Significance in the Strange
After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’ At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.
Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,
‘Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.’
And whenever the living creatures give glory and honour and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,
‘You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honour and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.’
This mysterious book of Revelation begins simply enough: typical introductions and greetings and an intimate address to each of the churches – revealing that they are known and nurtured by the Creator. But now, things are starting to get weird. Strange creatures and fantastical scenes…in some ways meet our expectations of Revelation. But this scene of heaven, of God’s eternal reign over earth and all things, departs from other pop presentations that envision angels playing harps on clouds and ancestors from across the globe and throughout history gathered together and just milling around. It at once seems both more authentic and more surreal than such portrayals. Still, the scene feels at least a little bizarre, even disturbing, but I’m used to that…
Kindred is different and often is initially perceived as at least a little bizarre. When I tell people about who we are and how we are it sounds strange. Questions arise as to why we do thing the way we do. Why gather around tables rather than sit in pews? That’s seems weird. Why is communion dispersed with sharing bread at the beginning of worship and sharing the cup of wine at the end? But then I have the opportunity to speak to the significance of the strange. We gather around tables so that we can look each other in the eye and share our stories with each other. We share a meal, because we see throughout scripture that the shared meals are holy. We bless our cup at the end of our meal following Jesus’ example; “after supper, he took the cup, blessed it, and gave it for all to drink…”
Think of how strange communion anywhere must seem to someone who has no reference point for it. I mean, who drinks wine at 10am on a Sunday morning? And you’re telling me this is some guys blood, and we’re just all gonna drink it? And everyone’s just supposed to be cool with that? We know that things are not always what they seem at a superficial glance. It seems weird at times, but we’re kinda used to that…
After all, we have seen such visions before. We, the people of God, have seen such pictures reaching back to our prophets, reaching back in our history as far as creation. With this wider lens, remembering all of our story, of God’s story…we can unravel the layers of meaning tucked away into these images.
These words of John are indeed images, pictures…word pictures that pick up and play on understandings of old. We have similar word pictures throughout our culture. For instance, elephants and donkeys represent more than pack animals. We might call an arrogant or vain person a peacock. Eagles on a flag are more than a celebration of local wildlife. We have assigned them a meaning of freedom.
When you see the image of a lion….what do you think of?
These associations are at play here in Revelation. The throne room is described in terms of precious gems – jasper, carnelian, a rainbow like emerald…
Where have we seen these images before?
Exodus speaks of God’s glory as a sapphire…
From the prophet Ezekiel, we read in the first chapter “And above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne (sound familiar yet?), in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form. Upwards from what appeared like the loins I saw something like gleaming amber, something that looked like fire enclosed all round; and downwards from what looked like the loins I saw something that looked like fire, and there was a splendour all round. Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendour all round. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord (1:24-26).”
Revelation is continuing the story that goes at least as far back as Ezekiel.
Thrones upon thrones, bedazzled by jewels are one of the ways we know we’re talking about God’s reign. Flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder…
Where have we seen these images before?
They accompany the presence of God with the Israelites wandering through the wilderness and beyond, following a pillar of cloud of smoke, fire, thunder, and lightning.
So what does this setting tell us about the one who sits at the center of it? What does this environment make us feel? To me, it certainly casts a feeling of splendor, majesty, and power.
And around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. I was ok with the bedazzled throne room, but these animals kinda freak me out.
Where have we seen them before?
These creatures take us back to the garden of Eden, the dawn of creation where God creates every living thing – the birds of the air (perhaps like an eagle?), the animals of the earth both wild and domestic (perhaps like a lion and an ox), and humankind among them. All of God’s creatures, all of creation are represented together in this circle of divine grandeur. Not one is excluded or subjugated, not one is elevated or privileged above others, and not one is told to find their own way to the circle by pulling up their spiritual bootstraps. At the throne of God, all is rightly ordered, put in proper alignment, and centered on God. Their six wings are the same as we find with the Angels in Isaiah: "with two wings they covered theirs eyes, with two they covered there feet, and with two they flew." Being covered in eyes points to unending wake, the ultimate in being “woke,” the ability to be constantly aware of God’s glory and to truly pray and praise without ceasing. In this new creation, God’s creatures are all united and join the angels in their endless praise, singing “holy, holy, holy.”
Where do all these strange and fantastic symbols leave us? What do they reveal? From Genesis to the new genesis, it all points to this promised reality. The world is still tumultuous, to be sure, but there is nothing that can compare to God’s splendor, authority, and promise. Here we have a new vision, a new creation – one where God is centered and all creation is gathered in her presence and united in her praise. We see a book of Revelation and a God that is more about creation than destruction. Here the word of God is treasured not weaponized. When we turn God’s word into a weapon, when we clobber “others” with it (even when we’ve convinced ourselves we’re doing it “with love”), we make it about us, not God. But, here, in this vision…God is at the center.
Revelation is Good News, is Gospel, life-giving resurrection truth when it invites us together.
We live into this promise when we are focused on God and guided by God instead of the righteous gates we assume God wants us to guard, when we realize we have no need of our crowns and are freed to work together for justice and the dignity, the sacredness of all creation, all of God’s creatures, when we find ourselves stirred into exultant song.
And so we cling to this promise and we desperately await the day when it is revealed among us in its fullness. And until that day, we lean into this vision by working toward a creation marked with equality, centered on God, and joined together in joy. Revelation no longer seems so scary or strange, but wonderful. Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come. Amen.