Truth Infused With Hope: What’s In A Name? Revelation 2:12-17
10/22/2018 11:41:10 PM
October 21, 2018
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: Revelation 2:12-17
Who am I? Who are you? There’s been a recent trend in people researching their ancestry, their family tree. Online services like Ancestry.com make connecting with family and combining research have made this more efficient. More recently, with advances in DNA testing, there is a huge surge in people using DNA tests to see what their genetic background is. In the clip we watched, taken from a daytime TV show, we saw a woman learn about her ethnic heritage and that she is 45% West African and 55% European.
Throughout the emotional, tear-filled “reveal” of her ancestry and DNA composition, a number of interesting statements were made that I think we need to stop and consider. First, the episode title is “Who am I?” And they proceed to answer that question along the lines of ones DNA. So the first implicit statement being made was “I am my DNA,” or “My DNA determines who I am.” This is a dangerous statement to make as we will see! Then the hostess says that our DNA “connects us” to centuries of relatives. OK. But what is the connection?
Second, the woman reacted like she’d won a prize as she learned that part of her DNA was from Ghana and part was British. What if one is disappointed with ones DNA? Furthermore, when it was revealed that she was part British, there was tremendous excitement that this explains why she is obsessed with the British and especially the Royal Family. Really? That’s why? Similarly, when it turned out she was also part Irish her cohost quipped, “That explains the drinking.” Now it was funny, but there’s a foundation of belief behind the humour. There’s an assumption that being Irish determines or explains drinking behaviour. On the one hand, that’s a stereotype which, if made about people of colour would be called racism. On the other hand, if her Irish DNA determines that she drinks a lot, what hope does she have to quit?
Lastly, when she realizes that some of her ancestors were likely slaves brought to the Bahamas that survived, she immediately made the connection that her family are “survivors.” That’s Darwinism. Survivors survive and pass along their genes to their descendants.
Now, let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with discovering your heritage. There is nothing wrong with doing a DNA test. (Although you must be careful with how the companies use your genetic information-you don’t want your health insurance company to decide not to cover you for something they found in a DNA test!) Knowing your past is not wrong and can be discovered in a way that is not harmful.
Knowing our past can be positive. We can appreciate our past but it is not determinative. Knowing our past, our heritage can be exciting. Can generate appreciation and sympathy or empathy – slaves as ancestors may motivate us to fight for people enslaved today!
But there are problems if we move further and conclude that our DNA determines who we are and what we do: If DNA determines who I am, how can I overcome my DNA? How can I be held responsible for my actions? What hope do I have? What if my DNA says I’m poor or unintelligent or lazy? If my DNA can tell me “we’re survivors” it can also tell me “we’re cowards.” If we start defining our identities by our DNA, that actually strengthens racism and bigotry. It highlights our differences not our similarities. Now, some “white supremacists” may benefit from a DNA test that shows they’re not as white as they think! But what is the most famous regime that focused on heritage, ethnic background and genetics? Nazi Germany!
My DNA may tell me where my ancestors came from, but it does not tell me who I am. Think about it- There is some anonymity when it’s “my ancestors” but think specifics. Isn’t your grandmother more than her race? Your great-great grandfather more than his? So knowing their genetic composition may be informative, but it is not definitive. If I want you to see me as more than my skin colour, I should also want you to see me as more than my DNA!
Why are we so obsessed? We are obsessed with self-discovery, “look within” – technology means “look
within” includes looking at my DNA. And there is value in DNA testing if it can help us prevent disease or know to be alert for early testing. There’s nothing wrong with examining our DNA. But it doesn’t tell me who I am.
But I think there is a deeper reason- why we are looking within- we have cast off from the shore. We have cast off all foundations of right and wrong. Adrift in a sea of uncertainty, we are looking for any foundation we can find. We have been floating along in a sea of uncertainty for a couple generations and we are lost. Now the hope that DNA can finally answer the question, “Who am I?”
Can Christianity offer any insight into this question? What does the Bible have to say about who we are? In the documentary The Case for Christ, based on Lee Strobel’s book and the small group curriculum, NT Wright, a New Testament scholar, has a wonderful quotation: “Jesus didn’t come to help me discover who I am. He came to tell me who he knew I really was and to do something about it. And that’s much better news.”
Now let’s consider a text that will shed some light on this question. It’s not a text we would usually think of for talking about our identity, but I think in the end you’ll see that it’s not only applicable to who we are, but answers the deeper questions our culture is wrestling with- that sense of being adrift in a sea of uncertainty!
What It Says
Revelation is not a book we go to often. It’s not a book we would expect to use for questions of identity and the like, but it is remarkable in what it says.
To begin with, we must understand how to read Revelation. IT’s a special genre of writing called “apocalyptic.” The idea of apocalyptic literature is not about the end of the world (like post-apocalyptic movies) but rather about seeing what is really happening in our world by seeing into the spiritual realm. In order to safely write about current events, the authors of apocalyptic writing also used images familiar to their audience but unfamiliar to the Romans. Why? So they could write about Rome without getting executed!
What does this mean for us? It means we have to remember that the Bible was written for us but it was not written to us. We need to do some work to understand the images John uses in order to safely communicate with his readers. The message he is sending applies to us, if not the vehicle through which he sends it.
Pergamum was a provincial capital centred on a large hill. It was a political centre- but in Rome/ancient world politics and religion were intertwined. On top of that hill were a series of temples to Zeus, Athena and ultimately Caesar! On the crest of the hill was a temple to Emperor Trajan – a place in which people worshipped Caesar! No matter where you go in Pergamum, you can see the temples on the hill, see the smoke rising from the daily sacrifices there. It was a centre of power, politics and pagan religion- where Satan has a throne- the hill looks like a throne and dominates the landscape.
Jesus tells the Christians, “I know where you live- where Satan as his throne” – reference to these temples in Pergamum. A two edged sword is an Old Testament image for judgement. Jesus speaks of the sword of his mouth- the sign of God’s Judgement vs Satan’s throne. Jesus is reassuring the Christians, who literally live in the shadow of Roman power and worship, that he is coming to bring judgement vs Satan and his minions- their pagan oppressors.
Today we shrink from the idea of judgement because we are in positions of comfort and power. We ask about the problem of evil and why God allows evil to happen, but when Jesus says he’s bringing judgement on evil we shrink back and get uncomfortable. But to oppressed people, like early Christians, judgement is welcome! The Christians in Pergamum stood firm in the face of persecution. Antipas, otherwise unknown to us but known to them, was even executed for his faith – surely others were imprisoned, beaten, ridiculed, etc.
The teaching of Balaam and the Nicolaitans lead the people into idolatry and sexual sin. Balaam was a pagan prophet in the OT, in Numbers. Later we learn that he taught the Midianite women to seduce the Israelite men and then get them to worship pagan gods. The Nicolaitans we don’t know, but Balaam breaks down in Hebrew to 2 words which mean “conquer” and “the people” and in Greek Nicolaus is made up of two words meaning “conquer” and “the people.” So there’s a good chance whatever they were preaching was similar to Balaam in the OT.
So, in spite of their strength and faithfulness in the face of persecution, they were following teaching that said sexual sin wasn’t really a big deal. The solution is to repent – to turn the trajectory of their life to face God again. Otherwise, they too will face the judgement of Jesus when he comes (the sword of his mouth).
To him who has an ear means “listen up all of you.” This means not just the Christians in Pergamum but to all believers. To those who overcome I will give hidden manna. What was manna? Again, in the Old Testament, manna was food from heaven God provided for the people as they wandered in the desert for 40 years. Jesus will provide your needs!
Jesus says he will give those who persevere a white stone with a new name. In the ancient world, a person’s name represented their whole character. We are not sure about the white stone’s meaning- a couple options, but most likely a whole new person!
What It Means
What does it all mean? We have to wade through some of the symbols John had to use to avoid being killed, but let me summarize: Jesus knows the situations his people face. “I know where you live…. Where Satan has his throne.” Pergamum was a hard place to be a Christian! Jesus knows where you live too – he knows it’s hard to be a Christian on campus, at school, in the workplace, among friends, when the kids are screaming, etc.
When we stand firm, Jesus provides for our needs. He provides hidden manna, God’s provision for his people in the desert (Balaam worked against them in the desert!). You may not know what it is when you see it, but Jesus will provide for you when you stick with him in times of strain and trouble.
What about when you find yourself not standing firm? When you are sliding or slipping? Even God’s people are called to repent. Jesus knows where you live! He knows that you slip up, slide away, fall into sin- he knows what you face, and instead of rejecting you when you fall, he offers his invitation again to turn back to him and be reconciled.
Faithfulness can be costly. Antipas died. Jesus knows where you live. He knows the difficulties you face. Honestly, none of us in Canada face the kind of trouble John’s 1st Century readers faced, but many who love Jesus do! And Jesus is going to renovate our character when we persevere, when we stand firm. When pushed to our limits, our true self comes out- often toxic! When Jesus was pushed to his limit on cross, what came out of him? “Father forgive them” And that’s the kind of change Jesus wants to work in us, the new name he gives.
Standing firm, though, can be costly. It may cost you work, a promotion, friends, even family to stand firm with Jesus. You will have to continually choose Jesus over other things and other people if you want to stand firm. It will cost you opportunities and relationships to stand firm with Jesus when presented with opportunities to compromise.
Perseverance is rewarded with a new name- a new character. When we stick with Jesus, choosing loyalty to him over loyalty to the world around us, to those who would harm us, or to those who would lead us away from Jesus (ie Balaams), we are given a new name, a new identity.
Jesus tells us who we are. In this context, we see that Jesus tells us exactly who we are, even that we are sinful and need repentance! But even as he diagnosis our condition, he provides the remedy: repentance and reconciliation through him to the Father. Furthermore, he provides the Holy Spirit to renew our heart. He provides the means through which we can become like him even when pushed to our limits.
How do we apply this? How does this connect with our DNA and our genetic heritage? My DNA doesn’t determine who I am, Jesus does. May seem trite, but is actually significant. It’s a real problem when we start defining our identity, determining our “name” by our DNA. It removes free will, responsibility and even hope to overcome our DNA. What if my ancestors were all thieves? What if they were all poor students? Lazy? Murderers? In Christ, though, “there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:11) In Christ, our DNA does not determine our name, our identity.
Judging and categorizing people by genes is nothing new! In the past, it has never lead to peace and equality to highlight our backgrounds…. It’s ok to know your background. It’s ok to investigate it. But it’s not ok to say that it decides who you are! It is not your identity!
Faithfulness to Jesus provides the connection and foundation we are looking for. DNA “connects” us to hundreds of ancestors and relatives- but what kind of connection? We are looking for connection and foundation. We are looking to our ancestry to provide it. But this is fraught with difficulties, not least of which is
that our ancestry can’t provide the connection and foundation we are looking for! It’s not up to the task.
Let me reiterate that there’s nothing “wrong” with looking into your DNA and ancestry. I find it fascinating. I would like to do some work on my family tree. But be alert when our society starts putting such weight on it as defining “Who am I?” That’s where we run into trouble.
Are you looking for a foundation? Are you looking for an identity? Repent- turn to Jesus. That will provide what you’re looking for. Once you turn to Jesus, perseverance means Jesus provides what you need- identity, family and future. Our identity/name means a heart change, new thinking, feeling, desires, imagination. It’s transformative. Jesus provides a new family too. In Christ genetic/ethnic background disappears, economic background disappears, sinful “reputation” background disappears!
Jesus also provides a future- Jesus is returning. He will bring fairness, justice and judgment. He will set things right. Be prepared.
My DNA tells me about my past. Jesus tells me about my future. DNA testing to determine your ancestry doesn’t offer much hope for the future. (Offers hope for lots of medical things!) Knowing your ancestry may help you feel like you have a place in the world, connections to a history. It doesn’t tell you what you can do, achieve or where you can go. Jesus tells you why you are here, why you were created. Jesus tells you that you matter directly, regardless of your history.
Jesus knows where you live. He sees you (like woman who anointed his feet). He cares about who you are now and who you can be. He loves you just the way you are, but too much to let you stay that way. He is willing and eager to give you a new name- a new character, along with the future that comes with it. That is the hope we need to hear- that we are loved as we are, and that we have a marvelous future in store if we are loyal to Jesus. Amen.
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