Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 31 May 2015
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Ezekiel 1.4-10, 22-28a; Revelation 4
We have had two extraordinary readings to finish off Trinity Sunday with a bang: Ezekiel’s vision of God’s chariot throne and John’s vision of the throne of God in Revelation.
On Friday evening, there was a television programme about the Book of Revelation: complete with
historical reconstructions, Hollywood specials effects and dramatized enactments of the future, interwoven with interviews of ‘experts.’ Some of these were mainstream biblical scholars from reputable academic institutions who sought to interpret the symbolism of Revelation in its context. One of the more sceptical of the commentators suggested that a perfectly understandable reaction to John’s vision would be to ask what he was on or to conclude that he was mentally ill.
Others were from institutions such as the “Pre-Trib- Research Centre”; “trib” being short for “tribulation,” and the “Rapture” institute. The rapture is the belief held by many American fundamentalists that before the final struggle between God and evil, Armageddon, Christians will be “raptured” – that is taken up to heaven in the twinkling of an eye. These people were absolutely convinced that the Book of Revelation contains the programme and timetable for this happening. One said it was quite straightforward because God would not have made it difficult for his people to read. The flaw in this argument is that people who have been trying to predict the end of the world from it have been getting it consistently wrong for ages. Those Jehovah’s Witnesses who stand at Oxford Circus distributing the Watchtower and a book called “What the Bible Really Teaches,” for example. We shouldn’t blame the Americans entirely for this because it was dreamed up by an Irish clergyman called Darby who left the Anglican Church to found the Plymouth Brethren.
Our two readings have much in common. This is not surprising because much of this kind of apocalyptic writing – both Jewish and Christian – used the language and imagery of Ezekiel, and Isaiah’s vision in the Temple with the “thrice holy hymn” which we heard at Mass today and was echoed in tonight’s reading from Revelation.
John not only uses Ezekiel’s language and imagery to put his vision into words, he also shares a similar context: that of exile.
Ezekiel is a priest in exile with the people of Israel who have been transported to Babylon after the conquest of Jerusalem by the middle-eastern super-power of the age. Its policy was to decapitate conquered peoples – remove their leadership and any focus of rebellion – to keep them in order. For the exiles, this was a spiritual disaster: the temple and the land and the Davidic kingdom which had been at the centre of their faith were all gone. Was their God gone too? Had God abandoned them? Had he been defeated by the gods of their conquerors?
John is in exile on the island of Patmos, he tells us, because of his loyalty to the faith. He writes to churches facing the reality or the prospect of persecution at the hands of Rome.
Both visions are windows into heaven, into the highest realm, the profoundest reality. They are meant to remind their hearers and readers of the ultimate reality of God. The imagery is not just for show: so, the rainbow which appears in both reminds hearers of God’s promise to Noah never to destroy the earth.
Worship and the one worshiped are central to these visions. The heavenly creatures in Ezekiel’s vision worship God. In Revelation, they are joined by the elders in white robes who represent the patriarchs and the apostles – the people of the old covenant and the new. They sing, just as we do at the Eucharist:
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.”
What is worship? Our word “worship” comes from the Middle English meaning worthiness, respect, reverence paid to a divine being. To worship someone is to acknowledge their worthiness, excellence or greatness. To worship God is to pay reverence to God, to honour God for God’s worth; who God is and the greatness of what God has done, is doing and will do.
John is saying something more than that his god is bigger and more powerful than anyone else’s. God is different in quality, not just quantity.
“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.”
He is saying something about the nature of the God whom Christians worship. This is the God who is the Creator of all.
This is also the God Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb who was slain and who is worthy to receive honour and glory and power.
Those in heaven will go on to sing to the Lamb who was slain:
“Worthy art thou to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for thou wast slain and by thy blood
didst ransom men for God
from every tribe and tongue and
people and nation,
and hast made them a kingdom and
priests to our God,
and they shall reign on earth.” 5. 9-10
As Fr. Julian said in his sermon this morning, earthly societies tend to produce versions of God which reflect themselves.
The empires of the times of Ezekiel and John claimed for themselves divine authority. Roman emperors became gods who demanded worship. Individual emperors may have been quite cynical about their divine status, but they did not doubt its political significance. Those who refused to acknowledge it were seen political and religious subversives; threats to be eliminated.
Our latter-day equivalents of Babylon and Rome are unlikely to make such explicit claims to divine authority. But that does not mean they do not seek in fact to usurp the place of God by putting themselves at the summit of human life; making themselves the supreme arbiters of human behaviour, exercising absolute control over peoples’ thoughts and actions; demanding total and sacrificial obedience to the will of leader or party.
The great totalitarianisms of our era have repeatedly done this. They have even clothed their pretensions in pseudo-religious garb: rallies at Nuremberg and in Red Square; the cult of the quasi-divine leader; the exaltation of state or party or nation to the highest status. And with that comes the desire to expunge the worship of any other god who might compete with or question the total allegiance they demand of their subjects.
For all John’s blood-curdling imagery, for him the God whom Christians worship is not one of naked, arbitrary and overwhelming power but one of self-giving love – and that is where Christian language of the Trinity comes in. God is not a solitary and arbitrary monarch, an emperor or dictator, but a communion of perfect self-giving love.
The Lamb who was slain is not some subordinate being – intermediate between God and human beings –sent to do his imperial master’s bidding – accorded honorary divinity but not the real thing. In the Lamb who was slain, we see what God is really like because Christ is God. That God is not naked power but self-giving love; a love directed to the other not the self. A love which seeks to draw human beings and the whole of creation into the embrace of that relationship of love which is shared by Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is a God who is worthy of worship and not just fearful obedience.
Our joining in the worship of heaven focuses and articulates that truth but does not exhaust it. The whole of our life is to be worship. Those who worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Lamb who was slain are drawn by the divine Spirit into that communion of love. That life in the Spirit is expressed and worked out in long-term committed relationships in the community of the Church, and in other relationships – even with enemies – which are marked by love, justice, compassion, forgiveness and generosity.
Now, to this God, who alone is worthy of our worship be blessing and honour and thanksgiving and praise, more than we can utter, more than we can conceive, O holy and glorious Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, by all angels, all people, all creatures, for ever and ever. Amen.