The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
Print This Page

      16th February 2020


READINGS:
Psalm 148
Proverbs 8. 1, 22 - 31
Revelation 4
Tonight, the heavens are open. We have a glimpse of the true Authority over all creation, heaven and earth, and this authority carries a capital A. This divine Authority also carries a capital O. God in Revelation declares God’s self as the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. This is a deliberately paradoxical way of indicating eternity. God is not just the master and inventor of time, indeed all beginnings and endings, but utterly beyond time, changeless, eternal, and yet intimate, and ineffably tangible.
Time twists together our readings. In Proverbs, Wisdom speaks, and she says:
22The LORD created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
23Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
This is an account of a creative act before anything, before the creation narrative in Genesis with God’s iterations springing into action as day, night, animals, plants, and people. Wisdom is before it all, the first act before the first act, born of God’s own being, and being with God eternally. The Holy One, the Spirit of Truth, brought into life before the beginning of the earth, is with us still, holding our lives in love, moment by moment.
There is delight in Wisdom, too. Finding joy in others, not to seek to control the other nor expect the other to be like us, but to truly delight in the other, as other -  that is wisdom. As the theologian William Brown puts it, the character of wisdom inspires a wise delight rather than a distant solemnity. Wisdom’s followers are called to play as Wisdom plays. Consider this as a way towards humility, too. The spirit of wisdom knows that we can’t control everything, or everyone. Moreover, Terrence Fretheim sees Wisdom’s creative delight as a sign that ‘pleasure and playfulness are built into the very structure of things.’ Therefore, ‘Woman Wisdom [for Wisdom is indeed feminine in this text, with further connections to be made between Wisdom and the Holy Spirit] opens up the world rather than closes it down.” 
In Revelation, the moment by moment unfolding of the author’s experience of being shown wonders upon wonders gives the narrative a sense of pace and real drama. There is a sensation of being unable to take in all that’s being revealed, one layer of wild imagery upon another. The symbolism piles up to a deliberately overwhelming degree, from the whole of a sea beyond any sea, referencing the first moments of God creating heaven and earth, ocean and sky, with the Spirit hovering over the face of the deep, to the appearance of angelic creatures, flying, festooned with eyes, featuring animal characteristics both familiar and strange. That’s to say nothing of God’s own throne, a presence which indicates where all true leadership and authority come from. This is an expression, in a royal divine image, of that which is beyond imagining, and which brings life itself into being. Around the throne are four living creatures, who represent the created order. The creatures' faces are those of a wild and a domestic animal, a bird, and a human being. The one with the human face does not take the central place of God, but with all creation joins in praise of God. Strikingly familiar phrases from our liturgy are embedded within this passage of scripture. The ‘Holy, holy, holy’ is where our Eucharistic Sanctus originates. There truly is a door that opens onto heaven when we gather around the altar of God, so that we can become truly one in the Body and Blood of the Lamb, who is Christ our Lord. Much of the text that can become so familiar in worship, derived from biblical sources, leaps out at us in a fresh way when we can read it in slightly wider context.
Among history’s great writers, few approached scripture and culture with such freshness as Dante. The final section of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Paradiso, takes readers into heaven. Through its nine spheres, Dante encounters one saint after another, each with wisdom to share.
When questioned about God’s love by St John the Evangelist, Dante responds:
The leaves enleaving all the garden of
the Everlasting Gardener, I love
according to the good He gave to them.
This ninth sphere is called the Primum Mobile, the ‘first moved’ sphere, in which God’s movements of love enact and enable the perpetual movement of all spheres and all life within them. The Everlasting Gardner’s presence is finally revealed to Dante in the sphere of spheres, the heavenly light of God’s own being, within which Dante is subsumed as a radiant light beyond measure. This is the Empyrean. God’s dwelling.
Like sudden lightning scattering the spirits
of sight so that the eye is then too weak
to act on other things it would perceive,
such was the living light encircling me,
leaving me so enveloped by its veil
of radiance that I could see no thing.
The Love that calms this heaven always welcomes
into Itself with such a salutation,
to make the candle ready for its flame.
And, finally, with an epiphany so fleeting and yet so intuitively overflowing with pure truth:
But already my desire and my will
were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars. 
The heavens are open in our readings tonight. The perpetual movement of eternity in the Trinitarian divinity of God’s presence – on the throne, in the heart, in heaven, and on earth – takes us into the indescribable through the delicate and bold words of John the Divine’s first-century account of no less than earth, heaven, and everything. Over 1200 years later, Dante’s Divine Comedy takes readers through layers of hell, purgatory, and heaven, and in the final poetic lines, gives us an insightfully theological take on the unity of light, Love, and truth.
At the beginning of Revelation, the author’s vision is an earthly one. In tonight’s chapter, the author is taken to heaven, and shown no less than the throne of God. By the end of the Book of Revelation, all this, the images of earth and of the first heaven, pass away, to be replaced by the indwelling of God in a radically new way. The wide and glassy sea of tonight’s chapter of Revelation passes away. There is no more sea. There is something utterly new. And in this, finally, there will be no more death. No sorrow, no crying, no pain. But this is no abstract promise, in the vision the author offers. This is an experience of God’s presence that wipes away every tear from every eye. There is so much sorrow in every life. The One on the throne of heaven, surrounded by angels, and crowns, and glory, wipes every tear. This is done by, as Dante puts it, ‘the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.’

Print This Page


Sermons from previous years are here | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005