Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly in mid-heaven, ‘Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders—flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great.’ Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against the rider on the horse and against his army. And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshipped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulphur. And the rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.
Flesh eating birds and being burnt alive in a lake of fire! What are we to make of verses containing such stark and apparently gross images?
In our own rather materialistic age it is only too easy to miss the spirit of the teaching in Revelation. On the one hand, instead of seeing it as something to capture the imagination, we reduce it to a timetable of prophesied events. On the other, we may be tempted to rationally dismiss it too lightly as mere fantasy and mysticism. However, to understand and gain the most from Revelation it is helpful to see it as a book of vision and imagination AND as a work firmly rooted in history.
Written at a time of intense persecution of the early Church when Christians may have been losing heart that the long anticipated second coming of Christ had yet to occur, the book was conveyed in a form designed to inspire as well as to instruct. Its poetic and visionary tone, its use of symbol and imagery, would have struck a clear familiar tone with its first century audience. God is in control no matter how things may look. Christ, not the emperor, is lord of history and holds the key of destiny. So, rather than revert to reliance on the things of the world, the realm of the flesh, the call is to remain steadfast and focused on Christ, the true King.
During the past 18 months, many of us may also have become despondent and begun to lose hope. The world seems out of kilter, and we feel at the mercy of powerful forces beyond our control. But the enduring message is that, despite all appearances, this world and all that happens in it is in God’s hands. His love and care for his people is unfailing.
Dear Lord, In the dark night of the soul, where all appears lost, and there seems to be no meaning and no sense in the world … help us to remember and to discover anew that you are Lord, and in your embrace we gain solace and peace. Amen.
Graham Handscomb, formerly Convenor of the URC Stepwise Task and Finish Group and member of Christ Church URC, Chelmsford