4 Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of the city, my people, so that you do not take part in its sins, and so that you do not share in its plagues;
5 for their sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered their iniquities.
I know a little bit about the lie of an empire from being born in South Korea and hearing about North Korea, our long lost brother and neighbor that was split off after the Korean war in 1945. I grew up learning about the state of North Korea as a totalitarian regime that’s filled with propaganda about their leader and their nation. I hear that for the most part people are happy and proud of their nation there; they’ve been taught to think so in every way. There are miracle stories people who escape the country to find a better life. But for the most part, the whole nation pretty much have a specific way of thinking that keeps people insulated and that’s just the way things are there. It deeply saddens me to know that they can’t even have the choice to leave a country.
North Koreans and South Koreans are essentially the same people, same language, but the context, the culture, has drastically parted ways in their way of thinking and way of life. So, It’s easy for me to see that there is a possibility, that a nation can create a world that determines how you think and how you come to be. We Americans, I think, take this for granted and also assume that we’re of course not so ignorant, not so rudimentary in our thinking, so primitive. We’re free! And we are, compared to many other nations. But any nation, any government system, every culture in history, telling us that that is secure for us, is naive, because the human condition, the human propensity is empire thinking. This has been so, through rise and fall of many empires in history, time and time again. It’s almost too familiar of a story that resonates with every generation. That a way of being, a man made system, a way to control the masses to keep power in place, the empire mentality seeps in to operate the human society, and it numbs us, it makes us just stimulated enough to be comfortable and we buy into the status quo.
The story of the empire of an age old story, and this is what the writer of Revelation is getting to now, in our journey through the book during Lent. As we have been learning, John is pretty imaginative with metaphors. It’s a brilliant literary device that drives his purpose, straight through, with a sharp arrow. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Twilight ain’t got nothing on Revelation! My personal favorite of such dystopian genre is the TV show, Walking Dead. Ugh, I hate zombies and I loved the show. Such great storytelling! I hated all the blood, but it’s so epic and compelling. Like, what would you do, at the end of the world, if you have to go out and fight zombies and find food, or stay in one place and starve or be food. What would you do?! The fighting and the zombie scenes are ridiculous, a lot of ketchup was used. Sometimes we gotta bear through the metaphors to get to the story. And we have to do the same with our text today as well to do it honor. Male and female theologians have wrestled with this point and so it’s important to mention.
So, John is telling the story of Babylon as a representation of the empire, not only literally, but it represents of all the “babylons” of time, like Egypt, or Rome, or whatever power lure of the time. He juxtaposes this city to New Jerusalem, as the true city where God is the center of life. To get at this, he uses the derogatory term of (Trigger Warning, I’m going to say this a few times during the sermon, because it’s in the text) “whore” to describe Babylon, and “bride” for New Jerusalem. The point of this is that the seduction of Babylon is real, but New Jerusalem is the ultimate reality.That’s the message. But the method should be pointed out, that it is objectifying language of female bodies. Patriarchy runs deep, people, and we have to start with words, because they shape ideas and reinforce identities. And to not critique the metaphors we use has real consequences in how our boys view women, and our girls see themselves. So I’ve chosen to not reinforce the feminine pronouns for the cities and instead look carefully beyond the metaphors to get to the meaning of the passage.
So my talk today is going to be about: what does it mean to see “babylon”, the empire, for what it is — that it is only a twisted caricature of the New Jerusalem that represents the real world that God invites us to live in? And once we’ve seen it, how can we follow John’s calling to “come out” of the Babylon of our day? John invites us to repent and resist to the empire, that we may see the reality of the New Jerusalem at work right here right now.
So first, what is Babylon? Part of the issue with Babylon and empire thinking, is, at its core, seductive and insidious. “The fish doesn’t know that it’s in the sea.” And, “seductive”, not necessarily meaning and alluding to sexual immorality, but that much of it actually sounds pretty good. Like who wouldn’t want to build an empire that is powerful and strong, and great, who wouldn’t want to secure its walls and protect its people at all cost? Who wouldn’t want a thriving economy? Who wouldn’t want to be a part of great Babylon? But what is so wrong with Babylon, John calls it a “whore”? This word, again, isn’t specifically pointing out sexual deviancy of the city at all, but the word in Hebrew, zana, is translated in Greek as “to be a market”. To be objectified. To be commodified. The sin less about sexual immorality, and more about the critique of the city’s socio-economical state of mind and thinking. I think sometimes we focus on sexual immorality more than greed in church, because greed kind of serves all of us. Greed gives us financial stability and growth. And sexual immorality, that’s the worst kind of sin! (btw, Jesus didn’t have measurements for which sin is greater, we do.)
Let me move us along the text. So John tells us to come out of this city. And goes on to explain what’s wrong with the city. The text continues, chapter 18, to verses 12-13. It lists off these things. Gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, fine linen, purple, silk, scarlet, scented wood, ivory, bronze, iron, marble, cinnamon, spice, incenses, wine, oil, flour, cattle sheep, chariots, slaves, and human souls. → these are, luxury items, and staple goods that build the economy. Market. Trade. The list is about all the ways and its goods are evidence of Economic pride and Affluence. Greed. This is empire thinking.
A Bible commentator put it like this, “Babylon referred not to a city-state or a long-fallen empire, but had become a living archetype of the human propensity to organize ‘civilization’ in opposition to God.” Empire, is a way of life we’ve figured out apart from God.
We get into our little methods and attempt to orchestrate our lives according to our own wisdom without thinking once about God, or table God for this particular area of my life. Finances, well finances, God doesn’t really understand the modern market, I have to do this this way. Or I’ll do good things after I gain this status, prestige, get to a certain level. What is your Babylon? Are you aware of the ways that the world system lulls you into thinking this is how you have to do things?
Maybe some of you might be thinking, oh not me, I’m an independent thinker, I don’t let the Man tell me who I am! Good for you, but also, I’m sorry but we’re all products of our times. You may say, “I’m totally objective!” — it’s the very misconception that keeps us blind. We’re all subjective. We’re all subjects to this time in history, this period of post-enlightenment thinking, I’m sorry, but we’re all caught up in it. The fish doesn’t know that it’s in the sea! Unless you’ve been that fish that’s been dropped out of water, and you’ve had to gasp for air, and that does end up happening to most of us, if not yet, it will. Reality check sets in sometimes. Usually through a kind of suffering we get to see what really matters. But for the most of us, for the most part, we are heavily influenced by the world around us.
What sea are you in that you may not be aware of? What Babylon permeates throughout your life? What empires do you have rising and taking a hold of your life? John cried to the people, “come out of there!” Repent and resist the empire. The book that Steve lent me on reading Revelation, called Unveiling Empire, puts it this way: “This departure from Rome is not understood in the physical sense, but is to be economic, social, political, and spiritual; the idea is to resist, to refuse to participate, to create alternatives.”
This, I think, begins with seeing that we are a naturally drawn to the empire, to repent the way you’ve participated and even contributed to the building of the empire, and resist its way and come out. How do we do this? It begins with you. I want to focus on the concept of “repentance as a form of resistance”. But I want us to talk about those words a bit, because both repentance and resistance carry a lot of different meanings these days.
First resistance. The term RESIST! has gotten to be a complicated thought and have gained some bad rep. To fight and protest. We’ve seen angry or militant resistance. It’s become a overused term of, rah rah, resist, fight the power, question everything! It’s like the opposite of what Steve was talking about last week, listening with compassion and civil public engagement. But Resistance doesn’t have to look violent. It doesn’t have to not be civil. What does it look like for Christians, for Christ followers to resist in a different way than everyone else? What does holy resistance look like? To come out of our babylon, I’d like to offer us repentance as a form of resistance.
Again, words are powerful And sometimes they take on the cultural connotation more than the definition itself. Repentance can be a loaded term these days. It’s been used on picket signs and shouted at on college campuses. REPENT! Many of us have might even have PTSD with the term in the context of american religiosity. It’s had focus on feeling bad, guilt, and feeling shame for wrong things we’ve done. A lot of sin focus, in modern Christianity, is on personal sin. I think this is where the western individualism has sometimes failed us in realizing, that sin is more than just about living a morally clean life by not drinking, smoking, or whatever the modern day issue might be. The issue of sin and repentance for John in Revelation, of Isaiah in the prophets, and for Jesus as well, was covering a much higher bar of sin than our bad lifestyle or wrong decisions. It was about the whole system of empire that lives in an ethos of injustice and exploitation. Jesus talked about the kingdom of God and seeing that and being a part of that, more than himself being your personal Lord and Savior. It’s about the kin-dom, the family, the whole system that operates in harmony with God. Not just your life, the whole thing, the whole world, your family, your country, your society, your philosophy, everything will be new. Isaiah wasn’t just talking about how to live a good Christian life, it was about systemic economic justice.
Isaiah 1:16-17 says:
16 Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong. (what is the wrong doing? What is the right thing?) 17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
Think about the word, righteousness. It’s used in the Bible alot. And to us, when we think about the word righteousness, we think of a good person, a righteous person. It’s commonly used and understood as someone who is religious pious. Both the hebrew (tsaddiq) and the greek (dikaiosuné) definition of the word, it’s usually translated as righteousness, but their definition also means “justice”. And to us, they seem more nuanced and different, righteousness and justice, but they are actually more synonymous! The ancient near east context is also much more wholistic and communal than our American individualistic mentality. Righteousness isn’t only about you being a better person, personal salvation, but being a part of a more just world and participating in the justice of God: that’s justice. It’s not about personal correctness, but justice in the sight of the Lord in all manners of life, in every aspect of life.
Maybe you’ve been told to repent for things in your life before from church that weren’t really about the justice of God, but more about getting in line and following the rules, like throwing away rock music, or kissing dating goodbye. I can see how “repentance” could conjure up a visceral reaction for you. But it simply means, “to turn”. To turn from where our eyes are set, from the seduction of the riches, or security, of comfort, of safety. We trick ourselves into thinking that we can achieve the success the world has promised us so much. Work hard, save up, get what’s yours, work the system to get as much as you need and you can, cause everyone’s doing it. It’s turning our eyes, from what captivates us: like your phone, instagram has so many pretty pictures, and facebook girl jump-roping with her dog is so fascinating, but turn your heard and face the reality, the real world, turn to Jesus who is the ultimate reality.
I think Michael Jackson had it right:
I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change, nana nanana.
Sorry I subjected you to that. But I practiced – I had to do it. Look at yourself in the mirror.
This past week’s Bible Guide Monday ended with the reflection, “Today, ask God to reveal some aspect of violence or injustice in your nation, your city, or your ethnicity that you participate in through your actions or thinking. Ask God for ideas on how to turn away from that and for the courage to do so.”
What injustice do you see?
What do you think is wrong with the world? What injustice do you see? Racism? In what ways have you contributed to racism? Or turned a blind eye to it or stayed quiet in the face of it? Or maybe it’s the disparity between the rich and the poor? How have you participated in economic injustice? Blame the big banks and excuse yourself as, I’m just trying to get what’s mine. Or degradation of our environment and endangered species? Recycling or using less energy only when it’s convenient for us. Or exploitation of human bodies through porn, “harmlessly” participating in an industry of billions of dollars that perpetuate dehumanization of human sexuality.
I’ve been so sad and angry at the violence of the world, especially guns. And I hope that we can make changes systematically to make our world a safer place. But also, I think we need to look into ourselves and ask, how have I harbored violence in my life, in my own heart? How do I perpetuate violence from one place to the next person? I’ve had to search myself and realize, that I’ve used violent words or attitudes. I get into fights with Eugene, metaphorically but with very much guns blazing. And even, I’ve talked to myself with anger and violence against myself!
The New Reality
Let us repent. If we’re resisting the empire, then what are we leaning into? We are leaning into the New Jerusalem. Turn to the New Jerusalem. And what is the New Jerusalem? It is the place that is the reign of God, the way of Jesus: The place where God and People Live Together.
Revelation 21:3 describes it like this:
“Behold, the dwelling of God is with people, God will dwell with them, and they will be God’s people, and God’s self will be with them”
A little more difficult to explain. Because you can’t always see it. The empire is easier to point out. It’s like, remember the movie the Matrix. They were living in this world that wasn’t real, only a figment of their imagination that they were programmed to live and see. But then, Neo, finds the real world. And couldn’t live out his real potential in the fake world. The New Jerusalem is the real world. Babylon is only a gross counterfeit of that reality.
We’ve been learning that Revelation uses a lot of the Old Testament symbolism and metaphors. John’s description of New Jerusalem is again, Similar to Ezekiel’s vision, of restored Jerusalem, reconstructed temple, where ritual purity welcomes people into the temple: everyone’s welcome.
But the difference is, for John, there is no temple, and everyone’s a priest. He says, “I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb is its temple” Temple language has been central to Old Testament imagination of the divine. But rather, John sees, “the entire people who resist empire as a nation of priests”
New Jerusalem is a place where we reign with God as heirs. Like The Chronicles of Narnia! Little children becoming kings and queens of the nation. Unveiling Empire described it like this:
“Empire’s economic exploitation is reversed in New Jerusalem. Rather than stealing wealth and resources from the world, people and nations will freely bring their glory to the Holy City. The traditional image of nations bringing tribute to Zion is democratized to express people’s universal sharing of God’s gifts with one another. The residents of New Jerusalem live in an economy of gift, not of wage slavery or measured rewards. Abundance provided by God overflows on all without hoarding or greed.”
That is the New Jerusalem. And the big news is, the New Jerusalem has already begun. Jesus has already begun doing this. John wouldn’t be inviting us if that were not the case: it’s already happening, we just need to catch up. It is easier to stay in the Empire. But he proclaims, he announces, you must see this new kingdom coming! See it and join it. It’s happening all around us and Jesus Christ has begun it! Like in the Matrix, Neo couldn’t have figured everything out if he didn’t have Trinity and Morpheus helping! We can’t do it by ourselves. We know that God has already begun it. It’s not on you. The New Jerusalem is here. The kingdom of God is near. The kingdom of God is among you. The kingdom of God is within you! John’s big statement is that the New Jerusalem is the new real reality, that Jesus has already unveiled this reality, we only need to open our eyes to it.
So what are we to do? Go resist, repent and come out. That’s a lot of things, and I know John in Revelation and I both invited you to do this. But the main new is, the good news isn’t, that you have so many things you need to do. The Good News isn’t: get busy, Jesus is coming. If I just gave you more things to do this week, well that wouldn’t be the gospel. Because grace. Whatever you do, go with grace. And don’t do it alone.
This is what I want to leave you with today:
The New Jerusalem is already here. Do you believe that? Can you see flag of the God’s reign planted here and there? Do you see it?
And our job is that, We only need to welcome and usher in this reality. Buy into it. Join in. Welcome to New Jerusalem.
And who rules the New Jerusalem? Jesus leads us in ruling this new reality. But, Jesus is a King unlike any other king, who lives with us and among us. That’s the kind of king we have.
Will you welcome this king? Will you welcome Jesus? On this Palm Sunday, we celebrate the welcoming of this king on a donkey by the same way the people did back then for Jesus, with palms. In the Roman culture, palms represented victory. They would wave palms around after war victory when welcoming the king and the soldiers back. It’s like the way we lay out red carpet for our highest honor nowadays, which I guess are mostly movie stars?
Will you pull out the Red carpet for one who does not adorn oneself in red carpet attire with gold and jewels, not in a limousine, but maybe in a tuk tuk, not on a war horse, but a donkey, not with fame and power, but with humility and sacrifice. Will you lay out your great welcome to Jesus in your life? Will you welcome Jesus?