Homily for Evensong Easter 5 2011

In Uncategorized on May 22, 2011 at 10:08 pm

Evensong, Easter 5A                  Zechariah4:1-10                  Revelation 21:1-14

Well, we’re still here.
You may have noticed
that the Rapture did not happen yesterday at 6pm, here or in any time zone.

The certain prediction of a US evangelist that it would
is just one of many that have come and gone over twenty centuries.
Harold Camping’s date was determined by his reading of biblical numerology – numbers and their use in the Bible.

Now, it’s not completely mad: numbers are very significant in Scripture.
Providentially, we have some significant numbers in our readings tonight,
which we can explore.

But of course there is a world of difference
between the symbolism of biblical numbers,
and thinking we can gain secret knowledge through them.

One is about the richness of the many layers of biblical meaning and poetry;
the other is almost a form of gnosticism, the idea that a chosen individual or few
have special, hidden, almost magical insight into the mind and will of God.
One is thoroughly in consonance with orthodox Christianity and biblical study;
the other very much a fringe cul-de-sac.

First, though, let’s just remind ourselves of,
and put in some sort of context, our readings.

Our passage from Zechariah
is a vision concerning the rebuilding of the Temple,
at a time when only some of the exiles had returned to Jerusalem.
The figure of Zerubbabel mentioned was of Judah’s kingly line,
a descendent of King David and ancestor of Jesus.
It was he who was to take the leading role in rebuilding the Temple,
clearing away the “great mountain” of rubble from the first Temple’s destruction,
and from “small things” building again the House of the Lord.

The prophet Zechariah’s vision is evocative of a restored Temple Sanctuary,
with its menorah, its lampstands, and even two olive trees to give fresh oil,
symbolising the restoration in Jerusalem
of both priestly and royal service.

The Book of Revelation has another vision, once again of Jerusalem.
Almost certainly written
after the destruction of Zerubbabel’s rebuilt Temple in the year 70AD,
this is a vision of a world remade, heaven and earth,
symbolised by Jerusalem, the holy city, coming down from heaven,
of the fulfilment of the Incarnation when God dwells fully with humanity.

In this vision, there is – if you read on – no need for a Temple, or for lampstands,
because the throne of God and the Lamb – the Risen Christ – are at its heart.

The Church, the bride of the Lamb, the spiritual new and forever holy Jerusalem,
is seen as a city beyond beauty and imagination, glinting like a jewel.

And in both these visions we have numbers.
Specifically sevens and twelves:
Seven lamps, seven wicks (or lips), seven eyes…
Seven angels, seven bowls, seven plagues…
Twelve gates, twelve angels, twelve tribes, twelve foundations, twelve names, twelve apostles…

Clearly there is something to the numbers the Bible uses.
But what?

Seven is the number of days of Creation,
it represents completeness, wholeness, universality, the sabbath.
The Jewish menorah, lampstand, has seven candles to symbolise this,
to bring to mind enlightenment and the promise of God.

Twelve is the number of those God chooses, the people of God,
the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve Apostles.

Other numbers are also significant:
The Lord your God is one God.

 Three symbolises the Trinity,
but also in a number of places in Scripture, the day on which God acts.
This is demonstrated no more clearly than in the Resurrection,
when on the third day Christ rises from the dead.

40 is an important number, signifying as a round number a generation
or a period of time between “a few” and “a great many”.

More than this, both Hebrew and Greek gave letters numerical values,
A B C – aleph, beth, gimel, – alpha, beta, gamma
corresponding to 1, 2, 3  and so on.

In this way we get symbolic values, most famously 666,
the Book of Revelation’s “number of the beast”,
probably from adding together the value of letters from the Hebrew title of Nero,
first Emperor to persecute the Church,
and thus shorthand for every latter persecution.

So, numbers in the Bible are important, are meaningful,
but need not be limited to the literal.
They give us insight, often, into what is being evoked or intended.

I think I would want to suggest to those disappointed
by the non-appearance of the Rapture
that both, as Jesus tells us, “no-one knows the day or the hour”,
but also that Scripture’s inspired authors
were more often allegorical proclaimers, prophets, poets,
than – with the greatest of professional respect – accountants or quantity surveyors
(or, in Mr Camping’s case, civil engineers).

God give us eyes to see, ears to hear and wisdom to discern
the richness of the gift of Scripture.
And humility to let God speak.


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