This morning saw the release of a set of 45 year old documents, previously kept as secret as secret can be since 1975.
The “Palace Letters” were the correspondence between the then Governor-General of Australia Sir John Kerr and the office of Queen Elizabeth as they discussed the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. In essence, Whitlam was unable to command a working majority in the Australia parliament, evidenced by his inability to pass Supply Bills through the Upper House. (i.e. get a budget passed through the house to keep the government money flowing).
The Governor-General, acting as vice-regent (i.e. in the place of the Queen), resolved the impasse and appointed the opposition leader as Prime Minister.
Many hoped the the correspondence would answer some of the questions surrounding Australia’s biggest constitutional crisis — and already, it it seems they will.
And we love it. We love finding out what happened in secret. There’s a delicious satisfaction to finding out the dirt. Will there be dirt revealed as historians work their way through the Palace Letters? Only time will tell.
One thing that pastoral ministry has taught me is that it would be horrific for most of us to have our own secrets revealed. We can work hard to maintain an external veneer of respectability but the reality is that if all our actions, let alone the thoughts and feelings of our mind and heart, were exposed we would be in deep trouble. And yet there will be a day when our own lives will be laid bear, just as the correspondence between the Governor-General and Chief Secretary to the Queen has been laid bare.
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened.
It’s from the book of Revelation, quite near to the end. The Apostle John is being shown spiritual realities. This is what is called “apocalyptic” literature from the greek “apokolupsis” or “unveiling”. It’s picture-language; a vision, not a video. But no less real for it.
The meaning is clear. At the end of all things we will all be judged and books were opened. Everything is recorded, all of it. There will, no doubt, be some wonderful things to celebrate; moments of love and giving and sacrifice, enjoyment of God’s good creation, compassion where it was most needed, honour where it was due and satisfaction for a noble job well done. But there will also be things which will cause us to hang our head in shame, cower away lest we be recognised for who we are. Any sober self-assessment will acknowledge this.
The imagery of Revelation draws on a much earlier text, Daniel. Writing in a similar apocalyptic style Daniel shares a vision:
As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.
What distinguishes these two scenes, if at all, is the context in which they are presented even when they represent the same event. The book of Daniel is all about the victory of the Kingdom of God in a world of opposing kingdoms. So this courtroom scene is preceded by a vision of a number of “beasts” and “horns” that represent a world and particularly governments and empires that rail against God and his King. The import is apparent: Kings, Prime Ministers, Governor-Generals and even Chief Secretaries will all stand trial. For every one of them the books were opened.
In Revelation 20 it’s a different set in the dock, “the dead, great and small”. Every one of us, from the Queen down to the worker who cleans her toilet, will stand before this throne and give a full account.
Which, I hope you can see, is a troubling thing to contemplate because who will stand on that day? Who can say they have never done anything wrong? To make such a claim would only to be compound our guilt by adding another instance of lying to the charge sheet. So what hope is there?
Another book was opened, which is the book of life.
In the face of one incontrovertible record of our guilt we need another record. Despite the books being opened there is a rescue and it is to have our names recorded in this second book. It’s an image that the Scriptures use on a number of occasions and is found multiple times in Revelation. It’s the list of those who contend for the good news about Jesus (Phil. 4:2), it’s those that keep trusting Jesus and are “victorious (Rev. 3:5), it’s those that entrust themselves to “the Lamb” (an image of Jesus sacrificed) and not “the Beast” (Rev. 13:8), it’s those prepared to suffer for Jesus (Rev. 17:8). From these images we see a description not of those working hard to be good (as though such a thing were possible) but those who rely upon Jesus as the escape from judgement. The future for those in that book is clear. They enter into the New Creation to enjoy the fullness of an eternal relationship with the true and living God and the Lamb, Jesus. (Rev. 21).
Yesterday I had a conversation with a church member who’s past, like so many of us, included things that the world might consider deeply shameful (at least they should if their moral compass was correct). They themselves acknowledged the matter. But they were also rejoicing and resting in the forgiveness that Jesus brings and so that moment when the books are opened held no fear for them. In fact, quite the opposite – it would be a moment to rejoice in what the Lamb had done, willingly sacrificed on their behalf so that their name might be written in the Book of Life. Shame was gone, replaced with the freedom that only the good news about Jesus the Lamb can bring.
The Governor-General and the Chief Secretary have had their books opened today. Time will tell what the judgement will be. One day we will stand alongside them and even the monarch that they represent as our own books are opened. What will the judgement be then for you?