Looking forward….. Rev 1:9-16, 13: 11-18, 17:1-6, 19:11-16, 21:1-7
The Book of Revelation at the very end of our Bibles is a book some people love and others wonder what on earth it is all about. Martin Luther the great reformer and leader of our protestant faith wanted the book removed from scripture claiming it was an ‘epistle of straw’. He thought it had little to teach us and plenty have agreed with him as they read its dramatic poetic language and imagery that seems to make little rational sense. It is what is known as Apocalyptic Literature which is largely foreign to us, and it’s very different from reading the morning paper. There are visions of strange beasts, four horsemen, angels blowing trumpets, wars, dragons, special numbers, Armageddon, lakes of fire….and through it all God sits on his throne attended by all sorts of amazing creatures. For conspiracy theorists it is an absolute goldmine and I remember well some Christian friends refusing bankcards when they first came in because they read Revelation chapter 13 about a great beast rising up that opposed God. According to the writer of Revelation the beast has a number and that is 666, and there it was on the bankcard for everyone to see. Further it says that no-one could buy or sell without the mark. It was all a sign that the end was nigh. Actually watching how many of the larger banks have operated in recent years one might agree, but to claim this is all predicted in the book of Revelation needs some serious critique.
Put simply some Christians believe the Book of Revelation offers a picture of how the world will end. There will be a great cataclysmic final period of history before God steps in and the faithful will be rescued to live on for eternity in heaven. The codes and signs in the imagery tell us what will happen in these end times and all through history there have been people saying they have cracked the codes and imagery. I recall a few years ago books by Hal Lindsay. Hal said the end times were upon us. He pointed to the setting up of the state of Israel and four key players – Russia, China, The Middle Eastern nations, and the European Economic Union which was seen to be the ten horned beast because there were ten countries in the union. Sorry Hal but it hasn’t played out as you predicted. I think you were plain wrong. (over 25 million copies of the Late Great Planet Earth were sold!)
I don’t think the book of Revelation offers us a coded road map of the future. I don’t believe there is a plan that details every event in the future. I believe the Book of Revelation has an historical context arising out of the bloody reign of the Roman emperor Nero around 60 AD and later that of Domitian in the AD 90’s. The events depicted in the visions revolve around the persecutions and events that were unfolding right before John the author’s eyes. The Christians were still a tiny tiny minority of the population, possibly .01% . But under Nero we have the first significant persecutions. It was during this time that Pricilla and Aquila were expelled from Rome, and tradition tells us that people like Paul and Peter were martyred. Augustine writing some 300 years later tells us that some saw Nero as the Anti-Christ, and a number of reputable scholars today contend that the number 666 in the Book of Revelation is a code for Nero himself. In Hebrew there is a system of allocating numbers to letters and if you calculate the numeric value of ‘Nero Caesar’ in Hebrew you come up with 666.
Imagine yourself part of the small group of faithful Christians. Jesus has been gone for 40 years and instead of improving matters are getting worse. With a mad dictator in Rome Christianity is now being singled out because these terrible Christians refuse to give total allegiance to the emperor. All mad leaders know the value of having scapegoats. (Jews, Mexican refugees) Key Christians are being targeted, and some are being brutally killed. You meet in secret, and you talk in ways that that are not openly understood. The Roman empire becomes a ‘beast’ and we all know what we are talking about.
In this light the book of Revelation was about navigating through some very dark times with courage. Even if violence and the cruel hand of the empire is knocking on your door and literally threatening to drag you out to face lions and other beasts, God is still at work. Kia kaha. But I think the book of Revelation goes further. It tells us 21st century Christians who often park God off out there somewhere, a distant observer, that God is involved in all the events of our world. There is if you like a constant battle going on in our own lives and in the life of our community, our nation, our world, between good and evil and frankly the world we live in isn’t such a lovely comfortable place we like to make it out to be. There are evil powers at work and there are battles to be fought. We need to remember this, and dare I say it our kids and grandkids need to be taught this. As one of my favourite books says in the opening lines, “Life is difficult.” It goes on to say when we expect it to be nice and easy we fool our ourselves and live with illusions.
So in a time of apparent failure the book of Revelation provided the disciples with a dramatic alternative picture of what was happening. This picture outlined in the Book of Revelation put God in the centre again. When some were saying let’s keep our heads down and live like everyone else Revelation says dare to be different and stand firm for what is good and true. It talked of great battles because the power of evil and death was and is real. Instead of saying the Emperor is a fraud and his violent regime is rotten and evil which could get them killed, Revelation tells a strange story about a monster who comes out of the sea, a place of evil, and is defeated. Instead of saying the established religions of Rome are corrupt it tells a story about a whore. Instead of saying the Empire is doomed, it talks of a past empire which reached glorious heights but which collapsed inwards into a cess pit of violence, greed, and inhumanity – Babylon. The language is rich in symbolism. It talks of a beast with seven heads and says these seven heads are seven mountains -the great city of Rome was located on seven mountains or hills.. and the writer is saying this city, the toast of the empire and apparent symbol of success , is a godless city built on the subjugation of many. It was not a just society it was not a sustainable society….ring any bells?
We read of the vision of Jesus coming on a great white horse and you may think it doesn’t fit with the Jesus I know in the gospels. This Jesus of Revelation seems to be a person of brute strength and violence. But read these visions carefully. Even before the battle begins Jesus’s robe is blood stained with his own self giving love, and the sword he carries is in his mouth not in his hand. The vision of the Messiah is of someone who has shed his own blood, and who fights not with guns and bombs, but with words of love and with judgements about what is right and wrong. This Messiah fights with the power of truth to bring healing and reconciliation into our world.
We may read passages in Revelation and think God is going to destroy the earth and think as some Christians do that we don’t need to worry about climate change, or polluting the earth, living sustainably, or being concerned about the plight of so many who have so little. God is going to destroy it all anyway. But that negates the beautiful visionary scene we read at the end of the book which pictures a New Jerusalem, or holy city, descending from heaven to engage in a new relationship with the earth. “See the home of God is now fully amongst us, and the earth is renewed. God’s home is now the very earth itself. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and violence and destruction will be no more. No more will people cry out with the pain of injustice. For the earth has been obliterated… no the earth is transformed and made new.”
The poetic picture is striking. This transformed earth doesn’t need a temple because God’s presence is felt everywhere. It doesn’t need a sun or moon because the light of Christ burns bright in every corner. Its gates are never shut and it welcomes people from all round the world to receive and bring blessings and treasures to one another. From the centre of the city, from God’s own throne, a river flows. But it’s not any old river, it is a river of life or aliveness. Along its banks grows trees of Life with fruit available every month of the year. True peace reigns as people live in harmony with one another and with all creation as children of God. The picture of the end of the world is not destruction but renewal. Everything made whole. Life in all its fullness.
God is calling us into this reality. It is not some distant there but it is here. And the final word of the Book of Revelation is compelling. That word is not ‘wait’ or even ‘one day’ but is a word inviting us to join the journey. Bringing something new into being. Each day of our lives we should hear this word – it is the word, “COME”. Come and join those walking the road of Jesus that leads us to a union of earth and heaven. Come join those who are working for good. Revelation tells us it won’t be easy and there will be times when all seems hopeless. But Jesus is the true way that leads to life.
Dugald Wilson Nov 2018
Was there something that caught your attention in the address today?
How have you viewed the Book of Revelation in the past?
Do you think the future is pre-planned or is it simply shaped by our choices? Where does God fit in?
Dugald claims heaven is located not somewhere separated from the earth but is to be located within the life we know. Contemplate this week some of the ways you have brought a sense of heaven into your daily life.