August 19, 2018 // Narrative Yr. 4 Revelation Series 6 // First Congregational UCC Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “The Women and Wall Street”: Revelation 12:1-6; 13-17; Revelation 17:1-6; 11-16
[sounds of coins] The coins in John’s pocket at the time of his vision would have the heads of emperors on them, with phrases on them like “god,” “son of god,” “savior,” “lord” beneath. [coin sounds] Among the Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse last week, one came riding with a scale in her hand, a scale to measure and weigh grain for market. Among the woes and judgment poured out last week, one came representing a famine unleashed, an ecological and economic evil. John heard a voice narrating a cruel irony: staples like wheat were inflated three times their usual cost, while luxury items like wine and oil seemed somehow protected from disaster. [chink, chink]. Today, of course, I’d need to supplement the sound of these coins with the “thwip” sound of hard plastic slipping into place in the chip reader. As the seer-poet John describes divine judgment, what can be easy to miss in the paperback theologies of how this all goes down at the end of time, is that part of the judgment that John sees is economic.
It’s John’s loss that patriarchy trips him up here. In his effort to cast the characters of this cosmic drama in stark relief, to pack a powerful rhetorical punch, he uses the tired dichotomy of Virgin/Mother vs. Whore. The only two fully female figures in the 22 chapters of John’s vision are the two you heard described today: The Apocalyptic Woman of chapter 12 and the Whore of Babylon of chapters 17 & 18.
Now, if you’ve been following along in this fascinating vision of Revelation, you know it starts with John receiving a vision when he is “in the spirit on the Lord’s day,” when he is in prayer. He receives a vision, he believes, from Christ. It is Christ’s witness, and he shares it. He writes it down, addressing the church in his part of the world at the time, the whole church, inviting them to bear witness to what is and who is really in charge: not Caesar, not the Empire, but the same Ancient of Days who is I AM. And all throughout these amazing and arresting and sometimes disturbing visions, he is calling the early followers of Jesus to bear witness to that executed Lamb who still stands, who still stands to say the Ancient of Days is the Lord of all Life, the Source of our Power. So by the time we get to these chapters, war is breaking out in heaven. There are some cosmic battles described between the servants and representatives of the Lamb and the servants and representatives of Evil, of the Beast. And that’s where these two women appear.
The whore imagery becomes most startling in Chapter 17. One of the seven angels with the seven bowls comes to John saying, “I’ll show you the judgment upon the great Prostitute, who sits on many waters, with whom the rulers of the earth have committed immorality, and those who live on the earth have become drunk with the wine of her prostitution.” When the spirit carries John in a trance to the desert, he sees a woman seated on a scarlet beast covered with blasphemous names. Scarlet is the color of warfare and destruction. The beast has seven horns and seven heads. Horns are symbols of power, so the beast is very powerful. And the woman wears purple and scarlet, expensive clothes. She glitters with gold and jewels and pearls. And in her hand she held a cup “full of the vile and impure things that came from her activity as a prostitute….” If that’s not an arresting image. “On her forehead is written a name, a mystery: Babylon the Great.” The woman is drunk on the blood of the saints and the blood of Jesus’ witnesses. Every symbol associated with this female figure in John’s vision associates her with Rome, including the seven mountains on which she sits. Legend is that Romulus built the original city on seven hills. “As surely as any contemporary American reader would recognize Philadelphia as the ‘city of brotherly love or Chicago as “the windy city,” a first century Greco-Roman would have understood a reference to “the city on seven hills” as a reference to Rome. For John, Rome is the new Egypt, the new enslaver. Rome is the new Babylon, enslaving and dispersing and finally destroying the people of God. When Babylon finally falls, in John’s vision, it is the merchants and the bankers who weep. Scholars agree that John is seeing “a connection between Rome’s economic influence, Rome’s idolatrous self-deification, and Rome’s military and political brutality.”
It’s not that business – the making and selling of goods and services – is wrong. It’s life and livelihood for as many of us as now as it was then. It’s what Rome is doing to the economy at the threat of violence and destruction. “The implication is that Babylon/Rome has lured the nations into a relationship so addictive that they are incapable of extricating themselves from it,” Brian Blount writes. “The metaphor for the relationship remains sexuality; the reality remains destructive economics.” A relationship so addictive, they’re incapable of extricating themselves from it. “… To buy into the economy… one has to buy into a recognition of lordship for… imperial figures” rather than the Creator divine over the cosmos. Economic advancement in this world demands the exorbitant price of denying the True Source of Life. (Pause)
Can we imagine this image, then, another way? Can we turn it around and imagine, inspired by John’s vision, that Babylon prostitutes himself, dolling out favors to whoever will send business his way, whether that is oil or arms? Personified today, John might be talking about Mr. Moneybags himself, with his shiny top hat and cigar, Mascot of Monopoly. Or, let’s make this character riding the red beast The Wolf of Wall Street. There’s something attractive in his cunning. Or why would people follow him? It’s very likely he’d be the subject of a biopic film, sympathetic, because he’s a white guy, even if the Great Moneybags is finally thrown down. It changes when we try it on in our own economic reality, in our own struggles today against Empire. And really, it gets a little depressing and frightening: When legislators propose creating new billion-dollar contract industries to hold immigrant families as if that were our solution to our inhumane border and asylum policies… When food assistance is cut to balance a budget that first rewarded the wealthiest… Or when the lenders who exploited post-secondary students trying to get the credentials they need for living wage jobs are put in charge of those very lending rules and protections… when we realize that incarceration is a profit industry built on racism… we shake our heads and lament how impossible it all feels. How can we extricate ourselves from this system? This week, I want to take it down from the global economic scale to the personal level, where we work and buy and share. I wondered because at the personal level, we are liable to be impressed with someone who “makes it” – impressed with ourselves if we are somehow able to change our economic fortunes. So at the personal level, can we change our own allegiances to Empire, even while we are all wrapped in a shared economic system. Do we just resign ourselves to playing by Wall Street’s rules of Profit as King? Or, I wonder… is there one way this week we can witness that Caesar is not Master, despite what our coins say? Is there one way this week, even a small way, we can each undermine Empire values in our daily transactions? One way we can testify to the Reign of that executed Lamb who still stands and witnesses? (Pause)
A few chapters before this image of the woman riding the beast, John inserts a flashback in the midst of the scenes of global destruction and judgment. Chapter 12 is an interlude. (John’s vision is not chronological.) “A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.” She is Eve, trampling the snake/dragon under her feet. She is Israel, nourished by God in the wilderness. She is Mary bringing to birth a Son of God. This woman represents God’s procreative power. A dragon appears, ready to devour her child. But the child is snatched away to God and God’s throne, and the woman flees into the wilderness where God prepares a place of nourishment for her. Because the dragon loses the cosmic battle, gets thrown down from heaven onto the Earth, the dragon decides to wage war on the woman’s children, the rest of her “children.” Most versions translate this awkwardly, her “seed,” but the Greek word is “sperma.” The woman’s sperm has gone out into all the Earth. (And you thought there were no trans-affirming images in scripture. There are, and this could be one.) For John’s purposes, though, the battle is already won. This isn’t a draw. Even though the beast is going to make it hard on the children, those who keep God’s commandments and hold firmly to the witness of Jesus, their battle is already won. The rest of Revelation simply restates with ever-increasing creativity, and ever more specific visual vocabulary: the Empire cannot and will not win. It has already lost. “The moment the child of the woman clothed with the sun was snatched safely from the jaws of the dragon to the throne of heaven,” writes Brian Blount, “the war was over.” Blount creates a new word for that executed Lamb who still stands. He creates a verb for the way John uses “slaughtered lamb” all throughout: “sLamb.” God has “sLambed” evil. The crucifixion that was meant for the Lamb’s destruction becomes its triumph. The Lamb “sLambs.” The Lamb still stands. And not only that, but the Lamb has followers nonviolently resisting, followers to whom are added more souls all the time. Empire can’t win. It’s already tried to do its worst, and it lost. (Pause)
The woman John imagines in Revelation Chapter 12 makes other appearances, shows up other places, including in Our Lady of Guadalupe, so central to the spirituality of indigenous peoples of Central America. When she first showed up in Mexico, the priests were encouraged. One wrote in 1648, “This new world has been conquered by the hand of the Virgin Mary, who has prepared, disposed and contrived her exquisite likeness in this, her Mexican land, which was conquered for such a glorious purpose.” Empire thinks it has won. And in fact, the temple of the indigenous goddess was torn down so the shrine that became the Shrine of Guadalupe could be built for the Virgin Mary. But something happens in the lore and story of Mexican history. The woman clothed in the sun, with twelve stars around her head, and the moon beneath her feet keeps showing up. To the Empire’s chagrin, in many places she becomes the symbol leading her people to reclaim land, reclaim livelihood, reclaim life. (Pause)
We’ve had empires before, empires that control the flow of spices and raw materials, sources of energy and even human lives. John’s vision is an assurance that whatever empire is rising from the sea in our time and place, it’s already Dead On Arrival. The way the Empire consumes life will ultimately also destroy it.
Fallen, fallen is Babylon the Great.
The Lamb stands. And all those who follow the Lamb, and witness to Life, stand with it.
Thanks be to God.
 There is another woman: When John hears the Holy City described as coming down out of the sky, she is described like a bride, but when he sees “her” she looks a lot like a city.
 Rev. 17:1-6.
 Blount, 319.
 Blount, 326.
 Brian K. Blount, Revelation; A Commentary, New Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John-Knox Press, 2009), p. 318.
 Blount, 116-118.
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