Spring in New England is lambing season; they arrive just in time for Easter, all fuzzy, gentle, and innocent as… well, lambs. And with all these lambs popping up in our fields, it seems seasonally appropriate that they pop up in our Easter celebrations — not only in our children’s Easter baskets, but also in our Eastertide readings. Every year, in May, the liturgical calendar marks Good Shepherd Sunday, with verses from the Gospel of John, about the tender shepherd, who calls his sheep by name.
This, however, is not that Sunday.
Today, Jesus appears as the Lamb of God, but not as the sweet and cuddly lamb of our Easter baskets. No, this is a seven-eyed, seven-horned lamb, before whom the people cry out in fear, “Save us from the wrath of the lamb!” It’s like a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Or some sort of B grade horror film. I’ve never seen an Easter card with a seven-eyed, seven-horned lamb on it, and no one would give a child one to play with.
Happy Easter – welcome to the Apocalypse.
The book of Revelation – or, to call it by its Greek name, the Apocalypse — is arguably the weirdest book of the New Testament, and certainly the most violent. Those of us in the mainline churches, who like to think of our faith as rational and peace loving, tend to find Revelation disturbing, if not downright embarrassing. It comes up in the common cycle of scripture readings only every third year, and even then the readings are highly selective; we skip over the most outlandish sections. Meanwhile, in other branches of the Christian family tree, the entire Book of Revelation is embraced as, literally, the final word on their faith – a reliable guide to the end times.
This divergence of opinion is not new. The book of Revelation has been controversial from its beginning. It barely squeaked into the canon; when the church begin drawing up lists of the “official” Christian scripture, there was fairly wide consensus about the Gospels and the Letters, but the church leaders of the day were sharply divided over the Revelation.
So what sort of book is this strange, last chapter of the Bible?
Well, for starters, it is emphatically not a Gospel. The four canonical gospels – the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – are testimonies to the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, as variously remembered and passed on by his Apostles. The gospels claim their authority from this Apostolic witness.
The author of the book of Revelation, however, makes no such claim of Apostolic authority. He tells us his name is John, but John was a common name, and nowhere does he claim to be the Apostle John. We know only this – that he was a first-century Jewish follower of Jesus, that he was exiled to the island of Patmos, and that while there, he saw visions, which he believed were sent by God. It was these visions that impelled him to write his Apocalypsis – a Greek word which means, revelation.
So how are we to read such a book?
Certainly not in the same way we would read a gospel story, or one of Paul’s letters. Dreams and visions have a language and narrative logic of their own. The shape of our dreams is informed by our experiences and our traditions – our external and internal landscapes, if you will – but also by wells of meaning and creativity beyond the grasp of our conscious minds. John had a vision, of a heavenly throne, surrounded by winged creatures, and of a sealed scroll – a secret, waiting to be revealed. He is told that the only one able to open the scroll is the Lion of Judah; but when he appears, he is no lion, but a slaughtered lamb – not the predator, but the prey. Yet somehow, in the way of dreams, he can be both of those things. The one who conquered, is somehow the same one who was slaughtered.
Clearly, this is not meant to be taken literally. Jesus is not, literally, a seven-eyed lamb, any more than he is, literally, a lion. But there are truths best seen in the non-literal world; in the world of dreams, or of poetry, or of imagination; in the world of symbols and signs, of art and archetype.
John’s vision is full of images and phrases from his Jewish faith tradition – the winged creatures around the throne are found in the prophet Ezekiel, the Lion of Judah is a phrase from the book of Genesis, the lamb to the slaughter is an image from the prophet Isaiah. The God of his ancestors has visited John in his dreams, thereby revealing himself to John as God not only of the past, but of the present, and the future – the one who was, and is, and is to come.
It is that God-who-is-to-come that calls to John, that haunts his dreams. For from where John is standing, God has unfinished business.
For where was the promised kingdom of heaven? The Roman Empire was no realm of God. The righteous still perished, while the wicked prospered.
These are the first secrets revealed, when the scroll’s first four seals are broken. The four horsemen of the apocalypse – which is simply to say, the four horsemen ‘revealed’ — embody the injustice and suffering of this world: warfare, civil strife, economic exploitation, an death. None of these is new. None of these is yet to come. They are the terrible reality of our human past and our human present. They were the reality of John’s world as well as of our own, the reality we hide from, the reality we push away from our conscious minds, as perhaps John did. But they emerged in his dreams, taking on the shape of monsters and mythic creatures.
When the fifth seal is broken, it reveals the company of the martyrs, those who have died in witness to their faith, those who have suffered for speaking the truth, those who have been punished for their righteousness. And they cry out the question of all those who thirst for justice: How long? O Lord, how long?
This is the cry of John’s heart as well.
This dream, this revelation, came to John in the midst of a crisis of faith: For he believed God’s messiah had come in Christ; yet the four horsemen continued to ravage the earth. Suffering continued, with no end in sight.
No wonder John dreamed of the End Times.
John needed to know, that the horsemen would not ride forever; he needed to know, that dead would be avenged; he needed to know, that justice would prevail. He needed to know, that the future still belonged to God.
As do we.
There is a deep irony in the fact that this book was the last admitted to the official Canon, before the church sealed it shut. For its very existence points beyond the traditions of the faith, beyond the teachings of the elders, beyond the infallibility of scripture, even. The book itself warns that nothing may be added to its words; but the book itself is an addition, a divine addendum, an acknowledgement of truth yet to break forth. The Bible ends, not with a period, but with a comma.
The very possibility of revelation — of dreams yet to be dreamed, of deeds yet to be accomplished, of surprises yet to come — is deeply hopeful. For like John, we live in an unfinished world, and so we need an unfinished gospel.
John’s dreams may not be our dreams, but perhaps their presence among these holy writings can give us permission, and courage, to dream our own dreams, and hear the word that God is still speaking, to us.
Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
May 5, 2019
The First Church of Deerfield, MA
Lead photo shows Jacob sheep lambs (from JacobSheepSociety.com),
who grow up to look like this (from WashingtonPost.com)