Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The guy in the rubber suit

"Then I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names.... let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred and sixty-six" (Revelation 13: 1, 18).

In John's Revelation, the power of satan is described with the most vivid and unforgettable language...a red dragon waiting to devour a Child as soon as he is born, and a beast with ten horns and seven heads (Rev. 12: 3; 13:1). John tells us that when the Child is born he is "snached away and taken to God and to his throne" (Rev. 12: 5-6) -- a bookend summary of the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus!

As we learn in chapter12, this dragon is a defeated foe, for Jesus himself says that in his ministry "I saw satan fall like lightening." His message was simple: "The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news!" Now that was a patently political notice -- even if his kingdom transcends party and politics, because it claims dominion over all the so-called kingdoms, nations, parties, cabinets, senate chambers, politburos, boardrooms and gang turf of this world. The cross of Christ was the decisive battle in which the evil one was mortally wounded. We live in the time between the times...between the already of Christ's first coming and the not yet of his second coming. In the mean time, John says, "the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows his time is short" (Rev. 12: 12).

The first and second beasts of Revelation 13, with the red dragon, complete the unholy trinity that challenges God's people in this interim period. These beasts represent the power of the State and its apparatus in the service of what John calls "the spirit of the antichrist" (1 John 4:3). In the first century, the church would have immediately thought of the emperor...and rulers like Nero Caesar who scapegoated Christians when he set Rome on fire, and illuminated his garden with their bodies; or the equally brutal emperor Domitian who demanded that people call him "lord and god" under pain of death. They would have also thought of the fearful delators -- those secret Roman informers who advised the empire of anyone engaged in subversive anti-Roman activities, and who had the power to destroy people's lives. Today we have seen many so-called beasts rise to great power -- from Hitler and Stalin, to Milosivic and Chauchescu; and the delators that served their cause. Of course, we must be careful about throwing around the label, "antichrist" too freely. Both Martin Luther and Pope Leo X called each other the antichrist, and there are websites which claim the same for both George Bush and Barak Obama. Alexander Solzhenitsyn , the devout Christian novelist who was exiled for his criticism of Stalin and his successors wrotes these words:

"It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts."

The beast is mortally wounded...but certainly raging in our time and place as well. His number, says John is "six hundred and sixty-six" -- an unholy number if there ever was one, for it is one less than seven, the number which stands for God's holiness and wholeness in scripture. Many theories have been put forth as to who the number is meant to identify. Among the possibilities is "Nero Caesar" whose name, when given numerical values derived from Hebrew numerology, adds up to 666. Though Nero certainly could fit the bill, we don't want to lose sight of the fact that in John's vision the triple six stands for everything that is false and opposed to the worship of God and the Lamb. Unlike the power of the beast, who displays his might through the infliction of suffering and death; the power of the Lamb was displayed in the acceptance of suffering for our sakes when he gave his life for us on the cross!

All this talk about evil, about the beast and his number, can be unsettling. As a 10 year old boy, I remember reading the description of the beast in Revelation 13 and feeling very uneasy. The beast sounded very scary to me. But as I continued to read, I couldn't help but think how similar he sounded to some of those godzilla movies I loved to watch on Saturday afternoons. As I tried to picture the beast with my Saturday afternoon matinee glasses, I began to think not only how scary he was...but how silly. After all, I was pretty sure that godzilla was just a guy stomping around on scale models of Tokyo in a rubber suit!

The power of satan is like that...scary, but really quite silly -- to think he could ever take our Lord's place in this world or in our lives; or that his pathetic attempts at badness could ever eclipse the invincible glory and goodness of God. John says of the Christ Child in his vision, that he was born of "a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars...." (Rev. 12: 1). That's a magnificent picture of Israel and Jacob's twelve sons, whose progeny brought forth the Messiah. It's also a glorious picture of the Church, established by the Messiah and his twelve disicples, in the glory of her mission to show forth his life to the world. It's as if God was speaking to our timid hearts, "When the evil one attacks, when trials and tribulations come, remember who you are...that you are clothed with the power of the Son, that you are my chosen people whom I love. Fear not!" Or in the words of John's first epistle, "Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world" (1 John 4:4). My friends, compared to Him, satan is just a guy walking around in a rubber suit!

"The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn." -- Martin Luther

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