The Rev. Lisa Hlass
St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Little Rock
Oct. 3, 2011
Genesis 28:10-17; Psalm 103:19-22; Revelation 12:7-12; John 1:47-51
War breaks out in heaven. The archangel, Michael, and his angels fight the dragon, the evil one, Satan, and throw him down to earth, here with us. And we’re supposed to celebrate this? Huh?! When there’s so much war and violence in the world, it’s sometimes difficult for me to celebrate our fighting patron angel,
The Book of Revelation is a dense and difficult one, but our story of Michael and the dragon prompted me to do some research to recall the context of this crazy apocalyptic story. What in the world or in the heavens was going on?!
Popular evangelical sentiment is that the book of Revelation is prophecy relating to our time about events that must happen before Christ returns to earth (like the coming of the Anti-Christ and the return of all Jews to Israel). This line of thinking, besides being damaging, is quite contrary to critical scholarship.
When one reads the prophetic books of the Hebrew Scriptures – like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and Amos – in light of the circumstances in which they were written, it becomes clear that the prophets interpreted their own times in light of what they understood as God’s will and God’s intentions at that time. The prophets saw God at work in the social, political and religious events in which Judah, Israel, and the neighboring countries and empires were involved. They often declared God’s displeasure with the actions of the people and their monarchs and spoke of a coming judgment. Or, they spoke of the promise of God’s eventual restoration of Israel or Judah.
Critical scholars believe that the author of the book of Revelation (we’ll call him John, because that’s what he’s named in the book) was a 1st C Jewish prophet who used the apocalyptic medium to speak to readers in his own time about the events of that time. Revelation is not a book about the distant future, which would have remained meaningless to his readers. Clues as to why the book of Revelation was written are found in the book itself. John’s readers were suffering persecution or he believed they were about to. This could have been as early as the 60s during the reign of the emperor Nero, or as late as the 90s. A statement in the first chapter indicates that John, because of his Christian faith, was exiled by the Roman authorities to the island of Patmos, from which The Revelation was written. Apparently, John was writing to the churches of Asia Minor as a way to bring hope in the midst of tribulation, interpreting their present hardship as a herald to God’s ultimate victory.
The strength of Revelation, its language and images, lies not in the theology or factual information they provide, but in their evocative power to invite imaginative participation. The symbols and narrative movement of Revelation elicit emotions, feelings, and convictions that cannot, and were not meant to be fully conceptualized. Theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza says that, any adequate exploration and comprehension of Revelation has to experience the evocative power and ‘musicality’ of the book’s language because, in her view, it was written to be read aloud as a liturgical poem and to be heard in the worship gatherings of the Asian communities. The fact that Christians were singled out for persecution reveals their marginalized status in the Roman Empire. They were, according to New Testament scholar, Eugene Boring,
considered to be adherents of a sect that primarily appealed to the lower classes, a sect that had no long history or glorious institutions… Christians were considered to be unpatriotic and irreligious, sometimes being called “atheists” because they had no ‘gods.” Thus, they were likely candidates to become scapegoats … because the public already considered them to be outsiders within the social structure and because the Christians tended to look upon themselves as outsiders.1
Marginalized and persecuted does not exactly describe Christians in our society today, does it? So it may be difficult to identify with the original readers of the book of the Revelation and the ways in which the book brought them comfort, hope and reassurance. I invite you to read again our lesson from the book of Revelation (12:1-12). In this vivid episode, we see not only Michael and his angels defeating the dragon, but we see Christ, the Lamb; we see his mother giving birth amidst chaos and danger; we see clearly God’s victory in heaven, and a warning to the wild dragon that ultimately he’s doomed. We could easily see Michael and his host of angels coming down here to earth to help us fight the modern day dragons of poverty, disease and intolerance.
Karen Armstrong, along with religious and spiritual leaders all over the world, speaks about the coming of a new age.2 People everywhere are struggling with the social, political, and economic conditions under which we now live, and are reassessing religious traditions that were designed for a very different society than we have today. Many are finding that the old forms of faith and worship no longer work for them; they don’t provide the insight and consolation that human beings need. As a result, people, young and old, across the globe, are trying to find new ways of being religious or spiritual. Like the ancient prophets, they are attempting to build upon the insights of the past in new ways that bring meaning and purpose into our present day world.
Armstrong says that we have, from the beginning of our existence as a species, created works of art and religions to give us the sense that, against all the aggressive evidence to the contrary, life really does have ultimate meaning, value and sacredness. Each generation has stressed or honed an image of God that works for them. We can easily see that the image of God has evolved throughout our Judeo-Christian tradition – from a God among gods, to one all powerful God, to a personal/ moral God, to a God who has mercy on widows, orphans and outcasts.
Armstrong also says that Jews, Christians and Muslims were at some time all called atheists by their pagan contemporaries, because they had adopted a revolutionary notion of God. The people who have been dubbed atheists over the years have always denied a particular concept of the divine. Remember when Ed told the story of a professor who asked one of his self-declared atheist students, “Describe the God that do you not believe in?” Upon the student’s reply, the professor responded, “I don’t believe in that God either.”
Armstrong observes that contemporary atheism is most likely a similar denial of a God that is no longer adequate to the problems of our time. Religion is highly pragmatic, despite its otherworldliness, she claims. “It should have not only the ability to transform us, but to transform the world. So we should be working now to make our religion and our faith effective in this lost, suffering, and terrifying world.”
I believe that’s what we’re trying to do in the Episcopal Church, in the Diocese of Arkansas, and here at St. Michael’s. Our world and our community is bombarded daily by bad news. We are trying to share God’s Good News, by flinging our doors open wide, and by serving others each day by the way we live our lives in the world, in our work, and in the ministries in which we participate.
Not only is the world bombarded with difficult news, many of us right here at St. Michael’s, have faced very challenging times – health-wise, financially, spiritually. We’re constantly trying to discern new ways to “be” with one another, in a society in which the support of community and extended family has all but disappeared.
There’s a thank-you note on one of the bulletin boards in the gathering place from a family that I assume is from out-of-town and has had to be in Little Rock periodically over a for some sort of medical treatment. It’s a thank-you note for the ministry that our pastoral care team has given them. Imagine being out of town, in a hospital where you know no one but your doctor, and being offered not only Holy Communion, but fellowship with familiar faces that have reached out to you and whom you know will be with you again when you return.
Imagine having lost your job recently. If you were living from paycheck to paycheck, which is not uncommon now, it’s only one step away from living on the streets. Because a committed group of people joined together their resources years ago, and continue to do so, there’s a wonderful facility called “Our House,” with committed workers and volunteers who offer not only hospitality, hot meals, and a comfortable place to stay, but job training, day care and after school tutoring for their children, and assistance finding permanent housing.
Imagine being a gay, lesbian or transgendered young person living on the streets. Where do you go for help in Little Rock, AR? There are a few places, but for GLBT persons in the Bible Belt, those places are few and far between. A great vision has emerged for a comfortable, welcoming home for these lost kids; a place where they’re loved and encouraged: Lucie’s Place. There’s a long way to go before that home is built, but good work has already begun, and many St. Mike’s folks are actively involved.
I believe that we are committed to sharing God’s Good News with each other and with a suffering world. I give thanks as we continue to discern how we are to do this in new, creative, relevant ways that give witness to a God of our age full of compassion, mercy, grace and abundance.