This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:
UK protest against poverty of disabled people
The 144,000 of Israel Sealed
7After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow on earth or sea or against any tree.2I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to damage earth and sea,3saying, ‘Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the servants* of our God with a seal on their foreheads.’
4 And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel:5From the tribe of Judah twelve thousand sealed,from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand,from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand,6from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand,from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand,from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand,7from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand,from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand,from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand,8from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand,from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand,from the tribe of Benjamin twelve thousand sealed.
The lectionary takes us to the book of The Revelation, which presents itself as the vision of a christian leader, exiled for his faith on the island of Patmos. He views the Roman Empire (which he calls “Babylon”) as a corrupt and murderous agent of the devil, and uses a variety of Apocalyptic language, drawn mainly from the Hebrew bible, to express God’s imminent judgement upon it. This book is commonly supposed to be about the end of the world, but I think it’s message is more urgent and is about the end of any human “world” such as the Roman state. Its langauge is often violent, but its core message is that God’s enemies will be destroyed by the sacrifice of Jesus and his suffering witnesses.
We may imagine this passage as a reflection on what God’s doing now, in the present, where there is no sign of divine punishment although God’s people are being persecuted. The answer given is that the agents of disaster are being held back while all those who belong to God are marked with his seal of ownership which will save them from the wrath to come. Perhaps this sign on the forehead is the sign of the cross made in baptism, and the process of “sealing” God’s servants is in fact the mission of the church. The reader has to get used to the author’s characterisation of mundane events (the mission of the church) as having apocalyptic significance (the restraint of the angels of wrath). By this understanding the reader sees that the “revelation” is less a timetable of divine retribution than an insight into the meaning of historical events and processes.
Our “time” (2012) is still the same time in which the author wrote his vivid words. The world is full of evil and there’s no sign of God doing anything about it. Well, yes, there is: the patient process of the identification of God’s servants continues through the witness of the church and of God’s spirit. Their words and deeds identify them. Only this process holds back the angels who wait at the corners of the earth.
And don’t let’s imagine that only those who belong to our “tribe” will be picked out by God. God’s “new Israel” comes from every tribe and will not be complete with anything less than the full and perfect number of God’s servants.
Even in this short extract we can see the power and meaningfulness of this strange book.
A Samaritan Village Refuses to Receive Jesus
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him;53but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem.54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’*55But he turned and rebuked them.56Then* they went on to another village.
Would-Be Followers of Jesus
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’58And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’59To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’60But Jesus* said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’61Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’62Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
We can imagine how appalled a modern director of missions would be at the behaviour of Jesus. First he misses a chance for the spectacular destruction of these pesky Samaritans ( “That fire from heaven would have been brilliant on-screen and given your ratings a boost”) and then even worse he turns off a potential supporter with rude words about his father’s funeral (“You gotta get on message Jesus, you need to sing from our hymn sheet here. That one remark will have cost you millions!”).
Jesus knew that discipleship was costly; and as he made his way to meet rejection and death in Jerusalem he wanted potential followers to count that cost. There is a perennial temptation for the Christian Church to forget this aspect of faith in order to gain members. This often means that churches have twelve million members who are less useful than the twelve disciples of Jesus. Notice how opposed Jesus is to current modes of religious affiliation: yes, unlike conventional church members, his disciples must share with jihadis a readiness for sacrifice rather than an expectation of comfort; but no, unlike jihadis, they are not to be agents of divine violence to those who don’t share their faith. Nominal allegiance and violent sectarianism are both foreign to Jesus.
Jesus’ messages to the seven churches in Rev. 2-3 show that most of the churches (five of the seven) are called to repent. Their “nominalism” includes listening to false prophets and pursuing the “Roman dream” (forerunner of the American dream): the wealth and comfort of those who go along with–and help serve–the power and violence of Rome’s great businessmen and the Empire’s global warriors. If these churches (or most in them) do not repent and return to the lowly, gentle way of Jesus, he will come soon (through true prophets, sealed with the Spirit) and “fight” them with the “sword” from his mouth (i.e., will speak against them, through true prophets) (as in Rev. 2:5,16,etc.).
Since many churches now are similar to the five “Roman dream” churches–and since the American Empire is similar to the Roman Empire–the message of Jesus through true (sealed) prophets today remains the same.
Yes, brother/sister, but we’re not just talking USA here; all violent empires are indicted.
Yes, in Rev. 6:15-17 (just before the narrative about the sealing in Rev. 7), those who face the great day of the Lamb’s wrath are preeminently: the kings of the earth, the great men, the generals, and the rich and the strong.