SERMON TEXT - Who wrote Revelation? When was it written? To Whom was it Written?
The question of who wrote the book of Revelation has been a topic of hot debate not only in the past 200 years, but from the earliest times.
In the first chapter of the book the author refers to himself three times as John and a fourth time at the end of the book. But exactly who this John is is not explicitly stated. John was a common name in the first century. Many scholars would suggest that it is not possible to definitively know who actually wrote the book, despite the fact that some lines of early tradition say that it was John the Apostle.
The fact that the Book of Revelation was so disputed even in the earliest times shows that not everyone in the early church necessarily accepted that it was written by John the Apostle, for if it had been widely believed to have come from the pen of the Apostle John, it would almost have certainly been accepted much more widely much earlier on.
Some of those modern scholars who dispute John the Apostle as the writer believe that it was written after John had died, and don’t believe that someone who had known Jesus in the flesh would have described him in the way that he did. But that is ultimately an opinion and not a definitive argument.
I have more recently come across a book by Marshall Davis that puts forward a fairly strong argument that it was John the Apostle who wrote it. Marshall Davis suggests the following things can be deduced from the book itself:
First, the author’s name as we have seen from four verses was John, a common name in the first century as it is today.
Secondly, the author was a Christian who was known by the churches in Asia Minor and had some level of undisputed authority over them evidenced by the fact that he simply refers to himself as John and assumes that the churches know who he is and will listen to his words.
Thirdly, he wrote in very poor Greek. In fact, the book of Revelation is written in the worst Greek in the whole of the New Testament. And from his misuse of the Greek language, we can tell that he knew Hebrew, because he uses Hebrew idioms and translates them into Greek. And although he writes in Greek, he uses Hebrew grammar. And so he is apparently thinking in Hebrew but writing in the unfamiliar language of Greek.
Fourthly, John wrote in a peculiar literary style called apocalyptic which we will explore more deeply next week. Marshall Davis writes that most apocalyptic writing was written in Palestine and usually in Galilee. In addition, he was clearly familiar with these Galilean apocalypses because they are a kind of a source material for him. He draws on them and makes use of specific images and ideas than can be found in them. Which is interesting, because it shows that Revelation is not a completely unique book. There are other similar books written in the same style. It also shows that the book is not simply dictated from heaven as it were because John is borrowing ideas and images from other books.
Fifthly, the writer starts by writing firstly to the Church in Ephesus as though it is the primary church among the seven he is writing to. Marshall Davis writes that there is strong external evidence that John the Apostle lived in Ephesus in the latter years of his life and thus would have held authority in the churches of the Asian province.
Marshall Davis believes this evidence points to a strong possibility that it could indeed have been John the Apostle who wrote the book.
To this argument, I might humbly add a 6th point, namely that the Apostle John was nick-named with his brother James, the sons of thunder. This was a description of their personalities. There was something thunderous about them which certainly resonates with the thunderous nature of the book of Revelation. In fact in the book there is even a reference to “the voices of the seven thunders” in Revelation 10:1–7.
A reference in Luke’s Gospel gives an indication of the thunderous personality of the brothers James and John. In chapter 9, when a Samaritan village rejects Jesus because he is on his way to Jerusalem, James and John asked Jesus, “Should we call down fire from heaven to consume them, just as Elijah had done to his enemies”. This kind of thunderous retribution is echoed across the pages of Revelation.
But Luke’s Gospel suggests that this was not the way of Jesus, instead, he turned and rebuked them and simply went on to another village.
If it was indeed John the Apostle who wrote the Book of Revelation it is clear that his thunderous personality had perhaps not yet been fully redeemed as it finds itself reflected in the pages of Revelation. And in a way this makes sense. Despite years of following Jesus, many of us, perhaps most of us, still carry around with us many of the flaws of our own personality even if Christ’s love may have begun to soften us a little.
And so although it is not an absolutely decisive argument, and some scholars would definitely dispute it, there is fairly strong evidence to suggest that it might indeed have been the Apostle John who wrote the Book of Revelation.
To whom was it written
The Book itself indicates the recipients to whom it was intended as the seven churches of Asia Minor, namely, Ephesus, Smyrna, Perganum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philedelphia and Laodicea. In addition, John, the writer makes reference to their struggles and sufferings; in chapter 2:9 “I have seen your afflictions,” and chapter 7:14 it speaks of those who have come through the great tribulation.
Most scholars are in agreement that the Churches in these seven cities were experiencing persecution of some kind from the Roman Empire. Some suggest that this was direct persecution for not being willing to declare that Caesar is Lord and to burn incense at the Temples across the Empire where the Emperor was worshipped as a god. Other’s suggest that they were struggling with persecution in a more general sense as a minority religion that was not legally recognised in the context of a brutal and exploitative Roman Empire whose values were so very different from the values of Christ.
Some were finding this too difficult and were beginning to find it easier to compromise with the way of Rome rather than the way of Christ.
In the context of suffering and persecution, the book was written to give them courage to endure, persevere and stand firm in the hope of the final victory of God over their enemies.
When was it written?
This again has been a source of much dispute not just in modern times, but also in ancient times. Some, both ancient and modern suggest that it was written late in the first century in about 95 AD, during the reign of the emperor Domitian.
Marshall Davis, expressing the opinion of a number of scholars believes however that it was written during the tumultuous period of the Roman-Jewish War in the years just before the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. He says that the Number of the Beast 666, referred to in Revelation 13:18 is the key. Using both the numerology systems of Hebrew and Latin, the number 666 works out as the numerical equivalence of the name Caesar Nero.
Nero was the fifth Emperor of Rome and in Revelation 17:10-11 we read of seven kings and that five have fallen. And so based on this Marshall Davis suggests that the date of 69 AD is highly plausible. This was a year of great turmoil, with Rome in the midst of the Jewish War in Judea with the homeland of Jews and early Christians under attack. It was also the year preceding the most momentous catastrophe in Jewish history – the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.
In addition to these tumultuous (one could even say apocalyptic) events happening in Jerusalem, the years leading up to AD 70 was the beginning of the Roman persecution of Christians with Nero having been the chief instigator. When looking for a scapegoat for the great fire of Rome in AD 64, he blamed the Christians. He executed two of the greatest Christian leaders, the apostle Peter and Paul and began an open season for persecution of Christians in other parts of the Empire, which is one explanation why John the writer of Revelation was exiled to the island of Patmos where he wrote the book of Revelation in response to to all that was happening.
I close with the words that come from John’s vision of Christ in Chapter 1:17-18, written to Christians living in a time of turmoil, persecution and danger: “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever; and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”
Next week, we will look a little at the style of writing we find in Revelation and an overview of it’s content.
Revelations – Introduction, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Today I would like to begin a sermon series exploring of the Book of Revelation. I am not quite sure at this stage how many weeks it will take, and I certainty can’t say that it will be THE definitive guide to the Book of Revelation, but hopefully it might offer some thoughtful perspectives.
The book of Revelation is the last book in the Bible. It is also the last of the books to be included in the Bible. It is also probably the most controversial, and I would dare to say most abused and misinterpreted of all the books of the Bible.
The wild, colourful and bizarre symbolism and imagery has given rise to a history of equally wild, colourful and bizarre interpretations.
It is probably also the most violent of all the books of the Bible which has raised questions by Christians from the earliest times whether it belongs in the collection of Biblical writings at all.
Right up until about 382 AD, there was divided opinion whether the Book of Revelation should be considered as sacred scripture at all. Over a period of roughly 250 – 300 years, different Christian leaders would have drawn up lists of letters and writings that they considered worthy of the name Christian Scripture, books that could be used and relied on in some way as faithfully witnessing to the life, ministry and meaning of Jesus. These different lists of books, letters and Gospels floated around and would eventually by the Council of Rome in 382 AD become standardised into what we would call the New Testament. But in these differing lists of books, the book of Revelation was the most disputed book of them all, and was regularly left out of such lists by what historians would looking back consider to have been some fairly big names in Christian Theology.
The Eastern Orthodox Church only really began to include the book of Revelation around 680 AD, around 300 years after the Churches in Western Europe. Even today there are some branches of the Ancient Eastern Church that would reject Revelation as a book of Scripture.
For us as Protestants, what is perhaps even more interesting is that quite a number of the key figures in the Reformation opened the debate again as to whether Revelation should even be included in Scripture. Martin Luther in his 1522 preface to the book showed that he had a very low view of the book. He wrote that he could not discern Christ in it’s pages. By that he probably meant that he could not discern what for him was the kernel of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, namely that we are saved by Grace through Faith. In its place the book seems to put the onus for salvation on the good works of the believer and the ability of the believer to persevere under persecution.
The very basis for Martin Luther’s faith however rested on the fact that he was a sinner who did not have it in him to save himself. His moment of spiritual relief had come when he realised that it was ultimately not up to him to save himself or present himself as perfect before God, but rather that salvation was a gift of grace that came from God because God already knew that we are unable to save ourselves. And this gift of grace could only be received by faith and trust.
About 10 years later Martin Luther wrote another preface in which by this time he had come to acknowledge that the book was not completely without merit, because it did point to the day when God in Christ would be victorious over evil, but it is clear that he still regared the Book of Revelation as having a secondary status and value when compared to the book of Romans and the Gospels.
Ulrich Zwingli, another of the key early reformers disregarded the book of Revelation completely, believing that it should never have been included in the Canon of the New Testament. And although John Calvin may not have taken as radical a stance as Zwingli, it is significant that the book of revelations is the only book that he never wrote a commentary on. That in itself speaks volumes.
And so the book of Revelation has been the most disputed of all the New Testament books. It was the last book to be formally accepted and adopted into what is called the Canon of the New Testament. The word canon in this sense means measuring rod. The canon of the New Testament, in other words, the list of the New Testament books was regarded as a kind of measuring road that could be used to measure correct teaching. As I said, even today some Eastern Christian Churches would not include it in their Bible and some Reformers felt the same way.
All those who have raised questions of it’s place in the collection of New Testament writings might have differing opinions as to why, but underlying all of these there has in some way been a question of whether the book accurately reflects the spirit of Jesus and his teachings. The level of violence that occurs in the book might be one of those factors that seems a little our of kilter with the ‘Way’ and the spirit of Jesus.
In addition, it needs to be admitted that some of the weirdest, most unhealthy and most cult like expressions of Christianity have all taken the book of Revelation as a central text.
Jim Jones who was an American cult leader who promised his followers a utopia in the jungles of South America after proclaiming himself to be the “messiah”
David Koresh who in 1990, he became the leader of the Branch Davidians, built an “Army of God” by stockpiling weapons in preparation for the Apocalypse.
The 1995 Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo which was responsible for a nerve gas attack in Tokyo subways that killed 13 people and injured countless others.
The Heaven’s Gate cult of Marshall Applewhite which led many people to commit suicide.
The American Cult leader Charles Manson whose Manson family were responsible for a number of murders in the Los Angeles area.
For some this is just another indication that there is something unbalanced, unhealthy and even possibly heretical about the book itself. Any book that produces so many weird and dangerous movements and groups is worthy of being questioned in some way.
And yet, despite it’s dodgy, disputed and controversial history, the Book of Revelation also contains some of the most glorious and beautiful passages of Scripture:
Revelations 3:20 “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”
Revelation 21:1-2 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, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
Revelation 22:5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
Revelation 21:6-7. It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.
Revelation 22:17 The Spirit and the bride say, "Come!" And let those who hear say, "Come!" Let those who are thirsty come; and let all who wish take the free gift of the water of life.
Revelation 21:4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Revelation 21:3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Look! God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God."
The book of Revelation has also inspired some of our greatest hymns:
Holy Holy Holy
O for a Thousand tongues to sing.
There is Power in the Blood
Come ye Thankful people Come.
The Battle hymn of the Republic
I will sing the wondrous story
Crown him with many crowns
All Hail the Power of Jesus Name
Jesus, Name above all Names.
When the roll is called up yonder
The Holy City, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, lift up your voice and sing.
Even the phrase, “The Pearly Gates” is inspired from a description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:21 where we read “The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate being made from a single pearl.”
And so over the next few weeks, I hope to offer some reflections on the book of Revelation as we explore its various assets, the good, the bad and the ugly.
Today, I leave just one verse with you to reflect on:
Revelations 3:20 “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”
How wide are the door of our hearts open to the Love and Wisdom of Christ? How often do we allow that Love and Wisdom in? Are there times when maybe we would rather usher Christ back out the door because it is inconvenient to have him around?
And yet in-spite of our closed doors, Christ continues to knock, and continues to desire to commune with us in the depth of our hearts.
The Wisdom of Nature - Beauty Will Heal the World.
Today we come to the end of our Preaching series on the Wisdom of Nature, using Gary Ferguson’s book 8 Master lessons of Nature as our rough guide. In his Epilogue tells of how he visited an old story teller from the Native American Ojibway tribe. As he listened to her, she told him the following story.
“Long ago in the land of trees, the first human twins were born to Spirit Woman but it fell to the animals to help care for them. The animals were enthusiastically committed to the task, doting on them, eager to meet their every need.
Bear warmed them through the wee hours by hugging them to her furry chest. Deer provided her milk, the beaver and muskrat lovingly bathed them, and the birds sang them lullabies. Dog was an excellent guardian taking his job more seriously than anyone. When the flies came and pestered the babies Dog snapped at them to chase them away. When the twins were cranky and out of sorts with colic, he nuzzled their bellies with his cold wet nose and made them laugh. If that didn’t work, he jumped into the air and did all manner of tricks. But something wasn’t right. As the babies grew he noticed they were not walking.
Dog brought his concerns to Nanabush who noted that the animals had taken excellent care of the young twins. In fact, Nanabush remarked “I think maybe you did too good a job. The young of any creature doesn’t grow by having everything done for them. They grow by reaching, by struggling for what they want.” But as wise as Nanabush was, he was clueless about how to fix the problem. And so he decided to call on the Great Spirit. In reply to his call the Great Spirit told him to gather thousands of tiny coloured stones. Nanabush did as he was told. It was a big job, but finally he had gathered a large pile of beautiful stones of blue, red, yellow and green.
He then squatted beside the pile of stones and watched them but nothing happened. But what was he supposed to do next? Hour after hour, he sat waiting for further instruction from Great Spirit. But no word came. Finally out of boredom, Nanabush began tossing the stones into the air, first one at a time and then in big handfuls. He invented games. He learned to juggle. Then one morning as the sun was poking above the east horizon, he grabbed a big handful and tossed them high into the air. Only this time to his astonishment they didn’t come down again. Instead has he looked up he saw that they were turned into winged creatures of many colours and shapes. The beautiful creatures fluttered here and there before coming to rest on his shoulders. These were the first butterflies.
Now he knew what he needed to do. The butterflies followed Nanabush back to the twins, who crowed with pleasure and waved their legs and stretched out their arms to the beautiful creatures. The butterflies always flew just beyond the grasp of the small outstretched hands. Soon the twins began to crawl, then to walk, and even to run in their efforts to catch the beautiful butterflies.”
When the Ojibway Story Teller had finished telling him the story and Gary Ferguson was getting himself ready to leave, she put her hand on his arm and said to him: “Before you leave, there is one thing you need to understand about that story. You must realize” she said “that when we tell that story it is not because we need to be reminded not to give our children everything they want. We already know that,” she said. “Instead, we use that story when we get stuck. When we fall into sadness or anger or lose hope. The story reminds us to first heal our relationship with beauty.” And she concluded with these words, “Beauty will help us to start moving again.”
When our relationship with Life has grown difficult, beauty has the power to heal and restore what has become dislocated and damaged.
Gary Ferguson writes that he witnessed this lesson being played out when he became involved with a compassionate wilderness therapy program for so-called at-risk teens.
One of the girls who had been on that wilderness therapy program was called Alexi. She was from an upper-middle-class family, and at the age of 16 her life was in tatters due to a three year long heroin addiction. She had already been through a number of rehab programs but with little to no success.
A year after the wilderness therapy program he made contact with her by telephone, and she told him the following:
Here’s the thing, she said, The wilderness ruined my high. A couple of months after I got home, I tried drugs again. But I stopped. I walked away from it. I knew too much.
Over the next half an hour, she shared her thoughts on what happened for her in the wilderness therapy program that had made such a change possible for her.
“It was the first time I’d ever known beauty,” she confided in him, “Beauty so deep that it almost hurt.” He said the phone went quiet and then she corrected herself. “I did know beauty once”, going on to describe how at the age of seven she had spent a week at her uncles cabin in the wilderness, and how she had waded through creeks and picked flowers for the table, and how she had felt alive and free in the beauty of nature that had surrounded her. Pretty soon after that she said, her parents got divorced and in the middle of that her brother was killed by a drunk driver, and everything fell apart from there. At that moment, the beauty and wonder of life had been cut off for her, leading her into dark and self-destructive places.
But in the wilderness, where she was able to begin to reconnect with a sense of life’s beauty, her journey towards healing and recovery began.
In the book of Psalms, the Psalmist writes: Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness.
There seems to be an implicit sense in this verse that God is the source of all beauty and that beauty itself communicates to us something of the Divine.
Growing out of the Greek Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, medieval Philosophers spoke of God in the terms the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Goodness and Truth alone are not enough to point to the Divine. They are not enough to form the basis of a religious life. Goodness and Truth alone could have the danger of producing a religious spirit that could tend towards a moralism and a cold certainty, constricting and restricting the religious life to moralistic rules and conduct and our heads. Beauty is important because it connects us to a sense of wonder that touches and opens the heart.
And so the Psalmist encourages us to Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness. It is not enough to worship the Lord with Good conduct and with correct doctrines. Our worship of God needs to open our hearts to a sense of that which is truly beautiful in Life.
It is clear that beauty and the beauty of nature were things that Jesus valued highly. He considered the lilies of the field more beautifully adorned that Solomon in all his glory. The beauty of nature for Jesus was more beautiful than any man-made attempt to create beauty. It cannot be repeated often enough, how throughout the Gospels, one gets the sense that Jesus spent a lot of time outdoors, withdrawing into the wilderness, or into the mountains, or sometimes simply taking time out in unpopulated places on the outskirts of town.
The Psalms themselves are full of references to the beauty of the created world. Even that most familiar of Psalms, Psalm 23, invites us to imagine ourselves surrounded by beauty, lying down in green pastures and walking beside still waters. There is implicit in this Psalm the sense that being surrounded by such beauty is healing for the soul and the spirit.
Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness says the Psalmist. When you are anxious and afraid. When you feel like you are walking through a dark valley, the valley of the shadow of death, like the Ojibway story teller, the Psalmist encourages us to reconnect with a sense of beauty and in doing so reconnect with God, the Divine, and our truest and deepest selves, the Spirit of God of Holiness and Beauty within.
Gary Ferguson writes, that some twenty or more years after that wilderness therapy experience where he had first met Alexi, Alexi is now a paediatric nurse with children of her own. And when he last spoke with her, she was adamant that her time in the wilderness was the most important experience of her life, for it was where beauty had reached out and taken her hand. Where she had finally taken her place as part of the bigger world.
The 19th Century British Naturalist, Richard Jeffries once wrote that the hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live, and the Russian writer and Christian Fyodor Dostoyesky once wrote: “Beauty will save the world”.
What are the ways that in your life, that beauty has spoken to you, and reached out to you and taken you by the hand and invited you into a life of greater wholeness, wonder and joy.
Know this: that every experience of beauty you have ever had, was none other than the God of Goodness, Beauty and Truth reaching out to you and inviting you to come home, to come home to God, to come home to your true self, to come home to the Spirit of God that dwells within you.
In what way in your life today are you being invited by God to re-establish your relationship with beauty again?
The Wisdom of Nature – The Art of Rising Again
Roman6 6:1-4 & Galatians 2:20
Over and over again during the past year, we have heard commentators reflecting on how quickly nature began to recover when most of the world went into lock-down. The grey smoggy skies began to clear and wild animals began to be seen in areas they hadn’t been see in decades. It is a reminder that if given a chance, nature has a remarkable ability to recover, or as Gary Ferguson put’s it, nature can teach us the fine art of rising again.
He writes that this can most especially be seen in the wake of forest fires. These are natural phenomenon in nature, and under normal circumstances in previous centuries and decades most wild-fires would not have been a problem. In fact, the very opposite would have been true. Despite what would have seemed to have been the outward devastation, within weeks new growth would have begun breaking through and soon nature would have begun not just returning, but even thriving with old growth burned away and nutrients released for new growth to occur. A bit like pruning a rose bush that bursts forth with new life when it is pruned. He writes they have only become a problem in more recent years, because they are burning hotter and longer than they would have before. More recent fires he says, like those in Australia, California, have been burning so hot that they have often sterilized the soil destroying many of the organisms, insect life and seeds beneath the soil necessary for a quick recovery.
But even in the more recent devastating fires, even though recovery is much slower due to more extensive damage, nature continues to demonstrate that after disaster and disruption it has the ability of rising again. And in such instances, it is often pioneer plants, that we would call weeds, that begin this recovery process, protecting the soil from wind and rain erosion, and replenishing organic matter which creates a home for insects and microorganisms to grow again. Even weeds have a function in God’s scheme of things.
And so, it is as though, the truth of the resurrection is built into the fabric of all that God has made. Life cannot ultimately be destroyed, like daisies growing in the cracks of concrete, life rises again.
I have referred to Michael Dowd previously. He is what one could possibly call a Green Theologian. He has spent much of his ministry emphasizing the importance of caring for creation and helping Christians to reconnect with the centrality of creation and nature in their understanding of God. For Michael Dowd, God and nature, God and God’s creation cannot be neatly separated. Creation is an expression of the Divine. As the hymn writer puts it, “To all life Thou givest, to both great and small; In all life thou livest the True Life of all.” God’s Life and God’s character expresses itself through all that God has made.
It should come as no surprise then that Resurrection, which is a central theme in Christian theology is expressed again and again in God’s creation in the ability of nature to rise again out of disruption and disaster, even if in some instances, this ability to rise again happens over very long periods of time.
With regard to the growing ecological crisis that is before us, Michael Dowd suggests that even if humanity did it’s worst to the natural world and we brought upon ourselves a natural disaster that made human beings go extinct together with many other species, over a period of 12 million years from now, he says the earth will have fully recovered. This is in fact a very short space of time when compared with the nearly 14 Billion year history of the universe. He says in his darkest moments this gives him hope, that even though our current climate crisis is serious and could have very serious consequences for the future of humanity, he doesn’t believe that we will see that kind of worst case scenario of planetary extinction, but even if we did, God’s has created a world that over another 12 million years will come to full recovery. Does that mean we shouldn’t do our best to avert the crisis we are heading towards? Of course not! But it is a reminder that we worship a God of Resurrection, and that the truth of Resurrection, the truth of life out of death is woven into the fabric of all that God has made.
Gary Ferguson believes that the art truth of rising again which we see woven into nature is true also for us as human beings. He writes of one of the most devastating upheavals in his life when he and his first wife of 25 years suffered a tragic canoeing accident. They were swept into a long run of ferocious rapids, and the boat capsized. He managed to escape with serious bruising and a few broken bones, but for three days his wife, Jane, was missing, with rescue crews searching for her from sun-up to sun-down. Finally a search dog picked up a sign and a few hours later his wife’s life-less body was gently pulled out of the water. And from that moment, the long and often hopeless journey of grief began in earnest for him.
And yet, he writes that despite the emotional devastation that is caused in his life, and despite the long and often torturous journey of grief, from within that devastating experience new seeds for new growth slowly began to occur… new horizons opened up even in the shadow of his grief.
He writes: “My recovery was [like] a natural system rebooting itself after a psychological wild-fire of terrifying proportions. In the end for me too, life would yield still more life. More diversity in relationship. More gratitude. More beauty. Like [a landscape devastated by fire] I would in time be righted, friend by friend, plant by plant, bird by bird, until one day my ravaged heart and brain would return to my own unfolding.”
Even in the Bible, the truth of Resurrection has multiple layers and levels. On the one hand, at the heart of the Biblical writings on Resurrection is the story of Jesus’s own dying and rising that we remember and celebrate every year from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. And on Easter Sunday we explored something of the mystery of how this is expressed in the writings of the Apostle Paul. For Paul, his meeting with the Risen Christ, which he equates with the resurrection meetings of the other disciples, was not meeting with a flesh and blood body, but with a presence, a light and a voice.
But Paul especially interprets the theme of Resurrection in other ways… as a kind of a symbol of inner psychological and spiritual transformation. In Romans 6 he speaks of dying to sin and being raised to new life. He speaks of leaving an old way of being behind and becoming a new creation. These images conjure up the sense that dying and rising with Christ in the writings of the Apostle Paul was an image of old growth being burned away so that new life could begin to flourish and grow forth, like a forest growing into a new phase of abundance out of the ashes of disruption and devastation.
And all of this reminds and reassures us that though life is never smooth, and that living in this world brings with it moments of devastating loss and disruption, just as nature teaches us the fine art of rising again, we can live with the assurance, that even out of some of our darkest and most difficult moments in life, God’s resurrection power is constantly at work, helping us also to rise again finding new direction, new hope, new meaning and new life.
And as we experience God’s ability to help us rise again from moments of devastating loss, so a greater equanimity and resilience of spirit begins to settle within us, no longer quite as devastated by the curve balls that life throws at us. As the Apostle Paul put’s it in Philippians 4:12 “I have learned the secret of being content, regardless of my circumstances, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Christ who gives me strength.”
SERMON TEXT - The Wisdom of Nature - Let Nothing Be Wasted.
A few weeks ago, Alfie one of the members from Banbridge, gave me a page from his daily devotions that referred to the landfill orchestra of Paraguay. The orchestra consists of young people from the town of Cateura who play orchestral instruments made from landfill waste. They play Violins that are made from discarded baking trays, cello’s from oil barrel’s, a guitar from biscuit tins, trumpets and saxophones from discarded drain-pipes and a drum made from a discarded ex-ray plate.
The little town called Cateura was one that grew up around a landfill site where many it’s residents make a living scrounging around the discarded waste. And in this poverty stricken place, the lives of some of its children and teenagers have been transformed by learning to play music on these instruments.
It has always intrigued me reading John’s version of the feeding of the 5000. After Jesus has worked a miracle and fed 5000 people with five barley loaves and two small fish, he instructs his disciples to “Gather the pieces that are left over, so that nothing will be wasted.” (John 6:12).
Why bother! One might ask? If you have the ability to produce food seemingly out of thin air why not let the left-over go to waste.
But Jesus says to his disciples: “Gather the pieces that are left over, so that nothing will be wasted.”
Was there a lesson in this that Jesus was wanting his disciples to learn? Or was it just the way of Jesus that food and resources were not to be wasted - part of the fibre of Jesus being? Let nothing be wasted.
It reminds me of a Zen story called: A Drop of Water
A Zen master named Gisan asked a young student to bring him a pail of water to cool his bath. The student brought the water and, after cooling the bath, threw on to the ground the little that was left over. 'You dunce!' the master scolded him. 'Why didn't you give the rest of the water to the plants? What right have you to waste even a drop of water in this temple?' The young student attained Zen in that instant. He changed his name to Tekisui, which means a drop of water.
Like some of the parables of Jesus, the story uses exaggeration and hyperbole. But the point of the story is that spiritual attainment, spiritual maturity necessarily expresses itself in a deep sense care and respect for every aspect of life and is unable to treat anything in life with carelessness and thoughtlessness. In spiritual maturity we come to see that everything in life is a gift, and so everything deserves our care.
In the 6th Chapter of Gary Ferguson’s 8 Master Lessons from Nature: what nature teaches us about living well in the world, he writes that “We live on a Planet with Energy Beyond Measure, Yet life doesn’t waste a drop”.
In exploring this theme, Gary Ferguson examines the design of both sloth’s, hummingbirds and bees, and shows how energy efficient each of them are.
For examples, with sloth’s, hanging upside down significantly reduces energy consumption compared to what it would take if you were spending you whole day trying to balance on top or in between tree branches. The small shoulder blades and long arms of a sloth also allows hanging around in one place for extended periods while remaining within easy reach of food.
In terms of hummingbirds, Ferguson writes that for one thing they have shaved their weight to the absolute minimum. To lighten the loads they carry around from flower to flower, they have done away with the usual downy feathers that most birds have to keep them warm. Instead, at night they are able to lower their body temperatures by right down, dropping their heart rates from 500 beats a minute when flying down to around 50. At these times of rest, their breathing comes nearly to a standstill.
Lastly in terms of bees, Gary Ferguson writes that they've mastered the most efficient storage scheme known to human beings as proved by the University of Michigan mathematician Thomas Hales in a 250 page proof. The hexagonal shape of a bee hive he concludes uses the smallest amount of surface area for the maximum amount of storage.
But even without these examples, even with a basic knowledge of the cycles of nature it is evident how nature wastes nothing. A leaf that falls from a tree gets completely recycled becoming part of the soil ready to nourish again the tree from which it has fallen. Water than falls from the clouds watering plants and nourishing animals inevitably ends up in the rivers and oceans again, only to be absorbed back in the atmosphere through evaporation, ready to start the whole cycle all over again.
Nature not only has a supper-abundance of energy through sunlight and moving water, but it is also super efficient in how it uses that energy to sustain the working of the whole.
Human beings have not done so well on the efficiency front. We have only come to the part late in the game. But it is not just our physical waste that we have not been good at using efficiently through recycling, emotionally too, Gary Ferguson writes that we expend enormous amounts of energy on worrying and anxiety. I have to admit that this is true for me.
He writes: “Over the course of a lifetime, and often beginning early in childhood, we create anxieties that burn lots of energy without getting us any closer to what we are seeking. Too often we block ourselves from being able to rest in our deepest natures. We worry. Am I thin enough? Good-looking enough? Do people think I’m successful? Will people approve of whom I love? Everybody feels such concerns, but by lingering too long in our ruminations, by giving it too much energy, we rob ourselves of our own agency, denying ourselves, our friends, our family and the world at large of the real gifts we have to share and contribute.
Jesus gets to the heart of this waste of energy in the sermon on the mount: “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” In fact modern science will tell us that the opposite is true… our worrying, stress and anxiety can often shorten our lives.
But even here, Gary Ferguson tells us that nature can help us. Research shows that time spent in nature, through what psychologists call “soft fascination” is able to easy the mental fatigue we experience when worrying. It is also able to get our brains out of the cycles of endless mental rumination or endless cyclical thinking and thus able to provide us with what amounts to a mental and emotional reboot.
Is it any wonder that in the Gospel’s Jesus seems to spend an enormous amount of time in nature. Do we need to hear Jesus’ invitation to his disciples as a personal invitation to each one of us: “Come with Me privately to a solitary place, and let us rest for a while.” (Mark 6:31).
The Greek word for solitary place is erémos (er'-ay-mos). It’s proper meaning refers to an uncultivated and an unpopulated place. Another way of putting it might have been: Come away with me, to spend time in God’s creation where we can be mentally and emotionally recharged and rebooted.”
Apparently you don’t even have to be in nature very long… only 5-10 minutes can have a significant effect on our well-being.
“Come away with me to a solitary place, and let us rest for a while.”
And as we rest every more deeply in God’s love and care for us, the more we will come to realise that there is nothing in our lives too that God will let go to waste.
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