Posted by on February 24, 2019

Sermon by Kenneth Padley on Revelation 4 and Luke 8.22-25

St Michael St Albans 24th February 2019

What on earth are we to make of the whacky passage which we have just heard from Revelation chapter 4?!

The book Revelation is not a single genre. It contains at least three styles of writing. Some of Revelation takes the form of letters. Some is apocalyptic, that is, heavenly picture-code for everyday reality. And some is prophecy about the future. Letters, apocalyptic, and prophecy: Revelation chapter 4 marks a crucial shift between the first and second of these genres. The first three chapters of Revelation are introductory letters to the churches in western Turkey which first received the whole book. Chapter 4 sees a transition into the meat of the argument. ‘After this’, it begins. After this – in other words, after end of the seven letters. This is the point where the author John shifts into apocalyptic mode. ‘After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open.’ That’s apocalyptic for you – heaven opened for us to see and to understand. ‘Come up here’ John is told and we are privileged to grasp his coat-tails and travel with him in his extraordinary vision.

John’s vision is about nothing less than God Almighty. I am struck as much by what we are not told as by what we are. The whole scene is centred on God’s throne, but the one seated on the throne is so wonderful as to be beyond John’s considerable skills as a wordsmith. He cannot begin to describe what he sees. This reminds us that God is so radically different from us. She always transcends our abilities to grasp and to express Her true nature.

Confronted by this mystery, John is forced to look away from the radiance at the centre of the scene and onto the sideshows around it. What is the location of his vision and who else is present?

The place to which John has been transported has several functions and each tells us something about the mysterious Protagonist at the centre of the scene.

  • We have already noted, we are in a throne room. God, after all, is Monarch.
  • In the next chapter we are told that this is also a place where scrolls are read (5.1); we are meant to imagine ourselves in a synagogue – remember that Christians would not have met in church buildings back then but that their tradition evolved out of Judaism. God, we are being reminded, is a teacher. He has a message for the world and for each of us.
  • A little later again, we are told about the burning of incense (8.3f); we are meant to imagine ourselves in a Temple. God is the rightful object of our worship – the only rightful object of our worship.
  • Finally, the vision contains elements of a lawcourt (12.10). God is a judge and is marked by perfect fairness and goodness.

In addition to this information about the place, we heard about the other people and creatures who are present.

  • The identity of the twenty-four elders is unclear. They may be the twelve patriarchs after whom the tribes of Israel were named, plus Jesus’ twelve disciples. If so, God is surrounded by the old order and the new – all ages, past and future consumed in the worship of God.
  • If the elders are tricky to identify, the four living creatures are hardly any easier. Traditionally, Christians have taken these to be the gospel writers – Matthew as a man, Mark a lion, Luke a bull and John an eagle. For the writer of Revelation, however, the four living creatures probably represent the totality of creation, four being a symbolic number for the earth. All creatures – not just humans – worship God, in the ways that are right for them.

John thus shares his very personal and powerful encounter with God. His experience asks questions about our own life of faith. Few of us will ever have a vision like that, but for many Christians personal encounter is a really important aspect of our faith. Maybe there are times in your life when you have felt aware of a Greater Being, times when you know you are not alone, times when you are held, supported, guided, guarded. For some this encounter might be through the beauty of nature; for others it might be in silence or art or music; for others it might be through the love of another person. If you have been blessed with such moments then cherish them as much as John dwelt on the vision of Revelation 4.

Religious experiences are very significant for those who have them – but as one insightful 12-year old pointed out in my confirmation group recently, there are limits to emotions. What if we read them wrongly? They might deceive us. How can we verify them?! My experience may be very convincing to me precisely because it is my experience. However, for exactly the same reason it may fail to convince you – it is, after all, my experience, not yours.

Now don’t get me wrong: I am not dismissing the value of personal encounter with God. It is a really important and wonderful thing. But alongside encounters of the heart we need to engage our brains as well.

There are lots of philosophical arguments for the existence of God. My favourite is what is called the cosmological argument. This argument asks you to think of a domino rally. Something or someone must start the rally off. Without someone or something to push the first domino, you have to draw the odd conclusion that the domino rally has always been there, running along for all eternity. The cosmological argument applies this image to the universe. Everything in the universe has a cause – but where did the chain of causation come from? You either have to concede that the chain has simply always been there – that it goes on and on without explanation – or you must deduce the existence of an uncaused cause at the beginning of the chain – a reason for the existence of all causes but which is not itself caused. And this uncaused cause is, by definition, what we call God.

I like the cosmological argument. No argument can actually prove (or disprove) the existence of God, but the cosmological argument shows that the alternative to hypothesizing an uncaused cause is deeply unsatisfactory, a chain that is without origin or explanation.

I believe it is the duty of every adult Christian to reinforce any experience which we may have of God through an appreciation of rational arguments for his existence. This will both secure us in the faith and help us when we have those vital opportunities to share faith with others.

Revelation chapter 4 is about God the Father. The vision takes a dramatic turn in the next chapter when the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures offer the same worship toJesus. ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, they cry, ‘to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might, and honour and glory and blessing.’ The inference of Revelation 5 following hot on the heels of Revelation 4 is that Jesus is no less God than the Father. 

This insight unlocks what is going on in the gospel reading about Jesus calming the storm. Water for ancient Jews was a symbol of primeval chaos: only God had the power to master it. Why are the disciples afraid after Jesus calms the storm? And what is the basis for his mastery of nature – if not that He is God himself? Jesus is Lord, creation’s voice proclaims it.

My friends, despite being set in the midst of the choppy seas of life, Jesus is supreme, his power over all the bad stuff in the world – ultimately death itself – is the greater. We claim this power for ourselves when we place our faith in him.

And just as Revelation 4 and 5 help us understand the calming the storm, let’s reverse the process and view Revelation 4 through the lens of Jesus in the boat. What did we hear was in front of God’s throne? There was, a sea of glass like crystal. The water is so peaceful as to be like a mirror. At the feet of one so amazing as the Trinity, Father Son and Holy Spirit, that ancient symbol of chaos and evil, lies prostrate.

Posted in: Kenneth Padley, Sermons