15-end; Revelation 4;
Luke 8.22- 25
THIS SUNDAY we shall be inundated by images. There is a torrent of them in our reading from Revelation — trumpets, thrones, winged creatures (alarmingly, with many eyes), and more beside. But then that’s what we expect in the last book of the Bible.
A defining characteristic of apocalyptic literature, of which the book of Revelation is an example, is an abundance of signs and symbols. The mistake is to suppose that the use of vivid imagery in the Bible is confined to such eccentric texts, or that there is something outlandish about it, and that the rest of the Bible, which was not written by oddballs, is mercifully free from it.
In fact, the Bible, from first page to last (and we’re not far from both this Sunday), is rich in images — one thing standing for another. Imagery is a powerful way of expressing what cannot be said otherwise. In Revelation, we have an intense concentration of images, but the other 65 books of the Bible teem with them, too.
Austin Farrer understood the importance of imagery in the Bible, and of our responding imaginatively to scripture. Here’s what he said,
St John’s images do not mean anything you like; their sense can be determined. But they still have an astonishing multiplicity of reference. Otherwise, why write in images rather than in cold, factual prose? It has been said that the purpose of scientific statement is the elimination of ambiguity, and the purpose of symbol the inclusion of it. We write in symbol when we wish our words to present, rather than analyse or prove, their subject matter.
A Rebirth of Images, 1949
Some images in the Bible carry greater weight than others. There are three such images in our Sunday readings. The story in Genesis takes us to a garden; the Gospel reading bids us look at the sea; the passage from Revelation sets us before a throne.
Perhaps, breaking all the rules, we should read them in that — their logical — order: garden, sea, and throne. These are not mere metaphors. They are primal images. They are archetypes, to use the Jungian term, of our doom, our deliverance, and our destiny.
The garden is the image of all we have lost but yet still long for. Our craving is to be again within those unbreached walls, beneath those trees, beside those waters. (“Those waters” — the lectionary inexplicably butchers the text by omitting the haunting image of the river flowing out of Eden.)
This nostalgia for paradise, to be again where once we were and where we truly belong, is the inspiration of great imaginative works, such as The Romance of the Rose, Dante’s Divine Comedy, or Milton’s Paradise Lost. Yet the same longing for our exile to end explains the appeal of more homely tales. It is what makes Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden or George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind so timeless. The image of God in us is our divine discontent. We want to go home. Deep down, we know it is true: “My soul, there is a country far beyond the stars.”
The sea — I hear it pounding on the beach as I write — is all that is recalcitrant to the will of God. In the Bible, the sea is the primordial chaos, out of which God orders what is beautiful and good. When it all began, darkness covered the face of the deep. Boundaries — “thus far and no further” — had to be set for the hostile sea. Creation in the Bible is pictured as the reclamation of land from water for God’s children’s sake.
So, too, is redemption. At the Exodus, the waters once more retreated and slaves were set free. But the sea — “the menace and caress of wave that breaks on water” — still threatens. Though it had been the source of their livelihood, the disciples still dreaded the sea. Hence their terror as their boat fills with water and their awe of one at whose word the sea is still. The calming of the storm is an image of salvation. It is the work of Christus Victor. It is a sign — exchanging image for image — of the last battle and the ultimate victory.
So we come to the throne. Monarchy may be in question as an institution, but the image in Revelation draws its force not from those who occupy earthly thrones, but from John’s picture of one who reigns from a tree. In the bewildering kaleidoscope of images, he is also the lamb that has been slain (Revelation 5.6).
Before the throne is “the sea of glass”. Glass it may be, but there is yet a horror to break its surface. John will see “a beast rising out of the sea” (Revelation 13.1). But the beast, whatever damage it still does in its death-throes, is vanquished. Its immemorial home is condemned too. One day “there will be no more sea” (Revelation 21.1).
4In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground 7then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
15The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’
18The LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ 19So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. 21So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.’
24Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
1I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’ 2At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! 3And the one seated there looks like jasper and cornelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. 4Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. 5Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; 6and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal. Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. 8And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,
‘Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.’
9And whenever the living creatures give glory and honour and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, 10the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,
11‘You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honour and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.’
22One day Jesus got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they put out, 23and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A gale swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. 24They went to him and woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. 25He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’