SERMON - REV BRIAN MOODIE
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EXPLORING REVELATION - Week 7 The Seven Lampstands and Seven Letters
Over the past few weeks I have been giving some broad brush-stroke explorations of the book of Revelation, looking both at the difficulties of the book as well as some of the gifts that it may have for us.
Over the next four weeks, I would like to take a closer look at various passages and themes. As we do so, I would also like to adopt the approach of interpreting the book through the eyes of love. The essence of Jesus teaching was the message of Love, to Love God and to Love neighbour as oneself. And the essence of his description of God in a number of places is a love that shines on good and bad alike, and a love that waits for its lost children to come home. And so it should not be an unreasonable approach to read and interpret even some of the more dark and difficult passages of revelation through the primary lens of love.
Today we look at the opening Act of the Drama: The Seven Lampstands which also contains the Seven letters to the Seven Churches.
The section begins with John’s vision of Christ exalted a king of the world, and who he describes in the following way:
Firstly, he hears a voice, then he sees seven golden lampstands with someone like a son of man standing in the midst of them, dressed in a long robe reaching down to his feet with a golden sash around his waste and chest. His hair was as white as snow, his eyes like blazing fire, his feet like bronze glowing in a fire, his voice like the sound of rushing waters. In his hand were seven stars. Coming from his mouth, a sharp double edged sword and his face like the sun shining in all it’s brilliance. And then the heavenly figure says I am the first and the last. I am the living one. I was dead and now look I am alive forever. And I hold the keys to death and hades
What is most interesting about this description is that in the space of four verses (12-18), John the writer makes reference to at least 20 passages from the Old Testament, drawn from Zechariah; Ezekiel, Isaiah; Judges, Deuteronomy & Daniel.
The image of the golden lampstands comes from Zechariah. The image of someone like a son of man comes from Daniel. The long white robe has echoes from Isaiah’s vision of God in Isaiah 6 where the train of his robe filled the temple. The golden sash, white hair and blazing eyes are all references again from Daniel. Feet like burning bronze are references from Ezekiel 1 and Daniel 10. Voice like rushing waters can be referenced to Ezekiel and Daniel. The reference to the sharp double edged sword can be found in Isaiah. His face shining like the sun in all its brilliance comes from the books of Judges and Daniel. The phrase: The First and Last is a reference from Isaiah. The Living one who is now alive forever and ever comes from Deuteronomy as well as Daniel.
John has in effect created a picture of the Risen Christ using a collage of at least 20 Old Testament passages, with their images and symbols. One has to admit that clothed in all this glorious imagery and symbolism it is very difficult to discern the humanity of the historical Jesus beneath all of this Old Testament symbolism. Perhaps this again is why Martin Luther the great reformer said he battled to discern Christ in the pages of Revelation.
Probably the most dominant image that John is drawing from in the description of Christ is Daniel’s description of what he calls the son of man. In Aramaic, the language in which Daniel was written it would be something like ‘Ben Adam’ meaning ‘son of adam’, which could also be translated as ‘the human one’, in contrast to Daniel’s description of the empires of the world symbolised as beasts.
His feet like glowing bronze comes from Daniel’s description of the Son of Man which stands in contrast to the statue of King Nebuchadnezzar which was part of one of Daniel’s dream (Dan 2). The statue represents the kingdoms or empires that oppressed the people of Israel. And yet the statue has feet of clay. In other words, the kingdoms of this world make look impressive, but they are built on fragile foundations that can easily begin to crumble. In contrast, the feet of the Son of Man are feet of glowing bronze. They stand firm and strong.
Daniel’s vision of the Human One, or one like a human or one like a son of man, is the dominant image behind John’s description of Jesus in Revelation chapter 1. As I have suggested previously, this heavenly being in Daniel, who is like a human one, the Son of Man, is meant to represent the very best of our humanity as made in the image of God. Our humanity is made for nobility, dignity and glory as made in God’s image, but it has become distorted and beast-like in the kingdoms and empires of this world.
In response to this image of Christ, John falls to his feet as though he is dead and Christ places a hand on his shoulder, a reference again to Daniel (8:18) as he hears the words:
“Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last. I am the living one. I was dead and now look I am alive forever. And I hold the keys to death and hades.”
John is encouraged to put his trust in Christ, because the eternal nature of God is in him, ‘the first and last, the living one’. This image of Jesus is meant to transport the listener beyond time and beyond history into the realm of the infinite, the deathless, the eternal, that which is unaffected by the chances and changes of this fleeting world. It is a reminder that when we are going through a difficult time, there is a deeper spiritual reality than what we see and experience on the surface of life, this realm of birth and death. Are we consumed and overwhelmed by the waves of life on the surface, or are we in touch with a deeper reality that remains unaffected by the turmoil on the surface?
What then unfolds after the description of Jesus in the imagery of Daniel’s Son of Man, are seven brief letters written to each of the seven churches in which Christ addresses the problems facing each church.
Some were apathetic due to wealth and affluence. Others were morally compromised. They were eating ritual meals, and some of the other faiths of which they had been part would have required ritual sexual acts to be performed in temples. Others in these seven churches remained faithful to Christ and were suffering harassment and even violent persecution. As Tim Mackie says: Jesus warns that things are going to get worse. A time of tribulation is coming that will force them to make a choice between compromise with the Roman culture in which they were living, or faithfulness to the way of Christ, his way of goodness and love. In the language of John, will they conquer, will they overcome? The temptation as we have seen was either to deny Jesus in order to avoid harassment and persecution or simply to join the spirit of the Roman age. The message of Christ is to call them to faithfulness in order that they might overcome and be victorious.
Interestingly, at the beginning of each message to each of the churches, John starts with one line of the description of Christ that he has just given. And at the end of each message, John includes is a promise of a reward related to the vision of a New Creation in the last chapter of Revelation for all those who do remain faithful and who do overcome or conquer. It is not that they are going to conquer their enemies, the Roman Empire, but rather it is a description of their inner life and their character that has been transformed by faith and trust in Christ and his presence within them. This is an inner, spiritual reality of becoming people in whom the presence and the noble character of Christ reigns supreme despite whatever outward circumstances they are going through. The reward is that that they will experience God’s New Creation, a New Heaven and New Earth, which is what the final vision of Revelation is all about.
In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul suggests that the new Heaven and the New Earth are not simply realities of the future, but that even in this world we can become a part of God’s new or renewed creation. “If anyone is joined to Christ there is a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come.” This speaks of a transformation of the inner life of a person, a transformation of one’s motivations, a transformation of the way one sees the world, a little bit like the apostle Paul, who after his conversion, it was as though scales had fallen from his eyes. Our vision is marred and distorted by the filters, assumptions and stories we tell ourselves, but when we begin to see with the eyes of Christ, our eyes become clear to see with undistorted vision.
And this takes us back to that reference to the symbol of the lampstands. In a generic sense it is a reminder that Churches are meant to be places of light. Light helps people to see more clearly. Light is also often used as a metaphor for wisdom. Churches are meant to be places that shine God’s love and light to the world, and places where we can learn more deeply the way of wisdom.
It may raise the question: In what way are we being a light for others?
But the reference to the Lampstands is also a specific reference to the book of Zechariah (chp. 4) where the prophet has a vision and sees a lampstand. He asks what it means and he is told that the lampstand signifies the eyes of God on the earth. In the context of Revelation it suggests that not only are the seven churches meant to be shining the light of God in a dark world, but it also suggests that the Churches and Christians in general are meant to be the eyes of God in this world. What might that mean? Is it possible that to be the eyes of God in the world means that we are meant to see the world through the eyes of God? Is it possible that it describes our calling to see as God sees, with the eyes of Love. And are the blazing eyes of Christ, not the eyes of judgement, but rather eyes blazing with God’s love for the world?
SERMON - Rev Brian Moodie
SERMON TEXT - Revelation, Suffering & Evil
Revelation 20:1-3; 7-15; Matthew 5:43-47 & 7:1-6
Wendy and I recently watched a Channel 4 Documentary about the last Kaiser Willhelm II who in many ways was responsible for much of the carnage of World War 1.
He was the grandson of Queen Victoria. Her daughter Vicky had married into the German Royal family. After complications in the birth process, Willhelm had to be assisted out of the birth canal and in the process damage was done to the nerves and ligaments that went down into his left arm, leaving his left arm paralysed with what is known as Erb’s Palsy.
This was an enormous blow for Vicky and in line with the way most people thought back then, it is clear that she saw her son as being somehow defective as a result of it. It was an embarrassment and a source of shame for her. It is clear that she felt responsible and guilty that he had not, in her mind, been born whole and normal.
Two things happened as a result of this situation. For a number of years, great effort was made to get his left arm working again. This involved some terrible and horrific treatments. One of which was the daily experience for a prolonged period of time of having a rabbit slaughtered in his presence and the bloodied carcass strapped to his arm. Another was having his good arm tied up to try and force him to use his left arm. This only led to a deeper sense of frustration, failure and incompetence. Another, to keep his head straight when his neck began to twist to one side, was to have a metal rod fitted behind his back a leather straps fastened to his head to keep it straight.
These treatments obviously cause him great distress both physically and emotionally. Photo’s of him growing up reveal that he was a deeply unhappy little boy. Apart from the treatments themselves, he had to deal with all the emotional trauma of everyone around him constantly trying to hide his paralysed arm as a source of embarrassment and shame. Living in the shadows and being made to keep secrets is a deeply damaging way to live.
But perhaps more damaging than all of these things, the second thing that happened to Wilhelm from very early on, was that Vicky withdrew her motherly love and affection from him.
Not only did he endure traumatic treatments to get his arm right, but also the greater trauma of a mother who didn’t feel like she could love him because, in her mind, he wasn’t whole, in her mind he was somehow defective.
In his teenage years, from letters that he wrote to her, it is clear that he longed for the love and affection of his mother, but this love and affection was not forthcoming. She remained emotionally distant from him.
This left him with a deep, deep psychological woundedness.
In his younger years as a child, he had experienced a deep sense of connection with Britain, and this was primarily due to his deep love for his grandmother, Queen Victoria.
But as he grew into his later teenage years, in reaction to his English mother who had withdrawn her love for him, his relationship and attitude to Britain began to morph into a kind of love hate relationship. At the death of his beloved grandmother, Queen Victoria, his emotional ties with Britain became largely severed and it was his hatred for Britain that became more dominant.
At the young age of 29, with all of these unresolved emotional and psychological trauma’s of his childhood unresolved, it was a troubled and volatile young man, who became the new Kaisar of the recently unified Germany when his uncle and then his father died in 1888.
I would like to come back to this near the end of the sermon, but what the documentary suggests is that much of the destruction and suffering that Willhelm II brought upon Europe during the 1st World War was largely the tragic playing out on the stage of world politics of the unresolved psychological damage and trauma of his childhood that was then projected onto the country of Great Britain in response to his experience of emotional rejection by his English mother Vicky.
We’ll come back to the story in a little while...
Now, one of the central debates that happens across the pages of Scripture is about the causes of suffering. A dominant view expressed in the book of Deuteronomy said the answer was simple. Suffering and disaster comes upon people who are disobedient to the laws of God. If we obey the laws, it will go well with us. If we fail to obey the laws, it will go badly with us. And for the writer of Deuteronomy, this also played out at a national level. If Israel obeyed God’s laws it would go well with them. If Israel failed to obey God’s laws it would go badly for them.
This was also largely the views of many of Israel’s great prophets. When Israel was defeated by their enemies it was because they had been disobedient. This was largely how the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple were interpreted when the Babylonian Empire invaded Judea and took the leading Jews off into exile in Babylon. It was believed that God had punished them because the they had had been unfaithful.
And so the dominant answer to the question of why do people suffer, was: God has caused the suffering and God has done so because of our sinfulness and unfaithfulness.
But during their time of exile in Babylon, the Jews were exposed to new religious ideas. One of the religions they would have encountered would have been the Zoroastrian faith. According to Zoroastrian cosmology the world was a battle ground between good and evil, between Azhura Mazda, the Supreme Being, all good and all wise, and his counter-part Angra Mainyu, who represented evil, or the chaotic destructive forces in life.
After this encounter with Zorastrianism in their Babylonian exile, Jewish writers began borrowing ideas from the Zoroastrian cosmology, and in the process, the figure of Satan began to grow in the cosmology of Judaism. And in doing so, the figure of Satan became a new way for Jewish people to explain the existence of sin and evil in the world.
This new development in Jewish cosmology was most especially picked up by Jewish Apocalyptic writers.
In previous prophetic writings, the sufferings of the people of Israel were interpreted as a punishment from God for their sinfulness and unfaithfulness. But in this new style of writing, apocalyptic writers had come to see that the sufferings of the people of God could not be completely explained simply on the basis of sin and disobedience.
Rather, they had come to see that Israel was in some way the victim of a monstrous power of evil that sweeps like and avalanche over the righteous and the wicked. In the midst of this avalanche of suffering caused by oppressive and persecuting political powers, apocalyptic writers described the present age as being under the dominion of dark and evil powers symbolized by Satan who had come to be seen as the arch-enemy of God. And so while oppressive political empires had been the outward source of evil and suffering, apocalyptic writing began to make the assertion that the real power behind these evil and oppressive empires was in fact a spiritual evil that could be named as Satan. This is the framework in which the book of Revelation was written.
When you are a helpless victim of suffering and are battling to make sense of it, there is often great comfort in being able to identify the source of that suffering, and to live in the belief that God, in a great spiritual battle, will eventually over-throw the spiritual evil that is responsible for all the suffering that has happened.
But there are also great dangers in this kind of cosmology that seeks to divide the world too neatly between good and evil, the righteous and the unrighteous as we see happening in the book of Revelation. While on the one hand it gives the comfort of being able to point with your finger to the source of ones suffering: “That’s where the problem lies. They are the evil ones and we are the innocent victims”, The problem is, questions of suffering and evil are never that simple.
The story of Willhelm II is a reminder that there are far more complexities in the problem of evil and suffering than a neat black and white categories of good and evil. Willhelm II was quite understandably depicted in British newspapers as the devil incarnate and being in league with the devil, in a very similar way to which Emperor Nero was portrayed as an evil beast in Revelation. The Kaiser’s provocations had unleashed the most terrible and devastating war the world had ever seen. But the evil he unleashed on Europe and the world does not need the existence of a cosmic spiritual power of evil like Satan to explain it. In fact it can be for more easily and understandably explained as a result of the deep psychological woundedness and brokeness that stemmed from his childhood, that never had the chance of being healed. And when given the reigns of power at a young age, it played itself out in the most devastating way. Behind all the evil that he may have unleashed on the world, was the story of a traumatised, broken and frustrated little boy who never received the love and care that he longed for from his mother. A tragic tragic story not just for him, but in the end for the whole of Europe and indeed the world.
Part of the power of a book like Revelation is the dynamic tension that is created in the simplistic distinction between good and evil. This battle between good and evil has been the basic storyline that operates as the driver for many of the world’s greatest stories and drama’s: It is the plot of the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and even Harry Potter. It is a very powerful plot that draws us in, because all of us, no matter who we are, like to see ourselves ultimately as on the side of good no matter how distorted that sense of good might be.
But this story line is also a simplistic one. As seductive as the story line is, it is in fact too simplistic. As the Russian Exile, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously said: “The line, dividing good and evil, cuts through the heart of every human being.”
This same conclusion was reached by Roy Coad, who wrote “A History of the Brethren Movement”. One of the motivating factors for the Brethren movement was the desire to separate from what they regarded as doctrinal evil, but this inevitably also spilled over into the realm of disapproved behaviour. In England, the Brethren ended up splitting into the Open Brethren, who were still quite committed to the idea of purity of doctrine and behaviours, and the Closed Brethren, who enforced these ideas with even greater strictness. They would disfellowship family members who didn’t conform, and ostracised them causing families to split often never to be reconciled.
Roy Coad, who was a member of the Brethren himself, concluded the following: “When you set about separating yourself from evil, in the end you find that the line dividing good and evil runs through every heart.”
Jesus seemed to have been very aware of this, which is why in the sermon on the mount, he encourages us to be careful in judging our neighbours too quickly. He says, before you take the splinter out of your brother or sisters eye, first take out the log from your own. In this teaching, Jesus is warning us about too quickly regarding ourselves as the good and the righteous and designating others as the evil and the unrighteous, because all the while we have logs in our own eyes that need to be identified and removed.
Part of the power of the book of Revelation is the division it creates between good and evil, God and Satan, the Lamb and the Beast, Christ and Caesar, between the righteous and the unrighteous. It makes for a good plot that draws us in. But those neat and simplistic distinctions are also part of the book’s weakness and it’s danger, because rather than praying for our enemies as Jesus encouraged his disciples to do, and rather than seeking to understand the real source and origins of other people’s evil as manifestations of their deep brokeness and woundedness, which is often not completely unlike our own, it is too easy to simply dismiss them as manifestations of evil that needs to be identified and destroyed rather than objects of Divine love who God longs to embrace, heal and redeem.
In true Christian understanding, evil is not the opposite of good. Evil is not eternal. Only God is eternal. And so there is nothing in this world that can ultimately be called pure or absolute evil, because evil has no life absolute of it’s own. Evil is always only a distortion and a corruption of that which was originally good because everything and everyone comes from God, no matter how distorted they may have become.
I close with the full quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
SERMON- Rev Brian Moodie
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SERMON TEXT: A Tale of Two Lord’s, A Tale of Two Cities
Can both Jesus and Caesar be Lord?
Two weeks ago we examined Revelation as a Christian example of a Jewish style of writing called apocalyptic that was written with symbolic and mythical imagery, dividing time between the present evil age and the blessed age to come. And the purpose was in code language to unmask God’s judgement on oppressive political powers.
Last week we saw that some scholars believe that the structure of the book also shows the influence of Greek drama as it is possible to divide the book of Revelation up into Seven Acts each consisting of Seven scenes.
The Seven Lampstands
The Seven Seals
The Seven Trumpets
The Seven Pageants
The Seven Bowls
The Seven Judgements
The Seven Promises.
Today I would like to look at the book from a different perspective, a tale of two Lord’s and two cities.
As Marcus Borg writes, one of the central conflicts that is played out in the drama of the book is the conflict between two competing Lordships: Christ’s and Caesar’s. The central question that Christians were faced with was: Is Caesar Lord, or is God, made known in Jesus Lord?
John’s answer is clear, Jesus is Lord. And his purpose is to help Christians who are going through a time of great trial and upheaval to remain faithful to the Lordship of Christ. But as Marcus Borg says, before we can fully understand what this means, we must examine the claims that were being made by Caesar, which requires a little bit of history.
After the assassination of Julius Caesar, the Roman Empire went into a period of civil war. This devastating period of war, disruption and division was finally brought to an end by Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavian who took on the title Caesar Augustus. He ushered in what was called the Pax Romana, meaning the Peace of Rome and what the Roman Empire now began to call a “golden age”. To cement this period of peace, Augustus Caesar came up with a plan to secure the commitment and devotion of people around the Empire. He promoted his deceased father Julius Caesar, to the status of a god, which meant that he, Augustus Caesar became the son of god. And so from that time onwards the Emperor’s became known as filius deus, son of god, dominus, meaning Lord and even deus, meaning god. In the imperial propaganda that was put out during Augustus Caesar’s reign, Augustus, which means “exalted one” or “venerable one” became was referred to as the saviour who had brought peace on earth.
The following is a Roman inscription from 9 BC (Just before Jesus was born) found in Asia Minor. This was the same area in which the seven churches were, to whom John was writing:
“The most divine Caesar… we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things… Whereas the Providence (another name for the mysterious hand of God) which has regulated our whole existence… has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving us the emperor Augustus… who being sent as a Saviour, has put and end to war… the birthday of the god Augustus has been for the whole world, the beginning of the good news. (And the Greek word that is used for good news is euagellion, which is the same word that can be translated in English as evangelical and also gospel.)
And so, the Roman Imperial propaganda machine, with the Roman Emperor at it’s head were proclaiming a Gospel of good news about a saviour whose birthday was good news for the whole the world. This saviour was considered to be the equal to the beginning of all things, and by Divine Providence, this saviour, so the imperial propaganda machine said, had brought peace to the earth. (Does this language sound at all familiar to you? It has strong echoes in the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel, where we are told that during the reign of Caesar Augustus another saviour has been born to a lowly peasant girl, and his coming will bring peace to God’s people on earth… sound familiar?)
In addition, as I have said in passing in previous weeks, throughout the empire, temples were constructed with statues of the Roman Emperor’s where worship was offered to the emperors, normally by burning incense. Such worship did not stop people from following their own religion as well, but this was a way of exalting the status of the Roman Emperor in the minds of the people in order to cement their loyalty and commitment to the Empire.
In contrast to this, John, the author of Revelation proclaims in the book, the exclusive lordship of God and “the Lamb” – in other words, God made known in Jesus. In Chapter 1, John describes Jesus as “the faithful witness, the first born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth”. He is also described elsewhere as the Lamb that was slain, in other words, executed by the power of Rome, but vindicated and exalted by God, thus unmasking the Roman Emperor as a false pretender lord.
Marcus Borg writes that throughout the book of Revelation, the honour and praise that was demanded by Caesar is instead offered to God and Jesus instead. This happens numerous times across the pages of Revelation, where angels and people round God’s throne burst into worship.
John’s point throughout the book of Revelation is to emphasize that Jesus is Lord, and that Caesar is not.
In contrast to Caesar who is portrayed as a violent and dangerous beast, Jesus referred to 24 times in Revelation as a Lamb, and the Greek word actually means ‘little lamb’ suggesting qualities of a harmless, innocent, soft and gentle creature. The Lamb also emphasizes the sense of Jesus life being a sacrificial offering. The life of Jesus sacrificed, like the lambs that were sacrificed in the exodus story on the night before the Israelites were liberated from Pharaoh, another exploitative and domineering ruler, just like Caesar.
The contrast between the Lamb and the Beast is an important one, because it is meant to emphasize the difference between the way of Jesus and the way of Caesar. The way of Caesar was the way of achieving peace through the sword, through domination, and violence. It is still the way that most countries try to bring peace in the world. Peace through military might and domination. But unfortunately it tends to bring only more division, hatred and retribution.
But the peace that Jesus brings by contrast, is a peace brought about by gentleness, by innocence, humility and by sacrificial love. This is way of Jesus that we find expressed in the Gospel’s.
When Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where he knows he is going to die, his disciples are squabbling behind him about who is the greatest among them. Jesus’s answer is very illuminating, when read in the light of of the book of Revelation:
Jesus says, “Don’t you know that the Rulers of the Nations lord it over them and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all, for the son of man came not to be served but to serve.” Mark 10:42ff.
When Jesus is referring to the Rulers of the nations and their officials, who is he referring to? Quite clearly, he is referring to Caesar who was the ruler of the then known world and his officials scattered throughout the empire, doing his bidding. The way of Jesus is different from the way of Caesar. The Kingdom way of Jesus is different from the Imperial Way of Rome, and in fact all the Empire’s that have ever ruled the world that have done so with the power of the sword and the threat of violence.
Are we going to be part of the domination system of the Beast, who keeps peace through violence, or are we going to be part of the servant way of the Lamb, who rules by servant-hood and in the language of Rev 4:10 gets us to cast down our crowns before the throne of God. Casting down our crowns is another way of inviting us into the way of humility. We are not to be in this for our own power and glory. That is the way of Caesar.
Apart from the contrast between the Lordship of Christ and the Lordship of Caesar, Revelation is also a tale of two cities: the City of Rome described as a Prostitute Seated on the back of a beast and given the name Babylon the Great, and on the other hand, the City of God, the New Jerusalem, that in dream-like imagery descends out of heaven dressed like a bride.
The City of Rome is described with pretentious luxury at the end of Chapter 17 as dressed in Purple and Scarlet, and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. In chapter 18:3 we read that the Kings of the earth have committed adultery with her. In other words, they have made political pacts and agreements with her. In the same verse we read that the merchants of the earth have grown rich from her excessive luxuries. In chapter 18:11, it goes on to describe Rome as a great centre of trade in gold, silver and precious stones, fine linen, ivory, costly wood, bronze iron and marble as well as of spices, wine and olive oil, cattle sheep, horses and carriages, and also finally in verse 13, trade in human beings sold as slaves. In other words, the wealth of the Empire is built on exploitation and slavery. It is not only a system of political and military domination, it is also a system built on economic exploitation, a city built on the backs of human slavery and human suffering.
By contrast, the New Jerusalem is a place of no more tears, death or pain. In other words, it is not built on the pain and suffering of others. In the City of Rome, the elite benefit from the wealth and luxury of the Empire, other’s are exploited and do not share in the wealth. In the Roman Empire, as is the case in our world today, it was built on an economic system in which the rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer. But in the New Jerusalem the thirsty are given water without cost. Everyone has free access to the gifts of the city.
And so the book of Revelation was written to a people who were being encouraged to make a choice: Choose this day who you will serve… and we read in the book of Joshua. And as Jesus says, You cannot serve two masters. Would they give in and bend the knee to Caesar and simply go along with the ways of the Empire, or would they choose to serve under the Lordship of Christ, the Lordship of the Lamb?
And the question remains for us today, Will we give in and simply become part of the exploitative economics of the world that is built often on new and creative forms of modern slavery, or will be seek to be citizens of of the Kingdom and the City of God?
But unfortunately, one of the great dangers of the book of Revelation is that the author himself has not fully integrated these truths and insights in his own psyche. While in key places in the book, he portrays Jesus as a gentle innocent sacrificial lamb, in chapter 19, his portrayal of Jesus changes to that of a warrior on a white horse who leads the armies of heaven into battle ready to strike down the nations. At this point in the book, it is as though John the writer has begun to mix his metaphors. While the warrior is described as “just and true”, the image of Jesus as a warrior King in chapter 19 stands in stark contrast with the image portrayed in the Gospels of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. In addition, as Marcus Borg writes, John’s portrait of God as sending massive destruction on the inhabitants of the earth is extreme. In one scene, blood flows as high as a horses bridal for a distance of about two hundred miles (Rev 14:20). This is an image of excessive violence.
While John, the writer of revelation is inviting us to make a choice between serving Jesus as Lord, depicted as a Lamb rather than serving Caesar as Lord, depicted as a Beast, the God of Revelation seems to have more to do with vengeance than love and true justice. The Book of Revelation also unfortunately in many places supports a picture of God as an angry tyrant (not unlike Caesar) who plans to destroy the earth and all of those who fail to bow down before the Lamb.
And so while John’s intended aim seems to have been to contrast Jesus with Caesar, in the end he has also undermined some of his own agenda and purpose in the process. The violence in his own psyche, that has not yet been fully healed, he projects onto God in the form of an angry and dangerous tyrant, and onto Jesus as the Warrior King riding on a white horse who is ready to rule the kings of the earth with an iron sceptre and tread the wine press of the fury of God’s wrath upon them. This description of Jesus is, it seems, almost incompatible or incongruous with the Jesus of the Gospels who tells us that if we wish to enter the Kingdom of God, we need to become like little children.
In closing, these things don’t only happen at a macro political level, they also play themselves out at a personal level. The way of Caesar is the way of domination and coercion by force. The way of Jesus is the power of love and kindness. These two ways play themselves out in even the most ordinary of relationships and interactions. They happen in homes and family relationships. They happen at work. Do we follow the way of Caesar, getting our way by force, domination, coercion or manipulation? Or do we conduct our interactions with others in the way of gentleness, love, kindness and humility.
SERMON TEXT -
What does the book of Revelation have in common with Ancient Greek Drama? I hope to cover this as we continue this 4th instalment of our exploration of the book of Revelation.
Last week, we briefly explored the fact that the book of revelation is a Christian example of a style of writing called apocalyptic which uses the symbolism and mythology of a great cosmic battle to unveil and unmask the domination system’s of this world and to portray God’s final victory over them. It was a style of writing that was deliberately written in code language during times of persecution and oppression, to encourage it’s readers to persevere in extremely difficult times.
In Revelation the domination system that is unmasked and portrayed as being under God’s judgement is the Roman Empire with it’s brutal suppression of Palestine in the Roman-Jewish War, as well as the beginnings of Christian persecution under Nero from 64 AD onwards.
The City of Rome is portrayed as a great prostitute seated on the back of a great beast. It is also called Babylon the Great because it’s oppression and violence echoed that of the Babylonian Empire which some 600 years earlier had invaded Judea, destroyed Jerusalem and destroyed the temple just as the Roman Empire ended up doing in 70 AD.
In writing Revelation, John, the writer, draws on the imagery and symbolism of some of these other apocalyptic writings including imagery and symbolism from the book of Daniel, but also from a book that doesn’t appear in the Bible, called the book of Enoch.
But Marshall Davis suggests that John also draws inspiration from the world of Greek drama.
The writer of the book, (as we have seen, quite possibly John the Apostle) was familiar with the city of Ephesus. It is the first city he addresses in his letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor in chapter 2. Being familiar with the city of Ephesus, he would have been familiar also with the great amphitheater of Ephesus, which was constructed with 3 rows of seven doors each. These doors were often used in performances to indicate acts and scenes. And so, the natural format for a play or a drama performed in Ephesus would have been seven acts with seven scenes. In the Ephesus theatre the three levels could easily be used to depict the three-storied universe of ancient world: heaven, earth and the underworld.
Marshall Davis suggests that the author of Revelation would have been familiar with these Greek dramas and wrote the Book of Revelation in this format, as though it was originally intended as a great drama or a play with seven acts each consisting of seven scenes. There is something very visual about the book which gives the impression of a great cosmic drama. Most of it’s earliest audience would have heard the book being read to them, which can be done in one sitting of about an hour to an hour and a half. It wouldn’t have been read and analysed in minute detail by a scholar sitting at a desk in a library, but rather it would have been listened as a community, hearing it and experiencing it’s effect on them as it was read out. There are still Churches in the Eastern tradition that would read the book out loud on an annual basis in the way that it probably was when it was first written.
And so what we are dealing with here is not so much a mystical vision that was simply dictated by and angel and written down, but rather a very carefully constructed literary work, written in the form of a letter, drawing on the Jewish Apocalyptic literary style, imagery and symbolism, and written with the structure of a great Greek drama of seven acts, with each act having seven scenes. The final product is what Marshall Davis describes as a cosmic drama, one of the greatest drama’s never to have been performed on stage.
I’d like to give a brief outline based on this structure:
In a brief introduction or prologue, John introduces himself and addresses the seven churches of Asia Minor as though he is writing a letter to them. Quoting from the book of Daniel he writes: “Look, he is coming and every eye will see him”.
Act 1 Seven Lampstands – a vision of Christ is described surrounded by seven lampstands symbols of the seven churches in Asia Minor, and seven short messages are written to each of those seven churches containing both warnings and encouragement.
Act 2 – The Seven Seals - After a vision of heaven with a throne in the centre surrounded by 24 elders and a glassy sea, the focus moves to a scroll with seven seals. As the lamb opens the seven seals a series of disasters unfold on the earth.
Act 3 – The Seven Trumpets – Seven angels are then given seven trumpets and again with the blast of each trumpet further disasters unfold upon the earth. At the sounding of the last trumpet, it is announced that the kingdoms of the World has become the Kingdom of God and of his Christ.
Act 4 – The Seven Pageants - A women clothed with the sun and a crown of 12 stars on her head and the moon under her feet gives birth to a child whom a dragon tries to devour but who escapes into heaven. A war breaks out in heaven and the dragon is cast down to earth. A beast with seven heads and ten horns emerges from the sea and takes control of the earth. From the earth emerges a second beast whose number is 666. As we have seen last week, the beast is the Roman Empire and the second beast whose number is 666 is Caesar Nero, the greatest symbol of Roman decadence, violence and oppression.
Act 5 – The Seven Bowls – Seven angels pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath and we are shown the judgement of the “great harlot” who rides on the beast and whose name is “Babylon the Great” aka the city of Rome. This is followed by the battle of Armageddon and the second coming of Christ on a white horse. The dragon, which is now named “the devil” or “Satan” is cast into a bottomless pit for a thousand years, after which Satan is released and in a final battle is again defeated.
Act 6 - The Seven Judgements - All the dead are raised. The book of life is opened, and all whose names are not in it are cast into the lake of fire together with the devil, the beast, death and hades.
Act 7 – The Seven Promises – The New Jerusalem, dressed as a bride descends to the earth – a city where there is no more tears or pain or death. It has no temple because God is her temple. It will need no sun or moon because the glory of God will be its light and the Lamb will be its lamp. And through the city flows the river of the water of life, and in it grows the tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. (Isn’t it interesting that the book ends not with people being beamed up to heaven, but rather with heaven coming crashing down to earth!)
The Epilogue concludes as the ending of a letter, with the promise that Jesus is coming soon.
And so one interpretation of the Book of Revelation is that it was written as a drama of Seven Acts with Seven Scenes to dramatically portray and point to the day when God’s Kingdom and Peace will reign supreme; that despite appearances, where violence and domination seem to have the upper hand, the one who is the Alpha, in other words the beginning of all things, will also be the Omega, the end of all things.
I would like to close with a brief reflection on the words of Jesus “Behold I am coming soon!”
This was a wide-spread belief in the early Church. To a people who were experiencing the turmoil and upheaval of the period they were living through, this would have been a source of great hope and comfort that their suffering was temporary.
Two thousand years of predictions by multiple generations of Christians that Jesus would be returning in their life-time have failed to materialise in a literal sense. St Augustine predicted Jesus would return in 1000 AD. Joachim de Fiore predicted 1266. Martin Luther believed it would be in 1558. Charles Wesley, the great Methodist hymn writer and co-founder of Methodism believed it would be in 1794. They were all wrong. Like many who came after them, it does seem that the first generation of Christians sincerely believed that Jesus would return in their life-time. Clearly they were wrong. One would have to admit too that John, the writer of Revelation seems to have sincerely believed that Jesus would return soon for the sake of those suffering and struggling in the seven churches to whom he was writing. Clearly in a literal sense, John was also wrong. Jesus did not come soon as he predicted for those in the seven churches to whom he was writing. Some have suggested that the word ‘soon’ and John’s phrase ‘the time is near’ need to be reinterpreted. They would point out that God’s time is not our time for as the book of 2 Peter puts it “With the Lord, one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Pet 3:8). But the original hearers of the book of Revelation in the seven churches of Asia Minor to whom the book was addressed would never have have imagined in their wildest dreams that when John told them the time was near and that Jesus would be coming soon that this could in fact mean “Maybe a few thousand years from now!”
But whereas in the book of Revelation, John writes of Jesus’ promise that he is coming soon, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says: “I am with you always!” and Paul writes: “Christ in you the hope of glory!”
Perhaps the promise of Jesus return was not meant to describe an historical event at all. What if it is meant to symbolise the coming of Christ in his fullness in each of our hearts and lives, the dawning of the fullness of Christ’s love and peace within our hearts.
John, the author replies: Amen! Come Lord Jesus! What parts of your life long for a deeper and fuller embrace of Christ’s Love, Compassion and Peace?
SERMON TEXT: Week 3 Revelation – A Christian Apocalypse
One of the things that is immediately noticeable when reading through the book of Revelation is that it is filled with strange symbolism and strange imagery. For example, the book has strange animals with multiple heads and eyes, made up of different animals. It is also filled with all sorts of numbers which clearly suggest something symbolic.
7 Lampstands, 7 seals, 7 spirits before the throne.
4 Corners of the Earth, 4 windows of heaven
There are also references to 3 and a half, which is half of seven.
There are also various mentions of the number 10 and multiples of 10.
There are also mentions of multiples of 12 and 10 together, for example the 144 000 elders around the throne.
When bombarded with all this symbolism and numbers, it can be quite overwhelming, especially when one is not quite sure what they all mean?
The bottom line is that anyone who reads Revelation will see that it is a very strange and unique genre of writing.
Revelation is just one example of a genre or style of writing that scholars have given the name “apocalyptic” which comes from the Greek word “apokalypsis” which simply means to reveal, to unveil, to disclose or even to unmask.
What is revealed, or unveiled or unmasked in apocalyptic literature?
In many ways what apocalyptic literature sought to do using the symbolic and mythical language of a cosmic battle was to unveil that the emperor has no clothes. It sought to unmask the domination systems of this world and reveals their final destiny on the scrap heap of history.
When regimes build themselves on domination, exploitation, greed, they are out of tune with the deep structure of reality which is ultimately always working towards harmony and balance. When the systems becomes unbalanced, they move to restore balance and harmony. When too much power, wealth are gathered in one place, it is ultimately unsustainable.
Martin Luther King Jnr is often quoted as having made the statement: “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The words were originally taken from an 1853 sermon by the slave abolitionist and Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker. In the same essay he said: Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Before long all America will tremble.
These words of Parker’s sermon foreshadowed the American Civil War fought in the 1860s. He saw it coming because he could see that a certain form of injustice had gone on too long. It had become unsustainable. The tide of history had begun to turn against it.
Ancient Apocalyptic literature sought to unveil this same truth in the realm of human relations and politics in the ancient world, using symbols and myth. When Empires build themselves on domination, exploitation and greed, they are fundamentally out of Sync with the Way of God. In Chinese Toaist thinking, they are out of Sync with the Tao. The warning of Apocalyptic writing is that such human political systems are not sustainable. They will crumble and fall.
In the book of Revelation, the language that is used is the language of God’s judgement and retribution. I believe that this needs to be read metaphorically. It would be more accurate to understand this as the law of consequence. If you bump a glass off a table it will break on the floor. You could say that the gods have punished you for being careless, but the mechanism beneath the language of judgement is ultimately the law of consequence.
When you act against the fundamental laws of the universe, which bend towards justice and harmony, you are in danger of life coming crashing down around you.
Apocalyptic writing was a religious form of writing that sought to express these truths in the mythical language language of the cosmic battle between the forces of Good and Evil, God and Satan.
In situations of political oppression and domination, it would have been difficult to speak out against the ruling regime, and so these writers used mythical language and symbolism to say what they needed to say. Those to whom it was written would have understood it’s meaning, but to their oppressors, it would have just sounded like religious myths.
And the message was this: Stand firm, do not give in, the evil oppressive and dominating regimes of this world will fall, and God’s kingdom and victory of justice and peace will be established. Political systems that deny the principles of justice may seem to grow strong for a season, but ultimately they will fall.
And so in apocalyptic writing, the subject matter is often written in the form of one or more visions disclosing and unveiling God’s judgement on the current oppressive regime and the future promise of God’s kingdom of justice and peace.
Apocalyptic writing thus uses code language to identify and unmask the evil and oppressive regimes of this world as expressions of a greater cosmic evil, under the power of Satan. It also divides time into the current evil age dominated by evil and beastly rulers and the future age to come evil will be wiped away and all things will be made new.
The earliest example of this in the Bible is the book of Daniel, written when the Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes turned the screws on his Jewish subjects in Judea. The book of Daniel was written to call Jews to be faithful and described the evil empires of this world as wild beasts in contrast to the coming Kingdom of God which would be ruled by one like a son of man. In other words, in contrast to the wild and beastly kingdoms of this world, God’s kingdom would have a human face, in other words, it would be humane, expressing the very best of our humanity made in God’s image.
But there are many other examples of Jewish Apocalyptic writing that never got included in the Bible. Wikipedia lists 15 Jewish Apocalyptic books apart from the book of Daniel.
The Book of Revelation is the most well-known Christian example of this style of Apocalyptic writing, but there are a number of other Christian examples of the same kind of writing. In fact almost the whole of the New testament is influenced in varying degrees by this style of writing, most especially seen in Mark 13 which is often called the Little Apocalypse.
As I mentioned last week, the vast majority of Biblical scholars book of Revelation was written during a period of turmoil, oppression and persecution, most probably the period of the Roman Jewish War which began in 66 AD when all out war broke out in Judea and Galilee which led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD and which led both Christians and Jews in those areas to flee into exile, a little bit like the Syrian refugees of today. Parallel with this there was also the beginnings of the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, beginning with Nero’s scapegoating of Christians in 64 AD for the great fire in Rome. During this persecution, the Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul were both killed by the Roman Empire.
In the book Rome, the capital city of the Roman Empire is identified as the ten-horned beast that comes up from the sea. (The sea is a symbol of chaos). This 10 horned beast rules the world and demands worship, just as the Roman Empire ruled the world, and just as it’s emperor’s from the time of Augustus Caesar were hailed and worshipped as lord and god in temples honouring them around the Empire. As we saw, the number of the beast in Revelation 13, using Hebrew and Latin numerology systems decodes to the name of Caesar Nero who had become perhaps the greatest symbol of Roman decadence, violence and oppression.
In chapter 17, the City of Rome is then identified as a great harlot. She is dressed in royal attire and rides on the beast identified in chapter 13, and her name is Babylon the Great. The Babylonian Empire which centred around the city of Babylon had vanished some 600 years earlier. It had oppressed the Jews and destroyed the city of Jerusalem in 586 BC along with the Temple taking most of the leading Jews into Exile. Using code language so that his Roman oppressors would not know he was referring to them, John, the writer of Revelation uses the symbol of Babylon as a nick-name to refer to the city of Rome.
Marcus Borg says that the identification of the harlot of Babylon with the Roman Empire is made complete by two more details in chapter 17. The woman is seated on “seven mountains”. From ancient times Rome has been known as the city built on seven hills or mountains. The identification becomes even more explicit in the last verse of chapter 17: “The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth”. As Marcus Borg says, for John, the beast and the person whose number was 666 were not figures of the future, but rather realities of the present for those to whom he was writing.
And in this context of a world ruled by a beastly, violent and oppressive Empire, that felt like it was an expression of a greater spiritual evil, the message of John, as I suggested last week was: “Stand firm, remain faithful, persevere. There is a greater reality than the one you are now experiencing. There is a greater King who is the true ruler of the kings of the earth, and this ruler is ultimately a Lamb, a soft gentle creature, who has experienced the brutality of the Empire first hand, for he was slain, and yet he is alive and reigns ever more. God’s judgement over Rome is coming. It will fall just as all the Empires of this world have fallen. A new age is coming when God will renew both heaven and earth.”
I close with the words of Revelation 19:6 “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.
When the surface of our lives feel like they are in turmoil, as though our world is falling apart and the sky has come crashing down upon us, the writer of the book of Revelation invites us to catch a vision of a deeper reality to life, where, using metaphorical language, God is still seated on the throne and where all is well. And from that alternative deeper and greater reality, the troubles of this life are experienced from a different perspective. They are no longer our controlling reality, because we have caught a glimpse of that which is eternal and deathless.
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