Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Revelation 18) transports me to a hell-fire and brimstone camp meeting, where a spirit-filled pentecostal preacher takes the stage at the concluding chorus of Revive Us Again to hammer out dire apocalyptic warnings found in the text for the night, Revelation 18. Some predictable words punctuate the sweating preacher’s sermon – demons, foul spirits, fornication, drunkenness, iniquity – and reverberating Amen fill the air in response to the shouts of these familiar words of woe emanating from the pulpit. Each of these words gets a lengthy and detailed exposition, as the preacher paints polychromatic pictures of the demonic and drunken sexual sins plaguing our world. All would be well, were it not for the simple fact that the preacher has missed the main point of the revelator’s warning.
When you read Revelation 18, it becomes clear from preacher John’s shouting what was really plaguing the woeful world – economic disparity, greed, and conspicuous consumption. Yes, the popular camp meeting words are there – demons and drunkenness, foul spirits and fornication, iniquity. But what is most interesting is that the revelator does not mimic the pentecostal preacher in spending an inordinate amount of time on detailed descriptions of iniquitous sexual promiscuity and alcohol abuse. In fact, no amount of time is dedicated to fleshing out the sins of the flesh. The apocalyptic visionary instead spends his time tying all these camp meeting Amen-eliciting transgressions to the economic misdeeds of materialism. Each time he pens a prurient image of sexual promiscuity, he employs it as a metaphor to illustrate and indict economic rapacity. Each time he pens a despicable image of drunkenness, he uses it as a metaphor to illustrate and indict the luxuriant debauchery of excess wealth. Each time he pens a diabolical image of demon possession, he uses it as a metaphor to illustrate and indict the ways material possessions tend to possess people in a consumer driven society.
Any good camp meeting preacher worth his or her salt knows how to give an invitation, a call to conversion, drawing multitudes of weeping sinners under conviction to the mourner’s bench to give heart and soul to Jesus. John is no different. You can imagine the exiled prophet sweating and shouting the call to leave the luxuriant captivity of Babylonian materialism: Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues. (Tony Campolo, one of the best revival preachers around today, recently shouted – if you can shout a Tweet: We may live in the best Babylon in the world, but it still Babylon, and we are called to come out of her.) Unfortunately, camp meeting calls to conversion and condemnations of sins limited to the iniquities of promiscuity and drunkenness are essentially preaching to the choir. No one I know, be they single or married, gay or straight, fails to understand the dangers and destructions of sexual activity outside the boundaries of covenant love. No one I know, be they tee-totaler or social drinker, fails to understand the dangers and destructions of alcohol abuse and addiction. Amen and Amen. But, few understand what the Bible calls the roots of destructive behavior – the greedy grasp of materialism, the woeful wickedness of worldly values embedded in concentrated wealth. We live in a culture that celebrates instead of condemns these woes, the plagues, the destructions, of unfettered capitalism. The culture of free market economics has seeped into the church and has co-opted the revival spirit of evangelicals who want to offer good news to a dying world. But when that word of grace is tethered to a way of greed, it fails to ring true to those dying ears. Yes, we may live in a great Babylon, but we are clearly called to come out, to leave, to withdraw complicity so that we no longer share in the plagues of the quick profit. So we pray and sing our way out of Babylon, into the radical commonwealth of God: Revive us again, fill each heart with Thy love, may each soul be rekindled with fire from above. Hallelujah, Thine the glory, hallelujah, Amen. Hallelujah, Thine the glory, revive us again.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.