Some weeks as a preacher, it’s like the sermons write themselves. A nice, straight forward parable, a heart warming encouragement, something about God’s love. Those are the easy weeks. Recent weeks have not really been like that for me. Last Sunday morning at St Catherine’s we were looking at Jesus’ teaching on divorce. This morning here at All Saints we were thinking about money, and its place in our lives. And this evening, just to top it all off, I’ve got the “Whore of Babylon” to talk about. So, anyway, two down and one to go!
When I did the first sermon in this series, I suggested that we shouldn’t treat Revelation as an intellectual puzzle, but to approach it with an awareness that, “It was sent to a little, persecuted, frustrated church, one which did not know what to make of the situation in which it found itself.” Bearing this in mind, over the weeks we’ve looked at some of the different characters that appear in Revelation, and thought about who they are, what that meant for the people who received the letter, their impact on history, and the implications for the future.
So, tonight’s main character is the “great prostitute”, with a guest appearance by one of the characters from last week’s sermon, the seven headed beast, with its ten horns.
So, the first question to address is, who is this woman? Well, we are given some identifying features. In verse 5 we are told that she has a name branded on her forehead, “Babylon the Great.” Which might be thought to answer the question, but it’s not quite that straight forward. In Jewish thought and religious writing, the name Babylon, the capital of the Assyrian empire which had invaded and subjugated God’s people time and time again is a code for all over-weening power that sets itself against God and God’s people. So who is this power now?
If we read on, we come to some more identifying clues. Verse 9 – “The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits.” Is almost certainly a reference to the seven hills of Rome. Verse 18 – “The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” Which other city could that have been said of, at the time that Revelation was written, apart from Rome. The first readers of this letter would just have known that it was about Rome, the overarching force of Empire at the time.
What are the characteristic features of this woman? Let’s look at verse 4, “the woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries.”
Who dresses in purple in Rome? It is the colour of the imperium, of power. Who has gold and pearls and diamonds? It is the demonstration of great wealth, of money. Who flaunts adultery? It is the cup of unfettered sex. Power, money, and sex. The three great temptations of humanity, personified in the city that sets itself up against God and persecutes God’s people.
The first readers would have recognised the excesses and abuses of power, money and sex in the culture of imperial Rome. They would have known personally the pain of fellow Christians who had died for their faith, whose blood had been drunk by the sands of the Roman circuses.
You see, what might seem to us as grotesque, weird and even perhaps a little comic, was nothing but painful tragedy to those who first received this letter. They were really dying at the hands of this woman, their blood was being spilt, the war against the Lamb is not symbolic, it is a living reality and they are the casualties in it.
And so the first verse that we read from this passage is the one that would have reverberated with hope in their ears and their hearts. “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute.” This is a declaration of judgement. Chapter 17 identifies the accused, and lists her crimes, and then chapters 18 and 19 describes her sentence – God is going to come to the rescue of God’s people.
But not only that, it gets better. Not only is Rome under God’s judgement, but there is a new, better city coming. Let’s go to Revelation 21 v9 – 27. I’m not going to read it all out, but I just want to highlight a few things.
In verse 9 one of the angels who had the seven bowls appears again, only this time the angel is showing John not the punishment of the great prostitute but the bride, the wife of the Lamb.
In verse 10 John is again carried away by the angel in the Spirit, but this time not to a wilderness to see the woman in scarlet, Rome, but to a mountain to see the Holy City, Jerusalem coming down out of heaven.
In verse 12 John sees not blasphemous names, but the names of the tribes of Israel and the apostles. In the following verses gold and jewels make up the very fabric of the city, and pearls the gates – not gaudy decoration but the generous riches of God made available to all.
In verses 22 and 23 we see that the Lamb is the temple, the place of worship, and the light of this city. Now, I wonder if you remember the characters we looked at last week – the dragon and the two beasts, one of the sea and one of the earth. In his sermon David suggested that these three represented an unholy trinity over and against the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit. For those who weren’t here, or need otherwise reminding, in chapter 13 v 1 we read that John saw, “a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads … The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and his authority.” Triumphing over this sea beast cavorting with Rome, we see the Lamb, with his power, throne and authority, given to him by the Father, at the centre of the holy city.
In verse 24 the kings of the earth are not battling against this city, or being debauched by it, but are bringing their splendour to it.
This is great news for the first readers, not only is the city that is oppressing and persecuting them going to be judged and destroyed, but there is a new city coming that they, with their names written in the book of the Lamb, are going to be citizens of. When Paul was arrested in Jerusalem, and was taken into protective custody by the Roman guards, what did he say to the commander to introduce himself – he said, “I am a citizen of no ordinary city”. Rome was no ordinary city, its citizens had rights and protections across the whole of the known world. And yet, there is a city coming that will make Rome pale into insignificance, into ordinariness, and the citizens of that city have their rights protected by the Lamb of God himself.
So, at the time of writing, Rome was the living reality of Babylon for those who first read it. As John prophesied, Rome did fall – eaten up from the inside, collapsing under the weight of its own evil. But the spirit of Babylon has been seen repeatedly throughout human history. The allure of power, money, and sex dragging humanity into the dirt. Political systems and elites setting themselves up in opposition to God and to God’s people. The Borgias, the Khmer Rouge, European Aristocracies, the drug lords of Columbia, Fascists and Stalinists. Babylon the great, riding her beast roughshod across the world. And yet, the people of God are not defeated, the city is still coming, the bride is being prepared.
So, what are the implications for us? There are three things that I think that we can take away from this.
The first is that where ever we see concentrations of money, sex and power, and particularly pride in being above the law, or delight in contravening basic morality with regard to those three things it is likely that the spirit of Babylon, so evident in Rome in the first century, is rearing its ugly head again. We should be praying hard for our leaders: in governments, in corporate board rooms, in the media, that they will have the grace of God to resist the temptations of these three things, and that they will be Godly leaders.
But it’s easy to point fingers at others and to see where they are failing. It is no coincidence that the basic commitments of the great Christian monastic traditions were to poverty, chastity, and obedience. These three spiritual disciplines are the defence against the temptations of money, sex and power. We may not be planning to enter a convent or monastry, but it is good for us to spend some time reflecting on these things. Will I embrace a simplicity of life, a voluntary poverty so that I am freed from the temptations of money? If I’m single will I be chaste, and if I’m married, will I be faithful with eyes as well as body, resisting the temptations of sex? Will I be willingly obedient to those in authority over me, building up my resistance to the temptations of power? Will I do what I can to work against the culture of Babylon and for the culture of Jerusalem in my life, my family, my work place, my friendship group?
Finally, we look to the future. This stuff is hard, sometimes it seems like we have no power, that Babylon is winning, that it’s inevitable. We’re losing the culture wars. Our hearts and minds, and those of our children, are being shaped by forces that we can’t see, that we don’t really understand, and that we can’t resist. But this is not the end of the story. There is a greater vision, a better city, a golden city. It will come, and we will live there. That is the hope held out to us, the encouragement before us. The invitation tonight is to live as citizens of it today, as a sign to the world that it is coming, so that others may be drawn to its light and have their names written in the book of the Lamb.