The Mark of the Beast
I grew up around people who were involved in churches that had a very high investment in the Book of the Revelation. Going to youth group, or to vacation Bible school with my friends, you would not have been surprised to see the chief pastor at the closing session offering a sermonette on a passage from the Revelation and then asking if anyone of us 6-9 year old children, or our parents and/or older siblings would like to come forward to the altar and accept Jesus as our personal savior and thus avert eternal damnation.
That's actually how I learned the Our Father by heart. I went up one night with a friend and at the direction of the pastor I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. He then told me I had to talk to Jesus every night, or else he would leave my heart. One night, when I had run out of things to say to Jesus, I refused to go to bed. My dad asked me why and when I told him, he reminded me that because I knew the prayer Jesus taught us I would never be at a lack of something to offer. With that, we prayed the Our Father, and in reminding me that I actually knew that prayer I found myself able to sleep.
I think my dad has forgiven that pastor. I know we didn't go back to Bible school at that church, though.
Of course, the interaction with that type of theology didn't end. As we grew older, we were invited to attend youth group meetings with friends. At one such, there was a movie series on "the end times." It was a series of films produced in the mid-1970s that attempted to bring the Book of Revelation up to date. Poorly shot, they had the flavor, and perhaps some of the intent to frighten, as those campy drive-in horror movies of the same era. There were usually teenagers, about our age, struggling to find faith in the face of the apocalypse. One (or a very few) would find their faith, and inevitably several would lose theirs...some would go to heaven and be with Jesus and others would be destroyed/burned/condemned/shipped off to some scary place-either a concentration camp or hell. And yes, there was usually a speaker afterwards who would invite us up to receive Jesus as our personal savior...so that we could avoid the tribulation and be ready when the last trumpet would sound to meet Jesus in the sky.
These chapters of Revelation that we are heading into present some frightening images of what John's end times were looking like as visions unfolded before him. Beast rising from the sea and from the land threaten both our day-to-day lives and our relationships with each other and the Divine. The struggles between light and dark, between factions in heaven and those in our own hearts are transformed into earth-shaking behemoths who demand not only our attention, but also the subjugation of all the is good, right and just.
I think the truth that these visions are trying to articulate is actually found at a deeper level than one that intends to scare the little child in each of us into submission to God. John's apocalypse is at once universal and also his own personal experience of the struggle of creation to turn back to God, and in God's desire to draw creation back to union with its creator's will when the white noise of sin clouds the connections. By depicting that struggle on a cosmic scale, he reminds us that our walk with God in Christ is more than JUST a personal victory over sin and death when we embrace Jesus as our Lord and Savior. Our walk is also a corporate discovery of what it means to live, love, pray, hope and grow in community with each other as well. It's a reminder that salvation is more than just a balance-sheet equation wherein we strive as the faithful to ransom as many people as we can from the temptation to embrace the "Mark of the Best." It is more than scaring little kids (or any who are infants in faith) into relationship with Jesus. It is ultimately a bearing of witness to a God who creates, redeems and then sustains a creation that isn't quite yet all that it might be (and in a people who are not all that they might be, either).
It's funny, those apocalyptic visions still scare me from time to time; but not for the reasons my own 9-year old self was scared. I see/hear/read these accounts now with an awareness that the struggle for faith and hope really is a cosmic battle; but that it will not be won by terror. As we read on, more and more we see that the one true ransom for sin has already been paid, and that even as we move through the tribulations of life (daily or otherwise), it is the love of Christ already poured out that has the story wrapped up in our favor. We are saved...and like John, it is now up to us to realize that truth and then share it with boldness.
The mark of the beast then will have no power over us.