by Brian Walsh
Wine Before Breakfast is a worshiping community that I pastor at the University of Toronto. And in many respects, Empire Remixed was born out of that community. This year we are taking the city as a central theme for our reading of Scripture, prayer and liturgy. We began, perhaps oddly, with Revelation 18, the fall of Babylon.
We coupled the reading with the band playing Leonard Cohen’s song, “The Future.” I offer to the Empire Remixed community my reflections on this apocalyptic text. The sermon was preached on September 13, perhaps too close to the tenth anniversary of 9/11. You be the judge.
It’s a hell of a place to start.
And I mean that literally. Revelation 18, the fall of Babylon, is one hell of a place to begin another year of worship together at Wine Before Breakfast.
And throwing Leonard Cohen’s “The Future” into the mix certainly wasn’t going to soften the blow of Revelation 18.
Your servant here he has been told
to say it clear, to say it cold:
it’s over, it ain’t going any further.
And then making a reference to Ezekiel that is not unlike how John the Revelator related to that ancient prophet, Cohen writes:
And now the wheels of heaven stop,
you feel the devil’s riding crop,
get ready for the future:
it is murder.
Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
Babylon, that great city, that great empire,
that was so full of the rich and the beautiful,
the very seat of civilization,
the empire, like all empires, that sees itself as a world historic force for good,
is deconstructed in this apocalyptic vision,
it’s laid bare, stripped of its pretension,
and revealed to be a dwelling place of demons, foul spirits,
and everything that is foul.
And then Cohen employs explicit sexual imagery in his prophetic vision,
give me absolute control, over every living soul
and lie beside me, baby, that’s an order
give me crack and anal sex
take the only tree that’s left and stuff it up the hole in your culture!
What kind of language is that for Christian worship at 7.22 in the morning?
Well listen to the voice of the angel who speaks with great authority and illuminates the darkness of this earth with his splendour:
all the nations have drunk the wine of the wrath of her fornication
all the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her
Everybody’s screwing with Babylon!
In this imagery, she is the great whore and we all have consummated our idolatrous lives in her bed.
So it is no wonder that another voice now interrupts the vision and says,
“Come out of her, my people”
“Don’t not take part in her sin.”
The nations and the kings are fornicating with Babylon, so come out of her, my people:
engage in a radical act of coitus interruptus!
get the hell out of Babylon!
get out of that bed of idolatrous copulation,
stop screwing around with Babylon!
I know, I know, its pretty comfortable in Babylon’s bed!
There are bonuses available for those who play by her rules,
there is wealth to be had,
luxury to be enjoyed,and if you close your ears to the cries of the poor,
close your ears to the oppression of Babylon’s slaves,
close your ears to the groaning of all of creation,
indeed, close your ears to the God of covenantal love,
you just might be able to live in Babylon’s little dream world,
you just might be able to believe in Babylonian exeptionalism,
you just might be able to believe that Babylon is inherently good,
you just might be able to believe, lying between her legs,
that she is a queen, secure, open for business,
unmoveable, unshakeable and will always overcome any adversity.
At least that is what all the speeches from Babylon proclaim.
The Babylonian dream is alive,
the Babylonian way of life is not up for negotiation,
Babylon never apologizes for anything,
and if you are not for Babylon, then you are against Babylon.
But these angels see things differently.
They can see the future, and it is murder.
They can see the breaking of the ancient western code.
They can see the nations rise and fall.
And their vision is not clouded by ambiguity,
there is no nuance in their vision,
there is no postmodern undecidability,
no attempt to be politically correct,
no sensitivity to those who will meet their demise in Babylon.
No, Babylon’s judgement is rooted in Babylon’s economy.
It really is as simple as that.
How do you know that Babylon is a haunt of demons?
“the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury,”
“she glorified herself and lived luxuriously,”
“the kings of the earth … committed fornication and lived in luxury with her,”
“all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth.”
Any place with that kind of opulence,
that kind of conspicuous consumption,
that kind of wealth and luxury,
is by definition full of demons and evil spirits.
And why will the merchants weep and mourn for her?
because there will be no one left to buy their cargoes of luxury and wealth:
no one left to buy their gold, silver, jewels and pearls,
their fine linen, scented wood, articles of ivory,
their rich spices, wine, olive oil and choice flour and wheat,
their livestock and the arms trade in horses and chariots,
there will be no one left to buy the slaves,
the human lives that are at the foundation of this whole economy!
The merchants weep because they have lost their market!
Well, it’s over, it ain’t going any further.
your dainties and your splendour,
your national security and your economic power,
is all gone.
And then the vision takes a shocking turn.
If this devastating judgement were not enough,
we are now called to rejoice in the face of Babylon’s suffering:
“Hallelujah, Babylon is fallen”
“Rejoice over her, O heaven, you saints and apostles and prophets!
For God has given judgement for you against her.”
Rejoice at the demise of this empire.
Rejoice that her fornication cannot continue.
Rejoice that her violence over the earth is brought to an end.
Rejoice because in her death, the slaves will be set free.
But this is one hell of a costly rejoicing. And not one that I’m really up to.
You know, friends, I’ve been thinking a lot over the last few months about the city, and about the shape of urban ministry.
And a lot of folks who write about the city glory in the dynamism of the city, the rich busyness of urban life,
The way in which cities are places of culture and the arts, of industry and creativity,
of commerce and of relationships.
And all of that is true.
But I’m not sure that it is the right place to begin thinking about urban ministry.
My hunch is that we need to begin at the end precisely because the beginning was always ambiguous and anticipated the end.
You see, it is Cain who first builds a city, and you can be pretty sure that this was not a cultural development to enhance our ability to be our brothers’ keepers.
And then the next city is the prototype of the Babylon that we meet in Revelation 18 – the Tower of Babel.
And then we meet Sodom, which becomes the archetype in biblical imagination of evil cities.
So yes, cities are wonderful sites of concentrated populations where cultural productivity and creativity can happen.
But listen to this judgement on Babylon:
the great city will be no more;
the sound of harpists and minstrels, of musical creativity will be no more;
artisans and fine-skilled trades will be no more;
the light of the lamp to dispel the darkness will be no more;
and the voice of bride and bridegroom,
that delightful giggle of erotic embrace,
this too will be no more.
No more, no more, no more, no more, no more.
And we are left with silence.
“Hello silence my old friend”
Silence. Not a sound. Not a voice. Not a word. Not a song.
Because your merchants were the magnates of the earth,
and the nations were deceived by your sorcery,
so it is time for you to shut up,
stop polluting the world with your distorted ideology.
You engaged in voodoo economics,
deceiving the nations as your elite classes became fat with their wealth
so it is time for you to shut up,
you have nothing to say to a world of poverty and broken dreams.
And in you, was found the blood of the prophets and of the saints,
and of all you have slaughtered on the earth,
so it is time for you to shut up,
and listen to the cries of those you have oppressed.
Welcome to Wine Before Breakfast, friends.
We come together in Babylon, looking for a better city.
We come together in the deafening silence of this cultural ending
and we have the audacity to speak, to sing and to pray.
And maybe this can be our prayer:
If it be your will that a voice be true,
from this broken hill, I will sing to you,
from this broken hill, all your praises they shall ring
if it be your will to let me sing
If it be your will, if there is a choice,
let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice,
let your mercy spill on all these burning hearts in hell,
if it be your will to make us well
And draw us near and bind us tight,
all your children here in their rags of light,
in our rags of light, all dressed to kill,
and end this night, if it be your will.
(Leonard Cohen, “If it be your will”)