Picture a long flowing river. The water gathers from the mountain and flows downwards until it becomes wide and fast-flowing. It goes through valleys and past settlements and communities, small branches break off and take different routes. Eventually they all flow out into the deep blue ocean.
This is usually how we think of time. Way back at the beginning of Creation God was like the mighty mountain which the water runs down to form the flowing river of time. As the river proceeds so civilisations rise and fall – we can chart prehistory – the Egyptian kingdoms, the Roman Empire, the spread of Christianity and the West, China, Islam, the Industrial revolution, the rise and fall of communism, right down do the present day and to us standing in Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday 17th April 2017. Tomorrow is not yet mapped out – the future journey of the river of time is unknown and none of us know how our world is from finally being absorbed into the ocean which, perhaps, is also God.
This is how we usually read the Bible. We don’t have to follow the 17th century Bishop Ussher’s precise timeline which set creation at the 23rd October 4004 BC, but we still read the old stories of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and Deborah, of the Kings and Queens of Israel, of the Babylonian Exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem, of Jesus, the disciples, the spread of the Church – as if it is one big long time line. St Paul and the early church, and perhaps Jesus to some extent, thought that we were very close to the end of time – to the time when God would close creation and create a new world.
And so we are all moving fast along the wide and scary river of life – each day we grow, just a little bit older as we move ever forwards, but where and how it will all end we just do not know.
Now imagine a totally different view of time. Instead of a straight line, imagine a fast moving flow of water spiralling down the plug hole. There are little bits of stuff in the water – scraps of food which have been left on the dinner plates when you did the washing up and are now circling round the plughole – imagine a single pea on its journey. The pea goes round and round. If the pea could think then from its perspective, it would probably think that it is simply going in a straight line – every now and then it would pass other objects further in or further out of the spiral. And eventually with a glug it will disappear.
Now hold those two images : straight line, spiralling water : these two images for time are not actually incompatible. From above, we can see the pea on it’s spiral journey, and yet for the pea, it probably feels like a very fast flowing river going in a straight line.
Now what has all this to do with the Bible – you might well be asking. The answer is that whereas most of the Bible is written from the perspective of people who are living in the middle of events and so is more like the linear river looking at causes, events and consequences as they happen in time, the Book of Revelation is more like looking down at the spiralling flow of time as it goes round and round down towards the plug hole from the perspective of someone who is standing over and above the whole thing – seeing the whole of time spiralling round from above – perhaps from the perspective of God. – and that is quite an interesting thought. As Einstein once wrote : the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.
And so, if we begin to think like this, then we can begin to read the Book of Revelation in a new and I think more exciting way. Instead of it being a rather odd prophecy about what is going to happen sometime in the future at the end of the world. – horsemen of the apocalypse, lakes fire and sulphur, torments and plagues and an eventual new creation some time in 2075 or whenever. Or instead of being a description in poetical and imaginative terms of the persecution of Christians in the first century – of The Roman Empire being the whore of Babylon sat on seven hills and of the emperor Nero being the beast whose name is 666, then we can look at it as a dramatic and sometimes violent verbal surrealist painting of all of time: Yes it is surely about the persecutions of Christians under the emperors Diocletian and Nero, and yes it is about the destruction of Jerusalem under the Babylonians, and yes it is about the persecution of faithful Christians throughout the ages including today, and yes it is about the end of time and the second coming which has yet to be.
And in a way this is sort of what the book actually says about itself: It is a vision, not a history. And it blurs the past and present and the future over and over again. Jesus is both Alpha and Omega – he says in the vision: I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end – he does not say I was the alpha and I will be the omega, I was the beginning and I will be the end, – he is both at the same time. Jesus is the one who is and who was and who is to come: the ruler of all things. Jesus is both the lamb who is sacrificed, the lamb who opens the seals, and the shepherd who will lead the people – not one after another, but all at the same time – or is it over and above the same time.
And in a strange sort of way I think this makes more sense of the Book of Revelation than either leaving it to the evangelicals waiting for the Rapture, or to the scholars keeping it in the first century. For like the scraps of food spiralling round and the round the plughole – the Book of Revelation is filled with bits and pieces – quotes and images and words – from the whole of the Bible – Old and New testaments – it is as if the writer in his vision was able to stand above the whole bible and somehow see it all at the same time as the text and stories and images swirl round: trees of life from Genesis, flowing rivers, fire and destruction, wheels and precious stones from Ezekiel, the two olive trees in Zechariah, the new creation from Isaiah…. and on and on it goes – the swirling creation which is the book of Revelation is filled with flotsam and jetsom from the Torah, the prophets, the writings and even the New Testament.
It’s shame then, that in Church we only ever get to read just a few short safe passages from the book of Revelation – and that I have never before preached on it. The Sunday lectionary which we follow – along with Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans across the world, omits all of chapter 2 to 4 and all of chapters 8 to 20 out of a book which only has 22 chapters. Martin Luther wasn’t even sure that we should keep the book of Revelation in the bible at all : I consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic…..I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it,….. for Christ is neither taught nor known in it. he wrote in 1522.
It’s a good job he didn’t get his own way, because I think he was wrong. The Book of Revelations is an apocalypse : an uncovering of all time, and it is Good News: Happy are they who are reading, and hearing the words of the prophecy, and keeping the things written in it – for the time is nigh!
How can this be – you might ask – when so much of the book is taken up with the messengers from God destroying a third of the earth, and the sea, and a third of the creatures on the earth. And I agree, it does challenge us very much with that eternal question of how much God – the almighty, the creator of all things, is ultimately responsible for all the pain and suffering and evil upon the earth – and yet to those who do suffer: whether through persecution by evil emperors or inhuman military regimes in our own days, it tells them that their suffering is never ignored but is seen by God. And to us – who live our more quiet lives and yet struggle with our own mental and physical and relational sufferings – it reminds us that Christ is truly the beginning and the end, that all time belongs to Christ, and that God is truly in and above and over all things – and that the plug hole is not to be feared, but is really a new creation.