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.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Magnus - your discipline has lent to me one. I still struggle greatly with the Book of Revelations as I have done since the early 1970s. However, it is good to not just forget it becasue of that. Have a blessed Advent.