9When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; 10they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” 11They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.
Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, “Come and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, 2but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample over the holy city for forty-two months.
3And I will grant my two witnesses authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred sixty days, wearing sackcloth.” 4These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. 5And if anyone wants to harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes; anyone who wants to harm them must be killed in this manner. 6They have authority to shut the sky, so that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have authority over the waters to turn them into blood, and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire.
7When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, 8and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that is prophetically called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.
9For three and a half days members of the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb; 10and the inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and celebrate and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to the inhabitants of the earth. 11But after the three and a half days, the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and those who saw them were terrified. 12Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here!” And they went up to heaven in a cloud while their enemies watched them. 13At that moment there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell; seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.
Revelation talks a lot about witnesses and testimony. From the very beginning of the book the words echo over and over again. John introduces himself as a servant “who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ.” He offers the churches receiving his letter grace from Jesus Christ, “the faithful witness.” In chapter 12 we’re told Christians conquered Satan, “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.” Clearly bearing witness is an important part of the Christian life for John, and testifying has the power to defeat Satan.
What does it mean to be a witness? First, a witness has to experience something; they have to know it directly. Second, to be useful, they have to share that testimony with someone else, and they have to do it honestly. The two witnesses in the second passage probably represent the church, the people of God following Jesus. Testimony is the job of the whole church, not just people who we think of as preachers or prophets or evangelists. The church bears witness that God is love and Jesus is Lord.
The passage doesn’t say much about the words the witnesses say, but we see that the message isn’t popular. To bear witness to Jesus as Lord means to go against the empire, to live life against the grain. These prophets are described as a torment to all the inhabitants of the earth. People are so glad to see them killed that they give each other presents to celebrate.
Shared values define communities. For community to work smoothly, most members of that community need to agree to live by the same rules. In the Roman Empire pagan ritual and worship of the emperor expressed and reinforced the values people lived by. People believed that worshiping the Roman Gods insured the Gods’ blessings of peace and prosperity. Worshiping the emperor reminded people of their unity under Roman rule. Even though there were many differences throughout the vast empire, everyone followed one ruler, so there was unity.
Christians messed up that unity by refusing to worship the Gods and refusing to worship the emperor. Some people worried Christians would encourage others to ignore the Gods as well and the Gods would respond by withholding their blessings or even cursing the empire.
While Christians followed the law and obeyed the emperor and his representatives, they didn’t worship him, so people felt they couldn’t be trusted. They were seen as outsiders within the empire. Maybe that wouldn’t have been a big deal if Christians kept their faith to themselves and tried to fit in, but John is encouraging them to stand out and speak up. That is seen as disruptive and threatening to empire, so people get scared, angry and violent.
John encouraged his readers to be faithful witnesses like Jesus. That same calling is ours to since we are also disciples of Jesus. The hardest part of this calling for many of us is imagining ourselves as witnesses in the first place. We were not alive when Jesus walked the earth, so how could we be witnesses?
John wrote Revelation late in the first century, probably around 80 or 90. That means many, even most of John’s readers hadn’t been alive during Jesus’ life. Very few of them met Jesus in the flesh. In some really important ways John’s readers were like us: they trusted in Jesus even though they had never met him.
So how could they be witnesses for Jesus? How could they testify that he was Lord? The key to John’s readers being witnesses is that they experienced Jesus as their Lord. They each had a moment when they chose to let Jesus run their life. They made that decision in a community that had made the same decision, a community full of people following a different path than the path of empire. In that community they learned about Jesus’ life. They heard from his original followers and from people those first disciples taught.
They practiced living based on Jesus’ teachings. They tried to love their neighbor and their enemies. They raised their children in the faith, even though they knew that was risky and strange. They read scripture, prayed together, sang hymns, listened to people interpret God’s word and shared stories of how God was working in the world.
As they lived in that community, Christ’s lordship became more and more real for them. Caesar still ran the empire; the world around them didn’t change, but in their lives individually and as a church, Jesus was Lord. The more they trusted that, the more real it became for them. And the more they allowed Jesus to be their Lord, the more the world made sense. As they lived it, it became almost obvious that at the end Jesus would judge the world with love and defeat the power of evil. One day everyone would see the truth they already knew, and the world would finally be at peace.
They testified for Jesus because they believed he truly was Lord. They had seen for themselves that life was better when they let Jesus lead. So they wanted others to experience that same peace and joy that they had.
I can testify to the same thing in my life. The more I try to follow Jesus the more sense the world makes, even when the world doesn’t make sense. I see that life really is better if we forgive other people. I truly am happier if I look out for others instead of just myself. My ministry works better when I let go of the steering wheel and trust Jesus to lead the way.
I also understand the story more the more time I spend with it. The more I watch human power, both religious and political, the more I understand why Jesus had to die. I see why the religious leaders and political leaders saw him as a threat, because he refused to live by their rules. It makes sense that religious and political leaders felt the same way about Jesus’ followers since they followed Jesus’ example. As they reached out to outcasts and ignored the rules about who was clean and unclean, they undermined the whole religious system.
The more I try to follow Jesus, the more things fall into place. I don’t get it right all the time. That’s how I know that grace is stronger than sin, because Jesus keeps picking me up and forgiving me when I fall down. And I see Jesus at work in this community. I see people who feel like the whole world is against them find a place of refuge here. I hear people say they have been accepted here. I hear stories like Bob’s story last week about the healing power of a visit from Santa. I listen to Donna talk about her new ministry caring for people at the end of life. I see the healing of Jesus taking place in this community, so I know that healing is real.
I also see people struggling. I see our church and other churches mess up. I see myself make mistakes. I see children left behind by society and let down by their families, so I know the power of evil is still at work. I know the dragon and the beast are still leading people astray. I feel the struggle of sin inside me and around us, so I know that struggle is real.
I know bearing witness to Jesus Christ can still cost us a lot. Caesar is still strong. It’s easier to fit in with the values of our time of everyone for themselves and bigger is better. It’s easier to ignore poverty when it doesn’t touch us. It’s easier to let kids in the city continue to fall further behind in school. It’s easier to turn away, lock our doors and decide it’s not our problem when gun violence claims another young life. It’s easier to believe the polarized left or the polarized right when they tell us they have the solution. It’s easier to keep our faith to ourselves and let Caesar be lord in the world around us.
But instead we are called to proclaim the truth: Jesus is Lord. We are Christ’s witnesses, or at least that’s part of our calling. Here’s the challenge. Most of us have witnessed something, some moment or word or experience that makes us believe that Jesus is Lord. But we’ve also seen things that make us wonder. Maybe we have a hard time really believing. Maybe we have the right combination of a little doubt and a little fear so it’s easier for us to live our faith quietly. Maybe we want to hedge our bets and keep peace with the empire around us.
There’s so much baggage attached to our faith that it’s hard to know what to believe. People say there’s only one way, that God is going to wipe out everyone who doesn’t believe the way we do. That doesn’t make sense if God is love. The Bible has terrible stories of violence, genocide, rape and murder. That doesn’t make sense if Jesus is the prince of peace. The Bible is our best witness to God’s story, but it’s so troubling. Does bearing witness to Jesus mean condemning people who are gay? Does it mean supporting the oppression of women?
There’s a lot to sort out in our faith and the guidance can be murky sometimes. I love the Bible like crazy, which means there are some parts of it I really dislike. And I’m pretty sure Christians are a bigger stumbling block for faith than atheists ever could be. The path of faithful witness isn’t always easy to see. But Jesus walked that path before you. God sent the Holy Spirit to us to help us know the truth so it can set us free. There’s no such thing as a perfect witness, but people need to hear the truth as you see it. They need to hear that you don’t have it all figured out, but you’re discovering what it means to follow Jesus and here’s why they might want to follow too.
The world needs your witness. The kingdom of peace and love grows stronger as we share the story of Jesus. The empire of indifference and injustice loses a little bit of ground when we act like Jesus is Lord. People are hungry for good news; will you give it to them? Will you seek in your heart to see what you really think is true so you can bear witness? Will you pray for guidance to experience the graceful rule of Jesus so you can tell others? Will you take one step today to let Jesus rule in your heart? I’m not promising you an easy road, but I can promise that the one who calls us is faithful. So open your heart, lift up your voice and follow with your actions as the chorus of witnesses grows stronger each day.
Thanks be to God.