I have a love hate relationship with the telephone. Real phones I mean not these mobile ones with which I simply have a hate relationship. On one occasion when I was just beginning in ministry I answered a phone. On the other end was a voice of a man who wanted to come and discuss the Book of Revelation with me. Usually when people want to talk about the Book of Revelation it is to convince others that the world is in a hopeless situation and that very soon – and they often have a date- God will bring everything to its end. Expecting nothing different this time I reluctantly agreed to a meeting.
The book of Revelation is the most misused and least understood books of the Bible. I claim no deep wisdom in unlocking its secrets, but I thought at the time I knew enough to be able to help this enquirer, or put him straight if he was a fanatic who was coming to share his insider knowledge on the timing of the end of the world.
Not knowing exactly what to expect I went over some of the things I had learnt about this colourful and yet dangerous book. The Book of revelation was not meant as a guidebook to the end of the world. It was written during a time and for a particular audience. It time was a terrible time of persecution. During the reign of the emperor Domition, about the AD 93, Christians were being executed for refusing to worship the emperor of Rome. Domition has been described as both cruel and mad. Revelation was meant as an encouragement for those who were suffering under his regime.
The writer wanted to pass on what had been revealed to him: God will triumph in the end, even against the evil Domition, hold fast and be faithful. But how do you communicate a message when just refusing to worship the emperor was seen as a justification for death? Any attempt to write in a way that challenged the persecution in plain language would not get very far. If these words were to gain wide circulation as an encouragement for the faithful they would have to be written in code. The code in which it is written is called ‘apocalyptic.’ Apocalyptic is special type of language used by the prophets to speak of the final triumph of God over all that is in it. Ezekiel and Daniel use this type of language and there are echoes of it in the gospels when Jesus talks of the end times. It is typically filled with imaginative and highly symbolic characters and plots.
The writing of the book of Revelation came out of a pastoral need for a particular time. But it found value beyond that initial time and place. God’s Church continued while emperors and their states came and went. So too the Book of Revelation was found to be an inspiration to the faithful long after the persecution of Domition. Our reading comes this morning is a great example,
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."
This new heaven and new earth only come after terrible a battle in which the Lamb of God defeats the beast:
And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority.
One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. They worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, "Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?"
The reference to Rome and the emperor in the image of the beast would have been obvious to the 1st century Christian reader but that has not stopped people applying the image of the beast to any force or agency they feel is oppressive.
Well I wondered which it was to be for my enquirer. Would he come to share his feelings of encouragement or would he come to deride me and tell me the beast had finally been revealed to him – perhaps as the Anglican Church of Australia?
As we met and sat down together he told me that he was a farmer and he had been reading his Bible. He took out of his pocket a small Bible and began to shuffle though the pages. I noticed how large his hands were, they were heavily calloused and weather beaten. His huge fingered made heavy going of finding his reference. Then he began to read about the plagues that were to cover the earth before its end. He noticed an increase in instances of war and natural disaster and wondered whether the judgement had begun. He had no dates and no direct condemnations. I felt humbled that he had come to share his questions with me. I saw this book of Revelation in a new way as well. With all its outrageous characters and weird scenery it does have relevance for us today. We can look around us and name some of the beasts that plague us – terrorism, global warming, severe drought, rampant consumerism, and so on. All these things do come under the judgement of God because our God is the God who wants what is best for creation. I hope that I was able to help my visitor see the other side of the book of Revelation too- that in the end God triumphs.
Perhaps our reluctance to engage with the Book of Revelation has to do with us wanting our scripture and our faith, indeed our whole lives, neat, tidy and easily understood. I read something very challenging during the week. In a chapter of a book entitled Living Tradition, Bishop Richard Holloway notices that mostly we have come to believe that life should be peaceful while allowing for the occasional spot of trouble. We hear a lot these days of trying to live a balanced life. We might even be a little anxious or envious when we see someone else whom we believe has ‘got it all together.’ Believing that life should be filled with balance and peace is a heresy according to Bishop Holloway. In fact he believes the opposite is more like real life. Real life is complete turmoil with brief patches of peace. I can feel the anxiety lifting already! Feel as though your life is out of control. Perhaps chaos is normal. Concerned that the world has gone awry? That might simply be the order of things.
This is world into which Jesus comes. There may have been angels and wise people heralding his birth, but Jesus was born in a stable. He may have gathered and inspired the crowds but when the fun was over most of them disappeared. He had some close friends but some of them put the boot into him and each other. As one cynic said at the foot of the cross, “He saved others, let him save himself.” It is only through this chaos that the resurrection came.
Yet in the middle of the chaos, on the night he was betrayed, Jesus gave to his disciples that great commandment. He told them to love one another. To love is not an answer or a cure to the chaos. It is the way we have been commanded to live through the chaos. The command to love can be seen in contrast to the way we might naturally respond to chaos and its perceived threat. At an instinctual level, when we feel threatened our bodies prepare us for fight or flight. It is not usually appropriate for us modern people to bash each other or to run away. If we have no creative response to a threatening situation we get anxious and there are physical, emotional and relational costs associated with inappropriate responses.
Perhaps that is why most of us need to be called back constantly to this commandment to love. Yet I think there is something deep inside us, perhaps the prompting of the Spirit that lets us know that there is much to be gained from acting from love, even in the midst of the chaos of our lives that might appear threatening. A simple smile, a phone call or email, giving someone a hand, letting someone in front of you in traffic, these small, simple expressions of love send out ripples that make the world a better place.
Some might look at the Church and point out our turmoil as a community. We are still arguing about who has authority over whom about who can become deacons, priests and bishops and we have only seemed to have cottoned on to the reality that bullying does occur in the Church. I think of those most insidious forms of bullying such as ‘killing someone with kindness,’ or ‘telling the truth in love.’ We need to be especially careful that our expressions of love are appropriate and welcome. Otherwise they are not really expressions of love but forms of oppression.
In our frailty, our own sense of need and our desire to love we cannot always be sure that our attempts to love are welcome. It takes great courage and grace to beg forgiveness, just as it does to offer forgiveness. This process of letdown and restoration is at the heart of the command to love. Be encouraged - our God is the one who comes to make all things new.