It is sometimes at the moment of deepest darkness that a light shines. It is at the moment of deepest despair, when everything seems to have collapsed, when nothing is right, that a light shines and there is a sense of a presence, the presence of God.
It was what many of those thirty-three Chilean miners experienced when after their rescue they spoke of a 34th member of their group. They had a sense of the presence of God with them. It will be moving when a group of us go to listen to one of them as he shares his story.
So many have stories to tell of the presence of God in the darkest of moments.
And yet, it is the very nature of the darkness that sometimes comes, that God is not present. The feeling is not there. The presence is not felt.
It is at that moment that the Bible comes into its own.
It is written by real people grappling with the problems of the real world who themselves experience periods of deep darkness.
Nowhere is that more true than in the writings of the great Mystics. They were among those with the most profound faith. And yet at the same time they experienced the deep darkness of desolation. It was through their visionary, mystic writings that they sensed the presence of God.
It has been special at the turn of the year to have a number of books published by people linked to Highbury. Graham Adams explored Christ and the Other, Jonathan Rowe explored the moral dilemma facing Michal in 1 Samuel, and Christina Monahar. Christina and her husband David have both studied for a doctorate at the University of Gloucestershire and live in Cheltenham. David works in the University and teaches Old Testament in Sheffield. Christina lives here for part of the year and goes over to India to her seminary in the remainder of the year. She has explored the way thinking of the Spirit of Christ is helpful in conversation and dialogue with Hinduism especially.
She has found herself focusing on the great Christian mystics in part because their experience of mysticism and of God speaks to those with similar experiences in Hinduism and in Islam. It is a delight to be reading her most recent book. The Knowledge of God in Mechthild of Magdeburg. It is moving to read an Indian Christian scholar encountering a German mystic writer of the 13th Century and discovering the light that dawns in such writing in the midst of darkness.
Dedicating the book to her mother, Christina comments
“This study was undertaken when I was going through a very difficult time in life. Each day as I sat in the library of the University of Gloucestershire, reflecting upon the ways of knowing God, Mechthild’s life and teachings reminded me once more that one needs to discover the continuing presence of the light in the midst of darkness.”
It is from those with this ‘mystic sense’ of the presence of God that we can learn most about discovering the light of God’s presence in the midst of darkness.
One of those people we know of as John, I think of him as John the Divine. Everything had collapsed about him. He lived in a very hostile world that had no time for people of faith. And as a person of faith, he was arrested and set into exile on the island of Patmos. There he heard tell of the cruel fate of many of this erstwhile friends. It seemed that God was far away.
It is in the deepest darkness that he has a sense of the presence of God with him that is so great he feels impelled to commit it to writing.
Some there are who see what he wrote as a blueprint for the end of the world. They have an explanation for the minutest details of every verse, every sentence, every phrase, every word of the book. It becomes simply a look into the future. And it is far from simple.
In almost every generation people have come taken a look at what he has written and said that’s the blueprint … you can see the end of the world is coming. And lo and behold in every detail they can see it coming to be now.
Others see it differently. I count myself among them. I think something else is going on in what John the Divine writes. He tells of the end times and of cataclysmic events not so that we have a detailed description of a single set of events that will happen in the far distant, or not so distant future.
Instead he has a sense of the presence of God in the here and now, in the middle of the darkness. He senses that this is a God against whom nothing can prevail. In his visions he sees something of the glory of the God who triumphs over all that is evil and he seeks to put down in words his sense of the presence of this God.
He tells larger than life stories about the end times in a way that speaks into every generation and tells of the wonder and the mystery and the awesome nature of the presence of God with us.
We pick up one of those visions in the words of Revelation 4.
I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open!
It’s what so many long for in the midst of the darkness. A moment when all is clear, when a door flies open and we can actually see into the presence of God.
As we read these words … it may be that we have had such a moment.
But it may be that we have not had such a moment of clarity.
Let’s listen to the experience of this person who grappled with fiath and believing in the face of the utmost horror. And let’s hear him speaking into our situation.
It may be that he is speaking to us who are all too aware of the horrors going on in the world around us. Of religious conflicts that we find difficult to understand and yet spill over threateningly into our world.
It may be that he is speaking to a very much more personal darkness that we have been catapulted into and feel in danger of being overwhelmed by.
Let’s accompany John the Divine through the door. What do we see?
There in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the thorne! And the one seated there looks like jasper, and cornelian and around the throne is … down to verse 6
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.’ 2At once I was in the spirit,* and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! 3And the one seated there looks like jasper and cornelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. 4Around 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. 5Coming 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; 6and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.
What can you see?
Some there are who want to explain every detail. A throne is the place for a king … the king of kings. Are the 24 elders the 12 sons of Jacob, the tribes of Israel and the 12 disciples of Christ – the old Israel and the New Israel combined into the one people of God spanning the whole world? Seven flaming torches – the sevenfold spirit of God – seven the perfect number of creation – the whole spectrum of the spirit of God. And the sea – no longer the stormy place of chaos but as still as glass, like crystal.
The imagery may suggest different things to you. But should we be looking for one meaning. Or is there mystery here. How do you picture the one sitting on the throne – jasper, cornelian. A rainbow that is emerald green? These are things impossible to picture. They conjure up an awesome mystery of God.
That awesome mystery of God deepens in the presence of four creatures. Do we have to identify each one or are they creatures from the whole of creation, from the four corners of the world.
And there in the presence of God there is nothing else for it but to sing Holy, holy holy.
As we step through the door into heaven … we are there to sense the mystery, the awesome nature of God’s presence.
And all we can do is to worship.
A sense of God.
Holy, holy, holy
Holy, holy, holy,the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.’ 9And 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, 10the 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, 11 ‘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
Can we not capture this.
Where does the door open for you. May it be up on the hills. In the quiet of your room. In reading poetry. Listening to music. Deep in prayer.
See through the door into the mystery of God … and simply worship.
Hymn: Holy, holy, holy.
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!
Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Who was, and is, and evermore shall be.
Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide Thee,
Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see;
Only Thou art holy; there is none beside Thee,
Perfect in pow’r, in love, and purity.
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All Thy works shall praise Thy Name, in earth, and sky, and sea;
Holy, holy, holy; merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity
But for John the divine the mystery is not the end of it.
He senses that this God in all his awesome majesty wants to share himself with us. He wants to disclose to us the secret of life, the secret of his own presence.
5Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed* with seven seals; 2and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’ 3And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. 4And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. 5Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’
6 Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slain …
What’s the scroll? All sorts of things it can speak of. The secret to life and everything.
But I have come to read this passage at the start of this year of the Bible. I find myself hearing these words in quite a specific way.
What is contained in a scroll – it is the words of Scripture.
Is this a wonderful picture of our God.
In his awesomeness he wants to disclose himself to us, reveal himself to us. And it is in the words of Scripture that we find his message.
And this is the experience of so many.
It is impossible to read the Scroll.
The scriptures are impossible to understand.
We cannot make sense of them.
And we weep. We are so close. It would be wonderful to find their meaning. But we cannot. We weep bitter tears.
Then one of the elders said, Do not weep.
See the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David has conquered …
We are on sure ground now. Who is of the root of David. Who has conquered and won a victory? It is Jesus Christ. We look to him. The Great Lion. And what do we see … a lamb?
One of the best ways to read Revelation is to read it as part of your devotions at night and to read the Narnia Chronicles at bedtime! Think Aslan, Lion, a door that opens, and a Lion that becomes a Lamb!
It is the Lamb that can open the scroll.
This is the conviction that I have and I think the key to opening the Scriptures.
Realise that Jesus Christ is at the heart of the Scriptures. It’s what we are doing from next Sunday evening in our evening services as we use Jesus as a guide to open up the Scriptures of the Old Testament.
It’s great if a door opens for us when we are in that deep darkness … but sometimes it doesn’t.
It’s great to hear other people’s stories. But sometimes they don’t help.
Let’s take a leaf out of John’s book and in our mind’s eye see through the door that opened into heaven for him. And let’.s sense the mystery and awesome majesty of God.
But more than that – let’s realise that this God has something to say to us. Let’s turn again to the Bible. And let’s use Jesus to open it up for us so that we can hear it speaking to us.
He is the one that openeth the window, to let in the light,
Jesus is the one
"that openeth the window,
to let in the light,"
Let your light so shine in my heart
as I read the words of Scripture
that I may see your Word
in those words
and discover it to be
a lamp unto my feet and
a light unto my path.
This sermon is the first in a series of sermons for the Year of the Bible drawing on words from Myles Smith in the Preface to the Authorised Version.