Friday, April 25, 2008

Working the Anglers

Mark 1:17

I began a sermon series on Red-Letter Christianity last Sunday—“red-letter” being a reference to those Bibles that print the words of Jesus in red ink. There is a group of people who have taken to calling themselves “red-letter Christians” meaning that they follow these words of Jesus, particularly in regard to his concern for the poor and the marginalized. Inasmuch as Christians of every-color letter follow the words of Jesus, I thought it worthwhile to take another look at what he had to say, specifically in Mark’s gospel, if for no other reason than Mark is the earliest gospel and therefore a source for the others.

Last Sunday Jesus said “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” For Jesus’ original audience, Galilean Jews chafing under brutal Roman oppression, to hear that “the kingdom of God is near” could only mean that the kingdom of Rome was on the ropes. The prophet Daniel predicted as much. He foresaw that “a kingdom never to be destroyed that would crush all other kingdoms and bring them to an end.” Jews in Jesus’ day presumed this never-ending Kingdom to be Israel led by a reconstituted, glorious King David who would arrive to reign on the clouds of heaven. But here instead was this humble Jesus, standing on flat ground and not looking like much of a kingdom-crusher. He had no army. No political power. His weapon of victory was Rome’s weapon of humiliation. Rome used crosses to expose the futility of political resistance and to execute a sentence of death on rebels. But Jesus used the cross to expose the futility of Roman violence and execute a sentence of forgiveness on his crucifiers. Christ accepts rejection and injustice and responds with resurrection. He rules not through the shedding of his enemies’ blood, but by the shedding of his own. In this context, for Jesus to say repent was to call to conversion those who understood kingdom only in terms of ruling power. “If anyone would come after me,” Jesus would later say, “he must take up a cross.”

However in tonight’s passage, Jesus invitation to follow is not yet about taking up a cross, but about dropping down your nets—both literally and metaphorically. Jesus invites four fishermen to drop their literal fishing nets and start dropping metaphorical nets on people. If you’ve been a Christian long, you likely dread sermons from this verse because they’re usually sermons about the E-word. Evangelism. Talking about your faith to non-Christian friends. Catching heathen for the kingdom. Granted, dropping a net on unbelieving and unsuspecting friends usually comes off more like dropping a bomb. I know that whenever I tell people I attend church, never mind that I work at one, the responses I get usually range from quizzical curiosity (you look normal) to outright hostility. Of course, Jesus did say that’s how it would be.

Though it is ironic that we would interpret this verse in terms of evangelism since to catch a fish is to kill it (taking for granted that first century fishing was not yet into fishing as sport). OK, so maybe I’m taking the metaphor too literally, but if you turn over to the red-letter verses in Matthew 13, you read Jesus saying that to catch fish means death for some of them. “The kingdom of God is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

So it’s not so ironic. Fishing is tied to death. To catch people is to snatch them from death, from the grill fires of hell. Believe in Jesus and stay out of that fiery furnace. But then you turn to the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, from whence Jesus likely got his fishing allusion, and there you read that the bad people getting caught aren’t heathen unbelievers, but the chosen people themselves. In Jeremiah 16, God says through the prophet regarding his own people, “I will send many enemies who will catch these people like fishermen. After that I will send others who will hunt them out like hunters from all the mountains, all the hills, and the crevices in the rocks. For I see everything they do. Their wicked ways are not hidden from me. Their sin is not hidden away where I cannot see it. Before I restore them I will punish them in full for their sins and the wrongs they have done. For they have polluted my land with the lifeless statues of their disgusting idols.”

Putting all this together, it may be that what Jesus had in mind when he made these literal fishermen into metaphorical fishers of men was to first pronounce judgment on those who thought themselves safe and call them back to a true relationship with God. Tie this to the idea that to repent in verse 15 was to repent from wrong ideas about God’s kingdom, and what you have is something that looks like the need to get your own faith in order before you go sharing it with anybody.

In a recent study entitled Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, the authors argue that younger Americans by and large perceive Christianity to be not Christ-like but unchristian. They write that the church is in danger of losing younger generations, who see modern Christianity as not only irrelevant but hostile to their identity. In the words of one respondent: “Christianity has become bloated with blind followers who would rather repeat slogans than actually feel true compassion and care. Christianity has become marketed and streamlined into a juggernaut of fear-mongering that has lost its own heart.” Author Brian McLaren, a self-described red-letter Christian, cites a young South African healthcare worker who likewise critiques modern Christianity for its specialization in afterlife destinations to the exclusion of addressing significant social injustices in this life. Such a Christianity sequesters the gospel into the realm of the personalized and the private, distorting the good news into a product designed for maximum personal benefit with minimal obligation. All you have to do is believe it and you’re set for eternity, regardless of how you live your life here. In this vein, evangelism becomes a salvation sales pitch rather than a radical call to transform the world. But without evidence of the gospel’s world-changing power in the here and now, it’s hard to get excited about its power in the sweet by and by. As a result, those on the outside find fewer and fewer Christians enthusiastic about their faith, and thus find less and less reason to accept or even consider it for themselves—apart from the threats of hell that is, which lose their effect when those making the threats come off as defensive, deranged or embarrassed about their faith.

You’d think that a gospel that is supposed to be the best news ever would be doing better than this. Why is it that the good news seems so unattractive to so many? Here you have a gospel that offers a relationship with a God who loves you enough to die for your sins and give you a brand new start at life. A gospel that instills joy and hope amidst adversity. A gospel that redeems suffering and pain. A gospel that promotes compassion and care for individuals, societies and the planet itself. A gospel that makes peace between people, their world and their Creator. The problem is that to get to that gospel, you have to get through all the gunk with which the gospel has become encrusted. Ask most who sit outside Christian faith to describe it, and what you hear are words such as culturally intolerant, scientifically ignorant and politically divisive. Shoot, many who sit on the inside use the same adjectives. Is it any wonder we’re ashamed to share it? Maybe Jesus was right that before we can catch people for the kingdom we need to first fish out the trash that’s ruining our nets.

Some of you may recall a story I told in the morning last fall from Donald Miller’s popular book from a few years back, Blue Like Jazz (which I read is actually being made into a movie). In it he recounts a time as a zealous college student during an annual drunken festival when he and his fellow Christians decided to do some evangelism. Donald Miller proposed they set up a confession booth so that the partying students could repent of the many sins they would clearly be committing. Since faith begins by first admitting you’re a sinner, what better way to get the faith process rolling than by setting up a big confession booth smack in the middle of the campus drunk-fest? Donald Miller admitted he made his proposal tongue in cheek. He was just kidding. If they were going to share their faith, there was no need to be jerks about it. But Tony, the leader of the campus Christian group, thought a confession booth was brilliant—which Donald said scared the crap out of him because suddenly he sensed that Tony was really going to go through with it.

“Only here’s the catch,” Tony said. “We are not actually going to accept confessions. We are going to make confessions. We are going to confess that as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades and Columbus, we will apologize for the televangelists and the politicians, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely. We will apologize for being judgmental. We will ask people to forgive us and we will tell them that in our selfishness we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus and that we are sorry.”

So Donald Miller and his friends built their confession booth and Donald took his turn inside first and waited and waited as the raucous partying went on outside. Nobody came in. “What a stupid idea,” Donald thought. “Obviously this was not God’s idea. There is nothing relevant about Christianity. Is it even true?” Just then the door swung open. A guy named Jake stepped in and laughed, “So what is this? I’m supposed to tell you all the juicy gossip from the partying that’s been going on? Want me to confess my sins?” “Not exactly,” Donald replied. “You see, we’re a group of Christians on campus who’ve come to realize that we haven’t been very good at following Jesus. In fact, a lot of Christians haven’t. Anyway, we wanted to confess that and our other sins and shortcomings as Christians to you.” “You’re serious,” Jake said, his amusement replaced by shock. “I’ll keep it short,” Donald said. “Jesus said to feed the poor and heal the sick. I’ve never done very much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out. I know that a lot of people can’t listen to me when I talk about my faith because I’m judgmental and I tend to carry an agenda into the conversation instead of letting the message of Jesus speak for itself. I am sorry for all of that and a whole lot more.”

Donald Miller goes on to describe how Jake forgave him and how bowled over Jake was by the gesture and how even though he wasn’t really interested in becoming a Christian, he was curious what it was that Christians were supposed to believe. So Miller went on to explain about sin and God and the cross and faith. Jake left to think about it and another person was waiting. Donald wrote how he ended up confessing to over thirty people that night. It went on for several hours. He wrote, “All of the people who visited the booth were grateful and gracious. And I was being changed through the process. I went in with doubts and came out believing so strongly in Jesus I was ready to die and be with him.”

To authentically share the gospel you first have to authentically experience the gospel. Authentic witnesses are not authentic because they are flawless, but because they are honest. Their lives match their speech even when they fail miserably to love God and their neighbors as themselves, because it’s then that they exhibit repentance and redemption. Christians are called to be people of compassion and love but also people of firsthand grace—screw ups who fall down and get up due to God’s mercy and are therefore eager to show God’s mercy. Grace, compassion and love are not lofty theological ideals but earthy, ethical practicalities. The gospel is shared in the concrete things people do to, with and for other people. Salvation’s goal is not merely a ticket to heaven, but a life lived on earth that looks like it will in heaven. Such a life can prove catchy to outsiders (in keeping with the fishing metaphor), because it looks like Jesus.

“Come, follow me, I will make you fishers of people,” Jesus said. Mark informs us that the fishermen dropped their nets at once. There was something about this humble carpenter that proved too compelling to resist. Reading their story is to read of spectacular failure, and of spectacular redemption, of spectacular love and faith, of sacrifice, bravery and world changing power both here and for eternity. Their story is the story of every disciple who has ever dropped their net to take up a cross. May it be your story too. May the Jesus who lives in you and through you likewise prove too compelling to resist.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Red Letter Christianity

Mark 1:15

Fans of the Colbert Report may recall the Super Tuesday eve episode where the parodying Colbert characteristically went off on the huge role conservative Christians would play in presidential primary outcomes. “As a candidate,” he said, “you either have to appease evangelicals or get out of their way!” Colbert stressed that in addition to Barack Obama (who is a radical Islamic terrorist) and Hillary Clinton (who is Hillary Clinton) John McCain was going to have a particularly hard time. Eight years ago he called Pat Roberson and Jerry Falwell “agents of intolerance” and “as we all know,” Colbert deadpanned, “Christians do not forgive. It’s not in their nature.” Ha-ha. Colbert then introduced his evangelical guest for that night, Tony Campolo. The erstwhile sociologist and popular speaker for years has pushed to bring issues of social justice back into the evangelical mainstream. During the self-indulgent eighties, he made headlines on the Christian conference circuit for asserting that driving a BMW is a sin. Lately he’s back in the headlines with a book entitled “Red Letter Christians.” Baited by Colbert, Campolo remarked that unlike the media stereotype, he was an evangelical who was not anti-environment and was not pro-war … at which point Colbert interrupted. But wasn’t Jesus pro-war? Did the Lord himself not say, “I have not come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword!”? Ha-ha. OK, so Jesus did say that. But not about war. Campolo retorted that Jesus also said, “love your enemies” which he interpreted to mean “don’t shoot them.”

Campolo is both passionate and prolific. In one of his blog posts he wonders whether in fact evangelicals are not only losing any moral authority we once had, but whether we are also “losing our opportunity to carry out what we believe is our Biblical imperative to preach the whole Gospel to the whole world. One of the distinguishing traits of we Evangelicals has been our zeal to carry the good news of Christ’s salvation to every nation. Sadly, one of the consequences of our support of our nation’s foreign policies is that the doors for missionary work are being shut. Because Christianity, throughout the Muslim world, is associated with America, anti-Americanism has heated up anger against Christians in many parts of the Islamic world. Tens of thousands of Christians have fled Iraq under a siege of discrimination and even persecution. Churches are being burned down in Baghdad for the first time. There is little doubt that evangelism, which ironically was allowed by the evil dictator America drove from power, will be curtailed under this new government which we helped establish.”

While I tend to wonder similar things, my particular interest for the sake of this sermon, and the ones that follow, are these red-letters of the New Testament that Campolo has chosen to rally around. If you have a “red-letter” Bible, then you know that it as the words of Jesus printed in red ink. In his book, Campolo argues that to be a red-letter Christian is to have a high view of Scripture, to believe that Jesus is alive and salvation can be had through faith in him, and to have a passionate commitment to social justice which inevitably leads to an intense involvement in politics. Inasmuch as this is an election year and politics are front and center everywhere you look, I thought it worthwhile to remind ourselves again of what Jesus said and how obedience to his sayings informs not just our personal piety, but public and civic engagement. Now so-called “Red-Letter Christians” tend to be Democrats (ironic given that the letters are red). I myself am a registered Republican. But as far as I can tell Jesus was neither. Thus to look at his words is not to seek support for a particular political platform (though we do that all the time), but hopefully to better understand whether and how what he said may have political implications.

Take tonight’s passage for instance. “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” On the one hand, you read this and interpret it as Jesus speaking primarily about heaven and salvation and personal faith in him. But then you look more closely, especially at the word near, and you discover that it’s a word that could also be translated as at hand, or even right here. Suddenly you wonder whether Jesus is speaking about something other than heaven out there, or even heaven in your heart. For his original audience here in Mark, Galilean Jews chafing under brutal Roman rule, to hear that the rule of God had arrived could not have been construed as anything other than a radical denouncement of Roman rule. This is what made it such good news. And what made it political. Jesus proclaims that Rome’s time is up. God’s kingdom has come.

It’s just what the prophet Daniel had predicted. In Daniel 2 we read, “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.” And then in Daniel’s vision of chapter 7, “As I watched, a ferocious fourth beast waged war against the saints and defeated them, until the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favor of the saints of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom.” Their rescue would come by one “given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language will worship him.” Jews understood the fourth beast to be Rome. The “one given authority” was the Son of Man himself. For oppressed Jews to hear Jesus say that “God’s kingdom had come” meant that God’s justice had come too and that the power to rule would soon be theirs. Never mind that the one standing before them making this pronouncement was an unemployed, homeless carpenter—and not much of a Messiah.

Mark doesn’t tell us how Jesus’ first sermon was received (though I imagine some people probably thought, “wow that was short!”). However in Luke, you’ll remember, when Jesus announced the arrival of God’s justice in his home church, folks there came close to throwing him off a cliff. Why? I used to think it was because they thought Jesus was mocking their faith. How dare some vagabond homeboy declare himself the anticipated bringer of God’s justice! It’s like Ralph Nader declaring his candidacy for president again. Who can take that seriously? But on second thought, I don’t think it was Jesus’ appearance, social status, lack of experience or outrageous assertions that proved so offensive. I think the thing that would have gotten everybody’s goat in this short sermon would have been another word repent. Think about it. You’re the victim. You’re the one who’s been run over and abused by a tyrannical government. You’re the one who needs rescue and justice. And here’s Jesus telling you to repent? You’re like, “What did I do?”

The answer may be found by taking another look at yet another word, this time the politically charged word kingdom. Then as now, to say kingdom is to imply power, and specifically, the power to control. In regard to Rome, kingdom power meant military power, control by brute force. Historians may describe Pax Romana as a time of world peace, but the peace of the Roman Empire was a peace by way of war, extortion and the elimination of enemies. Roman apologists naturally called such imperial domination good news, which it was as long as you weren’t an enemy of the state, a slave, an immigrant, a woman, poor or Jewish. For the Jews of Jesus’ day, good news was not Caesar’s rule, but his downfall. That God promised to bring this about fueled their own audacity of hope. But they’d been hoping for a long time. Too long for some. Among the Jews were those called Zealots, people who believed that they needed to hurry God’s kingdom and that the only way to do that was through open revolt. Meet violence with violence. Others, known as Pharisees, opted for a cultural war. Bring on God’s kingdom by righteous legislation. Follow all the rules and compel God to reward. Scapegoat the sinners and shame society into submission. The Sadducees, on the other hand, figured that if God was going to take his time they might as well take advantage. Cozy up to the Romans and reap the benefits of proximity to political power, even if it means hiding your faith under a basket for a while, or even redefining it altogether.

For each of these groups—Zealots, Pharisees and Sadducees—kingdom-come still meant ruling power. Whether through violence, legislation or accommodation, the end game was all about getting your hands on the reins. It’s a narrative that’s played out through church history too. From the Crusades to witch trials to Northern Irish violence and Rwandan genocides, Christians have long used God’s name to sanction state violence. From indulgences to prohibition, money and marriage, ongoing attempts at legislating Christian morality without the accompanying Christian faith constantly founder, too often due to the exposed hypocrisy and immorality of the legislation’s proponents. Moreover, cozying up to political power never works either. It only dilutes Christian faith into a civil religion not worth its salt. All of these efforts fail because in the end, governments are not God. Governments lie and therefore cannot be trusted. Only God can be trusted. Therefore trust God.

For Jesus to say repent in this context is to call to conversion those who understood kingdom only in terms of ruling power. As theologian NT Wright puts it, in Jesus, “God was issuing a fresh challenge to Israel, echoing back to his promises to Abraham: Israel is indeed the light of the world, but its present policies have been putting that light under a bucket. It’s time for drastic action. Instead of the usual military revolt, it was time to show the pagans what the true God was really like, not by fighting and violence but by loving one’s enemies, turning the other cheek and going the second mile.” Nowhere is this more evident than in Christianity’s calling card. Rome viciously squelched insurrection and political resistance with crucifixion. Rome used crosses to expose the futility of political resistance and execute the death sentence on rebels. But by contrast, Jesus uses the cross to expose the futility of Roman violence and religious complicity with it, while executing a sentence of forgiveness on his crucifiers. Christ accepts rejection and injustice and responds with resurrection. In his kingdom, peace is not made and kept through the shedding of enemies’ blood, but by the king shedding his own blood. God’s kingdom makes and keeps peace by way of nonviolent suffering, humility, grace, reconciliation, generosity and love.

Just as Jesus said trust God rather than public applause when it comes to practicing your piety, and trust God instead of money when it comes to storing up your treasure, here he says trust God rather than governmental power when it comes to the kingdom. “Repent and believe my version of good news instead,” he said. Granted, for Jesus’ followers, viewing crucifixion as good news was not an easy thing to do. Not even after Jesus rose from the dead. It really wasn’t until Pentecost and the Spirit burned it into their heads that they finally got that to follow Jesus by carrying a cross was a right thing to do. Popularity, moral accomplishments, monetary achievement, political influence and status—none of these went with crucifixion. To carry a cross was to become poor and powerless, to recognize that to such belonged the kingdom of God. As the apostle James wrote, “God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him.”

To be poor is not to be pitied. To be poor to be free of the enticements of wealth, free from the delusions of power. Study after study indicates that happiness has an inverse relationship to personal possessions; that those who are poor who are more generous toward others than those who are rich. Personal experience teaches that to be without engenders more faith. The poor trust God because they have no other choice. Little wonder, then, that to be poor is to be happier and more generous (which of course helps keep you poor and happy). Last Sunday our church collected over $30,000 to support the work of World Relief, serving the poor through the work of the church in Sudan, China and elsewhere. Many of you have signed up for our Love Boston Day this coming Saturday where we will spread out all over the city cleaning up trash, feeding and clothing the homeless and befriending the aged (You can still sign up on the church website). Next month a number of you will participate in the Boston Faith and Justice Network’s World Fair Trade Day, also supported by our church, where you will learn to support economic policies and products that do not exploit working farmers and that empower low-income neighborhood businesses.

And many of you will vote in November. One of the things we love about America is that our democracy not only invites but expects our participation. And Colbert was right: Christians do vote. Campolo says that for Red-Letter Christians, voting is an obligation (though I’m not sure where Jesus said that unless somehow you count “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”). While we do not put our trust in princes, we do express our faith when we vote for candidates whose policies at least approximate kingdom values rather than oppose them (beyond merely professing faith in Jesus—candidates always do that). I read how US military expenditures run some 21 times larger than diplomacy and foreign aid combined. Our country remains dead last among developed nations in foreign aid as a percentage of gross national product. One-half of one percent of the US Military budget, if reinvested in foreign aid and development, would cut hunger in Africa in half by 2015. Ten percent could nearly eradicate current global poverty. I can’t help but believe that America did that, if we voted for candidates who supported that, we could do more to eliminate our enemies than all the bombs we’ve heretofore dropped.

Personally, I possess no postmillennial hope of humanity doing anything but eventually sinking under the deluge of persistent human evil and greed. For me to trust God is ultimately to hold out for the Biblical vision of a brand new earth once Christ returns. But this does not mean I can just sit back and wait in the meantime. Until our prayers are finally answered and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, the church floats on as a counter-cultural Noah’s ark—defying the status quo through its sacrificial faith and life. Historically whenever the church has borne its cross, that’s when it taps into its resurrection energy. “The kingdom of God is at hand,” Jesus said. “Repent and believe the gospel.” And then follow where it leads us.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Revelation 13

This sermon title has a familiar if ominous ring. Even people who know nothing about the book of Revelation know about the mark of the beast. We read, “If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666.” In ancient times each letter of the alphabet had a numeric value (akin to Roman numerals). Deciphering a number from a name was simple. But deciphering a name from a number remains downright impossible. This explains why 2000 years later we’re still guessing at the identity of the beast.

Most scholars believe that John, the presumed writer of Revelation, was referring to the ruthless Roman emperor Nero. The only problem is that for Nero Caesar to add up to 666 requires a Hebrew transliteration of the Greek form of a Latin name—and that with a defective spelling. The normal spelling of Nero produces the number 616, which is the area code for Grand Rapids, MI. Bad news for Calvin College and numerous Christian publishing houses. Mathematical finessing of the numeric 666 has produced all sorts of candidates. After Roman persecution of Christians ended, some early church fathers thought the beast to be an apostate Jew from the tribe of Dan, since Dan is missing from the tribal list in Revelation 7. The later Middle Ages turned their attention back to Rome and to the corrupt occupants of the Papacy. By the Reformation, every occupant of the Vatican was suspect. The 1646 Westminster Confession read: “The Pope of Rome is that Antichrist, that man of sin, that son of perdition, who exalteth himself in the church, against all that is called God.” Of course on the other side, Roman Catholics also had a name for the Antichrist: they called him Martin Luther. Hitler, Stalin, Ayatollah Khomeini, Prince Charles and Ronald Reagan have all made the list too. As have American Airlines, Microsoft and Mastercard.

The possibilities remain endless. The erstwhile children’s television character Barney the Dinosaur has been linked to 666. As a dinosaur, Barney is clearly a beast, albeit a cute one. Take the phrase CUTE PURPLE DINOSAUR, change the U’s to V’s, extract all remaining Roman numerals in the phrase, convert them to Arabic, add and you get six-hundred sixty-six. My first name has six letters. Slide just one letter from my last name over to my middle name and you get a sequential 666 (not a surprise to some of you).

If 666 referred to a specific individual, we assume that John and his persecuted readers knew the name. Thus 666 may be not so much about deciphering an identity as about describing that identity. Throughout Revelation the number 7 symbolizes perfection and completion. Revelation’s seventh seal, seventh bowl and seventh trumpet all herald the kingdom of God, the abode of the faithful. By contrast, the sixth seal, the sixth bowl and the sixth trumpet all herald God’s judgment and wrath, the destiny of evil.

We took a detour from Revelation last month to look at the book of Leviticus (a book that ranks right up there with Revelation in terms of incomprehensibility). It was Christmas, therefore, when last I preached from Revelation. Chapter 12, you may remember, offered an interesting twist on Christmas: A mother gives birth to a child destined to rule the nations. An evil adversary seeks to devour this threat to his power. But rather than some small-time tyrant, the adversary of Revelation 12 is a serpent, a dragon, the very devil of hell.

The battle lines between drawn are long established ones. God said to the serpent in the Garden: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers, he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” Throughout Israel’s history her enemies all were portrayed as serpents: the Egyptians, the Assyrians the Babylonians. It is no surprise that a serpent shows up in the final book of the Bible. He’s here to finish what he started in Genesis. The dragon knows the Genesis curse as well as anyone, which is why he crouches in wait to make a meal of the newborn king before the king crushes him. Yet like Herod in the Christmas story, God foils the dragon. The child gets snatched up to heaven while the dragon gets hurled down from heaven. Satan falls to earth eliciting cheers from above. “Now has come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ,” we read, “for the accuser of our brothers and sisters has been thrown down.”

Unfortunately the news on the ground is not so upbeat. Chapter 12 continues, “Woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you filled with fury.” Some commentators try to wrangle the Greek to make it read as if only unbelievers are subject to Satan’s fury. But an authentic rendering and common experience both teach that the devil has the church in his crosshairs too. He’s mad because God has tossed him out of heaven. And he’s mad because God has numbered his days. That he would take out his anger on God’s people should be expected. That God lets him do it presents a perennial problem, but that is not Revelation’s problem. For John, Satan’s fall to earth is ironic good news since it represents the first step in a two-step demotion. In chapter 20 the devil will be hurled the rest of the way down into an eternal lake of fire.

Yet in the meantime, like any frustrated predator, his fury is stoked by his being so dismissively kicked to the ground. Therefore, upon landing on earth, the dragon lunges after the mother, chasing her into the desert. But as with the Israelites of the Exodus, God rescues the woman and evil is thwarted, which is what always happens to Satan in the desert (Jesus defied the devil there too). So the dragon turns to take on the rest of the mother’s offspring, those faithful Christians “who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.”

For the early Christians, persecuted and martyred as they were by the Romans, this explained everything. Though they had been saved by the blood of the lamb, they nevertheless suffered like sheep led to slaughter because they were not ashamed of the gospel. The vengeful dragon was still on the loose. Only now he recruits henchmen. Chapter 13 opens with the dragon looking out on the sea, the domicile of potent evil. From it ascends another monster, a beast with ten horns and seven heads. Note the family resemblance. Both dragon and beast have seven heads and ten horns, perfect and complete numbers that here emphasize perfect and complete wickedness. Old Testament readers will also recognize the resemblance to Daniel’s vision of four beasts, which here John rolls into one ferocious fiend. In verse 3 we read that one of the heads of the beast seemed to have a “fatal wound that had been healed.” At first you think: “Genesis head-crushing curse.” But a more literal rendering of verse 3 has the beast looking “as if it had been slain,” which on second thought is the exact same expression used to describe Christ the crucified Lamb in chapter 5. Suddenly you realize that the beast from the sea is a demonic parody of Jesus, a genuine anti-Christ. Toss in the dragon who grants his power and authority to the beast, as well as the second beast-to-come who inspires the world to worship the antichrist, and what you really have is a complete anti-Trinity.

The contrasts are clear. God in heaven sent Christ the lamb to suffer and die for others. Satan who is kicked out of heaven sends the beast to make others suffer. God grants His power to the Lamb who abjures its violent use. The dragon grants his power to the beast who violently wields it. The Lamb endures death for people from every tribe, language and nation. The beast inflicts death on people from every tribe, language and nation. The Lamb establishes a heavenly kingdom to bless God’s people. The Beast operates behind worldly kingdoms to oppress God’s people. Like Daniel’s beasts that represented historic earthly regimes hostile to God, there is little doubt that for John the beast was manifest in the tyrannical Roman Empire which claimed religious sanction for its gross injustices. Caesar decreed that he alone was “Lord and God.” This was the ultimate blasphemy. The Bible may command obedience to governments, but once the state oversteps its bounds and demands worship of itself, Christians must refuse to submit.

Nevertheless, verse 10 commands that Christians who refuse to submit to the state must still submit to the punishments the state lays down for noncompliance. John writes, citing Jeremiah, “If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed.’ The citation seems odd. In Jeremiah, God allows Israel’s captivity and death as punishment for their unfaithfulness. Are we to understand that God allows the same punishment here for the faithful? Ironically, yes. Such is way of the cross. The captive suffering Israel suffered as punishment for their sin gets redeemed by the cross into the voluntary suffering Christians suffer for their faith. John calls it the endurance and faith of the saints. Paul experienced it as strength made perfect through weakness. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.”

How this operates has been evidenced no better than in the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s. “We’ve come to see the power of nonviolence [and endurance],” Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. “We’ve come to see that this method is not a weak method, for it’s the strong man who can stand up amid opposition, who can stand up amid violence being inflicted upon him and not retaliate with violence. You see, this method has a way of disarming the opponent. It exposes his moral defenses. It weakens his morale, and at the same time it works on his conscience, and he just doesn’t know what to do. If he doesn’t beat you, wonderful. If he beats you, you develop the quiet courage of accepting blows without retaliating. If he doesn’t put you in jail, wonderful. Nobody with any sense likes to go to jail. But if he puts you in jail, you go in that jail and transform it from a dungeon of shame into a haven of freedom and human dignity. And even if he tries to kill you, you’ll develop the inner conviction that there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they are worth dying for.”

I get convicted by these words. They scare me too. So much so that I often will reduce my own faith down to matters of my own personal salvation and my own personal comfort. It makes following Jesus easier to manage. Best not to think too much, or at least too seriously, about everything else Jesus requires of me—be it evangelizing the world, eliminating injustice, making peace, promoting life or just plain feeding the poor.

Author Brian McLaren writes recently of a meeting of ministers he attended in Cape Town, South Africa. As the pastors discussed their ministries to the poor, a healthcare worker also in attendance grew agitated. Eventually he blurted out, “You pastors are causing such destruction, it reaches to the skies. I know you mean well, but you don’t realize the that you cause devastation in the lives of the people among whom I work. You come to the slums every Sunday and you set up your tents, which is good, but then you only preach three things: be healed, be saved and tithe. You tell people that they can be healed of their HIV and some of them believe so they stop taking their medications. But when they stop, they develop new resistant strains of the disease and they spread these tougher infections to other people, leaving them much sicker than they were before. You tell people they need to be born again, but after they’re born again on Sunday, they’re still unemployed on Monday. If they’re unemployed, they’re going to be caught in the poverty web of substance abuse, crime and gangs, domestic violence and HIV. And then you tell them to tithe. You tell them to sow financial seed into your ministries and they will receive a hundredfold return. But you’re the only ones who get a return.

“You could be helping so much. Who else loves the poor and forgotten people of the townships? You could motivate them to learn employable skills, you could teach them how to be friends without having sex, you could help them find things to do—sports or music—or better, teach them the necessity of getting up and showing up and keeping your word and working hard and being honest. You could network through your churches and other contacts to start businesses so the people could get jobs.”

Naturally the pastors on the receiving end of this rebuke got defensive—and furious. They denounced this fellow Christian healthcare worker as a heretic. Did he not know that getting saved, getting healed and tithing were biblical? But of course, so are economic justice, friendship and honest work. We believe in Jesus, yet so often we reduce that belief down to matters of our own personal salvation and our own personal comfort. It makes following Jesus easier to manage. It also makes our faith “a benign and passive chaplaincy to a failing and dysfunctional culture” [McLaren], rather than a force for societal transformation.

John would have recognized this dilution of the gospel as the perverse work of the second beast from the earth, the last member of the unholy trinity. This second beast will get labeled “the false prophet” by the time we get to chapter 16. He also has horns like a lamb, but the reference is more literal here. The lamblike appearance of the second beast denotes gentleness and harmlessness, the kind of false prophet Jesus warned comes as a ravenous wolf in sheep’s clothing. The second beast speaks like the dragon, yet his voice is not a fire-breathing rant; it is the slithering and deceptive whisper of the serpent. This false prophet performs great and miraculous signs, verse 13, “even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all people.” But Jesus warned about that too. He said, “False christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to deceive even the elect—if that were possible.”

By adding if that were possible, Jesus assures against the believer’s deception. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me,” he said. “No one can snatch them out of my hand.” These sheep are the same elect Revelation describes in chapter 9 as having the mark of God on their foreheads. Yet if you’ll remember back to chapter 9 you’ll remember that these marks hearken back to Ezekiel and the forehead marks there on those who expressed remorse for Jerusalem’s ruin—a ruin for which they were to blame. The Ezekiel passage has a definite Passover feel to it. Just as the angel of God passed over those in Egypt whose doorposts were marked with the blood of the lamb, so in Ezekiel’s Jerusalem, those who were marked with the mark of God likewise were passed over when judgment arrived. So many years hence, this same judgment has been understood as doom for all who refuse to repent and heed Christ as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus rescues us from the final judgment Revelation portends.

Yet as I mentioned on Maundy Thursday, there’s a problem when you turn to the apostle Paul. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” Paul’s pronouncement of final Christian judgment tacitly indicts that ancient tendency believers have always had to take God’s grace for granted and to treat the doctrine of election as unchallenged incumbency. We read “Jesus loves me just as I am” as permission to stay that way. It is the gospel truth that just as you can do nothing to earn God’s grace, you can do nothing to lose it either. But at the same time, you must do something to show you’ve received it. Revelation labels the faithful as those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom,” Jesus said, “but only those who do the will of my Father.” My sheep listen to my voice and they follow me.”

“They will not follow a stranger,” Jesus said, “but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” This may be why the false prophet chooses familiar language. He constructs an impressive talking idol of the first beast, a foreshadow, perhaps, of the technologies in our own day that so effortlessly entertain and distract. He yanks an economic leash, an acknowledgment perhaps, to money’s own pull to which we so readily succumb. The beast may be a parody of Jesus, but sometimes we prefer the parody: A Jesus we construct in our own image. I’ve mentioned before a book from a few years back by BU religion professor Stephen Prothero entitled, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon. Professor Prothero resourced sermons and theological works, but also movies, novels, news media and popular music in order to show how “Americans of all stripes have cast the man from Nazareth in their own image.” Democrats portray Jesus as a democrat, Republicans have him resembling republicans. Jesus comes off as a radical for the radicals and a corporate CEO for business types. Not so surprisingly, a New York Times reviewer pointed out that by the end of his book, Professor Prothero’s own portrayal had Jesus looking a lot like an urban university religion professor. Chances are that if you were asked to describe Jesus in your own words, the description wouldn’t be a long shot from how you see yourself—with the same friends and the same enemies as you have.

In the end, there is support for understanding 666 as a generic symbol of imperfect and incomplete humanity. People marked with the mark of the beast are people devoid of endurance and devoid of faith: both faith in Christ and faith like Christ. Martin Luther King Jr. was right: “There are some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they are worth dying for. And I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”