If you remember last week I left you going down the plughole – that is to say I left you with an image of the Book of Revelation not as a simple prophecy telling us what was going to happen some time in the future at the end of the world – nor as an over-imaginative metaphor of the christian persecutions under the Roman emperor Nero in the first century, but as a colourful overview of the trials and tribulations, the persecutions and the victories of good and evil – the woes of sin and strife with which the world has suffered long as they repeat over and over again until they are eventually all conquered by Christ – what the patristic writers called recapitulation – until the river of time, spiraling round and round eventually glugs down the plug hole.
I also said that the Book of Revelation perhaps more than any other book in the Bible uses quotes and references from other Bible books – The new heaven and the new earth of Isaiah chapter 65, the adorned bride of Isaiah 61, the dwelling of God from John chapter 1 and from Ezekiel 37, the wiping away of tears and end of death from Isaiah 25, making all things new from Isaiah 22, the first and the last from Isaiah 44 – and the gift of water from Isaiah 55. It is as if the writer has taken words and ideas from everywhere else in the Bible like colours on a palate and has put them together into new phrases and new images – to give us a new and somewhat surrealist painting of the heavenly Jerusalem – more like Picasso’s Guernica than a 19th century realist battle scene.
And now – part two of this sermon – I am going to do that very dangerous thing from six feet up in the pulpit and talk about things that I do not understand – parallel universes – the sort of thing we read about in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – where other universes exist, multiple other universes, each one just like ours, except slightly different – where people drink chocolatl not hot chocolate, and where souls live like animals outside the body – a mathematical theory where the Big Bang wasn’t just one Big Bang – once and for all – but just one big Bang of many, each one creating a new universe, and where our world view has to change again – not only is the earth no longer the centre of the universe as people believed for centuries, not even that the Milky Way is just one galaxy among many – something we all learned in the 16th and 20th centuries – but that our own expanding universe is just one universe amongst many expanding sphere-like universes in a new even bigger mega-universe of many universes – and all that in ten – or more – dimensions.
All of which makes the Book of Revelation look very reasonable and somewhat understated. We live in our own little time here on earth, but God looks down from above – or perhaps from the 11th dimension – and sees all times and all places – our beginnings and our ends, our birth, our life and our death, all in one go.
We – as mere mortals – live on one planet, but God sees many universes all at once – and so things we might call battles between angels and devils in the heavens, walls of jasper, sapphire, agate, and emerald, and things we can’t imagine, might possibly happen somewhere in a multiverse multi-dimension theory.
All of which is really quite exciting. For three hundred years we have listened to scientists and atheist philosophers who have told us religious types that God is just a convenient invention to explain things we don’t understand, and that as we discover more and more so we will need God less and less and write God out of history, and now it turns out that as the scientists discover more and more we all realise how very little we know about anything, that the universe is bigger and more confusing than we ever thought possible and that parallel universes of new heavens and new earths, of angels and battles in the sky, and that ideas that prayers and praying might work, aren’t so weird after all.
Which means that the Book of Revelations might really be rather good – and surprisingly for a book which has quite a lot of torment and plagues, I think it means that the Book of Revelation is meant to be a book of hope, not terror – a book to cheer us up on dark nights, when the world News on the television is getting us down, a book to comfort us with the knowledge of God.
As I said last week, we only get a couple of chapters of the Book of Revelation on a Sunday morning in the Church lectionary – we have skipped imperceptibly from chapter 7 last week to chapter 21 this week. So what have we missed? Well, we have missed the scroll with the seven seals, the six trumpets, the seven bowls of God’s wrath, – blood, fire, pain and drought – the fall of Babylon, and then the final destruction of death, Hades and Satan in the lake of fire. And then we come to today’s reading – chapter 21, the new heaven and the new earth. all very comforting – but, if we had read just a couple of verses further our liberal sensibilities might have been shocked : we would have read:
But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
which – you might think – doesn’t sound so hopeful after all. Except that it is. We live in a world where we hear constant news that people die and are tortured at the hands of cowardly, abominable people, murderers, idolaters and liars. If the Truth and Reconciliation has taught us anything it is that the pretense that somehow bad things, evil things don’t matter, is not the way to peace. Pretending that those who are guilty of cowardly, abominable, idolatrous and lying actions can walk into the heavenly bliss as if none of what they have done to others matters is not justice for their victims, nor forgiveness for them either? And what of us – we are sometimes ever so slightly cowardly, or even very slightly abominable sometimes, and we lie – I don’t think we are ready to walk into heavenly bliss just as we are – I don’t even find that thought very comforting. A lake of fire and brimstone and a second death may not sound very nice at first hearing, but perhaps it is precisely what I need, precisely what we all need, just a little, – to give us hope, to help us – and I think that it certainly what some people need quite a lot so that they can find forgiveness – a fire to purify, and yes a second death to die – so that once the body has died, then the soul can also die to cowardice, to murder, to idolatry, to deception – in fact to die to sin which is what St Paul calls us to do daily. Thanks be to God, then, for God’s care and mercy in knowing how to save all people.
As William Shakespeare wrote : whose own death 400 years ago we celebrated yesterday :
“Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come.”
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