After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority; and the earth was made bright with his splendour. He called out with a mighty voice,
‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling-place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit, a haunt of every foul bird, a haunt of every foul and hateful beast. For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury.’
Then I heard another voice from heaven saying,
‘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; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities. Render to her as she herself has rendered, and repay her double for her deeds; mix a double draught for her in the cup she mixed. As she glorified herself and lived luxuriously, so give her a like measure of torment and grief. Since in her heart she says, “I rule as a queen; I am no widow, and I will never see grief”, therefore her plagues will come in a single day— pestilence and mourning and famine— and she will be burned with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.’
And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning; they will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say,
‘Alas, alas, the great city, Babylon, the mighty city! For in one hour your judgement has come.’
And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo any more, cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves—and human lives.
‘The fruit for which your soul longed has gone from you, and all your dainties and your splendour are lost to you, never to be found again!’
The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud,
‘Alas, alas, the great city, clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, with jewels, and with pearls! For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste!’
And all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning,
‘What city was like the great city?’
And they threw dust on their heads, as they wept and mourned, crying out,
‘Alas, alas, the great city, where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth! For in one hour she has been laid waste.’
Rejoice over her, O heaven, you saints and apostles and prophets! For God has given judgement for you against her.
Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying,
‘With such violence Babylon the great city will be thrown down, and will be found no more; and the sound of harpists and minstrels and of flautists and trumpeters will be heard in you no more; and an artisan of any trade will be found in you no more; and the sound of the millstone will be heard in you no more; and the light of a lamp will shine in you no more; and the voice of bridegroom and bride will be heard in you no more; for your merchants were the magnates of the earth, and all nations were deceived by your sorcery. And in you was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slaughtered on earth.’
Prophecy shows what is to come and urges us to act as if the prophecy has already come true. In the midst of empire the Seer is told that it had already fallen and was instructed to call God’s people out – just as Moses had called the Jews out of slavery. This deeply subversive passage would have both terrified and excited its first hearers. How does one live in the midst of an empire as if it had already fallen?
Of course the Church struggled with this dilemma. Instead of resistance it took on imperial trappings: early pacifism gave way to pragmatism, separation gave way to inclusion, bishops united their ministry of service with becoming imperial functionaries. Even now some traditions refer to bishops’ “thrones”; it’s not so long ago that popes wore a triple crown.
Yet how do we live with empire now? As we explored yesterday the legacies of Britain’s imperial past are still with us. America and China function as if they were imperial powers, financial systems still colonise and oppress. Do we resist or collude? Of course it’s hard, we feel powerless, we don’t know what to do but then nor did the Seer who had to write Revelation. In telling our stories of freedom and liberation we learn to be free. In rejoicing at empire’s end we help overthrow it. In seeing the world as it really is we help change it.
Blow the trumpets on Mt Zion! Christ shall come a second time ruling with a rod of iron all who now as foes combine. Fables’ garment sweet rejected and our fellowship is o’er. Babylon is fallen is fallen is fallen, Babylon is fallen to rise no more!
Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the judgement of the great whore who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk.’ So he carried me away in the spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; and on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.’ And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.
When I saw her, I was greatly amazed. But the angel said to me, ‘Why are you so amazed? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the inhabitants of the earth, whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will be amazed when they see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.
‘This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; also, they are seven kings, of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain for only a little while. As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast; they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.’
And he said to me, ‘The waters that you saw, where the whore is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by agreeing to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled. The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.’
In recent years there has been more understanding of our imperial legacy. From drinking tea (served in China), civic wealth based on slavery and tobacco, and our health problems with sugar (more slavery) it is clear that imperial legacies hide in plain sight.
What is normal isn’t seen as evil. Until last Summer’s protests, statues of slave traders and imperial despots on our streets or public squares were barely noticed by most white people. Public hostility to immigration hid the fact that for much of the 20th Century the British gave citizenship (and the right to live and work here) to our subject peoples though, of course, we didn’t refer to them as such! A generation of people brought up with tales of Britain ruling the waves and singing patriotic songs with jolly good tunes helped hide imperial reality. Given Britain’s original identity as a Christian, Protestant, nation this is all rather strange given the strong things Revelation has to say about empire.
Today’s passage shows the writer’s horror of empire – the image of a prostitute is troubling to our values but could also be translated as “idolatress.” The writer understood the reality of an imperial system which conquered and subjugated nations. The brutality of empire led puppet kings astray blunting any national resistance. The fall of Jerusalem would have underlined the terrible brutality of Rome.
The purpose of this part of the vision was to make the Seer aware, to understand things as they really were, to place the situation he found himself into a wider context of world politics, and to offer a religious understanding of imperial evil.
Passages like this should make us reflect on empires – past and present – and the part our nations played in the brutality of empire, the ways in which we justified it, and the poisonous imperial legacies that are reflected in racism and power even now. The first step towards repentance is seeing things as they really are.
Open our eyes, O God, to see the world as it really is and see the systems that rule our world; that we may resist evil and wait with eagerness for the coming of Your Kingdom, where there will be no more tears, no more pain, no more mourning, and where all the oppressed will run free. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston works with four URC congregations in and around Glasgow.