Apocalypse III: Here be dragons

I kill where I wish and none dare resist. I laid low the warriors of old. Then I was but young and tender. Now I am old and strong, strong, strong…. My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail is a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death.

So says the dragon, Smaug, in JRR Tolkien’s fantasy classic, The Hobbit.

Dragons have been part of the human imagination for almost as long as human have had an imagination. They cross cultural boundaries and endure across the ages, emerging in our dreams, our stories, and our art until this very day. The dragon in the myth may be slain, but the myth itself persists.

Why, then, are surprised to find the dragon lurking in the pages of our Bible?

Perhaps it is because we think of such creatures as suitable only for fairy tales and children’s stories. As the old song says, “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.” Sooner or later, we grow up and realize that dragons aren’t real, fairy tales aren’t true, and there are no monsters under the bed. So as much as we may enjoy watching Game of Thrones at night, it’s a bit embarrassing to find such creatures appearing here in church on Sunday morning, lurking among the pages of the book of Revelation (Rev 12:1-12).

This is a night vision, this dragon of the Apocalypse. John of Patmos dreamed a dream, told a tale, saw a vision – pick whichever words you wish, but somehow, there came into John’s imagination a great red dragon. Emerging out of the darkness of John’s subconscious, it crouches in wait before a pregnant woman, ready to devour her child at birth.

It is an ancient and powerful image, one that was internationally known in John’s day. The dragon menacing the queen of heaven is a myth that appeared in various forms in Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, and Asia Minor. To a Christian reader, the mother and her child are Mary and Jesus; to a Jewish reader, they are Israel and the Messiah; more universally, they are every mother and every child; they are the present and the future.

The child is hope, and the dragon threatens to devour it.

But in John’s vision, the mother and child are not alone. The child of hope is swept up in the arms of God, the mother flees to a place of sanctuary, and the hosts of heaven wage war on the red dragon. The serpent is cast down, from heaven to earth, where it continues its battle – not against angels, but against the children of the earth.

This is the stuff of high fantasy. Apocalypse is an ancient literary genre unto itself, with no precise modern equivalent; but if I had to shelve it in a bookstore or library, I think I would put it, not in the religion section, but next to Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games, or The Handmaid’s Tale. In saying this, I do not in any way intend to diminish its importance, or to deny its truth.  At its best, speculative fiction creates a counter-reality that can unmask the status quo. It is inherently and powerfully subversive.

How else to explain the fact that in Thailand, following the military coup, young people began signing their resistance by flashing the three-fingered salute from The Hunger Games? Or that, here in the US, during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing, groups of women took to the streets dressed in the red cloaks and white hoods of The Handmaid’s Tale? In recent years, at anti-Fascist protests around the world, you can see young people carrying signs that say “Dumbledore’s Army.”  Such is the power of myth.

So let us return to our dragon. Defeated in heaven, the red dragon falls to earth, to wage war against its inhabitants. But it does not do so directly; instead, it gives its “authority” – its power – to a great and monstrous beast that arises from the sea. This Great Beast in turn relies on another – a lesser beast from the earth – which acts as its agent and enforcer, demanding loyalty to the Great Beast. (Rev. 13:1-18)

Who, or what, is this Great Beast from the sea, this earthly incarnation of the dragon’s power? John gives us two details: first, that the Beast has seven heads, one of which has a mortal wound, yet lives; and second, that the number of the Beast is 666. These are clues to be deciphered by John’s readers; as he himself says: “this calls for wisdom.”

Here John’s vision becomes less global and more particular; for beasts, in the Hebrew apocalyptic tradition, represent specific earthly empires. In this case the beast with seven crowned heads is Rome and its seven emperors; the seventh head, with the mortal wound, refers to the Emperor Nero, who was at the time variously rumored to have committed suicide or to have survived the attempt.

As for the number of the beast: in Hebrew numerology, each letter has a number, and so each word has a corresponding number that is the sum of all its letters. The sum of the name Nero Caesar, is 666.

At this point, John’s vision becomes less high fantasy, and more political allegory; a bit less like Lord of the Rings, and more like Animal Farm.

Animal Farm, for those unfamiliar with it, is a classic twentieth century fable by George Orwell. It tells the story of a group of farm animals who rise up in revolution against the tyranny of their farmer. In this they are led by the pigs, who encourage them to build a utopian society in which all animals are equal. In time, however, the pigs themselves become as tyrannical as the farmers.

To those familiar contemporary world history, Animal Farm is clearly an allegory of the Russian Revolution, with the pigs corresponding to its leaders: Old Major is Karl Marx, Snowball is Trotsky, and the aptly named Napolean is Stalin. To those who are unfamiliar with this history, the story is still compelling, for its warning against totalitarianism rings true in any age.

And so it is with the book of Revelation. John’s contemporaries would have recognized his symbolism as referring to the particular political realities of their own time. Those of us farther removed from this setting may still find his vision compelling, for the forces of empire are active in every age. But we misinterpret the story if we read it too literally.

Let me be perfectly clear here; to come away from Revelation with a fear of the number 666 is like coming away from Animal Farm with a fear of pigs. In either case, it is to profoundly miss the point.

The purpose of John’s Apocalypse – and arguably, the purpose of Harry Potter or The Handmaid’s Tale as well – is to unveil the true nature of the Empire’s power, and to give courage to those who refuse to bow down before it. Apocalyptic literature is, in John’s own words, “a call for the endurance of the saints.” It is a loud and clear warning to those who drift into tyranny: Here be dragons.

This is no children’s fable. Quite the opposite.

I have been thinking back, this week, on the dragons of my childhood. Pete Seeger introduced me to Puff, the Magic Dragon, who frolicked in the autumn breeze with little Jackie Paper. Disney brought me the Reluctant Dragon, who wrote poetry and shared a cup of tea with the knight who came to slay him. Meanwhile, my books about dinosaurs taught me that giant lizards were a thing of the past.

But real dragons are neither pets or playmates. Real dragons devour and destroy. Take Smaug, for example. Now, that’s a dragon. He sits on a massive pile of plunder, for which he has slaughtered thousands. He craves gold – which is to say, wealth for wealth’s sake, power for power’s sake – and he will stop at nothing to acquire it.

As a child, I was lulled into believing, there were no real dragons. But I am no longer sure of that.

Real dragons cannot be seen by human eyes, or slain by human hands. Dragons exist in our world, the “real world,” only by proxy. They enlist us, to do their damage for them – to despoil and to dominate, to torture and to kill. We cannot lay hands on racism itself, or greed itself, or tyranny itself. But they are real enough. We can choose to serve them; or we can resist.

So, my fellow Hobbits, my fellow Handmaids, my fellow members of Dumbledore’s Army, take heart. You are not alone.

I leave you with this word of encouragement from John’s revelation:

The dragon’s wrath is great, because he knows his time is short.



Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
for the First Church of Deerfield, MA
May 19, 2019

(photo: Image from the 11th century Bamberg Apocalypse. Wikimedia Commons. )

Apocalypse II: Earth Day

While the sage, Honi, was walking along the road,
he saw a man planting a carob tree. Honie asked him,
“How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”

“Seventy years,” replied the man.

“Are you so healthy a man, that you expect to
live that length of time and eat its fruit?

The man answered, “I found a fruitful world
because my ancestors planted it for me.
Likewise I am planting for my children.”

(from the Babylonian Talmud, taanit 23a)

Today is Mother’s Day. I am fortunate to be the mother of two kids who like to cook. So tonight, I can look forward to a delicious supper prepared by my daughters.

But I am not only a mother, but also a daughter. My Mom died some 25 years ago. What gift can I give her? How can I honor her, on Mother’s Day?

The story of Honi and the Carob Tree suggests an answer. It is a simple tale, with a simple moral: We honor our ancestors, by being good ancestors, to our descendants. Not a bad message, really, for Mother’s Day: We honor our mothers, by being good mothers, to our children.

It is a lesson easily understood, but less easily followed.


Last week the United Nations released a report on the state of the planet. It summarizes the results of some 15,000 scientific and government studies, and concludes that of the earth’s 8 million species, some 1 million are in danger of extinction within the next few decades. Some of us in the room right now, will live to see this happen.

As luck, or providence, would have it, that report hit the headlines at the same time that the common church lectionary cycle turned to the Book of Revelation.  It was hard to miss the parallel between the two. The great twentieth century theologian Karl Barth used to tell his seminary students to preach with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other, but, honestly, as I went back and forth between the two, between the scripture and the news, it was hard to know which was which.

On the one hand, I read that “land degradation has reduced productivity in 23 percent of the global terrestrial area,” that habitat integrity has declined by 30% globally, that from 1990 to 2015 we cut down over twice as much forest as we planted, with a net loss of some 180 million hectares of trees.

In the other, I read that “a third of the earth was burned, and a third of the trees were burned, and the green grass was burned.”

On the one hand, I read “33 percent of global fisheries are overexploited.”
On the other, “a third of the living creatures in the sea died.”

When the daily news starts sounding like the Apocalypse, something is very wrong.


Around the year 100 – some three generations after Jesus was born – a follower of Jesus named John was exiled to the island of Patmos. It was there, the book of Revelation tells us, that John one day fell into a trance, and dreamed a dream – or a series of dreams – about the End of the World. His dreams are filled with cycles of seven – which in Hebrew numerology, meant cycles of completion. Seven lamps, seven seals, seven bowls, and, in today’s reading, seven trumpets, each bringing a new revelation.

The blast of the first four trumpets reveal massive environmental collapse. A third of the green earth perishes, a third of the sea creatures perish, a third of the waters are poisoned, a third of the stars are dimmed. (Revelation 8:6-13)

For John, this was a dream of unimaginable disaster. For us, it is still unimaginable, but it is no longer a dream, but a looming reality. We fell the forests, we empty the seas, we pollute our waters, even our view of the stars is dimmed by human activity; compared to the sky our ancestors saw, our own night sky is impoverished of stars.

We are living John’s dream, and it is time to wake up.


Now, in saying this, let me be clear: I do not necessarily mean to say, that John’s dream was a prediction of our present day crisis. I know that some see in these events the fulfillment of a prophecy, and come to the conclusion that somehow all of this is part of God’s plan, if not God’s actual doing. But the belief that God has ordained the destruction of our planet is a poor reading of scripture, not to mention a poor basis for environmental stewardship.

The first four blasts of the trumpet are followed by two more, which we skipped over in today’s reading. These bring a vision of suffering and death which will afflict the human species. For how can humans prosper, if earth perishes? But as terrible as they are, none of these events are punishments, or judgments. Judgment comes with the seventh trumpet.

The trumpet sounds, and the hosts of heaven declare:

The Kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our God;
the time has come for judging the dead, for rewarding the saints,
and for destroying those who destroy the earth. (Rev 8:15-18)

This devastation is not God’s doing. It is ours, and we are accountable for it.

The First Earth Day was in 1970; I was six years old. We were supposed to be the green generation. There was – and still is, I think – this belief that if we just teach our children about the environment, then the future of the planet will be secure. But the problem is, the world is not run by children, and children, unfortunately, turn into adults. Look at us. We knew better, but we have failed to do better; if anything, we have burdened the planet in unprecedented ways.  We currently extract around 60 billion tons of resources from the earth each year – that’s twice as much as generation ago.

We have eat the fruit of the carob tree; but instead of planting another, we cut the tree down, and paved over the orchard.

I’d like to be able to point the finger here, to blame our problems on someone else, on Big Oil or Big Government or people who drive Big Cars. But the truth is, we are all complicity, because our entire way of life is built on a wrong attitude toward nature. And – as T.S. Eliot once remarked – a wrong attitude about nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude about God.

Today, both nature and scripture, both science and religion, both speak to the urgency of our condition.

For here is the conclusion, of the UN report on the environment: “Goals for conserving… nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, and… may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.” [emphasis mine]

To rephrase this, in the traditional language of faith: Repent, for the time is at hand.


About five years ago, I had a conversation with a young man who was part of the church I was serving at the time. At the time he was about seventeen, so I guess he would be around 23 now. We met at a coffee shop, and talked about his life, and toward the end of the conversation I asked him, What does your generation want from the church? And he said: Hope?

The children of today can see what is happening, to the planet, and they fear for their futures. They know our climate is collapsing, they know our environment is degrading, and they are afraid. They are afraid that we can’t do anything about it. But even more than that, they are afraid we won’t do anything about it. As children protest, in the streets of London, in the streets of Greenfield, they are looking to us, for some sign of hope.

We are the grownups now. We have eaten the carob fruit. It is time to plant some seeds of hope.

The story of Honi and the carob tree is a simple one. Its lesson is easily understood, but less easily followed.

We honor our ancestors, by being good ancestors, to our descendants.

We honor our mothers, by being good mothers, to our children.

May it be so.


Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
for the First Church of Deerfield, MA
May 12, 2019

Desolate Trees in the Sandy Desert of Deadvlei Hiking Trail. These trees perished when the local climate changed some thousand years ago. (Photo by Marcel Novais;  Wikimedia Commons)


Apocalypse I: ending with a comma

Spring in New England is lambing season; they arrive just in time for Easter, all fuzzy, gentle, and innocent as… well, lambs.  And with all these lambs popping up in our fields, it seems seasonally appropriate that they pop up in our Easter celebrations — not only in our children’s Easter baskets, but also in our Eastertide readings. Every year, in May, the liturgical calendar marks Good Shepherd Sunday, with verses from the Gospel of John, about the tender shepherd, who calls his sheep by name.

This, however, is not that Sunday.

Today, Jesus appears as the Lamb of God, but not as the sweet and cuddly lamb of our Easter baskets. No, this is a seven-eyed, seven-horned lamb, before whom the people cry out in fear, “Save us from the wrath of the lamb!” It’s like a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Or some sort of B grade horror film. I’ve never seen an Easter card with a seven-eyed, seven-horned lamb on it, and no one would give a child one to play with.

Happy Easter – welcome to the Apocalypse.


The book of Revelation – or, to call it by its Greek name, the Apocalypse — is arguably the weirdest book of the New Testament, and certainly the most violent. Those of us in the mainline churches, who like to think of our faith as rational and peace loving, tend to find Revelation disturbing, if not downright embarrassing.  It comes up in the common cycle of scripture readings only every third year, and even then the readings are highly selective; we skip over the most outlandish sections. Meanwhile, in other branches of the Christian family tree, the entire Book of Revelation is embraced as, literally, the final word on their faith – a reliable guide to the end times.

This divergence of opinion is not new. The book of Revelation has been controversial from its beginning. It barely squeaked into the canon; when the church begin drawing up lists of the “official” Christian scripture, there was fairly wide consensus about the Gospels and the Letters, but the church leaders of the day were sharply divided over the Revelation.

So what sort of book is this strange, last chapter of the Bible?

Well, for starters, it is emphatically not a Gospel. The four canonical gospels – the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – are testimonies to the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, as variously remembered and passed on by his Apostles. The gospels claim their authority from this Apostolic witness.

The author of the book of Revelation, however, makes no such claim of Apostolic authority. He tells us his name is John, but John was a common name, and nowhere does he claim to be the Apostle John. We know only this – that he was a first-century Jewish follower of Jesus, that he was exiled to the island of Patmos, and that while there, he saw visions, which he believed were sent by God. It was these visions that impelled him to write his Apocalypsis – a Greek word which means, revelation.

So how are we to read such a book?

Certainly not in the same way we would read a gospel story, or one of Paul’s letters. Dreams and visions have a language and narrative logic of their own. The shape of our dreams is informed  by our experiences and our traditions – our external and internal landscapes, if you will – but also by wells of meaning and creativity beyond the grasp of our conscious minds.  John had a vision, of a heavenly throne, surrounded by winged creatures, and of a sealed scroll – a secret, waiting to be revealed. He is told that the only one able to open the scroll is the Lion of Judah; but when he appears, he is no lion, but a slaughtered lamb – not the predator, but the prey. Yet somehow, in the way of dreams, he can be both of those things. The one who conquered, is somehow the same one who was slaughtered.

Clearly, this is not meant to be taken literally. Jesus is not, literally, a seven-eyed lamb, any more than he is, literally, a lion. But there are truths best seen in the non-literal world; in the world of dreams, or of poetry, or of imagination; in the world of symbols and signs, of art and archetype.

John’s vision is full of images and phrases from his Jewish faith tradition – the winged creatures around the throne are found in the prophet Ezekiel, the Lion of Judah is a phrase from the book of Genesis, the lamb to the slaughter is an image from the prophet Isaiah. The God of his ancestors has visited John in his dreams, thereby revealing himself to John as God not only of the past, but of the present, and the future – the one who was, and is, and is to come.


It is that God-who-is-to-come that calls to John, that haunts his dreams. For from where John is standing, God has unfinished business.

For where was the promised kingdom of heaven? The Roman Empire was no realm of God. The righteous still perished, while the wicked prospered.

These are the first secrets revealed, when the scroll’s first four seals are broken. The four horsemen of the apocalypse – which is simply to say, the four horsemen ‘revealed’  — embody the injustice and suffering of this world: warfare, civil strife, economic exploitation, an death.  None of these is new. None of these is yet to come. They are the terrible reality of our human past and our human present. They were the reality of John’s world as well as of our own, the reality we hide from, the reality we push away from our conscious minds, as perhaps John did. But they emerged in his dreams, taking on the shape of monsters and mythic creatures.

When the fifth seal is broken, it reveals the company of the martyrs, those who have died in witness to their faith, those who have suffered for speaking the truth, those who have been punished for their righteousness. And they cry out the question of all those who thirst for justice: How long? O Lord, how long?

This is the cry of John’s heart as well.

This dream, this revelation, came to John in the midst of a crisis of faith: For he believed God’s messiah had come in Christ; yet the four horsemen continued to ravage the earth.  Suffering continued, with no end in sight.

No wonder John dreamed of the End Times.

John needed to know, that the horsemen would not ride forever; he needed to know, that dead would be avenged; he needed to know, that justice would prevail.  He needed to know, that the future still belonged to God.

As do we.


There is a deep irony in the fact that this book was the last admitted to the official Canon, before the church sealed it shut. For its very existence points beyond the traditions of the faith, beyond the teachings of the elders, beyond the infallibility of scripture, even. The book itself warns that nothing may be added to its words; but the book itself is an addition, a divine addendum, an acknowledgement of truth yet to break forth. The Bible ends, not with a period, but with a comma.

The very possibility of revelation — of dreams yet to be dreamed, of deeds yet to be accomplished, of surprises yet to come — is deeply hopeful.  For like John, we live in an unfinished world, and so we need an unfinished gospel.

John’s dreams may not be our dreams, but perhaps their presence among these holy writings can give us permission, and courage, to dream our own dreams, and hear the word that God is still speaking, to us.


Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
May 5, 2019
The First Church of Deerfield, MA
Lead photo shows Jacob sheep lambs (from JacobSheepSociety.com),
who grow up to look like this (from WashingtonPost.com)