The following is a sermon delivered at Seattle Pacific University “Gathering” Chapel on February 16, 2010.
Revelation 13:2a, “I saw a beast”
Revelation is a book of disorientation. It is not a book of clarity, but a book that de-stabilizes us, confronting us at once with the seriousness of our condition, of our existence caught betwixt and between a cosmological conflict that bubbles beneath our very feet and in the air we breathe.
And yet in the face of these multi-headed beasts and its seemingly limitless power, the truth of God’s presence and victory breaks through our confusion and hopelessness.
But even as we catch a glimpse of God’s goodness, of God’s sacrifice are we thrown back upon ourselves because what we see in these glimpses of God’s power and victory is not the sweaty gladiator standing above his slain enemy with a bloody sword, but a woman groaning in childbirth and lamb set for slaughter.
No, this is not a book of clarity. Revelation is a book of holy confusion and confounding hope.
In the midst of this confusion and hope I was struck by two rather odd allusions. Yes, to say there is something odd in Revelation is perhaps to say it rains in Seattle. But these two moments struck me as odd not for their fantastical quality. It was the interweaving of the rather everyday activities of buying and selling (13:17), and singing (14:3), in the midst of the epic that was so striking to me.
Let me direct your attention to these two moments. Both of these moments take place following the birth of a child “who was to rule all the earth” (12:5) to a “woman clothed with the sun.” (12:1) The beast, defeated by the angel Michael began to establish himself upon the earth and resist the works of God by overcoming the people of God in the world.
In the midst of this we see the beast exercising great power and performing great signs. And then we come upon a rather odd observation regarding the beast’s power. 13: 16-17 says “Also, it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.”
Right before this the author spoke of the beast’s power to kill those who do not worship, and yet the power of the beast, the evil one, does not merely reside in the epic battles of martyrdom and doctrinal orthodoxy and personal holiness. The beast sought to press his power into the everyday, into the very structures of our existence. In this way we see that the mark of the beast is not merely a means of identification of salvation, but denotes how we live in the world.
The mark points us to a more profound question. What does life devoted to the beast entail? The beast requires worship (v. 15) but even more the beast draws all people into an economy. What do I mean by economy? The beast draws people into a reality of buying and selling that the mark of the beast permits.
To be marked by the beast is to be a citizen within the marketplace, to participate in the communal life of society. But to not have the mark is to be excluded from this economy, this way of life. In suggesting a connection between the beast and the marketplace I am not equating capitalism with the devil.
In the world the beast has sought to emulate God by creating within it the illusion of love and necessity.
The mark of the beast is not a means of identification, but simply points to the deeper ways that the evil one seeks to gather the world into himself. He seeks love and he seeks to become necessary. In this way the mark simply indicates what we love and what we find to be necessary.
Instead I want us to think about what it means to be able to buy and sell. To be able to buy and sell means that we have a certain amount of control over our lives. We can determine what we will eat, where we will live, with whom we will relate. The power to buy and sell is to have the power to determine our lives. Notice that the power to buy and sell is given to all, to rich and poor, to free and slave.
Thus the power to control our lives is not only about our physical condition (although it is certainly this), but about how we situate ourselves within this world. Within the slave system of the South slaves would distinguish themselves according to their skin color, with lighter-skinned slaves presuming a certain superiority to their darker brethren. While enslaved they still sought to establish a position for themselves within the world. They sought assert a position within the world through an “othering” a separation from those around them.
We all do this. We all seek to establish control of our lives, flee from moments when our weakness could be revealed, when our lack of knowledge might become public.
But even more than this, this frightful beast has woven us into ways of imagining the world, of imagining politics, of imagining economic opportunity, of imagining our financial and intellectual and personal gifts as tools that ought to serve our own needs. As we do so we not only seek to establish control of our own lives and world, but we participate in the formation of a world where possibility for some is an illusion, who sense their exclusion acutely, who see their faces as ugly and their intellect as limited.
The mundane of buying and selling then is not only bound to what you want to do with your life. The mundane is bound to the power of imagination, to envisioning a world where you might participate in its possibilities and we never question why others do not. The world of the beast belongs only to those who possess the mark. The economy of the beast thrives on the conclusion that what belongs to us is for us, that our strength is for our own accomplishment, that our dreams are for us and those whom we think share the mark.
You see the power of the beast is not in his apparent resurrection, his power of death. The power of the beast is his power over life. His power is the power of guiding our hopes and dreams away from one another and upon ourselves. His power is in the killing of the imagination of wide swaths of people who know their face is not beautiful and thus their personhood is inconsequential. The beast does not kill with swords and guns, but with dreams fulfilled and dreams deferred. The beast forms us into a hope for ourselves and then uses us to kill one another.
But thankfully this is not the last word. In response to the ubiquity of the beast’s power God does not strike down his kingdom with nuclear might, but with the groan of a woman. A child is born. A seemingly every day event is what God uses to overcome the power of the evil one.
We see this most clearly in a second seemingly everyday occurrence, a song. The angels “sing a new song before the throne … no one could hear that song except the redeemed.” (14:3)
I would suggest we see the content of the song even more clearly in 15:3, the song of Moses, “Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations! Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name?”
God overcomes the economy of the beast through a song, a new song. It is song that is not precipitated upon our exclusion, but upon God’s entrance into our condition. It is a song that does not declare exclusion as an accomplishment, whose economy is established upon our control of our life. It is a song that utters the control of another.
The song of Moses echoes the birth of a child. For God’s purposes have been enacted in the world through seemingly everyday births and miraculous births. The song of Moses points us back to Israel’s bondage, their forced participation within the economy of a nation that saw Israel as simply a tool for Egypt’s legacy. And yet Moses’ song must be sung anew, again and again for we are marked again and again by the mark of the beast, by the economy of exclusion and desires to establish our own possibilities.
This new song declares a possibility that we can arrive at on our own, it confesses the impossibility of our lives apart from a God whom we must love and fear.
But even more, this new song is not merely about words that we say, but about lives that inhabit the impossibility that has entered into our material world. The groans of the woman clothed with the sun are not historically distant, but perpetually present. In our prayers, our concerns, our hopes, the shape of our daily lives we sing this song.