Shannon Headen’s sermon “Watch the Throne” begins around the 20 minute mark.
Over the last few years, I’ve been wrapped up in an HBO series called Games of Thrones. Similar to the Lord of the Rings saga, it’s full of epic battles, dragons, giants and magic. Of course, there are villains and heroes, princes and princesses, kings and queens, and a Khalessi. There are a lot of characters, a lot of drama, and a lot of fighting.
In many ways, Game of Thrones is a classic tale of good versus evil. Here’s a 30-second synopsis. There are seven realms which make up one kingdom. Each realm has a warden, like a governor. But all the realms are ruled by the one king, who sits on the iron throne.
The king unexpectedly dies and his son, who is really crazy, takes the throne. Immediately almost everyone challenges the legitimacy of the new young king which throws the kingdom chaos and war. Many people, for various reasons, were certain that he or she is heir to the iron throne. Everyone wanted to be king. The show is graphic, gory, and very adult. It is not a children’s story.
You may have heard the show’s tagline, “Winter is coming.” To someone unfamiliar with the show, the phrase “winter is coming” sounds silly or rather ordinary because winter, especially for Clevelanders, is always coming.
However, for fans of the show “winter is coming” is a very specific message. It’s a code. It’s hidden knowledge that must be unveiled. It’s apocalyptic, much like the book of Revelation. This hidden knowledge is revealed to a man named Jon.
Jon could be described as an exile. He was sent to live far away from his powerful and influential family, cut off from the outside world. But then he saw something that changed everything. When he tried to warn other people of the very real and present danger, they were too consumed with ego, greed, and power to listen. Everyone was so fixated on their own desires that they ignored Jon’s message. “Winter is coming,” Jon warned, and said it would destroy everyone regardless of who sits on the iron throne.
The Jon of Game of Thrones is a lot like the John of Revelation. John of Revelation was a Jewish Christian. He received his revelation while exiled on an island called Patmos. He was likely a man of some power and influence in the early church because this writing known as Revelation was a pastoral letter. He was writing to seven specific churches in Asia Minor whom were under Roman rule.
While the book of Revelation contains some wild stuff, the visions were not rantings of a madman. Nor are they to be taken literally. Revelation is apocalyptic literature. It is a genre or a writing style. It is usually written as a response to something, like war or oppression. It is the only New Testament book that contains this writing style.
Scholars still debate whether John the gospel writer, John the epistle writer and the John of Revelation are one and the same. I don’t know, but I think it’s telling that this odd book is in our canon. Even though there was some debate in the early church councils regarding its inclusion, the book of revelation was canonized and became a part of the Christian story. But what is it trying to tell us?
To answer that we must travel back in the time. Imagine first century Rome, which was a pretty dangerous place for Christians. They would’ve been the religious minority. Christians were being persecuted and even crucified for their faith dying as martyrs. The only religion that was truly acceptable was the worship and praise of the Emperor of Rome.
One of the seven cities John addressed his letter to was Sardis. Sardis was the capitol of emperor worship. There were temples erected for Roman citizens to offer thanks and praise to a living human whom claimed to be an emperor and a god. There’s plenty of historical evidence that illustrates Rome’s arrogance, brutality and oppression. This would’ve been during the rule of infamous Roman rulers whom are known for acts of cruelty, such as Caligula and Nero. It is during this time that John received revelation.
John tells us right from the beginning that “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and keep what is written in it, because the time is near.” This letter, this prophecy, was meant to be read aloud. Only about 15% of early Christians and Roman citizens could read or write. Therefore, pastoral letters would often employ a little bit of poetic license and dramatic flair, metaphors and similes to bring the message to life. Imagery and descriptors were very important.
But even by those standards, Revelation is a wild ride. There are dragons, a king, a throne, multi-headed beasts, and four creepy horses. This is not a children’s story.
Perhaps Revelation is best understood as both a prophecy and a social commentary on life in first century Rome. It is hidden knowledge from Jesus Christ, that is revealed to John, through an angel, on a remote island, under Roman rule. John’s message could be simplified in just four words: “The time is near.” Get your house in order. Get your life in order because the time is near. No more worshiping false idols or false kings. Why? Because the time is near. No more being consumed with ego, greed, or power. Why? Because the time is near. No more following the beast. No more worshiping the dragon. Why? Because the time is near.
A song came out a couple years ago called No Church in the Wild, by Kanye West and Jay-Z. Listen to the chorus:
Human beings in a mob.
What’s a mob to a king?
What’s a king to a god?
What’s a god to a non-believer
Who don’t believe in anything?
We make it out alive.
All right, all right.
No church in the wild.
“No Church in the Wild” is a striking commentary on our current culture and society. It reveals a hidden truth about the world we live in. Is there church in the wild? Beyond Sunday worship, beyond the four walls of the physical building, in boardrooms, courthouses, classrooms, or offices? Is there church in the wild for the hungry, the homeless, or the sick? Is there church in the wild oppressed and the marginalized? Do we mean it when we say, “Thy will be done, Thy kingdom come?” Because ultimately, it’s not about us independently, it’s about us collectively. It’s always been about the kingdom. Not my kingdom or your kingdom, but God’s kingdom, God’s reign. Not my will be done, not your will be done, but God’s will on this earth and in heaven and the next. We must do more than come to church, we must be the church.
We do an excellent job of “being the church” here. After all, we are the first sanctuary church in Cuyahoga county. We are working to increase diversity amongst our staff by seeking to hire a woman of color as our next pastor. We’ve been engaging in conversations, book studies, and workshops about the realities of race in America. We have a dynamic Labre Ministry, Food Pantry and Pantry Lunch program. We feed people. We clothe people. We pray for people. We are agents of change. We should be proud of that. There are good people here.
But before we elevate ourselves too high, it’s important to keep perspective. It’s not about what we do, it’s about who we help. It’s about the Kingdom, the New Jerusalem. It is God’s will. The second we lose perspective, the second we forget who is in control–that’s the moment pride turns into ego and selflessness turns into selfishness. The instant respect turns into idolatry, we put ourselves up on the throne.
Both Jon of Game of Thrones and John of Revelation are unveiling an unsettling and complex message. Some would rather ignore them rather than face what they have to say. By ignoring them, people believed they could somehow control the impact of the message and ultimately choose their own destiny. However, had they heard the whole revelation, they would’ve learned that it was a revelation of hope, love and life. It was a reiteration that God always has the final say. It was a confirmation that God is always in control. For John of Revelation, it was a celebration of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and second coming.
Brothers, and sisters, and siblings, this new year and every year, every second of every moment of each day, know that there is one King and there is one throne. From that throne, the King of Kings, Lords of Lords, is making all things new. And will wipe away every tear and death will be no more. Beware of beasts and dragons within your midst because “winter is coming.” “The time is near.”
So watch the throne.