Easter 4: 12 May Revelation 7:9-17
The songs in this passage are similar to those we discussed last week when considering Revelation 5:11-14. We are once again in the realm of inspired imagination which assumes honouring in a context not unlike an eastern royal court. We need to hold in our imaginations the subversive imagery of the slain lamb as a symbol of honour. Whatever else is present, the focus is on acknowledging God and acknowledging Christ - and seeing the connection between the two. Always in our corporate worship the ultimate issue is our relationship to the God who enters and engages life in compassion and vulnerability.
The same heavenly figures reappear as in earlier chapters: the living beings, the angels and the elders. Here the focus is believers. In 7:4-8 the author employs numerology to create an image of Israel. The twelve of the twelve tribes is multiplied by another twelve and then put into thousands: thus 144,000. This is strongly Jewish imagery and may allude to the people of Israel, either in a restricted ethnic sense in contrast to Gentiles, or may be a symbol of all believers who are all now seen as Israel. It is, in any case, highly symbolic.
Our passage may be referring to countless others beside Israel or, more probably, it refers in another way to the same group, although there is a tension between the counted group and the countless group. Of course the ancient promise to Abraham was that his seed would be countless. Perhaps the tension, far from being real or deliberate, simply reflects two different sets of images. What connects them is the theme of suffering. Christians of Asia Minor were facing terrible threats. Their horizon informs their image of the faithful: they will suffer in this world. Their vision of the future also reflected the belief that great suffering would face all believers before the climax of history.
The prospect of suffering connected people not only to Christ's suffering - although unlike Mel Gibson's film the focus never seems to be on the extent of suffering - but also to the suffering of Israel reflected in Daniel. Daniel shares so much with the Book of Revelation, not least in the realm of imaginative imagery and visions. Daniel 12 speaks of a time of great distress before God finally intervenes to change things. Revelation reworks Israel's traditions in much the same way as Daniel reworked earlier prophecies.
It is a process of reflective recycling. At its root is a belief in God the deliverer (with or without an agent) and the confidence that God still is a deliverer. The story of rescue from Egypt thus inspired the exiles in Babylonia to believe that their rescue would come. Successive generations would see their own plight in similar terms and hope for a similar rescue until it all seemed too much to be able to occur within history. A change must occur, a massive divine intervention. By Daniel it becomes a total transformation of this life as we know it, so that hope focused on a day of resurrection when the righteous would be raised to a new kind of being. Resurrection became the hope - the only hope in face of overwhelming odds! In some circles this went hand in hand with a day of judgement when fortunes would be reversed and the wicked receive their "just deserts".
Revelation holds out that kind of hope to the Christians of Asia Minor who appear to facing similarly overwhelming odds. It has its own cycles of hope combined with images of judgement on the wicked. It stands in the tradition of writings which make daring use and re-use of images, especially those with a previous history in biblical writings. Ultimately it is asserting that beyond even the worst suffering there is hope, because there is God and because there is the God who is to be seen beside a slain lamb.
7:9 clearly envisages a group much wider than ethnic Israel. Any racial barriers have fallen. All now gather with palms as people did to celebrate the feast of the Tabernacles. Later the author echoes Isaiah 49:10 (7:16) and 25:8 (7:17), texts which celebrate both the gathering of Israel and the gathering of the nations. Scriptures' hopes now envelop all who allow themselves to engaged by the good news. For Revelation that good news focuses primarily on Jesus' death in cultic terms. The shed blood has made forgiveness possible. Cultic imagery also gives us the white robes, like priestly attire and the attire of those who inhabit the sacred heavenly realms. We may recall that at the transfiguration Jesus appeared for a moment in a transformed heavenly state: shining white. The playfulness of the image is striking: washed in blood - but white, not red. In one way it is a reminder that we are in the realm of poetic imagination and that we should not look for logical explanations.
So much of the imagery is strange if not, perhaps, even estranging. Yet it is a way of asserting hope for people who faced hopelessness. It is a way of making God central and keeping the vulnerability of God in our vision. Without that context we might easily see it as self congratulatory: the author clearly assumes he and his hearers will be among these faithful ones. We might view the negative comments in later chapters about those who are to be terrorised by angelic plagues even less sympathetically. Revelation is one of the treasures among early Christian writings more for its imagination of hope than for its images of judgement where it threatens to subvert good news with vengefulness.
First Reading: Easter 4: 12 May Acts
Gospel: Easter 4: 12 May John 10:22-30
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