Saturday, 27 February 2010

Second Sunday of Lent : Where much has been given...


Philippians 3:17-4:1
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship [COMMONWEALTH!!!] is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

Matthew 25:14-30
The Parable of the Talents

Jesus said, ‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”


I took a funeral, not so long ago, for someone who had once, with her husband, lived in our parish, but had moved away. Her husbamd explained to me that they felt that leaving the area was the worst mistake they had made, and that this place gets under your skin. I suspect many of you feel the same way. There is a sense in which this a special place. And from an economic point of view there is also a way in which, if you can afford to live here, then by doing so you feel as if somehow you have ‘arrived.’

I suspect that a similar feeling was pervasive in the city of Philippi. In the middle of the reading from Philippians St. Paul says these words, ‘But our citizenship is in heaven...’ I want to use this as our leaping off point because the Greek word that we translate as citizenship is, politeuma, which was quite specific to the kind of place that Philippi was. Robert Hart, an Anglican priest, explains that...

“Within the Roman empire a politeuma referred to a colony of foreigners or relocated veterans. Think of a community of people with the same background, living together in a foreign country. Frequently the Roman emperors paid off their soldiers by given them grants of land in the conquered territories, which led to the creation of such communities. These “commonwealths” enjoyed special prestige and privilege in the Roman empire. Philippi itself was a politeuma.”

The people of Phillipi felt as if they had ‘arrived’ by living where they did. And so, as was often his practice, St. Paul was talking to them within their context, and explaining to them that it was important not to take too much pride in belonging to such a politeuma. Why? Simply because it was not their real home. They may well have had special prestige and privilege by living there, and they may well have felt very proud of their social status, but that wasn’t where they truly belonged. Their true politeuma was in heaven, and they needed to be reminded of that.

Now what makes this even more interesting is that politeuma is not just translated as citizenship. It is actually just as easily translated as ‘commonwealth’, which is an interesting compound word made of two words, ‘common’ and ‘wealth’. So now let me retranslate and paraphrase this passage for us, as the residents and those who feel attached to this largely very well-off and privileged parish.

If St Paul was writing to us, this passage would say, ‘Do not take pride in your privileged location, because this is not your true home. Your true common wealth is in heaven.’ Now I’m saying all this to get us in the right frame of mind to understand our Gospel passage in the context of Lent.

Over the course of this season we are going to be thinking a lot about giving. We have already told you about the scheme of using our gifts and talents to make money for the church, and have some creative fun whilst we’re at it. And now today’s passage puts us firmly in that place where we are to think about where we really belong and about our ‘common wealth’.

The reason for this long introduction is because when we turn to the Gospel reading, which we all know as the parable of the talents, we always translate it in our heads as being about literal talents that we have; gifts that are a part of what we contribute. But that is an interpretation of the parable. Those of you who have joined Lent groups, and if you haven’t there’s still time, will have discussed this passage during the week. So let me give it to you straight.

A talent was an amount of money roughly equivalent to fifteen years worth of wages for an average labourer. Given that the average UK household income for 2008 was close on £30,000, we’re talking the equivalent of even the least able slave being given £450,000 to work with.

So I think that for us this parable is about three things, wealth, the generosity of God, and our responsibilities for what we’ve been given. Now if we are members of a commonwealth of heaven, far more than we are members of a well-off and beautiful community in the West Midlands, what exactly does this passage specifically say to us in the context of giving?

First, perhaps, we need to look at what is meant by the word used for giving here. In the authorized version it says that the slaves were given talents according to their ability whereas in the NRSV it says that the slaves were entrusted with talents according to their ability. Which is it? Actually it’s somewhere in between, a sort of both/and rather than either/or.

According to Brian Stoffregen the word that is used, paradidomi, usually means to give in such a way as to hand over responsibility for, and it’s notable that, at the end, the talent that was taken away from the lazy slave was given to the one who had earned the most. The talents do not appear to have been handed back to the master, yet there is this sense that they still belonged to the master, and he could do with them as he pleased.

So it seems to me that we could read it like this, that the money was given completely as if it belonged to the slaves, even though it was still the master’s. Therefore the money was still his, but he had given it in such a way as to give them complete freedom as to what they would do with it. They had responsibility. With that in mind, what then does this parable say to us?

I would suggest that it is fairly simply this. If you live in this well off area, you may well do so because God has been extremely generous to you. But we should be clear about whose wealth it actually is.

You may think you’re here because you earned it, and as with most things in life there is a degree of collaboration between us and God. Note that the amount of money was given to each slave according to his ability. You are endowed with various gifts and good fortune and you have made use of them and so now you have made five more talents worth of wealth, but this is a mark of the generosity of God towards you, and because God expects you to provide a good return.

The wealth you have been given should be used to generate an equal return. And as citizens of heaven, rather than citizens of this parish, what you do with that return should be done with the understanding that your wealth be put to the common good, for those in need and for outreach to the local community. Although it has been entrusted to you, it is not truly yours, and what’s more I believe you are given responsibility to put to good use what you generate from what you have been given.

Now these figure can’t strictly apply to all of us because some of those who come here travel from somewhere else. Many of you are younger and have yet to earn enough to be able to afford a house in this parish, although you perhaps aspire to. At this stage in your lives, and perhaps with children to think about, you are more in the two talents area, but perhaps with an eye on having a five talents life style one day.

But it seems to me that what Jesus is saying is that if you possess wealth it is because God has entrusted you with it and given you freedom to treat it as if it were yours, but it isn’t! And what’s more, the more you have been entrusted with, according to your ability, the more he expects from you. Don’t forget that even one talent was the equivalent of fifteen years wages.

So here is the message from these passages. You are not citizens of this place. Instead you are citizens of heaven. But while you reside in this place, if you have been given a great deal of wealth, you are expected to remember that it comes from God, entrusted to you to deal wisely with, and he expects you to use it according to your ability.

Now if we remember from our Philippians passage that this place is not our true home, what then do you think is a wise return on the investment God has entrusted to you?

So this is the question I want to put to you. If God has entrusted wealth to us, and if God expects a good return on his investment, what are you going to do with the wealth you have generated?

R Hart
B Stoffregen

Saturday, 20 February 2010

The First Sunday of Lent: Baptism and the Wilderness


Romans 10:8-13

‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Luke 4:1-13
The Temptation of Jesus

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you”,
“On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.


Today we in the first Sunday of Lent, and this is a good time to consider the meaning of our baptism in the context of the passage about the temptations that Jesus went through. Now why, you may be wondering, should we consider our baptisms in the context of Jesus being tempted? It’s all down to the context, because immediately before this passage we have the narrative concerning the baptism of Jesus.

What I’d like to do with this is to consider the similarities and the differences between Jesus’s baptism and ours, and we’re going to start with the differences. In fact ‘difference’ doesn’t really go far enough, because in one very important way the baptism of Jesus was completely opposite to our baptism.

That seems a little extreme because when we think of opposites we think of things like black versus white, or up versus down, or good versus evil. How on earth could Jesus’s baptism be the opposite of ours if baptism is about washing clean?

So what is baptism about for us? It contains the symbol of being washed clean. In some churches, as it was in the time of Jesus, baptisms are done by the whole person being fully immersed in the water. They come up out of the water just dripping with it. There is also a sense of the death of the old person drowning under the water, and the person that emerges is full of the resurrected life of Jesus.

And of course it is also a sacrament which means it is an outward and visible sign of something that God is doing within us, that he is joining us to himself, much like he joins a married couple together in their vows and love making. So for us, when we are baptised our old sinful life is washed away and we are born into new life in Christ.

But for Jesus it was the reverse of that. Our baptism is about the leaving behind of our sinful life and our birth into the new life of Christ, but for Jesus his baptism was about leaving behind his free life of heavenly perfection and his acceptance of our burden in human life. If you like, we are set free in baptism, but Jesus declared himself shackled to us.

For Jesus in the river Jordan, as he went down into the water he was leaving behind his freedom and when he came up out of the water he was accepting the burden of being one of us and representing us. So in that important way Jesus’s baptism was the opposite of ours. Ours is about freedom; his was about shackling.

But there are also a lot of similarities between our baptism and Jesus’s baptism, and these are the ones which can spur us on into Lent. So we’ll consider them next. Now similarities are much harder to explore than opposites. There’s normally only one answer for an opposite, but for similarities there may be quite a range. For example turquoise is similar to both blue and green. And an ocean is similar to a sea, a lake or a river.

The first similarity is that following Jesus’s baptism, he was led by the Spirit, and the same thing is true for us in our baptisms. It’s more difficult because we are not as in-tune with the Holy Spirit as he was, and that’s why we should learn to listen. So that’s my first lent tip for you. Over the next few weeks, why not promise God that you will spend some time in quiet with him everyday.

Another similarity is that being baptised won’t make life any easier for us either. If we were to look at Mark’s Gospel we would find that it says not that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, but that he was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. That’s not the kind of driving where we sit in the passenger seat while the Holy Spirit does all the driving!

No, it is much more like we are the horse pulling the load, and the Holy Spirit is the one in the cart yanking the reins and urging us on. And sometimes life as a Christian is like that. Many of us know those times where we are taken into a place that is hard and spiritually challenging, where we are forced to question what it is we are meant to be doing with our lives.

That wilderness that we go through is similar to the wilderness that Jesus went through. I won’t go into it here, but if you look in detail at each of the temptations it becomes clear that he is being challenged about his motivations and how he will conduct himself and his ministry. As baptised Christians we will also have to go through the same thing, and we also have a responsibility to guide others through the spiritual wildernesses as they are driven by the Holy Spirit into them.

How we approach the difficult times is often a mark of a Christian. We can moan and complain about them or we can learn from them, and here is the final and perhaps most important similarity. Jesus learned obedience from temptation, and he conducted his ministry as he said he would. We can also learn obedience, but it sometimes helps us if we make efforts to be more consciously aware of our spirituality. Let me finish with a story to illustrate what I mean.

Therésè of Lisieux entered a convent as a novice nun at the age of fifteen. She died only nine years later of tuberculosis at the age of only twenty four. As she lay dying a nun said, ‘I really can’t imagine what Reverend Mother will have to say about her once she is gone... for she’s never done anything worth the telling.’ But that wasn’t true.

Therésè, like many Christians, had a spiritual director who had told her to keep a prayer diary, a kind of autobiography describing her life of prayer. A year after she died people began to read it. And then they began to pass it around, and as it began to have a huge impact it was published so that even more people could read it.

In 1925 she was declared to be a saint. Now her example was perhaps out of the ordinary, but once again it shows the similarities between us and Jesus. When Jesus left the wilderness there was nothing visible to show for it. There had been no signs and no miracles. Instead there was a patient waiting on God and a refusal to do his own thing.

And so it should be for all of us, following our baptisms. As we head now into the season of Lent, we should pray and expect to be taken into the wilderness. So why don’t you keep a private diary of the experience, and see what the Holy Spirit teaches you. Why not make that your spiritual discipline, that every day you would seek the Lord in prayer and every day record what happens. Amen.

Roots magazine, Issue 45, Jan-Mar. 2010.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Sunday next before Lent: Being changed and being transparent

The Readings

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practise cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.

Luke 9:28-36
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

It seems to me that these passages are both about the revealed glory of Jesus, brightly shining, and about the effect that this glory has, or should have, on those who see it, or perhaps for us in the 21st century, perceive it. I’m not going to dwell on the Gospel reading since I want us to mainly think about St. Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians, but I’d like to make two comments on the transfiguration from a disciple’s perspective to lay the foundation for what I want to draw out of the epistle.

Firstly it is very noticeable just how much Peter is affected by seeing the glory of Christ revealed in such a way that they could see more of his deity shining through his humanity. And secondly, and most importantly, even though he was affected by it, perceiving the glory of Christ didn’t instantly transform Peter, James and John into wise men. Seeing or perceiving something amazing might well change us, but we have to grow in wisdom in order to manage that change, and that’s a gradual process.

What I mean is that Peter’s comment about building three dwellings was more or less a desire to prolong the moment of revelation, putting off the journey to Jerusalem, and to keep alongside them Moses and Elijah, who represent all of the law and the prophets. Peter wanted to prolong the moment, and Luke comments that he doesn’t really know what he’s saying.

In fact it is quite possible that the voice of God the Father, veiling himself in the cloud, was simply to stop the disciples from wrongly theorizing about what was going on, and instead to become silent in the presence of God. And this is our starting point: perceiving the glory of the Lord in prayer will change our perspective, but it’s possible that we may not necessarily do or say the right thing as a result. The silence in the presence of the Father is what we need, in order to find the space to grow in wisdom and learn to deal with experiencing the presence of Christ.

So that’s what we’re going to talk about today: perceiving Christ’s glory, probably by revelation through prayer, can change us, but we must take the time to dwell in that presence in order to grow in wisdom. Christianity is meant to be an experiential religion. We are meant to know what it is to perceive the glory of Christ, but our religion is not just about the experience. We are supposed to grow from it, not dwell in it. So now let’s turn to the 2 Corinthians reading.

This is a curious passage which again talks about the effect of the revealed glory of the Lord. St. Paul begins by recounting an Old Testament story about how Moses had needed to put a veil over his face after being in the presence of God because his own face had continued to shine with the reflected glory of God, even after he had left God’s presence, to the extent that when they saw it the Israelites had been scared witless. Being in the presence of God changes us, and this was dynamically shown by the experience Moses had.

Paul goes on to use this story to give his own perspective that this explains the reason why it was the Gentiles who were turning to Christ rather than all that many of the Jews of his time. He uses the metaphor of the veil to state his belief that a veil was still lying between them and the glory of God, stopping them from seeing who Christ really was.

And then we come to key verses, and I want to quote these to you again.
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

This is all about the transformation that should take place in us as we perceive the glory of the Lord, except it’s rather easy to misunderstand what he means unless we have a little context.

Peter, James and John all saw the glory of Christ at the transfiguration. They saw him revealed as he truly is. However St. Paul says that it’s not the same for us. That was a special moment for those three disciples. But, he says, we only see that glory as if it’s revealed in a mirror, which I initially found a little confusing. I mean if you hold a mirror up to look at the sun, it’s still going to dazzle you. But that’s not what St. Paul meant, because his idea of a mirror and ours are different.

Modern mirrors are made by a fairly complex process of backing glass with silver through a chemical reaction in such a way that very little light is lost in the reflection of the original object. To all intents and purposes what we see in a mirror is an exact two dimensional reversed likeness of the object that’s being reflected. But two thousand years ago things were rather different.

The art of making a high quality mirror was in its infancy and instead most mirrors, particularly for the ordinary working folk, were made by taking a naturally reflective surface and polishing it until a reasonable reflection could be seen. It worked up to a point but without any of the clarity of a modern mirror. They certainly did not reflect all of the light that struck them.

And that’s the point that St. Paul was making. In this life, unless those three disciples, we cannot see the glory of the Lord in all its fullness. What we see, what we perceive, is like reflected glory through a darkened polished surface. Do you remember the eclipse of the sun that we saw back in 1999? Ali and I had bought those proper viewing glasses that darkened the image down substantially allowing us to see the sun as the moon gradually moved across in front of it.

We didn’t see the sun in all its glory, but we saw enough to know what was going on. This, I believe, is a reasonable metaphor for what St. Paul is trying to describe. We cannot see the full glory of the Lord in this life, but we can perceive it to some degree, and indeed we should pursue doing precisely that. Why?

Simply because it is in perceiving the glory of the Lord that we are changed, that we, ourselves, are transformed into something more like the one from whom the glory is shining so that it shines out from us too, or as he puts it, ‘so that we are transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another’. But what exactly does he mean by that?

I mean let’s be honest, whilst it might be pretty amazing if, after Sunday worship, we all walk out of church looking and feeling like 1970's adverts for Ready-Brek, of what real value is that?

I think the answer comes in the last part. St Paul is specifically referring to ministry here, but it could apply to every aspect of life when he says, ‘We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practise cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.’

I think that can be summed up in one word: Transparency. As we are changed by perceiving the glory of the Lord, so we become transparent, and it works in two ways. Firstly we are called to honesty. One of my pet hates is that, in the world of politics, people manipulate truth and each other in order to get their own way.

But what I find even harder is when one sees the same thing within churches, and it always seems to be particularly when power is involved, where what someone says or writes has a subtext which is all about getting what they want, if possible by pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes, so that they can have their own way rather than serving the Lord and the community.

I really struggle when I come across these subtexts in the lives of my fellow Christians because when we are like that we become opaque to the glory of the Lord. People can’t see Christ through us, they only see us. We should be open and honest, not calculating to get our own desire. If we are transparent and honest in our dealings as Christians then the second meaning of this transparency becomes clear: we become transparent in such a way as people can look at us and see the Lord Jesus through us.

When we are honest, the Lord becomes visible, but when we practice cunning then we become opaque and make Jesus invisible to the world. In other words our very real practical actions make a huge difference as to how, or even whether, people see Christ. In effect we can actually draw a veil over his glory in our lives by our actions.

At the beginning I made the comment several times that it is important that we notice Peter’s folly in trying to make the experience last. What I meant by that is that being Christians is not all about having good experiences. We have to let those things change us. We should be uncomfortable when we examine ourselves and discover that our declared beliefs haven’t affected how we actually live.

That’s what I meant about learning to be quiet in God’s presence. We should be changed by perceiving the glory of the Lord. We shouldn’t try and revel in it as some churches do. We shouldn’t try and manufacture experiences that make us feel fabulous and ecstatic, but we should nevertheless seek out and try to perceive the glory of the Lord.

When we do, it may lead us to feel great, a sort of spiritual high, but it’s not meant to be about the high. Peter thought it was and the voice of the Father shut him up. It’s meant to be about us being changed by the experience, to become more like the Lord, because that’s what changes the world.

Our worship, our prayers, our silences in God’s presence and the way in which we are changed by them are so that we become open, honest, more like Christ. Our places of work, our homes, our church, our places of study; all of them can be changed when we become more like Christ. But if we practice selfishness, manipulation and cunning, then we become opaque and unchanged. It’s a long journey, but our communities need us to make it. Amen

Friday, 5 February 2010

2nd Sunday before Lent: Resonance

Rev.4 and Luke 8:22-25

The Readings
Revelation 4
The Heavenly Worship
After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’ At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and cornelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.

Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,
‘Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.’
And whenever the living creatures give glory and honour and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,
‘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.’

Luke 8:22-25
Jesus Calms a Storm
One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they put out, and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A gale swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. They went to him and woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’

The Sermon
What I would like to do today is simply to take this picture of heaven in Revelation and ask what is going on there. From that we will then have a look at how what takes place in heaven affects, or does not affect, what is taking place around us right now, here in church in this service, and then what we do when we leave, because I believe that this passage has a direct relevance to what we are doing right now.

But to get to that we need first to understand, in so far as we can, the passage from Revelation. To do that it is vital that we remember that this is a work of Jewish apocalyptic writing in the same tradition as books like Daniel and Ezekiel. In those two Old Testament books you get amazing imagery of living creatures covered in eyes, and moving in wheels; of dry bones being covered with flesh, of huge statues made of different materials, and the Son of Man in glory on a cloud.

These are pictures, images, which we need to understand as representative rather than descriptive. Psychologically, we dwell in a scientific culture in which we are analysing the world around us in a very ‘what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of way. We cannot do that with the book of Revelation. You have to read it more as a story with pictures where it is the pictures that mean something. John, the writer, is trying to describe the indescribable.

The passage is huge and the temptation, when writing this, was to try and describe everything and what it means, and it’s certainly worth having the passage open while I take us through this, explaining it as edited highlights.

John has been invited through a door into heaven so that he can see what is happening in heaven. It’s my belief that the vast majority of what follows in the entire book is describing what is happening right now. Very little of Revelation is about the future. Instead it is about the link between events on earth and events in heaven.

The first thing that John sees is quite simply God, except God is almost beyond description, so John uses precious stones which were quite possibly what we now call diamond and ruby. The rainbow might be indicating God’s covenant with us, although if you want to do a little creative thinking for yourselves, have a read about what I say concerning purity, white and rainbow colours in the monthly news.

So far, so predictable. But then we get the more peculiar images. Who is it that is seated on the twenty four thrones, and why twenty four? I’m not sure we can answer exactly who they are, but the reason for twenty four is probably that they represent the twelve tribes of Israel from the old Covenant plus the twelve disciples given the new Covenant in Christ.

In other words these twelve elders represent the entire worshipping community of all God’s people. Hold on to that because understanding that is key to everything I want to say. The twenty four represent the entire worshipping community of God’s people.

Don’t worry about the seven spirits of God too much. This is an early book that predates our better understanding of the Trinity, and John never uses the word Holy Spirit in this book. But seven spirits, or the Sevenfold Spirit of God, is meant to indicate completeness where seven is God’s number. Remember we’re thinking in images here, not seeing reality.

The Four living creatures, which clearly resemble Ezekiel’s vision, have aspects to them which indicate that they are angels who represent the very best of nature, again in worship before God. So we have twenty four elders, representing all of God’s people, and we have four living creatures representing all of nature, and what are they doing?

They are caught up in who God is. In the presence of God they have are drawn to bow down, and from within the depths of their being comes love and acknowledgement of who God is as they cry out
‘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.’

So this image is simply about the worship of heaven which is going on, right now as I stand here speaking. This is not a picture of what is to come. This is a picture of the present, of the representatives of all God’s people and of the whole created order bowing down in worship. So given that, what does it say to us? To explain that I need to tell you a story.

One of the best campsites I’ve ever been to is Big Sands just outside Gairloch, right up on the north west coast of Scotland. It has its own beach, and you camp behind the sand dunes. It’s so far north that when you stand on the beach you look down on to the north east coast of the Isle of Skye. And standing there, if you look to the right you can see the outer Hebrides, and if you look to the left you can see the Torridon mountain range.

When we go up there we usually go in May or June, and that means that the Sun begins to light up the land at about 4.00am and sets somewhere around 10.30pm, with about an hour or so of twilight, which means you have really long days. For Ali and I the advantage of that is that we can get into our usual holiday routine of going to bed late and getting up late, knowing that there’s plenty of daylight.

So it was, one late lazy afternoon, about 6.00pm, that we were sat on the beach in the sunshine and I looked across at the Torridon mountains in the distance and said to Ali, ‘Fancy a climb?’

And so we gathered up all of our gear and drove for forty five minutes to Ben Ai where there is a scramble/climb that is suitable for inexperienced but enthusiastic climbers. It doesn’t take you to the main peak, but to a high plateau. And so we began to climb. Half way up there was a huge roar and we looked down to see an RAF jet hurtling through the glen below us. Amazing!

But not as amazing as when we reached the top. I have never forgotten the view because it was breathtaking. In the late evening sunshine, as we reached the plateau, we saw the most beautiful sight of the holiday; one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen, which has always remained with me. Surrounding us on every side, stretching out into the evening haze, was peak after peak.

It was as if we stood on the top of the world. The sense of elation filled me and was overwhelming. It was that kind of vista that leaves you with your mouth wide open like an idiot, incapable of saying anything except, ‘Wow... Wow...’

What was going on there? Why was it literally so breathtaking? It’s because of this; for a few brief moments something within me resonated with the beauty around me. The beauty was not within me, it was in what I perceived. The beauty was outside of me, but for a few brief moments I, a natural creature, resonated with the beauty of the natural world around me. The creature and creation were in harmony. That word, ‘resonance’ is the key to this whole thing.

Why? Because resonance is at the heart of worship. This passage tells us what was happening in Heaven. Of course it’s filled with metaphor, but it gives us a picture of worship in heaven that is going on the whole time. Right now as we are sitting here, worship like this is going on in heaven. So what, then, is worship here on earth? I believe it is this; it is when our spirits resonate with the worship of heaven, in much the same way as my self resonated with the beauty of the mountain peaks of Torridon.

Let me show you what I mean. I have here a guitar and a tuning fork. On its own the guitar is silent. But let me strike the tuning fork and hold it against the guitar, and what happens? The guitar resonates, not with its own frequency, but with the resonance set up within it from the tuning fork. That’s why I was caught up with the elation on the mountaintop; I resonated with nature’s beauty.

But more importantly, that’s what worship is on earth. All of our singing, all of our silences, all of our praying are to one end; that we would resonate with the worship of heaven, that the veil would be thinner and that we would draw closer to God, and that our spirits would resonate with the voices worshipping in heaven.

This worship that is described by John is worship that is taking place this very moment in heaven. So when we come together as a church it is to one end, to find that place where we can hear the worship of heaven so that we can resonate with it and add our earthly voices to what is going on.

For you members of the choir, this passage from Revelation begins to show just how much of a responsibility you carry amongst us. Music is such a huge part of worship, and I believe it was Augustine who said, ‘The one who sings prays twice’. In leading us in song, and in singing to us, you have a huge responsibility in terms of listening to the songs of heaven, and then resonating with them. Sometimes I think I ask a lot of you, and of Anne, but this is why.

Of course it is not just about the choir, or about the other musicians we have in church. As I speak here there is fun, laughter, story and music going on in Splash! And we will have prayers and silences in this service. They are all in different styles because we are all different people, but they are to one end, that we become caught up in the worship of heaven, resonating with that worship here on earth. They sing better than we do, but we can be caught up in and resonate.

Finally, what effect does this have in the real world? I think it is this: If in our worship we are learning to listen to heaven worshipping, and if we are beginning to resonate with that worship, then we will carry that life of heaven out through the doors of church when we leave. We will start to resonate with heaven here on earth.

We already have one foot in each camp, but we belong to the kingdom of heaven. We may live on earth, but we are part of God’s kingdom. By learning to listen, and learning to be caught up in the vision of God that those in heaven have continually before them, we will gradually begin to make a difference to the lives around us, simply because you cannot miss an earthly being who is resonating with heaven.

Remember some of those saints you have met in the past, whose lives were drenched in prayer and lived in the presence of God. Remember how they shone with the beauty of God. That’s because they resonated with the worship of heaven. They were caught up with it.

I feel this especially as a musician because of the effect that music has on me, in helping me to hear that other place where my heart really belongs, but it is not just in music. We have painters here whose brushes can resonate with heaven. We have coffee and tea makers here whose service can resonate with heaven. We have administrators, bankers and lovers, all of which activities can resonate with heaven.

If we become caught up in the worship of heaven, then everything we do will resonate with it. I take what we do in church very seriously indeed, and here’s why. The heart of who we are is found in worship, and worship is when we resonate with the worship of heaven, and if we do that here, then it will carry out into everything we do in the world. Amen.