So we continue our journey through the Book of Revelation. Last week, and the week before, it was the letters John wrote to the churches in Asia that we concentrated on, but it’s today that we get into a little more about what Revelation is commonly known for – and that’s for being one of the, well, let’s say more challenging books of the Bible, full of pretty obscure language and imagery, at times it’s hard to understand, it’s hard to extract the real meaning. What we have to remember though, is that the Book of Revelation is, most of the time at least, allegorical, it’s symbolic. The point we have to start from, I think, is not to take anything too literally.
Because we have to be careful when we take scripture literally. There are churches that do, of course, that believe every single word is literal truth and that allegory, symbolism, just don’t come into it. For example, there’s a Pentecostal church in Kentucky in the USA - the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name, it’s called - and it had a pastor called Reverend Jamie Coots. Reverend Coots believed in the literal truth of the Bible, and he based a lot of his preaching around the book of Mark, specifically chapter 16, verses 16 to 18. Let me read that to you: ‘Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. Believers will be given the power to perform miracles: they will drive out demons in my name; they will speak in strange tongues; if they pick up snakes or drink any poison, they will not be harmed; they will place their hands on sick people, who will get well.’ It’s a powerful image, so to drive home his point, Reverend Coots would regularly feature live snakes in his sermons, he’d bring them out and handle them in front of the congregation. Very dramatic. It beats having slides on Powerpoint, doesn’t it? But you might have noticed I’m speaking about Reverend Coots in the past tense. Unfortunately, he died five years ago. After being bitten by a rattlesnake during one of his services.
So yes, taking scripture too literally can bring its problems. There’s no question of literalism in the passage Amanda read to us from Revelation earlier, though. It’s quite clear that everything that takes place here is part of a dream, a vision. Now, I have to say that interpreting visions, or analysing dreams, isn’t an exact science. With apologies to psychotherapists like Freud and Jung, I’m not sure it’s really a science at all. I remember one of the newspapers, I think it was the Daily Record on a Saturday, used to have a regular column where people would write in with their dreams and an expert would analyse them. I used to cover up the analysis bit and read the letter and then come up with my own interpretation, and I honestly think I sometimes came up with a better analysis than the expert, and I know nothing. I suppose you could say I’m a sceptic. But we’re not looking at a newspaper column here, we’re looking at words and images that have made their way into the Bible, into Holy Scripture – they have to mean something. So let’s try and de-code them a little and work out just what they might be saying to us.
The passage opens with John – and, I should say, we don’t know exactly who this John is, it’s almost certainly not the same one who wrote the Gospel – John, in his vision, is in heaven. And it’s dazzling. A throne with someone sitting on it, his face gleaming, an emerald rainbow all around him and he’s surrounded by 24 other people on thrones, dressed in white, with gold crowns. Flashes of lightning, lit torches. Even reading it, hearing it, you want to shade your eyes, it’s so bright. And light means Jesus, it means God. We’ve heard it before, it’s a regular refrain throughout Scripture. ‘God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.’ ‘I am the light of the world.’ And I’m sure we all know the hymn – we should have had it today, actually, now I come to think about it – ‘Longing for light, we wait in darkness.’ And I guess that’s the thing, in front of John is all this light, all this brightness, which implies he’s come from a place of darkness. It speaks to us of optimism, that whatever darkness we’re going through, there’s light ahead.
Things were a bit lighter this morning, weren’t they? Glad to see you all remembered to change your clocks. You know, I used to collect watches and it was important to me that they all showed the right time, and when it came time for the clocks to change, it used to take me ages to change all my watches so my extra hour was pretty much wasted. It was even worse in the spring when we moved the clocks back. I don’t collect them anymore, and because everything’s electronic now the clocks on all my gadgets manage to change themselves, it’s like magic. But, of course, the reason we turn the clocks back at this time of year is so we get more light in the mornings. We need the light to get us up and get us going. We need the light to overcome the darkness. And, in his vision, the first impression John gets of heaven, of God, is pure light.
So far, so good. The benefit of light over darkness – I think we can all understand that. But here’s where things get, okay, I’ll say it, things start to get seriously strange. We hear about four creatures, one like a lion, another like a bull, number three with human features and a fourth that looks like an eagle. And they’ve all got six wings and they’re covered with eyes. I’m pretty sure it’s passages like this that led George Bernard Shaw to write that Revelation is, and I quote, ‘a peculiar record of the visions of a drug addict.’ But we’re in the realms of symbolism, remember, we can’t take these descriptions literally. Possibly the most common interpretation of these four creatures is that the lion represents wild animals, the bull stands for domesticated animals, the eagle symbolises animals that fly, and the creature with human features is – well, that one’s obvious, I think. Taken as a whole, the four creatures represent all of God’s created species. Six wings? Well, Isaiah speaks of angels with six wings, two to cover their faces as they couldn’t gaze upon God, two to cover their feet as they stood on holy ground, and two to fly with. And all the eyes? Well, those are to see God’s work wherever they look.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, how could I be expected to know this, without having to look it up? Well, you couldn’t, I suppose. I guess that’s my job, to try to explain it to you. Although, to be honest with you and I’m sure you won’t be too surprised, I didn’t come up with this explanation myself, I had to go to my books for help. And believe me, this isn’t the only interpretation! Another is that the four creatures represent the four gospels – I can’t help but think all they’ve got in common is the number four, though.
I think there’s always a line in every Bible passage that helps make things clearer, though. And in this one, for me at least, it’s when we are told ‘day and night, they never stop singing, holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty.’ Because I think that kind of ties it all together. What, or who, these creatures are, to me is less important than what they do. ‘Day and night, they never stop singing.’ In John’s vision, all of God’s creation, all of these bizarre creatures, they sing his praises all the time, they’re totally focused on him.
I’m one of those people that has to focus on one thing at a time. Multi-tasking isn’t one of my strong points. I remember I was driving to work in Edinburgh quite a few years ago and, I’m kind of sorry to say I used to smoke cigarettes back then, and I had one lit at the time. It was a sunny day; I had my sunglasses on. Well, the cigarette was in my mouth, it was nearly done and – I need to apologise for this too, please don’t copy me – I wound down the window to throw it out. That tells you how long ago it was, remember winding down car windows? Anyway, I reached up for my cigarette and just then the sun went behind a cloud – and I threw my sunglasses out of the window.
I lost my focus that day. Lost my sunglasses as well. Sometimes we lose focus. Sometimes we just have to adjust our focus a bit. Sometimes, and it’s a common human trait, we lose our focus on God, take our eyes off him and find ourselves just looking at whatever situation we’ve got ourselves into in life. And then we spend all our time thinking about how to get out of that situation.
The creatures in the vision are totally focused on God, as I say. You know, I’ve been talking to the children in the primary school over the past few weeks about David and Goliath. I don’t need to tell you the story, you all know it. But David had his focus right, he focused on the help he could be guaranteed by God in defeating the giant he was squaring up to. And there’s a great quote by the Christian author Max Lucado, it says ‘Focus on giants, you stumble. Focus on God, giants tumble.’ ‘Focus on giants, you stumble. Focus on God, giants tumble.’ So it doesn’t matter to God how big our giants – in other words, our problems, our issues - are, but it matters to our giants how big our God is. If we keep our focus on our God and what he does for us, if day and night we don’t stop singing to him - not literally, but with our minds - then our problems and our issues, our doubts, our fears, the discouragement we feel sometimes, well, they all have a way of working themselves out.
The last image we have from our passage in Revelation this morning, from John’s dream, his vision, is of 24 elders throwing their crowns in front of ‘the one who sits on the throne.’ Why 24? Well, some say it’s counting up the 12 apostles and the 12 tribes of Israel – again, we can’t know for sure. Other interpretations are available. But if there’s confirmation needed that the 24 elders are facing God, it comes now, as they say, ‘O Lord and God! You are worthy to receive glory, honour and power.’ Those words are really pretty close to the ones we said together earlier on in the Lord’s Prayer, aren’t they? ‘Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory.’ The elders in John’s vision pray the same way as we do.
I said earlier that I’m a bit of a sceptic when it comes to analysis of dreams, of visions. Well, maybe I’ve spent the last 15 minutes or so proving that I am to dream analysis what politicians are to plain speech – maybe I’ve confused you more than I’ve enlightened you. So I’ll try to sum up in a sentence. God is the light we need, and if we focus on him, in our thoughts and our prayers, in how act and the way we interact, then we’re doing the right thing. How much more of a revelation do we need?