Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 28th July 2013
28 July 2013 at 10:00 am
The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence
The Book of Revelation, Sermon Three
“So he carried me away in the spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication and on her forehead was written a name, a mystery; “Babylon the Great, mother of whores and earth’s abominations.”
That is one of the more colourful passages from the book of Revelation which I have been looking at this month in my sermons at Matins.
It is the last and certainly the strangest book of the Bible, however in previous weeks as we’ve examined its authorship and date we’ve seen how it offered encouragement to the early Christians in Asia Minor towards the end of the first century when they were being persecuted.
And as we looked in some detail at the messages sent to those Churches we noted how practical the advice given to them was ~ relating to their specific situations, sometimes criticising their behaviour, but also encouraging them to change and promising them a reward if they heeded the warning given to them.
We’ve noted that the book of Revelation falls into the category of Apocalyptic Literature.
So in this final sermon I want to look in a little more detail at some of the passages we find in its Twenty Two chapters and at what we might take from them in today’s world.
We saw previously how this kind of literature is dominated by the future ~ that in it there is an emphasis on the supernatural and other-worldly, and, as we saw in that short passage I read at the start; the book of Revelation certainly contains literature which is other worldly or dreamlike and certainly in places the stuff of nightmares. One lady leaving the Abbey last week made the comment, “We’ve just been studying Revelation at our Church ~ it’s very disturbing”.
So what exactly do we find there?
The book of Revelation above all gives us many visions of life in heaven. Chapter four for example describes a door being open into heaven, it pictures God seated upon a throne surrounded by elders dressed in white robes and of four living creatures worshipping in words which will be familiar to us as they were repeated in part in the
Te Deum this morning:
“Holy, Holy Holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”
In chapter five there is reference to thousands and thousands of angels singing the praises of the Son of God, now in glory with his Father, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing”.
The following chapters describe the activities of the angels in more detail as they deliver scrolls, open seals, blow their trumpets and offer incense. In chapter eleven we come across the words now inscribed above the High Altar here in this Abbey, and so verse 15 says, “Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven saying ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever’.
Following the chapters which focus mainly on worship, the book of Revelation, moves into its rather more disturbing section. Here we have some very colourful stories, describing the struggle between the forces and good and evil. From Chapter twelve through to chapter eighteen there is much about the great dragon with his multiple heads & horns and huge tail and of other great beasts fighting with the dragon against the saints on earth.
There is a description of the grim reaper swinging his sickle across the earth and of blood flowing for hundreds of miles. Alongside this there is reference to plagues, to lakes of fire and to God’s wrath being poured out, and then we come to the passage about the great whore of Babylon ~ the symbol of everything that is evil and in opposition to God.
However in Chapter eighteen there is a long description of the fall of Babylon followed by rejoicing in heaven and then scenes of judgement of the dead.
As we move into chapters twenty one and twenty two we are drawn away from the very disturbing literature of the previous chapters and find a picture of God who to dwell among his people, wishing to draw them to himself and quench their thirst with the water of life.
The first seven verses of chapter twenty one are for many people a favourite passage in the bible as they describe a new heaven and a new earth in which suffering and death, crying and pain have passed away. This passage reaches its climax:
“Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children”.
So what are we to make of all this? What relevance has it for us today?
The first thing which needs to be said is that the book of Revelation does not offer a literal view of things. Down through the centuries and indeed today, some people pick out verses which speak of God’s judgement, or which mention particular numbers or groups of people; and use these to predict when the end of the world will come and who will be saved.
However, Jesus during his earthly ministry warned against this kind of speculation.
Instead he told his followers to be constantly ready to face God; to serve him by loving their neighbour, and to put their trust in his loving purposes.
The book of Revelation is far removed from this down to earth teaching of Jesus and much of it at best can be described as fantastical and imaginative. One commentator says this, “We need to recondition ourselves as we read material such as we find in this book ~ reading it as if we were reading poetry or studying an abstract painting”.
Having said that though the same commentator adds, “Yet while we draw these conclusions we need to be aware that for many Christians, especially in the Third World, the book provides a constant inspiration because it looks for a world in which the present arrangements are challenged and overthrown, offering hope of something different based on God’s justice”.
When the books of the New Testament were being drawn together by the theologians of the early Church, the inclusion of the book of Revelation was challenged because of the strange nature of its contents.
I hope we’ve seen though how much of it can and does speak to us about the reality of the struggle between good and evil, about the temptations which come our way as we engage with the world around us, but above all of the hope we have in Christ of one day being in the direct presence of God joining in the worship of heaven with people of every nation ~ a foretaste of which we have here on earth.