Reading Revelation: 1st & 2nd Readings

In January 2017, both St Mary’s and All Saints’ were challenged to read the Book of Revelation four times before Easter. Graham Scott-Brown preached ‘the whole book’ to both churches and I have taken up the challenge and will, thanks to our editor’s kindness, provide outlines of how each reading goes – what stands out, what I missed before, what is reinforced, and how it leads to discovery.

We were advised to do two things in our readings: (1) read slowly and aloud, and (2) avoid getting bogged down in all the numbers that are strewn through the text and can easily distract. Hard though it will be, I will use no commentators on the book throughout my readings. I do all this not to parade my thin theology, or to enable others to avoid the challenge of four readings of the final book in the canon, but as an individual’s exploration to be shared and as a general encouragement in Bible reading – and to keep me true to the commitment undertaken.

First Reading, 31st  January 2017

As I have not read the book in its entirety before, much was a complete surprise. Prior to this, I was sort-of familiar with the first three chapters – the vision of Jesus and the letters to the seven churches – and the opening to chapter 21, beginning with “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth”. As I found out: that is not much to be going on with.

My current research focus is Eusebius, the influential author of the first history of the church, from its beginnings to the Council of Nicaea in 325AD. He is quite vague on Revelation – ‘add the Book to the canon’, he says, ‘if appropriate’. My first go-through was against that background and immediately found such vagueness incomprehensible. The Book of Revelation seems much more of a “Marmite” question, rather than this shillyshallying. As Graham’s sermon indicated it might be, the reading produces an amazing impression of colour and movement, strangeness and terror, ending in the well-known images of the New Jerusalem.

The reading released my own imagination while at the same time showing how limited it is. Curiously, I was constantly reminded of the battle scenes in the books and films, Tolkien’s Ring trilogy and the Harry Potter series. Visually, both sets of films depend on the imagery that is created in Revelation: vast forces of good and evil in terrible, defining combat. For Frodo and Harry, the ‘good’ outcome is a desperate, last-throw moment against the evil that almost prevails: evil clearly loses but is left in such a condition as to be able to return at some future point and challenge for ultimate triumph. Perhaps that is inevitable in writing or filming a series.

Revelation was different for me in two ways. First, in the book, the outcome of God’s forces triumphing is utterly certain. Satan does not have the options of Sauron and Voldemort after defeat: he, his beasts and minions are hurled into everlasting torture. At that point, the rewards of heaven are showered on the martyrs and the Christians who have been true to Jesus. That inevitability is clearly and only because of Jesus and the victory he won for us all on the cross.

Secondly, neither J R R Tolkien nor J K Rowling suggest any confusion between the two ‘sides’: evil is transparently so and always does evil; good has its troubles and doubts but remains clearly on the side of the angels. But in Revelation, events happen at Heaven’s command that are themselves terrifying: here, angels are told, “Go, and empty the seven bowls of God’s anger over the earth” (16:2) is just one example.

I found this ‘Old Testament’ and troubling – and to be explored more deeply before the next reading in a couple of weeks. Maybe – just maybe – such events and images also disturbed my friend, Eusebius, 1700 years ago, so as to make him pause before recommending the Book as part of the canon. Let’s just hope he came to like Marmite.

Second Reading, 14th  February 2017

The Good News Bible was my text for reading aloud this time. Now I am all in favour of the Bible being as accessible to as many people as possible – what’s the point of Protestantism if not that? – but the use of more ordinary language does generally flatten the ‘extraordinary’ that is at the heart of Revelation.

For two reasons, I felt very close to my late father in this read-through. First, he was very strict in retiring after breakfast for his time of meditation. As one of five rowdy, naughty kids, this was the one time when not a one of us ever did anything to disturb him. His particular brand of Christianity was acutely conscious of the parallel world of the divine; archangels and heavenly beings were a subject of study for him. He continued that interest to the end of his days, dying at 92 in 2009.

Secondly, my two Rudolf Steiner Schools were both named after St Michael. At the bottom of the main stairs of one of them there was what we all assumed, being British, was a modern bas relief of St George slaying the dragon. In fact, every day at Dad’s choice of school, I passed the scene, largely unaware, of St Michael defeating Satan.

Even the Good News Bible cannot diminish all sense of the immensity of heaven as pictured, coloured, populated and moved with divine beings doing the will of Jesus, the Lamb and of God. Perhaps only an extraordinary imagination like William Blake’s – one of his painting of St Michael is pictured – can risk making permanent the images that swirl through the mind on reading Revelation.

But all of us are shifted, put off balance, set wondering, relieved that – at last, after terrible plagues and strange, sudden exterminations of a third of the earth, seas and sky and all of their living creatures – ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ are finally put in place. We are all invited: ‘Come, whoever is thirsty: accept the water of life as a gift, whoever wants it’ (22:17).

That invitation I missed on reading the first time and, by echoing the words of Jesus at the well (see John 4:13,14), answered my problem with the preceding ‘Old Testament’ retributive text. And there is hope that mankind will learn: the first woe (the Good News Bible, interestingly, has ‘horror’) visited upon us at the end of time leaves us unmoved, continuing worshipping idols and unrepentant (9:20-21).

By the second horror, we are shown to be terrified and praising the greatness of God (11:13). Compared to the vastness of forces at work across the book, this is a small movement but it warmed my heart.

John Milton has God say of mankind, as St Michael battles Satan in Paradise Lost, ‘I suspend their doom’. Of Revelation’s many messages, this time it was (again, in Milton’s words): ‘Remember, and fear to transgress’.

Peter Foot

Do You Feel ‘Up Against It’?

I was feeling pretty low at one point in January due to a variety of things – perhaps I had a slight case of Seasonally Affective Disorder, affected by the fog as it and life seemed to close around me. Anyway, I met a number of people who were also finding life a bit of a struggle for reasons that were far worse than mine, and knowing that seemed to jog me out of a rather introverted spell.

Thinking and praying for these people brought to mind one of those phrases to describe them as being people who were ‘up against it’. Like the foggy weather at the time the phrase lacks clarity. What is the ‘it’ that some people are up against? I don’t think that it’s life, because we have to deal with that every day. It can’t be God, or anything to do with the will of God, because if that was the case what could possibly save us from a final and irretrievable despair?

‘It’ must be a circumstance or a combination of circumstances that are on our minds that seems to haunt us, like an unseen enemy that’s trying to hurt us, physically, mentally or spiritually. We’re probably all aware, to some degree, of what that feels like but it’s not always easy to put into words.

Of course, we’re all individually very different and so we react to the challenge of being ‘up against it’ in very different ways. Some people seem to almost thrive on being ‘up against it’. They think about their situation as a challenge, a test of the stuff they’re made of. They refuse to be beaten, or if they are beaten they’ll jolly well go down fighting. This is the stuff that heroes and heroines are made of, those who throughout history faced pain, peril and hardship and stubbornly refused to give in, and in Harry Lauder’s words kept ‘right on to the end of the road.’

Some of us are not nearly as brave as the ‘bulldog breed’ and when we feel ‘up against it’, we get demoralised almost at once. We become out of sorts with everybody and are bitter and resentful that life isn’t as easy as we want it, so we tend, if we can, to find some way of escaping the challenge. If we know people like this, including ourselves, then we mustn’t be hard on them.

There are people like this who have tried hard and held their own for years. Then there came a breaking point, when, totally worn down, they felt they couldn’t go on. To meet people who are at this point, to see their unhappiness and hopelessness is one of the most tragic things I know.  What they need is not our contempt but our sympathy, not our indifference but our urgent help.

So, how can we help each other in an emergency of this kind? I think that if it’s ourselves we’ve categorized as ‘up against it’, we ought to be really certain that things are as we think they are – I mean, that they’re not something we’re imagining. When life looks dark, the explanation might be that we’ve put on dark glasses. It is quite possible to feel ‘up against it’ when all the time we’re only up against ourselves as I was in January.

But what about our faith? Where and how does that come in? It may well be that life seems too much for us, if we’ve only got our own resources to count on, but we’re devaluing our faith if we forget about our God and his power and his grace. God’s power isn’t a final resource,  that we only call up when everything else has fallen by the wayside. God’s grace represents the normal, everyday need of every one of us. Maybe it’s this that people forget – perhaps because God has been excluded from their daily lives and only when they are ‘in extremis’ do they remember that he is there beside them in the person of Jesus.

Quite possibly it may be the forgetfulness of this fact – with the neglect, for example, of daily prayer – that has brought us to where we are – ‘up against it’. If any of us have kept God out of our lives, can we wonder at our confusion and despair? Prayer is the threshold over which God steps to be in our spiritual home, to stand beside us and share and support all aspects of our lives – to change our attitude from “I’m up against it” to “We’re in this together”. Put out the welcome mat and open the door!

Max Young

JESUS . . . “for our sake He was crucified” (Exploring the Nicene Creed)

There was no other good enough, to pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in
Mrs C F Alexander

These lines from the well known much loved children’s hymn “There is a green hill far away…” tell in the simplest straightforward way the historic truth of Christ’s death in a most cruel, utterly unjust way. It says why only Jesus could fully and truly save us; why it was actually necessary, and what it achieved.

Briefly we call these truths of faith The Atonement i.e. making possible at-oneness and reconciliation, with God. Our purpose now is to explore further the meaning of this event of nearly 2,000 years ago on the day Christians have long called Good Friday.

There are several ways of trying to understand this truth of faith which is both appalling and terrible on the one hand, and yet can be described as Good on the other. The worst thing that ever could happen in the terrible death of Jesus has brought about the best things that ever could, bringing about our full eternal salvation.

Atonement doctrines attempt to express with varying emphases, the way the first Christians and others in later years tried to make sense of Christ’s passion, suffering and final death. At the very heart of the Gospel story and preaching were these major events in the last year of the life of Jesus. They take up many pages in each of the four written Gospels. It was also expounded again and again with earnest conviction by Paul and Peter, by the unknown author of the letter to the Hebrews, and many others to the very last book, Revelation.

In these articles I have tried to show that it was necessary for God himself to take the amazing initiative of divine reconciling redemptive Love: to bring forgiveness and healing to our fallen world and all humanity; a world sadly wounded and damaged by human greed, lust and selfishness, terrible hatred, war and intolerance. It meant coming into the very heart of the creation itself. As I quoted earlier from Bishop Augustine in the 5th Century: “The Son of God became the Son of Man so that all the sons and daughters born of man and woman might become the sons and daughters of God”.

It was both a rescue operation and a programme of teaching and re-education. Above all to demonstrate in the clearest possible way, that our Creator God is a God of unconditional, unlimited, generous forgiving Love; not that of a vengeful punishing Father. God’s true and best justice would be shown indeed, but in a way that turns upside down the way we humans see judgment and justice. God would take upon himself the consequences of what sin, evil and wrong can bring about. He would bear our sins and the due punishment himself! The incarnation was a risk of the highest order! It meant that God out of his sheer infinite love for his world, and for each and every single one of us without exception, would take the risk that his Love might well be misunderstood, derided, rejected, or even worse just disregarded by apathy or indifference. All this was the exceedingly costly and high ‘price of sin’. And he was prepared to pay it, and did so to the uttermost.

It was no purpose or pleasure of the Father to see his only beloved Son humiliated, tortured and crucified as a criminal; he the utterly innocent one, whose only desire and aim ever, was to bring healing and forgiveness, generous care wherever needed, and the highest good for all people. This was the price that blinded hearts and minds demanded! And what Christ did then, at a point in time and history, brings forever the same blessings of abundant life now; and with eternal salvation; and to all who will turn to him in trustful accepting faith. Please read some or all of the following: Mark 10:45 & 1 Timothy 2:3-6; John 10:14-16; 2 Corinthians 5:17-19 & Ephesians 2:13-16; 1 Peter 2:21-25; Hebrews 12:1-3. Truly “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”. Praise be to him!

To take all this in is far from easy. But one thing is sure, that once we do grasp something of the meaning of this divine Love for each one of us, we cannot help but change. A work of transforming grace follows in our hearts and lives. Amazingly divine Love flows into our souls and being. A profound difference is made. This is atonement taking place.

So what is asked of us who do respond to this truly amazing divine Love? There was after all nothing that we or anyone else could ever have achieved alone, by any purely human effort or means, however good; and that he will supply the ongoing grace until in his very presence in heaven we shall no longer need it.

Try to think of Christ’s dying for us like this. The gift of salvation through his great Sacrifice on the Cross means that we have now a wonderful home in this world, and eventually a far more wonderful home in heaven. For these we have very secure mortgages which we don’t have to pay. We don’t even have to the pay the interest! Jesus has done all that fully and adequately by his incarnate life amongst us; by his holy life-giving Cross; by his Resurrection and Ascension to glory; and by his constant unfailing intercession for us in heaven. As I have said before, all this is made truly real and wonderfully tangible in the Eucharistic Sacrament of Holy Communion. See: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 & Hebrews 7:25.

With thankful hearts, and the desire to love and serve God and each other more and more, I will close quoting a verse from a much loved hymn of Fanny J. Crosby; and two other well known hymn lines. Make it yours too, as I pray will every son and daughter of our Father God.

Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine;
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God;
Born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.
Fanny Crosby

Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
Isaac Watts