SERMON - REV. BRIAN MOODIE
Last week we looked more closely at the opening Act of the Book: In which we encountered an image of Christ, the exalted King of creation, surrounded by seven lampstands, symbols of the seven churches to whom he was writing. This was followed by seven short messages to the seven churches. We saw how the image of Christ that John describes is really made up of a collage of at least 20 Old Testament passages, most especially from Daniel’s description of a heavenly being whom he described as one like a son of man, or the Human One.
Today I would like to explore images from the next section of the book. Again, John draws abundantly from images and verses from the Old Testament.
The first thing that happens is John sees a window in heaven. The Greek word for Heaven could also be translated as sky. John sees an opening, a door, or a portal in the sky, and an angel invites him to come up. The words “Come up here!” echo the words of God from Mount Sinai calling Moses up the mountain.
What John then sees is a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it, and the one seated on the throne has the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne are 24 other thrones and on them 24 elders, dressed in white with crowns on their heads. From the throne are flashes of lightening and peals of thunder. Before the throne are seven blazing lamps representing the seven spirits of God. Some translate it as the Seven-fold Spirit of God suggesting the fullness and completeness of God. Before the throne we encounter four living creatures. The first like a lion, the second like an ox, the third with a face like a human and the fourth flying like an eagle. Each having six wings also covered in eyes and day and night they never stop saying: Holy Holy Holy….
This is a rich picture, full of symbolism again, much of which we find drawn from other passages in the Bible. The two primary passages John draws from as Isaiah 6, and Ezekiel 1. John’s description of the throne of God has similarities to both the images found in Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1, but there are also significant differences. It is perhaps a reminder that what we are reading here is not a literal picture of heaven. It is a symbolic picture that is meant to communicate meaning rather than give us a literal video-tape glimpse of heaven.
Although we use the language of God seated on a throne, this language is not literally true. It is a human attempt using human language and human imagery to speak of a truth and a reality that words cannot describe.
In ancient times, as a human being, living in a political system where kings ruled by sitting on a throne, if you wanted to speak of a higher authority, a higher law and a higher wisdom that all people and all creation live under and are somehow answerable to, how do you describe that in language that other people can process and relate to? You use the language of a great cosmic king seated in majesty on a great cosmic throne. But Jesus reminds us in John’s Gospel that this kind of language is ultimately symbolic and metaphoric and not to be taken literally for he reminds us that God is Spirit, like an invisible, moving life force or breathe that gives life and breathe to all and yet who is not just an impersonal force but is also somehow a Personal Presence. But very quickly one begins to run out of words. Much easier to describe God, the supreme authority wisdom of the universe seated on a throne. This is language that ordinary human minds can grasp. The image is useful and helpful. But we need to be careful of not taking it too literally or we could be in danger of creating another idol in the image of a human being.
I would now like to look at the symbolism and imagery from Revelation 4.
Firstly, isn’t it interesting that the one seated on the throne is not described as a human, but is rather rather described with the imagery of sparking and shining precious stones of jasper, ruby and emerald. In true Jewish tradition, John has resisted the temptation to make an image of the Divine. As one Bible commentary puts it, since God dwells in unapproachable light as we read in 1 Timothy and since God is one whom no-one has seen, John describes God in terms of the reflected brilliance of precious stones.
It reminds us that at the heart of life there is a Supreme Divine Spiritual Reality that reigns over us and which is our true source and the source of all that beautiful and precious and pure in this life.
Secondly, surrounding the throne, we read of 24 thrones with 24 elders dressed in white with golden crowns on their heads. The 24 thrones and elders are most probably references to the twelve tribes or patriarchs of Israel and the 12 apostles of the Christian Church, the communities of both the old covenant and the new covenant. Some would say that this indicates that Revelation was written before the split of Judaism and Christianity when most Christians still saw themselves as being part of the wider Jewish tradition.
But in a wider sense, the 24 thrones and 24 elders represent all people who live in harmony with the Divine Reality at the heart of life, the saints and holy people of every time, place and age. It is a reminder that our humanity finds it’s true nobility and dignity, and meaning and purpose when lived in harmony with the Divine.
Thirdly, we read that from the throne there are flashes of lightening and peals of thunder. The imagery reflects the imagery of God meeting Moses on Mount Sinai and conveys the idea that God is the source of all the power behind the whole universe. Even for modern people, lightening and thunder are reminders that human beings are actually very small and that there are powers and forces far greater than us at work in the universe.
Fourthly, this takes us on to the next image, that before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal. This image has echoes from Ezekiel’s opening vision of God on a throne, except in Ezekiel’s description it is a vault above the throne that was something like a vault, sparkling like crystal. The image of the crystal sea in revelation is suggestive of a deep peace and tranquility. It is a symbol of the eternal peace and stillness of God that forms the back-drop to the whole of life. All of life emerges out of the Divine stillness and all life returns again into it.
The last symbol I would like to look at is the rainbow that shone like emerald encircling the throne. The emerald colour of green is suggestive of life and abundance, that God is the source of abundant life. The rainbow itself is an image that takes us back to the mythical story of Noah and God’s promise after the flood, to hang up his warrior’s bow and never to bring destruction again to the earth. Which raises a question, why, if God has vowed never again to bring destruction again to the earth do we see in the very next section, three sets of seven judgements being poured out on the earth as each of the seven seals are opened, seven trumpets are sounded and seven bowls are poured out upon the earth?
For me, it is another reminder that when I read of judgements in the Bible and in the book of revelation, I think of consequences. In the book of Romans, Paul says that the judgement and wrath of God is ultimately this: that God gives us over to our own waywardness until we experience the consequences. In the context of Revelation, when an Empire, like the Roman Empire consistently builds itself on injustice, oppression and violence it is built on a very fragile foundation. For a time it make grow strong, but there is only so long that you can defy the moral arc of the universe before it catches up and the system begins to crumble, as the Roman Empire finally did from 376 AD, undermined by its own decadence leading to internal weaknesses, undermined also by war, disease, and famine that led to its final downfall in the West in 476 AD
The four horsemen of the apocalypse that are unleashed with the opening of the first seal of the scroll in chapter 5 are widely interpreted to represent conquest, war, famine and pestilence, or disease. As Tim Mackie says, the four horsemen of the apocalypse represent a tragically ordinary day in the history of humanity. And as Marshall Davis says, these four horsemen are four forces that have always worked together in history to bring down the many empires that have ruled the world. A reminder also that in this world, as the writer of Hebrews suggests, there are no lasting Empires and no enduring cities. Which is why as people of faith, our ultimate fulfilment can never be found in building little kingdoms in this world. Our true fulfilment will come as we live for a greater more enduring purpose, as we live for a truth, or a reality that transcends this world. In the language of our Christian tradition, it is the Kingdom of the Risen Christ.
Getting back to the image of the throne, when I was at university, I became part of a very evangelical organisation called Campus Crusade for Christ. I never quite felt comfortable in the organisation, perhaps because I had never grown up in that kind of very evangelical atmosphere, but I had a really good friend who was part of them who drew me in. In their evangelical outreach, one of the key questions that they would ask in seeking to bring people to conversion and commitment to Christ was whether either they or Christ was seated on the throne of their own lives. While I would still struggle with the rather narrow evangelical framework that Campus Crusade operates within, there is something about that question that still rings true. And I guess, the image of the throne in Revelation 4, ultimately asks us a very similar question: Who or what is seated on the throne of our hearts or the throne of our lives? Who or what claims our highest allegiance and greatest commitment in this life? Who or what is it that is the driving force behind the decisions and plans we make in life? It is the Presence of One who sparkles and shines with beauty and radiance like jasper and ruby and an emerald rainbow, or is it something or someone else?