Tearing Open the Shutters
One of the first things I ever read as a new Christian, was the Book of Revelation. a.k.a. the Apocalypse of St. John, the very last book in the Bible. I read it from beginning to end, one Saturday, mostly from the top bunk of the bed, in the room I shared with my younger brother.
I still remember the look of the light falling on its pages, for it was a very cloudy, deep, dark, mystical day, somewhere between winter and spring. Twenty-two chapters; 404 verses; 11,952 words (give or take a few). I read them all. The man who led me to Christ had given me a copy of the Living Bible entitled “The Way,” the cover of which had groovy, psychedelic lettering, and pictures of three equally groovy young people––Jesus people, as they were known––nested inside the lettering: and this is the text from which I read.
Why I chose to start with the last book of the Bible, and not the first, I do not know:––but read it, I did. I was still too young and too unformed theologically to sniff and snort at the Living Bible for being a paraphrase––and a very personal one at that––and not a direct translation: and actually read the Bible for the Bible and as the Bible, and not for how I could attack, or gainsay it, for the sake of appearing learned, or worse still, “fashionably liberal” in theological terms.
As result I was utterly transported by it; overwhelmed; stupefied, even. I mean, wow!!!
Was I in over my head? Yes. Was it in some respects dangerous? Yes. Was I concerned? No. (A thousand times no.) I simply read it with an open heart, which is not only the true beginning, but the without which not of all great encounters with God’s Word. In a phrase, perhaps tired old phrase, “it blew my mind.”
As you may or may not know, younger moderns now classify media, especially computer media––which they endlessly trade with one another over the Internet––as one of two things: either SFW or NSFW. In other words, Safe for Work, or Not Safe For Work,
lest your supervisor be watching. The Book of Revelation? It’s NSFW. Or perhaps simply NS. “Not safe.” In fact, reading it, to quote Richard Bach, is like “running from safety.”
And no wonder. “What Jesus described as the Kingdom of God, not to mention the Bible which describes it, is anything but safe, inert, passive, or innocuous” once wrote a famous author in a very famous periodical. (As I recall, I think the periodical was called the Penticton Herald, and the author a certain Colin Cross.) Both the Kingdom and the Book are in fact one great long “running from safety.” Anyone daring enough to follow Christ––I mean the real Christ, and not some sort of pale rhetorical shadow––treads the margins of an altogether “undiscovered country,” reads the same Herald article, quoting Shakespeare. “Such people dare to be challenged. They dare to move forward, and to think freshly, raked by the fires of the Spirit. Their lives are burning and passionate; their churches, daring and transformative.”
Daring folk read the Book of Revelation––and that’s the kind of person I wanted to be.
And not just because they want to play the prophecy game, and predict the future.
“Tumbling down the rabbit hole, hmmm?” Morpheus asks blushing Neo, in the famous 1999 science fiction film The Matrix. “You could say that,” replies Neo.
If you’ve ever read it for yourself, you will know that the Book of Revelation opens with a vision of the Risen Christ that beggars belief. It really does. No one had ever seen Jesus like this before, certainly no one on earth, except perhaps once, on the Mount of Transfiguration.
When we had last seen Jesus in Acts 1, he was ascending into heaven, still dressed like a peasant Galilean. Now in Revelation 1 he is standing in heaven among seven golden lampstands in a long robe gleaming with light, it would seem, and a golden sash: “someone like a son of man,” insists John, borrowing a term from the Books of Daniel and Ezekiel which referred to heavenly beings; a term that Jesus himself loved, and often used of himself. Someone “like a son of man,” but utterly, utterly glorified. His hair is as white as wool, and his eyes blaze with fire. Even his feet shine, like bronze glowing in a furnace.
And then he speaks, and his voice is equally transformed with glory. It was to John like the sound of moving water; rushing water, even. In a word, wow. Wow!!
It was on the Lord’s Day, Sunday as we would term it––the same day of the Jewish week that Jesus rose from the dead. And on receiving this vision John is commissioned (by a trumpetlike voice) to write everything down––everything he will have seen, that is––and send it as a missive to seven different churches, each of which is represented by one of the lampstands: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
Seven oracles follow: individual words from God for each of the seven churches.
But then––then! As if this weren’t already completely mind-blowing, Heaven itself is torn open, like that great moment when the curtain in the Temple––as Matthew describes it––is torn from top to bottom upon the death of Jesus; a tearing accompanied by an earthquake.
Or like my favourite moments from theology professor and Orientalist Clement C. Moore’s
A Visit from St. Nicholas (a.k.a. “the Night before Christmas”)––if you will forgive the allusion––when the narrator describes hearing such a clatter on his lawn that he is “away to the window like a flash,” ‘tearing up the shutters and throwing up the sash,’ to see what lay behind them: the moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow; a miniature sleigh; and eight tiny reindeer. What John saw shook heaven and earth and changed the world:––his world; our world.
And what did John see? Well, among other things, a heavenly throne surmounted by a rainbow upon which sits God himself, indescribably beautiful; twenty-four other thrones; four living creatures of unknown provenance; a book with seven seals, held in God’s hand; a Lamb, with seven horns and seven eyes; four horses, complete with riders; and later, a single white horse.
Angels, with trumpets, and later bowls; a woman, a dragon, and a beast; the ark of the covenant itself, long thought missing, but now in heaven. And finally, myriads upon myriads of worshippers, i.e. a multitude without number.
But this is not all. As these visions draw to a close there is an even greater vision, if such were possible: that of a new heavens, and a new earth, not to mention a new Jerusalem; a place where, and I quote, “God will wipe away every tear from the eyes of his people.” “[A place] where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” These words come from the Risen Christ, who sits upon the throne of heaven.
At one point, John is given a measuring rod with which to measure the Temple of God, and its altar. At another point, he is asked by an angel to take a scroll from the former’s hand, and ingest it. But for the most part it’s John’s job to watch, and listen.
Now why did God blow open heaven for the sake of one lonely man, like screening a priceless never-seen-before masterpiece of world cinema for an audience of one? Why? Why? Why did God this?
You would think, to be sure, that John would not be in any mood to watch––nor listen––to anything, if it meant tumbling further down the rabbit hole; and yet more confusion. He was in exile, (not unlike his Israelite ancestors before him when they God drove them to Babylon), sheltering in place on a little Greek Island called “Patmos.” It was like Covid-19, or worse;
No friends, no family, no anything. In fact he was reduced to sheltering in a cave, like Elijah before him, no doubt scratching out a mean existence in the shivering dark.
It was the late 1st century, and Christians everywhere were being persecuted by a Roman Emperor by the name of Domitian, and John may have been sent to Patmos by good ol’ Domitian himself; banishment being a common punishment for those who prophesied against the Roman authorities from a religious point of view; or drew out from the act of prophesying
things were not only anti-Roman, but anti-imperalist. This being the case, Christians were numbers One and Two on Domitian’s hitlist.
These days, you have to admit, the whole world feels like it’s in exile––in exile from a virus.
“Everything is unsettled,” writes Ariel Dorfman. “Whatever you thought was steady and predictable has now turned out to be alien and dangerous. You can no longer interact with your family or friends or other members of your community face to face — never mind hug or touch them. Your routines and habits have been upended, a description of life for countless millions in the times of the coronavirus.”
But in the midst of John’s exile, God does something extraordinary. He tears open the curtain of heaven, for this one lonely man. Tears it right open. And says: “John, look! This is who I really am. So don’t be afraid! YOU ARE NOT ALONE!” “John, I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. John, To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Indeed, those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. “John, I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.” John, the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” John, tell everyone who were listen! Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.”
The Book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse, is like a great “tearing open.” This is what the Greek word ʼApokaluptw (apocaluptō) means: “To uncover, disclose, or reveal,” like pulling back a great curtain. (And not just on Christmas Eve for the sake of a few reindeer.)
Are you ready? It’s Not Safe for Work. It’s Not Safe for Life, i.e. life as we customarily know it. But why should that stop you? Why?? “You want me to open the curtains?” one is tempted to say. “These days, I’ve been more of a mind to close them, and forever . . .
And having closed them, to board up the windows against further suffering.”
But the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” So let the one who hears say, “Come!”
Let the one who is thirsty, come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life, come.” It’s time for life, not death, no matter what’s happening beyond the entrance of the cave. It’s time to tear open the curtains.
“In the midst of life we are in death,” as the Book of Common Prayer says, but in the midst of death we are also in life!! All because of the glorified Saviour, whom John beheld, present to God’s people by his Spirit, and more alive than ever before. We are! So be encouraged! Live––in Jesus’ Name! Tear open the curtains! Tear open the curtains to life!