sing praise to God and to feed Jesus’ sheep is bigger than us and it’s bigger than any one nation.

I want you to notice that the point of feeding Jesus’ sheep and singing to God is not that we are primarily against the Empire. The point is simply to feed Jesus’ sheep. If that puts us in conflict with our government, so be it.

But we need to remember that those who enforce government policies that might starve Jesus’ sheep are also Jesus’ sheep. We are called to feed them, too. We are not called to be against flesh and blood. Instead, we are called to work for change in policies as we seek to feed Jesus’ most vulnerable sheep.

But this is always risky. And that’s where we come in. This church is here to support one another as we sing to God and we feed each other and we feed Jesus’ sheep. Because there are times when the mission seems too big and frankly too scary for me. And that’s why I need you. That’s why we need one another. None of us can do this alone. And I am so grateful that you are here and that we are on this faith journey together. Because it is risky. But it is also one of the most meaningful and important things I can think of.

So may we continue to sing praise to God and not to Empire.

May we feed Jesus’ sheep, even when it’s risky.

And may we continue the journey together, now and forever. Amen.

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