Monday, 28 November 2016

Waiting for the Lord, walking in the light

Sermon preached on 27th November 2016 (Advent Sunday), at Creaton URC. Texts: Matthew 24:36-44 and Isaiah 2:1-5. The sermon refers to my recent blog series on Revelation.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? That’s the beginning of Psalm 13. It’s a question that many people have asked. The world is in a terrible place, Lord – hunger and disaster and violence and economic crisis and political idiocy right and left. Or for other people: my life is in a terrible place, Lord – I have no direction, my beloved family members are suffering, I don’t know what to do. Or for others again: how long do I have to suffer for my faith Lord, being treated so badly by those around me simply because I want to worship you in ways that others don’t like? When Lord? When can we go up your holy mountain and see you turn swords in ploughshares? When will you return to give hope to your people?

And the answer of the gospel writer is: Wake up! Listen! Christ could be coming back at any moment! Be ready, for the Son of Man is returning – 3…2…1… NOW! Or if not now, it could be any time.

The reading from Matthew is powerful and rather disturbing. It clearly belongs to the form of writing that is called apocalyptic, concerned with the end of the world as we know it. Now, I have to tell you of the project I’ve been doing lately. Just over two weeks ago, I felt a strong leading to read through the book of Revelation prior to the start of Advent. There’s a certain church tradition in reading Revelation in the weeks leading up to Advent, and the way the past year has gone, culminating in Donald Trump’s election, it just felt really timely. So I’ve read through either one or two chapters per day, and written a blog post on each day. My wife describes it as “Magnus is reading Revelation, so you don’t have to”.

It’s a deeply weird book. But it’s taught me a lot about apocalyptic writing and about the many things people have written about the Son of Man. Earlier this year I preached on the coming of Son of Man in the book of Daniel, so my head’s been in the end times this year! Two things I want to say about apocalyptic writing.

First, it’s always written by people who are oppressed, and it’s always about their situation and God’s reaction to it. The reason why books like Daniel and Revelation, and passages like this one from Matthew, seem rather wild and over the top, is that the people writing them are hurting. They have great faith in God, but they have no power in the world, and they are being treated like dirt. And their reaction, sometimes, is to tell themselves and each other tales of God’s justice, of their persecutors being brought to book, and of a future time where righteousness prevails. Sometimes that’s for their own people, sometimes it’s for all people. But it’s always a reaction to being downtrodden. Be very suspicious indeed of apocalyptic literature written by those in powerful places – this is why the American evangelicals who obsess on Revelation and write ridiculous fantasies such as the Left Behind books, are so dangerous.

The second thing about apocalyptic literature is this: it’s deeply symbolic. It’s full of strange imagery, numbers, ideas. But it’s not intended to be taken literally. It’s a bit like an optical illusion or an Escher drawing – if you look at it straight on for too long, you go cross-eyed and start to feel a bit queasy. But if you look at it out of the corner of your eye, at an angle, then you can begin to see the point. I’ve spent the past fortnight with images of dragons, angels, lakes of fire, bowls with plagues, horsemen and many other things. They’re not predictive, they’re not literal; they show pictures, offer symbols.

So it is with this passage. I think it’s a mistake to focus on the details too literally. The discussion of Noah is clearly meant as a metaphor. Likewise the parts about one person being left & the other taken. Some take these phrase to suggest that one person will be taken to heaven and the other left on earth to face the coming wrath of God; but it’s just as possible to read them as saying that one will be taken away to some uncertain fate, while the other will continue to faithfully live out their life in God’s sight.

It’s not clear whether the coming of the Son of Man is intended to be a happy event. This is a figure who first appears in the book of Daniel, as one who came on clouds, and was given dominion by God. He pops up in a number of works written between the old and new testaments, appears a number of times in the gospels, and then makes a big appearance in Revelation.

In all these cases, the Son of Man is a figure of power and majesty. He’s a frightening figure. He’s not God-made-man, he’s not the Jesus who lived and walked round with his disciplines and ate fish in Galilee and spoke deep and wise words. The Son of Man is a totally different kind of figure. He’s a figure of great majesty. Jesus has a famous parable in the next chapter of Matthew where the Son of Man comes to judge the righteous from the unrighteous, favouring those who have helped people in need. In a different sort of judgement, Revelation has the Son of Man as a figure with a sword coming out of his mouth, destroying the armies of the beast; and holding a great sickle scything across the earth to destroy evildoers. Church tradition, to some extent backed up by the scriptures, equates the Son of Man with Jesus, but in a very complex way.

So for Jesus to say that the Son of Man will come at an unexpected hour is not a reassuring statement. The word of the year has been the Danish word ‘hygge’, which means warm, friendly, cosy, the feeling you get from low lighting and candles and warm fires against the cold fire, shared with good friends and good food and drink. There have been cookery books and lifestyle magazines and all sorts of bars and restaurants around this idea of hygge. Alas, Northampton’s Bar Hygge only lasted a year, but it’s a comforting concept for cold and dark nights. I like it.

But there is nothing in the least bit hygge about the coming of the Son of Man. It’s not cosy. It’s not comforting. It’s exactly the opposite of mulled wine and sentimental Christmas carols and a baby gurgling in a manger. Truth be told, there’s not much cosy about Jesus’ birth either – the baby born to refugee parents with a taint of immorality around them, in a dirty place surrounded by animals. Christmas carols and nativity scenes tell a lot of lies.

It’s often said that Advent is about both the first and the second coming of Christ, the second coming being the coming of the Son of Man. Neither of them is especially comforting or cosy. Jesus is giving us a warning as much as a promise. Beware! Things could happen very quickly that you don’t expect.

We’ve seen this happen again and again this year. There’s been terrible event upon terrible event – violent extremists with various agendas murdering tourists in Paris, Marseilles and Brussels; nightclubbers in Florida; a British MP in West Yorkshire. All of these came totally unexpectedly. I have my own views on the right and wrong of the EU referendum and the US elections, as I’m sure others do; but the result came as a surprise in both cases, to the groups who won and lost, and the public as a whole. Their effects will take a long time to be felt.

Image: Let Us Beat Swords Into Plowshares, statue at United Nations, New York (via Wikipedia)
The kind of change that Jesus tells us to be ready for, however, is a magnificent kind. It will come with great difficulty and danger. The transition could be unpleasant. But the results could be amazing. Because here is the promise – as Isaiah says,
He will settle disputes among great nations.
They will hammer their swords into plows and their spears into pruning knives.
Nations will never again go to war, never prepare for battle again.
How wonderful a promise that would be. War is a great crime against humanity. I believe with all my heart that war is never appropriate, never justified. We are a century on from the battle of the Somme, where a million died; and the battle of Verdun, where a million more died. Their deaths achieved essentially nothing. I know that some people will justify one war or another because of the actions of an evil general or dictator, and there may be times where it’s hard to see another way. But God can see other ways, and God knows that ultimately war has no purpose. So the promise, in the old song, that “I ain’t gonna study war no more”, is a great one. How we get there, I have no clue. It comes in God’s time, not in our time.

In the book of Revelation, the coming of the Son of Man, and his battles against the great beast and the devil, lead to terrible destruction and suffering on earth. But they ultimately lead to the creation of a new heaven & a new earth, and a holy city, a new Jerusalem, where heaven and earth come together, and God dwells with his people and sees them directly. In that place, we are told, God will wipe away all tears, and there shall be no pain and no death. It’s an amazing vision.

How do we get to that place? We can’t. It is in God’s time. But we are given two exhortations in these passages which show how we can be ready.

The first comes from Isaiah. The last version says of our reading urges the people of Israel: “let us walk in the light which the Lord gives us”. We must walk in God’s light. Do not be people of darkness. We have a God who lights the dark places, who gives sight to the blind, hope to the downtrodden. Israel’s God is the one who liberated them from slavery in Egypt, who liberates us from the things that enslave us. We must walk in that light, following that example, not in the darkness of prejudice and hatred. And we must follow that example, to liberate others and to give hope to this around us who are downtrodden. We are a people of hope.

The second is the urging of Jesus, to ‘stay awake’ or ‘be watchful’  or ‘watch out’. The word indicates alertness, readiness to take action – it’s the state of mind of a night watchman on the walls. In some of the versions of this story in other gospels, Jesus tells us to stay clothed, ready to go when needed.

And it’s this watchfulness that’s the key to Advent for me. It’s so easy to go through our lives being tired, slightly out of it, not fully engaged. Jesus came to shake us up, to wake us up. Imagine what we could do as individuals, as a community, if we were fully awake. If instead of being drugged by the rubbish of consumerism and trash telly and Christmas paraphernalia, we were able to say like Mary did: here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be according to your will. If we were able to be fully alive, to be fully present, to be fully part of our own lives, to be fully aware of the role of God in our lives, to be fully part of the relationships we have with others, to be fully part of the world around us. Think what an amazing thing that could be. Think how much that would let us walk in the light of the Lord.

So be ready. Be alert. Be awake. Because the Son of Man is coming at an hour we do not expect. And he will bring things we do not expect. And we can live in that power, in the wakefulness, in that light of the Lord, right now, in this Advent season, and in all our lives.

Amen.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 22: the healing of the nations and the inclusion of all

This is the sixteenth of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 21, new heaven and new earth. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading.

I've failed (though not by much) in my goal to read Revelation before the start of Advent. Today is Advent Sunday, and I preached a sermon which drew heavily on what I've learnt in the past two weeks. But writing the sermon (and the little matter of it being my birthday yesterday) meant I didn't get to read & blog the final chapter. So here goes, the end of Revelation... during Advent.

In fact, chapter 22 feels like a coda to the rest. We've had the rather gorgeous account of the new Jerusalem; we now get a few bits more detail, which close the book off nicely, and relate some of the themes back to past biblical imagery.

First the angel shows John the river of the water of life, and sitting on it the tree of life. This sense of life-giving contrasts well with the images of death and destruction earlier in the book. This new creation is one where life comes before death. The river flowing out of the city resembles the four rivers which flowed out of the garden of Eden (in some traditions with their source at Jerusalem); and also is close to the river flowing out of the temple in Ezekiel's vision.

The tree of life also recalls (for me) the tree of the knowledge of good & evil in the Garden of Eden, from which Adam and Eve ate with such catastrophic effect. (Perhaps a reminder about literalism here; for myself I believe Genesis to be a myth, a story with important lessons about the human condition but not to be read as literal truth - rather like Revelation in its own way. So when I write about Eden it's referring to the human lessons, and to its literary effect upon other books of the Bible.)
Image: Laurie Kathleen Clark, Heartitude=Art+Soul
Related to the tree of life is one of the last lovely phrases in Revelation: "the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations". Well, the nations need plenty of that, and always have done. It's quite an important phrase at this point of the chapter - it suggests that there still are many nations in the new creation (that is, not just the Christian & Jewish elect); and also that the process of healing is an ongoing one, after the founding of the new creation. This may be a world without death, but not all conflicts have been forgotten. And I think this is realistic - we can live with our former enemies in love, but it may take a long time to heal the hurts we caused each other.

One more important point in this first section of the chapter. We heard in the last chapter that the throne of God would be in the city, no separation by temple or heaven. Here we see an extension - God's servants will see his face. Throughout the Old Testament in particular, the idea of seeing God face to face was an impossibly daunting prospect - God is too powerful, too holy, for mortals to see directly. This is a signficant change from that idea.

The rest of the chapter is concerned with closing the book. First the angel warns that the book is not to be sealed up; John later warns scribes not to extend the book or remove parts of it. Then we have a final message from God as being the 'Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end' (also in the previous chapter), and a blessing on those who are able to enter the city.

Finally we have a closing message from Jesus to the churches in Asia, just as the book began with such a message. He reminds them that he is the descendant of David (that is, an anointed ruler in the traditions of Israel). And he says "come" to everyone who is thirsty, everyone who wishes to take the water of life. In the gospel of John, Jesus said: "let anyone who is thirsty come to me". As with the tree of life, there is a universality here. This is not just a message for the Jewish people, or the Christian people, or some kind of elect - the invitation to the new creation is for anyone. I find this a hopeful end to a book full of division into the righteous & unrighteous ones. This may have been so in the old world, but in the new creation, the invitation is for all to come.

And lastly the book ends with a promise from Jesus that he will come soon, and a response to Jesus urging him to do so (in Greek, but resembling the Aramic Maranatha). Very last of all, the standard message of grace that the New Testament letters end with, reminding us that this huge and sprawling book of bizarre imagery is, ultimately, a pastoral letter to a group of struggling churches.

And that is all (for now) that I have to say of Revelation.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 21: new heaven and new earth

This is the fifteenth of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 20, The millennium, the lake of fire, and existential angst. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading.

"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." So begins chapter 21. And as apocalyptic visions go, this is a pretty calm one. The conflict is over (we'll see no more violence now for the rest of the book), the old heaven and earth are finished with - and the sea, the realm of chaos and disorder - we're moving into a completely new realm.

The words are well-known, but it's a striking start to the penultimate chapter of the book. After the tumult and destruction of earlier books, we might expect to see a new earth, but this verse describes a new heaven as well - both have been lost and reshaped. Given the description (v2) of the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven, there still seems to be a separation of sorts between earth & heaven (in John's time the 'three-tier universe' idea was pretty widespread, but the lowest tier of the underworld has now disappeared), but the gap between earth and heaven is narrower than it was. 

A short poem tells us that "the home of God is among mortals ... he will dwell with them". The Greek word translated 'home', skēnē, is the word booth or tabernacle - the place where God dwells with his people; it appears a lot in the book of Exodus, first in the tent of meeting and later in the Temple. Jumping to near the end of the chapter, we're told that there was no Temple in the new Jerusalem, because God and the Lamb dwelt there and were themselves the Temple. George Macleod said that the isle of Iona is a thin place, where "the veil between things spiritual and things material is as thin as gossamer"; here we see the gap narrowed to nothing, the veil lifted or torn asunder.

One more thing from this short poem - God will wipe away all tears; death, mourning, crying and pain will come to an end. In this new earth, all the old griefs are lost. Many commentators have described this as a new creation, with a new Eden - in the first Eden, death came among humans, now in the second Eden, death has been lost. Karl Jenkins set this text beautifully as the culmination to his piece The Armed Man, about war and its losses, and the need for peace:
More vivid pictures: we hear directly from 'the one who was seated on the throne' - God speaks to John directly. He's told that "I am making all things new" and that "to the thirsty, I will give water from the spring of the water of life" (an echo perhaps of one of the beautitudes, promising that those who hunger and thirst after righteousness - or perhaps justice - will be filled). Those who 'conquer' (over temptation and sin, perhaps?) will live with God; but in one last appearance of the lake of fire, we're told that the faithless and various sinners will be thrown there.

And then we move to the next part of the chapter, which at length describes the new Jerusalem. At the start of the chapter, this city is described as the bride of the Lamb - a contrast with the depiction of Babylon as an impure woman. In later times, the church was to regard itself as the bride of Christ, and it's not too far-fetched to see a parallel: when the church is working at its best (which is by no means always) it serves as the body of Christ, a foreshadowing of this later bride of Christ.

Image: The New Jerusalem, 14th century tapestry (via Wikipedia)
We get a long description of the new Jerusalem. The details are argued over, and the numbers are surely as much symbolic as intended to be realistic, but it's clear it's enormous - a square plan of 12,000 stadia on either side (roughly 1380 miles on each side - some translations, including the NRSV, prefer 1500 miles). This is huge, much of the size of Europe (say from Paris to Kiev, west-east; and London to Malaga, north-south). The city is described as being the same height again (impossible on our earth - the International Space Station is at a height of 240 miles above the surface of the earth), although the walls are a much smaller 144 cubits high (clearly a symbolic number - about 65 metres, which is still pretty tall for walls). In the words of Douglas Adams about the equally-eschatological Restaurant at the End of the Universe, "this is of course impossible". Except it's not, though it may be symbolic.

The city's construction involves a lot of twelves - twelve gates, inscribed with the twelve tribes, with twelve angels at the gates; twelve foundation stones, inscribed with the names of the twelve apostles. Twelve squared is, of course, 144 (cf. the 144,000 sealed ones earlier in the book), which numerologically can be made from the Greek word angelos, messenger, the word from which we get angel. Some churches have said that these sealed ones are the only people able to live in the new city (and conveniently name themselves as the sealed ones), but there is no evidence for that view in this chapter. It is all the people of God who live here.

We also get a long rendition of the precious jewels from which the city is constructed - walls of jasper, streets of pure gold clear as glass, gates from a single pearl, and twelve foundation stones each a different jewel (the same jewels as on the high priest's breastplate). This is opulence and ostentation beyond the wildest dreams of the poverty-stricken Asian churches, but in a subtler and kinder form than the vulgar ostentation of Trump Tower or the palaces of middle-eastern emirs.

And last we're told that the city glows with its own light, needs no temple, and the gates are kept open always - for this is a city that is always at peace, and which is the dwelling-place of God. Unclean things (or people) simply cannot enter it.

It's really a rather lovely vision. As we'll see in the next (and final) chapter, the new Jerusalem is not the whole of the new creation, but it is at its heart. If the old Jerusalem was the centre of the world for the Jewish people, this new Jerusalem is the centre of the universe (earth and heaven) for all peoples; the real thing of which the old Jerusalem was just a shadowy early form (to paraphrase CS Lewis' description of the Narnia beyond the doors after the end of the old Narnia in The Last Battle). 

But let's be clear. This is not heaven. This is not some other-worldly realm. It occurs in a future time - it's not the kingdom of heaven which anyone can access here on earth, as Jesus taught. But this new Jerusalem, however much it looks impossible, exists on earth - a recreated earth, an earth stripped of pain and death, but nonetheless the earth. This is a vision of the earth as it could be, and in John's belief, as it will be.

Next (and final) reading: ch 22, the healing of the nations and the inclusion of all

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 20: The millennium, the lake of fire, and existential angst

This is the fourteenth of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 19, Hallelujah, and a white horse. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading.

This chapter (20) is the last one where we'll see the reign of evil forces on the earth. It begins with another big event, following the battle of the previous chapter - an angel comes along captures the dragon (Satan), binds him for a thousand years and throws him into the bottomless pit. Hooray for the angel! And it reminds me of the binding of Loki in Norse mythology (very possibly reformulated in the light of Christian theology, as was the case with various Norse tales).

Image: William Blake, Angel Michael binding Satan (Harvard Art Museums)
However, as with Loki, there's a snag - it's not for ever. After a thousand years "he must be let out for a little while". Because, erm, John's not saying. Presumably it's a mystery. Or a necessary force of nature. (Loki escaped through cunning - Satan seems just to have been released.)

But until that time: those who were "beheaded for their testimony to Jesus" will come to live and reign with him for a thousand years. I've been reading NT Wright's commentary on this piece, and he observes that beheading was considered a kind death in the ancient world, one given to citizens of Rome being executed, while others who were condemned had nastier deaths. So maybe the beheading is metaphorical - but it's not wholly clear of what it's a metaphor.

The thousand years (as Wright goes on to say) is probably also a symbolic figure. Most other numbers in Revelation are symbolic (seven, three and a half etc). I'd be inclined to agree, rather than treating it as an accurate round number, for whatever we're supposed to do with it. This needs care: for much of church history, this idea of the millennium has been a captivating one. Many para-Christian groups (variously called sects or cults in their time, sometimes ruder names) have sought to establish the time when the reign of Christ for those thousand years (whether literal or symbolic) would begin. Evangelicals have desperate debates over the time of the millennium and its sequencing.

This might sound like the worst sort of obscure logic-chopping, and it resembles it. But it derives from a real existential fear: the text says that "blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power". The question of when & how this will happen is really, in my view, hiding a deeper question: will I be part of this resurrection? Will my loved ones be part of this resurrection? Or put more crudely, am I going to be ok?

Revelation is frustratingly obscure on this subject. It tells us that Christ will reign over the earth for a long time, with the help of those who have suffered for their faith; but that's about all. If one cares about one's ultimate future, that's a big worry. There's a respectable alternative, which is not to worry - but people do worry, that's human nature. I did enjoy the start of the Inter Varsity Press commentary - a generally evangelical publisher whose readers care about these things - which begins: "Nine times out of ten, when people ask, 'How do you interpret the book of Revelation?' what they mean is, 'How do you interpret Revelation 20:1-10?'"

On with the story. The thousand years are up, Satan-the-dragon is out. He goes off on a recruitment drive, with deception (that's Satan the subtle tempter not the dragon) to bring the nations of the earth on his side, and gather them into a great army. When I was a student in Cambridge I used to wonder about the sole hills thereabouts, the Gog and Magog hills - they're named after this passage, and in turn after king Gog of the land of Magog, who fought the armies of God in a story in the book of Ezekiel. As with that story, fire comes from heaven and destroys the armies.

Satan is at last in turn destroyed, thrown into the same lake of fire where the beast & prophet met their fate in the previous chapter. No way out for him, "and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever". Nice. Something to avoid.

Except that, to add to that existential angst, we have a scene of great judgement to come. God comes to his throne and in the process "earth and heaven fled from his presence" - anything left is finally wiped out. But the dead come before the throne in turn to "be judged according to their works" according to records in "the book of life". If you're in the book of life, you're ok, if you're not, you get thrown into the same lake of fire, presumably with the same eternal torment. There's plenty of other parts of the New Testament about what these works are, their relationship to grace, faith etc (though sufficiently much that there is room for much argument, as the history of the church over 2000 years have proved, perhaps especially the past 500 years since the Protestant Reformation).

But still - lake of fire, eternal torment, the second death - we don't want that, no thank you. Please tell us, church people, how to avoid this. Me? As a follower of the words of Jesus, I might gently point to a not dissimilar symbolic tale of judgement that he told, where those judged favourably had helped "the least of these who are members of my family" who were hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison etc.

But with the strength of this chapter, I really can understand the level of angst and sheer panic they create, especially if taken even slightly literally.

Next reading: ch 21, new heaven and new earth

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 19: Hallelujah, and a white horse

This is the thirteenth of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 17+18, the fall of Babylon (and Rome). Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading.

So here's one for the Bible trivia buffs. Which well-known worshipful word is common throughout the Old Testament, but only appears four times in the New Testament, all in one single chapter of one book? Hallelujah! It's such a familiar word (it means 'praise God' or 'praise the Lord'), but it's a really strange thing that it doesn't appear otherwise in the New Testament - except here in chapter 19 of Revelation.

Last chapter, Babylon had fallen, and the throngs appear before the throne of God to sing praises. There are four different songs of praise, all beginning with the word Hallelujah - three times from a 'great multitude', once from the twenty-four elders and four living creatures that we saw a while back. And talking of songs, as well as its Bible trivia status, this chapter is the source of the text of what this month (after the death of Leonard Cohen) we might call the second best-known song called Hallelujah:
Now we move briefly on a nice bit of symbolism, the marriage of the Lamb to his bride - the church, clothed in fine linen (which John editorialises by reminding us is the 'righteous deeds of the saints'). The angel tells John to write that "blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb" and that "these are the true words of God". There's a clear contrast with the scarlet and promiscuity of the whore of Babylon - the church is robed in white. And these are words of comfort for the church of John's day & its persecuted members, rather than the defiant and angry images we've seen earlier.

One interesting vignette from this encounter with the angel (I say vignette, though it could be the basis of a whole sermon). John is really struck by what the angel says, and falls down at his feet to worship the angel. No, he's told, don't do that - the angel is a "fellow-servant" (interesting phrase, but a pretty exact translation of the Greek 'syndoulous') of John. After a book full of worship of God, but also of the people of the earth worshipping the beast, we have a clear reminder here that only God is to be worshipped. We're also told that the "testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" - Jesus' words matters. (Trinity fans fear not - worship of Jesus as part of the Godhead is mentioned elsewhere in Revelation, and the imagery of the Lamb and the Son of Man are everywhere in the book; although this is kind of a unitarian verse, in no way is Revelation a unitarian book.)

On to the last battle, which forms the culmination of this chapter. The heavens open, and a rider on a white horse comes out. He is named as Faithful and True and the Word of God, and has the name 'King of Kings and Lord of Lords' (Handel again!) on his thigh. Oh, and he's wearing a robe dipped in blood. There are plenty of signs to link this with Jesus, but a military and warlike Jesus. There's even a link back to chapter 1: when John first encounters the Son of Man, he has a two-edged sword coming out of his mouth. The same is true of this rider.
Image: Annie Vallotton

The rider (whatever his identity) has two roles: to judge and to make war. He rides off to battle, followed by the armies of heaven wearing the same fine white linen we saw at the Lamb's wedding feast (though not very practical battle clothes). They confront the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies. The beast and the false prophet with him (the first beast) are captured and thrown into a lake of fire. The armies are killed, by the rider with his sword coming out his mouth (so not by the white-robed heavenly armies), and the birds of the air are "gorged with their flesh".

This is the battle of Armageddon, the great battle at the end of the world - it's not named as such here but in chapter 16 the kings of the earth are assembled for battle at the place called Harmagedon or Armageddon, and this battle has long been considered the one that occurs here. Battles are bloody and gruesome and horrible. Only a fool or a monster seeks out war. This battle description is actually quite brief for those of us brought up on Tolkein, and even shorter than CS Lewis' battle descriptions in his refiguring of Revelation, The Last Battle (his battles aren't up to much, but his account of the stars falling and darkness coming is eerily good). Still, it's a pretty gruesome set of images, especially the bit about the birds. Yay to the end of the beast, a thoroughly bad sort, but otherwise not a lot to celebrate.

A closing thought for tonight, based on something I heard today - a podcast about the Epic of Gilgamesh. In lots of ways, it seems to me, Revelation resembles one of the poetic epics of the ancient world - Gilgamesh was the first, but the Iliad and Aeneid would be other examples; or in medieval times, the Eddas of Norse myth or the poem Beowulf. All are written in a poetic form, as much of Revelation is; all tell of grand tales of heroes and gods and demons; and all of them are stuffed full of amazing imagery, very little of which is intended to be taken literally. So: Revelation as poetry? There are worse things for it to be.

Next reading: chapter 20, the millennium, the lake of fire, and existential angst

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 17+18: the fall of Babylon (and Rome)

This is the twelfth of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 15+16, seven bowls, seven plagues. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading. 

Two more chapters tonight, closely linked. Chapters 17 and 18 tell of the fall of Babylon, the great city, centre of economic and military power. Throughout these chapters, the great city is named as Babylon, and this refers back to the warning of the destruction of Babylon by one of the angels in ch 14, and the brief account of Babylon's fall in ch 16 at the culmination of the bowls of plagues. However, it is very clear that Babylon sits in for Rome throughout - there are plenty of hints that John is talking about Rome, and of course in John's day it was Rome that was the great centre of economic and military power. The historical Babylon (the site of great empires for centuries) was a shadow of its former self in John's time.

This symbolic Babylon appears, in the way that many cities and countries are portrayed, as a woman. But not in a flattering image - she is called a "great whore ... with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication" and "mother of whores and of earth's abominations". Robed in purple and scarlet, she holds a "golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication", and she is drunk with the blood of the saints and martyrs. A horrible image.

Image: Hans Burkgmair, 1523, woodcut for Luther's Bible translation (via Wikipedia)
I wrote at some length in my post on chapter 14 about the double misogyny of that piece (with its virgin saints). Although this text shows an extremely unflattering and sexualised image of a woman (albeit as a metaphorical city), it feels a little less misogynist to me - the focus is on the city rather than a woman as such. Nonetheless, it's certainly unflattering, and ties into sexist stereotypes of woman's dangerous sexuality. And the phrase "scarlet woman" has been used for centuries to describe promiscuous women and prostitutes, often in a harsh and judgemental way - so even if the passage wasn't original misogynist, its effect has been.

Interestingly, the Protestant Reformers took the passage as a criticism of the papacy, and the Westminster Confession of the 1660s referred to the Pope as an antichrist, a link that continued to be made in the 1970s and 80s by the Northern Irish extremist preacher Ian Paisley to refer to Pope John Paul II (whom he called a "scarlet woman"), to great offence. I remember well the debates in the Church of Scotland in the 1980s as to whether those verses should be excised from the Westminster Confession, which caused surprising controversy (they eventually were).

Babylon-the-woman is seated upon a scarlet beast, the same beast as we've seen earlier (its seven heads and ten horns are mentioned), which is described as "was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit". There's a clear link back here both to the description of God at the start of the book as he who "was, and is, and is to come", and to the ascension and second coming of Jesus.

John is mystified so gets a little bit of instruction, mostly relating to the beast - the seven heads are seven kings, and the beast is "an eighth but it belongs to the seven". My friend the Oxford Bible Commentary reckons this as a reference to the emperor Nero, persecutor of Christians, of whom there was a strange legend that he hadn't died but had fled east and would return to rule Rome again at the right time. There's also some interpretation on the waters on which the whore is seated - the historical Babylon was at the confluence of great rivers, but Rome wasn't, so John needs to metaphorise these waters into being all peoples and nations.

So having met the woman and the beast, we hear from three angels about the fall of the great city. An entire chapter is given to poetry and song about its fall. Although the city is called she, and there are occasional references to her fornication, this is somewhat more realistic - it's about the city as such, not the symbolic. The city/woman has committed fornication with the kings of the earth, we're told. Given that it's described as a seat of power and wealth, this turns rapidly into a political and economic critique rather than a moral one.

The first angel tells us that Babylon is fallen, "a dwelling-place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit" and that "the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury". This introduces the economic critique of the city.

The second angel (or voice from heaven) takes up the bulk of the chapter. First we hear a warning to God's people to come out of the city, due to her sins; we're told that just as she lived luxuriously, she will receive plagues of pestilence, mourning, famine and fire in a single day. This is more of a call to dissociation with the powers of the earth than to physically leaving a city - John's audience were in Asia not Rome, albeit under the authority of Rome.

After this warning, we're told of the mourning of various groups following the fall of Babylon. Each mourns its loss having happened in one hour. There are the kings of the earth, who had bent to the city's will, and cry for her loss (but ultimately for their own loss of power). Then there are the merchants of the earth, who weep for their economic loss - there are great lists of the cargo which nobody will buy any more, from gold and jewels to spices and oils and animals - and ultimately "slaves and human lives". Lastly we see shipmasters and sailors mourning, again for the loss of their wealth.

For once, I like this chapter! It seems to offer not just a moral or religious critique as other chapters of Revelation, but rather a political, military and economic critique. It's closer to the real heart of Old Testament prophecy than much of Revelation. The link is to the great city, whether Babylon or Rome, but through that to the systems of power which create oppression and inequality, enriching some but impoverishing many. The kings and merchants and shipowners mourn, but we need not. Nor is this is a critique of a single city - in our own day, we might choose to read New York or London or Tokyo or Dubai for Babylon, but it applies to all the places and people who consort and accommodate with the powerful in those places. Economic misery and inequality may begin in the great cities, but it is made possible because people in many other places allow it to happen and collude in it because they think they can have a part of it.

Pleasingly, the chapter ends with a genuine and heart-felt lament (after a reminder to the saints and prophets to rejoice). Another angel throws a big stone in the sea and tells us of all the things no longer to be found in Babylon - the sound of harpists and minstrels, the work of artisans, the light of a lamp, the voice of a bridegroom and bride. It's rather tender (and, music fans, it's one of the texts used by William Walton in describing the fall of Babylon, mostly otherwise from the book of Daniel, in his great work Belshazzar's Feast). But lest we feel too sorry for the city's loss, we're reminded at the end that the city's merchants were the magnates of the earth, and that the blood of all the prophets and saints can be attributed to the city.

That ended up as a long discussion of the fall of Babylon! If I had my way, chapter 18 with its political and economic critique would be better known than chapter 17 with its scarlet woman. But I suppose that hardly satisfies the elites of the past and present days...

Next reading: ch 19, Hallelujah, and a white horse

Monday, 21 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 15+16: seven bowls, seven plagues

This is the eleventh of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 14, many more angels, warnings & harvests. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading.

Tonight (chapters 15 and 16) we have another set of seven angels, with another set of woes for the earth. First comes the good news: that these are the last set of plagues, "for with them the wrath of God is ended". Phew!

Before we get to the angels, we have a happy vision of those who conquered the beast and its number - which I guess means those who resisted it, probably to their considerable suffering. They're happily standing in a big gathering (this time we don't get a number) beside a sea of glass mixed with fire, singing a song about how great & just are God's ways, with the little note that "who will not fear and glorify your name ... all nations will come and worship before you". (For once I can't put a tune to this song in great music, though parts of it have influenced a hymn or three.)

Well, all nations may do so in the times to come. But from the actions of the angels, it seems that they're still stuck in the worship of the beast. The contrast of those in heaven and on earth couldn't be greater. Because here's what follows the song: seven angels come out of the temple and are given "seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God" by one of the four living creatures, and nobody could enter the temple until the seven plagues were ended.

Image: Brick Testament
So off go the angels, to pour out their bowls, to cause great suffering on earth. Let's just list them briefly, because it's the same kind of story as with the seven trumpets & seven seals. First bowl: painful sores on those who had the mark of the beast; second bowl: the sea turned to blood and everything in it died; third bowl: all the rivers turned to blood. (Two brief notes on the rivers: this isn't, thankfully, the source for Enoch Powell's disgusting 'rivers of blood' speech, which is a reference to Virgil's Aeneid; and the text here says it's due to the people of earth shedding the blood of the saints and prophets.)

Carrying on. Fourth bowl: the sun becomes super-hot and scorches people; fifth bowl: poured on to the throne of the beast, causing darkness and pain to those in his kingdom; sixth bowl: the river Euphrates is dried up, preparing the way for 'the kings from the east'. This is followed by foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouths of the two beasts and the dragon, to prepare the kings of the world for battle. They assemble at a place with a well known name: Harmagedon in the NRSV (that is, the mountain of Meggido), a crossing point in Israel where various battles had taken place, and known in later texts as Armageddon. The battle of the end of the world comes near.

Just to confuse matters about timing, John inserts in brackets the saying of Jesus about the one who comes like a thief, and warns people to stay awake and clothed (though curiously he has it in the first person, whereas Jesus' parable in both Matthew and Luke is in the third person). We must be ready at all times for that day of battle, it seems - presumably John is speaking to the people of his own time not to the time of the story.

And then one more angel, who simply pours his bowl into the air, with a voice from heaven saying "it is done". Plagues over? Well, not quite - first we have a massive earthquake ("such as had not occurred since people were upon the earth"), which splits Babylon into three parts, and is accompanied with hailstones weighing 100 pounds each. As the Oxford Bible Commentary observes, this isn't the first time we've seen the end of Babylon in this book - it's been warned upon, destroyed once already, and we get a big destruction scene in the next chapter.

What is there to be said about all this destruction? It feels like a revenge fantasy - God will destroy the bad folks of the earth in increasingly violent ways, because they've failed to follow him - and it's pretty unappealing. The Brick Testament page whose image I use above describes this scene as "God Tortures Remaining Humans at Length", which is about accurate. But surely no loving God would do such a thing to his people, to those made in his image, however they'd behaved?

These scenes seem to belong to the tribal God of Israel, who supported them in their wars, but which they moved on from - it's binary 'us and them' thinking. Given the importance of Revelation to Christian imaginations throughout history, this is quite a worrying set of images and scenes. Except, except: it's back to the reminder that this is apocalyptic literature, written by (and to) people in great distress and suffering. Their power to inflict that suffering on others was minimal, but they could dream about it. It's the power that the bullied child has, of imagining their bully coming to a terrible end. The trouble is when the people in distress get the power to inflict that suffering upon others.

If Revelation is read as a symbolic foreshadowing of God's future actions, that's one thing (and bad enough). It's catastrophic if it's read by those in powerful places as a justification for their actions. That's why the obsession of certain American evangelicals with the book is so worrying - because of the strength of American military might, and the very clear reality that the US is no sort of persecuted victim. God grant that this book never give strength to that view.

Next reading: ch 17+18, the fall of Babylon (and Rome)

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 14: many more angels, warnings & harvests

This is the tenth of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 12+13, the woman, the dragon and the beasts. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading. 

Warnings and reapings this time, making chapter 14 one that's mostly ominous rather than violent (except at the end). First, we meet the Lamb again, standing on Mount Zion (Jerusalem). Accompanying him, though simultaneously standing before the throne, are a huge entourage - 144,000 in all, marked with the name of God and the Lamb. This is the same number as the faithful from all tribes of Israel, who were sealed and marked in chapter 7, though it's a little unclear whether these are the same group. These 144,000 have been "redeemed from humankind" and "are blameless". We see them later supported the Lamb in warfare.

There's a peculiarity about this group though, which has made lots of readers of this passage very uncomfortable: they are described (v4) as those "who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins". Read literally, this implies that the 144,000 are all male, and all virgins. It also shows a pretty unpleasant attitude to women. What do we do with this double misogyny? On this occasion, unlike with most of this series, I've been reading around websites and commentaries. Some commentators try to explain it away - even the more literal readers of Revelation often metaphorise this verse. Others suggest that it can be read in terms of an army of God, under the model of Jewish (male) soldiers who were required to keep celibate prior to battle, as sex caused ritual impurity; others still suggest that it is a literary allusion to the Book of Enoch and the sexual relations between fallen (male) angels and human females. Daniel Olson wrote an excellent academic paper on these different interpretations (probably needs a university library login for access, sorry). Olson also contrasts various explicitly feminist views of the passage - some reject it completely as sexism, others have a more positive line. In particular, the brilliant Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in her book on Revelation interprets the passage in terms of "cultic purity" and looks positively for its "visionary rhetoric" in the cause of social justice, which she says requires a reading above the detail of this particular verse.

Anyway, enough scholarship on this questionable verse. Let's leave the 144,000 and look to the angels who now coming flying into view. There are six this time. The first three are giving advice. Angel 1 is proclaiming a gospel to all nations, that they should fear God, give him glory, and worship him. Angel 2 declares that Babylon the great has fallen (presumably an allusion to all cities, though we get another bit of misogyny and sexual reference in saying that "she has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication").

Angel 3 has a longer speech against those who worship the beast and who receive its mark - they will "drink the wine of God's wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger". Another wine reference, and more to come at the end of the chapter. John comments that this is a "call for the endurance of the saints" - an encouragement to the faithful of his day. Fair enough in terms of the context of the book - as I've said on previous days, encouraging endurance in the face of persecution is one of the main features of Revelation - but in terms of the story, pretty hard going. In the previous chapter, we were told that anyone refusing to worship the beast would be killed, and that anyone refusing his mark couldn't buy or sell goods. So damned if you do and damned if you don't - pretty literally. Tough stuff.

We get another interlude from John who hears a pair of voices from heaven, one identified as the Spirit, telling him that those who die 'in the Lord' are henceforth blessed, and will rest from their labours. Clearly part of the encouragement theme as well. Returning to the musical settings of this book, this verse is the basis of the final movement of Brahms' German Requiem, Selig sing die toten (blessed are the dead).

Image: The Brick Testament
After the encouragement, back to the action. Now we see the Son of Man seated on a cloud, except that instead of just looking majestic, he's holding a huge sickle in his hand. Angel 4 tells him to use the sickle to reap, "because the harvest of the earth is fully ripe". So his swings his sickle and the earth is reaped. Judgement & harvest have all sorts of links in the New Testament, but this particular version seems a bit brutal, and we're not told of its effects. (In passing: is this the only time we see the Son of Man being given a command by an angel? An interesting glimpse into heavenly governance structures.)

Angel 5 has his own sickle, comes out of heaven with it, and receives instructions from a different angel, "who has authority over fire" (not sure this is Angel 4 who commanded the Son of Man), to use the sickle to "gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe". So the various wine imagery of this chapter come to full flavour - and presumably the vintage of the earth refers to the selection between the good and the bad, in a form of judgement.

Except we're not quite finished with wine. Because the grapes gone into the wine press of the wrath of God, which is trodden out of the city. And does fine wine flow from it? No. Blood flows from it, and a great deal of it. Now, wine and blood are thoroughly mixed in Christian symbolism of the Last Supper, but I don't think that's the point here - rather a gory form of judgement. Turn the face away to something more cheerful in the next chapter (fat chance) except for another musical link: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored". Yes, this passage is the source of the beginning of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, that rather wonderful song of the American Civil War. Sing it loud!

Next reading: ch 15+16, seven bowls, seven plagues 

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 12+13: the woman, the dragon and the beasts

This is the ninth of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 10+11, eating his words. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading. 

Tonight, reading chapters 12+13, we have an interesting (which is to say, profoundly odd and disturbing) cast of characters. First there's a pair both described as portents, but hostile to each other. On the one hand, there's a woman who is 'clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet' and is in the process of giving birth. On the other, a huge red dragon with seven heads and ten horns (as ever these grotesqueries are symbolic) who just by way of introduction destroys a third of the stars with his tail. Meanwhile the woman gives birth to a son who we're told is to rule all the nations, the dragon tries to eat the baby but it is snatched away by God; the woman in turn flees to be kept safe.

And then we have the 'war in heaven' - an evocative name that is given great detail in works such as Paradise Lost and more recently Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass; but here only gets three verses. The dragon & his angels fight against an army of the archangel Michael & his angels. Michael's side wins, the dragon & his angels are cast down to earth. The dragon is now referred to as the Devil or Satan. We get another song proclaiming God's victory, through the blood of the Lamb and the testimony of the faithful in the face of their accuser (Satan = accuser or adversary in Hebrew). The song ends with on a chilling note, that the devil has come down to earth with great wrath, and 'woe to the earth and the sea'. Oops.

Image: The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder,
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, via Google Art Project / Wikipedia

Back on earth, we see the dragon/Satan pursuing the woman who'd given birth. There's a dramatic scene where she flees from him on wings and gets sanctuary in the wilderness; the dragon tries to overcome her with water but the earth swallows up the water; and she's kept safe for the same three and a half years (described twice in this chapter in different ways) that we've seen earlier. The dragon is furious and goes off to wage war on humanity, described as the rest of the woman's children.

A word on the woman and the baby before moving on. It's hard to be sure of anything in this book, but there's something very Christ-like about this account: the baby is born to rule the nations, but is under threat from the devil and both he and his mother are rescued by God in different ways. It's like a symbolic poem of Jesus' life. How it fits with the earlier talk of the Son of Man and the victory of the sacrificed Lamb is hard to say, but then time works differently in this book - call it a flashback or interlude or something.

Back to the dragon. We see him next by the sea, from which a great beast is rising, complete with the same ten horns and seven heads as the dragon, a chimeric mixture of leopard, bear and lion. The dragon gives over its power and authority to the beast. The people of the earth like the beast, they follow it and worship the dragon (this is going to end badly for them). The beast spends its time 'uttering haughty and blasphemous words', and has authority for 42 months (still another description of our friend the three-and-a-half years). It has authority over everyone in the world, and the only people who don't worship are the faithful ones. This beast appears quite strongly to be some kind of symbol for a tyrant, an ugly and vicious ruler. We all know the sort from history, and plenty of countries have candidates for the next holder of the post. Presumably in John's day the reader would think of Roman emperors, now we might think of others who utter haughty and blasphemous words.

After the account of this beast John turns to camera and offers a direct moral message to the reader: endure in the face of hardship, accept being taken captive or even killed. Constantly we see hints at this message. The seven churches to whom John is writing are under huge pressures and persecutions. If there's a single message from the whole it's this: stand firm, have faith, you're on God's side, and eventually you will prevail.

Back to the beast, and from the earth we get another beast arising, speaking like a dragon and with two horns like a lamb. This is another very famous character in popular imagination around Revelation. This beast derives its authority from the first beast, and through all sorts of images and wiles forces the people of the earth to worship the first beast. It also requires all people to receive a mark on their bodies to be allowed to buy or sell anything. Lastly we're told that the beast has a number, and "let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person" - that number is 666.
Image: The number of the beast is 666 by William Blake,
Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia
(via William Blake Archive / Wikipedia)

To say that this beast, with its mark and famous number, has captured people's imaginations, is to put it mildly. Even outside of the extreme religious esoterica, the mark of the beast and the number 666 have fascinated people. What is its mark? What does the number mean? Various numerologies have been applied to the number; there's good evidence that it may originally have referred to the emperor Nero, but it has subsequently been applied to any number of religious or political leaders who the authors disliked, such as the pope at the time of the Reformation. John's heavy-handed hint to the reader does rather suggest a contemporary reading such as Nero or one of his successors, but the mystery has led to much speculation. Less said about the mark of the beast (linked to all sorts of identity systems by the paranoid), the better.

From this rather dizzying cast of characters I'm left with a strong feeling of the resonances John was seeking among his own people (persecuted Christians) in his own time (100 AD or so). To interpret it as a future prophecy seems rather ridiculous, but it sits well as a vivid and symbolic statement of his own time - and one with messages for our own times of danger.

Next reading: ch 14, many more angels, warnings & harvests 

Friday, 18 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 10+11: eating his words

This is the eighth of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 8+9, angels, trumpets & disasters. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading. 

Quite a lot of different elements in chapters 10+11. Chapter 10 and the first half of chapter 11 are described in the Oxford Bible Commentary as an interlude. The scene shifts from catastrophes on earth back to John and his prophetic role.

First, he sees another mighty angel, vividly described as wrapped in a cloud with a face like the sun and legs like pillars of fire, standing with one foot on the sea and one on the land, roaring with the sound of seven thunders; there is a message in these thunders but John is not permitted to reveal it. There's something rather primeval about this latest angel. However the angel has something else about it: it is holding a scroll, and a voice from heaven tells John to take the scroll.
Image: Latin Bible (1150-1200), Bibliothèque nationale de France,
Département des manuscrits, Latin 16744 (via The Peanut Gallery)

He's not to read it however: rather, he is to eat it, which he duly does. The scroll tastes like honey but leaves a bitter feeling in his stomach. It's not entirely clear (and a bit contested by scholars), but there's a good chance that the scroll is the same one that the Lamb held and opened the seven seals. And having received the message of the scroll, John is told to prophesy. This idea of eating the message, bodily taking it into yourself to gain knowledge, is one is also found in the experience of Ezekiel. It's not so very far from the way Adam and Even gained knowledge of good and evil in Genesis, or the way Christians still receive Christ into their bodies. Incarnation sometimes demands a physical experience of knowledge.

John was told to prophesy, and so he does. He recounts a tale of times to come which will be expanded upon in later chapters - of the witness of the church and of two prophets who in turn will come and give a testimony to the people of the earth for three and a half years (a time which recalls the complex three and a half years timing in Daniel), who cannot be harmed, and who will be given power to strike the earth with plagues. Again this motif of power used violently, even by those sent by God. But the prophets will be killed by a beast from the bottomless pit (we'll meet that beast again) and will lie on the street of the great city.

But after three and a half days the prophets will be brought back to life and will ascend to heaven on a cloud. This isn't equated with Christ, but the parallels are very close. The people are terrified. And then, in case we're not worried enough, just relaxing a bit, John slips in a happy note of "the second woe has passed, the third woe is coming soon".

And then finally the seventh angel blows his trumpet. And we get... singing and praising. Familiar words, that "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah and he will reign for ever and ever" - the basis of the most famous part of Handel's Messiah, the Hallelujah Chorus. It's a good reminder, that in the midst of all this torment and violence and prophesying, we get praise to God. 

But of course it doesn't last. No moment of tranquility ever does in this tumultuous book. Because in the very last verse of chapter 11, God's temple is opened in heaven, the ark of the covenant (the great place of God's presence) is seen in the temple, and there are all sorts of portents. Much more destruction to come in the forthcoming chapters. The end of the world is nigh ... possibly.

Next reading: ch 12+13, the woman, the dragon and the beasts

Revelation before Advent 8+9: angels, trumpets & disasters

This is the seventh of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 7, marking the righteous souls. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading. 

 I was out yesterday evening & wrote most of this last night, but didn't get around to posting it. Two chapters, 8 and 9, to consider, but they sit very well together.

Yesterday I sang Mozart's Requiem with the Open University Choir. Much beauty, and the 'lux perpertua' of the ending stays with me. But these two chapters fit better with the Dies Irae - 'day of wrath, that day will dissolve the earth in ashes'. And that's pretty much the story of chapters 8 & 9.

In chapter 6, we saw six of the seals on the great scroll opened. Now the Lamb opens the seventh seal, and all hell breaks loose - quite literally. First there's a nice part about the prayers of the faithful being burnt on the altar like incense. Then seven angels are given seven trumpets, six blow them in turn, and dreadful things happen on the earth.

The key number this time, is one-third. Each time one-third of the earth is harmed following the angel's trumpet.

There is hail and fire which burns a third of the earth; there is a mountain of fire in the sea, which turns it to blood and kills a third of sea-creatures and ships; there is a star falling from heaven which turns the waters bitter and kill people; the sun and moon and stars are struck and lose a third of their light. That makes four angels+trumpets, and only then an eagle cries "woe, woe, woe".

Next trumpet has a falling star which opens up a bottomless pit out of which locust-like creatures (described in loving and rather horrid detail) appear, ruled by one called Abaddon (destruction) and which torture the inhabitants of the earth for five months. And the sixth trumpet releases four more angels with 200 million soliders and horses whose firey & sulphurous breath kills a third of humanity.

Lovely stuff. As a coda we're told that the remainder of the human race doesn't take a blind bit of notice, but carries on as before with idolatry & immorality.

I can think of little positive to say out of this torrent of woes & destruction. Except to repeat my mantra for these readings: apocalyptic literature is a cry from the oppressed. Sometimes that cry comes out as a shout for justice, sometimes as a violent roar. Psalm 137 infamously ends with the line, addressed to the people of Babylon who took the Israelites into captivity and exile: "Happy shall be those who take your little ones and dash them against the rock". I cannot accept such attitudes as the voice or the will of God. Nor can I justify them as human actions. But I can understand why human beings in awful situations form such attitudes and want to call God on their side for the only kind of revenge they can see possible.

Next reading: ch 10+11, eating his words

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 7: marking the righteous souls

This is the sixth of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 6, six seals and four horsemen. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading. 

First tonight, two addenda to previous readings. (I could modify those entries but I'm writing this on a daily basis in a semi-journal way, and I see from the stats that at least some people are reading it, so I'd rather leave the entries as they are.)

When writing about chapter 5, I said that I knew no musical setting of the final song, by all the peoples of the earth and heavens. Well I still don't (though some must exist), but I did come across another setting of "worthy is the Lamb" text that is the culmination of Messiah - in German, it's also used as a text at the end of movement 6 of Brahms' Deutsches Requieum: "Herr, du bist würdig" (Lord, you are worthy).

And after I wrote last night about the blotting out of the sun and moon in chapter 6, I read today the end of a novel about the fall of Constantinople in 1453 (Master of Shadows by Neil Oliver). One of the final events before the culmination of the seige by the Ottoman Turks was the disappearance of the moon, as a result of a volcanic eruption at Kuwae in Vanuatu (in the Pacific Ocean) in 1452 or 1453, which had big consequences throughout the world. The moon was a symbol of Constantinople, so its disappearance was taken by the people of the city as an omen. Not so different from the account in Revelation.

On to chapter 7. Here we see the righteous souls being marked out so that they will not be harmed by the coming terrors. The angels who had been given power to damage the earth are told to wait. Then a rather specific number of people are 'sealed' with a mark of protection on their foreheads - 144,000 made up of 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Each tribe is named in turn with their 12,000 sealed people, in a style reminiscent of the endless lists in the early books of the Old Testament. The number is symbolic of course - twelve tribes, twelve thousand people, a square of twelves; but that hasn't stopped countless numbers of commentators agonising over who is included. There are entire sects devoted to counting themselves into this number.

And this despite the following verse which lists a 'great multitude' who are also apparently to be made safe from the coming troubles, who we are later told are those who suffered in the great ordeal (the various persecutions inflicted upon believers). A brief glance at the NIV study bible notes that I have on my phone Bible app tells me that there are no fewer than three schools of thought as to when Christians will be affected by this 'tribulation' and whether they'll be safe in heaven before it happens or not.

I'm quite impatient with this kind of literal reading of Revelation. We must all read scripture in ways that are appropriate for us, under the guidance of the Spirit, but it seems pretty clear to me that to read it as a direct foretelling of the future is pretty inadequate. The book has always preoccupied Christians, because of its scale and implications both for individuals and for humanity as a whole; but American evangelicals have created some really bizarre ideas from the book, such as the idea of the rapture and a prediction movement to figure out when the end times are coming. This could be harmless, except that it has a big hold on the imagination of some Christians, and is said in some cases even to influence their actions to bring about the end-times. Given that the incoming American government is likely to have some of this kind of rightwing evangelical in their number (though Trump is not especially religious himself), that seems rather worrying...

It also raises the question: what of those who are not marked out for protection? Are they not worth considering? How does this fit with a God of love? Because bad things are coming to the unprotected.

All that said: the poetry and imagery in the book is stunning in places. The latter half of this chapter was the daily lectionary reading for All Saints Days (1st Nov) this year. I heard it on the daily Pray-as-you-go podcast, and subsequently used it as opening devotions at a church meeting two days later. It talks of the souls of those who have died, their worship of God, and that they hunger or thirst no more. I think it provides a huge degree of comfort to people in grief or remembering back on loved ones who have died. The question of the literalism is irrelevant to this comfort.

Image: Caitlin Trussel

One more phrase to mention: the people robed in white are said to have 'washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb'. I've heard the phrase 'washed in the blood of the Lamb' on and off through evangelical sources. It's always seemed to me rather distasteful, a bit ghoulish. It's become attached to the theology of substitutionary atonement which I find brutal and unpleasant and quite out of keeping with a God of love, but it's good to see its scriptural basis - here in Revelation it could mean many things, and many theologies.

There were two more songs in this chapter, but the first similar to the phrase songs we've heard. The second, of comfort and calm for those in white, is repeated again in chapter 21, and I might look at it then.

So let us leave the righteous souls in their place of safety and comfort. For there is worse to come for the rest of the world in the next chapter.

Next reading: ch 8+9, angels, trumpets & disasters

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 6: six seals and four horsemen

This is the fifth of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 5, Song to the Lamb. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading. 

We come now to chapter 6, and to a set of characters who are among the best-known figures in popular culture arising from this book. We see four riders on horses, generally known (though not in the text) as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

In the previous chapter, the Lamb who had been slain was handed a sealed scroll (i.e. a book), closed with seven seals. Here we see six of the seals opened - the scroll is not read, but the opening of each seal has a strange and catastrophic effect on the world. It is the beginning of the unravelling of the way the world has been, the beginning of the end times.

The opening of each of the first four seals leads to the release to the world of a horse and its rider, summoned in turn by one of the four living creatures calling 'Come!'. Each horse is a different colour (white, red, black, green); and each of the riders has a different characteristic. The first holds a bow, and is described that 'he came out conquering and to conquer'. The second holds a huge sword and 'is permitted to take peace from the earth'. The third holds a pair of scales and is accompanied by a voice talking of food and payment. The fourth is simply described as Death, followed by Hades, and they are given authority over a quarter of the earth, to kill by sword, famine, pestilence, and wild animals.

Traditionally, the four horsemen have been called Pestilence, War, Famine and Death. They have been greatly feared throughout 2000 years of Christian history, and depicted as signs of the end. But we don't need to look to the end times to see their presence; they are everywhere, in the here and now. But the more we see those terrible four coming (and of course the first three are all linked and feed off each other and feed Death), the worse things become.

The criticism is often levelled against parts of the Christian faith that it is individualistic, too concerned with individual salvation and not enough with wider injustice. There is some truth in that, though the teachings of Jesus have plenty to say about injustice (and the whole story of the Hebrew scriptures is one of collective justice). Things do get more individualistic in the letters of St Paul. But here we are right back at systemic effects. The work of the four horsemen is that which affects the whole world.

Uncomfortably, their work appears to be sanctioned, or at least called out, by the Lamb of God and the four living creatures in front of the throne of God. What can we make of this? Surely this is not saying that God sanctions pestilence, war, famine & death? Later chapters may or may not help, we shall see. But I'm reminded apocalyptic literature is a cry of the oppressed against the powerful (see my sermon on Daniel 7 for more on this theme), and that when oppressed people are hurting, they sometimes want to kick back, at least in their imaginations. It's clear from the start of Revelation that John and the people to whom he wrote were very much persecuted for their faith; and that some of the book is an imagination of God's comeback on their oppressors. Sometimes people in a bad enough situation just want to tear down the whole system, however bad things might become as a result (I've just heard a podcast by Rob Bell and Peter Rollins arguing among other things that this was one reason for the election of Donald Trump).

Two more seals to mention. The fifth seal is about those persecuted people, those killed for faith, whose souls become revealed when the seal is opened; they are dressed in white and told to wait for others who are still to be killed, whereupon they will be rescued together - not entirely encouraging! The sixth seal leads to great destruction upon the world - the sun is black, the stars fall, the sky and the mountains vanish; and the powerful hide in terror from the "wrath of the Lamb". End times indeed, and the beginning of greater and greater destruction, as the book recounts. I will want to hold on to the thought that this is the literature of the oppressed.

Next reading: ch 7: marking the righteous souls