john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Revelation 5 - Who will open the scroll?

    Good Shepherd 15/01/2006

    Revelation 5.1-10, John 1.43-51

    For the next three weeks we will be hearing readings from the book of Revelation. That strange and difficult book at the end of the bible sometimes called the Apocalypse because it is apocalyptic writing - in other words, in very dramatic language and using very extreme images it describes one man - John's - vision of the end of time, the end of history, the point towards which all things are leading when the world as we know it will be transformed.

    Some people avoid Revelation because it is just too odd, and some people think its weirdness is just not relevant to our lives today. On the other hand it will appeal to others, especially perhaps the many who find a lot of significance in Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings or The Books of Narnia - for whom apocalyptic type stories have great appeal.

    Personally I think it's wrong to avoid scripture just because it seems strange or difficult to us - and I think that there is a lot in Revelation which we can relate to and which relates directly to our situation today. Like this extract:

    Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, 'Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?' And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.

    Revelation is a very personal story. From the beginning the writer, John, describes it as his vision. It's like a dream with him in the middle of every scene which he remembers. And in this part of the dream, chapter five, John describes one of the most dramatic scenes in the whole story.

    John is possessed by this picture of this scroll which he instinctively knows is very important, it carries words of great significance to him and all the world. William Barclay says that 'There is no doubt that the book is the record of that which is to happen in the last times.' [1] The people of John's day commonly believed that such a book existed. John is waiting for someone to open the book which will tell us all what God has in store for us and for generations to come; a book which holds the truth about us, and in goodness and righteousness can release us into God's liberating future.

    John's instinct is that this scroll holds the key to life, that when it opens it will reveal the words which will put things right in the world, it will release goodness, herald healing, restore righteousness to a broken world.

    The scroll was a special book, a magical, holy book. But when he saw it John couldn't stop weeping because it was also a closed book. And neither he nor anyone else he could think of could break the seals on that scroll. Its healing and transforming powers could not be released into the world because no-one could be found with the power and the authority to open it up.

    I wept bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll...

    I think that there are many like John today, people who know instinctively that there are truths in the world which are currently hidden, truths about you and me, truths about the conduct of governments and nations, which, if only someone could be found to open the scroll on them, would restore justice where there is only injustice, could bring healing into broken lives, could unleash a wave of righteousness and renewal in our society and our nations. If only the seal could be broken; if only the words could be spoken.

    Listen carefully and I think you might hear young people weeping in our society today. I'm thinking of the vast majority of young people, ordinary young people with honest hopes and decent desires, family-minded young people who play their part at home, respect their elders, enjoy their friendships. All we seem to hear about young people most of the time is that they are trouble, a problem, to be feared. When the government launches a 'respect' agenda and the press fill our heads with horror stories about bad behaviour the scroll remains unopened - the truth about young people is ignored, they are sidelined and avoided. [2]

    Who is to be found worthy to open the scroll which will tell us that respect should go both ways; Who is to be found worthy to open the scroll that tells us that if young people are treated lovingly and forgivingly, they will be forgiving. If they are trusted by others, then they will learn trust in return. [3] Who is to be found worthy to open the scroll which will give our young people a good, hopeful, bright new future?

    Turn your eyes towards the Middle East and I think you will hear the people weeping. I'm thinking especially of the people of Iraq and Iran, who for so many years have been pawns in the political games of the world's most powerful nations. The United States has always been clear that one of its most vital and enduring interests is the defence of the oil resources of the Gulf. To cut short a very long story which we have followed for many years - the consequences are there in the lives of the surviving Iranians and Iraqis living in ruined towns and villages, fighting disease and malnutrition, trying desperately to keep their children alive while violence and unrest rumbles on around them.

    Who is to be found worthy to open the scroll which will tell their story, the true story of what has been done to them, the story which - if properly heard and fully understood might just stop the destruction of their lives and their land by outside forces. Visiting US air crews based in Kuwait who conduct flights and bombing missions over Iraq, the former US President George Bush Sr said that "I'm delighted that I've been invited out here today to salute you, who, in my view, are doing the Lord's work." [4] If only there was someone worthy to open the scroll on the story of the Gulf, the Lord's words might judge the future quite differently.

    We have always been in this situation - from the vision of John on the island of Patmos to the twentieth century poet and prophet T.S. Eliot we have always been weeping because the book of life, the book of truth, the book which can bring hope and healing to our future, has remained closed. Half a century ago Eliot wrote,

    Where shall the word be found, where will the word
    Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
    Not on the sea or on the islands, not
    On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
    For those who walk in darkness
    Both in the day time and in the night time
    The right time and the right place are not here
    No place of grace for those who avoid the face
    No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice.

    - which is a very hopeless vision, shared by many today. But at this point we must remember the rest of John's story, we must relive the great drama of Revelation chapter five. Because while John is weeping suddenly, from somewhere comes a saviour, suddenly, from somewhere comes the one who has the power and authority to open the scroll. From God he comes - the Lamb.

    Then I saw ... a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sing a new song:
    'You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
    for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
    saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
    you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
    and they will reign on earth.'

    And the Lamb breaks open the seals on the scroll and releases into the world the words of life which tell the truth about us and which will redeem us all.

    Because the Lamb of God has come - and we know who that is, we understand that strange symbolic language - because he has come in the form of Jesus, we can have hope after all that the terrible silences of the world can be broken, the awful secrets of the world can be revealed, the terrible truths of the world can be redeemed. Jesus opens the scroll on us and our future is assured.

    But how?

    What does this strange and dramatic scene tell us about our own lives today, and the life of the world? How exactly, does Jesus open the book on us in ways that we can understand and can change us? If we want to follow Jesus in helping others to have the book of life opened to them, how should we go about it?

    Thankfully, and typically, Jesus does all this very simply. He transforms the world with uncomplicated actions and gentle, generous, kindly words. That's how he opens the book of life to us.

    We know this because the gospels show us him doing this time and time again. And in today's gospel reading Jesus opens the book of life to Nathanael.

    Nathanael, you see, is a John-on-the-isle-of-Patmos of his day. Like so many of us he shares this instinct that the truth about himself and his life and the world is held on trust somewhere, but remains a closed book. Like a T.S. Eliot he might say,

    Where shall the word be found, where will the word resound? Not here...

    Not here. Or, more precisely, what Nathanael said when his friends talking about Jesus as the one who Moses and the prophets foretold, was this:

    Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

    When we're weeping for something we can get locked into our grief. When we've become so convinced that no-one will ever open the book on our lives, that no-one in the world is powerful enough to change it. then that's the sort of language we use. Even though -as later becomes clear - Nathanael wanted Jesus to come and open the book on his life, to come and transform him, he just couldn't see it at first.

    This happened to John on Patmos. It took some words of encouragement from one of the elders to make John lift his head, dry his eyes and take a look at the Lamb of God. And by Galilee it took the encouragement of his Philip to shake Nathanael out of his cynicism and go and meet Jesus. 'Come and see,' said Philip. For Nathanael, these simple words changed his life. Because he went to Jesus; and Jesus opened the book on his life:

    When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, 'Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!'

    It's unlikely that anyone had ever described Nathaniel that way before. More likely they would have though of him as a bit cynical. But Jesus made an observation about him which valued him and loved him and affirmed him and went straight to his very heart.

    Nathanael asked him, 'Where did you come to know me?'

    Now Jesus answered by saying 'I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.' But we know Jesus as the Lamb of God who holds the open scroll in his hand. Really he knew Nathaniel from before he was born, all Nathaniel's times are in Jesus hands. And somehow Nathaniel sensed this because the next thing he says is, 'Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!'

    Jesus answered, 'Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.' And he said to him, 'Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.'

    Jesus has opened the book of Nathaniel's life, told him the truth about himself and promised him a future full of marvellous insights into the nature of God and the world. We know that this was true; if Nathaniel carried on travelling with Jesus he would have seen water turned to wine, blind people's sight restored, the dead raised.

    This is an example of how Jesus opens the book on a person's life and what can happen when he does. It's a story which he longs to repeat in all our lives, and in the life of our broken and twisted world. If we are all too aware of our own pain or the pain of others these readings show us that it is possible for us to have our eyes opened to the restorative ways of God; if we have already had our eyes opened then we can be like the elder was to John, or Philip was to Nathaniel - people who encourage others to stop weeping, cease from cynicism, look up and see the lamb of God, and learn to sing a new song.


    [1] William Barclay, The Revelation of John: Volume 1: Chapters 1 to 5 (New Daily Study Bible)
    [2] Tony Blair launched the government's Respect agenda this week
    [3] Based on John Sentamu's response to the government this week.
    [4] All observations on Iraq from the soundtrack of The Fire this Time, and quotation from the Classic Quotes section of the project's website.
    [5]T.S. Eliot, Ash-Wednesday