Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 14th July 2013
14 July 2013 at 10:00 am
The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence
The Book of Revelation, Sermon One
A few weeks ago a group of people from Westminster Abbey and Lincoln Cathedral set out on a pilgrimage to Turkey. We travelled to Istanbul, to Gallipoli and then visited the sites of the seven churches of Asia which feature in the opening chapters of the Book of Revelation ~ Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.
Over these next three Sundays in my sermons at Matins I want us to take a look at the book of Revelation ~ the last book of the Bible, certainly the strangest, but also containing some of the most beautiful literature to be found in the scriptures.
This week we will look briefly at the authorship and date of the book, its historical context and at the type of literature it contains; next week we’ll focus on the messages given to those seven churches; and in the final week we’ll look in a little more detail at the great variety of literature which makes up the book, and at what we might take from it today.
So first then, who is thought to have written the book of Revelation?
Verse 4 of the Chapter 1 begins, “John to the seven churches of Asia”.
In verse 9 he continues, “I John, your brother who share with you in Jesus Christ the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the Island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write in a book what you see ….”
So who is this John?
Traditionally he is thought to have been John the Apostle, also known as John the Divine. This view links the book of Revelation with the gospel and the epistles of St John, regarding all of them as the work of the apostle. He is said to have been exiled to Patmos, an island in the Aegean Sea during the reign of the emperor Domitian and this would date the writing at around 95AD.
Some more recent scholarship has suggested that John the Apostle, John the Evangelist and John of Patmos are three separate people; because of the differences in style, the theological content of the writing, and the Greek used by the authors of these New Testament works.
There are others including such notable scholars as Westcott and Farrar writing in the 19th century and Robinson and Moule writing in the latter part of the 20th century who argue that Revelation IS the work of John the Apostle but that he wrote it earlier, during the reign of the Emperor Nero, around 68 or 69 AD.
What is clear from the book of Revelation is that the author was writing to Christians who were being persecuted and encouraging them to hold fast to their faith during a testing time. As there was persecution of Christians during the reign of both Domitian and Nero, either of these dates are possibly correct.
So let’s turn now to look at the type of literature the book of Revelation contains. It falls into the category of Apocalyptic literature, in which the writer looks to the future.
This is not to be confused with prophecy, which is concerned with looking at what’s happening in the here and now and drawing people’s attention to the way they are behaving and the effect their bahaviour is having on other people and their relationship with God. Prophecy, as a result, does often have warnings about the future because it predicts what is likely to happen if people don’t change their ways.
However, apocalyptic material is much more visionary ~ hope for the future dominates and there is a great emphasis on the supernatural and otherworldly.
So for example there is a great deal of material about heaven and worship of the Son of God, referred to as the Lamb. A great many angels are featured singing their praises, sounding their trumpets, and offering incense from golden censers. There are people too ~ very specific numbers of them ~ 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.
As well as people there are four particular beasts described as being like a lion, an ox, an eagle and one with a human face ~ each with six wings & eyes all over their bodies.
The creature which plays the most dominant part though is a dragon. In Chapter twelve we have a description of this great red dragon with seven heads, ten horns and an enormous tail. The dragon is pictured trying to eat a new born son, but the child is snatched to safety.
Following this story we have the image of war breaking out in heaven between the forces of good ~ St Michael and his angels and the forces of evil ~ the dragon with his angels. The dragon is defeated and thrown down to earth where he is joined by other fearsome beasts ~ again with lots of heads and horns.
So the book goes on with more and more strange things being described ~ so strange, that one of my former colleagues exclaimed after Morning Prayer when he had been reading a passage from Revelation; “It’s all so extraordinary, one wonders what on earth he was on!”
Certainly a great deal of the book is the stuff of nightmares and horror movies and bears similarities to the material you might find in a manual for the game of dungeons & dragons.
However, having said that, there is order in the book and there are particular themes running through it which relate to other parts of scripture and make important theological statements ~ e.g. the divinity of Christ, the desire to see good triumph over evil, the longing of God for people to repent and turn back to him, the human need to worship God in the company of others, the life giving nature of water and the desire of God to see people and nations healed.
When we turn next week to the messages to the Seven Churches of Asia featured in Chapters 1 -2 we will see how practical and down to earth the messages are and how they related very specifically to the needs of the people in those particular places.
I hope that you might be inspired to go away and read the book of Revelation. Approach it as you might read poetry ~ in other words let it speak to your imagination and take time to pause over passages which you find challenging, comforting or simply beautiful and inspiring.
Here’s one small taste of what you will find:
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. death will be no more; mourning and crying will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’”