Sermon title – A Letter from Above.
Please click on the pdf icon above if you would like to read the Bible readings and the sermon text.
Sermon title – A Letter from Above.
Please click on the pdf icon above if you would like to read the Bible readings and the sermon text.
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?
A leopard never changes its spots. You know that saying. You may have experienced the of truth it. People are what they are. But the spots of course are on the outside, are visible. There is more than the visible, more than meets the eye. So here’s another saying:
‘The strongest people are not those who show strength in front of us but those who win battles we know nothing about’.
Both sayings could be related to Jacob. The grandson of Abraham and Sarah. Sarah had been barren all her life. But the son that was promised by God, was received by them, from God, in their old age. His name was Isaak and he had two sons, twins Esau and Jacob. Brothers fight, it’s normal. However, in the case of Esau and Jacob, that fighting started, seriously, while they were in their mother’s womb, and the one who was born last, actually continued that fighting, as he tried to grab the heel of his brother, the first born. A last attempt to win, to be born first. But he wasn’t born first and therefore didn’t have the first born right. The name of the child that tried to grab the heel of his brother was Jacob, which in Hebrew means ‘heal-sneak’.
Yet, he managed to get the first born right, by stealing it. Pretending that he was the first born, Esau, Jacob managed to make his old father Isaak believe that he was Esau. So Isaak gave him the blessing that was Esau’s. That is how Jacob got the blessing, through a lie. Characterized by his strong will to get what he wanted, including the blessing, Jacob was used to being in control.
Last week we heard how Jacob had to leave his home, his home in the promised land Canaan. He had to leave his beloved mum, dad and angry brother Esau. A painful parting.
Yet, in the midst of his loneliness, God reached out to Jacob, gave him the assurance of His presence, every step of the difficult way that lay before Jacob, despite of what he had done, despite of what he was: a mummy’s boy, used to being spoilt by her, being allowed to live his life on his terms.
Stealing the first born right, that was what crowned it all.
A leopard never changes its spots. Can God change them?
Jacob’s grandfather Abraham was promised by God that his offspring would be as many as the stars and that they would be a blessing to all the nations. But look at this grandson, this dishonest man. How can he, with his dishonest practices, be a blessing to others?
Well, God had incorporated in His plan, an educational plan for Jacob. That plan shaped Jacob’s way, and, as for his deceit from which his father Isaak and brother Esau suffered, the plan included a taste of Jacob’s own medicine.
Jacob fell in love with the youngest daughter of Laban, Rachel, whom he wanted to marry. But Laban made Jacob work for him first, seven years.
So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her. (Genesis 29:20)
However, after the wedding, Jacob realized he had not been given Rachel, by Laban, but Rachel’s older sister Leah.
Surprised why he had been deceived by his father in law, Jacob asked why, to which Laban answered. ‘We don’t give away the younger before the firstborn. Work for Rachel now, and I will give you her’. Another seven years, Jacob had to work, before he was given Rachel.
When God has his educational plan, don’t underestimate it, for it will not fail to serve His purpose. And in His time, God told Jacob to go back to the land Canaan, where he was promised by God a new future. So Jacob returned.
You can imagine, that Jacob was overwhelmed by memories, when the land Canaan came into sight, after all those years.
That’s where we are in today’s first Old Testament reading. Jacob made sure that his family and all his possessions, his wealth, had crossed the water of the Jabbok, first.
Then he is left alone.
Jacob is overwhelmed by his fear, fear to meet Esau. Fear for Esau’s anger, the anger that drove Jacob out of the land, across its borders, years ago.
In the bible we come across a lot of playing with words, with names. In both the name of the river Jabbok and in the name Jacob, you hear the sound ‘abak’ meaning ‘struggle’. And by playing with these two names, the author says to its readers and hearers, ‘Jacob finds himself in a phase of transition. Jacob had to cross the Jabbok, because, symbolically, this water, was filled with all the things inside Jacob. All the things that he needed to face, acknowledge, that he needed to leave behind, before entering into that new future that God had for Him’.
Then, suddenly out of nowhere, ‘someone’ struggled with Jacob. Clearly, this ‘someone’ was involved in Jacob’s crossing, in his transition. This is a wrestling of life and death. Who is this opponent? A river demon? There’s no winner in the sense that we are familiar with. This opponent, in all its mystery, only needed to touch Jacob’s thigh, and it got dislocated. He didn’t need to hit Jacob, didn’t need to strike him. Just touch, the socket of Jacob’s thigh…Whoever this opponent was, this struggle took place in the presence of God. Jacob knows this all too well. The opponent urges Jacob to let him go, but Jacob’s reaction is,
“I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” (Genesis 32:26)
And with saying the name Jacob, all of Jacob’s questionable history came out: the grabbing of his brother’s heel at birth, taking from him his blessing. All the dishonesty, the insistence on a life on his terms, on staying in control, it all came out.
Jacob got the blessing, from the One he was fighting with, but not as Jacob. Not the ‘heel-sneak’ style of Jacob was blessed. A new name, with which Jacob was given a new identity, was given first. Then he was blessed, under the new name Israel, which means, ‘God-Fighter’.
A fundamental change had to happen first, and that change came with a new name.
“Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.
Jacob’s opponent refused to give Jacob His Name. Instead, He gave Jacob the blessing.
The Holy One with the ineffable name gives new names. What that means is that He initiates new beginnings, in His time, for His reasons, in His way, as it is said again in our New Testament reading:
and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’ (Revelation 2:17)
Here we have Christ’s promise that perseverance to stay close to Him, takes us to a into His recreation, a new beginning, symbolized by the giving of a new name, about which no one else knows. That tells us that it’s something intimate, just between Him, the Giver and the receiver.
The way in which God realized his educational plan with Jacob, included wrestling that didn’t leave Jacob without scars. But what Jacob gained through the wrestling was that Jacob’s fear for Esau was conquered. Only then he was ready to learn that the Esau he was so dreading to see, was so not the Esau Jacob had in mind. Instead, it was an Esau in whose face Jacob saw God’s forgiveness. That was Jacob’s entering in his new future.
The way in which God goes His way with each one of us, includes battles and, like Jacob, we don’t come out of them without scars. But it is with those scars that we can move on, into a future that is held in God’s Hand, just as Jacob’s was. And so, The Jabbok story is also our story.
Christ’s promise to us, as we have it in our Revelation passage, is rooted in the promise God once spoke to Israel, with which I end,
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet,
until her righteousness goes forth as brightness,
and her salvation as a burning torch.
The nations shall see your righteousness,
and all the kings your glory,
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate,
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the LORD delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your sons marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.