Below is a sermon I preached this past Sunday at an interviewing weekend for a church in Winnipeg. The sermon is based on Revelation 4.
Søren Kierkegaard was a philosopher, theologian and all around eccentric who wrote about 150 years ago. It would be an understatement to say that he was a little dissatisfied about his experience with the church and often culture in general. He was, however, an adamant believer in the ongoing and transforming work of God. In a book entitled Works of Love Kierkegaard acknowledges that too often in the church and in life things become stale. Things become sealed off without any new air. This can happen for a variety of reasons. Perhaps we are afraid of what is out there so we lock the door and throw away the key. Or maybe we are convinced of our own sufficiency and ability and conclude that we have no need for any other influence. Or maybe we simply become bored or too busy or too comfortable to change. We just don’t feel like getting up to open a window. I suspect though we can all think of sitting in a meeting during a hot summer day . . . maybe even a church meeting . . . oh who knows it may have even happened one time during a sermon, where the air became a little thick and you longed for a breeze to bring things back to life. For whatever the reason this environment is created we can find ourselves in places where the air seems to keep getting thick and a little tighter. When this stagnancy continues to happen and begins to mark our lives then vision has been lost. It is like those nights after hot and humid day where we open all the windows only to find that nothing changes. Even fans cannot this breeze. It feels as though the life has been sucked right out of the air. This, I think, is what Kierkegaard means by losing vision.
Therefore at various times there frequently is felt the need for a refreshing, enlivening breeze, a mighty wind, which would cleanse the air and drive out poisonous fumes . . . a need is felt for the enlivening vision of a great expectation . . . [And] Christianity knows only one way and one way out . . . it is by the help of the eternal that Christianity at every moment gains air and vision.
Listen again to the first line of our reading for this morning,
After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven.
As if the rest of the Bible were not enough of a witness to God we find in this last book God swinging open the door to heaven to bring a fresh breeze to any who would turn their face towards it. For this image to make any sense it is really important for us to understand that neither the word eternity or heaven have anything to do with some removed, distant or abstract idea. I suspect our first image of heaven would still be something like a Philly cream cheese commercial. We think of that nice, comfortable but maybe a little bland place that we will go to after we die. Gary Larson’s Far Side comic captures this well when he simply depicts a guy sitting on a cloud with a thought bubble above him that reads, “I wish I had brought a magazine.” Our image of heaven and eternity tend to be distant and irrelevant to our lives. Our image tends not to shape and transform the present. But in the Bible the only way these terms are used is in their direct relevance for believers. And as Kierkegaard stated the eternal can be present for Christianity at every moment.
So let’s turn our attention to the open door and peer into heaven itself. To imagine the vision depicted in chapter four it is probably simplest to think of concentric circles. John begins at the center, at the heart of things and works his way out from there with every additional ring relating in its own way to the center. And the first thing John sees is a throne. The throne is literally central to this vision. Everything is located around the throne. As it is the case in other images of God on a throne we are not given a description of God but rather we are shown the context around God. The vision does not show us an image of God because language does not have the capacity for that task but it shows what God’s order and rule and authority look like. We are first told about the precious stones and the rainbow that surround the throne. These are images of beauty but also images of promises. The precious stones call to mind the ones worn by the high priest in the Old Testament. The high priest offered sacrifices with a breastplate of 12 stones which represented the 12 tribes of Israel and so we are reminded of God’s atoning and redeeming work. And the rainbow recalls Noah and speaks of God’s promise to preserve and ultimately redeem the world. And then surrounding the throne we hear about 24 other thrones with 24 elders. These remind us of God’s presence in the twelve tribes of Israel as well as Jesus’ twelve disciples. This speaks of God’s faithfulness through the witnesses of both Old and New Testaments. From the throne comes thunder and lightening like a storm but then we are also told that before the throne was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal. The sea in the Bible almost always represents an image of power and potential threat. The sea exists in our world with the powers of chaos and destruction. Later in Revelation we read about the beasts that emerge from the sea. But here, before the throne the sea is calm, crystal clear. Nothing can disturb the waters before the throne of God.
John then quickly moves to the description of four living beings that are covered in eyes. One was like a lion, one was like an ox, one had the face of a human, and the last was like an eagle flying. While there is some ambiguity about these creatures they seem to represent the four corners of the world and every living thing that breathes within it. Day and night these creatures proclaim,
Holy, holy, holy,
Is the Lord God Almighty
Who was, and is, and is to come
There is no place in life and creation where God’s holiness is not present and proclaimed.
So what does all this imagery mean? We pray in the Lord’s Prayer for God’s will to be done on earth as it is heaven. Well this is a vision of God’s will as it is done in heaven. This is the truth of reality when God sits at the center of things. It is significant that this vision still includes an image of the sea. The place of chaos and destruction still exists but it is given no authority or power before God’s throne. And so what unfolds in the rest of the book of Revelation is a depiction of how we are still living in a time when people can turn to or establish other thrones, where people can have other centers that order their reality. The book of Revelation then, as whole, really poses the question of worship. What is at seated on the throne at the center of our reality? And we live in a time now, as then, where the response to that question is still in conflict.
I told my church in Ontario after I came back from a parental leave that I learned the meaning of life . . . and I wasn’t kidding. Though I didn’t quite know the implications of this insight it became clear to me that the meaning of life is worship. We are created essentially as worshipping beings and so our lives are called to be drawn up into a living and breathing act of worship. Because our nature is to worship we always place something on a throne. This also makes idolatry one of the key themes in the book of Revelation. I understand that idolatry is a dusty old term but since I am talking about fresh breezes this morning I thought of dusting it off and see what we find.
It has always baffled me how easily it seemed that the Israelites found themselves setting up idols. You can hardly finish reading about them smashing the old ones and they would already be at work forming new ones. In time I began to see that idols stood for something more significant in each generation. Idols emerge in our attempts to fix, secure and control the center of things, the order of the world around us. An idol emerges whenever we attempt to take control of things beyond us. In our lives we know that the sea is not always calm. And so we face insecurities in our work or economy; we fear loss or abandonment in our relationships; we face the struggle of poor health; we wrestle with questions of doubt, self-worth or purpose; we begin drowning in waves of shame. There are times where it seems that at every turn the sea is ready to capsize our boat. And so in the Old Testament people created idols to fight against the insecurity of the weather for their crops and the fear of infertility in their flock and families.
For us idols are those things we put between ourselves and our own fears and insecurities. Certainly money continues to function in many of our lives as that thing that we place at the center so that order is kept. For most of us the more our finances are threatened the more we begin to fear the threat of collapse, the threat of the sea. But of course our lives and actions reflect all sorts of ways we try and center and control our world. Perhaps we are afraid of being weak and so we try to present ourselves as strong. Maybe we are afraid of being rejected so we become stoic, withdrawn or defensive. Maybe we are afraid of being viewed as a failure or insignificant so we work hard to make our place in the world, to acquire status and recognition. Maybe we are afraid of being alone and so we look for comfort in any place we can find. Or we are afraid of not being heard and so we try to impose our voice and agenda on others. We are afraid of not being seen so we make a spectacle of ourselves. We are afraid of losing our comfort, privilege or way of life and so we defend it all costs. Before we know it we go about our days in the work of crafting and perfecting the idols of strength, beauty, intellect, sex, achievement, distraction, indifference, force, and anything else that we feel will promise our security. But these projects are all doomed. We attempt to calm the sea but like the beasts in the book of Revelation it is from the sea of our fears and insecurities that these things emerge and so in the end there is no rest, no peace.
And so the book of Revelation rather than being obscure and unintelligible, as it is often viewed, is actually excruciatingly relevant and practical. The book demands that we place nothing, no thing on the throne at the center of our world. The Bible takes great pains to tell us that we cannot predicate and manipulate the presence of God but that we must create space for God to come as God. The center of worship in the Tabernacle and Temple of the Old Testament was the Ark of the Covenant where there was an empty space above the Mercy Seat and between the cherub’s wings. Where other religions would place an idol or image the Israelites needed to trust that God would come to them beyond their expectations and demands. In the New Testament some commentators see the empty tomb of Easter morning as allusion to this same sort of empty space. In John’s Gospel we find Mary looking into the empty tomb and seeing two angels at either side where Jesus would have been laying. This image reminded the disciples that Jesus continues to move ahead and beyond their expectations calling them to grow and change. Theses passages seem to be telling us that even, and maybe especially, our faith and religion can also become an idol when we think we can fix and secure where and who Jesus is and use him for our agenda. The enlivening breeze of God’s Spirit comes when we clear the way of suffocating idols. Therefore we need to be relentless in knowing that we cannot claim and control God but witness to where God has moved and open ourselves in anticipation of God’s movement.
This vision, this breeze, can move with great freedom over our lives. We are freed to learn the practices of a life of worship. This vision gives a sort of eternal confidence and assurance. From a Mennonite perspective John Howard Yoder writes directly on the non-violent implications of Revelation’s vision. We no longer need to look to coercive powers to achieve our goals. The goal and purpose of every Christian is already accomplished in the eternal order and will be established on earth. This is the promise of Revelation. What he calls for are not programs of strategic effectiveness but postures of faithfully engaged and lived patience.
And so the Spirit, the enlivening breeze of God, flows with this vision to all of life. We are open now to our neighbour in new ways. The meeting and loving of our neighbour can be the site of our meeting with God. We can also come alongside and open our lives to comfort those who are struggling and suffering not because we can end their suffering but because we know of one who is greater, who will outlast and overcome suffering. We are freed to celebrate the arts and creativity as they reflect the image of a God who is always making new. We can learn to give and receive correction because we can all acknowledge that the beginning and end of our idols are in the sea of chaos and destruction. This has nothing then to do with being judgmental this becomes rather an act of care where we learn to clear space for fresh air away from the suffocating nature of our fears and insecurities. We are also freed from the burden of having preserve and perpetuate our religion. We do not possess the fuel or the strength to be the center of a religion. Institutions can take so much out of us as it is. What if we learned to gather our lives around a life-giving breeze? What if our acts of worship in our gathering and in our lives were meant to create nothing other than space for God’s Spirit to breathe new life?
And our freedom goes so far as having the ability to close the door to this vision or to never even open it. We have been given the freedom to try and live off re-circulated air. While John has been given the vision of an open door to heaven in chapter four we hear Jesus saying this at the end of chapter three to the churches.
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and that person will eat with me.
I realize this verse has been used in a variety of contexts with various purposes but its message remains of being in a living relationship with God, a life-giving relationship. We are all given the gift of life but if we take that gift as our possession then, like the prodigal son’s inheritance, it will run out. The oxygen will be depleted. The depletion of our resources under our possession is being played out all too clearly around us.
In trying to take possession of the gift of his inheritance the prodigal son traded away a relationship with the gift-giving father. In trying to take possession of our life we threaten losing connection to the One who breathes life into us.
This vision was given to encourage the church. It was given to breathe life in the midst of their struggles. But this vision comes at a high price. It comes at the cost of idols and our illusions. It comes at the cost of our expectations. I tried to imagine Jesus standing at the door knocking and I began to realize that after his resurrection people had a hard time initially identifying Jesus. The people continued to long and grasp for the Jesus as they knew him. This Jesus may come to our door as a stranger. And so the church is called into the world and each believer is called into themselves to meet with the one who may come as a mighty wind like at Pentecost or may come in the smallest breathe of a whisper as with Elijah. This is the call of faith to leave the predictability of our idols and turn our face to a breeze that blows where it will. A breeze that will be made known by the freedom and healing that follow in its wake. May we as a church learn to turn our faces to the breeze that will fill our lungs and our bodies for a life of worship.