Sunday, 28 April 2019

Apocalypse Now #1: Heaven’s perspective on Power

Sermon preached at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
11.00 28 April 2019

Revelation 1.1-20
This morning is the first of our new series,
            which we will be coming back to from time to time over the coming year,
            in which we will be working our way through the book of Revelation.

In the interest of transparency, I probably ought to declare my hand at this point.
            My PhD is on the book of Revelation,
            I’ve published a books and articles about it for many years,
            and for eight years until recently I chaired the Revelation seminar
                        at the British New Testament Conference.
            I’m also regularly invited to speak on Revelation
                        in churches and to groups of ministers,
            including on one memorable occasion to a group
                        known as ‘Sceptics in a pub’.
However, what I haven’t done, in the seven years I’ve been at Bloomsbury,
            is preach on it in a systematic way.
Hence, this year’s sermon series…

This morning’s sermon is going to be a kind of introductory sermon,
            offering what I think is a helpful way of reading Revelation in our day and age,
            and this may be a bit different to what you’ve heard elsewhere in the past.
We will also be seeing how we can hear from this ancient and fascinating text
            in ways that inform our Christian discipleship
            and challenge us to be better disciples of Jesus.

One of the problems with Revelation
            is that people often seem to forget
                        that it has a very specific historical context
            and they read it as if it was written directly for us today.

This, I think, is to do a disservice to the text,
            and it is to make it do things that it wasn’t written to do.

Also, many of those who have set dates,
            made films, or written books about the end of the world
            have claimed inspiration from the book of Revelation.

In fact, if you ask most people what they know about Revelation,
            one of the first things they will say
            is that it’s about the end of the world.

And it’s true, there is a lot of imagery in Revelation
            that sounds pretty catastrophic
            (‘apocalyptic’, you might say, but we’ll come to that…).

However, is it actually accurate to say that Revelation is about the end of the world?
            Well, yes and no.

If what we mean is,
            ‘is the book of revelation a kind of “Dummies Guide” to the end of the world?’,
                        then no, it isn’t.
            And those who have tried to make it such can show us
                        that Revelation is no better at helping us predict
                                    the date of the end of the world
                                    than, say, Nostradamus!

However, there may be another way Revelation
            can speak to us very powerfully about the end of the world.

Have you ever heard someone say,
            perhaps after a tragic bereavement or a serious illness,
                        ‘it was the end of the world’?
They clearly don’t mean that the world has literally ended,
            and to assume they did would be to miss their point.
What they mean is that the world as they knew it has gone,
            and they are now living in a new world,
                        a world that is in a very real sense different
                        to the world that they lived in before.

Of course such world-ending, or world-transforming, events
            aren’t always tragic or traumatic,
sometimes it can be a positive thing that ends one world and starts another,
            think of the unexpected lottery win,
            or falling in love, or becoming a parent.
The old world ends, and a new world begins.

So when the book of Revelation uses imagery and language
            about the end of the world,
it is telling its readers that if they understand its message,
            if they spend time with its prophetic images,
they too will experience ‘the end of the world’
            as their old world is brought to an end,
            and they find ourselves entering a new world
                        in which Jesus Christ is at the centre of creation,
                        drawing all things and all people to himself.

Those who have sought to confine Revelation
            to the realm of predictive prophecy
make it of relevance really only to those
            who happen to find themselves living in the ‘last days’ of planet Earth;
            which almost always, they think, includes them!

The difficulty with this is that they run the risk of alienating the book
            from the vast swathe of humanity
                        (probably including ourselves, unless we really are the ‘last generation’)
            who have been born, lived, and died
                        within the normal course of history.

Christians usually assert that the Bible is of equal relevance to all,
            whether you live and die in the first, eleventh or twenty-first centuries.
So, if the book of Revelation is to be of  relevance to all generations,
            not just the last generation,
and if it proclaims a message of world-ending significance
            rather than simply predicting the end of the world,
what is it that is so special about the message of Revelation?


A good place to start finding an answer to this question
            is to consider what significance and effect the book had
            on those for whom it was initially written.

We are fortunate with Revelation because (unlike some other biblical books)
            we have a very clear understanding of the first recipients.

This is because Revelation is a circular letter,
            written to be sent round seven churches in seven cities in Asia Minor
                        (modern day Turkey).

These seven churches are named in chapter 1 v. 11,
            which we had read to us earlier.
And although the whole text is intended for each church,
            it begins with some short letters
            addressed to the seven churches individually (chs 2-3)
            which we shall come on to in more detail next time.

These letters tell us that those who first read Revelation
            were a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles,
living in fairly wealthy and cosmopolitan cities,
            fully integrated into the politics, economics and religions
            of the Roman Empire of the second half of the first century AD.

Those in the churches of the seven cities
            would have encountered the full force
                        of the propaganda of the Roman Empire on a daily basis,
            with all aspects of culture
                        from architecture to art, from finance to family life
            reinforcing the mythology of Rome,
                        focussing around emperor worship
                        and the Graeco-Roman pantheon of pagan gods.

Anyone who wanted to worship Jesus as Lord
            was immediately putting themselves not only at odds
                        with the dominant practices of society,
            but at odds with the empire itself;
                        which was a dangerous place to be.

Only a few years before Revelation was written,
            the emperor Nero had systematically persecuted
                        anyone who would not worship him,
            and had enacted a range of horrific punishments
                        on those who refused to comply.

The author of Revelation is desperately concerned
            that those in the churches he is writing to do not compromise.

But instead of simply writing a note saying,
            ‘don’t worship the emperor, don’t give up, don’t compromise’,
he sends them a captivating and riveting vision,
            which invites them to use their imaginations
                        to see their world differently,
            to see through the lies and propaganda of the empire,
                        and to live lives of devoted faithfulness
                        to Jesus as the Lord of their lives.

There are many mysteries associated with the book of Revelation,
            not least who wrote it and when.

The text itself gives us a name,
            saying it is a Revelation given to ‘John’,
but the problem is that we don’t know which ‘John’ this is.

Traditionally it was believed to have been
            John the brother of James and disciple of Jesus,
who was also believed to have written ‘John’s’ Gospel
            and the three letters of John.

However, scholars now think it very unlikely
            that John the apostle (who we meet in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels)
                        wrote the fourth gospel or the letters,
            and even less likely that he wrote the book of Revelation.

The most that can be said with any certainty
            was that the author self-identifies as a man called ‘John’
                        who was a Jewish convert to Christianity
                        and had pastoral responsibility for seven churches in Asia Minor.

There is a similar uncertainty about the date it was written,
            with the traditional date of 95 AD (during the reign of Domitian)
            giving way to other possibilities such as 71 AD (during the reign of Vespasian).
This earlier date puts the writing of Revelation
            much closer to the tyrannical deeds of Nero (emperor 54–68 AD),
                        who crops up in the book (but not by name)
                        as a personification of the satanic forces of evil.
As he writes, the author of Revelation casts his mind back
            to those times in the past
                        when the people of God had struggled to remain faithful
                        under the pressure to compromise to an oppressive empire.
And so he uses imagery from the Israelite enslavement in Egypt,
            painting pictures of sequences of plagues
            which echo the plagues that preceded Israel’s release from Egyptian slavery.

He also borrows imagery from the stories of the Israelite exile in Babylon,
            referencing the visions from the book of Daniel
which speak of resistance to the empire
            and unswerving faithfulness to God.

Throughout Revelation, Rome is consistently referred to as ‘Babylon’,
            as the first century Roman empire is spoken of
                        in terms of the ancient Babylonian empire.
The invitation here is for readers in any century
            to identify the empires of their own day
            with the notorious hostile empires of the past.

The author borrows more than just language from the book of Daniel,
            he also borrows the style of writing known as apocalyptic.

This was a genre greatly enjoyed by the Jews
            in the couple of hundred years before Revelation was written,
and which functioned for them
            in a way not dissimilar to how Science Fiction functions for us today.

If we were to watch an episode of Star Trek, or a futuristic sci-fi film,
            we would know that what we were watching
                        wasn’t a detailed prediction of what the future would be like.
Nor would we sit around trying to work out
            at what date it would all come true.

As we sit here this morning, the year 2001 is firmly in the past,
            a date immortalised in the influential sci-fi novel of that name by Arthur C. Clarke,
                        and popularised by the Stanley Kubrick film.
The fact that the events described in the novel and depicted in the film
                        didn’t happen by 2001
            in no way robs them of their power,
because they were never written as futuristic ‘predictions’ in the first place.

Sci-fi at its best is a literary genre
            that is set in an imaginary future
            in order to free people’s minds from the trammels of their present lived reality,
and to create the imaginative space
            for fresh reflection on issues
            which are of relevance to the real world of the here and now.

This was how Apocalyptic functioned in the first century:
            it used futuristic, out-of-this-world images and stories
to help those reading it
            to gain a new perspective on their lives.

It frequently used the literary device of a vision or dream
            to provide a context for the vivid images
            which depicted alternative ways of understanding the world.

So a wicked empire might become
            a fantastical many-headed beast or a corrupt prostitute,
while struggling churches might become
            shining stars or a faithful woman.

The word ‘apocalyptic’ simply means ‘revealed’, (hence ‘Revelation’)
            and refers to the fact that this kind of literature
                        is primarily about the ‘revelation’ of heavenly mysteries,
            passing on to its readers heaven’s perspective on the earthly situation.

As we saw in our reading for this morning,
            the book of Revelation begins with a vision of heaven,
            as the author, John, writes that he is caught up ‘in the Spirit’
                        and given a ‘revelation’ from God
                        about the way the world really is (1.1,10).

John’s revelation can be summed up fairly easily:
            the emperor is not all-powerful,
                        no matter how powerful he appears to be;
            the empire is not all-good,
                        no matter how effective its propaganda;
            only God is all-powerful and all-good,
                        and God is to be known through his son Jesus Christ,
                        who is drawing the world to himself
            and will accompany all those who make the journey
                        from enslavement under the empire to new life in Christ.
One can imagine John,
            the Christian pastor responsible for the seven churches of Asia Minor,
imprisoned on the prison island of Patmos,
            praying for those in his churches and meditating on his Jewish scriptures,
                        especially the books of Exodus, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel,
            each of which reflects on what it means to be faithful to God
                        when the pressure is on to compromise to the forces of empire.

As he brings his world before his scriptures
            he has a moment of divine ‘revelation’:
                        that the world is not as the world wants to be seen;
                                    that the empire is really satanic;
                        that the emperor is not divine;
                                    that the churches of Christ are not insignificant;
                        and that despite appearances to the contrary all is not lost.

He then picks up his pen and starts writing his book,
            borrowing language, imagery and theology
                        from the Jewish scriptures and beyond,
            but giving it all his own distinctive twist
                        to make it relevant for his first century context.

When we come to read Revelation today,
            we may find it helpful to do with John’s text
                        what he did with his own scriptures.
That is, to bring our own world to the world of the text,
            submitting our lives to its imaginative and transformatory effects,
learning to see the world the way John saw it,
            and in so doing gaining heaven’s perspective
            on our own earthly situations.
Well, we wouldn’t read Paul’s letters as if they were written for us today;
            instead, if we are responsible readers,
                        we read them in their original context (of Corinth, or Philippi, or wherever).
            We might then, if we want to, begin to look for those places
                        where the world of the original recipients
                                    touches our own world,
                        and through these points of correspondence
                                    we may allow the ancient text to speak to our contemporary situation.

If we take this same approach with Revelation,
            we might usefully ask ourselves where the ‘empire’ or ‘Babylon’
                        are to be found in our contemporary world,
            and we might ask where the propaganda of the ‘empire’
                        is most effective at seducing us into compromise,
            and we might ask where the suffering church
                        is struggling to bear faithful witness to their faith
                        in the face of seemingly overwhelming opposition.

In places like these, and many more,
            the vision of Revelation echoes down the centuries
            with a message as fresh and challenging as the day it was written.

The key questions that John addresses in this first chapter of the Apocalypse
            revolve around issues of power and worship,
as he invites his audience to consider who is really sitting on the throne.

This is neither an idle nor speculative question,
            because the one on the throne holds not just power,
            but also attracts worship from those who give their allegiance to the throne.

From the perspective of those living in the seven cities of Asia Minor,
            the answer was clear:
                        the Emperor in Rome occupies the position of ultimate power and worship
Archaeologists tell us
            that there were sacred precincts in both Ephesus and Pergamum
            dedicated to the worship of the Emperor

However, John wants those in the seven churches of the seven cities
            to come to realize that supreme power
                        actually resides with the one seated on the throne in heaven,
            and that he alone is worthy of worship (1.4; 3.2; 4.2–8).

Those in the seven congregations therefore find themselves caught
            between two competing ideologies,
and are faced with the choice as to which power they will recognize,
            and before which throne they will bow.

To help them in this choice, John wants them
            to learn to see the earth from heaven’s perspective,
and so he carefully structures the opening chapter
            to draw his audience rhetorically into his vision.

He begins with an explanation of the ‘revelation’
            that he is passing on to them through the text of the Apocalypse (1.1).

This ‘revelation’ is seen to begin with God himself,
            the supreme being who will shortly be seen enthroned in heaven.
It then passes downward through the heavenly realm
            from God to Jesus, then to an angel,
and finally it touches the earth
            as the angel gives the revelation to John
            whose task is to then pass it on to the seven congregations.

In this way, John clearly demonstrates
            that the origin of his visions is with none other than God in heaven.

John then describes the beginning of his own visionary experience,
            as he moves from earth-bound Patmos into the heavenly realm,
receiving from the divine voice his commission
            to write down what he sees and send it to the seven churches (1.9–11).

This is then followed by his vision of the ‘one like a son of man’,
             in which he sees and worships the ascended Jesus (1.12–20).

The dramatic nature of this opening vision,
            coupled with John’s worshipful response (1.17),
serves to draw his audience into the vision
            as they share his sense of awe and wonder at the sight of their glorified Lord.

The ‘son of man’ figure reiterates John’s commission to write what he sees,
            once again bringing the narrative from heaven down to earth,
and preparing the way for the seven letters
            to the seven congregations that follow (1.19).

Those in John’s churches are invited to realize something profound
            about the nature of the congregations of which they are a part.

Although, from an earthly perspective,
            these congregations may appear to be isolated,
            earth-bound and feeble representations of the body of Christ,
from heaven’s perspective they form part of the heavenly court,
            and have a role to play
            in the proclamation of judgement on the forces of evil.

The Church here in John’s vision is both radical and subversive;
            it is threatening to authority
                        in its challenge of what John perceives to be
                        the idolatrous claims of empire.

John would have those in his congregations
            worship only the one who is truly worthy of adoration.

This call to disassociate from worshipping the gods of Rome,
            and the Emperor in particular,
meant that for John’s congregations,
            as for generations of followers of Jesus down the centuries since,
worship became a political act,
            placing them in opposition to the dominant authorities
            of state-embedded religion.

In this way, the opening chapter of Revelation
            can be seen as a carefully constructed rhetorical and pastoral composition,
that seeks to engage those living in the seven churches,
            inviting them to begin to re-imagine their world
            and to learn to see its dominant images differently.

It draws its audience
            into the visionary world that John is seeking to convey.

The pastoral intent of this
            is then to enable those in the churches
            to see the earth from heaven’s perspective,
            and to start acting accordingly.

And this, I think, is the challenge before us too.

Can we see where power in enthroned in our world,
            where the powers that be have taken to themselves
            authority that rightly only belongs to God?

And can we learn to see things differently,
            to see the earth from heaven’s perspective,
            and to start acting accordingly…

Where, I wonder will this take us?

Let’s find out over the course of this year,
            as we return to the text of John’s vision
            to hear the persistent challenge to see things anew,
            and to live differently in the light of this revelation.

Friday, 19 April 2019

Prayers of Intercession for Good Friday 2019

God of the cross, we gather today
            with the great multitude of disciples across time and space,
            to look up into the face of our crucified messiah.
Today is the day when we confront death in all its stark reality,
            recognising that where you have already gone,
            we too will one day follow.

Jesus, remember us, when you come into your kingdom.

We remember all those who today face the reality of death.
            We commit to your loving care those who are nearing the end of their lives
                        through age, illness, and infirmity,
            and we particularly think of those known to us
                        who are drawing near to the end.
Be with them we pray,
            and may they know the comfort of your eternal love which transcends death.

Jesus, remember us, when you come into your kingdom.

We remember all those who live in constant fear for their lives,
            for those whose daily routine includes bombs and guns, intimidation and terror.
We pray for those for whom life is cheap,
            and for those for whom the cost of survival is too high.
Be with those for whom life is uncertain,
            and be present to those who do not know if they can carry on.
May they know the comfort of your eternal love which transcends death.

We give thanks for those who bring healing and peace to a world of darkness,
            and for those who offer hope to the hopeless.

Jesus, remember us, when you come into your kingdom.

We remember those who mourn,
            who live daily with the pain of loss,
and we pray for those whose loved ones are dying,
            for those who care for partners with terminal illness,
            and for those living with dementia.
May they find comfort in the security of your eternal love which transcends death.

God of the cross, we offer you our prayers
            in the certain knowledge of your great love.