A torrent of images to describe the indescribable

Stephen Adam, 24 February 2019

Revelation 4: 1–11; Luke 8: 22–25

This Sunday both our epistle and gospel are inundated with images. We have a torrent of them in the vision of St John the Divine in Revelation – trumpets, thrones, winged creatures and more. There’s an abundance of signs and symbols which stretch our imagination.

There’s no need – and perhaps it might even be a mistake – to try to ascribe exact meanings to every specific detail of what’s mentioned, as if there were a secret key to decode it all in detail. For St John is really using words to describe the indescribable; the language is bound to fall short before the all-powerful Creator God in whom we live and move and have our being – the God who was, and is and is to come.

We note that there is no personal picture or description of God. Instead the words convey a sense of sheer awe and wonder, boundless light illuminating every corner and before which no one and nothing is hidden or concealed. We can sense some of that glory of the Creator God around us, in all that is good or beautiful or noble – a creation imbued with love.

The Victorian art critic and historian John Ruskin saw the whole earth as sacred: ‘Wherever we are moved by the beauty and power of nature, God has let down a ladder for us from heaven’. In the words of Psalm 19, ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork’.

For me there’s one picture that speaks particularly powerfully when St John uses the imagery of a rainbow around the throne. There’s surely a conscious echo here of the rainbow that Noah saw after the waters subsided following the flood (Genesis 9: 8–17), a sign of God’s covenant love and faithfulness for his creation.

That word ‘covenant’ is a key word in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, where it occurs more than 250 times. No one put it more simply than the prophet Hosea, in words that Jews still say every weekday morning at the start of their prayers:

I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you to me in righteousness and justice, love and compassion.
I will betroth you to me in faithfulness,
and you shall know the Lord. [Hosea 2: 19–20]

Covenant is that bond of love and trust between God and his creation. It’s what allows us to face the future without fear, because we know we are not alone. The former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has remarked that the purest line of covenant says, ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me’.

Covenant is the giving of a pledge, a promise, it’s giving you my word. And for Christians in Jesus, literally the Word made flesh, we see that new covenant, that new promise of faithfulness, trust and love.

And so we turn to our gospel passage. It’s a familiar story of Jesus stilling the storm. It appears in both Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels too. Luke tells the story in just four short verses, but it speaks profoundly about faith and trust – or the lack of it.

Again images abound. The disciples are with Jesus in a boat; they’ve left their familiar surroundings and are going to the far side of the lake – Jesus’ first foray into Gentile land. They are going to a strange, alien place where they will be out of their depth. Perhaps the boat could symbolise us or the church, moving away from our safe and familiar surroundings, daring to do something new or different or demanding.

And then this boat is tossed in the storm on the sea, an image that goes to the very heart of our faith, and to the doubts and fears that most, if not all, of us will have at times in our lives.

The Jewish people were not a seafaring nation. For them the sea and storms were symbolic of chaos, the wild forces of nature that only God could tame. From the creation narrative in Genesis ‘when darkness covered the face of the deep’; to the account of the Exodus – the heart of Jewish faith and understanding – when the waters of the Red Sea were miraculously parted, allowing the Israelites to escape and engulfing the pursing Egyptian army; to the imagery in many of the Psalms; the sea represents chaos: the crushing, irresistible forces of disorder loose in the world, tossing us around and threatening to overwhelm us.

The storm is not easy for us to weather. It produces an elemental anxiety, that sense of deep helplessness and foreboding, that knot in the pit of your stomach, being at the mercy of events. You know what it’s like – life is going along nice and steadily, and then suddenly you’re knocked for six when something quite out of the blue happens.

The disciples find themselves just like that. Big storm, darkness, straining without success … and worse still, Jesus is with them but fast asleep! What a set-up to challenge faith! How can God be asleep? Is this a sign that in a crisis God really is powerless? Or that this almighty God could act on our behalf in the face of the shortcomings of his creation but simply can’t be bothered? Or is this whole Jesus business just a fantasy preventing us from facing up to the chaos in our lives?

How can God be asleep? Is this a sign that in a crisis God really is powerless? Or that this almighty God could act on our behalf in the face of the shortcomings of his creation but simply can’t be bothered?

And often we have those same recurring questions echoing without answer, challenging our faith. Why have you allowed this to happen, God? Why me? Where now? We try prayer, but are not sure if we have any answer.

That seeming silence, that questioning doubt, is well expressed by R. S. Thomas in his poem ‘Folk Tale’:

Prayers like gravel
            flung at the sky’s
window, hoping to attract
                        the loved one’s
attention. But without
            visible plaits to let
down for the believer
                        to climb up,
to what purpose open
            that far casement?
                        I would
have refrained long since
            but that peering once
through my locked fingers
I thought that I detected
            the movement of a curtain.

But Jesus asleep in the boat is the prelude to a revelation for the disciples. The power of the Creator God is revealed in him as he awakes and calms the storm, then questions the disciples, perhaps chides them: ‘Where is your faith?’

The gospel story speaks of calm, peace and reassurance after the storm. It would be nice to leave it there with this image of Jesus in control and the disciples – and us – having no need to worry – a tidy, simple sermon.

But life isn’t always like that. Life isn’t tidy. We may experience times or circumstances where we are no longer in control, no longer masters of our destiny. It may be the toll of advancing years, or frailty, or disability. We may find ourselves no longer active but instead dependent upon others. And that too raises big questions of faith and trust. Where is God when I am helpless?

But there is another image of Jesus which I find very helpful and which speaks powerfully here. Some 30 or more years ago the Anglican priest Bill Vanstone wrote a much-admired and influential spiritual classic entitled The Stature of Waiting. He sees the gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry in two distinct parts: an active, dynamic phase of preaching, healing and proclamation; and then a second phase, totally different, when he was at the mercy of others, in the agony of Gethsemane, when he was passive and became utterly vulnerable.

Vanstone suggests that it is here, in this vulnerability and powerlessness, in the Passion of our Lord, that we perceive the true glory of God – a God who exposes himself fully to our vulnerability, shares in our suffering and identifies himself with the depths of our human condition.

Different images of the God revealed in Christ, then, each perhaps resonating at different times with us in our life journey.

A prayer to conclude: may God bless us with peace to calm our hearts, strength to support our weakness, faith to drive away our despair, life to fill our loneliness, and hope to conquer doubt. Amen.