An Open Table where Love knows no borders

A Very Different Way of Looking at Things

A sermon on Revelation 1: 4-8 by Nathan Nettleton

One of the best known sayings attributed to Karl Marx is that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” Basically what he was saying was that religion is like a pain killer that is administered to people whose life-situations are horrendous in order to shut them up and keep them passively accepting the status quo while the rich and powerful go on ripping them off and making huge profits out of them. Religion, he argued, with its promise of pie in the sky when you die, takes people’s attention of the injustices of this present world and keeps them preoccupied with being good so that they’ll get plenty of pie in the next world.

Now, at one level, Karl Marx was absolutely right. There is no doubt that Christianity, like several of the other major religions, have been used in exactly that way. It has been commandeered by the ruling classes and used to assert that the way the world is ordered is exactly as God intended it to be ordered. You can find this quite explicitly in one of the old verses of the well-loved hymn – All things bright and beautiful:

The rich man in his castle,
the poor man at his gate,
God made the high and lowly
and ordered their estate.

Fortunately that verse has been deleted from all the recent hymn books, but you get the picture.

The book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse of John as it is also known, is in some ways an early example of a related sort of Christian escapism. The most important key to making any sense at all out of the Revelation is that it was a product of a seriously oppressed and persecuted minority group who were struggling even to survive. Karl Marx saw religion as a form of escapism manufactured by the oppressors for the oppressed. Apocalyptic literature is a type of escapism manufactured by the oppressed for themselves. It is almost universally true that apocalyptic type thinking has always emerged from oppressed groups. Those who hold the power and privilege have no interest in promoting ideas that the present world is evil and will be brought to a spectacular and fiery end by God who will turn everything upside down and hand the rule of the world to those who are presently oppressed.

Visions of a dramatic destruction of the present world order and the vindication of the persecuted minority can serve a powerful purpose for the persecuted minority. In fact it can provide a powerful vision of hope for anyone whose life presently seems to be a litany of disasters and misfortunes. The apocalyptic revelation says, “Things might seem bad from where you are looking, but only because you can’t see the big picture. In the big picture, your present sufferings are no more than a passing tribulation, a birth pang as the new world is being brought to birth, and in the new world, you’ll be on the winning side. God is in control, and you are one of God’s chosen people, so just hang in there, stay faithful, tough it out, and you’ll be richly rewarded.”

You can see, even in the introductory verses to the Revelation which we heard tonight, that such writings hold a vision of the overthrow of the present world powers. It says that Jesus is now on the throne of heaven and that he is the ruler of the kings of the earth. Everyone who holds power on earth must ultimately answer to him, it says. And even in these opening verses it introduces the idea of Jesus returning in glory, riding on the clouds, and that when he does, those who have ruled oppressively — especially those who had him killed and by implication those who are continuing to oppress his people — will be reduced to weeping and wailing.

You can easily see then how literature such as the Revelation to John might be used as a form of Christian escapism. “Don’t worry about how bad things are now, because they’ll come out right for us in the end.” I want to put it to you though, that there is one simple concept, right here in the opening verses we heard, that points us beyond escapism to something quite different – something far more radical and challenging, but also ultimately far more hope-filled.

You see, it doesn’t just say that Jesus has freed us from our sins and made us citizens of a new kingdom, a kingdom which is not of this world. It goes beyond that and says something more. It says that Jesus has made us priests in the service of God the Father. Now your first reaction might be “So What? So we’ve got a little religious job to do.” But the concept of priesthood and of us being given a priestly ministry is not just some little innocuous religious job.

Priests are the ones who stand in the middle. Priests are the ones with a foot in both kingdoms, the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of earth, and represent each to the other. When we join with Christ in his priestly ministry we both represent the world to God, and God to the world, and we are active agents of reconciliation. We are not being called out of the world, to simply write it off as no longer relevant and ignore its problems. Rather we are being called to stand on the threshold between the two, to be the front line of the task of bringing the world into line with the realm of God. It is an uncomfortable and challenging place to be, but it is the place where we stand every time we gather to worship. This is the time and place where we most obviously stretch ourselves between the two realms and seek to bring them together.

We bring the needs of the world in prayer to our God, and we take the ordinary things of the earth – bread and wine and water and oil – and we allow them to speak to use of God and bring God’s presence into the ordinary places of our living. And what the Revelation is telling us, as we listen to it over the next few weeks, is that this is not a little escape from reality, or a pacifying opiate, but a real life expression of God’s mission of reconciling heaven and earth. Just like the community that produced the Revelation, we might feel small and insignificant and futile and up against insurmountable odds, but our faithful stance between heaven and earth is part of a much bigger picture in which our little faithfulness is part of the bringing to birth of a new world of love and mercy and justice and peace.


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