Sermon given at Evensong on Sunday 25th May 2014
25 May 2014 at 15:00 pm
The Reverend Tony Kyriakides-Yeldham, Chaplain
Anyone preaching on the Book of Revelation surely should be required to submit their work to the British Board of Sermon Classification where it would receive an age rating: approved for parental guidance, suitable for fifteen years and over, or permitted only for adults in licensed premises such is the stench of sulphur and oozing of blood from every page!
Yet despite, or could it be because of its bizarre imagery, the Revelation of John has had a profound influence on Western culture in architecture, tapestry hangings, altar screens and paintings some of which can be seen in our own Chapter House. In literature, I think of Dante, Bunyan, and Blake; in music Handel’s Messiah and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. With that cultural bloodline, it seems strange that it remains one of the most misunderstood books of the New Testament. What do we know?
Its author, John of Patmos, was a Jewish Christian and his writings reflect the imagery of Old Testament prophets the like of Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel.
Its context is a world under the control, influence and power of Rome.
Its date is the year 70CE, and follows a Jewish revolt savagely put down by Rome, in the course of which Jerusalem was destroyed and the temple torched.
Its rhetoric is drawn from Isaiah and Jeremiah and their condemnation of two other empires, Babylon and Egypt, both of which in their day had conquered Israel and destroyed its first temple. For John, the parallel is painfully obvious, Rome having destroyed the second temple and, once again, laid waste the city of Jerusalem.
Its background is the fraught hope that Jesus will return, conquer Rome and inaugurate a new age; but against this is the crushing reality of Rome re-imposing its political order on Judea.
Its message is violently anti-Roman and propagandist: God will return and destroy the Romans who had violated Jerusalem.
Its psychology is not only anger and grief but hope: although John presents his reader with a terrifying nightmare, it is a narrative that does not end in tragedy. Unlike a Shakespearean drama, where bodies are strewn all over the stage, John’s Revelation ends with a vision of re-charged hope, renewed justice and a transformed world.
As we unpack that a little I draw on some thoughts of Sam Wells, a theologian and close neighbour of ours at St Martin in the Fields, who suggests that the Book of Revelation, especially those final scenes captured in the reading we heard a moment ago, provide a context for the healing of politics, something we could well do with after this past week of European and Council elections.
John of Patmos sees a new heaven and a new earth. The city, the new Jerusalem, has no temple, it is flooded with uninterrupted light and its gates are forever open. Through the city runs a river, on either side of which is the tree of life, with leaves for the healing of the nations. Let us not lose sight of that healing: the healing of the nations which Sam Wells interprets as the healing of politics.
The subtext focuses on three things.
First, mention of a new earth which points to the continuing role the earth will play in God’s scheme of eternity. God so loves the world that when it becomes worn out, rather than abandoning it, God makes it new, transforming what is already here – a dynamic diversity and vibrant complexity with which we will live in eternity. God is in the business of healing the earth.
Second, what comes down from heaven is called ‘Jerusalem’, but strikingly Jerusalem without the Temple. In the one respect, God affirms and continues a covenant relationship with the Jewish people but it is a new and extended covenant for now Jesus, everyman, is present and reconciliation with God is complete. God is in the business of healing Jerusalem.
Third, Jerusalem is a city with a mixed reputation and the Bible itself has ambivalence towards cities. The Jewish narrative begins in an idyllic garden, the Garden of Eden, where there is harmony and peace within God’s created order. Once that is lost, divine abundance turns into human scarcity and relationships deteriorate: relationships between human beings, with God and with creation at large. That spiritual disintegration is expressed in the symbolic journey from the Garden of Eden to the godless City of Enoch, built by Cain the unrepentant murderer. As for Jerusalem itself, we need look no further that the story of Holy Week. Jesus triumphantly enters the city one moment only to be rejected and crucified the next, significantly ‘without the city walls’, and buried in of all places a garden, the surrogate Eden. In John’s vision we see the rescuing of the godless city with the river now flowing through its centre, on either side the tree of life and its twelve kinds of fruit. The place where God was originally to be found, the garden is brought into the city, reclaimed for God, for God is in the business of healing the city.
The healing of the earth, the healing of Jerusalem and the healing of the city: all of which might inspire for us a new political framework for the home, the workplace, the nation and the church.
The politics of Revelation is one of abundance: there is no shortage of light because God’s light is permanent and all-sufficient. Yet individually and nationally, in the workplace and in Church, there seems to be an obsession with the scarcity which leads to jealousy and resentment? Those things that truly matter, the deep things of God, never run out (1 Corinthians 2:9-10)?
The politics of Revelation is one of rich diversity. Yet individually and nationally, in the workplace and in Church, there seems to be an obsession, fuelled by fear, to preserve a narrow certainty or homogeneity of heritage or culture. Those things that truly matter, the deep things of God, reflect diversity in identity, in practice, in tradition and in experience because diversity is fundamentally good and enriching, renewing and godly.
The politics of Revelation is one of inclusion for the gates of the city are never shut. Yet individually and nationally, in the workplace and in Church, there seems to be the default labelling of the newcomer as a threat: to jobs, to homes, to neighbourhoods and to a way of life which is godless. Those things that truly matter, the deep things of God, encourage an attitude of welcome and hospitality.
The politics of Revelation is one of restoring the gifts of the garden to the city which acts as a responsible steward. Yet individually and nationally, in the workplace and in Church, the gifts of the garden are abused: mineral deposits exploited as disposable commodities and the environment irreversibly damaged in the name of consumption. Those things that truly matter, the deep things of God, encourage a relationship of mutual respect and peaceful co-existence between those who inhabit the earth and the earth itself.
The politics of Revelation is about abundance, diversity, inclusion, reunion and ultimately healing.
Last week, there was talk about the UKIP fox in Westminster. What about the Revelation fox, not only in Westminster but in Jerusalem and Ramallah, in Moscow and Washington, in Abuja and Mogadishu, in New Delhi and Islamabad, and yes in Canterbury and Rome?
What sort of politics do you want? Where would you put your vote?