Photo: A Rainbow from our garden, November 2010
Sermon for Sunday 3/2/13
Text – Revelation 4
I remember as a ten-year-old the mixture of fear and curiosity as I waited outside the headmaster’s study, I had been summoned to see him but I did not know what it was about. He was Scottish, he had no sense of humour (at least as far as I could discern) and he had the temper of a hungry polar bear that had just been hit with a stick…
What’s the most important meeting to which you have ever been summoned? Can you remember what it was like; the mixture of emotions that were going through your mind and how time seemed to pass by either so quickly or so slowly, depending upon how you felt?
In our second reading today, John, the disciple of Jesus has an important meeting, but it is not one that he had been expecting or could have planned for. John was a prisoner on the Island of Patmos, about 35 miles off the coast of south-western Turkey. The authorities put him there, in exile, as a punishment for being a follower of and such effective witness for Christ. Of course, rather than stopping John from being effective for Christ, the exact opposite happens; he has the chance to pray and to reflect and he receives the most explosive vision of God’s power and love, written down in this incredible last book of the Bible called ‘Revelation’.
John has a vision in which he sees a door, but it is no ordinary door, this one opens up into heaven! No doubt John is aware of his surroundings, the sky is still blue (remember, this vision is not happening in Ireland), he can still hear the waves crashing on the shore nearby and he can still feel the wind on his face, but nevertheless there is a door that is clearly from a different realm and it is open. And a voice, like a trumpet speaks to him saying,
‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’ (1)
The voice belongs to Jesus, John recognised the voice, it was loud, clear, penetrating, (like a trumpet), this was the voice of the risen Jesus. Different but perhaps similar to Jesus’ voice with which John would have been so familiar from the three years they spent together during Jesus’ earthly ministry.
Once Jesus has spoken the vision becomes deeper, John now tells us that
‘at once I was in the spirit.’ (2)
What John sees next could not be seen with ordinary eyes, what he sees is the throne of God in heaven, yet he sees a highly symbolic view, perhaps an ‘actual’ or ‘real’ view of God’s throne would be too overwhelming to even approach, let alone describe. He writes:
‘… and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and cornelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. (3)
Then in verse 5 we see that:
‘Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God;’
Last Wednesday night do you remember the thunder and lightning we had? Together with the howling wind and driving rain it was quite a night of weather! On Thursday morning I opened the back door and I could see that we had a visitor – it was next door’s dog, he’s quite an old fella and he was cowering in the corner of the porch looking frightened. The cat was there too, looking quite pleased with himself, thinking that he was the cause of the dog’s terror, but no, the dog had escaped from his own enclosure during the night because of the thunder and lightning.
Why is it that as John looks at the place where God is, it is terrifying? Why is there lightning and thunder and flashes of fire? Perhaps this is to remind us all that God is holy, He is powerful and mighty and awesome and scary – He is not some cuddly granddad figure floating on a cloud! In the Old Testament for an Israelite to even touch the mountain where God had come down to meet Moses would mean certain death (Exodus 19:12,13,21). God in all His glory is utterly unapproachable, He is so incomparably perfect in every way and we are so sinful and imperfect that the gulf between us is too big. Yet His love for us is far greater than our sin. He is determined that we should be able to approach Him and to know Him and love Him as our heavenly Father. The good news is that He has made a way for us to approach Him and that is through Jesus. As well as the thunder and lightning, John also tells us that there is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Perhaps the most famous rainbow in the Bible is the one God showed to Noah and his family when they came out of the Ark. That rainbow was a promise from God that never again would there be a flood like the one Noah and all in the Ark had to be rescued from. Every time a rainbow has appeared in the sky ever since it is a reminder to humankind that God always keeps His promises. Yes we imperfect people will break promises and go back on our word, but God never has and He never will. So the rainbow here in the vision that John is seeing in heaven is a reminder to us all of God’s faithfulness; He will never betray us and His love for us is perfect and holy and total and that love has been fully expressed to us in Jesus. It is a love so great that it allowed His own Son to be nailed to a cross in our place, to die the death that we deserved (Isaiah 53:5).
There’s a lot more going on in this vision; we see that around God’s throne in the centre are twenty-four thrones and seated on those twenty-four thrones are twenty-four elders. There were twelve tribes that made up the nation of Israel and there were twelve Apostles at the birth of the church, so put the two twelve’s together and you have ‘ta daa’ … twenty-four! So this represents all God’s people through the ages; through the time of the Old Testament and through the age of the Church (which is where we are to this day).
Then we come to what are called ‘four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind’. (6) Often when you talk to someone who has a group of rowdy children to look after they will say something like ‘you need eyes in the back of your head with this lot’! Of course, what they mean is that it is really difficult to see everything that is going on and they are afraid that they might miss something, such as a child injuring themselves or another child during the course of play. So these four living creatures being covered in eyes is symbolic of the fact that they see everything, there is no pulling the wool over their eyes, they don’t miss a trick! As well as all the eyes, each creature has a different appearance; the first one has the appearance of a lion, the king of the untamed animals and who represents power. The second creature has the appearance of an ox, the greatest of the tamed animals, representing strength. The third creature has the face of a human, representing intelligence and showing the importance of the human race in God’s creation. The fourth creature is like a flying eagle, the undisputed king of the birds, representing swiftness. These creatures appear elsewhere in the Bible (Ezekiel 1, Isaiah 6) and they are called Seraphim, high ranking Angelic beings, they are the ones who surround the throne of God and who lead worship – and what worship it is!
I’ve sometimes heard grumpy people complain that in some other churches they sing too much (indeed I know I have sometimes moaned about it too); whether it be charismatic praise lasting twenty minutes or more, or choral evensong in a Cathedral taking far longer than we think it should. If we think that is bad we might be in for a bit of a shock in heaven, where in this vision of John, the four angels around the throne of God never stop singing, day and night! Of course this would be no ordinary singing; this would be the most beautiful noise and well beyond the scope of our earthly ears to fully appreciate… and what do they sing?
‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.’ (8)
The thing that happens next is so beautiful that I had tears in my eyes as I was typing the words at the computer – the twenty-four elders join in the worship too. We as the church of God are included; the day will come when we are around the throne of God, there are absolutely no words to describe what that will be like; it will be beyond spine-tingling, it will be the most beautiful and awesome thing beyond what we could ever imagine and with countless numbers of others we will join in the worship and we will sing, with beautiful new voices:
‘You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.’ (11)
All Creation exists because of God the Creator and all creation exists to worship Him. God made us as the pinnacle of His Creation and the whole point and meaning of our lives now and that new life which is to come finds its purpose and meaning only in worshipping Him who made us. Let us worship him now and never let us stop worshiping Him in the way that we live our lives for Him who gave His life for us. Worship is indeed a way of life and we will never be fully content or find peace and joy until we realise that God is worthy, more than worthy of our worship, not just singing worship but to worship Him with all of our lives, every moment, with all that we are and everything that we have… Amen.
Tom Wright, ‘Revelation for Everyone’, SPCK 2011 (Kindle edition)
William Hendriksen “More than Conquerors”, Tyndale Press, 1962
John Richardson, “Revelation Unwrapped”, MPA Books, 1996
 Tom Wright, ‘Revelation for Everyone’, SPCK 2011 (Kindle) Location 315