The Easter story is an unexpected injection of hope in a world gone mad with power and violence.
Jesus found himself in the middle of much of it: on one hand he refused to be corralled by the politics of a militant empire; on the other hand he criticized the selfish actions of the religious systems that did not worship or protect.
He was a troublemaker and he threatened peace and safety.
So they killed him.
. . .
Some of you will not relate to this (good opening, Brian) but when I was a teenager I remember a scary, Christian ‘end-of-time’ movie making the rounds in churches called A Thief In the Night. It was designed to frighten people into serving Jesus – something even he didn’t do – using one dark interpretation of the biblical book of Revelation.
Almost everybody has a basic idea that Revelation is a mysterious book containing bizarre, symbolic language revealing events and characters that will appear at the end of time. We have a hazy familiarity with terms like ‘antichrist’ and ‘666’ but don’t pretend to know anything much about beasts, numbers, angels, dragons, bears, seven-headed beings, and the like.
The problem is, there are about as many versions of what Revelation means as there are people willing to tell you what it means. The books, charts, pictures, and timelines could paper the walls in your house twelve feet thick. I don’t know about you but that’s not my idea of pleasant reading on a Sunday afternoon.
For example, many believe there have been four evil empires that were predicted in biblical prophecy, they just can’t agree which empires they were. Unless you happen to believe there were fifteen – in that case you have to get into the messy business of counting ‘beasts’ and ‘horns’ and ‘heads’ and applying that info randomly to history.
Anyway, that’s the challenge of the last book of the Bible. I could never take those interpretations seriously but I will also admit that I didn’t have good alternatives either. Until I learned there was a historical style called apocalyptic literature.
Jewish Apocalyptic was subversive writing that used odd, symbolic language from their history to quietly encourage faithful Christians. It used references that the Roman occupiers would not have understood; language that included direct parallels to the plagues of Egypt and descriptive images from the Jewish scriptures (Old Testament and others).
For example, it would have been common knowledge to the Jews and Christians that Babylon was a hated empire in their history. Writing about Babylon was a way to covertly criticize the current empire terrorizing them. Same with the evil Beast also known as Caesar, or any power opposed to the ways of Jesus also known as antichrist.
Consider that Rome was an empire of success, fortified with a leveraged judicial system, masses of workers to do its labour, and enforcement from the largest military in the world. Rome was the largest economy in the world, it dominated international trade, and bought influence and peace for its citizens.
So everything was great, right?
Remember that history regularly found the Jewish people under the heel of one oppressor after another, and on the rare occasions when they held power, they themselves became the oppressors.
This was just more of the same – systemic violence by Rome stifled opposition and ensured that the emperor would continue to be in power. But behind the veil of power and comfort there was:
A malaise of excessive leisure time and comfort;
Heavy taxation to pay for expanding government;
A justice system skewed in favour of upper classes;
Little compassion or opportunity for the poor;
Political immorality and dishonesty;
Intolerance for opponents or dissenting values;
Cruel enforcement of Rome’s will by its military;
Hatred and attacks from the surrounding oppressed nations;
Under the skin of this peaceful, affluent empire there was blight of oppression, intolerance, and violence for those who did not belong.
The Crucifixion reminds us that Jesus did not belong.
Christians who followed Jesus did not belong. Do not belong.
Revelation is a confirmation that the agents of evil are very human.
Revelation is a letter to people who are feeling powerless.
Revelation is an acknowledgement that those in power will use it to step on others.
Revelation is a reminder that Christians cannot be attached to those systems of power.
Revelation is a vision of the day when there will be salvation and justice and peace.
That’s a much more helpful understanding of Revelation than those creepy books and movies.
But what I don’t know today is, are we the oppressed Christians or are we the oppressive Romans?