Rev. Moodie is away on leave. He will resume preaching on the 26th September. While he is away, links to other NSPCI online services can be found on the NSPCI website: Click Here
EVERYBODY HURTS – Exploring the book of lamentations
About 13-14 years ago, at the Church I ministered in just East of Johannesburg, we did a preaching series called “Songs that Speak”. In it we reflected on the words of a variety of popular secular songs and how perhaps God could speak to us through the lyrics of those songs. One of the songs we reflected on was the 1993 REM hit song called Every Body hurts. The lyrics are really simple:
When the day is long
And the night, the night is yours alone
When you're sure you've had enough
Of this life, well hang on
Don't let yourself go
'Cause everybody cries
And everybody hurts sometimes
Sometimes everything is wrong
Now it's time to sing along
When your day is night alone (Hold on, hold on)
If you feel like letting go (Hold on)
If you think you've had too much
Of this life, well hang on
'Cause everybody hurts
Take comfort in your friends
Don't throw your hand, oh no
Don't throw your hand
If you feel like you're alone
No, no, no, you are not alone
If you're on your own in this life
The days and nights are long
When you think you've had too much of this life to hang on
Well, everybody hurts sometimes
And everybody hurts sometimes
And everybody hurts sometimes
So hold on, hold on
Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on
No, no, no, no you are not alone
Over the past 28 years since the song was released it has proved enormously popular. It has been covered by a number of other singers and bands, like Joe Cocker, The Corrs, and even a Catholic Priest, Father Ray Kelly from Old-Castle in County Meath when he sang it at his opening appearance on Britain's Got Talent.
What makes it so popular and perhaps also so powerful is that it captures a universal human experience of pain and suffering. It is a song that almost everyone can relate to because it helps us to get in touch with our own pain, our own suffering, those times when we have felt like giving up, those times when we have had to hold on, those times when we have felt alone and when the day has felt like night to us.
I believe that one of the reasons for the enduring power of the Bible is very similar to the enduring popularity of REM’s song ‘Everybody Hurts”. Like REM’s song, a large part of the Bible’s power is that it captures universal human experiences. Through most of its pages, the Bible describes ordinary people, in familiar situations of conflict, situations of pain, of trials, temptations, and situations of deceit and betrayal. And so the Bible is a bit like a mirror, through which we see ourselves.
One of the things that the Bible does is remind us in a powerful way that (in the words of Jesus) in this life you will have tribulations. We live in a world where suffering is an ever-present reality. It is one of the inescapable facts of living in this world. No-one is exempt from the suffering of this world. Even Jesus, who Christians refer to as God’s Son was not exempt from suffering.
And so it seems quite symbolic that in the heart of the Bible, almost near it’s centre we find a short books of 5 poems called the Book of Lamentations. Lamentations is a book that has sometimes been ascribed to the Prophet Jeremiah, but most scholars suggest that the author is unknown.
The Book of Lamentations consists of five poems of lament. Poems of weeping and wailing, written as a response to the most catastrophic and devastating experiences in the life of the Jewish nation up to that point. After 500 years of living in the land of Israel or Palestine and establishing themselves in the land, after a two year siege, in the summer of 587 BC, the Babylonian Army stormed Jerusalem, the capital city, destroying it completely, along with it’s temple. It was all decimated. Gone. And large portions of the Jewish population shipped off to live as exiles a foreign land, amongst a foreign people, who spoke a foreign language.
It would have been a little bit like if Nazi Germany having invaded Northern Ireland, decimating the city of Belfast and its central places of worship, uprooting people from their homes and ancestral lands and deporting large portions of the population to live somewhere in new Nazi Reich, being treated as foreigners and outsiders and being forced to learn and communicate in German. If we can begin to imagine that, then you have an inkling of how devastating this must have been for them. They had lost everything.
In response to this devastating upheaval, an anonymous Jewish poet wrote five poems of lament to express the devastating sense of grief, anguish and distress that they had experienced in the Babylonian invasion.
Tim Mackie makes the point that the design of these five poems is very intentional. Each of the first four poems in written as alphabet poems. This means that each verse begins with the next letter of the alphabet. And thus it is as though the poet is expressing the full extent, the A-Z, of the suffering of the people of Israel. He also suggests that the ordered and linear structure of the poems stands in stark contrast to the disordered pain and confused grief of the people of Israel. The poet is seeking to express in words, emotions and feelings which are ultimately inexpressible.
The first poem focusses on the grief and shame of the city of Jerusalem which is personified as a widow called ‘Lady Zion’ and also referred to as the ‘Daughter of Zion’. She grieves alone. She has lost everything. No-one comes to comfort her.
The second poem focusses on the fall of Jerusalem. The poet interprets the fall of Jerusalem as God’s punishment due to the people’s sin. In a world view in which God was understood as being responsible for all the events of life, this was a natural thing to do. But it is an interpretation that raises a number of questions. Does God really punish people using foreign invading armies who come in, pillaging, raping and murdering, even little babies? As much as this was the sincere interpretation of the author of the poem, it is an interpretation that I would struggle with.
I have a sense from reflecting on the life of Jesus, who we call the son of God, that living in the way of God is no guarantee against suffering and certainly does not mean that God will protect one from invading armies. The Book of Job reminds us that even the righteous suffer. In fact Jesus seems to suggest in places that those who are faithful to God may in fact suffer even more than others as a result of their faithfulness.
The third poem is the longest poem in the book. Instead of having just one verse per letter of the alphabet, this poem has three verses per letter. The central character in this poem is a suffering man, who stands as a representative of the people and who speaks out their grief and suffering. In this section of the book, the author has drawn language from other parts of the Bible, from the book of Job, from some of the Psalms as well as from the Suffering Servant poems of Isaiah. In the midst of the pain of lament and grief, this poem offers the only words of hope in the whole of the book of Lamentations: “Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed, for his compassion's never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (3:22-23)
Even in the midst of this great and devastating suffering, the poet continues to believe that at the heart of life there is an essential goodness that will not abandon them forever. And so he writes: “The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him. It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”
In a verse that Jesus quotes in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, the poet writes: “Let them offer their cheeks to the one who would strike them...for the people are not cast off by the Lord forever, though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love.” (3:30-32).
The fourth poem is a description of the two year seige that lead to the fall and destruction of Jerusalem. In this poem, the poet contrasts the glories and blessings of the past with how terrible things became during the siege of Jerusalem.
As Tim Mackie summarises: “The children used to laugh and play in the streets, but now they beg for food. The wealthy used to eat lavish meals, but now they eat whatever they can find in the dirt. The royal leaders used to be full of splendour, but now they are famished and dirty and unrecognizable. And the anointed king from the line of David has been captured and dragged away.”
The Fifth and final poem is different from the other four because in the fifth poem, the poet has abandoned the alphabet structure. As Tim Mackie puts it, “It is as if the poet cannot hold it together any-more, and his grief has exploded into chaos. The poem itself is a prayer for God’s mercy, written on behalf of the people of God. The first line: “Remember Lord what has happened to us, look and see our disgrace. We have become fatherless, our mothers are widows, women have been ravished, princes have been hung up by their hands, elders are shown no respect, boys stagger under loads of wood”. In verse 15 “Joy has gone from our hearts; our dancing has turned into mourning.”
The poem ends with a plea for God to restore them: “Restore us to yourself O Lord, that we may return. Renew our days as of old, unless you have rejected us forever.” (5:21-22).
Tim Mackie puts it like this: “Suffering in silence is just not a virtue in this book. God’s people are not asked to deny their emotions but voice their protest, to vent their feelings and to pour it all out before God.”
One of the interesting things about the book of Lamentations is that God does not speak. God is seemingly silent. The voice of God is not heard. And that too is often the feeling and experience of many who suffer in this world, the seeming silence of God.
While the voice of God is not heard to speak in the book of Lamentations, we do hear the whisper of God’s voice in other parts of scripture reminding us that in the midst of our hurt and pain, even though it may seem like it, we are never alone:
Psalm 139: 11-12 “If I say ‘Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light become night around me’, even the darkness will not be dark to you, the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
Psalm 23:4 “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...you are with me”.
Matthew 28:20, the final verse in Matthew’s Gospel, the words of the crucified and risen Christ: Surely I am with you always.
In the REM song we hear these words:
So hold on, hold on
Hold on, hold on,
No, no, no, no you are not alone.
SERMON - Rev. Brian Moodie
Exploring Revelation – Epilogue - Reflections of our Inner World.
In my 20's I read a biography of Carl Jung that made a big impact on me. Carl Jung was one of the great early modern psychologists. He was both a student and a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, but very soon began to explore far beyond the framework within which Freud worked. At a time when science was on the ascendency and people were more and more viewed simply as physical beings with firing synapses in the brain, Carl Jung through his explorations of the human mind, as well as the explorations of religious traditions and myths of cultures all around the world, asserted the reality of the spiritual, and the depths of the inner life.
In a BBC interview which aired during October 1959, Carl Jung told John Freeman about growing up as a pastor’s son in the Swiss Reformed Church. As a boy he went to Sunday services and believed in God. In response John Freeman asked whether Jung still believed in God. Jung answered,
"Now?" Jung asked and then paused: "Difficult to answer. I know. I don’t need to believe. I know."
For Carl Jung who clearly valued his Christian heritage, but who didn't consider himself a Christian in any traditional sense of the word, God was a reality to be experienced, not to be believed in.
Carl Jung also asserted that dreams were one of the ways in which human beings can get in touch with the world of spirit and through which God, the Divine Intelligence and Deeper Wisdom of Life could speak to human beings. Mythology for Carl Jung was also a way in which human beings, often using dream like imagery could give expression to the inner world of the psyche and the soul.
One of the principles on which Carl Jung operated in working with dreams is that all the symbols and characters within a dream are in fact symbols for different parts of ourselves. A similar assertion can be made with mythology. All of the characters in mythology can be seen and interpreted as symbolic representations of ourselves. This approach has been very influential, even in the interpretation of our Christian Scriptures. It is an approach that suggests that all the characters in the Bible, can be interpreted as symbols of the soul and of the human psyche.
This approach can be used of almost any passage of Scripture, but over the past few weeks, as we have explored the book of Revelation, it has made me wonder whether this interpretative approach may in fact offer a very helpful and creative way to interpreting the book of Revelation.
There is something very dream-like about the book of Revelation. In dreams, you often have images flowing one into another in a way that is often difficult to make sense of at first. That could be a fair commentary on the book of Revelation. In a dream like way, the book flows from one scene to another, as imagery and symbolism gives way to further imagery and symbolism.
And so, what might it look like if one were to adopt this approach of interpretation and apply it to the book of Revelation?
Firstly, the opening image of Christ, with white hair and sword coming out of his mouth could be interpreted to represent the higher wisdom within us.
The Seven Churches could represent the various dimensions of our conscious selves as we interact with the world. There are parts of us that are faithful to our higher principles, and there are parts of us that are unfaithful and very easily and quickly compromise. There are parts of us that are apathetic, neither hot nor cold. In the midst of the letters written to these seven churches, there is the image of Christ standing at the door knocking. It could be interpreted as an image of our higher self, knocking at the door of our conscious life, seeking to have space within us.
In the next scene we see the throne of heaven and we encounter the Lamb seated with God on the throne. The Lamb could be interpreted as representing the child-like innocence within us. Our original innocence and purity.
A detail that I have not yet mentioned in our preaching series are the saints or martyrs that are trapped underneath the altar of God in chapter 6 . It is interesting imagery. In the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, some Anglican Churches and some Lutheran Churches, this image of the martyrs trapped beneath the altar led to the centuries old-practice of placing relics of the saints, bones, teeth, pieces of clothing etc... underneath the altar in the Church. That is just an interesting aside. But from a spiritual and psychological perspective, this image of the martyrs or saints trapped beneath the altar is a very powerful symbol of those parts of ourselves that have been denied, repressed and even disowned within us. If we are to grow to full spiritual and psychological maturity, it will require that we get in touch with these trapped and disowned parts of ourselves that long to be free and whose prayers rise up deep from within our hearts crying out for recognition.
A number of years ago, I went to counselling with a much older colleague in the ministry. He worked with the enneagram as a tool for spiritual and psychological growth. He shared some of his own story, how he had found himself in a place of depression and psychological difficulty. He had been trying to model his own life and ministry on another minister who he held in very high regard, and yet he he found himself in a very dark psychological place where he felt disconnected with God and with himself. As he began to work with the Enneagram he began to see firstly that he was in fact a very different personality from the colleague that he so admired. He realised that trying to emulate this well respected colleague he had actually begun to lose touch with the uniqueness of his own personality. It was as he began to explore the 4th personality on the Enneagram, the artist, that he began to realise that there was a buried artist within himself, that he had been in touch with as a child, but as he grew into adulthood, he had left it behind, forgotten and even denied. In trying to emulate someone else, he in effect discovered that the artist within him had become like a martyred victim of who he thought he should be. The artist within him had become denied, hidden and trapped under the sacred altar of his life.
He discovered that as he began to make time each week to give creative expression to the hidden and forgotten artist within him, drawing and painting, he very soon began to come to a place of much greater psychological balance and ease. It raises questions for all of us: What parts of ourselves have we denied. What parts of ourselves have we in effect martyred and left trapped and crying out under the sacred altar of our lives?
The next images that we encounter in the book are three sets of judgements that are poured out upon the earth. I wonder if these sets of judgements could be interpreted as the spiritual and psychological fallout that begins to happen when we deny and disown important aspects of ourselves. Sometimes it can begin to feel like our inner world is beginning to cave in on top of us.
The next dream like image that we encounter is the Beast. Is it possible that the Beast in the Book of Revelation could represent our unevolved animalistic behaviour. It is part of ourselves, and shouldn't be denied or disowned, because when it is denied and disowned it can rise up from the sea of our sub-conscious life and begin to wreak all sorts of havoc in our lives.
I think it is also true that sometimes things that we think are Beasts in our lives turn out not to be beasts at all. A few months ago, Wendy had a very interesting dream. In it she was being pursued by some kind of monster or beast. It was quite scary. But when the beast caught up with her and she was forced to face it she discovered that it had a face as soft and lovable as a puppy.
Closely related to the beast in Revelation is the dragon who is a symbol of evil and darkness and chaos within us. There again, the dragon is an aspect of ourselves. We all have a dragon within us. The potential for great evil exists within each and every human being. Most human beings prefer to pretend that the dragon does not exist within us. We prefer to identify the dragon as existing outside of ourselves. But as we saw in one of our earlier weeks, the line between good and evil does not run between people, it runs through every human heart. When we deny the dragon within us, the danger is that we become blind to it. Because we only want to see ourselves as good, we fail to become aware of the potential for darkness too. I think the English saying about keeping your enemies close applies equally on an inner psychological level. When you become aware of the dragon within you and are thus able to keep an eye on it, it is much healthier than pretending that it doesn't exist and therefore becoming blind to its influence in our lives.
The beast and the dragon are also accompanied in this section of the book by a false prophet. Is it possible that the false prophet is a symbol of our own self-delusion and the unwillingness to see the truth of ourselves?
Some would suggest that the beast and the dragon are images of self-centeredness, self-interest, self-gratification, self glorification and even self-righteousness. These are the characteristics we would apply to someone who we might describe as egotistical.
The image of the warrior Christ in Revelation 19 could stand as a symbol of the warrior within each of us. While there is an innocent lamb within us that needs to be enthroned in our hearts, there are also times in our lives where we need to live with enormous courage, and to muster up within us all of our energies to meet the challenges of our lives and the challenges of our inner world. The warrior Christ in Revelation 19 who is called just and true represents the mustering up of our inner energies in acts of courage that are not for selfish and self-centered purposes, but rather for altruistic purposes that are just and true.
The image of the burning lake of fire and brimstone which is often popularly interpreted to represent hell could represent the pain of remorse, self-condemnation and the searing pain of guilt, while the second death in this same passage represents the destruction of all our 'man-made' and un-evolved conditions, thus echoing the idea of the fire representing the process of spiritual purification.
The Temple of God could represent the presence of God and the Mind of Christ within us, that as we grow to greater and greater spiritual maturity, the Mind of Christ and the Presence of God become greater and greater realities in our personality and experience.
And lastly, the New Jerusalem could represent the fully evolved and fully mature soul that is now at one with Divinity, represented by the marriage with the Lamb. The river that runs through the centre of the holy city representing the spirit of God flowing freely through the life of the one who has grown to spiritual maturity, bringing blessing and refreshing to others.
And the tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nation represents how the life of one who has become one with the Divine becomes a healing presence within the world.
This is just a rough exploration today, but it perhaps helps us to catch a glimpse of the riches of Scripture. They don't only have to be interpreted in one way. Like a diamond that reflects light in different directions and can often reflect many different colours, scripture can be viewed from different perspectives, revealing different levels of meaning and different aspects of ourselves as we grow to greater and greater maturity in relations to the Divine.
And so when you read a passage about Christ, on an historical level, one can see Christ as an historical person who lived in time and history and who made one of the biggest impacts upon history of almost any human being. But it is also possible in reading passages about Christ to see Christ as a representation of an important aspect of our own inner lives. For Carl Jung, Christ stood as an image or a symbol of some of the higher aspects of the true self.
SERMON - REV. BRIAN MOODIE
SERMON TEXT - Exploring Revelation Week 10 - A New Heaven, A New Earth, Eden Restored.
I have begun to wonder whether there may be more jokes about St Peter and the Pearly Gates than any other jokes:
There are certainly plenty of Cartoons Featuring St Peter and the Pearly gates.
One that I really enjoyed this past week was St Peter standing behind his podium with the book open. There before him on a puffy white cloud is a little dog looking up at him. And St Peter with an open smiling face says: Well, what a good dog you are!
There was also one for cat lovers. The caption at the bottom of the cartoon says: “How cats came to have 9 lives”.
In the cartoon itself, St Peter is standing next to the pearly gate, which he has half-opened. Sitting in front of the gate of heaven is a cat with St Peter saying: Make up your mind! Are you going in or not?
In the last 10 years or so, it seems that the Book of Life has now been exchanged for a computer. In one of the cartoons, a you boy is standing in front of St Peter and St Peter says to him, “Don’t worry, this is just a near-death experience, but while you’re here, would you help me with this computer?”
As we continue our exploration of the book of Revelation, it is interesting to note that the idea of the pearly gates comes from Revelation 21 where the New Jerusalem is described as having 12 gates and each of those gates is made of a single pearl.
Last week we explored Revelation 20 and the lake of burning sulphur or the lake of fire and brimstone. Examining the passage more closely, we explored the possibility that the lake of fire and brimstone is a symbol of spiritual purification rather than a symbol of eternal damnation and torture. One of the biggest clues is that the kings of the earth who waged war against Christ in Revelation 19 are are then seen bringing their splendour into the New Jerusalem in chapter 21:24. And this occurs after the lake of burning fire.
Having explored the Lake of Burning Sulphur last week, I would now like to explore Revelation 21 and the opening verses of chapter 22 which introduce us to 4 images: The New Heaven and the New Earth, the Wedding of the Bride and the Lamb, the New Jerusalem, and Eden Restored.
Last week I had said that a deep fear of Hell as a place of eternal divine punishment is consistently associated with lower happiness, lower life satisfaction, lower self-esteem, lower psychological coping and lower health resilience. Today as we look at Revelation 21, it is perhaps worth noting that studies also suggest that belief in a supernatural heaven is consistently associated with greater happiness, and greater life satisfaction. In short, belief in some kind of heaven can actually have a positive influence on one’s life in this world.
And that brings us to Revelation 21 and the beginning of Revelation 22. These passages perhaps more than any other in the Bible have been the basis for much of Christian belief in heaven. But what is interesting about them, is that they don’t actually give a literal description of heaven at all. Rather this section of Revelation provides us with 4 major symbols that describe the end of evil and the consummation of history, so that history finds it’s fulfilment, it’s final resolution in union and communion with God.
The first image that we encounter is the image of the New Heaven and the New Earth. It is an image that John draws from the writings of Isaiah 65. For the Jews to whom the prophet was writing, the promise of a new heaven and a new earth was poetic language expressing the Jewish hope of how life would be transformed when God would finally restore the glory of Israel and the glory of Jerusalem following after their exile in Babylon and their return to a new and rebuilt Jerusalem. When this promise was never fulfilled as they had hoped it would be, the symbolism of a new heaven and a new earth remained a metaphor and a symbol expressing their ongoing hope that one day God would intervene and re-establish the glory of Israel.
By the time that Revelation was written, the new heaven and new earth had come to be associated not just with the restoration of Israel, but with the renewal of all things when Christ would come to bring all of history to it’s consummation.
The second image that we encounter is the image of the New Jerusalem. Again, this was a symbol and a promise that went back to the Babylonian invasion of Judea which led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and led to the Jews spending around 70 years in exile in Babylon. It was in Babylon that the prophet Ezekiel began to plant seeds of hope into the hearts of these exiled Jews, painting a description of the restoration of Israel like dry dead bones being brought back to life. In a passage designed to inspire hope for the future and a return to a restored Jerusalem, Ezekiel writes of being given a measuring rod with which he is instructed to measure out the dimensions of a New Temple in the restored Jerusalem.
But the glory of the new temple was never actually restored. The dream of a renewed Jerusalem remained a deferred hope for the future. In Revelation, this image of hope for the future is utilised by John. In a similar scenario to Ezekiel, John is handed a measuring rod of gold with which he is to measure the Holy City, the New Jerusalem. What he measures is a perfect cube – it is meant to symbolize the holy of holies in the old temple in the earthly Jerusalem which contained the tabernacle of God’s presence. Now in the heavenly city of Revelation 21, the whole city has become the holy of holies in which the fullness of God’s Presence is manifest.
The third image we encounter is the image of the wedding of the bride, the wife of the Lamb. The bride is the New Jerusalem itself, and thus, the New Jerusalem is more than a city, but rather a symbol of the very people of God. The image and symbol of marriage is one that runs throughout the whole of the Bible. It is an image that is constantly used to describe the relationship between God and God’s people. The Jews had come to believe in their epic history and sacred story that when God had rescued their ancestors from slavery in Egypt and led them out to Mount Sinai where he had given them the 10 commandments, that this was a kind of a marriage ceremony where God pledged to be their husband, caring for them and protecting them. But time and again, prophets, like Hosea, wrote of how Israel had behaved like an unfaithful spouse. But the promise and hope remained that one day the remarriage and consummation between God and his people would take place.
For the earliest Christians, the hope of the return of Christ was looked forward to as wedding feast in which the final consummation of all things would be like a moment of communion and union between humanity and the divine. God would dwell with them. They would be his people, and he would be their God.
The fourth image that we encounter is the image of Eden Restored in the first 5 verses of chapter 22.
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse.”
This passage is a combination of imagery from Ezekiel 47 and Genesis chapter 2. The river of the water of life is described in Ezekiel as flowing from the midst of the temple that makes abundant life flourish where-ever it flows. It is as though this river restores the life and joy of the original Eden. In verse 3 we are told that there will no longer be any curse. And this takes us back to the mythical garden of Eden where after Adam and Eve in disobedience to God eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they bring a curse upon themselves and also upon the whole of God’s creation. But in Revelation 22, we see that the curse of Genesis is now turned around and removed. And in the renewed Eden, in place of the tree that brought a curse upon them, there is instead the tree of life that brings healing to the nations.
This is all symbolic language, and I believe it is meant to point to the intuition in the heart of every human being that there is a realm or a spiritual dimension to life where there is a true refuge and a solace from the struggles, pain and turmoil of this world of birth and death in which we live.
There are some who suggest that Revelation 21 and 22 is ultimately not about the end of historical time at all. Rather the symbolism in these chapters speak of a mystical or spiritual union with the Divine so that even in this world it is possible that we can be in touch with a spiritual dimension to life in which we are so in touch with the infinite peace of God that the pain and struggles of this temporary life taken on a whole different perspective. It is like being in a traffic jam. When you're in the midst of it one can feel desperate and frantic. But if you were in an aeroplane looking down on that same traffic jam, it would look and feel completely different.
Whether it be in this life or the next, what Revelation 21 and 22 reminds us is that we were made for a life of union or communion with the Divine. That is our final destiny. It is the true meaning, purpose and consummation of life. As the writer of Ecclesiastes so poetically puts it: God has placed eternity in our hearts. And if it is eternity, the world of the spirit, that is our truest destiny, our truest meaning, and our truest purpose, then our hearts will never truly be fulfilled with anything less than that.
May we remember that this world of impermanence, this world of birth and death will never fulfil our hearts truest and deepest desires. Only the infinite life of God’s Spirit can do that. May we remember that our truest and deepest purpose will never be fulfilled by any temporary glory that a city in this world can offer. Our truest and deepest purpose and satisfaction in life will only be fulfilled by that which is Eternal that dimension to life that is beyond time, beyond birth, beyond death and which is symbolised by the eternal city, the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21. This is a promise not just for a future world. Even in this world, we can begin to see with the eyes of the New Creation, the New Heaven and the New Earth right here in our midst.
SERMON - REV. BRIAN MOODIE
SERMON TEXT - The Fire and Brimstone of God's Love?
What is the real meaning of Fire and Brimstone?
Looking back over my life, I have come to realise that much of my early life had been lived with an underlying fear of hell. It seems strange to hear myself even say this, because I did not grow up in a conservative evangelical church where sermons of fire and brimstone were preached. Quite the contrary, I grew up in a church and under a minister who consistently preached of the wide embracing love of God. One of his most memorable statements I heard as a teenager was the following:
“There is nothing you can do that will make God love you any more than God loves you right now. And there is also nothing that you can do that will make God love you any less than God loves you right now!”
And if you hear me quoting time and again from Matthew 5 about God’s love that shines on good and bad alike, then it is almost certain that you are hearing the preaching of the Rev. Ray Light echoing down the years through my own preaching today.
And yet despite this, there was still a deep fear of hell and separation from God, the source of love.
This underlying fear of hell perhaps became most pronounced in my life when at the age of around 21 in the late 90s I slipped into quite a deep depression. I was becoming aware of the injustices of Apartheid South Africa, and that I had grown up in a life of relative privilege and that in effect my privileged existence as a young white South African had largely been built on the foundations of systemic injustice and oppression. Not only that, but I had also recently read a book on ecology that highlighted the looming environmental crisis and which highlighted how our modern industrialised life-style was destroying the planet and God’s beautiful creation.
In short, what I had come to realise at the age of 21 was that sin is not just personal. There is a societal, communal and structural dimension to sin. And here it was that I began to discover that separating myself from sin was not as easy as I thought. There were ongoing sins of injustice that I was a part of that I had little to no control over and yet which I continued to benefit from.
And so it was that I found myself in a spiritual crisis that led me to fall into quite a deep and lasting depression and existential crisis. And it was perhaps only looking back on that experience a decade or so later that I realised that underlying that existential crisis, and underlying that depression was a fear of hell the fear of eternal alienation and rejection by God.
About 10 years ago, I read a book by a psychiatrist who was working with a young Christian woman who was dealing with debilitating mental health issues. Her life had become a living hell of anguish and anxiety. And at the core of the problem he discovered was a deep fear of hell and rejection by God that had made her inner world a living hell of anguish.
I have began to see that this fear of hell and fear of being rejected by God is perhaps far more wide-spread, that there are many others who live half unconscionably with this fear.
This week I saw on the internet a psychological study that suggests that a belief in hell as a super-natural place of eternal punishment, or alienation from God, does have the benefit of creating lower national crime rates, but it also comes with a dark shadow. Studies also suggest that a fear of hell is consistently associated with lower happiness, lower life satisfaction, lower self-esteem, lower psychological coping and lower health resilience.
And all of this brings us to the lake of Fire and Brimstone or the lake of burning sulphur in Revelation 20. More than any other passage in the Bible, Revelation 20 has fed the popular imagination with the image and the deep fear of being hurled into a burning in hell for all eternity.
Today I would like to invite all of us to hopefully see this passage in a whole new light, because I believe that when you look more closely at the symbolism and imagery of this passage, you will see some very interesting things:
The first interesting thing we see is the description of burning sulphur. In older translations like the King James and the Geneva Bible it was translated a brimstone. Brimstone is and old English short-hand for burning stone, and it referred to burning sulphur. What is interesting about burning sulphur is that in ancient times burning sulphur was believed to be able to ward of disease and contagion. And so sulphur would have been used for purifying purposes to purify something.
It raises the question, is the lake of burning sulphur, not a place or a symbol of eternal punishment at all, but rather a place or a symbol of purification?
Secondly, the Greek word theion that is translated as brimstone or burning sulphur is a fascinating one. Theion is closely related to the Greek for theios meaning divinity. And the Greek word theios in turn comes from the root word Theos meaning God. If one were to look at the more literal meaning of the word theion, it is a noun that would more literally mean ‘the substance or the stuff of God’.
The burning lake of fire is made up of God-stuff. And so when we read that the Devil and the beast and all those whose names are not written into the Book of Life are thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, it could also be interpreted to mean symbolically, that they are thrown into the fire of God’s substance or the fire of God’s essence. And what is the essence of God? According to John’s epistle, God’s essence is ultimately love (1 John 4:4).
Is it possible that the lake of burning sulphur at the end of Revelation is not the fire of eternal punishment, but rather the purifying fire of God’s love? And the purpose of that purifying fire of God’s love is not to torture those who are thrown into it, but rather to burn away all that is not love within us.
Near the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus is described with two words: grace and truth. It is a reminder that there is no grace or love without truth also. To be thrown into the fire of God’s purifying love is also an encounter with the searing truth of our sin, selfishness and darkness.
One of the most painful things many of us experience in this life, apart from the pain of grief, is the pain of truth, seeing ourselves as we really are. It is one of the most painful things to stand up and be honest and to apologise when we know we have done something wrong. We like to project the best version of ourselves to the world, and try to hide the darker parts even from ourselves.
Last week Wendy and I watched the last two episodes of the BBC drama series called "Time", set in a prison in the north of England. Apart from the difficulties of prison life, what the TV series reveals is that perhaps the most painful and difficult thing that many prisoners experience is the pain of owning up to and admitting the truth of what they have done. For one of the prisoners in the series, it is so painful that he slides into the downward spiral of drug abuse to cover up the searing pain of the truth.
Is it possible that part of the searing pain of being thrown into the fire of God’s love is that it will ultimately require us to see the truth about ourselves and what we have done, because you cannot be purified and cleansed of those things that you cannot admit. Even the Greek word which is sometimes translated as torture and sometimes as torment in verse 10 comes from the root word to examine.
Being thrown into the fire of the substance of God’s love can be a painful experience, not because it is meant to torture and punish us, but because of how painful it is to see, acknowledge and admit our sin, in order that it might finally be burned away forever and ever.
Thirdly, isn’t is fascinating that death and hades are also thrown into the fire of burning brimstone.
For the apostle Paul, death was regarded as the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor 15:26). But for the Apostle Paul, death was more than a physical process; it is also a spiritual condition which included everything that separates us from union with God. “This is the second death” of Revelation 20:14. It is the death of death itself and thus the death of all that separates us from God. It is the promise of the new heaven and the new earth of Rev 21 - “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. And death will be no more.”
But along with death, hades is also thrown into the fire. Hades in ancient cosmology was the place of the dead but it was also a word used by Jews to refer to hell. What we see in Revelation is the “Death of death and hell’s destruction” as we sing in the popular hymn. It suggests that God’s intention is that no-one should be trapped in places of spiritual death and hell for eternity. All forms of death and hell are to be destroyed in the fire of God’s love. In the end, even the hell of our own guilt and shame and our own struggle to forgive ourselves will be burned away until only God’s tender love and mercy will remain.
And now I would like to end with what for me is perhaps the most important part of the book of Revelation, and the most profound end to the whole Bible:
It is often missed, a throw away verse tucked away at the end of the book of Revelation is a message of God’s ability to heal, transform and save even the most wicked and rebellious.
In Revelation 21:24, all the wicked kings of the earth, who made pacts with the Beast and waged war against Christ and the armies of heaven are welcomed and included into the New Jerusalem of God’s love. Far from being banished to a place of eternal punishment as we might have expected, the very kings of the earth who made pacts with the beast, and waged war against Christ, now, having been purified and cleansed in the fiery lake of God’s love, are also welcomed and included into the City of God.
And, if there is a place for the wicked kings of the earth in the New Jerusalem, there is surely also a place for you and for me.
I would like to end with a quote from Steven Gray also known as Adyashanti
“The perspective of love doesn’t leave anybody out. Love even loves those who don’t love. The only chance that those who don’t love have to change, is to come into contact with that love.”
SERMON - REV. BRIAN MOODIE
SERMON TEXT - Exploring Revelation - Week 8 - Heaven and the Throne of God
Last week we looked more closely at the opening Act of the Book: In which we encountered an image of Christ, the exalted King of creation, surrounded by seven lampstands, symbols of the seven churches to whom he was writing. This was followed by seven short messages to the seven churches. We saw how the image of Christ that John describes is really made up of a collage of at least 20 Old Testament passages, most especially from Daniel’s description of a heavenly being whom he described as one like a son of man, or the Human One.
Today I would like to explore images from the next section of the book. Again, John draws abundantly from images and verses from the Old Testament.
The first thing that happens is John sees a window in heaven. The Greek word for Heaven could also be translated as sky. John sees an opening, a door, or a portal in the sky, and an angel invites him to come up. The words “Come up here!” echo the words of God from Mount Sinai calling Moses up the mountain.
What John then sees is a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it, and the one seated on the throne has the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne are 24 other thrones and on them 24 elders, dressed in white with crowns on their heads. From the throne are flashes of lightening and peals of thunder. Before the throne are seven blazing lamps representing the seven spirits of God. Some translate it as the Seven-fold Spirit of God suggesting the fullness and completeness of God. Before the throne we encounter four living creatures. The first like a lion, the second like an ox, the third with a face like a human and the fourth flying like an eagle. Each having six wings also covered in eyes and day and night they never stop saying: Holy Holy Holy….
This is a rich picture, full of symbolism again, much of which we find drawn from other passages in the Bible. The two primary passages John draws from as Isaiah 6, and Ezekiel 1. John’s description of the throne of God has similarities to both the images found in Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1, but there are also significant differences. It is perhaps a reminder that what we are reading here is not a literal picture of heaven. It is a symbolic picture that is meant to communicate meaning rather than give us a literal video-tape glimpse of heaven.
Although we use the language of God seated on a throne, this language is not literally true. It is a human attempt using human language and human imagery to speak of a truth and a reality that words cannot describe.
In ancient times, as a human being, living in a political system where kings ruled by sitting on a throne, if you wanted to speak of a higher authority, a higher law and a higher wisdom that all people and all creation live under and are somehow answerable to, how do you describe that in language that other people can process and relate to? You use the language of a great cosmic king seated in majesty on a great cosmic throne. But Jesus reminds us in John’s Gospel that this kind of language is ultimately symbolic and metaphoric and not to be taken literally for he reminds us that God is Spirit, like an invisible, moving life force or breathe that gives life and breathe to all and yet who is not just an impersonal force but is also somehow a Personal Presence. But very quickly one begins to run out of words. Much easier to describe God, the supreme authority wisdom of the universe seated on a throne. This is language that ordinary human minds can grasp. The image is useful and helpful. But we need to be careful of not taking it too literally or we could be in danger of creating another idol in the image of a human being.
I would now like to look at the symbolism and imagery from Revelation 4.
Firstly, isn’t it interesting that the one seated on the throne is not described as a human, but is rather rather described with the imagery of sparking and shining precious stones of jasper, ruby and emerald. In true Jewish tradition, John has resisted the temptation to make an image of the Divine. As one Bible commentary puts it, since God dwells in unapproachable light as we read in 1 Timothy and since God is one whom no-one has seen, John describes God in terms of the reflected brilliance of precious stones.
It reminds us that at the heart of life there is a Supreme Divine Spiritual Reality that reigns over us and which is our true source and the source of all that beautiful and precious and pure in this life.
Secondly, surrounding the throne, we read of 24 thrones with 24 elders dressed in white with golden crowns on their heads. The 24 thrones and elders are most probably references to the twelve tribes or patriarchs of Israel and the 12 apostles of the Christian Church, the communities of both the old covenant and the new covenant. Some would say that this indicates that Revelation was written before the split of Judaism and Christianity when most Christians still saw themselves as being part of the wider Jewish tradition.
But in a wider sense, the 24 thrones and 24 elders represent all people who live in harmony with the Divine Reality at the heart of life, the saints and holy people of every time, place and age. It is a reminder that our humanity finds it’s true nobility and dignity, and meaning and purpose when lived in harmony with the Divine.
Thirdly, we read that from the throne there are flashes of lightening and peals of thunder. The imagery reflects the imagery of God meeting Moses on Mount Sinai and conveys the idea that God is the source of all the power behind the whole universe. Even for modern people, lightening and thunder are reminders that human beings are actually very small and that there are powers and forces far greater than us at work in the universe.
Fourthly, this takes us on to the next image, that before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal. This image has echoes from Ezekiel’s opening vision of God on a throne, except in Ezekiel’s description it is a vault above the throne that was something like a vault, sparkling like crystal. The image of the crystal sea in revelation is suggestive of a deep peace and tranquility. It is a symbol of the eternal peace and stillness of God that forms the back-drop to the whole of life. All of life emerges out of the Divine stillness and all life returns again into it.
The last symbol I would like to look at is the rainbow that shone like emerald encircling the throne. The emerald colour of green is suggestive of life and abundance, that God is the source of abundant life. The rainbow itself is an image that takes us back to the mythical story of Noah and God’s promise after the flood, to hang up his warrior’s bow and never to bring destruction again to the earth. Which raises a question, why, if God has vowed never again to bring destruction again to the earth do we see in the very next section, three sets of seven judgements being poured out on the earth as each of the seven seals are opened, seven trumpets are sounded and seven bowls are poured out upon the earth?
For me, it is another reminder that when I read of judgements in the Bible and in the book of revelation, I think of consequences. In the book of Romans, Paul says that the judgement and wrath of God is ultimately this: that God gives us over to our own waywardness until we experience the consequences. In the context of Revelation, when an Empire, like the Roman Empire consistently builds itself on injustice, oppression and violence it is built on a very fragile foundation. For a time it make grow strong, but there is only so long that you can defy the moral arc of the universe before it catches up and the system begins to crumble, as the Roman Empire finally did from 376 AD, undermined by its own decadence leading to internal weaknesses, undermined also by war, disease, and famine that led to its final downfall in the West in 476 AD
The four horsemen of the apocalypse that are unleashed with the opening of the first seal of the scroll in chapter 5 are widely interpreted to represent conquest, war, famine and pestilence, or disease. As Tim Mackie says, the four horsemen of the apocalypse represent a tragically ordinary day in the history of humanity. And as Marshall Davis says, these four horsemen are four forces that have always worked together in history to bring down the many empires that have ruled the world. A reminder also that in this world, as the writer of Hebrews suggests, there are no lasting Empires and no enduring cities. Which is why as people of faith, our ultimate fulfilment can never be found in building little kingdoms in this world. Our true fulfilment will come as we live for a greater more enduring purpose, as we live for a truth, or a reality that transcends this world. In the language of our Christian tradition, it is the Kingdom of the Risen Christ.
Getting back to the image of the throne, when I was at university, I became part of a very evangelical organisation called Campus Crusade for Christ. I never quite felt comfortable in the organisation, perhaps because I had never grown up in that kind of very evangelical atmosphere, but I had a really good friend who was part of them who drew me in. In their evangelical outreach, one of the key questions that they would ask in seeking to bring people to conversion and commitment to Christ was whether either they or Christ was seated on the throne of their own lives. While I would still struggle with the rather narrow evangelical framework that Campus Crusade operates within, there is something about that question that still rings true. And I guess, the image of the throne in Revelation 4, ultimately asks us a very similar question: Who or what is seated on the throne of our hearts or the throne of our lives? Who or what claims our highest allegiance and greatest commitment in this life? Who or what is it that is the driving force behind the decisions and plans we make in life? It is the Presence of One who sparkles and shines with beauty and radiance like jasper and ruby and an emerald rainbow, or is it something or someone else?
SERMON - REV. BRIAN MOODIE
Exploring Revelation: Week 7 The Seven Lampstands and Seven Letters
Over the past few weeks I have been giving some broad brush-stroke explorations of the book of Revelation, looking both at the difficulties of the book as well as some of the gifts that it may have for us.
Over the next four weeks, I would like to take a closer look at various passages and themes. As we do so, I would also like to adopt the approach of interpreting the book through the eyes of love. The essence of Jesus teaching was the message of Love, to Love God and to Love neighbour as oneself. And the essence of his description of God in a number of places is a love that shines on good and bad alike, and a love that waits for its lost children to come home. And so it should not be an unreasonable approach to read and interpret even some of the more dark and difficult passages of revelation through the primary lens of love.
Today we look at the opening Act of the Drama: The Seven Lampstands which also contains the Seven letters to the Seven Churches.
The section begins with John’s vision of Christ exalted a king of the world, and who he describes in the following way:
Firstly, he hears a voice, then he sees seven golden lampstands with someone like a son of man standing in the midst of them, dressed in a long robe reaching down to his feet with a golden sash around his waist and chest. His hair was as white as snow, his eyes like blazing fire, his feet like bronze glowing in a fire, his voice like the sound of rushing waters. In his hand were seven stars. Coming from his mouth, a sharp double edged sword and his face like the sun shining in all it’s brilliance. And then the heavenly figure says I am the first and the last. I am the living one. I was dead and now look I am alive forever. And I hold the keys to death and hades
What is most interesting about this description is that in the space of four verses (12-18), John the writer makes reference to at least 20 passages from the Old Testament, drawn from Zechariah; Ezekiel, Isaiah; Judges, Deuteronomy & Daniel.
The image of the golden lampstands comes from Zechariah. The image of someone like a son of man comes from Daniel. The long white robe has echoes from Isaiah’s vision of God in Isaiah 6 where the train of his robe filled the temple. The golden sash, white hair and blazing eyes are all references again from Daniel. Feet like burning bronze are references from Ezekiel 1 and Daniel 10. Voice like rushing waters can be referenced to Ezekiel and Daniel. The reference to the sharp double edged sword can be found in Isaiah. His face shining like the sun in all its brilliance comes from the books of Judges and Daniel. The phrase: The First and Last is a reference from Isaiah. The Living one who is now alive forever and ever comes from Deuteronomy as well as Daniel.
John has in effect created a picture of the Risen Christ using a collage of at least 20 Old Testament passages, with their images and symbols. One has to admit that clothed in all this glorious imagery and symbolism it is very difficult to discern the humanity of the historical Jesus beneath all of this Old Testament symbolism. Perhaps this again is why Martin Luther the great reformer said he battled to discern Christ in the pages of Revelation.
Probably the most dominant image that John is drawing from in the description of Christ is Daniel’s description of what he calls the son of man. In Aramaic, the language in which Daniel was written it would be something like ‘Ben Adam’ meaning ‘son of adam’, which could also be translated as ‘the human one’, in contrast to Daniel’s description of the empires of the world symbolised as beasts.
His feet like glowing bronze comes from Daniel’s description of the Son of Man which stands in contrast to the statue of King Nebuchadnezzar which was part of one of Daniel’s dream (Dan 2). The statue represents the kingdoms or empires that oppressed the people of Israel. And yet the statue has feet of clay. In other words, the kingdoms of this world make look impressive, but they are built on fragile foundations that can easily begin to crumble. In contrast, the feet of the Son of Man are feet of glowing bronze. They stand firm and strong.
Daniel’s vision of the Human One, or one like a human or one like a son of man, is the dominant image behind John’s description of Jesus in Revelation chapter 1. As I have suggested previously, this heavenly being in Daniel, who is like a human one, the Son of Man, is meant to represent the very best of our humanity as made in the image of God. Our humanity is made for nobility, dignity and glory as made in God’s image, but it has become distorted and beast-like in the kingdoms and empires of this world.
In response to this image of Christ, John falls to his feet as though he is dead and Christ places a hand on his shoulder, a reference again to Daniel (8:18) as he hears the words:
“Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last. I am the living one. I was dead and now look I am alive forever. And I hold the keys to death and hades.”
John is encouraged to put his trust in Christ, because the eternal nature of God is in him, ‘the first and last, the living one’. This image of Jesus is meant to transport the listener beyond time and beyond history into the realm of the infinite, the deathless, the eternal, that which is unaffected by the chances and changes of this fleeting world. It is a reminder that when we are going through a difficult time, there is a deeper spiritual reality than what we see and experience on the surface of life, this realm of birth and death. Are we consumed and overwhelmed by the waves of life on the surface, or are we in touch with a deeper reality that remains unaffected by the turmoil on the surface?
What then unfolds after the description of Jesus in the imagery of Daniel’s Son of Man, are seven brief letters written to each of the seven churches in which Christ addresses the problems facing each church.
Some were apathetic due to wealth and affluence. Others were morally compromised. They were eating ritual meals, and some of the other faiths of which they had been part would have required ritual sexual acts to be performed in temples. Others in these seven churches remained faithful to Christ and were suffering harassment and even violent persecution. As Tim Mackie says: Jesus warns that things are going to get worse. A time of tribulation is coming that will force them to make a choice between compromise with the Roman culture in which they were living, or faithfulness to the way of Christ, his way of goodness and love. In the language of John, will they conquer, will they overcome? The temptation as we have seen was either to deny Jesus in order to avoid harassment and persecution or simply to join the spirit of the Roman age. The message of Christ is to call them to faithfulness in order that they might overcome and be victorious.
Interestingly, at the beginning of each message to each of the churches, John starts with one line of the description of Christ that he has just given. And at the end of each message, John includes is a promise of a reward related to the vision of a New Creation in the last chapter of Revelation for all those who do remain faithful and who do overcome or conquer. It is not that they are going to conquer their enemies, the Roman Empire, but rather it is a description of their inner life and their character that has been transformed by faith and trust in Christ and his presence within them. This is an inner, spiritual reality of becoming people in whom the presence and the noble character of Christ reigns supreme despite whatever outward circumstances they are going through. The reward is that that they will experience God’s New Creation, a New Heaven and New Earth, which is what the final vision of Revelation is all about.
In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul suggests that the new Heaven and the New Earth are not simply realities of the future, but that even in this world we can become a part of God’s new or renewed creation. “If anyone is joined to Christ there is a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come.” This speaks of a transformation of the inner life of a person, a transformation of one’s motivations, a transformation of the way one sees the world, a little bit like the apostle Paul, who after his conversion, it was as though scales had fallen from his eyes. Our vision is marred and distorted by the filters, assumptions and stories we tell ourselves, but when we begin to see with the eyes of Christ, our eyes become clear to see with undistorted vision.
And this takes us back to that reference to the symbol of the lampstands. In a generic sense it is a reminder that Churches are meant to be places of light. Light helps people to see more clearly. Light is also often used as a metaphor for wisdom. Churches are meant to be places that shine God’s love and light to the world, and places where we can learn more deeply the way of wisdom.
It may raise the question: In what way are we being a light for others?
But the reference to the Lampstands is also a specific reference to the book of Zechariah (chp. 4) where the prophet has a vision and sees a lampstand. He asks what it means and he is told that the lampstand signifies the eyes of God on the earth. In the context of Revelation it suggests that not only are the seven churches meant to be shining the light of God in a dark world, but it also suggests that the Churches and Christians in general are meant to be the eyes of God in this world. What might that mean? Is it possible that to be the eyes of God in the world means that we are meant to see the world through the eyes of God? Is it possible that it describes our calling to see as God sees, with the eyes of Love. And are the blazing eyes of Christ, not the eyes of judgement, but rather eyes blazing with God’s love for the world?
SERMON TEXT: Revelation, Suffering & Evil
Matthew 5:43-47 & 7:1-6; Revelation 20:1-3; 7-15
Wendy and I recently watched a Channel 4 Documentary about the last Kaiser Willhelm II who in many ways was responsible for much of the carnage of World War 1.
He was the grandson of Queen Victoria. Her daughter Vicky had married into the German Royal family. After complications in the birth process, Willhelm had to be assisted out of the birth canal and in the process damage was done to the nerves and ligaments that went down into his left arm, leaving his left arm paralysed with what is known as Erb’s Palsy.
This was an enormous blow for Vicky and in line with the way most people thought back then, it is clear that she saw her son as being somehow defective as a result of it. It was an embarrassment and a source of shame for her. It is clear that she felt responsible and guilty that he had not, in her mind, been born whole and normal.
Two things happened as a result of this situation. For a number of years, great effort was made to get his left arm working again. This involved some terrible and horrific treatments. One of which was the daily experience for a prolonged period of time of having a rabbit slaughtered in his presence and the bloodied carcass strapped to his arm. Another was having his good arm tied up to try and force him to use his left arm. This only led to a deeper sense of frustration, failure and incompetence. Another, to keep his head straight when his neck began to twist to one side, was to have a metal rod fitted behind his back a leather straps fastened to his head to keep it straight.
These treatments obviously cause him great distress both physically and emotionally. Photos of him growing up reveal that he was a deeply unhappy little boy. Apart from the treatments themselves, he had to deal with all the emotional trauma of everyone around him constantly trying to hide his paralysed arm as a source of embarrassment and shame. Living in the shadows and being made to keep secrets is a deeply damaging way to live.
But perhaps more damaging than all of these things, the second thing that happened to Wilhelm from very early on, was that Vicky withdrew her motherly love and affection from him.
Not only did he endure traumatic treatments to get his arm right, but also the greater trauma of a mother who didn’t feel like she could love him because, in her mind, he wasn’t whole, in her mind he was somehow defective.
In his teenage years, from letters that he wrote to her, it is clear that he longed for the love and affection of his mother, but this love and affection was not forthcoming. She remained emotionally distant from him.
This left him with a deep, deep psychological woundedness.
In his younger years as a child, he had experienced a deep sense of connection with Britain, and this was primarily due to his deep love for his grandmother, Queen Victoria.
But as he grew into his later teenage years, in reaction to his English mother who had withdrawn her love for him, his relationship and attitude to Britain began to morph into a kind of love hate relationship. At the death of his beloved grandmother, Queen Victoria, his emotional ties with Britain became largely severed and it was his hatred for Britain that became more dominant.
At the young age of 29, with all of these unresolved emotional and psychological traumas of his childhood unresolved, it was a troubled and volatile young man, who became the new Kaisar of the recently unified Germany when his uncle and then his father died in 1888.
I would like to come back to this near the end of the sermon, but what the documentary suggests is that much of the destruction and suffering that Willhelm II brought upon Europe during the 1st World War was largely the tragic playing out on the stage of world politics of the unresolved psychological damage and trauma of his childhood that was then projected onto the country of Great Britain in response to his experience of emotional rejection by his English mother Vicky.
We’ll come back to the story in a little while...
Now, one of the central debates that happens across the pages of Scripture is about the causes of suffering. A dominant view expressed in the book of Deuteronomy said the answer was simple. Suffering and disaster comes upon people who are disobedient to the laws of God. If we obey the laws, it will go well with us. If we fail to obey the laws, it will go badly with us. And for the writer of Deuteronomy, this also played out at a national level. If Israel obeyed God’s laws it would go well with them. If Israel failed to obey God’s laws it would go badly for them.
This was also largely the views of many of Israel’s great prophets. When Israel was defeated by their enemies it was because they had been disobedient. This was largely how the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple were interpreted when the Babylonian Empire invaded Judea and took the leading Jews off into exile in Babylon. It was believed that God had punished them because the they had had been unfaithful.
And so the dominant answer to the question of why do people suffer, was: God has caused the suffering and God has done so because of our sinfulness and unfaithfulness.
But during their time of exile in Babylon, the Jews were exposed to new religious ideas. One of the religions they would have encountered would have been the Zoroastrian faith. According to Zoroastrian cosmology the world was a battle ground between good and evil, between Azhura Mazda, the Supreme Being, all good and all wise, and his counter-part Angra Mainyu, who represented evil, or the chaotic destructive forces in life.
After this encounter with Zorastrianism in their Babylonian exile, Jewish writers began borrowing ideas from the Zoroastrian cosmology, and in the process, the figure of Satan began to grow in the cosmology of Judaism. And in doing so, the figure of Satan became a new way for Jewish people to explain the existence of sin and evil in the world.
This new development in Jewish cosmology was most especially picked up by Jewish Apocalyptic writers.
In previous prophetic writings, the sufferings of the people of Israel were interpreted as a punishment from God for their sinfulness and unfaithfulness. But in this new style of writing, apocalyptic writers had come to see that the sufferings of the people of God could not be completely explained simply on the basis of sin and disobedience.
Rather, they had come to see that Israel was in some way the victim of a monstrous power of evil that sweeps like and avalanche over the righteous and the wicked. In the midst of this avalanche of suffering caused by oppressive and persecuting political powers, apocalyptic writers described the present age as being under the dominion of dark and evil powers symbolized by Satan who had come to be seen as the arch-enemy of God. And so while oppressive political empires had been the outward source of evil and suffering, apocalyptic writing began to make the assertion that the real power behind these evil and oppressive empires was in fact a spiritual evil that could be named as Satan. This is the framework in which the book of Revelation was written.
When you are a helpless victim of suffering and are battling to make sense of it, there is often great comfort in being able to identify the source of that suffering, and to live in the belief that God, in a great spiritual battle, will eventually over-throw the spiritual evil that is responsible for all the suffering that has happened.
But there are also great dangers in this kind of cosmology that seeks to divide the world too neatly between good and evil, the righteous and the unrighteous as we see happening in the book of Revelation. While on the one hand it gives the comfort of being able to point with your finger to the source of ones suffering: “That’s where the problem lies. They are the evil ones and we are the innocent victims”, The problem is, questions of suffering and evil are never that simple.
The story of Willhelm II is a reminder that there are far more complexities in the problem of evil and suffering than a neat black and white categories of good and evil. Willhelm II was quite understandably depicted in British newspapers as the devil incarnate and being in league with the devil, in a very similar way to which Emperor Nero was portrayed as an evil beast in Revelation. The Kaiser’s provocations had unleashed the most terrible and devastating war the world had ever seen. But the evil he unleashed on Europe and the world does not need the existence of a cosmic spiritual power of evil like Satan to explain it. In fact it can be for more easily and understandably explained as a result of the deep psychological woundedness and brokenness that stemmed from his childhood, that never had the chance of being healed. And when given the reigns of power at a young age, it played itself out in the most devastating way. Behind all the evil that he may have unleashed on the world, was the story of a traumatised, broken and frustrated little boy who never received the love and care that he longed for from his mother. A tragic tragic story not just for him, but in the end for the whole of Europe and indeed the world.
Part of the power of a book like Revelation is the dynamic tension that is created in the simplistic distinction between good and evil. This battle between good and evil has been the basic storyline that operates as the driver for many of the world’s greatest stories and drama’s: It is the plot of the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and even Harry Potter. It is a very powerful plot that draws us in, because all of us, no matter who we are, like to see ourselves ultimately as on the side of good no matter how distorted that sense of good might be.
But this story line is also a simplistic one. As seductive as the story line is, it is in fact too simplistic. As the Russian Exile, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously said: “The line, dividing good and evil, cuts through the heart of every human being.”
This same conclusion was reached by Roy Coad, who wrote “A History of the Brethren Movement”. One of the motivating factors for the Brethren movement was the desire to separate from what they regarded as doctrinal evil, but this inevitably also spilled over into the realm of disapproved behaviour. In England, the Brethren ended up splitting into the Open Brethren, who were still quite committed to the idea of purity of doctrine and behaviours, and the Closed Brethren, who enforced these ideas with even greater strictness. They would disfellowship family members who didn’t conform, and ostracised them causing families to split often never to be reconciled.
Roy Coad, who was a member of the Brethren himself, concluded the following: “When you set about separating yourself from evil, in the end you find that the line dividing good and evil runs through every heart.”
Jesus seemed to have been very aware of this, which is why in the sermon on the mount, he encourages us to be careful in judging our neighbours too quickly. He says, before you take the splinter out of your brother or sisters eye, first take out the log from your own. In this teaching, Jesus is warning us about too quickly regarding ourselves as the good and the righteous and designating others as the evil and the unrighteous, because all the while we have logs in our own eyes that need to be identified and removed.
Part of the power of the book of Revelation is the division it creates between good and evil, God and Satan, the Lamb and the Beast, Christ and Caesar, between the righteous and the unrighteous. It makes for a good plot that draws us in. But those neat and simplistic distinctions are also part of the book’s weakness and its danger, because rather than praying for our enemies as Jesus encouraged his disciples to do, and rather than seeking to understand the real source and origins of other people’s evil as manifestations of their deep brokenness and woundedness, which is often not completely unlike our own, it is too easy to simply dismiss them as manifestations of evil that needs to be identified and destroyed rather than objects of Divine love who God longs to embrace, heal and redeem.
In true Christian understanding, evil is not the opposite of good. Evil is not eternal. Only God is eternal. And so there is nothing in this world that can ultimately be called pure or absolute evil, because evil has no life absolute of it’s own. Evil is always only a distortion and a corruption of that which was originally good because everything and everyone comes from God, no matter how distorted they may have become.
I close with the full quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”