Parish Eucharist 28th January 2018
The Book of Revelation
Epiphany 4 Year B (21 January 2018)
Readings: Deuteronomy 18. 15 – 20; Revelation 12.1-5a; Mark 1.21-28
Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day, the 27th of January. The date chosen by our government in 2001 to remember annually all victims of genocide. Chosen because on this day in 1945, the concentration camp at Auschwitz -Birkenau was liberated. The organisation. supporting this remembrance, chooses a theme each year to highlight different aspects of the Holocaust, how it came to happen, and what we could do to avoid future holocausts. This year’s theme is ‘The power of words’.
We have just heard powerful and stirring yet difficult words from the Book of Revelation, as we have been doing through Epiphany in Year B of the lectionary. Righteousness and judgement, death and destruction, words which across the water from us, over the Pond, continue to inspire as a literal ‘forth-telling’ of all that God will bring about. We know that words are powerful - for good or ill.
The imagery of this last book of the New Testament is difficult. While it begins with recognition and admonition reminiscent of Pauline epistles, addressed to the seven churches of Asia Minor - John of Patmos is swiftly summoned into the very corridors of heaven to witness not only an appearance of God and the heavenly court, but strange creatures reminiscent of Isaiah’s vision at his call. Terrifying visions of torment and destruction on earth - God’s fearful judgement, as the seven seals are opened to reveal the future.
By the time we arrive at our reading this morning, in chapter 12, we have presented before us a great portent in heaven, an omen signalling catastrophic events on earth: a woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars, crying out in the agony of giving birth. Then a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his seven heads, the dragon, intent on devouring the woman’s child the moment of his birth, he flings the stars of heaven to earth, a male child, who is to rule the nations with a rod of iron, is born.
So what happens next? God is of course more powerful than the dragon - which is not fast enough to catch the baby before the newborn child is swept up into heaven to be with God. Although in a desert without her child, God will take care of the woman and protect her from the dragon, and then there is war in heaven, Michael and the archangels fight against the dragon and his angels, the dragon who is none other than ‘Satan’, the serpent who tricked Eve in the Garden of Eden, but the blood of the Lamb, our Lamb who is this child, prevails. Thus it is, that in this battle, the first sin of Eve, that sin which brought such suffering to the world, and such pain in childbirth, in this great woman’s endurance through childbirth, is brought forth the Lamb who will conquer. The sin of Eve is reversed, and suffering vanquished for ever. Behind these symbolic visions, let those who have ears to hear, hear!
Albeit there are beautiful passages describing the substance of the new heavens and the new earth, I am not alone in feeling somewhat uneasy about this book of the Bible which only after strong disagreement among the early Church Fathers finally made it, last of all the books, into the canon of the New Testament. An American commentator speaks for many: ‘The book virtually drips with blood and reeks of sulphur, at the centre of this final battle between good and evil is an ‘action-hero’ Jesus, in no mood to turn the other cheek.’ and I would add, far too much rejoicing at the horrible demise of enemies.
The frisson within this book is exploited in the United States in a highly profitable industry grown up around the so-called ‘Rapture’ and ‘Left Behind’ novels and films based on a literal interpretation of it contents. Plugging into deep human fears and the unthinking comfort we find in a ‘them and us’ mentality. A human frailty ferociously exploited by President Trump.
The Book of Revelation is written by a Palestinian Christian Jew, become missionary and church leader in the Roman province of Asia Minor, and now labouring on Patmos for his faith, either as prisoner or missionary. His visionary work is written for established churches in a time of persecution, most likely that of Domitian towards the end of the first century, written to both warn and encourage. Our passage this morning is the beginning of a new series of seven visions, and the pictures John uses to tell us his story would have been familiar images to his audience, common themes attached to pagan deities, and taken up by Jewish apocalyptic.
The woman resembles a Greek goddess, and the birth scene parallels that of the god Apollo, whose mother the goddess, Leto, struggles in labour nine days, Apollo’s life is saved by the sea-god, Poseidon, from the dragon Python who waits to devour him; Apollo himself, then killing the dragon. The parallels would not have been missed by John’s intended audience - though the intended meaning opaque to those seeking to destroy the Church.
Since emperors from Octavian who became Augustus were worshipped as gods, and associated themselves with the sun god Apollo, including the murderous Nero, there is an ironic contrast here with the man who patently failed to save his people, and the man Jesus who is the Christ, God’s Saviour of creation, beneath the surface of this book is an attack on ‘emperor-worship’. In Jewish numerology the ‘mark of the beast’ 666 spells ‘Nero’. However, in the nineteenth century new manuscripts of the Book of Revelation were discovered in Egypt where this number is recorded not as 666 but as 616. 616 spells Caligula, the emperor who followed Tiberius and preceeding Nero, who did indeed, set up a statue of himself in the very Temple in Jerusalem. These numbers are not magic, they are signs for those ‘in the know’ to catch, and we need to resist any attempt to make them more than that.
In Jewish apocalypse the courageous woman becomes the personification of Israel, whose birth pangs symbolise the eschatological woes which precede the appearance of the Messiah. In the Book of Revelation John gives this woman a Christian perspective, and as is true of so much of Scripture, the imagery is highly sophisticated and carries myriad layers of interlocking meaning. This great woman is Eve; she is the young woman, the ‘virgin’ hailed by the prophet Isaiah, and of course, triumphantly, and especially in the Roman Church, she is Mary. But she is also the new Jerusalem, the Church, born out of great suffering. For those with ears to hear, hear the promise of the life which is to come!
The power of words. What we have in the Book of Revelation is a mighty proclamation of Christ’s victory over evil. Its imagery relates to its own time and not ours, and we need to weigh its exotic words in the light of other Scripture. We must certainly hold back on the anger and the violence projected onto God, for this is not the God we meet in Jesus - nor the God of creation.
The tag for Holocaust Memorial Day 2018 is a quote from Anne Frank: 'I want to go on living even after my death! That is why I am so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that’s in me. When I write I can shake off all my cares; my sorrow disappears; my spirits are revived.'
The power of words. Anne’s prayer has been answered and her words have indeed inspired many in the decades following her death with their honesty and integrity - and in their universal account of the struggles of adolescent desire and pain, and her openness to the world.
Jesus’ words held extraordinary authority - unmissable to friend or foe. His words brought healing, freedom, and raised up those cast low. Amen.