SERMON TEXT: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, they will be satisfied. Matt 5:6
In 1980, Bruce Springsteen came out with a hit song called “Hungry Heart”. The chorus section is one I’m sure you will recognise:
Everybody's got a hungry heart
Everybody's got a hungry heart
Lay down your money and you play your part
Everybody's got a hungry heart
It is one of those songs that has become an all-time great, one that you are likely to hear on the radio on quite a regular basis. What makes it so popular? It definitely has a catchy tune, but you need more than a catchy tune to give a song enduring value.
The reason it is popular I believe is it that it also speaks of a fairly universal human experience: We all have hungry hearts. What are you hungry for… what does your heart reach out for? What entices your heart?
I must confess that I’m one of those people who seldom knows the lyrics to a whole song… just the chorus will do… la la la la la la la Everybodies got a hungry heart….
And so I was interested this week to read the rest of the lyrics of the song: It is about a man who has a wife and kids in the city of Baltimore. He leaves them behind on a road trip and he never goes back. He takes a wrong turn and falls in love with someone he meets in a bar. It doesn’t work out but instead everything they had ends up ripped apart and so he ends up back in Kingstown, alone with a hungry heart… perhaps one might imagine, more alone, empty and hungry than before.
Everybody's got a hungry heart
Everybody's got a hungry heart
Lay down your money and you play your part
Everybody's got a hungry heart
Bruce Springsteen’s song suggests that not everything we hunger and thirst after necessarily leads to satisfaction. Our hungry hearts can sometimes lead us astray. Sometimes our hungry hearts can leave us feeling even more broken and even more empty than before.
The prophet Isaiah knew the truth of this: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Our text from Matthew 5:6 today is also about a hungry heart and reads: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, they will be satisfied.”
In doing so it suggests that there is another way; another way of living and being in the world that does bring satisfaction. The word that the NIV version uses is righteousness. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
The Greek word dikaiosuné (dik-ah-yos-oo'-nay) comes from the word dikaios (dik'-ah-yos) which can mean to be upright, just/fair, equitable. It comes from the root word díkē, which means judicial approval or a verdict of approval. Ultimately it means to be in right relationship with God, to be at-one with God, to live a life in harmony with the Divine Life. But what exactly does that mean?
In Matthew’s Gospel, the word righteousness is in fact a disputed word. It means different things to different people. Part of the purpose of Matthew’s Gospel is to clarify the true meaning of the term righteousness, the true meaning of living at One with God of what it means to live a life in harmony with God.
The first person to be referred to as righteous in Matthew's Gospel is Joseph, the future husband of Mary. In Joseph’s case, his righteousness seems to hang in the balance. Is it just like an outward pasted on righteousness that has more to do with social respectability, or is his righteousness something deeper? Is he going to quietly call things off with Mary so that he saves his own face and reputation, or will he remain faithful to her and stick with her despite the moral questions that will be thrown in their direction? In Joseph’s case, his true righteousness is revealed in his willingness to stick by Mary, to be faithful to her and to love her, and in doing so to risk having society question his moral integrity in doing so. True righteousness, living a life in harmony with God’s life, is about doing the right thing no matter the consequences. It is therefore not concerned with social respectability and what others may think of you.
The second place we encounter the word righteousness is when Jesus comes to be baptised by John in the Jordan. John tells Jesus that it should be the other way around. Jesus should be baptising him. But Jesus says, let it be so for now so that all righteousness can be fulfilled. In this context, true righteousness, being at one with God and living in harmony with God is about willing to put away pride. It is about being willing to humble oneself before another and not insist on one’s own importance. If Jesus had insisted on his own importance, he would never have let John baptise him.
A little further on in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus suggests that the righteousness of his followers needs to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees. What could that mean? To first century Jews, the Pharisees were the most righteous people of all? They kept all the minute details of the law? What could it mean that followers of Jesus need to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees? Later on, in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus accuses them of self-righteousness instead of real and true righteousness. Their righteousness consists of public displays of righteousness. Dressing up and making great displays of their generosity and their prayers so that others might be impressed by them. Jesus accuses them of being like white-washed tomb stones. Clean on the outside, but full of all sorts of hatred, anger, lust and scheming on the inside. Jesus also accuses them of being nit-picking about paying a tithe of their herbs and spices from their kitchens to the Temple, but failing to act with mercy and compassion towards fellow human beings.
The truly righteous, those whose lives are in harmony with God, according to Matthew’s Jesus in the sermon on the mount, are those who are upright in secret when nobody can see. They’re not in it for egotistical reasons to boost themselves in the estimation of others. Rather they have given up the self, they are happy to quietly get on doing the right, good, merciful and compassionate thing without anyone knowing – no ego, no self. This is seen most especially in Matthew’s Gospel the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25. The parable is about the righteous and the unrighteous. In it, Jesus describes the sheep as the righteous, who are separated from the goats who are labelled as the unrighteous. What does righteousness look like in the parable? It looks like this:
Visiting with mercy and compassion, those in prison. Giving a cup of water to someone who is thirsty and food to those who are hungry. It is about reaching out to welcome and receive a stranger. It is about helping to provide clothes to those who do not have.
But even more than that, in the parable, those who are labelled as the righteous are not even conscious of being righteous. Their acts of mercy and compassion have not been calculated to impress others or done so that they feel superior to others, but come from hearts overflowing with love, compassion and mercy towards others, especially to those in need. “They will say” says Jesus, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you? When did we see you thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, lacking clothes and clothe you? When did we find you sick or in prison? And the King will answer: “In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”
And so true righteousness is forgetful of the self. No thought of patting oneself on the back with how good one has been. As we read in Matthew 5 the truly righteous give with the right hand, and not even the left hand knows that they are doing so. And so, in seeking first, God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness (as we read in Matthew 6:33) the truly righteous have emptied themselves of all but love. To be righteous is to live in a state of harmony and one-ness with God and to become channels of that Divine Love which according to Matthew 5 constantly pours itself out on good and evil alike. Love given to all without without question or discrimination.
And according to Matthew’s Gospel, this true righteousness of a life lived in harmony and in Oneness with the Divine Love is ultimately seen in Jesus who is willing to pour out his own life in love as a ransom for many as he is crucified. In giving away his own life so freely, as he reveals the full extent of Divine Life expressed through him, he ransom’s us from the slavery of our own self-concern and selfishness. As we sang in that hymn a week or two ago “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” That is why in John’s Gospel Jesus is called the Bread of Life. He has become the Bread of Life for us, because his life points us in the direction of true satisfaction, becoming channels of love, blessing, mercy and compassion towards others.
In Acts 20:35 we read of one of the sayings of Jesus that never made it into the four Gospels: “It is more blessed to give than receive”. I think many will be able to identify that some of their most satisfying moments in life have come in seeing the joy or the gratitude in some-one else's face. Such moments are little reminders of the nature of true righteousness, when we have become channels of love and blessing to others it is one of the most satisfying things in the world. A little bit like that Dr at the Newcastle United game about a week ago. When he ran over to help one of the fans in the stands who was having a heart-attack, he responded spontaneously and freely. He wasn’t asking if he would receive a reward of any kind. And when the fans in the stands afterwards chanted “hero, hero, hero”, he said it was the best feeling he had ever had. In that action, he had unknowingly done an un-calculated act of true righteousness, in that moment, his life had expressed itself in harmony and in one-ness with Divine Love, and the crowds could see it and responded accordingly.
Jesus, the truly righteous one, who has become the bread of life for us tells us: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Not the phony pasted on righteousness. Not the righteousness that seeks a reward. Not the righteousness that is constantly calculating who is deserving and who isn’t, but the righteousness that is a flowing of love, compassion and mercy from the heart. They will be satisfied says Jesus. In contrast, a life lived for self-gratification, self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, self-interest is like a great empty hole that will never be filled.
Blaise Pascal once wrote: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God.”
Jesus says: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for a life lived in harmony with God’s Divine Love: they will be satisfied.”
Blessed are the Gentle – Sermon Text
Today as we come to explore the third beatitude, the first observation I would like to make is that the phrase “Blessed are the meek, they will inherit the earth” is almost a direct quotation from Psalm 37:11. The only thing that is missing is the phrase “Blessed are…”
In Psalm 37:11 it is phrased as follows: “The meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.”
The essence of Psalm 37 is a warning and a caution not to fret when you see unjust, wicked or untrustworthy people prospering. The opening verses of Psalm 37 sets the tone for the whole psalm.
1 Do not fret because of those who are evil
or be envious of those who do wrong;
The Psalm goes on in verse 3:
3 Trust in the Lord and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
And then Verses 10 and 11 in a way form something of a punchline for the entire Psalm.
10 A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look for them, they will not be found.
11 But the meek will inherit the land/earth
and enjoy peace and prosperity.
And so in the context of Psalm 37, the meaning of ‘meekness’ is really about trusting God, the Great Wisdom that holds us. It is about not fretting, or giving in to anger when you see the unjust, the unrighteous or the devious prospering.
To be ‘meek’ according to Psalm 37 is to trust that there is a Higher Wisdom at work. It is to trust that in God’s time and in God’s way, God’s justice and ultimate Goodness will somehow prevail; that God’s universe is not chaotic or ultimately unjust but rather that the God who is Love and Goodness, is also Truth and Light and that perfect justice ultimately rules the world, even though we may not always be able to see it or perceive it clearly.
How much energy do we burn up and expend bemoaning the sins, faults and the wickedness of others, especially those in positions of authority and power. The meek according to Psalm 37 have left all those cares and concerns into the hands into the Divine, Cosmic Wisdom and having done so they can direct their energies into more constructive places, lighting candles instead of cursing the darkness.
“Blessed are the meek, they will inherit the earth”... “Blessed are those who trust in the higher Divine wisdom and justice, they will be enabled to live on earth with greater inner freedom.”
A second observation I would like to make, is that the English word ‘meek’ is in fact no longer the most helpful translation. I read one commentary that suggested that the meaning of the English word ‘meek’ has changed over the centuries since it was first used by the early English Reformers when translating the Bible into English.
Whereas the original meaning of ‘meek’ would have been – being humble, patient and gentle, it has today come more and more to mean to be submissive and easily imposed upon, and therefore as being weak.
But the original Greek word praus in our text would have been far closer to the idea of being gentle and humble.
Quite a number of modern translations of Matthew 5:5 therefore use the word gentle.
“Blessed are the gentle, they will inherit the earth”
What is interesting is that in most other places in the New Testament where the Greek word Praus is used, it is translated as gentle and on some occasions as humble. In fact, I found it quite astonishing how often the word gentle is used through-out the New Testament. The value of gentleness is dotted all across the New Testament.
Phil 4:5 Let you gentleness be known to all
Titus 3:2 urges Christians “...To speak evil of no one... [but] to be gentle, and courteous toward all people.”
2 Timothy 2:24-26 tells us that an elder in the Church must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone...correcting his opponents with gentleness.
In Galatians 6:1 Paul writes of restoring others who have sinned in a spirit of gentleness
It seems that in the New Testament, gentleness is consistently described as being a key attribute of Christian conduct and behaviour. In Matthew 11 Jesus even describes himself as gentle.
“Come unto me, all you that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart: and you shall find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11:28
And as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, quoting from Zachariah, Matthew 21:4-5, Jesus is described as gentle and riding on a donkey. He is gentle as he welcomes children and blesses them. He is gentle as he responds to the woman caught in adultery as well as the women who anoints his feet. He reaches out and touches with gentleness the man with leprosy.
But as we read the Gospels in all their fullness we see that the gentleness of Jesus is anything but weak. There is a strength in Jesus that enables him to stand his ground and even confront religious authorities whose religiosity have made them hard-hearted and uncaring. There is a strength in Jesus as he walks resolutely to Jerusalem even though he knows he is walking to his death. The gentleness of Jesus is born of an inner strength, not from weakness.
I found a quote online from Leo Rosten. He writes:
“I learned that it is the weak who are cruel, and that gentleness is to be expected only from the strong.”
And Andy Mort, who describes himself as a Coach for Gentle Rebels writes:
“...There is nothing strong about the person who is quick to lose temper and resort to aggression and violence in their spirit, words, and action. This is anything but strength, it is in fact a display of profound weakness...”
In contrast, those who are gentle are strong and full of self-control. In fact without the inner strength of self-control, there would be no true gentleness at all.
And so another Christian writer, Gayle Erwin writes that “Gentleness is not apathy but is an aggressive expression of how we view people. We see people as so valuable that we deal with them in gentleness...”
Blessed are the gentle, says Jesus, they will inherit the earth.
Thirdly, I would like to briefly wrestle with this question of the meek inheriting the earth. It has never quite made sense to me. In probably over three thousand years or more since Psalm 37 stated that the meek will inherit the land, it would seem that our world is still structured in a way that benefits the aggressive, the greedy, the pushers and the exploiters?
What could it mean then that the gentle will inherit the earth? As I was chewing on this question during the week, it struck me that in fact there is in fact very profound truth within it that we all need to hear.
If our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going to inherit the earth from us, then we are all going to need to learn to walk more gently upon it. Unless we all learn to live more gently on the earth, there is not going to be much left to inherit. In Psalm 37, the wicked are described as those who borrow from others and do not repay. Our current way of life is living off resources borrowed from future generations, our children and grand-children and great grand-children. Has the time perhaps come for us to begin to repay what we have borrowed? And if we had to all use our imaginations what might life begin to look like? What would need to change in our way of life if we were to all to learn to live with more gentleness on the earth?
It was wonderful to hear Prince William this week questioning those billionaires who are jetting off on private trips into space. He said the time has come for us to stop trying to find other places to live in outer space, but rather to use our resources to instead fix this world. Everyone needs to learn to live with greater gentleness, even our millionaires and billionaires.
And what might it mean to begin to live more gently on the earth? It doesn’t necessarily mean gluing ourselves to motorways… it could be as simple as as considering how we spend our money, what we spend it on and how much we’re willing to waste. In what way are you and I being asked to become gentle revolutionaries.
Blessed are the gentle, says Jesus, they will inherit the earth.
I would like to close with a brief story that my father shared with me that encapsulates something of the both the strength and the power of gentleness:
At one of the theological colleges in England where my father taught, the principal of the college, a minister, reflected on the meaning of the phrase “the wrath of the Lamb”. You might recognise the phrase from our preaching series on Revelation. It is found in Rev 6:16.
In reflecting on this phrase: “the wrath of the lamb”, the minster told of how he had got home from work one day, tired, withdrawn and irritable. And in this state of unpleasant irritability, he had been abrupt and even rude to his little 4 year old daughter who had come over to spend time with him as he arrived home.
After having dealt with her rather abruptly and rudely, he got up and went off to his study to be by himself. A few minutes later, he heard a little knock on the door. It was his daughter. As she opened the door and stood at a distance in the doorway, she simply said: “I love you daddy!”
He said in that moment, through the innocence and gentleness of his four year-old daughter, he had come to understand what the book of Revelations means when it speaks of “the wrath of the lamb”.
“I love you daddy!” she had said. And in that moment, he was pierced to the heart.
There is power in gentleness. In Proverbs 15:1 we read “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
“Blessed are the gentle”, says Jesus, “they shall inherit the earth”.
Matthew 5:4 Blessed are those who mourn. They will be comforted.
Today we come to reflect on the second beatitude, and as we do so, and as we come to wrestle with what sounds like an oxymoron, that there is a blessing and a comfort to be found in mourning and grief, I recognise that as we reflect on this verse today, we all find ourselves standing on holy ground… sacred ground… It is best that we tread with great caution and with great care lest we find ourselves insensitively stomping around on one-another’s broken hearts, and walking arrogantly or carelessly through each others pools of tears.
In preparing for today’s sermon, as I normally do, I spent a bit of time reading through other people’s reflections. One pastor wrote of how he had preached on this verse at a major conference. And after the session was over and people were mingling and chatting, one delegate came over to him and asked him “Have you ever suffered? Have you ever lost someone? Have you ever really mourned?”. The pastor paused a moment to think and found himself having to admit that he hadn’t. “I thought so,” was the response of the person who had come up to speak to him.
In this beatitude of Jesus, we are faced with a paradox: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. The great danger of a preacher, in trying to find a fresh, clever, interesting and novel perspective on these words is that one might end up speaking without knowledge and spouting forth something trite and superficial.
And so today, I feel indeed that I walk where angels fear to tread, because angels might be more deeply aware than I of the pools of tears that sit beside those who will be listening to this sermon today.
Blessed are those who mourn. They will be comforted.
What could these words mean? What truth is hidden within the paradox?
Today, rather than trying to come up with some clever and fresh perspective on what these words might mean, I thought it might be better to reflect on two stories of grief and hopefully allow those stories to shed light on the possible meaning of our text today.
The first story is one that I think I have told before in Dromore, perhaps in the first few months of arriving. It is the story of a colleague in the ministry in South Africa. We were serving together in a large church on the east of Johannesburg. He told how some years earlier his father had passed away. Being a minister, his family looked to him for direction, and very soon he got into practical mode as he made arrangements for the funeral which he ended up conducting the himself. He said it was so busy and intense at the time that he never had the opportunity to grieve his father’s passing. He was so busy trying to be a minister to his family, trying to provide a container for his own families grief that he never really had the opportunity himself to just sit down and cry and to feel personally for himself the sense of pain and loss of his fathers passing.
Under the circumstances trying his best to holds things together for his family, he had put a lid on his grief. In effect, he had forced himself to just suck it up and keep going.
He went on to tell how a few years later, on one ordinary Sunday morning, as he mounted the stairs up into the pulpit, ready to lead a service or worship as he did every Sunday, just as he was about to start the service, he found himself suddenly overcome and overwhelmed by a flood of tears that he had absolutely no control over. Up there in the pulpit, in front of the whole congregation, he found himself weeping and sobbing uncontrollably for no apparent reason.
It was with a sense of embarrassment that he had to leave the pulpit and leave the confused and obviously concerned congregation just sitting there wondering what was happening. He went into to the vestry where for the next 15 to twenty minutes the tears just flowed as he continued to sob and weep uncontrollably.
In reflecting on it, he said he hadn’t realised how much grief he had been carrying inside since his father’s passing. And he hadn’t realised how emotional heavy that grief had been. All he knew was as the grief welled up and as he sobbed and sobbed and sobbed uncontrollably on that Sunday morning, when he should have been leading his congregation in worship, something of the great weight and burden of that grief that he had been carrying for so long slowly began to lift from that day. It wasn’t that the grief suddenly now vanished, but that perhaps the beginning of a process of grieving had begun.
In out text, the Greek word for mourn, comes from the Greek word penthéō which means to "mourn over a death" and refers to "manifested grief" – a grief so severe it takes possession of a person and cannot be hid.
Is it possible that our verse today could mean something as follows: Blessed are those who cannot hide their grief any longer they will find relief from the great burden they have been carrying”.
On that day, that colleague found could not hide his grief any longer. He could not keep the lid on it any longer. And from that moment, his journey through grief had begun.
When I was still in training before I was ordained, I went with a group of other trainee ministers and spent the day at a hospice where a hospice nurse spoke to us about the grieving process and the work they do in the hospice, working with both those who were dying and their families. I will always remember her description of grief. She said grief is like digging through a mountain with a teaspoon.
A second story I would like to share is of a women that Wendy and I met while we were living and working at a retreat centre about an hour north of Johannesburg. Her name was Margie, and she had come to lead a retreat on the spiritual benefits of walking… walking in silence… walking alone… and in the process of walking, finding space to get in touch with and to work through the jumble of thoughts and emotions that we often carry with us but that we are not always aware of.
The weekend made a big impact on me. But it was not so much the retreat itself that made the impact, but rather it was Margie. There was a transparency about her, and a gentleness and a care and a love that was immediately evident. She seemed to possess an ability to see into a person, to see their vulnerabilties and their weaknesses and as she spoke with them, to hold them in a loving and caring presence.
Margie also seemed to have an ability to be very easily and quickly moved to tears. As she was moved by the presence and vulnerability of others during the course of conversation, she did not try and hold back, as tears would well up in her eyes. It was clearly an expression of the tenderness and the love she was experiencing that moment as she saw into the person who was standing before her and as she was draw in close to them.
At one point she apologised for the tears. Or perhaps it was not so much an apology as an explanation for she was clearly not embarrassed by the tears as many of us are. She told a little bit of her own story… how 30 or 40 years earlier her teenage son, aged about 18 years old, had taken his own life and how in that moment her life and her heart had shattered into a million and one little pieces. Hers had been a long and arduous journey through grief. But the long term effect of that grief was that it had made her very sensitive to and tender towards the pain of others. In a word, it had caused a deep and tender love to grow within her towards other people.
The death of her teenage son had shattered her heart into a million pieces, but in the end it was not a breaking down of her heart, it turned out in the end to be a breaking open of her heart in a soft, gentle and tender love for everyone who crossed her path.
Although she still grieved the loss of her son, she said her tears were no longer so much tears of sadness, but rather tears of love.
And I wonder if that is perhaps the answer to the paradox of Jesus teaching: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Why is it a blessing to mourn? Where is the comfort in weeping and grieving? Perhaps the answer is that at the heart of grief is in fact the seed of love. You only grieve that which you love and where there is great love, there will surely also inevitably be great grief. And so grief is an expression of love.
The danger is that if you try and limit your grief, to contain it, hide it, or put a lid on it, the inevitable outcome is that you will also end up containing your love, hiding it, limiting it, putting a lid on it. To cut oneself off from grief is therefore unfortunately also to cut oneself off from love.
M Scott-Peck, the American Psychiatrist and Spiritual writer suggests that the source of all our psychological suffering is trying to avoid legitimate and unavoidable pain.
Is it possible that if we allow ourselves to grieve fully, to really feel the pain of our grief, that over time we might begin to experience our tears of sadness and grief being transformed into tears of tender love… or perhaps rather, that our tears of sadness that have always contained the seeds of love within them, have simply become the moisture that was needed in order for the seeds of love to grow.
The Greek word for comfort is the word parakaleó. Pará, means "from close-beside". Kaléō, means "to call or invite”. Putting those together one has the sense of being invited or called from close beside, "close-up and personal”. And in a way that is what it felt like being in the presence of Margie. Being in her presence was a feeling of being invited in, invited, called close beside, into her warm, open and tender presence and lovingkindness. Paradoxically, Margie had found comfort, an openess and a closeness to others through her grief.
Margie was not a professing Christian. Her journey had in the end taken her on a different spiritual path. But her life had become like a transparent window through which the light and love of God could shine. What Jesus is teaching in this verse is not Christian doctrine but rather a universal truth that expresses a universal human experience, open to all people.
Blessed are those who mourn, they will be comforted… blessed are those who allow themselves to grieve, they will enable others to come close and in turn become a soft and tender presence where others can feel themselves invited in also.
I’d like to end with two quotes. Firstly a quote by Marcel Proust. “We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.”
And a quote from a contemporary spiritual teacher, Adyashanti: Grief un-resisted, becomes grace.
Exploring the Beatitudes - Week 2 - Blessed are the Poor in Spirit - Rev. Brian Moodie (HARVEST SUNDAY)
Prayer for Harvest Sunday
God of all goodness,
as we celebrate this season of Harvest,
We give thanks for the blessings of food, provision and nourishment.
Grow within us a harvest for the world.
Come sow a seed of hope within our souls,
that we might yield goodness, patience and kindness in abundance.
Sow a seed of peace in our lives,
that we might bear the fruits of forgiveness, compassion and righteousness.
Come sow a seed of love in our hearts Lord,
that others would reap the blessings of family, friendship and community.
May each seed of hope, peace and love grow within us into a harvest that can be feasted on by all. Amen.
Blessed are the Poor in Spirit - Matthew 5:3
Last week we began a new preaching series looking at the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:1-12. As part of the introduction, we examined the first two verses. Today we explore the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”.
You might be wondering what on earth “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit” has to do with Harvest Sunday. I am hoping that by the end of this sermon we might see that one of the meanings of being Poor in Spirit is “to be grateful” to be grateful for the vast network of life and people on whom we depend. And so one of the possible interpretations of “Blessed are the poor in spirit” could be “Blessed are the grateful for they have found heaven in their hearts”. And on a day like today we indeed come most especially to express our gratitude for the blessings of the earth and for all we have received from the hand of God and the hard work of others.
Like each of the verses that follows, verse 3 begins with the Greek Markarioi, which can be translated a Happy, Rich, Blessed and Enviable.
I imagine that today, even though Harvest is still celebrated as a significant day of celebration, as modern people we have probably lost touch with how important Harvest was to our forebears. For our forebears who did not have the luxury of being able to import food from other parts of the world if they had a poor harvest, to reap a successful harvest was something to celebrate indeed. To have a poor harvest was not just a slight dent to one’s bank account. To have a poor harvest could have extremely serious consequences for the year ahead before the next harvest. To have a poor harvest could mean a period of extremely difficult months ahead where people would have to live on rations. But in extremely bad circumstances it could even lead to death, as the great potato famine of Ireland showed in the years 1845-1852. A poor harvest, especially if it happened a few years in a row would have been a matter of life and death.
And so to have a good harvest would have been to be happy, rich and blessed indeed, even if only for the 12 months that lay ahead.
And so the Greek word Makarioi invites us to recognize our own blessings at harvest.
Now in Luke 6 we find a different version of the beatitudes. Whereas Matthew 5 has 8 Blessings, Luke’s version has only four blessings, but followed by four woes.
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
And then it is followed by four woes:
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
Now some have suggested that Luke’s version and Matthew’s versions of the beatitudes would have been two different teaching occasions for two different audiences. But anyone who has read Luke’s Gospel in more detail will see that it is more complex than that. One of the themes that runs through the whole of Luke’s Gospel, as a thread woven across it’s pages or like a refrain that echoes and repeats across the whole story line, is the sense that a great turn-around of fortunes is coming. A time is coming suggests Luke’s Gospel when those who are poor now, will be rich in the Kingdom that is to come. And those who are rich now, and failed to share their wealth with others in this life, will find themselves demoted and dispossessed in the Kingdom that is to come. This was clearly a theme that was in the mind understanding of the writer of Luke’s Gospel. It was how he had come to understand and interpret the ministry and teachings of Jesus. He saw and interpreted the ministry of Jesus through the lense and the divide between those who were rich and poor. And Luke interpreted those terms in fairly stark economic terms. In Luke’s mind, Jesus revealed what some have called God’s preferential option for the poor, that God was most especially on the side of the poor. To have great wealth and not to share it according to Luke’s Gospel was to have chosen not to side with Jesus.
But in Matthew’s Gospel, while issues of economic wealth and poverty are clearly to be found, in Matthew’s version and interpretation of the Jesus story, he does not interpret the Jesus story or the teachings of Jesus in quite the same stark terms as Luke does.
Whereas Luke says: Blessed are the poor, Matthew says: Blessed are the poor in spirit.
What might it mean to be poor in spirit?
The Greek word translated as poor, quite literally is means one who crouches and cowers, like a beggar who relies totally on the gifts, goodwill and charity of others. It thus translates as poor but it’s truest meaning is to be destitute and as helpless as a beggar.
But Matthew’s version of the beatitudes is not referring to an economic poverty, rather Matthew’s version, unlike Luke’s version is referring to the poor in spirit.
Matthew’s version seems to be pointing to a quality of the heart, to those persons who are humble and devout. And what makes them humble and devout is that they recognize that they rely and depend on others. The poor in spirit in Matthew’s Gospel stand in contrast to those who think they are self-made men and women in the world, so successful that they think they do not need others any-more.
But the truth is, there is no self-made man or women in this world. We are all a lot more dependent than we realise. The CEO’s of Tesco or Sainsburies or BP (British Petroleum) are only successful because they depend on a supply chain of 100’s of 1000’s of others. What the last few weeks here in the UK have begun to reveal is that without 500 to 600 000 truck drivers, the CEO of Tesco or Sainsburies or BP are no longer quite as successful as they thought they were. They are no longer as financially independent as they thought they were. The truth is they are just as dependent as the rest of us, they have just lived under the illusion of being independent.
It is one of the truth’s of our human existence in this world. We are all part of a complex network of relationships and dependencies that in economic terms are normally spoken of as supply chains.
To be poor in spirit, is to recognise the truth of our existence. It is to recognise that no matter who we are, whether we are the street sweeper or the head of the Bank of England, we are all by nature dependent upon others. It is to recognize without others on whom we depend we would all be destitute beggars barely able to survive on our own.
To truly recognize that we are all dependent on others gives rise to gratitude. Thank you to the truck drivers. Without you we would have no stock on our shelves. We would have no food in our fridges, We would have no petrol in our cars. Thank you. May you who do all this for us, not have to work 60 hour weeks. May we not enjoy fully stocked shops at your expense, working longer hours than you should, with poor overnight facilities.
Thank you to the harvesters of our fruit and vegetables, those who come from other countries to do work that we don’t wish to do for ourselves. Thank you for your hard labour. May you who do these things for us that we can enjoy the luxury of eating strawberries and blueberries and all sorts of other fruit and vegetables, may you not be taken advantage of with low wages.
To be poor in spirit is to recognize the truth of our dependence on others. It is to recognise that no-one in this world is truly independent. And in response, it is to put our hands together in gratitude. It is to bow before others upon whom we rely and depend and express our gratitude. Thank you.
Even those who have chosen to move away from mainstream society and live by themselves on a small plot of land, being completely off the grid, even such people would not be able to live for more than a few months to realise that they too are in their own way completely at the mercy of the weather conditions to enable their little garden patches to grow.
To be poor in spirit is to realise that without others we would be completely destitute. Without people buying products on Amazon, without factories producing those things, truckers transporting those things, workers packing those things, Jeff Bezos would be destitute. He may not realise it, but he is just as dependent as the rest of us.
And so on Harvest Sunday, we come to put our palms together to express our gratitude. We come to recognize that we are all dependent on others. And that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take responsibility for ourselves as best we can. But it does mean that without others, none of us would be alive today. Without a mother and a father we wouldn’t have survived even a few hours, let alone weeks or months or years. Without the world’s supply chain and without the lowest paid workers within that supply chain, we would have no food on our tables. Without a stable climate and good soil, sunshine and rain in which plants can grow and food can be produced we could not live or survive.
And so for one Sunday in the year, we are reminded on Harvest, whether we realise it or not, we are all utterly dependent upon others as a destitute beggar… But only those who realise it are truly grateful, and only those who are truly grateful realise how truly blessed they are.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who live lives of true and humble gratitude, they have found the kingdom of heaven in their hearts. In discovering their own true nature as dependent beings, they have discovered just how truly lucky and how wondrously blessed they really are... how blessed we really are.
SERMON - Rev. Brian Moodie
(Reading: Matthew 5:1-12)
Matthew 5:1-12 The Beatitudes Introduction
Who is the happiest person you have every known?
The happiest person I think I ever knew was an old lady living in the African Township of Duduza just South East of Johannesburg. Her name was Gogo Moghali. Gogo means old lady or granny. Gogo Moghali lived in a small 4 roomed house with a small garden and an outdoor toilet. She had married late in life and had no children or grandchildren of her own. When I first met her, she must have been in her 80’s. She had a little dog, a fox terrier called Billy. Billy would spend a lot of his time wandering the neighbourhood, but he knew where home was. Every morning Gogo Moghali would make herself some breakfast which consisted of a bowl of firm mielie porridge which in Zulu is called Phutu and a cup of tea which she would share with Billy before he was off on his daily rounds.
Gogo Moghali’s knees gave her problems. Knees in Zulu are amadolo. Every time I saw her, I was aware that her amadolo were giving her problems. Too many birthdays as people would say here in Northern Ireland. Possibly also too much bending down and kneeling keeping her vinyl tiled floor in her home spotlessly clean.
But despite her bothersome amadolo, her painful knees, and her very very modest home, she radiated a happiness that was infectious. Not all the old ladies living alone in Duduza were happy as she was happy. Some homes were dark and depressing, and some of the old Gogo’s I visited were weighed down by emotional scars and wounds that they had clearly carried for many many years, abusive marriages, oppressive working conditions.
But Gogo Moghali had a lightness and a brightness about her, a happiness that I don’t think I will ever forget. It was a gift to all who knew her and met her.
At her funeral we sang her favourite hymn in Sotho…
I hear Thy welcome voice,
That calls me, Lord, to Thee,
For cleansing in Thy precious blood
That flowed on Calvary.
I am coming, Lord,
Coming now to Thee:
Wash me, cleanse me in the blood
That flowed on Calvary.
And the Bible text I preached from was from Isaiah 35:3-6
3Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
4say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come...
he will come to save you.”
5Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6Then will the lame leap like a deer
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.”
The text not only gave hope for one who had suffered with failing knees, but also captured something of the joy that radiated from her that gushed forth from her like streams in a desert.
Needless to say, her funeral was large and it was a celebration. And as the chorus to her favourite hymn was sung, the congregation in true African style couldn’t help but dance:
“I am coming Lord, coming now to thee. Wash me, cleanse me, in the blood that flowed on calvary”.
Who is the happiest person you have ever known? What was/is the source of their happiness?
Today I would like to start a preaching series examining the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:1-12. The word beatitude comes from the word beati in Latin. In the Latin version of Matthew 5:1-12, the word that is translated in English as Blessed is the Latin word beati and means ‘to be happy’, ‘to be rich’, or ‘to be blessed’. The original Greek word makarioi includes these meanings, but goes one step further with the meaning ‘enviable’.
It raises the question: Who do you envy in life? Who are those that you regard as blessed, rich and happy?
Our culture teaches us that those who are blessed, who are rich, happy and to be envied are those with lots of material possessions. The more possessions you have, the bigger your house we are told, the more happy you should be… that is the voice of our cultural conditioning. And so, those who are envied the most in our culture are the millionaires and the billionaires. The way to true happiness comes when you have lots of money and no longer need to depend on anyone else. You can even jet yourself off on your own private mission into space. This is the way to happiness we are told.
This was the general belief also in the Jewish culture of Jesus day. Those who were blessed by God were those with lots of possessions and lots of money lots of fields. But is this necessarily true?
Isn’t it interesting that the first time Jesus is portrayed as teaching in Matthew’s Gospel, the first thing he teaches are about how to be truly happy, how to be truly rich and how to be truly blessed.
Jesus wishes to teach qualities that are enviable. But as we shall see over the next few weeks, Jesus teaching takes us by surprise! The way to happiness that Jesus teaches in Matthew’s Gospel is a little different from the way our culture teaches as the way to happiness.
As we will be exploring the beatitudes over the next few weeks, I would like to reflect briefly on the opening verses of the text:
It begins in verse 1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
The word for seen in the phrase “Having seen the crowds” is the Greek word Idon. It is a word that encompasses both a physical seeing as well as an inner knowing or perception. It suggests that to truly see is not just to see the surface of things with the physical eyes, but rather to see with an inner knowledge and perception – to see with understanding.
In my first year of University a fellow student had the name Bekabona. When I asked him what it meant, he said it means to look and see. Beka – means look and Bona means see. It is possible to look but not to truly see.
But when Jesus sees the crowds, he not only looks but also sees. When Jesus sees the crowds, he sees not just the surface of things, seeing them not just as physical beings, but as spiritual beings with inner depth and inner needs.
This sense of Jesus looking and seeing beneath the surface of things comes through later in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus looks at the crowds and is moved with compassion because they are like sheep without a shepherd.
Having looked and seen the crowds, we read that Jesus goes up a mountain. In Matthew’s Gospel this is significant. One of the things that Matthew wishes us to see about Jesus is that he is like a New Moses. Just as Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, the Law or the Teachings, for a bunch of slaves who had just been rescued from Egypt, so Jesus goes up the mountain to provide teaching for the crowds whose deep spiritual need he has just seen. Jesus is a New Moses.
But Matthew wishes us to see that Jesus is not just like Moses, he is greater than Moses. Moses waits to receive the law from God before taking it to the people. But according to verse2 the words of Teaching come from Jesus’ own mouth. He opens his mouth and begins to teach them himself.
What is interesting however is that on this occasion, although Jesus sees the need of the crowds, he does not call the crowds up the mountain. He calls his disciples. The word that is used is Mathetai…. It means learners, or pupils. The word Math, from which we get our English word Mathematics, means to think things through.
The teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and in these beatitudes is directed not to the crowds, but to learners, pupils, who Jesus invites to think more deeply about the true meaning and purpose of life than the surface explanations that our culture often gives us.
The word mathetai / disciple occurs more in Matthew’s Gospel than any of the other 3 gospels. Some suggest that Matthew’s Gospel was the earliest manual for Christian discipleship. Some have even suggested that the title of Matthew’s Gospel is a play on words. Mathetai meaning disciple sounds very similar to Mathaious. Is it possible that Mathews Gospel got it’s name as a play on words of one of it’s central themes… the making of Mathetai – or disciples?
The name Matthew could be interpreted in more than one way. But the most popular meaning or understanding of the name means ‘Gift of God’. (Matheyahu – in Hebrew). I wonder if the writer of Matthew’s Gospel wishes us to see that as we become learners of the way of Jesus. He we respond to his invitation to ponder and think more deeply about life, to think more deeply about the true meaning and purpose of life than the surface explanations that our culture gives us, the goal is that disciples become transformed into gifts of God. We become transformed from Mathetai (disciples and learners) into Mathaios Gifts of God, bearers of Good News to the world and sharers of true joy and happiness with others.
SERMON TEXT: EVERYBODY HURTS – Exploring the book of lamentations
About 13-14 years ago, at the Church I ministered in just East of Johannesburg, we did a preaching series called “Songs that Speak”. In it we reflected on the words of a variety of popular secular songs and how perhaps God could speak to us through the lyrics of those songs. One of the songs we reflected on was the 1993 REM hit song called Every Body hurts. The lyrics are really simple:
When the day is long
And the night, the night is yours alone
When you're sure you've had enough
Of this life, well hang on
Don't let yourself go
'Cause everybody cries
And everybody hurts sometimes
Sometimes everything is wrong
Now it's time to sing along
When your day is night alone (Hold on, hold on)
If you feel like letting go (Hold on)
If you think you've had too much
Of this life, well hang on
'Cause everybody hurts
Take comfort in your friends
Don't throw your hand, oh no
Don't throw your hand
If you feel like you're alone
No, no, no, you are not alone
If you're on your own in this life
The days and nights are long
When you think you've had too much of this life to hang on
Well, everybody hurts sometimes
And everybody hurts sometimes
And everybody hurts sometimes
So hold on, hold on
Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on
No, no, no, no you are not alone
Over the past 28 years since the song was released it has proved enormously popular. It has been covered by a number of other singers and bands, like Joe Cocker, The Corrs, and even a Catholic Priest, Father Ray Kelly from Old-Castle in County Meath when he sang it at his opening appearance on Britain's Got Talent.
What makes it so popular and perhaps also so powerful is that it captures a universal human experience of pain and suffering. It is a song that almost everyone can relate to because it helps us to get in touch with our own pain, our own suffering, those times when we have felt like giving up, those times when we have had to hold on, those times when we have felt alone and when the day has felt like night to us.
I believe that one of the reasons for the enduring power of the Bible is very similar to the enduring popularity of REM’s song ‘Everybody Hurts”. Like REM’s song, a large part of the Bible’s power is that it captures universal human experiences. Through most of its pages, the Bible describes ordinary people, in familiar situations of conflict, situations of pain, of trials, temptations, and situations of deceit and betrayal. And so the Bible is a bit like a mirror, through which we see ourselves.
One of the things that the Bible does is remind us in a powerful way that (in the words of Jesus) in this life you will have tribulations. We live in a world where suffering is an ever-present reality. It is one of the inescapable facts of living in this world. No-one is exempt from the suffering of this world. Even Jesus, who Christians refer to as God’s Son was not exempt from suffering.
And so it seems quite symbolic that in the heart of the Bible, almost near it’s centre we find a short books of 5 poems called the Book of Lamentations. Lamentations is a book that has sometimes been ascribed to the Prophet Jeremiah, but most scholars suggest that the author is unknown.
The Book of Lamentations consists of five poems of lament. Poems of weeping and wailing, written as a response to the most catastrophic and devastating experiences in the life of the Jewish nation up to that point. After 500 years of living in the land of Israel or Palestine and establishing themselves in the land, after a two year siege, in the summer of 587 BC, the Babylonian Army stormed Jerusalem, the capital city, destroying it completely, along with it’s temple. It was all decimated. Gone. And large portions of the Jewish population shipped off to live as exiles a foreign land, amongst a foreign people, who spoke a foreign language.
It would have been a little bit like if Nazi Germany having invaded Northern Ireland, decimating the city of Belfast and its central places of worship, uprooting people from their homes and ancestral lands and deporting large portions of the population to live somewhere in new Nazi Reich, being treated as foreigners and outsiders and being forced to learn and communicate in German. If we can begin to imagine that, then you have an inkling of how devastating this must have been for them. They had lost everything.
In response to this devastating upheaval, an anonymous Jewish poet wrote five poems of lament to express the devastating sense of grief, anguish and distress that they had experienced in the Babylonian invasion.
Tim Mackie makes the point that the design of these five poems is very intentional. Each of the first four poems in written as alphabet poems. This means that each verse begins with the next letter of the alphabet. And thus it is as though the poet is expressing the full extent, the A-Z, of the suffering of the people of Israel. He also suggests that the ordered and linear structure of the poems stands in stark contrast to the disordered pain and confused grief of the people of Israel. The poet is seeking to express in words, emotions and feelings which are ultimately inexpressible.
The first poem focusses on the grief and shame of the city of Jerusalem which is personified as a widow called ‘Lady Zion’ and also referred to as the ‘Daughter of Zion’. She grieves alone. She has lost everything. No-one comes to comfort her.
The second poem focusses on the fall of Jerusalem. The poet interprets the fall of Jerusalem as God’s punishment due to the people’s sin. In a world view in which God was understood as being responsible for all the events of life, this was a natural thing to do. But it is an interpretation that raises a number of questions. Does God really punish people using foreign invading armies who come in, pillaging, raping and murdering, even little babies? As much as this was the sincere interpretation of the author of the poem, it is an interpretation that I would struggle with.
I have a sense from reflecting on the life of Jesus, who we call the son of God, that living in the way of God is no guarantee against suffering and certainly does not mean that God will protect one from invading armies. The Book of Job reminds us that even the righteous suffer. In fact Jesus seems to suggest in places that those who are faithful to God may in fact suffer even more than others as a result of their faithfulness.
The third poem is the longest poem in the book. Instead of having just one verse per letter of the alphabet, this poem has three verses per letter. The central character in this poem is a suffering man, who stands as a representative of the people and who speaks out their grief and suffering. In this section of the book, the author has drawn language from other parts of the Bible, from the book of Job, from some of the Psalms as well as from the Suffering Servant poems of Isaiah. In the midst of the pain of lament and grief, this poem offers the only words of hope in the whole of the book of Lamentations: “Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed, for his compassion's never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfullness.” (3:22-23)
Even in the midst of this great and devastating suffering, the poet continues to believe that at the heart of life there is an essential goodness that will not abandon them forever. And so he writes: “The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him. It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”
In a verse that Jesus quotes in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, the poet writes: “Let them offer their cheeks to the one who would strike them...for the people are not cast off by the Lord forever, though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love.” (3:30-32).
The fourth poem is a description of the two year seige that lead to the fall and destruction of Jerusalem. In this poem, the poet contrasts the glories and blessings of the past with how terrible things became during the siege of Jerusalem.
As Tim Mackie summarises: “The children used to laugh and play in the streets, but now they beg for food. The wealthy used to eat lavish meals, but now they eat whatever they can find in the dirt. The royal leaders used to be full of splendour, but now they are famished and dirty and unrecognizable. And the anointed king from the line of David has been captured and dragged away.”
The Fifth and final poem is different from the other four because in the fifth poem, the poet has abandoned the alphabet structure. As Tim Mackie puts it, “It is as if the poet cannot hold it together any-more, and his grief has exploded into chaos. The poem itself is a prayer for God’s mercy, written on behalf of the people of God. The first line: “Remember Lord what has happened to us, look and see our disgrace. We have become fatherless, our mothers are widows, women have been ravished, princes have been hung up by their hands, elders are shown no respect, boys stagger under loads of wood”. In verse 15 “Joy has gone from our hearts; our dancing has turned into mourning.”
The poem ends with a plea for God to restore them: “Restore us to yourself O Lord, that we may return. Renew our days as of old, unless you have rejected us forever.” (5:21-22).
Tim Mackie puts it like this: “Suffering in silence is just not a virtue in this book. God’s people are not asked to deny their emotions but voice their protest, to vent their feelings and to pour it all out before God.”
One of the interesting things about the book of Lamentations is that God does not speak. God is seemingly silent. The voice of God is not heard. And that too is often the feeling and experience of many who suffer in this world, the seeming silence of God.
While the voice of God is not heard to speak in the book of Lamentations, we do hear the whisper of God’s voice in other parts of scripture reminding us that in the midst of our hurt and pain, even though it may seem like it, we are never alone:
Psalm 139: 11-12 “If I say ‘Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light become night around me’, even the darkness will not be dark to you, the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
Psalm 23:4 “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...you are with me”.
Matthew 28:20, the final verse in Matthew’s Gospel, the words of the crucified and risen Christ: Surely I am with you always.
In the REM song we hear these words:
So hold on, hold on
Hold on, hold on,
No, no, no, no you are not alone.
SERMON - Rev. Brian Moodie
Exploring Revelation – Epilogue - Reflections of our Inner World.
In my 20's I read a biography of Carl Jung that made a big impact on me. Carl Jung was one of the great early modern psychologists. He was both a student and a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, but very soon began to explore far beyond the framework within which Freud worked. At a time when science was on the ascendency and people were more and more viewed simply as physical beings with firing synapses in the brain, Carl Jung through his explorations of the human mind, as well as the explorations of religious traditions and myths of cultures all around the world, asserted the reality of the spiritual, and the depths of the inner life.
In a BBC interview which aired during October 1959, Carl Jung told John Freeman about growing up as a pastor’s son in the Swiss Reformed Church. As a boy he went to Sunday services and believed in God. In response John Freeman asked whether Jung still believed in God. Jung answered,
"Now?" Jung asked and then paused: "Difficult to answer. I know. I don’t need to believe. I know."
For Carl Jung who clearly valued his Christian heritage, but who didn't consider himself a Christian in any traditional sense of the word, God was a reality to be experienced, not to be believed in.
Carl Jung also asserted that dreams were one of the ways in which human beings can get in touch with the world of spirit and through which God, the Divine Intelligence and Deeper Wisdom of Life could speak to human beings. Mythology for Carl Jung was also a way in which human beings, often using dream like imagery could give expression to the inner world of the psyche and the soul.
One of the principles on which Carl Jung operated in working with dreams is that all the symbols and characters within a dream are in fact symbols for different parts of ourselves. A similar assertion can be made with mythology. All of the characters in mythology can be seen and interpreted as symbolic representations of ourselves. This approach has been very influential, even in the interpretation of our Christian Scriptures. It is an approach that suggests that all the characters in the Bible, can be interpreted as symbols of the soul and of the human psyche.
This approach can be used of almost any passage of Scripture, but over the past few weeks, as we have explored the book of Revelation, it has made me wonder whether this interpretative approach may in fact offer a very helpful and creative way to interpreting the book of Revelation.
There is something very dream-like about the book of Revelation. In dreams, you often have images flowing one into another in a way that is often difficult to make sense of at first. That could be a fair commentary on the book of Revelation. In a dream like way, the book flows from one scene to another, as imagery and symbolism gives way to further imagery and symbolism.
And so, what might it look like if one were to adopt this approach of interpretation and apply it to the book of Revelation?
Firstly, the opening image of Christ, with white hair and sword coming out of his mouth could be interpreted to represent the higher wisdom within us.
The Seven Churches could represent the various dimensions of our conscious selves as we interact with the world. There are parts of us that are faithful to our higher principles, and there are parts of us that are unfaithful and very easily and quickly compromise. There are parts of us that are apathetic, neither hot nor cold. In the midst of the letters written to these seven churches, there is the image of Christ standing at the door knocking. It could be interpreted as an image of our higher self, knocking at the door of our conscious life, seeking to have space within us.
In the next scene we see the throne of heaven and we encounter the Lamb seated with God on the throne. The Lamb could be interpreted as representing the child-like innocence within us. Our original innocence and purity.
A detail that I have not yet mentioned in our preaching series are the saints or martyrs that are trapped underneath the altar of God in chapter 6 . It is interesting imagery. In the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, some Anglican Churches and some Lutheran Churches, this image of the martyrs trapped beneath the altar led to the centuries old-practice of placing relics of the saints, bones, teeth, pieces of clothing etc... underneath the altar in the Church. That is just an interesting aside. But from a spiritual and psychological perspective, this image of the martyrs or saints trapped beneath the altar is a very powerful symbol of those parts of ourselves that have been denied, repressed and even disowned within us. If we are to grow to full spiritual and psychological maturity, it will require that we get in touch with these trapped and disowned parts of ourselves that long to be free and whose prayers rise up deep from within our hearts crying out for recognition.
A number of years ago, I went to counselling with a much older colleague in the ministry. He worked with the enneagram as a tool for spiritual and psychological growth. He shared some of his own story, how he had found himself in a place of depression and psychological difficulty. He had been trying to model his own life and ministry on another minister who he held in very high regard, and yet he he found himself in a very dark psychological place where he felt disconnected with God and with himself. As he began to work with the Enneagram he began to see firstly that he was in fact a very different personality from the colleague that he so admired. He realised that trying to emulate this well respected colleague he had actually begun to lose touch with the uniqueness of his own personality. It was as he began to explore the 4th personality on the Enneagram, the artist, that he began to realise that there was a buried artist within himself, that he had been in touch with as a child, but as he grew into adulthood, he had left it behind, forgotten and even denied. In trying to emulate someone else, he in effect discovered that the artist within him had become like a martyred victim of who he thought he should be. The artist within him had become denied, hidden and trapped under the sacred altar of his life.
He discovered that as he began to make time each week to give creative expression to the hidden and forgotten artist within him, drawing and painting, he very soon began to come to a place of much greater psychological balance and ease. It raises questions for all of us: What parts of ourselves have we denied. What parts of ourselves have we in effect martyred and left trapped and crying out under the sacred altar of our lives?
The next images that we encounter in the book are three sets of judgements that are poured out upon the earth. I wonder if these sets of judgements could be interpreted as the spiritual and psychological fallout that begins to happen when we deny and disown important aspects of ourselves. Sometimes it can begin to feel like our inner world is beginning to cave in on top of us.
The next dream like image that we encounter is the Beast. Is it possible that the Beast in the Book of Revelation could represent our unevolved animalistic behaviour. It is part of ourselves, and shouldn't be denied or disowned, because when it is denied and disowned it can rise up from the sea of our sub-conscious life and begin to wreak all sorts of havoc in our lives.
I think it is also true that sometimes things that we think are Beasts in our lives turn out not to be beasts at all. A few months ago, Wendy had a very interesting dream. In it she was being pursued by some kind of monster or beast. It was quite scary. But when the beast caught up with her and she was forced to face it she discovered that it had a face as soft and lovable as a puppy.
Closely related to the beast in Revelation is the dragon who is a symbol of evil and darkness and chaos within us. There again, the dragon is an aspect of ourselves. We all have a dragon within us. The potential for great evil exists within each and every human being. Most human beings prefer to pretend that the dragon does not exist within us. We prefer to identify the dragon as existing outside of ourselves. But as we saw in one of our earlier weeks, the line between good and evil does not run between people, it runs through every human heart. When we deny the dragon within us, the danger is that we become blind to it. Because we only want to see ourselves as good, we fail to become aware of the potential for darkness too. I think the English saying about keeping your enemies close applies equally on an inner psychological level. When you become aware of the dragon within you and are thus able to keep an eye on it, it is much healthier than pretending that it doesn't exist and therefore becoming blind to its influence in our lives.
The beast and the dragon are also accompanied in this section of the book by a false prophet. Is it possible that the false prophet is a symbol of our own self-delusion and the unwillingness to see the truth of ourselves?
Some would suggest that the beast and the dragon are images of self-centeredness, self-interest, self-gratification, self glorification and even self-righteousness. These are the characteristics we would apply to someone who we might describe as egotistical.
The image of the warrior Christ in Revelation 19 could stand as a symbol of the warrior within each of us. While there is an innocent lamb within us that needs to be enthroned in our hearts, there are also times in our lives where we need to live with enormous courage, and to muster up within us all of our energies to meet the challenges of our lives and the challenges of our inner world. The warrior Christ in Revelation 19 who is called just and true represents the mustering up of our inner energies in acts of courage that are not for selfish and self-centered purposes, but rather for altruistic purposes that are just and true.
The image of the burning lake of fire and brimstone which is often popularly interpreted to represent hell could represent the pain of remorse, self-condemnation and the searing pain of guilt, while the second death in this same passage represents the destruction of all our 'man-made' and un-evolved conditions, thus echoing the idea of the fire representing the process of spiritual purification.
The Temple of God could represent the presence of God and the Mind of Christ within us, that as we grow to greater and greater spiritual maturity, the Mind of Christ and the Presence of God become greater and greater realities in our personality and experience.
And lastly, the New Jerusalem could represent the fully evolved and fully mature soul that is now at one with Divinity, represented by the marriage with the Lamb. The river that runs through the centre of the holy city representing the spirit of God flowing freely through the life of the one who has grown to spiritual maturity, bringing blessing and refreshing to others.
And the tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nation represents how the life of one who has become one with the Divine becomes a healing presence within the world.
This is just a rough exploration today, but it perhaps helps us to catch a glimpse of the riches of Scripture. They don't only have to be interpreted in one way. Like a diamond that reflects light in different directions and can often reflect many different colours, scripture can be viewed from different perspectives, revealing different levels of meaning and different aspects of ourselves as we grow to greater and greater maturity in relations to the Divine.
SERMON - Rev Brian Moodie
SERMON TEXT - Exploring Revelation Week 10 - A New Heaven, A New Earth, Eden Restored.
I have begun to wonder whether there may be more jokes about St Peter and the Pearly Gates than any other jokes:
There are certainly plenty of Cartoons Featuring St Peter and the Pearly gates.
One that I really enjoyed this past week was St Peter standing behind his podium with the book open. There before him on a puffy white cloud is a little dog looking up at him. And St Peter with an open smiling face says: Well, what a good dog you are!
There was also one for cat lovers. The caption at the bottom of the cartoon says: “How cats came to have 9 lives”.
In the cartoon itself, St Peter is standing next to the pearly gate, which he has half-opened. Sitting in front of the gate of heaven is a cat with St Peter saying: Make up your mind! Are you going in or not?
In the last 10 years or so, it seems that the Book of Life has now been exchanged for a computer. In one of the cartoons, a you boy is standing in front of St Peter and St Peter says to him, “Don’t worry, this is just a near-death experience, but while you’re here, would you help me with this computer?”
As we continue our exploration of the book of Revelation, it is interesting to note that the idea of the pearly gates comes from Revelation 21 where the New Jerusalem is described as having 12 gates and each of those gates is made of a single pearl.
Last week we explored Revelation 20 and the lake of burning sulphur or the lake of fire and brimstone. Examining the passage more closely, we explored the possibility that the lake of fire and brimstone is a symbol of spiritual purification rather than a symbol of eternal damnation and torture. One of the biggest clues is that the kings of the earth who waged war against Christ in Revelation 19 are are then seen bringing their splendour into the New Jerusalem in chapter 21:24. And this occurs after the lake of burning fire.
Having explored the Lake of Burning Sulphur last week, I would now like to explore Revelation 21 and the opening verses of chapter 22 which introduce us to 4 images: The New Heaven and the New Earth, the Wedding of the Bride and the Lamb, the New Jerusalem, and Eden Restored.
Last week I had said that a deep fear of Hell as a place of eternal divine punishment is consistently associated with lower happiness, lower life satisfaction, lower self-esteem, lower psychological coping and lower health resilience. Today as we look at Revelation 21, it is perhaps worth noting that studies also suggest that belief in a supernatural heaven is consistently associated with greater happiness, and greater life satisfaction. In short, belief in some kind of heaven can actually have a positive influence on one’s life in this world.
And that brings us to Revelation 21 and the beginning of Revelation 22. These passages perhaps more than any other in the Bible have been the basis for much of Christian belief in heaven. But what is interesting about them, is that they don’t actually give a literal description of heaven at all. Rather this section of Revelation provides us with 4 major symbols that describe the end of evil and the consummation of history, so that history finds it’s fulfilment, it’s final resolution in union and communion with God.
The first image that we encounter is the image of the New Heaven and the New Earth. It is an image that John draws from the writings of Isaiah 65. For the Jews to whom the prophet was writing, the promise of a new heaven and a new earth was poetic language expressing the Jewish hope of how life would be transformed when God would finally restore the glory of Israel and the glory of Jerusalem following after their exile in Babylon and their return to a new and rebuilt Jerusalem. When this promise was never fulfilled as they had hoped it would be, the symbolism of a new heaven and a new earth remained a metaphor and a symbol expressing their ongoing hope that one day God would intervene and re-establish the glory of Israel.
By the time that Revelation was written, the new heaven and new earth had come to be associated not just with the restoration of Israel, but with the renewal of all things when Christ would come to bring all of history to it’s consummation.
The second image that we encounter is the image of the New Jerusalem. Again, this was a symbol and a promise that went back to the Babylonian invasion of Judea which led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and led to the Jews spending around 70 years in exile in Babylon. It was in Babylon that the prophet Ezekiel began to plant seeds of hope into the hearts of these exiled Jews, painting a description of the restoration of Israel like dry dead bones being brought back to life. In a passage designed to inspire hope for the future and a return to a restored Jerusalem, Ezekiel writes of being given a measuring rod with which he is instructed to measure out the dimensions of a New Temple in the restored Jerusalem.
But the glory of the new temple was never actually restored. The dream of a renewed Jerusalem remained a deferred hope for the future. In Revelation, this image of hope for the future is utilised by John. In a similar scenario to Ezekiel, John is handed a measuring rod of gold with which he is to measure the Holy City, the New Jerusalem. What he measures is a perfect cube – it is meant to symbolize the holy of holies in the old temple in the earthly Jerusalem which contained the tabernacle of God’s presence. Now in the heavenly city of Revelation 21, the whole city has become the holy of holies in which the fullness of God’s Presence is manifest.
The third image we encounter is the image of the wedding of the bride, the wife of the Lamb. The bride is the New Jerusalem itself, and thus, the New Jerusalem is more than a city, but rather a symbol of the very people of God. The image and symbol of marriage is one that runs throughout the whole of the Bible. It is an image that is constantly used to describe the relationship between God and God’s people. The Jews had come to believe in their epic history and sacred story that when God had rescued their ancestors from slavery in Egypt and led them out to Mount Sinai where he had given them the 10 commandments, that this was a kind of a marriage ceremony where God pledged to be their husband, caring for them and protecting them. But time and again, prophets, like Hosea, wrote of how Israel had behaved like an unfaithful spouse. But the promise and hope remained that one day the remarriage and consummation between God and his people would take place.
For the earliest Christians, the hope of the return of Christ was looked forward to as wedding feast in which the final consummation of all things would be like a moment of communion and union between humanity and the divine. God would dwell with them. They would be his people, and he would be their God.
The fourth image that we encounter is the image of Eden Restored in the first 5 verses of chapter 22.
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse.”
This passage is a combination of imagery from Ezekiel 47 and Genesis chapter 2. The river of the water of life is described in Ezekiel as flowing from the midst of the temple that makes abundant life flourish where-ever it flows. It is as though this river restores the life and joy of the original Eden. In verse 3 we are told that there will no longer be any curse. And this takes us back to the mythical garden of Eden where after Adam and Eve in disobedience to God eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they bring a curse upon themselves and also upon the whole of God’s creation. But in Revelation 22, we see that the curse of Genesis is now turned around and removed. And in the renewed Eden, in place of the tree that brought a curse upon them, there is instead the tree of life that brings healing to the nations.
This is all symbolic language, and I believe it is meant to point to the intuition in the heart of every human being that there is a realm or a spiritual dimension to life where there is a true refuge and a solace from the struggles, pain and turmoil of this world of birth and death in which we live.
There are some who suggest that Revelation 21 and 22 is ultimately not about the end of historical time at all. Rather the symbolism in these chapters speak of a mystical or spiritual union with the Divine so that even in this world it is possible that we can be in touch with a spiritual dimension to life in which we are so in touch with the infinite peace of God that the pain and struggles of this temporary life taken on a whole different perspective. It is like being in a traffic jam. When you're in the midst of it one can feel desperate and frantic. But if you were in an airplane looking down on that same traffic jam, it would look and feel completely different.
Whether it be in this life or the next, what Revelation 21 and 22 reminds us is that we were made for a life of union or communion with the Divine. That is our final destiny. It is the true meaning, purpose and consummation of life. As the writer of Ecclesiastes so poetically puts it: God has placed eternity in our hearts. And if it is eternity, the world of the spirit, that is our truest destiny, our truest meaning, and our truest purpose, then our hearts will never truly be fulfilled with anything less than that.
May we remember that this world of impermanence, this world of birth and death will never fulfil our hearts truest and deepest desires. Only the infinite life of God’s Spirit can do that. May we remember that our truest and deepest purpose will never be fulfilled by any temporary glory that a city in this world can offer. Our truest and deepest purpose and satisfaction in life will only be fulfilled by that which is Eternal that dimension to life that is beyond time, beyond birth, beyond death and which is symbolised by the eternal city, the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21. This is a promise not just for a future world. Even in this world, we can begin to see with the eyes of the New Creation, the New Heaven and the New Earth right here in our midst.
SERMON - Rev. Brian Moodie
Click Here if sermon video does not appear below
SERMON TEXT: The Fire and Brimstone of God's Love?
What is the real meaning of Fire and Brimstone?
Looking back over my life, I have come to realise that much of my early life had been lived with an underlying fear of hell. It seems strange to hear myself even say this, because I did not grow up in a conservative evangelical church where sermons of fire and brimstone were preached. Quite the contrary, I grew up in a church and under a minister who consistently preached of the wide embracing love of God. One of his most memorable statements I heard as a teenager was the following:
“There is nothing you can do that will make God love you any more than God loves you right now. And there is also nothing that you can do that will make God love you any less than God loves you right now!”
And if you hear me quoting time and again from Matthew 5 about God’s love that shines on good and bad alike, then it is almost certain that you are hearing the preaching of the Rev. Ray Light echoing down the years through my own preaching today.
And yet despite this, there was still a deep fear of hell and separation from God, the source of love.
This underlying fear of hell perhaps became most pronounced in my life when at the age of around 21 in the late 90’s I slipped into quite a deep depression. I was becoming aware of the injustices of Apartheid South Africa, and that I had grown up in a life of relative privilege and that in effect my privileged existence as a young white South African had largely been built on the foundations of systemic injustice and oppression. Not only that, but I had also recently read a book on ecology that highlighted the looming environmental crisis and which highlighted how our modern industrialised life-style was destroying the planet and God’s beautiful creation.
In short, what I had come to realise at the age of 21 was that sin is not just personal. There is a societal, communal and structural dimension to sin. And here it was that I began to discover that separating myself from sin was not as easy as I thought. There were ongoing sins of injustice that I was a part of that I had little to no control over and yet which I continued to benefit from.
And so it was that I found myself in a spiritual crisis that led me to fall into quite a deep and lasting depression and existential crisis. And it was perhaps only looking back on that experience a decade or so later that I realised that underlying that existential crisis, and underlying that depression was a fear of hell the fear of eternal alienation and rejection by God.
About 10 years ago, I read a book by a psychiatrist who was working with a young Christian woman who was dealing with debilitating mental health issues. Her life had become a living hell of anguish and anxiety. And at the core of the problem he discovered was a deep fear of hell and rejection by God that had made her inner world a living hell of anguish.
I have began to see that this fear of hell and fear of being rejected by God is perhaps far more wide-spread, that there are many others who live half unconscionably with this fear.
This week I saw on the internet a psychological study that suggests that a belief in hell as a super-natural place of eternal punishment, or alienation from God, does have the benefit of creating lower national crime rates, but it also comes with a dark shadow. Studies also suggest that a fear of hell is consistently associated with lower happiness, lower life satisfaction, lower self-esteem, lower psychological coping and lower health resilience.
And all of this brings us to the lake of Fire and Brimstone or the lake of burning sulphur in Revelation 20. More than any other passage in the Bible, Revelation 20 has fed the popular imagination with the image and the deep fear of being hurled into a burning in hell for all eternity.
Today I would like to invite all of us to hopefully see this passage in a whole new light, because I believe that when you look more closely at the symbolism and imagery of this passage, you will see some very interesting things:
The first interesting thing we see is the description of burning sulphur. In older translations like the King James and the Geneva Bible it was translated a brimstone. Brimstone is and old English short-hand for burning stone, and it referred to burning sulphur. What is interesting about burning sulphur is that in ancient times burning sulphur was believed to be able to ward of disease and contagion. And so sulphur would have been used for purifying purposes to purify something.
It raises the question, is the lake of burning sulphur, not a place or a symbol of eternal punishment at all, but rather a place or a symbol of purification?
Secondly, the Greek word theion that is translated as brimstone or burning sulphur is a fascinating one. Theion is closely related to the Greek for theios meaning divinity. And the Greek word theios in turn comes from the root word Theos meaning God. If one were to look at the more literal meaning of the word theion, it is a noun that would more literally mean ‘the substance or the stuff of God’.
The burning lake of fire is made up of God-stuff. And so when we read that the Devil and the beast and all those whose names are not written into the Book of Life are thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, it could also be interpreted to mean symbolically, that they are thrown into the fire of God’s substance or the fire of God’s essence. And what is the essence of God? According to John’s epistle, God’s essence is ultimately love (1 John 4:4).
Is it possible that the lake of burning sulphur at the end of Revelation is not the fire of eternal punishment, but rather the purifying fire of God’s love? And the purpose of that purifying fire of God’s love is not to torture those who are thrown into it, but rather to burn away all that is not love within us.
Near the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus is described with two words: grace and truth. It is a reminder that there is no grace or love without truth also. To be thrown into the fire of God’s purifying love is also an encounter with the searing truth of our sin, selfishness and darkness.
One of the most painful things many of us experience in this life, apart from the pain of grief, is the pain of truth, seeing ourselves as we really are. It is one of the most painful things to stand up and be honest and to apologise when we know we have done something wrong. We like to project the best version of ourselves to the world, and try to hide the darker parts even from ourselves.
Last week Wendy and I watched the last two episodes of the BBC drama series called Time, set in a prison in the north of England. Apart from the difficulties of prison life, what the TV series reveals is that perhaps the most painful and difficult thing that many prisoners experience is the pain of owning up to and admitting the truth of what they have done. For one of the prisoners in the series, it is so painful that he slides into the downward spiral of drug abuse to cover up the searing pain of the truth.
Is it possible that part of the searing pain of being thrown into the fire of God’s love is that it will ultimately require us to see the truth about ourselves and what we have done, because you cannot be purified and cleansed of those things that you cannot admit. Even the Greek word which is sometimes translated as torture and sometimes as torment in verse 10 comes from the root word to examine.
Being thrown into the fire of the substance of God’s love can be a painful experience, not because it is meant to torture and punish us, but because of how painful it is to see, acknowledge and admit our sin, in order that it might finally be burned away forever and ever.
Thirdly, isn’t is fascinating that death and hades are also thrown into the fire of burning brimstone.
For the apostle Paul, death was regarded as the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor 15:26). But for the Apostle Paul, death was more than a physical process; it is also a spiritual condition which included everything that separates us from union with God. “This is the second death” of Revelation 20:14. It is the death of death itself and thus the death of all that separates us from God. It is the promise of the new heaven and the new earth of Rev 21 - “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. And death will be no more.”
But along with death, hades is also thrown into the fire. Hades in ancient cosmology was the place of the dead but it was also a word used by Jews to refer to hell. What we see in Revelation is the “Death of death and hell’s destruction” as we sing in the popular hymn. It suggests that God’s intention is that no-one should be trapped in places of spiritual death and hell for eternity. All forms of death and hell are to be destroyed in the fire of God’s love. In the end, even the hell of our own guilt and shame and our own struggle to forgive ourselves will be burned away until only God’s tender love and mercy will remain.
And now I would like to end with what for me is perhaps the most important part of the book of Revelation, and the most profound end to the whole Bible:
It is often missed, a throw away verse tucked away at the end of the book of Revelation is a message of God’s ability to heal, transform and save even the most wicked and rebellious.
In Revelation 21:24, all the wicked kings of the earth, who made pacts with the Beast and waged war against Christ and the armies of heaven are welcomed and included into the New Jerusalem of God’s love. Far from being banished to a place of eternal punishment as we might have expected, the very kings of the earth who made pacts with the beast, and waged war against Christ, now, having been purified and cleansed in the fiery lake of God’s love, are also welcomed and included into the City of God.
And, if there is a place for the wicked kings of the earth in the New Jerusalem, there is surely also a place for you and for me.
I would like to end with a quote from Steven Gray also known as Adyashanti
“The perspective of love doesn’t leave anybody out. Love even loves those who don’t love. The only chance that those who don’t love have to change, is to come into contact with that love.”
SERMON- Rev. Brian Moodie
Click Here for Video
SERMON TEXT - Exploring Revelation Week 8 The Throne in Heaven
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?