Passed through the Great Ordeal

Easter IV

Revelation 7:9-17

Throughout the Easter season, we have been hearing our second reading from the book of Revelation. I don’t know if you have particularly noticed: they haven’t been terribly memorable readings; that is to say, they haven’t been about the signs in the heavens and the horrendous plagues and the death and destruction we often associate with the book of Revelation. We have been reading selected passages, the expurgated book of Revelation, if you like: we have been hearing, appropriately enough to the Easter season, some of the many heavenly hymns of praise that are woven through the book.

I thought it wouldn’t hurt to talk a bit about Revelation this morning, precisely because so many of us have problems with this book. I have certainly heard over the years many people, including members of the clergy, wonder about why this book should be in the Bible at all. There is so much crazy stuff in there, ugly crazy, visions of death and destruction and horror. And the crazy stuff so often appeals to crazy people: we know there are pastors and self-appointed prophets out there who preach this stuff as the centre of the Christian gospel, who latch onto the fevered visions and take them literally, looking for signs of the end times, and fantasizing about the horrible violent end that awaits the enemies of the gospel. No wonder we’re afraid of it!

If we want to understand the Bible, particularly the parts that are difficult to understand, then context is everything. No exception here. If we hope to make any sense at all out of Revelation, to get any benefit at all out of reading it, then there is one key piece of context we mustn’t forget for a moment: Revelation is written out of a situation of persecution, by someone who has experienced violent persecution first-hand.

Because persecutions had already begun. The mad emperor Nero had blamed the Christians for the great fire at Rome, and punished them savagely. Emperor Domitian (who was probably the emperor when Revelation was written) attempted to revive the worship of the emperor, and punished those who refused. We have a fascinating document, from just a few years after Revelation was written, and from a neighbouring region. The governor Pliny wrote a letter to the emperor, asking how he is to proceed against Christians:

Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished.
Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ–none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do–these I thought should be discharged. I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.

Now Pliny was considered a moderate and wise magistrate – we can only imagine how other authorities would have proceeded. This is John’s context: the churches he was part of, the people he had come to know and love, ordinary, caring people, had fallen under the iron fist of the Roman Empire. Soldiers had broken up their assembly, people were dragged off to prison, some of the ladies have been tortured, others have been killed, others forced to live with the shame of having cursed Christ. John himself is in exile, in hiding, having presumably slipped away in the night to avoid the choice of renouncing his faith or being killed.

In seminary we used to joke about what kind of drugs John was on (you have to make allowances for seminarians’ humour!); but the truth was more sobering: the book of Revelation is not the product of drugs, but a severe case of PTSD.

And so when we read the horrors of this book, the angels with the bowls of plagues and the darkened sun and the horse sized locusts with women’s hair and tails like scorpions, it is important to remember that this is not just some sick priest sitting back and making this stuff up, because, presumably, there wasn’t enough horror and violence in the world. Rather, the violence is a reflection and response to the violence that is already there in the world, violence that John had experienced in his own communities.

And so John takes his flashbacks of violence, takes his grief and rage and trauma, and weaves it together with the imagery of ancient Jewish apocalyptic literature. He writes a story. Now we may look at his violent and nightmarish images and think they look pretty unhealthy. Well, they come from an unhealthy place. But he had to do something with what he had experienced and what he was feeling. Writing down his nightmares and his fantasies of revenge is healthier than, say, strapping a bomb to himself and walking into a crowded Roman marketplace – which seems to be the modern way of dealing with these situations. And, in fact, by writing them into a story, he manages to work through them. His story brings his horrific experience right up against the great themes of God’s justice and compassion. It helps him to find his way to hope and trust again. Revelation may contain the most nightmarishly violent passages in the Bible, but it also contains some of the most serene and hopeful verses, passages that proclaim in glowing words the promise of a world where violence and grief and death have been left behind.

It all depends on our perspective. When we read Revelation without understanding where it is coming from; and especially when we embrace this language from a position of comfort and privilege and power, then it becomes truly evil. I’m thinking of the pastors who preach with gusto about God’s punishment of those they consider evil and the final reckoning of Armageddon and the final victory of Christian America. Without the background of persecution, they misread the violence of this book as though it came from God, instead of from the other place.

But if we can put ourselves alongside John in our imagination, and remember where this horror is coming from, then there are things we can learn from Revelation that we need to understand.

Firstly, we can learn to understand the persecuted and traumatized of this world better. We can remember that there are many in the world today struggling with the cost of violence, of poverty, of racism. And there are so many traumatized people in the world today: from the villagers of Iraq, caught between the savagery of ISIS and the carnage of American drones; to the children of Attawapiskat, their hope and self-esteem broken by generations of institutionalised racism. We can understand their struggles better by remembering that our relative comfort and security are not necessarily normal, but a great privilege. We can understand their pain, their grief, and yes their rage better by listening to John’s voice, a Biblical voice crying out from the same place.

Secondly, there is a clarity of political insight in Revelation, a strong conviction that the empires of this world are not our friends. It is easy to be taken in by the humane and erudite face of governor Pliny the philosopher to imagine that Rome is the best of possible worlds – it is less easy to believe that when you have met his torturers. Revelation strips away the mask of empire to reveal its ugly face, and tells us that the church can never be allies, but must always be enemies of the violent powers of this world. And that is a lesson as current and necessary today as it was 2000 years ago – we still seem to be easily taken in by the promise of empire.

Thirdly, the perspective of Revelation can teach us to hear the promises of God with new intensity. Not just as a nice idea, a beautiful dream; for those traumatized by the powers of death and violence, these promises are their only hope, their necessary salvation.

In today’s reading, we hear of a great multitude of every nation, gathered in worship around the throne of the Lamb. They have “come through the great ordeal”, they have been “washed in the blood of the Lamb,” which probably meant something more concrete than the pious formula it has become: their own blood has been shed, just as Jesus’s was on the cross. These are the victims of the violence and persecution. And remember, they are not simply a faceless mass to John: he can see among that crowd of martyrs a few faces of people he has known and loved.

It is to these people that the promises of God come. The angel’s words are a wonderful summary of God’s promises, they are packed with a dozen or so allusions to passages in the psalms and the prophets. To us they are beautiful words; but perhaps a little distant. It is only when we read them mindful of the pain and struggle of John and his church, only when we read them mindful of our own pain and vulnerability, that they can really speak with power to our hearts the resurrection hope:

For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’