Revelation is a strange book. Apocalyptic and poetic, full of cryptic signs and mysterious symbols, it presents a Prophetic Reality view of the world, a veil lifted on the nuts and bolts of human life to reveal dragons and monsters, many-headed behemoths and war in heaven. It’s difficult to comprehend, and perhaps that’s why so many debate whether it’s about the past or the future; whatever the truth of that, however, it remains that Revelation has something to say in the here and now.
Take Revelation 16:13-14. The great antagonists of the apocalypse, the False Prophet, the Antichrist and the Dragon, suddenly spew forth ‘unclean spirits’, spirits that perform miracles and bend kings to their will and bizarrely look like frogs.
They’re the media wing and propaganda arm of the apocalypse. And something about the image freaks me out. I mean, frogs? Is that because frogs are an unclean animal in Jewish thought? Is it because they capture their prey with their tongues (which is a pretty concise definition of propagandists)? A reference to Egyptian gods and the Plagues of Egypt? In ancient thought, frogs were associated with coarseness, or thought to be poisonous. Maybe their use in Revelation relates to all four.
But let’s take a step back from the language and symbology. The frogs are ultimately a message, a message of false religion, hateful politics and general fear and accusation. The message is antichrist in its most literal sense – against Christ.
So the frogs are media and memes, propaganda and psyops, static that drowns out the words of God. And those forces are on the move, just like they’ve always been: snaking through the Garden, tempting in the wilderness, leaping towards Armageddon.
So when someone calls you to hate your neighbour, don’t listen; if someone tells you to cast the first stone, put it down; if the voice doesn’t sound like Jesus, ask yourself why.
Because the world feels like it’s on the brink of…something. Strange metaphorical creatures are on the move, doves and chaos monsters, the frogs of war. In times like this, when forces herd us towards war (whether that’s with guns and bombs or Twitter accounts and dark words), when so many competing voices constantly teeter on the edge of conflict, all I can do is turn back to the Gospel, to reclaim the words in red and pray to hear the voice of Christ above a cacophony of croaking. The frogs of war are out there; we don’t have to follow them into the abyss.
Imagine a teenage girl. She’s kneeling on the floor, angelic light filling the room before her. She’s just learned of her calling – to become the Christbearer, the Mother of God. Overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all, all she can do is worship, worship amid the shock and the fear and the awe and the worry.
We tend to see her reaction as being passive, quiet, meek; she accepts her fate and becomes a mother, a wife, an eternal virgin, and she’s immortalised every Christmas by little girls in blue dresses clutching a doll that represents the Saviour.
But that’s not the case, is it? This imagery robs Mary of her power, her agency, her prophetic fire. We trap her in a Christmas card and stop her from singing.
This week, the theologian Cheryl Bridges Johns, writer at the Junia Project, tweeted that “we often forget Mary was a prophet. Before she gave birth to the King, she spoke of the subversive Kingdom.” This is true. She visits her relative Elizabeth, and as they talk Mary lets rip with a spontaneous eruption of praise and passion and prophecy.
But this isn’t a worship song born out of comfort and religious respectability. This is a song from below, a burst of praise to the God who lifts up the lowly while toppling the powerful, who feeds the hungry while plundering the rich, who sends the proud running for cover. Remember that Mary lives in an occupied land, she’s an unwed mother living in a patriarchal world. This is the sort of song that draws worried glances, this is the sort of song that could put Mary on a list of troublemakers somewhere, and maybe even as she sings, someone’s having a quiet word with Joseph to suggest that he keeps his betrothed in line.
But Mary sings anyway, because she’s a prophet, and she’s the Christbearer, and so it’s her calling to hear from God and act on what he says. She’s no coward, no fool, she’s someone who’s already experienced the weight of divine calling and the knives of local slut shaming, even while she’s just a teenager. Later on she’ll lose her husband at an early age (to violence or illness, who knows), and she’ll see her son brutalised and nailed to a cross. This is a woman with a strength of faith that’s incredible – how else would she survive all this and still believe?
The Irish singer Frank Harte once said that “Those in power write the history, those who suffer write the songs.” Mary’s song is rooted in the knowledge of suffering and occupation, but also in a vision of liberation and hope and transformation. Her history isn’t written by the powerful; that history is undermined by God working in the lives of the poor, the hungry, the people on the margins. Mary sings a subversive song and joins the chorus of Miriam and Hannah, a legacy of women who hear from God and sing of what they heare, and when we speak of Christ being born of a virgin, let’s never forget that he was also born of a prophet.
There’s a moment in Luke’s gospel when Jesus has to engage with the recent murder of pilgrims in Jerusalem and the aftermath of a tower collapsing in Siloam. And it ends up being a theological discussion, but it got me thinking – the people killed when the tower fell, the people slaughtered by the agents of state oppression, left behind children and partners, parents and friends and a community with wounds that may not have become scars. And the people of faith living in those communities would have to deal with those.
We only get a snapshot of Jesus’s three years of ministry. We can read through all the gospels in a few hours, and we know that things were left out. And so while we know of Jesus’s response in terms of the righteousness (or otherwise) of those involved in recent current affairs, we don’t get to see any ‘pastoral’ conversations he may have had about these same things.
But in our localised congregations we need to be able to deal with collapsing towers and sudden death. And we’ve not always been good at this in a communal sense – we work with individuals and relatives and friends, but do we always tackle the wounds that rip through our communities as a whole?
An example. Years ago, Princess Diana died early on a Sunday morning. Only the person preaching at my church hadn’t heard the news and so didn’t mention it, meaning that it felt like there was a gap in the service. Days later, the streets were full of flowers, catching everyone unawares. A friend from university would later suggest that this was only partly our grief over Diana – it was also about Jamie Bulger and Dunblane and all the other horrors of the preceding years, all the things we hadn’t been able to process, flowers flooding the streets to heal open wounds. I think my friend had a point.
What do our sermons sound like if we live in communities dependent on over-stretched food banks?
What do our sermons sound like if a factory shuts down and a few hundred middle-aged workers suddenly feel dropped onto society’s scrapheap?
What do our sermons sound like when children are killed, by gangs, by classmates, by cops?
What do our sermons sound like when people feel threatened by immigration or by racism?
I’m not saying our preachers should become pundits, but we need to be able to speak into the wounds and the scars and the self-harm of our communities before fear and despair and hopelessness and grief and abandonment metastasise into cancers that will slowly and painfully kill us.
In a recent interview with NPR, Civil Rights activist Ruby Sales pointed out how we need to be able to offer public theologies in a range of different contexts – in black communities dealing with white privilege, in working class neighbourhoods facing profound economic changes, whatever – and figure out how to speak God’s word into a situation. Because the Good News has to be good news in church, in the queue to the food bank, at a police call out and down at the job centre. And in the midst of this our churches should be an immune system, not an isolation ward.
Look, the last thing the world needs is another white guy talking about Martin Luther King. I get that. But thoughts have got lodged in my head, and I keep going back to words spoken by Jesus in the last few days of his life. In a searing attack on the Pharisees, he yells “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous”, even though they’re complicit in the acts that put the prophets and the righteous in the tombs in the first place. And Jesus is rightly furious at this, because it’s hypocrisy of the highest order.
Martin Luther King is a towering figure of the 20th Century. “I have a dream” isn’t just a great speech, it’s a prophecy, a glorious, beautiful vision casting that’s rightly remembered decades later. But the tragedy is that King gets frozen in amber during the March on Washington. He’s considered a Great Man, and we learn about him in schools, and the Americans have a day dedicated to his memory. He’s an icon.
But he was more than that. He was a flawed man who found himself caught up in history, and he made mistakes, and by the end of his life, people were questioning his relevance and noting the tensions inherent in his message. He was also a prophet, but not in the sense of a plaster-cast saint; he spoke words of righteousness, against racism and inequality and violence and war. And so the FBI wanted to destroy him, and people beat him and firebombed his house; he got thrown in jail and, ultimately, he was murdered. We like prophets who talk about non-violence, because we can be violent towards them in response.
That’s what happens to real prophets. We like them once they’re dead and gone and we can sanitise their message, but while they’re actually running around on earth, we’d much rather just shoot ‘em. Two thousand years ago, Jesus railed against how we treated prophets and just a couple of days later he was nailed to a cross. If we think about it long enough, we can probably come up with the names of prophets who are being persecuted right now.
The worst of it is, we then erect statues to their memory and publish their words in nice little gift books, and the rage and the fire and the Spirit that danced through their words gets extinguished. We praise Martin Luther King for his vision of an integrated word, but we’re still cheering on wars, we’re still a grossly unequal society, we’re still seeing unarmed black people shot by police. And the prophets will still rage, and they’ll still get killed, and we’ll still use them as inspiration porn in an effort to quiet their cries and put out their fire.
Maybe we should just start listening and changing instead.