Sunday, May 27, 2018

Windows onto God – a sermon for Evensong at Coventry Cathedral, May 28th 2018

When I was a teenage chorister, passages like those we’ve just heard used to drive me to distraction.
You see, my favourite escape route when the sermon didn’t grab me was to wander off in my imagination, into the depths of the readings. This was fine when they were stories of Jesus and his friends, or parables, or the Old Testament adventures...journeys through the wilderness, escapes from captivity...or the beautifully poetic prophecies of Isaiah about lions and lambs, or deserts bursting into life.
But passages like tonights were another thing altogether.
I would tie myself in knots trying to actually picture the 4 creatures.
4 faces, 4 wings, eyes wherever you looked – how on earth did that work?
Were Ezekiel and John both indulging in substance abuse?
I tended to think that they might be, and would retreat with relief to whatever was going on in the psalm.

Now I find myself preaching on those same passages – and its tempting to take the same escape route.
Except, of course, that there’s no way out!
It seems that all our readings, from Old and New Testament and psalm alike have the same message…
Lord my God, you are very great… You are clothed in splendour and majesty”
Every word of Scripture we’ve heard this afternoon is designed to convey offer a range of different images that might give us, the hearers, a window onto God – or, as John experienced it, a “door standing open in heaven”. Open doors are surely, always, an invitation...It would be simply perverse to turn away...but as we go through, we need to adjust our expectations, to understand that we are entering a different kind of reality.

You see, it’s important to notice what’s actually going on in the passages.
Neither writer is attempting an accurate scientific description of something you might try and draw for yourself (I say this, though behind me you have John Piper’s interpretation, to which we’ll return later, which might also help your imagination to take flight).
Notice how often Ezekiel tries to make this clear
what looked like four living creatures...” “The appearance of the likeness of the glory of God”.
He knows we’re not dealing with exact equivalence. All these images are things glimpsed through a glass darkly…best guesses at a wonder beyond all words and all imaginings.
In the same way that icons, beloved of the Orthodox tradition, don’t presume to offer pictures OF God but rather invite us into a way of contemplating God’s majesty – so these passages are in no way factual descriptions of the glories of heaven, but routes into wondering.

As such they are part of a great tradition, and those living creatures are carefully chosen for their honorable place in Jewish writing as representatives of the whole of animal life.
Midrash declares that each is present because “all have received dominion” – the “king of the beasts”, the lion, symbolises strength and power and rules over all wild animals; birds are commanded by the eagle, far-sighted and visionary, and gifted with eternal youth; domestic animals are led by the ox, patient, strong, obedient; and here, too, is humanity, not in any way the “crown” of creation, but a good, respected part of it.
Four creatures – made into perfected, extraordinary versions of themselves, to emphasise just how charged and heightened these visions really are – because our writers are glimpsing something truly tremendous. We know this – even while we struggle to place ourselves beside them, to share their imaginings, see through their eyes.

But in fact our failures of imagination don’t matter in the least. These living creatures are there not for themselves but because they ARE creatures – part of the natural order, beings made for God’s glory and taking their part, with us, in the eternal song of praise around God’s throne.

One commentator writes of the vision of Revelation 4
This is a throne-room for the universe – and the throne is not vacant. The universe is not a chaos, nor is it ruled by blind fate. Someone is in charge”….and this, of course, takes us back immediately to our great tapestry where that Someone, Christ himself sits, flanked by the four living creatures that our writers have described to us.

Michael Sadgrove, a former Precentor of the Cathedral, describes the tapestry as a ‘magic carpet’, carrying the worshipper on a flight not into fantasy but into reality at three levels – the reality of God, the reality of the world, and the reality of the person themselves.
That’s what lies on the other side of the door, if we have the courage to walk through.
Reality. We’re no longer dealing with “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God” but with a direct encounter with God made human, with God’s whole life and being walking the earth in the person of Jesus Christ...that same Jesus who now sits in glory, ruling over our world, our history and our future.
This “window onto God” is quite unlike any other – because we are invited to come close to, to know for ourselves, to receive into our own beings the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth”.
Where pictures fail, and dreams fade on waking, this Christ meets us where we are, in our everyday lives, and walks beside us here and now.

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, Who was, and is, and is to come...”
In Revelation, the 24 elders join with the living creatures in a chorus of universal praise…and surely our ultimate calling is to find our voices and to join with them..
In the meantime, though, we may feel rather more like that human figure standing between the feet of Christ, simply too close to see what is going on, oblivious to their surroundings.
But though we may not have much grasp of God’s reality, nonetheless we are secure – because the One who holds the universe in love will not let us slip or fall, however poor our vision as we travel onward til the door is fully opened and we are welcomed home to join ourselves in the song of heaven.

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