A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
This sermon was part of a sermon series on biblical passages chosen by members of the congregation.
During this service, two children, Phoenix and Georgina, were baptised.
Apparently there’s a new trend for coping with the stresses of modern living; it’s perhaps unsurprisingly come to the fore through social media. It goes by the delightful name of ‘bed rotting’. ‘Bed rotting’ is spending extended periods of the day in bed, not engaging in any productive activity or taking care of ordinary responsibilities. It’s used by students and others who claim it’s a form of self-care, but others say ‘bed rotting’ is a response to the pressures to get on and make something of yourself, and even a rejection of the system we live in of capitalist. For others, it justifies being a slob.
Rejecting the world around you, looking for a better way of living, has often been a response to that sense of dissatisfaction with ‘the system’ under which people live. For some people this rejection has been total, as they simply drop out and live off-grid. I watched a documentary recently about people living in caves on the Canary Island La Gomera. They met a wealthy businessman whose life had reached a crisis point and who explored their hippyish, contented way of life. He was moved by their simplicity of living, in a way that many of us would recognise if we have had a life crisis and been to a monastery, walked the Camino, or headed off to an ashram.
For others our reaction is compromise. Faced with a world that we feel is somehow wrong and yet struggling to escape from our responsibilities, we try to minimise our exposure to ‘the system’. That often takes the form of a retreat into the safety of the family, or possibly these days, our social networks. It’s a version of what the famous philosopher Voltaire said in his satirical novel Candide, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” – we must cultivate our own garden. Look after the local, focus on the family and providing for your own needs, for the world is too damaged and damaging to possibly be able to be changed by little old us. So, we say we can do little to change the world, so let’s just retreat from that and focus on the things we can influence – our little piece of land, our children and closest relationships, possibly our neighbours. Compromise and retreat make much sense in a world beyond our control.
But there’s a third option, and it’s the one that requires faith, hope and love, the three great Christian virtues. And that option is endurance and resistance.
Endurance and resistance are the underlying messages of the last book of the Bible, the Revelation to St John, a book which can terrify us and put us off with its complexity, beloved of fundamentalists and conspiracy theorists. The passage today in Revelation 13 – which contains the famous line about the ‘number of the beast being 666’ so loved by horror film makers and predictors of the end of the world – is just one example of the sort of obscurity that puts us off. This is a crying shame because, properly understood, the meaning and message of Revelation is far from the sort of lurid script of a diabolical film, or those who think it’s a blueprint for the end of the world. Properly understood the message of this book is about enduring and resisting the systems that shape the world and the culture in which we find ourselves.
The Revelation which this book reveals, isn’t an outline of the end of the world. The Revelation is Jesus Christ. It is the Risen and Ascended Jesus who the Apostle John sees at the beginning and the end of the book. It is Jesus who unfolds the mysterious imagery that the book contains. The message of the book is, for those who first received it and for us, one of endurance and hope in Jesus, who is the Saviour of the world, and who keeps those who trust in him safe in the face of the evils of the systems and powers that often control our culture, that shape the way we see the world, the decisions people take, the priorities we set, and which rewards and punishes those who are part of the system or who are not.
For those who first received this strange and mysterious Revelation, they would have known full well who ‘the system’ was. It was the dominant Roman Empire, which exercised so much control – military, economic, cultural, religious – over the peoples of the part of the world in which the first Christians emerged. It was the superpower, the economic system of its day. And its power was enforced militarily and politically.
Time doesn’t permit a detailed explanation of Revelation 13. One of the reasons why the horror writers and the fundamentalists love this book is because of its strange imagery – in this chapter a Dragon, a Monster from the Sea, a Beast, which are clearly meant to be a kind of anti-Trinity to Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The people who first heard this letter would have recognised a lot of these symbols, even if they didn’t get the full details, because they come straight out of the Old Testament and from the Jewish Writings of the period after the Old Testament was written, and they are full of this kind of exotic imagery. Once you know that, it’s much easier to ‘decode’ Revelation, you can much more easily unpick the coded language to understand that the way that John’s Revelation sees evil being manifested in the world is through the Roman Empire.
I’ll give you just one little taster, about that famous ‘mark of the Beast’: 666. In the ancient world, and especially among Jewish writers of the time, there was something called gematria. Simply put, it was a way of assigning numerical values to names in the Hebrew and Aramaic languages. Every letter had a value. In this system of gematria, if you wrote the name of Nero Caesar in Hebrew, converted them into numbers and then totted them up, guess what? The number is 666. 666 is a coded way of talking about Nero. The whole of Revelation 13 is an extended critique of the Empire from the Emperor down. And from this point on in Revelation, Rome is likened to the ancient city of Babylon, a common Jewish way of talking of an evil empire. The book concludes with the fall of Babylon, replaced by the New Jerusalem descending to earth. Evil systems are replaced by the loving reign of God on earth. The purpose of Revelation, with its symbolism and coded language, is to encourage trust that Jesus is the Revelation from God, that the systems of domination and evil are not the last word about the way the world is meant to be, and that God’s victory promised through Jesus will come. Meanwhile, Jesus says in this book, endure and resist.
Armed with this kind of insight, Christians today are called to see the world for what it is – often controlled by other empires, and systems of control or domination. The Dragon, the Beast and the Beast are still at work – through people, through institutional structures, through governments, corporations. We are all caught up in what one writer calls Domination Systems. So, to give an example, the economy loses its purpose to serve human values and the common good, and becomes something that turns everything and everyone into a commodity. Sound familiar? And political systems can do the same. In his study of Hitler, the historian Alan Bullock identifies many of the things that Revelation talks about in this chapter concerning the Beast. Bullock talks about Hitler’s pattern of creating mistrust in institutions, his undermining of trust in the judicial system, his constant critique of the media, his lack of any conception of truth, and the slow encouragement of the idolisation of the leader into a god-like figure. Revelation’s message for all time asks this of those who can see and understand: does that remind you of anyone else today?
Understanding and seeing the way the world is, and the evil present and active in individuals and systems, is but half of the story. The point for the disciple with such an understanding, is how to respond. For Christians, our option is not withdrawal into bed rotting or Voltaire’s garden cultivation. It is endurance and resistance. To endure in a world which is dominated by systems that devalue people or turn them into passive objects of control or coercion, is first and foremost about remaining faithful. Jesus wants his people to remain faithful to his way of seeing the world: through the eyes of love, compassion, justice and mercy. Only by staying faithful to Jesus, who is powerful enough to give his strength to the disciples can we stay faithful in a world that picks people off one by one. Only by staying together, by reminding one another of the stories of Jesus and by practising the way of Jesus, can we endure. In a world that sees faith as irrelevant or, worse still, a tool of further control, religion itself is susceptible to the power of the empires too, as anyone who is descended from the victims of the transatlantic slave trade here will know. Churches are not places of escape from the harsh world around us, they are places where we find energy to endure and to continue to see the world as Jesus sees it.
And endurance leads to resistance. Some will see resistance as something to do with political activity, as Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu and the many who followed them did. But for all of us all who are called to follow Jesus Christ, who (like Phoenix and Georgina today) are marked with the sign of the cross, we are called resist by being disciples in the world. No withdrawal into the total passiveness of bed rotting, or the more likely focus on me and my family against the world for us; instead we practise the virtues of Christian discipleship in public. That could be resisting the dehumanising tendencies of the business world in which you find yourselves; it could be actively standing alongside those who are blamed for the woes that the system is responsible for, whether that be marginalised groups, the refugee or minority ethnic communities; it could be standing up for truth in the world of social media, where lies and fake news serve powerful agendas; it could be creating local economies where the care of the earth rather than its destruction are worked out. Christians resist the empires and systems of this world through the practise of life-giving service in public. The empires and systems of this world want you to relegate your religion to the home and to your individual souls. The risen and ascended Jesus wants you to change the world through your discipleship.
So today, as we baptise Georgina and Phoenix, we recruit two new resistance fighters for the Gospel of Jesus Christ against the powers of evil empires and systems. We invite them and their parents and godparents to join the resistance movement of God. But as we do so, let us repent again of our collusion with the empires of this world, our own persistent failures to resist the powers of darkness, and let us commit once more to the revolution of love that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen.
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