Understanding the Darkness

‘The Darkest Hour’ is the new film just out about the life of Winston Churchill staring Gary Oldman in the lead role. The portrayal of Churchill is engaging, passionate and at times very funny. Whatever we might think of him, the film makes us acutely aware of the enormity of the task which faced Churchill when he was booted in to be prime minister. The whole world was in turmoil, and the very survival of Britain was at stake. As the war evolved with new nations entering the conflict and different fronts opening up, so there was a need to understand and keep track of everything that was going on. Computer technology was in it’s infancy and there was no such thing as the internet so maps, charts and a huge table with models and flags served to help Churchill and his military leaders understand the complex and ever-changing situation. You can still see these in the Cabinet War Rooms under the streets of Westminster today and learn about the vital role they played in helping to interpret the fast-moving events. Everything would be updated to show the latest positions of troops and supplies. The flags and models would then be moved again to show what might take place in the future.
All of this can be a helpful way of understanding what is going on in the last book of the bible, Revelation, a part of which was read as our second lesson today. The whole book is made up of seven scenes and today’s reading (Revelation 5.1-10) is part of the second scene. Each scene is like a map or chart in the control room, full of different symbols and representations. The control room is in heaven, controlling all that God has and is and will be doing in the life of our world and planet. Just as when we see Churchill’s, war office, we do not immediately recognise what each flag or model indicates on the maps and charts, so we need some help in understanding the imagery used in Revelation. Indeed, we cannot be certain about everything we read in Revelation, but if we can begin to see it as a kind of shorthand for understanding the whole sweep of God’s hand in human history, we have a starting point for getting to grips with the wonderful things God let St John glimpse while he was on the Greek Island of Patmos.
The first of the scenes of the book of Revelation is set on earth. After an encounter with the risen Christ, John is given a message for each of seven churches of his day. And so, we come to the first of the symbols in Revelation, the number seven. It is often thought of as being the ‘perfect number’ representing completeness. In the old testament, we can notice how its use clusters around things to do with the human/divine relationship. Rituals and sacrifices are prescribed in Leviticus as requiring seven of this and that. In six days, God creates the world, but on the seventh, he rested. Can you imagine not living with the cycle of seven days which we call a week? Experiments into people’s work life balance conclude that the human constitution rebels if it is asked to work a longer week. Neither the bible or science can really help us understand what is so special about seven. It would seem that seven is not only the number of completeness but also the essence of everything. Thus, the seven churches picked out in the first part of Revelation represent the whole church, the essence of church. Shortly, we shall see how seven is used in today’s passage.
The second scene of Revelation is introduced at the beginning of chapter 4. ‘After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’ (Revelation 4.1) The voice is the voice of the risen Christ and John is now carried in his vision to heaven itself. A door is open and through the gap, he sees the control room, full of symbols and signs. The remainder of chapter four describe symbols and signs representing the old testament with echoes from Genesis, Exodus and Ezekiel.
But chapter 5, our chapter this morning, brings the drama of the new testament into play, setting it against the background of the old. Central to the scene is the Lamb. In verse 6, he is pictured between the throne, which is the seat of God himself, and the four living creatures and among the elders. The four living creatures can be understood as symbols, flags representing the world of nature, spoilt and broken as humanity sinned against God, now awaiting its redemption. The elders, there are twenty-four of them, are the twelve tribes of the house of Israel and the twelve apostles of the lamb. Together, they make up the whole people of God in both old and new testaments. In the midst of them, in the midst of the created order and the throne of God is the Lamb, standing as if it had been slaughtered. Yet, even though the Lamp appears slaughtered, he has seven horns and seven eyes. Horns indicate his power and the eyes his wisdom; seven of each. From the number, we see that he is the essence of power and of wisdom: ‘Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ (1 Corinthians 1.24)
However, in this scene we see with John, that the one seated on the throne is holding in his hand a scroll, written on both sides and sealed with seven seals. A mighty angel with a loud voice asks who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals? (Revelation 5.2) There is silence. No one is worthy and John weeps. As Paul would have it: ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ (Romans 3.23) Then, in the silence, one of the elders speaks to him: ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’ (Revelation 5.5) The deathly silence is ended, and all heaven sings the triumphant song with which our reading concluded, perhaps best rendered in old English: ‘Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue and people and nation. (Revelation 5.9) Jesus is counted worthy. In our lost world of guilt and sin, he alone lives the perfect life. Only the sacrifice of himself on the cross at Calvary could be sufficient for the silence of heaven to be broken, and a way made for all the peoples of the world to be invited to be redeemed. It is this glimpse into heaven’s control room which should bring us hope in our ‘darkest hour’.
It was the biblical scholar George Caird, professor at Oxford in the sixties, who suggested this way of understanding the book of Revelation and I hope you find it as helpful as I do. However, there is one symbolic item in todays reading we have not yet talked about. What is the meaning of the scroll with the seven seals?
Many teachers and writers have made suggestions. In the chapters which follow, the seals are removed, one by one, but the contents of the scroll itself are not disclosed. Is it not that the scroll is life itself? The life you live and the life I live? We don’t need to be told the contents of life. We know what it is like. The good times and the bad. Happiness and joy rub shoulders with guilt and shame; good health with poor. What we do need is an explanation of life and of history, something to make it all make sense, the violence of the television news, the sadness of the relative struck down with dementia. In the vision which is the book of the Revelation, it is Christ who will show what must take place, the Lamb who alone is worthy to open the scroll and look into it; to explain it. Not the angels, the elders, or the living creatures, no scholar or priest or artificial intelligence can make sense of life. Only Judah’s Lion, David’s Root, the Lamb of God, the babe of Bethlehem, the saviour on the cross, the risen and ascended Lord whose wounds yet visible above are in beauty glorified.
Material drawn from ‘The Message of Revelation’ Michael Wilcock IVP Leicester, England 1975.
Epiphany 2 14.01.2018

Rev Jonathan Smith

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