Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great whore who is seated on many waters, 2with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk.”
3So he carried me away in the spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. 4The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; 5and on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.” 6And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.
When I saw her, I was greatly amazed.7But the angel said to me, “Why are you so amazed? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her… 18The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”
Revelation 18:1-3, 9-20
After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority; and the earth was made bright with his splendor.2He called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul and hateful bird, a haunt of every foul and hateful beast. 3For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury.”
9And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning; 10they will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say, “Alas, alas, the great city, Babylon, the mighty city! For in one hour your judgment has come.”
11And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, 12cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, 13cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves—and human lives. 14“The fruit for which your soul longed has gone from you, and all your dainties and your splendor are lost to you, never to be found again!”
15The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud, 16“Alas, alas, the great city, clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, with jewels, and with pearls! 17For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste!” And all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off 18and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning, “What city was like the great city?” 19And they threw dust on their heads, as they wept and mourned, crying out, “Alas, alas, the great city, where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth! For in one hour she has been laid waste. 20Rejoice over her, O heaven, you saints and apostles and prophets! For God has given judgment for you against her.”
A friend of mine recently lent me a book called “Alas, Babylon,” and reading that was part of the impetus for this series on Revelation. The title comes from this passage, and it is a great story set during the nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union that, fortunately, never happened.
The white main character in the story and his brother grew up in a small town in Florida. They remember a childhood visit to a local African American church where the sermon cried out God’s judgment on the comfort and power of this world.
As the brothers grew up, the repeated phrase from that sermon, “Alas, Babylon” stood, half jokingly, for anything that went wrong. As they got older and one of the brothers started to rise through the ranks of the Air Force it became a code they hoped they would never use that meant, “Nuclear war is coming.”
The African American tradition has generally had a different view of political power and judgment than the white church. That’s because our nation’s history has been twisted by racism since the beginning. White people and institutions have controlled most US political and economic power through out our history.
When the pilgrims came to this continent they thought of themselves as a new Israel, a city on a hill where God’s light of liberty could shine. From that beginning, the mainstream white American religious tradition has linked the calling of God with the growth of the nation. While white Christians in the US have different ideas about how to improve our nation, the overall story is one of gradual change guided by God, leading to greater justice and righteousness.
When Africans brought here in chains learned the Bible stories, they saw America as Egypt, not Israel. They imagined themselves like the Israelites in slavery, oppressed by a wicked nation and longing for freedom. That means for African American Christians, stories of God’s judgment against the powerful make perfect sense. African American Christians know first hand that American power is a mixed blessing at best.
Other oppressed groups have also found good news in the Bible’s words of judgment. The Bible was mostly written by people without power, so it is skeptical of human power. Israel was a chosen nation with a special mission and a special place in God’s heart, but even they stumbled and sinned more often than they succeeded. King David, the standard by which all future kings were measured, fell into the temptation of power himself.
Other empires receive much more negative judgments. Egypt’s king and army are drowned in the Red Sea. Assyria’s army is nearly wiped out by God while they besieged Jerusalem. Babylon becomes God’s tool for judgment against a sinful Judah, but they also fall under God’s judgment because of their arrogance.
The relationship between Christianity and political power has always been complicated. Paul tells his readers to pay taxes and obey the Emperor, while John clearly saw the Roman Empire as a threat and an enemy. Later, Rome became a supporter and enforcer for the church, which brought new opportunities and temptation. While political power can strengthen or weaken the institution of the church, our calling is to follow God regardless of what political leaders say.
For us the issue is less intense, but more complicated. We take freedom of religion for granted. The separation of church and state and freedom for religious minorities are key ideas from the foundation of our nation. At the same time, many people think of the US as a “Christian nation,” and ideas of faith and patriotism are often woven together.
Sometimes that combination is a good thing. Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts learn the importance of devotion to God and to country. Our national history teaches us about the importance of freedom and equality, both of which are important in the Christian faith and provide a good foundation for life. Our nation has much to be proud of including helping other nations, supporting democracy and encouraging innovation.
Faith teaches us to make our lives: our work, our study, our activities, an expression of faith and values. Those values shape who we are individually and as a nation at our best. That’s why programs like Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts that focus on service and character building are so important. The best values of faith and the best values of our nation are worthy of respect and fit together in many ways.
Patriotism also has a darker side, so the combination of religion and patriotism can be a problem. For instance, misguided patriotism and Christianity fueled racist movements like the Ku Klux Klan. Even some Christians who supported Martin Luther King Jr. on civil rights, felt he was being unpatriotic when he opposed the Vietnam War. Political power and faith have a complicated relationship.
What are Christians like us who live in the most powerful nation on earth supposed to make of a passage like this where the power of empire is destroyed? There are two messages here: a word of hope and a word of warning. For John’s readers, the word of hope would be the main one because empire was a threat to them, so the hope that in the end God would throw down the evil power and vindicate them gave them the strength to hold firm to their faith. It gave them the courage to bear witness, knowing that God’s love would triumph in the end.
We need that hope as well. We need that hope when we struggle for a better world. We need that hope as we minister to kids trapped in poverty and limited by racism. We need that hope as we care for those who have fallen through the cracks of empire. We need the hope that the forces of evil, of ignorance, of oppression that seem so strong, so insurmountable will one day be defeated.
One day the evil that prowls our streets and devours our young men will be judged and thrown down. One day the silence that allows domestic abuse will be broken, and the light of God’s truth will break through. One day the forces of violence and corruption that allow children to starve in Central Africa and girls to be shot instead of educated in Pakistan will be defeated by the power of God’s love.
We need that hope today. One day God’s power will prove stronger than all the forces of evil and hatred.
But we are part of the empire as well, so we need a word of warning from John’s writing too. The merchants’ memories of the good times of prosperity and trade ring in our ears. We remember when the economy was stronger, and we long for that comfort. We see the TV ads for flashing gadgets and shiny cars. We feel the temptation of empire, especially the empire of the mighty dollar.
For many of us there’s also a longing for the imperial church. We remember when the church was at the center of culture. We remember when no one would organize school activities on Sunday. We remember when people automatically looked for a church when they moved to a new area. We miss the old connections between the church and culture. We fear the competition of other ideas; we worry that as we lose our power over culture the culture will slide further into chaos.
We are also tied into the workings of our culture and our empire. When our nation sins, we are a part of it. Our hands are bloody when the innocent die in drone strikes. We are not innocent when families are locked in poverty. We are guilty when the nation cares more about luxury than about vulnerable people in need.
Even when we act for justice we need to remember that all human movements face the imperial temptation: the temptation to trust ourselves too much and to seek our own power. That means we need to examine ourselves and our organizations, including the church, to resist that temptation.
When we long for power and the security of empire we need John’s warning. When we are complacent and comfortable we need John’s warning. God reminds us through John’s strange vision that all empires fall, the United States included. Human power is important, but it is not ultimate. We can’t find salvation in political influence, organizational success or financial prosperity. We find salvation in God alone, and that is a gift.
We need the hope and the warning of this passage. We need to know that our small efforts for justice matter, because they are part of building God’s kingdom. We need to know that our small sins of indifference matter because they tie us to the sins of Babylon.
We are connected to the persecuted saints and the ruling empire. We benefit from the system and we long for freedom from its oppression. John calls us to choose God over empire. God calls us use whatever power we have faithfully, to act for justice, to protect the weak, to grow in faith, hope and love, to change the world for the better. No matter how things look, the powers of evil cannot last. The empire cannot stand against God forever. Ultimately, the empires of the earth will crumble and God’s kingdom of peace will come.
May that day come quickly. Thanks be to God.