So, what are we to make of our reading today? The first thing we need to know is that we don’t have to take Revelation literally. There are churches that do, of course, that believe every single word in the Bible is literal truth, word for word. I’ll give you an example, there’s a Pentecostal church in Kentucky in the USA – the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name, it’s called – and it this church 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. The thing is, you might have noticed I’m speaking about Reverend Coots in the past tense. Unfortunately, he died a few years ago. He was 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 I read from Revelation, though. It’s quite clear that everything that takes place here is part of a dream, a vision. Now, I’ve got to say that interpreting visions, or analysing dreams, isn’t an exact science. Despite what psychotherapists like Freud and Jung would say, 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. Just for fun, 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 don’t know anything. I don’t really believe in dream analysis, I suppose. 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.
Revelation is written by a man called John – we don’t know who this John is, it’s almost certainly not the same one who wrote the Gospel – and John, in a vision, a dream, is in heaven. And it’s dazzling. A throne with a person sitting on it, his face gleaming – jasper is a kind of reddish brown, carnelian is orangey-red – there’s 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.’ (1 John 1:5)
‘I am the light of the world.’ (John 8:12)
In front of John is all this light, all this brightness, and that, to me, implies he’s come from a place of darkness. It speaks to us of optimism, I think, that whatever darkness we’re going through, and let’s face it, we’ve been going through some dark times recently, whatever darkness we’re going through, there’s light ahead.
It’s October, just a couple of weeks until the clocks change, an extra hour of daylight in the morning. You know, I used to collect watches and it was important to me that they all showed the right time, even if I wasn’t wearing them, 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 move the clocks back. I don’t collect watches 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 that extra hour of 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 in Revelation, 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 really weird. We hear about four creatures, one like a lion, another like an ox, number three with the face of a man and a fourth that looks like an eagle. And they’ve all got six wings and they’re covered with eyes. Now, I’m fairly 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 it’s all symbolism, we can’t take these descriptions literally. Possibly the most common interpretation of these four creatures is that the lion represents wild animals, the ox stands for domesticated animals, the eagle symbolises animals that fly, and the one with the face of a man is – well, that one’s obvious, I think. And taken as a whole, the four creatures represent all of God’s created species. Six wings? What’s that all about? Well, I think we can turn to the Book of Isaiah for that one, 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 cease to say. Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty.’ Isaiah says that too, about his angels with six wings, only he has them singing. And I think it 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 cease to say.’ Or sing. 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.
We all know the story about David and Goliath. 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 are, it doesn’t matter to God how big our problems, our worries are, but it matters to our giants, our problems, our worries, how big our God is. If we keep our focus on God and what he does for us, if day and night we don’t stop singing to him – not literally, and we’re not allowed to in here anyway, but with our minds – if we don’t stop singing to him then our problems and our worries, our doubts, our fears, the discouragement we feel sometimes, well, they all have a way of working themselves out.
The last image I want to mention from our passage in Revelation this morning, from John’s dream, his vision, is of 24 elders casting 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, ‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power.’ And 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.’ When it all comes down to it, the elders in John’s vision pray the same way as we do, they’re not so different from us.
You know, I said earlier that I don’t really believe in analysing dreams. Well, maybe I’ve spent the last 10 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 informed you. If that’s the case, maybe this’ll help. I was told once by one of my tutors that you should be able to sum up your sermons in one sentence, so here goes. God is the light we need when darkness threatens, and if we focus on him, in our thoughts and our prayers, then all will be well in our lives. And that’s not really too big a Revelation, is it?