Evening Prayer Online 17th May 2020
Restoration and Revelation
Zechariah 8 and Revelation 21.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the compilers of the new Lectionary had disasters such as the coronavirus in mind when they chose the recent readings for Sunday Evensong; Zechariah’s theme is return and rebuilding; how to restore society to righteousness, that is how to restore His people to God after a period of exile and the drifting away from justice and equity. Zechariah’s metaphor for this is the rebuilding of the temple and the repopulating of the city of Jerusalem, which was not only a metaphor but a reality in his time. For me the most striking image from the passage we heard this evening, is the vision of children playing in the street as the old dears look on and chatter together again. Who cannot hear Zechariah’ words and not think of the elderly, locked down, frightened and lonely, or the children imprisoned in flats as the sun shines outside? We too long for a return to normality.
John, in Revelation, also uses imagery of a city and the temple, but his is not restored, it is entirely new- a new heaven and a new earth. His vision is of recreation and a new world. But he is down to earth in a way; the description of the new Jerusalem (in the passage just before ours this evening, has it made of the most fantastic (and improbable) jewels is indeed unearthly, but I think the idea is of a city shining out on a hill, as indeed, Jerusalem with its temple did, and still does (only it’s the dome of the Rock that shines now). This imagery would have been familiar perhaps to John’s readers; ancient temples did indeed shine out above their cities, expressing the pride and confidence (and sometimes, arrogance) of their citizens, as we can still see in the Parthenon on its Acropolis in Athens. For the Christian, and especially the persecuted Christian, such symbols were of arrogance indeed.
If that image was at the back of both Zechariah’s and John’s minds, they have a different approach to their optimism and longing for a better future, the future of which Christians were certain and of which Paul might boast. Zechariah’s “new normal” is restoration; John’s is not normal at all. John envisages whole new creation, in several respects reversing and upturning existing order as set out so carefully in Genesis.
For Zechariah, the restoration will come about though reconciliation. The overriding feeling is of relief; the same relief that we as individuals feel when we are forgiven by someone whom we love and whom we have hurt. It’s the relief that tells us we are back where we should be, and that after all, all is well in the world. It’s not a radical relief but not, in Zechariah, a superficial one either. If we are to be restored, we must also renew the essential relationship that we have with God, that is, the covenant whereby His love for us can be allowed to guide our lives.
It’s grace, however, not covenant that lies behind John’s vision; the careful ordering of the world; the division of light and dark, day and night, time itself are abolished and light alone shines perpetually from the Lamb; seasons and species are replaced by two single trees that provide abundance and healing without reference to seasons- or with a new order of twelve seasons. The trees are at the side of a single river (not four) in an undivided world. It’s true that this vision follows on from a devastating final judgement, so as in Zechariah, the future requires a reckoning, but for John, that reckoning will not result in restoration of the old order and contract with God but a completely new order where covenant is irrelevant, and grace flows from Lamb on the throne.
Part of me says John’s vision is rather unhelpful; it’s unreal and impossible for us to conceive. Even Van Eyck’s amazing depiction of John’s vision in his Ghent altarpiece and Bernard of Cluny’s poem part of which we sing as Jerusalem the Golden, with milk and honey blessed, both actually envisage the new world in terms, which however beautiful, and they are very beautiful, are firmly fixed in contemporary experience. It’s not just impossible to imagine otherwise, but maybe even unhelpful to try. Utopias deflect us from the urgent task of putting right the world we actually live in. And yet we pray that God’s will be done on earth as in Heaven and so we need some vision of Heaven, not as some template, but as an inspiration. Perfect beauty is unattainable, but that doesn’t make the effort to attain it worthless.
There is a flaw for me too, in Zechariah’s vision; indeed, we need a desire for restoration to a world that respects creation, a world that ignores the hideous inequalities and injustice which surround us, a blindness and neglect which the current crisis has thrown into focus. But we have to accept that there never has been a time when the world has been uncorrupted by greed and selfishness, individual and communal. There has been no golden age, which we might try to restore, except in our imaginations.
We need Zechariah and John; we need a sense of reality, not fantasy, but we need the inspiration of the beautiful if impossible too. The mundane matters, but so does the imagination.
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