When I was in college, I got the chance to go to the Cairo Musuem in Egypt for a few days. In the back, of the museum, for a few extra dollars, I was able to go back and see the mummified remains of Pharaoh Ramsees II. The same Pharaoh who many scholars think was in charge in the days of Moses. He’s the guy who met Moses, and Moses met God. Another way of scything this is that I’m two handshakes away from God.
At the time of Ramses II, The Egyptian world was being told that Pharaoh was a god. He was said to maintain Ma’at, or balance. You can imagine how important balance would be if all of life was centered around the Nile river. If the river goes up people die, if it goes down people die. So what was needed was Ma’at, and Pharaoh was said to be able to give it to them. Now there is some more fascinating stuff here (like how Pharaoh was said to have 9 bows of power to keep Ma’at and God’s plagues on Pharaoh were a direct war on these 9 bows), but the point I want to make today is that when God sent the plagues to Egypt they had a very specific purpose:
God was undoing creation on Pharaoh.
Pharaoh is telling everyone that he is God, and so God is saying to Pharaoh, “If you’re me, than just try holding all this together.” And one by one, God systemically dismantles Creation on the guy who was telling people he was in charge of it.
Which brings us to the book of Revelation. Because eventually John sees God doing something on the earth that most of his readers would have thought sounded familiar. In Revelation 9, the Angels start blowing trumpets, and eventually God responds to the trumpets by sending plagues. Remember this book is written to a group of churches in the first century. These churches are filled with Christians being persecuted for their faith in God. They are asking God questions like Why? and How Long? Why won’t you do something, and it seems there were no answers they could understand. But plagues, now that’s something they get.
And not just any plagues either. The first one released was the plague of locusts. Remember Revelation is deeply symbolic. The plague of Locusts is what happens when one part of creation oversteps it’s bounds and destroys entire other parts of creation. That’s exactly what Caesar was doing and about to do to this little band of Christians. So the plagues were a mirror, on a cosmic level, of what was happening in their day to day lives. Now most of the time I hear this passage talked about, it’s by people who immediately try to talk about Apache helicopters in Iraq. But that is to try and domesticate this whole story. This is a story of subversive resistance (to the point of death) for this little band of Jesus followers. They are about to be required to bow a knee to Caesar and they are going to have say yes, or say goodbye to their heads. This isn’t about 21st century problems in the Middle East.
At least not in the way we think.
I’ve been in ministry long enough to know each of us brings our own unique sets of brokenness to the table. And that we each try to pretend that it isn’t there. So we discover ways of emphasizing our strengths and talents and ignoring our flaws, but in our quieter moments we know just how deeply broken we each are. And Revelation is telling us that what is true of us on the inside, is true at a cosmic level as well.
The problem isn’t that the axis of evil is somewhere else. The problem is that the axis of evil runs throughout the entire universe, and right down the middle of me as well.
One more thing about Locusts. A good question to ask here would be why does God start with this plague in Revelation? It’s the 8th plague in the Exodus story, why is it the first one in this one? Does Caesar Domition have some kind of weird bug fear? Remember symbolism is the currency of Revelation, but so is story. I think it’s because the people reading this story might be reminded of another time that God used Locusts in the Bible.
It’s in the book of Joel, and the Israelites are about losing everything to this bizarre natural disaster. The Locusts are eating their crops and destroying their livelihood, their families will starve and their cities will empty. And Joel tells God’s people that this is all because of the evil inside of them. God wants them to repent and when they do this is what Joel tells them God will do: “I will restore the years that the locusts have eaten.”
I love that idea. God is in the restoration business, that’s where this whole book of Revelation is headed after all. Redemption, Renewal and Restoration. But it’s not just matter and Creation that God will restore, apparently, on some level. It’s time itself.
God will deal with the evil that is in the world both cosmically and personally. But he will also redeem what it has done. He will restore the years that death has taken away.
He will renew that which plagues us all.