SERMON - REV. BRIAN MOODIE
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 - REV. BRIAN MOODIE
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.
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.
SERMON - Rev. Brian Moodie
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?
WELCOME, READING, OPENING PRAYER
& OPENING HYMN
CHILDREN'S STORY & SONG
SERMON - The Wisdom of Nature: The Art of Rising Again
(Rev. Brian Moodie)
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.
The Wisdom of Nature – "Ask the Beasts, and They will Teach You."
Gary Ferguson tells the story of a wolf who was known only as 14. She was one of fourteen wolves re-introduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995. Together with an older male called Old Blue, with whom she bonded for life, she shared much of the leadership of the pack.
By 1997, two years later, Old Blue was beginning to show his age and those who tracked the animals often found him struggling behind the rest of the pack. He was also unusually slow when it came time to hunt. During close up contact, the biologists who followed the packs progress noted that Old Blue’s teeth were badly worn, a sign of his age. They also noticed how other adults would regularly step in to open the tough hide of a recently killed elk, and then back away to allow Old Blue to eat.
About 6 months later Old Blue had passed away, and following the death of her mate, in a move no other wolf researcher had ever heard of or seen, 14 took off on her own. She left her home territory without her pups and yearlings, which biologists said was quite extraordinary. She was then tracked by an airplane as well as recording the radio signal from a collar which had been fitted to her, travelling miles and miles on her own over what appears to have been a period of a week or two until she returned to her home territory to be reunited with her family. One of the biologists who had been tracking her on this extraordinary journey could find no other explanation for that journey made by 14, other than it was an expression of her deep grief.
Human beings often speak of animals as if they were dumb automatons, simply programmed by instinct and sharing nothing of the depth of our human emotional life. For quite a long time, Western Europeans operated on the understanding that animals did not even feel physical pain. Which accounted for some terrible acts of cruelty towards animals. But a story like that and many others like it, reveal that animals are not only highly intelligent, but also have deep and heartfelt emotional lives. Animals are not so different from us.
I have a picture of Jesus that I keep on my desk that speaks deeply to me. I understand that it dates back to the year 1908. It shows Jesus sitting, in silent prayerful meditation during his 40 day long retreat in the desert after his baptism. At the bottom of the picture there is a quote from Mark’s Gospel 1:14 “He was there in the wilderness, and was with the wild beasts.” When I used to read that verse when I was younger, those words were read as a kind of a threat, that Jesus was somehow in danger during his time in the wilderness. But when you look closer at the picture, the artist clearly has a different interpretation. Rather than Jesus being in danger and being threatened by nature, in the peacefulness of his posture and the peace radiating from him, Jesus is in fact drawing wild animals to himself. They are attracted to him, just as sinners and the riff – raff of society were drawn to Jesus. In the picture there is a little lizard sitting on his arm looking up at him. There are also two birds flying towards him, with one of them, a dove preparing to alight on his shoulder. To his left, there is a wild rabbit that has moved close to his leg and in front of him, a snake has slithered past him without doing him any harm and only in preparing for this sermon did I see that there is the face of a sleeping leopard to his left.
When I first saw the picture, it took me by surprise… the interpretation was so different from my assumption than the wild animals in this verse were in my mind a threat to Jesus. It made me realise just how much we bring our own assumptions with us when we read an interpret scripture. I brought with me an assumption that is not reflected at all in the text itself.
And in fact, the interpretation of the artist is one that makes more Biblical sense than my own assumptions projected onto the text.
On Easter Sunday, I mentioned that most reliable manuscripts don’t include the extended ending of Mark’s Gospel from verse 9 – 19. In fact if you look carefully in in your Bible, you should see that there is another 3rd possible ending that appears in other manuscripts. But getting back to the longer addendum to Mark’s Gospel, it contains a fascinating little passage where Jesus, after meeting with Mary Magdalene, and then with two unnamed disciples on their way to the country, Jesus makes an appearance to the 11 disciples as they were eating, before being taken up into heaven where he is then seated at the right side of God. But in that final meeting with the 11 disciples while they were eating, Jesus first scolds them for being so hard-hearted and stubborn for not believing that he is alive, and then commands them to go throughout the whole world and preach the gospel to all creation. The Good News version incorrectly translates the verse as “preach the good news to all human beings”. But the Greek word that is used should in fact be the word creation.
How strange that the writer of Mark 16:15 believed that the Good News of Jesus was not just meant for human beings, but for all of creation, implying that all creatures and animals are part of the wide embrace of God’s concern and compassion. When last did you share the good news with the animals in your life or even the insects in your garden?
Then in verse 18, the writer goes on to write of Jesus saying to his disciples that in his name they will be able to pick up snakes and that they will not be harmed.
And this takes us back to the writings of Isaiah, who when looking forward to God’s anointed One, writes of a day when:
“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
The calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze;
Their young ones shall lie down together;
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole,
And the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den.
9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,
For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea.
It is a picture of a time when humanity will live not as enemies with creation, but at harmony with it.
And this has clearly been the experience of many of those who have been called saints and holy people, because of their great devotion to God and that their lives had become transparent to the Divine Light shining through them: they have found themselves in a new and harmonious relationship with God’s creatures.
The most famous Western example of this is St Francis of Assisi for whom all creatures had become his brothers and sisters. He is recorded as having taken the words of Jesus in Mark 16:15 quite literally and preached to the birds of the air. The legends that are told about him would never have been told, if in some way he did not display a profound ability to relate to animals in a way that most human beings cannot.
There are similar stories of saintly Christians within the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and in fact stories of saintly people from other religious traditions who have had a special relationship with animals too.
Stories such as these suggest that as human beings grow in love and compassion, our relationship to animals becomes healed and transformed. This should not come as any surprise. It does not even require an Old Testament prophecy to make this point or a quote from Jesus in the second ending of Mark’s Gospel. Even in our ordinary lives, we know the healing that can come from our relationship to animals. We know how our pets can often be extremely sensitive to our own pain and struggles. It probably comes as no surprise to us any-more to hear that taking animals into a nursing home or into a centres for disabled or even severely autistic children can have a transformative effect on them helping them to find peace and contentment where before they may have felt a sense of agitation or dis-ease.
In South Africa the wife of a fellow minister who was trained as a clinical psychologist began using horses in her therapy. She found that some of her patients benefited more from being in a therapeutic relationship with her horses than normal therapy. Scientific studies also suggest that children’s interaction with animals helps not only the emotional and social development of a child, but also their cognitive development as well, suggesting that animals can not only help us to get in touch with the contentment and peace many of us long for, but can also have a positive effect on our intelligence.
Not only can animals aid human beings in our own growth and healing, but the stories of Jesus and the stories of saintly people down the ages suggests that the more healed we become as human beings, the more our relationships with animals will also become healed and harmonious.
I would like to end with two quotes from Scripture:
But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all humankind.
- Job 12:7-10
...but the poor man had nothing but one little lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. 2 Samuel 12:3
SERMON TEXT - The Wisdom of Nature - Balance of Male and Female
Last weekend, the royal grand national horse racing competition, marked an historic moment, with the first women jockey to win the race in its 182 years history, especially significant, when women were officially excluded from participating in the race up until 1977.
This journey towards including space for women in the great institutions of Western civilisation is a very recent one in the context of the flow of history. According to the UK Law society website, women were not even legally recognised as ‘persons’ in 1914, and so were legally excluded from practising law because the law stated that they were not really ‘people’. In terms of University education, it was only in 1920 that Oxford opened its doors to women and only 1948 that women were permitted to study at Cambridge, and even then, Cambridge reserved the right to give preference to men..
Despite the slow and gradual opening up of Western Institutions to women, there are also countless stories over the past 100 years of women who made remarkable discoveries and yet who were not given credit. Rosalind Franklin discovered the double helix formation of human DNA in the 1950’s while at King’s College in London, but credit was given to Watson and Crick who received the Nobel prize in 1958.
Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission with her research partner Otto Hahn, but only Otto Hahn was given credit with a 1944 prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Dr Grace Murray Hopper was the person who first invented Computer Programming language, but it is John von Neumann who is celebrated as having created the first computer program.
What all this suggests is that Western Civilisation as a whole has lived with an extremely unbalanced male dominance for centuries and that was still largely legally in force in the UK as recently as 1975. Up until the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, it was still perfectly legal to hire men over women for no other reason than they were male. And so despite the fact that women were given the vote in 1918, sexist practice was still legally in practice 57 years later, which shows how slow social change really is. And so despite the strides that a country like the UK has made in the past 46 years in creating greater balance and freedom of opportunity between men and women, it should come as no surprise to hear in the past few years that on the whole, men are still paid higher salaries than women for doing the same work. Cultural change is a very very slow process.
Now last week I got back to a preaching series that was started just before Covid hit us last year, exploring the Wisdom we can learn from Nature, using the book 8 Master Lessons of Nature, by the writer Gary Ferguson.
It has been a long tradition in the Christian Church that nature is like a second Bible. Paul points to that in Romans 1:20 where he writes: "Ever since God created the world, God’s everlasting power and deity—however invisible—have been there for the mind to see in the things God has made.". St Augustine who was very influential on most of the Reformers said: “It is the divine page that you must listen to; it is the book of the universe that you must observe.”
The title of Gary Ferguson’s 4th Chapter is: “Healing the planet and ourselves means recovering the feminine,” and in the pages that follow he makes clear that when he is speaking of the recovery of the feminine, he is talking about moving towards a greater balance between the masculine and the feminine in the world today, and not about the dominance of the feminine over the masculine. In the language of Chinese Taoism, the balance of masculine and feminine is much like the balance between the yin and yang in that symbolic circle where the yin and yang of life interlock with one another and balance one another. This balancing of masculine and feminine he suggests needs to happen not only across our societal structures, but also within our own individual psyches.
And so as we observe and read the Scripture of Nature, Gary Ferguson points out that in most major groups of mammals, there is a much greater balance between male and female leadership than has been the case in the history of most of humanity for the past 6000 years. And so he writes that “In countless species, from meerkats to whales, elephants, chimpanzees, wolves and lions, females hold both nurturing and leadership roles.
He writes that “...The fact is, in mammal species, where males and females are roughly the same size, female leadership is often the norm. Even when males are larger, such as in chimpanzees, gorillas, lions and wolves, it’s often still females who make critical leadership decisions.” He writes that while female leaders in the animal world can have impressive physical strength, it is their relational instinct and their ability of building coalitions that makes female wisdom and leadership a critical part of survival in the natural world. And yet at the same time, males in many of these species also play critical roles in not only hunting and defending territory, but also in caring for the young, often engaging in endless rounds of play with cubs that is a critical part of their growth and development.
And so Gary Ferguson writes that nature has created a world in which the success of elephants, wolves and lions and countless other species comes from a full expression of both sexes. He says the idea that one gender is more important that another is a human illusion – one that ignores the fact that nature is a balance between the two.
It is suggested that much of our current problems with the destruction of the planet is due to a masculine dominance rather than a masculine and feminine balance. For example, much of our pesticide culture which is decimating insect populations around the world is the out-flowing of a masculine energy that has forgotten the importance of relationship. When faced with a problem, a dominant masculine approach would have a tendency to use strength and force rather than relationship. Gary Ferguson writes for example that in China, when sparrows began eating rice in their rice fields a policy was made to kill all the sparrows and then discovered that the insects grew out of control and destroyed more of their rice crops than the birds ever ate. This, suggests Gary Ferguson, was male energy at work, unbalanced by a feminine recognition of relationship. If we are to save the planet, Gary Ferguson believes that masculine strength and force need to be balanced with feminine relationship and coalition. Instead of seeing nature through the male lens as something needing to be conquered, we need to learn something of a feminine approach of how to live in better harmony, coalition and relationship with nature.
Now as we turn to the written pages of scriptures, it is clear in reading Scripture that Hebrew culture was, like much of Western culture and history, highly patriarchal, with an enormous masculine dominance. Every morning, Jewish men would have prayed, “Thank you God that I was not born a women”. And yet how remarkable that in the first of the creation passages in Genesis, some inspired Jewish writer (almost certainly male) tells us that God made both male and female in God’s image. Both are in God’s image. This is a profound insight. The writer does not see the male as superior to the women, but rather through both, the fullness of God’s nature is revealed and disclosed.
It is also fascinating that in the second creation story in Genesis about Adam and Eve, the dominance of the male over the female is clearly regarded a result of what people often refer to as the fall. When the first human beings fall into sin, God says to the women, “your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you”. The implication is that it was never God’s intention from the beginning that husbands should rule over their wives. This arrangement comes about as a result of disobedience and sin. The implication is therefore that the undoing of sin should therefore lead to the undoing of male dominance, and the bringing about of a greater balance and partnership and harmony between the masculine and the feminine, rather than seeing competition between males and females where one needs to be regarded as better than the other. “Are boys better then girls?”
The person of Jesus stands in stark contrast to the heavily patriarchal Jewish culture of his day. In many ways, Jesus was quite a major disruptor of Jewish patriarchy symbolised by the scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the most dominant institutions of Jewish culture in Jesus day.
In contrast to the Rabbi’s of his day Jesus is recorded in Luke’s Gospel as having female disciples. (Luke 8:1-3). At the time of Jesus, it would have been unthinkable for a Jewish Rabbi’s to have female disciples. Girls were never taught to read or memorise the Scriptures. They were excluded from such activities. But in Luke, Mary is described as sitting at the feet of Jesus. This was the posture of a disciple. Keith Giles even suggests that this was the posture of someone who was themselves in training to become a Rabbi. And Jesus affirms her in this role. She has chosen the better part he says.
Lastly, Jesus as a human being seems to have integrated within himself both the masculine and the feminine. Carl Jung believed that this is the journey and the task required of any human being who grows into greater wholeness and fullness. He spoke of the anima and animus. The anima refers to the unconscious feminine side of a man, and the animus refers to the unconscious side of a woman. For men to grow toward spiritual and psychological wholeness, Jung believed that men need to get in touch with this unconscious female aspect of their personality. And for a women to grow toward spiritual and psychological wholeness, Jung believed that women need to tap into the unconscious masculine energy of their personalities. The male and female principles are present in each of us, and both need to find balanced expression within each of us.
This was certainly true of Jesus. He combines both formidable strength and amazing tenderness and vulnerability. He is an active leader amongst his disciples and yet in the Garden of Gethsemane he is able to surrender his life completely into the hands of the one He calls Abba.
When faced with confrontation he stands his ground and holds his own, and yet how easily he is reduced to tears when he stands outside the tomb of Lazarus and when he enters Jerusalem and weeps over a city that is headed for destruction.
When we call Jesus the saviour of the world, it is not just that Jesus died for our sins that we might go to heaven. Jesus could equally be regarded as saviour because he reveals the kind of balance, wholeness and one could even say holiness that is necessary to bring greater balance and wholeness to human society and that is also going to prove essential in saving the planet. Amen.
SERMON TEXT: The Wisdom of Diversity
Reading - Revelation 7:9-12
The book of Revelation is a difficult book to get ones head around. It has such fantastic and bizarre imagery which has been accompanied by many equally bizarre and fantastic interpretations over the past 2000 years or so. At some point it might make an interesting preaching series. But in the midst of that sometimes bizarre and fantastic imagery there are also some beautiful portions about the inauguration of a new heaven and a new earth in which every tear will be wiped away. A little earlier in the book there is another profound and thought provoking vision that paints a picture of a gathering of great diversity of those who are followers of Christ, people from every nation, tribe, people and language standing before the throne and before the Lamb, dressed in white and waving palm branches. If this is meant to be a picture of heaven, then it seems that according to the writer of revelation, God values diversity.
Last year I started a preaching series that got disrupted by Covid. It was based on a book I had been given by a congregation member called: 8 Master Lessons of Nature. We only covered two themes:
The first lesson was the Wisdom of Mystery – Gary Ferguson writes that anyone who truly studies nature will learn the lesson of Mystery. The world of nature and science when viewed up close is mysterious he says. Carl Sagan claimed that science wasn’t only compatible with mystery, but was a profound source of Mystery. And Jane Goodall, one of the worlds leading primatologist and anthropologists is quoted as saying: “There is so much mystery. There is so much awe.”
This theme of mystery and awe is captured in the story of Moses meeting God in the burning bush, where out in nature, in the wilderness, Moses encounters God, the Great I Am, and Moses is invited to take off his shoes and to recognise that he is standing on sacred ground.
The second lesson was learning from nature the wisdom of interconnectedness. Anyone who knows even a little about natural eco-systems is that they are complex systems networkds of interconnectedness. If one species in a forest is affected by something it will have a ripple effect on many other species of plants and animals. This wisdom of interconnectedness is expressed in the apostle Paul’s writing on the Church as the Body of Christ. If one part of the body is hurting, the whole body is affected. The wisdom of interdependence is inviting us as human beings to rediscover and realise how much we are part of complex networks of interdependence that includes our dependence and interdependence with nature. No person is an island. We cannot live without nature.
Today I would like to examine briefly the third wisdom lesson from nature. In the third chapter, Gary Ferguson invites us to contemplate deeply the wisdom of diversity, a theme captured in that vision in Revelation 7:9. The title of Gary Fergusons 3rd chapter is “The more kinds of life in the forest, the stronger that life becomes”.
Gary Ferguson writes that at the age of 21, he was out walking in nature with his 62 year old boss and mentor Chuck Ebersole. He writes that after some two hours of walking they crested a final mountain rise that made his jaw drop.
Before them was a tumbling mountainside bedecked with the most glorious carpet of wild-flowers he’d ever seen containing a variety of different flowers, many of which I wont even try and pronounce… the safest one’s for me to pronounce included geraniums, buttercups, paintbrush, bluebells, elephant head, prairie smoke and monkey flowers. One can just imagine this beautiful array of colours shapes and textures that confronted them. For a long time they just stood there shoulder to shoulder in silence, until finally his mentor began showering him with questions: Asking why nature would produce such variety, why not just two or three species. And as Gary Ferguson stumbled around with his words, trying to answer this question from as many angles as possible, the answer that began to emerge was that nature hedges its bets. When an ecosystem contains such variety they are much stronger, and able to better withstand disasters that may happen, like severe droughts, disease and plagues of insects.
I may want to add to that by speculating that perhaps another reason for the variety is that maybe God loves variety and enjoys it and that those two perspectives are not mutually exclusive.
Getting back to Gary Ferguson, he writes that contemplating that beautiful array of flowers, flowing down the mountainside, he learned a giant indisputable lesson: The more diversity in a natural system, the more vibrant those players will be. And also, the more resilient the system will be in the face of change.
He writes that our lives as human beings are utterly dependent on the diversity of nature and the more than one trillion species of animals, plants, insects and microbes that in habit this planet.
He says that it is no exaggeration that the diversity of the biosphere is responsible for giving us breathable air and drinkable water. Not to mention the replenishing of the soils in which we grow crops, along with creating pollinators needed to fertilize them.
Diversity in nature, gives us everything from the fibres in our clothes to the petrol that fuels our cars. And as much as 40% of all modern medicine comes from a diverse array of plants, inclding medicne that helps people to avoid heart attacks and strokes, asprin that was first extracted from white willow, as well as medicines that are used to heal child leukemia and Hodgkins lymphoma, antibiotics and drugs for lowering cholesterol and blood pressure.
It is indeed in humanities best interests to preserve the diversity of nature.
But diversity is also valuable at a purely human level. Even though humanity often resists diversity, we would often prefer others to be just like us, to think like us, to be culturally the same as us, the truth is there is strength in diversity.
When I have sometimes wished that others were a bit more like me, the spirit of God or the spirit of Wisdom has whispered in my ear and asked me to imagine what this world would be like if it was made up only of Brian’s like me. Clones of me. I can’t help but imagine that this world would be a dreadfully boring place. And there would be an enormous number of skills-sets that would be completely missing. This world would become chronically unbalanced. Even though we resist diversity and the otherness of other’s that we don’t always gel with, if we can learn to live with each others differences and look for the positives rather than dwelling on the negatives, we will discover that diversity can and should be a strength. The truth is that without a diversity of opinions, none of us would ever grow. Imagine if we all thought exactly the same. We would all just stagnate if we were all just clones of each other. Diversity of opinion is necessary for us to learn the cognitive skills that will help sharpen our ability to think and reason.
Getting back to Scripture, the early church was faced with the question of what kind of community they would be. Would they confine themselves to being a small Jewish sect of Jewish followers of Jesus, where everyone had to become culturally Jewish in order to belong? Or would they open themselves to people of other nations. The word that is used is Gentiles… a word used by English translators for the Hebrew word ‘goy’ and the Greek word ‘ethne’ which refer to ‘people’s’ or ‘nations’. Would the Church be a mono-cultural Jewish club, or would the Church be a multicultural and diverse community.
In large part due to the work and ministry of the Apostle Paul, the Christian church chose to open itself up and choose the latter option. It could be argued that if the Church had remained an in-house, mono-cultural Jewish institution, it would never have had the impact on the world that it has had. The diversity of the Church has been it’s strength even if at times also it’s achilles heal.
The seeds of this Christian diversity lay however in the very life and ministry of Jesus, who constantly coloured outside of the lines of his own Jewish cultural heritage. Constantly he is seen to be making detours through Samaritan and Gentile territories, engaging with people different from himself. In a very real way, Jesus’s capacity to embrace diversity and difference is an expression of his capacity to love. And for us, if we are to grow in our own capacity for love, it will inevitably mean growing our capacity to live with or embrace diversity and the otherness of others.
On that note, I would like to end with two quotes:
The first is from Thomas Merton - “The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves that we find in them.”
The second from Brennan Manning – from a story called “Patched together”
Little Brother, being a friend means loving completely. You don’t have to understand completely, and chances are you never will. But that doesn’t mean you can’t love completely. That’s what being a friend is all about. And it’s really impossible to do that, without the mercy of God. And so you pray every day, ‘Lord have mercy’.