Sunday, 17 November 2019

The Parable of the Precious Pearl

A sermon given at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 17/11/19
Matthew 13.45-46
 "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls;  46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

This week, we’re coming to the end of our little series
            looking at the so-called Parables of the Kingdom,
            which we’ve been working our way through on Communion Sundays.

What we have found time and again
                        is that the way Jesus tells these short stories
            has subverted the way in which the Pharisees of his time
                        were making use of traditional images from the Hebrew tradition
                        to justify their version of nationalistic pride and religious intolerance.

So, the parable of the mustard seed undermined their desire
            for Jerusalem to tower over the nations of the world like a mighty cedar.
The parable of the yeast undermined their desire
            for Israel to become so ritually pure
            that all other people were excluded from God’s love.
The parable of the treasure undermined their desire
            to make following God about duty rather than joy.
And the parable of the drag-net undermined the Pharisees’ desire
            to declare themselves and those like them as ‘good’
            whilst everyone else was declared ‘evil’.

In today’s short parable of the precious pearl,
            we find Jesus striking right at the heart
            of the Pharisees’ understanding of the Kingdom of God.

In order for us to understand how Jesus did this,
            we need to have an insight into what pearls meant
            for the Jews of the first century.
And part of our difficulty here
            is that the Old Testament doesn’t mention pearls at all:
            we don’t have an easy Old Testament passage that clearly lies behind
            the way Jesus uses a precious pearl as an image of the kingdom of heaven.

This isn’t to say, however, that pearls were unknown in the ancient world,
            quite the opposite, they were just astronomically expensive,
and to talk of them was to use a figure of speech
            for something of supreme worth.

In some ways, if we were to update this parable,
            we might substitute the word ‘diamond’ for ‘pearl’
            to get the idea of their value.

Of course, these days, every jeweller’s shop offers strings of freshwater pearls
            which are generated by the industrial farming of freshwater pearls.

And when Liz and I were in South East Asia earlier this year
            we went to a pearl factory,
and we were shown how the workers would take an oyster,
            and using tweezers would insert a speck of sand into it,
            to start the process of the pearl forming.

But in the ancient world, of course, things were very different:
            beautiful pearls would exist only if they naturally occurred,
which meant that they were, at that time, the most valuable objects in existence.

The reason they’re not mentioned in the Old Testament
            is probably because they were so rare that even Kings would struggle to own one.

But there are stories from within the early Jewish Tradition
            which use the image of a precious pearl to say something important about faith.

In one of these, a Jewish Tailor needs a fish to make as an offering on the Sabbath,
            and at the last minute pays an outrageous price for one,
only to find when he opens it up that it has within it a pearl
            that he sells and it supplies him with all he needs for the rest of his life.
            (Pes Rab 23.6)

The point of this little story is clear:
            if you faithfully keep the Sabbath, even at great cost to yourself,
            God will reward you with great riches
                        and blessings beyond what you could imagine.

Another early Jewish story,
            possibly related to the one of the tailor
comes from a collection of sayings known as the Babylonian Talmud,
            and again is concerned to show that wealth comes to those
            who honour the Sabbath and observe the commandments.
I’ll read it to you, as it’s quite short:

There was a certain Gentile … who owned much property….
            He went and sold all his property, and bought a pearl with the proceeds,
                        which he placed in his hat.
            As he was crossing a bridge, the wind blew the hat off and cast it into the water,
                        and a fish swallowed [the pearl].
            [Later on some fishermen] hauled the fish up
                        and brought it [to market] on the eve of the Sabbath, towards sunset.
            They cried, "Who will buy [our fish] now?"
                        They were told, "Go and take it to Joseph-who-honours-the- Sabbaths,
                        for he is accustomed to buying."
            So they took it to him.
                        He bought it, cut it open, found the pearl therein,
                        [and] sold it for thirteen roomfuls of gold denarii.
            A certain old man met him and said,
                        "He who lends to the Sabbath, the Sabbath repays him."[1]

So, again the point is: that if you do right by the Sabbath,
            then the Sabbath will do right by you.

All of which gives us an insight
            into the religious traditions surrounding precious pearls
            that would have laid behind Jesus’ little parable.

So if you had asked a Pharisee of Jesus’ day how a pearl related to his religion,
            he would probably have told you that it was a symbol of his piety,
                        a symbol of God’s reward for his faithfulness,
                                    for carefully studying the Torah,
                                    for honouring the Sabbath,
                                    and for keeping the commandments.
And that if he did these things,
            he could expect reward from God in exchange.

So, if Jesus had said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a precious pearl’
            the Pharisees would surely have agreed with him.
This would have suggested that the kingdom of was a thing of rare value,
            only available to the select few who were blessed by God
            in exchange for their piety and faith.

However, Jesus didn’t said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a precious pearl’

He said something subtly different:
            He said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls;  
                        46 on finding one pearl of great value,
                        he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

The emphasis in Jesus’ parable is not on the pearl itself,
            it is on the act of seeking.
The metaphor for the Kingdom here
            is not an object, but an action.
The kingdom here is experienced through seeking, and finding,
            and sacrificing, and acting decisively.

And this changes things quite considerably,
            because it makes the kingdom something that anyone can aspire to,
            rather than something bestowed by God on a select few.

Anyone can seek the kingdom
            and as Jesus said elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel,
                        and as we heard in our reading earlier,
            “Search, and you will find... For everyone … who searches finds.”

However, before we continue with this train of thought,
            and think a bit more about what searching and finding
            the precious pearl of the kingdom might look like for us,
I think it’s worth also having in our minds
            some of the ways in which Christians have used this parable down the centuries,
because we are the heirs to a tradition of interpretation,
            every bit as much as Jesus and the Pharisees were…

Various Christian interpreters have made suggestions
            as to what, or who, is symbolised by the pearl in the parable.

Some have suggested that the pearl should be understood as Jesus himself,
            and the invitation is therefore to seek after Jesus and possess him,
            casting off other, lesser, pearls and treasures
                        such as doing good works,
                        or the pursuit of knowledge.
This interpretation takes us in the direction of pietistic religion,
            where the focus is on the worship of Jesus
            to the exclusion of everything else that might distract us.

Others have suggested that the pearl is to be understood
            as the new covenant of Christianity ,
and the invitation is to pursue the Christian path,
            setting aside the lesser pearls of the law and the prophets.
This interpretation takes us in the direction of exclusive religion,
            where the focus in on following the path of Jesus
            to the exclusion of all other revelations of God’s nature.

Others have suggested that the pearl is to be understood as the church,
            with its buildings, and priests, and rules, and rituals.
This interpretation takes us in the direction of ecclesial religion,
            where the focus is on the correct observance of the sacraments,
                        and the diligent offering of services of worship at the prescribed times,
            to the exclusion of less structured ways of encountering God in Jesus.

And still others have suggested
            that the pearl is to be understood as the teachings of Jesus
                        as revealed in the sermon on the mount,
                                    or elsewhere in the teaching sections of the gospels.
                        and as interpreted and applied by the doctors of the church.
This interpretation takes us in the direction of legalistic religion,
            where the focus is on obedience to the teachings,
                        and on literal plain readings of Bible,
            to the exclusion of an openness to the continuous revelation of God’s will
                        through the discovery of new light and truth
                        as it breaks forth from the word of God.

All these different allegorical interpretations,
            have proved popular at different points in our Christian tradition.

From the centuries of hegemony under Catholic Christendom,
            to the drastic separatism of the radical reformers,
            to the legalistic bibliolatry of the fundamentalists,
            to the emotively charged worship of the evangelical-charismatic tradition.

But the thing is,
            whilst I am broadly in favour
                        of Christians meeting in church for discipleship, teaching, and accountability
            and whilst I am broadly in favour
                        of there being something distinctive about the people of Christ,
            and whilst I am broadly in favour
                        of taking the Bible seriously,
            and whilst I am broadly in favour
                        of worship that is emotionally engaging,
I don’t think any of these are what Jesus is actually talking about
            in his little parable of the precious pearl.

And when we inherit interpretations like those I’ve just outlines,
            we run the risk of doing what Christians so often do,
which is to overlay our own concerns and preferences onto the text,
            so that Jesus seems to be saying, by the end of it,
            exactly what we think he should be saying.

Now, some might say, ‘Woodman, how are you any different?’
            and that’s a good point.

So, as always, I offer my readings provisionally,
            for us to weigh together.
Because the task of interpreting scripture for our time and place is not mine alone,
            it is a task we share.

Anyway, back to the precious pearl.

The Pharisees would have seen the pearl of great price
            as symbolic of their own rather hard line and exclusive
            interpretation of the Jewish law.
Keep the law their way, and you get the benefits,
            but don’t, and you don’t.

Against this, Jesus says that the kingdom is not the pearl,
            it is rather the process of seeking, of finding, and of taking decisive action.

Jesus is offering the kingdom here to all who seek it,
            and I can just imagine how the exclusive Pharisees felt at that!

No longer is the kingdom a well kept secret,
            a precious gift for the favoured few.
It is available to be found by all who go looking for it.

But this is no offer of cheap grace.
            This is no cost-free path to the kingdom.

Because the possession of the kingdom
            involves a radical act of reversal.
Sure, anyone can find it, if they seek it,
            but possessing it is inextricable from repentance.

Listen to the parable again:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls;
            on finding one pearl of great value,
            he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

The merchant gives up everything that he previously held to be of value,
            in order to possess the kingdom that he had found.

And the implication is that the kingdom is possessed,
            only when those seeking it similarly re-orientate their values
                        towards the new reality that is coming into being through Jesus,
            turning away from their old values,
                        and embracing the new.

It’s like those other two little parables that Jesus told,
            about old cloth, and old wineskins:

No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment,
            for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. 
Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins.
            If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out,
            and the wineskins will be ruined.
No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved. (Matt. 9:16–17)

Those who would possess the new wine of the kingdom,
            those who seek and find the kingdom,
                        will find that the possession of it
                        involves an inevitable act of radical reorientation,
because lives lived by values from the old order,
            simply cannot and will not contain or constrain the values of the new.

But hear this very clearly,
            this is not about justifying a conflict between Judaism and Christianity.

As we have already established,
            the pearl of great price is not the church,
            and that which is cast aside to possess it is not the law and the prophets.

Just as the Pharisees had to hear
            that the Kingdom was not synonymous
                        with their interpretation of the Jewish tradition,
so we too have to resist all attempts in our lives to constrain and contain the kingdom
            within any structure or institution of power.

The church is not the kingdom,
            and neither does the church bring in the kingdom.

Rather, the church witnesses to, is a servant of,
            and demonstrates the presence of the kingdom of heaven.

The people of God are those who live into being in the world
            the radical reorientation of their values
            that occurs because they have sought and found.

The kingdom comes into being through those who live it into being,
            and so our task, as has always been the task of the people of God,
            is to live the new age into being right here, in the midst of the old.

And unless the Spirit of Jesus is with us,
            leading us to lives that exhibit the values he embodied,
teaching us to exhibit compassion, acceptance,
                        forgiveness, justice, and joy,
            then we have no right to speak of the presence of the kingdom.

However, if our lives are marked by the reorientation of values
            that is the corollary of our taking possession
            of the precious pearl of the kingdom,
then the new reality and humanity
            that Jesus lived into being in his world,
is similarly lived into being by us in our world.

So today, as we come to the communion table,
            all who seek are invited to receive.

We will receive these gifts of bread and wine,
            which are symbol and sign of the kingdom of heaven.
And we will be invited to repent,
            to turn intentionally towards Christ,
            as he meets us around his table.

And the radical reorientation of our lives continues,
            as we find ourselves moving another step
                        away from self and towards Christ,
            away from fear and towards courage,
                        away from guilt and towards forgiveness,
            away from pain and towards healing,
                        away from the old, and towards the new.


[1] The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 72, No. 3 (Jan., 1982), pp. 161-177.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Heaven's Perspective on Martyrdom

A sermon given at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Remembrance Sunday 10 November 2019

Revelation 20.1-10
Daniel 7.9-14

The capacity of humans to give their lives for something they believe in
            is both glorious and terrifying.

Jesus himself said,
            ‘No one has greater love than this,
            to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ (Jn15.13)

And the willingness of people to put their own lives at risk,
            or to knowingly pay the ultimate price,
for the love of their fellow humans,
            is quality that echoes the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross.

This much is a glory of humanity.

But the other side of the coin:
            the person who dies to kill, to maim, and to scar,
                        the terrorist suicide bomber, for example,
            is as terrifying as the other example is glorious.

And so it is that today, on Remembrance Sunday,
            as we recall the sacrifices and victims of war,
we come to consider heaven’s perspective on martyrdom.

And as we do so we need to tease out something important
            in what we mean by martyrdom.

You see, I do not believe that the terrorist suicide bomber is a martyr.
            They may think that they are, and others may claim it of them,
            but I want to resist that label.

Martyrs are those who stand up for their beliefs
            to the point where others take their lives from them;
they are not those who take the lives of others
            in the pursuit of their cause.

When Liz and I are travelling, we enjoy visiting local churches,
            and particularly looking at the artwork on the walls
            and around the various altars and chapels.

And often we find that the devotional focus,
            particularly in Roman Catholic Churches, is an act of martyrdom.
So some saint is depicted holding his own severed head,
            or with her eyes on a plate,
indicating the manner of their martyrdom for the name of Christ.

Of course, martyrdom - giving one’s life for Christ,
            goes right back to the early years of Christianity;
think of the stoning of Stephen,
            or of Saul’s murderous campaign against the early Christians before his conversion.

As Christianity spread through the Roman Empire
            in the middle decades of the first century,
largely due to Paul’s post-persecution missionary activities,
            the Roman state quickly became the chief agent of Christian martyrdom.

Probably the most famous and notorious example
            is that of the Emperor Nero, who in 64, just thirty years after Jesus,
                        ordered Christians to be rounded up and torn apart by dogs,
                        or burnt alive to light his gardens at night.

It is almost certainly this persecution by Nero,
            and the ongoing sporadic martyrdoms that followed it,
which lie behind our reading this morning from the book of Revelation.

Now, I’m well aware that these ten verses
            are some of the most controversial in the whole of the Bible.
I once wrote a 70,000 word thesis on their interpretation,
            but I promise not to go through all of that this morning.

The word ‘millennium’ is one of those ‘hot topic’ catch-phrases
            which people often associate with the book of Revelation.

This is one of those words
            which has acquired something of a life of its own
            which has taken it far beyond the pages of the book where it started.

In contemporary culture, the ‘millennium’
            has come to mean a dawning thousand-year golden age,
            such as the ‘Age of Aquarius’ or even the ‘Third Reich’ of Nazi Germany.

For some Christians, the ‘coming millennium’
            is regarded as the key to understanding the whole book of Revelation,
            with endless discussions about whether Jesus will return to the earth
                        before or after the millennium.

But this morning I’m not going to talk at length about pre, post, or a millennialism.
            I’m not going to lecture on partial rapture dispensationalism.
                        and how this particular interpretation of these verses
                        can be seen as directly influencing Donald Trump’s withdrawal
                        from the Paris Climate Accord,
            because those Christians who are Trump’s power base
                        don’t believe that it is a human responsibility
                        to work for the good of creation.

Instead, I’m going to talk about how these verses
            address the pastoral problem of martyrdom.

After all, today is a day when we are remembering those
            who have paid the ultimate price for their beliefs.

Within the book of Revelation itself,
            the ‘thousand years’ of the millennium has a primarily pastoral function.

As we’ve seen, Revelation is written to those who have faced dreadful persecution,
            and who have heard stories or even personally witnessed
                        Christians being executed for their faith.

And the thing is, from the point of view
            of the first century recipients of the book of Revelation,
                        those attending the seven churches of Asia Minor,
            the death of a believer through martyrdom
                        would have appeared to be
                        the ultimate victory for the satanic beast of the empire.

However, John wants his readers to realize
            that when viewed from heaven’s perspective,
                        martyrdom is not a defeat but a victory,
and so he describes those who have been martyred
            for their testimony to Jesus
            as reigning with Christ for a ‘thousand years’ (20.4).

As we delve into this passage in a bit more depth now,
            I’d like us to keep clear in our minds that, as far as John is concerned,
                        this is an image of great comfort,
            it’s seeking to assure those reading it that when seen from above,
                        the martyrdom of the faithful believer
                        is the precise opposite of what it appears when seen from below.

An emperor might reign for a decade or two,
            but Christ reigns, and all the martyrs with him, for a thousand years!

I think it’s probably helpful at this stage to outline
            how the image of a ‘thousand years’ functions within the passage:

An angel comes from heaven and binds the dragon,
            throwing him into the pit and locking it over him,
and Satan is therefore unable to deceive the nations for a thousand years.

John then describes a judgement scene,
            with those seated on the thrones being given authority to judge,
                        and, without elaborating this any further,
            he moves on to depict those who have been beheaded
                        for their testimony to Jesus.

These martyrs are raised to life
            and reign with Christ for ‘a thousand years’.

Then, at the end of this millennium Satan is released,
            rampages on the earth for a while,
            and tries unsuccessfully to overpower the faithful saints.

Those who have followed Satan are then consumed by fire from heaven,
            and the Devil is thrown into the lake of fire for ever.

At this point the second resurrection and the final judgement take place.

I think this little cameo scene raises a number of questions for us,
            which if we can come to an answer to them,
            will help us better understand what John is doing here.

The first question is,

Question 1: Why a thousand years?

Is there any clue in the choice of this particular number
            that can aid our interpretation of the passage?

The two main biblical texts
            that provide the background to the thousand years are

Psalm 90.4: ‘For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night’,

and 2 Peter 3.8, ‘with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.’

The passage from 2 Peter,
            which is in essence a kind of commentary on Ps. 90.4,
represents a strand of thought
            present within first century Judaism
whereby some believed that the course of the world’s history
            could be found paralleled in the seven days of creation.

By this understanding history would run
            for six thousand years from creation,
            and then would be followed by a thousand year sabbath age.

Some of you will have come across this in Christian teaching about the end times as well,
            and I can remember some wonderful charts
            dividing human history into six different ‘ages’
            all culminating in the thousand year period of glorious rest.

But what we can take from this
            is that John is drawing on an already established tradition in Judaism
                        of a thousand year golden age,
            when he speaks of the martyrs reigning with Christ for a millennium.

On to our next question

Question 2: Why is the last judgement split by the millennium?

The millennium passage separates the beginning of the last judgement (20.4)
            from its conclusion (20.11–15)

What it looks like John is doing here,
            is reworking the passage we had read earlier from the Book of Daniel (7.9–14)

Both Revelation and Daniel contain descriptions of
            thrones (Rev. 20.4; Dan. 7.9),
            open books (Rev. 20.10; Dan. 7.10),
            a beast that is destroyed (Rev. 19.11–21; Dan. 7.11–12),
            and a kingdom that is handed over to the ‘son of man’ (Rev. 20.4–6; Dan. 7.13–14).

What John does, however, is alter the ordering of these items
            from the way they appear in the book of Daniel
            in order to make a theological point.

And what John achieves by altering Daniel’s ordering is, in effect,
            a commentary on the final judgement.

John separates the initial stages of the final judgement from its conclusion,
            by inserting the millennium, the thousand year reign of the martyrs.
And this allows John to use the millennium
            as a metaphor for the vindication of the martyrs

What this means is that the millennium is not something
            that will be worked out in human history at all,
rather it is purely a theological and pastoral metaphor.

As we’ve seen, martyrdom forms a significant part of the backdrop
            to the book of Revelation.

John was writing to those who may have seen friends and family martyred,
            and who may have feared that they would face
            the possibility of martyrdom themselves.

Understood from an earthly perspective,
            the killing of a believer represents the ultimate triumph of evil over good,
but what John achieves in this passage
            is to convey the message that from a heavenly perspective,
at the very instant the beast creates martyrs by putting believers to death,
            the destruction of the beast and the vindication of the martyrs is assured.

The situation facing the recipients of Revelation is therefore utterly reversed.

If they go to their deaths for their faith,
            they do so demonstrating not the victory of the beast,
but rather as those whose witness through martyrdom
            will assure the destruction of the beast,
and as those who will themselves be vindicated.

The New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham comments:

This shows that the theological point of the millennium
            is solely to demonstrate the triumph of the martyrs:
that those whom the beast put to death
            are those who will truly live…
and that those who contested [the beast’s] right to rule and suffered for it
            are those who will in the end rule as universally as he
            - and for much longer: a thousand years![i]

In this way, the millennium functions as a kind of hyperbole,
            an overstatement for dramatic effect.

Within John’s visionary framework,
            it represents the period of time during which the beast is bound
            and during which the martyrs rule with Christ.

However, this is not to suggest that John intends it
            as predictive prophecy for the distant future,
or as being worked out in a temporal sense
            during the course of human history.

Rather, it is best understood as a metaphor
            for the scale and magnitude of the vindication
            of those who suffer and die for the kingdom of God.

So, on to our next question:

Question 3: Why is Satan released again after the millennium?

It’s weird, isn’t it?

Why is Satan let out of the pit again at the end of the thousand years,
            to make war on the saints,
before finally being destroyed a bit later in the story?

I think that, just like the image of the millennium,
            this also needs to be understood
                        in terms of John’s overriding pastoral concern
            to provide his recipients with a new perspective on martyrdom.

So in the same way that the millennium functions metaphorically,
            so too does the release of Satan.

These are both metaphors to help John’s readers
            understand the problem of martyrdom.

Those to whom John was writing
            were not only those who feared they might themselves face martyrdom,
            but those who had survived seeing their fellow Christians martyred.

In spite of John’s assurance that martyrdom was actually victory over the beast,
            their present experience was one
                        where evil continued to be experienced as rampant in the land.

It could appear to them
            that the victory of the martyrs was short-lived to say the least.

By depicting Satan rampant in the land again,
            even after the vindication of the martyrs,
and then showing his unsuccessful attempts
            to re-take the kingdom of the righteous,
John was providing assurance to his recipients
            that martyrdom was not in vain.

Satan is defeated even though he is still rampant in the land;
            his fate has been sealed by the victory of Christ
            and the evidence of the blood of the martyrs.[ii]

Which brings me to my final question:

Question 4: Where does John locate his audience within the narrative?

Throughout the book of Revelation,
            as we have seen in previous weeks,
John is constantly encouraging his readers to locate themselves within the text.

Those reading the work are invited not only
            to identify themselves as various characters within the narrative,
but also to find their circumstances reflected
            in the imagery that John constructs.

So John’s first audience could equate their own experiences
            of suffering and martyrdom
            with those of Jesus the slain Lamb,
while finding their hope of resurrection
            expressed through the continued existence of the Lamb on the throne.

Some of John’s audience may have found themselves
            suffering the betrayal of Maundy Thursday,
                        or the fear of Good Friday morning,
            or they may have seen others join Jesus on the cross
                        through suffering a martyrs death.

In its invitation to identify with Jesus,
            Revelation therefore encourages its readers
to interpret their own lives
            according to the lived example of Jesus himself,
            with the events of the cross becoming real in their lives.

A helpful way to understand John’s imagery
            of the millennium and the subsequent release of Satan
            is therefore to read it in the light of the crucifixion story.

Readers of Revelation are invited
            to locate themselves in the space of Easter Saturday,
                        awaiting resurrection and restoration,
            confidently hopeful,
                        but still living with the present pain of Friday’s grief and horror.

By this reading, the martyrs have departed the present life of suffering
            and gone to vindication (20.1–7),
and Satan’s hold on the world has been broken
            through the sacrificial deaths of both Jesus and the martyrs.

However, in the present experience of John’s audience,
            Satan is still loose in the world
            making war on the dwelling places of the saints.

In this way, the Easter weekend can be seen as a paradigm
            for reading the story of the Church as presented in our passage for this morning.

The following table expresses these correspondences:

Crucifixion narrative
Revelation Ch. 20
Death of Jesus
Martyrdom of believers
Victory over Satan on the cross
Binding of Satan in the pit
Easter Saturday
Release of Satan ‘for a little while’
Final judgement and new creation

The interpretation of the millennium I’ve been offering here
            is based on an understanding of the millennium as a metaphor.

Few contemporary academic interpreters
            would claim to interpret the millennium literally
            so that it describes a period of exactly one thousand years,
                        when those martyred will be raised
                        to reign over the nations of the earth alongside Christ.

However, many interpreters who hold the millennium as symbolic
            continue to interpret it as a symbol of the outworking of God in history
                        in a temporal sense.

Many of the readings of the millennium
            that most of us have encountered in Church over the years
still take the sequence of events in the passage literally,
            even if the number one thousand is taken as symbolic,
and people end up assigning great importance
            to the precise order in which things occur.

Whilst on the one hand, people reject any expectation
            that the events described by John will really happen in history,
on the other hand they still treat the text as if John thinks he is describing events
            that will happen in history.

What I’ve been trying to do this morning
            is offer an interpretation of the millennium passage as a metaphor
            in order to avoid these difficulties.

Once it is accepted that John was consciously writing using metaphor,
            any compulsion to reconcile the temporal difficulties within the text is relieved,
and we are freed to concentrate on the theological meaning of the passage.

So I’m suggesting that John uses the metaphor of the millennium
            for a very specific function;
to provide his audience with the perspective they need
            to understand the relationship between martyrdom and victory in Christ.

Thus the millennium functions for John
            as a metaphor which provides a perspective
            on the very real human experience of martyrdom.

And one of the tragedies of the last two thousand years,
            is that again and again, the beast has continued to take the lives of the saints.

Down to this present day,
            people have suffered and died for their faith.

From the Christians being thrown to the lions
            in the amphitheatres of the Roman empire,

to the Anabaptist martyrs of the sixteenth century,
            to the – on average – eleven Christians who will be killed today for their faith.

The martyrdom of the faithful is real,
            and the power of the beast is not yet ended in our world.

We live in the shadow of the cross,
            and the beast stalks our world, taking victims wherever it can.

So, I would suggest,
            the message of Revelation that death is not the end,
                        that death is not defeat,
            is a message we need to hear and proclaim and live into being in our lives.

The martyrs are not lost to God,
            they reign with Christ.
And every unjust death of martyr and victim
            is another nail in the eternal coffin of the beast.

So today, on Remembrance Sunday,
            as we remember the victims of war,
            and the sacrifices made by so many,
let us not despair,
            but rather let us rejoice
            that God holds the innocent in an eternal embrace of love.

And let us pray for an end to violence in our world.
 Let us pray that God's peaceable kingdom comes on earth,
  as it is in heaven.