Those Watchful Dragons

Sunday sermon for February 19, 2012
Text: Revelation 12:7-17
Given at Slackwood Presbyterian Church, Trenton, NJ
(with a tip of the hat to Marcus Hong)

So that’s three weeks in a row that I have stood up here and said some crazy sounding stuff. Have you been here? Have you been listening? I’ve been the liturgist for the past two Sundays, which means I’ve gotten two weeks’ worth of New Testament readings, which means, thanks to Slackwood being at the very end of the Year of the Bible, that I’ve been standing up here and reading from that craziest of all Biblical texts, the crazy by which all other crazy is measured, the Book of Revelation.

Two weeks ago it wasn’t so bad: I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows … and then last week is ramped up a bit, and we granted two witnesses authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred and sixty days, wearing sackcloth and fire poured from their mouth, and they had authority to turn waters into blood… I hope it sounds crazy. I really do, because if it doesn’t sound crazy then you’re just not paying attention. We’ve been journeying through the Bible together, but here at the end, it’s like everybody’s gone home for the night except the guy who’s had one too many. What a strange note to end on.

But crazy is as crazy does, I suppose, and so today we are in the belly of the beast, so to speak, in the middle of the book, a vision of Heavenly warfare, with the Archangel Michael and the great Satanic Dragon battling over the fate of the cosmos. It sounds more like the next X-Men movie than Biblical scripture. And while I promise you that I have good reasons for picking this specific passage, I think this morning we have to start with a much broader question, even at the risk of doing the unthinkable, which would be a boring, dry sermon about the Book of Revelation, a book which has been called many things but never boring, but still for our own sanity we have to ask: what the heck is the Book of Revelation doing in the Bible?

Let’s get the facts straight. By its own admission, the book is almost entirely a vision of a man named John which is then written and delivered as a letter to early Christian communities. The author claims and our tradition affirms that this vision is in fact God-given; hence the name: God’s Revelation to John, a vision given by the Creator to this lone prophet.

But of course it’s the interpretation that becomes difficult, and we’ve got a few approaches to choose from. You will be familiar, even implicitly, with one school of thought on the matter, which is that the Book of Revelation is at least in part God-given documentation of historical events that will happen in the future of human history. Heavenly seals will open, bowls of wrath will pour forth, the chosen of the earth will bathe in blood, variously numbered beasts will roam through the land. All of them images ripped from the text, from the vision, and all of them now the stuff of so many self-proclaimed watchdogs of the End Times. So you see, in chapter 9 it says that the number of the armies of the horsemen was two hundred million, and then I read on the internet ­– because that’s where one reads about these things – that China’s army has reached that plateau, for the first time in human history, so clearly it’s a sign of the end. Or did you know that there are people now with biochips in their hand, which is just like the mark of the beast in chapter 13? We can go on and on – indeed, many have done so. For now I just want you to see the common assumption: that Revelation contains some kind of diagnostic checkbook for the End of the World, a catalog of Dan Brown conspiracies and B-level History Channel specials.

The second approach is much more common in the academy than on late-night television, and it goes something like this: the Book of Revelation is not about events in human history yet to come; it’s about events that have already happened. As we said, John is writing to specific Christian communities, probably communities struggling with how to be Christian in a Roman imperial context that regularly treated the emperor like he was himself a god. Early Christians were often under threat of persecution; in this interpretation, what John is doing is sending a message of reassurance wrapped in the deep language of metaphor, like a political cartoonist who uses donkeys and elephants but clearly has something else on his mind. So what sounds like absurd imagery to a modern listener actually probably sounded not-at-all-crazy to John’s original audience: they’d get the joke, they’d get the symbolism, they’d understand that the seven kings of the Whore of Babylon represented seven specific Roman emperors. There’s widespread scholarly consensus here, and surely that’s worth something. Surely that argument is true, and we can say something about what this book meant for its original audience. But I’m not satisfied. I want more. It’s 2012: what are we still doing with the Book of Revelation?

To get the answer we have to go to a totally different place, with a totally different part of our own minds, away from the half of our brain that wants to sort and organize and catalog this book, away from the part that wants it to be an elaborate code ready to be deciphered. Michael and his armies fight against the Dragon, and we want to know who Michael is and what the dragon represents, but this morning we have to do something different, we have to let all of those needs go, and, in the immortal words of all of our parents, on those long Saturday afternoons when the toys at hand seemed unequal to the desires of our heart, we have to use our imagination. We have to be transported into this vision, like we’ve fallen into Middle-Earth, like Harry Potter on the Hogwarts Express, like four children who wander into a wardrobe and end up in Narnia.

You will remember the four children of The Chronicles of Narnia: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, who wander through into a closet at an English manor and find themselves in another world, a world with its own history, its own fantastical realities, its own moral fiber. But if you read those books, as I have recently been doing, and you read Revelation, as I have recently been doing, you begin to find it increasingly difficult to separate the two. Here’s a quiz: A dragon that pours spirits out of its mouth that look like frogs. Narnia, or Revelation? A crystal-clear lake that transforms all who touch it to solid gold: Narnia, or Revelation? Or the son of a mysterious God, sometimes a lamb, sometimes a lion, who gives his body for the sake of all people? I’ll give you a hint on that one: it’s both, of course, Aslan the great lion of C.S. Lewis’ novels, transparently an image of Jesus Christ, the son-of-the-God-beyond-Narnia’s-mountains.

I think Lewis’s vision of Narnia gives us real insight into how to faithfully encounter the fantastic vision of the Book of Revelation. It helps us get away from worrying about the facts, away from trying to figure out the symbolism of every last verse, and it gets us to a place where we can use our imagination, something that sneaks past all of the things we expect to find, something that sees the world around us in an altogether new light. Read with imagination, and the Book of Revelation stops being that crazy part of the Bible nobody knows what to do with and instead becomes singularly essential, precisely because it can talk to us in ways that are so far beyond the ordinary. But Lewis says it better: the following words are his, in a later essay about the about the writing of the Narnia books:

“Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings … But suppose that by casting all these things into an imaginary world one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?”

Those watchful dragons. Lewis is talking about a certain kind of religious upbringing, but I think the net can be cast even wider: the watchful dragons that make us see only what we expect to see, that make us understand only what we already know, that have us encounter the world expecting only what has already happened. Those watchful dragons are us, those watchful dragons, like the dragon that Michael and his armies drive from Heaven, the one that falls to earth and abides now in each of us. So what does the text mean? Is the dragon sin? Is the dragon fear? Is the dragon complacency? Maybe it is some account from the foundations of the earth. Maybe it is some prediction of the end times. Maybe it is just a political cartoon fallen through history. But I think this is one of those moments when we can pile on facts and lose the truth. There’s no such thing as a Gollum, no such thing as One Ring to Rule them All, but there’s something true about a ordinary hobbit who falls sway to pride and temptation. There’s no such thing as a Dementor, but there’s something true about the fear and self-doubt that stalks our nightmares. So maybe it doesn’t matter whether this vision of John the Revelator has all its facts in a row. There’s something true about Michael and the Dragon and Heavenly victory we have in Jesus Christ. That’s the thing with this book: we just have to use our imagination.

Nor is this moment alone in the Scripture. It’s the language of the prophets – in the vision of Micah we read today, of the days to come, on the mountain of the Lord. Yes, Jerusalem is on a mountaintop, and of course the prophet is using very specific references. But also. Something more, something bigger like the justice that rolls down like water. What Walter Brueggemann calls the Prophetic Imagination: the ability to look at the broken pieces of the world, of Israel in exile, of Christians in persecution, of us, here, in 2012, to look at the broken pieces around us and imagine something so much more beautiful. Even this Sunday, which on the church calendar is Transfiguration Sunday, the day we remember the disciples’ journey to the mountaintop, where Jesus was changed before them into robes of dazzling white; the spirit came, and their eyes were opened, and the watchful dragons were vanquished, and God used their imaginations, so that they for one moment could see what God sees, to see something altogether fantastic.

This is the gift of the Book of Revelation: we open its pages, and God opens our eyes, and slays our watchful dragons, and uses our imagination, and gives us hope. How you read the book is how you see the world, and so I challenge you to read with imagination, to see not just the facts on the ground, not just the broken pieces, not just the patterns of everything that’s gone before, but to see what God sees, to dream what God dreams, to imagine what truth is in store for us just past those watchful dragons.

Some of you know that my boyhood love, and, really, if we’re honest, my adulthood love, what I always wanted on Christmas morning, was a box of Legos. It was always Legos: I wanted the Lego cars, the Lego castles, the Lego towns, the Lego space ships, I wanted the fancy ones with the gears, I wanted the elaborate train sets, I wanted the pirate ship you could float in your bathtub. I wanted them all. Now, at least when I was a boy, a Lego set came with one set of instructions. Step-by-step, easy-to-follow, instructions on how exactly to build that castle or that battleship that you saw on the front of the box. And of course that’s exactly what I did: I ripped open the box, and I took the instructions, and I followed them to the letter, and before me was my creation.

But I have to admit that sometimes I would finish putting one of those new sets together  – and it’s still Christmas morning, we haven’t even gotten to lunch yet, and I’ve already this thing all put together – and then what? You could play with it for a while, but that’s not really what Legos are for, it’s not a great pirate ship to have, it’s a great pirate ship to build, and if all you could do was follow the directions, if all you could was just go step-by-step and do what you were told, if that’s all there was, then that’s all the pirate ship could be. It would only ever just be that, nothing more, nothing less, and something sad at that.

But on the back of the box. On the back of the box was a treasure trove of an altogether different caliber. No instructions, no directions. Just pictures. Pictures upon pictures of all the different things that those pieces could make. You thought you had huge battle cruiser. But did you know it was also a tank? It was also an airplane! It was also a fort! It was also tugboat! All the things it could be, but just images. Just glamour shots really, not the easiest to build, because you only have one angle, you can’t see all the details, no instructions, nothing so simple, nothing so predictable, nothing so ordinary. Just images. Visions of all the possibilities that the broken pieces could be, with a little help from your imagination. Amen.

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