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The Four Creatures of Revelation – The Right Rev’d Dr Tom Butler

 

IT’S VERY GOOD TO BE WITH YOU THIS EVENING TO SHARE YOUR WORSHIP IN THIS REMARKABLE COLLEGE CHAPEL WITH ITS ORNATE DECORATIONS.

I WAS INTERESTED TO LEARN THAT DURING ITS REDECORATION IN 1864 THE FOUR GUILDED STAUES OF THE EVANGELISTS IN EACH CORNER CAUSED A GREAT DEAL OF CONTROVERSY, THE COLLEGE LIBRARIAN DENOUNCING THEM AS IDOLATROUS, WHILST OTHERS SAW THEM AS ABOMINATIONS. WELL, FORTUNATELY THEY SURVIVED AND SINCE THE RESTORATION IN 2001 WE CAN SEE THEM IN ALL THERE GLORY.

THE FOUR CREATURES TRADITIONALLY REPRESENTING THE FOUR EVANGELISTS ARE A LION, AN OX, A CREATURE WITH A HUMAN FACE AND A FLYING EAGLE AND THEY’RE TAKEN FROM THE FOURTH CHAPTER OF THE LAST BOOK IN THE BIBLE, THE REVELATION TO ST JOHN., WHERE THOSE FOUR CREATURES ARE AROUND THE THRONE OF THE LAMB IN HEAVEN ENGAGED IN CEASELESS WORSHIP.

IT SEEMS TO ME THAT IF THOSE FOUR CREATURES ARE REPRESENTED IN THE WORSHIPPING HEAVENLYHOST, THEY ARE PROBABLY TO BE FOUND IN THE WORSHIPPING CONGREGATION HERE ON EARTH, PERHAPS EVEN AMONGST THOSE WORSHIPPING HERE THIS EVENING.

LET’S GIVE THEM A LITTLE MORE THOUGHT. FIRST THERE ARE THE LIONS – I ASSOCIATE THE QUALITY OF FIERCE COURAGE WITH THEM. THEY ARE THE STRONG FIGHTERS OF THE JUNGLE. JESUS COULD BE AS FIERCE AS A LION. FOR EXAMPLE HE COULDN’T ABIDE HYPOCRISY. WHITE WASHED TOMBS HE CALLED THE PHARISEES – THEY SAID ONE THING & DID ANOTHER.

HE ANGRILY CONFRONTED THOSE WHO WOULD STONE A WOMAN TO DEATH. HE WOULDN’T BEND BEFORE THE QUESTIONING OF THE CHIEF PRIESTS & PILATE, & SO THIS LION OF JUDAH WENT TO HIS DEATH BATTERED BUT UNBOWED.

THERE HAVE BEEN MANY LIONS IN THE WORLDWIDE CHURCH WHO FIGHT AFTER RIGHTEOUSNESS. FOR EXAMPLE DESMOND TUTU WHO FOUGHT TO END APARTHEID. CHRISTIANS WHO SACRIFICED THEIR LIVES TO SEE AN END TO THE TYRANNY OF COMMUNISM. CHRISTIANS WHO STRUGGLEE FOR JUSTICE IN THE BASE COMMUNITIES OF LATIN AMERICA.

THEN THERE ARE THE CHRISTIAN LIONS FIGHTING TO MAKE POVERTY HISTORY OR SEEKING JUSTICE FOR THE PEOPLE OF DARFUR AND ZIMBABWE.

THERE ARE MANY LIONS ENGAGED IN FURIOUS FIGHTS IN SOME OF THE ISSUES IN THE CHURCH TODAY – THE BATTLE TO SEE AN END TO DISCRIMINATION BETWEEN WOMEN AND MEN IN THE MINISTRY OF THE CHURCH AND BRING THE ORDINATION OF WOMEN AS BISHOPS.

SOMETIMES THE BATTLES ARE TERRIFYING AS LIONS FIGHTING FOR THE RIGHTS OF GAY PEOPLE ENGAGE WITH OTHER LIONS FIGHTING TO DEFEND, AS THEY SEE IT, THE CLEAR BIBLICAL TEACHING. THE RORING AND THREATS ARE SOMETIMES TERRIBLE, BUT FORTUNATELY WITH LIONS, AS WITH DOGS, THE BARK IS SOMETIMES WORSE THAN THE BITE.

WE HAVE OUR LIONS THEN, & I THANK GOD FOR THEIR COURAGE. THEY’RE NOT OF COURSE ALWAYS THE MOST REASONABLE OR COMFORTABLE OF PEOPLE. THE PROPHET ISIAH HAD A VISION OF THE COMING KINGDOM WHEN, HE WROTE THE LION WOULD LIE DOWN WITH THE LAMB. ONE RABBI COMMENTED, PERHAPS, BUT IF SO THEN I DON’T THINK THE LAMB WILL GET A VERY GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP – & NEITHER DO THE FELLOW XNS OF THE LIONS IN TODAY’S CHURCH – BUT THEN WE SHOULDN’T EXPECT SLEEP WHEN WE COME TO CHURCH.

I RATHER LIKE THE ACCOUNT OF FIELD MARSHAL MONTGOMERY’S VISIT TO A SCHOOL IN MY DIOCESE JUST AFTER THE WAR HAD ENDED. HE TOLD THE BOYS, “MY JOB IS FIGTHING. FIGHTING THE GERMANS OR FIGHTING ANYONE WHO WANTS A FIGHT.” PERHAPS, BUT WHAT WE IN THE CHURCH HAVE TO LEARN OF COURSE IT NOT TO SPEND ALL OUR TIME FIGHTING WITH ONE ANOTHER, BUT TO FIGHT INJUSTICE & OPPRESSION IN THE WORLD AROUND, AND TO FIGHT SIN & HYPOCRISY WITHIN OUR OWN HEARTS.

THE LION THEN IS THE FIRST OR YOUR GUILDED CREATURES FROM REVELATION & THE SECOND IS THE OX. THE OX HAS A GREAT CAPACITY FOR HARD WORK. IT’S THE TRACTOR OF THE DEVELOPING WORLD. IT CAN GO ON GOING ON, HOUR AFTER HOUR, DAY AFTER DAY, DRIVING THE WATER PUMPS, PULLING THE PLOUGHS WHICH TURN OVER THE NEW GROUND.

THE OX IS SO IMPORTANT THAT IT JUST MADE IT INTO 10 COMMANDMENTS. “THOU SHALT NOT COVET THY NEIGHBOURS HOUSE, OR WIFE, OR SERVANT OR OX.”

INDEED ONE OF THE EXCUSES OF THE PROSPECTIVE GUESTS IN J’S OPARABLE OF THE MAN THROWING A DINNER WAS, “I’VE JUST BOUGHT A TEAM OF OXEN & MUSTY GO & TRY THEM OUT. SORRY I CAN’T COME TO DINNER. J’S HEARERS WOULD HAVE WELL UNDERSTOOD. OF COURSE THE OX MUST TAKE PRIORITY. THE HARD WORK OF THE OX WAS THE ENGINE OF LIFE IN BIBLICAL TIMES.

JESUS OFTEN WORKED AS HARD AS ANY OX, TEACHING & HEALING THE CROWDS WHO NEVER GREW LESS, & EACH OF YOU MUST HAVE SOMETHING OF THE OX IN YOU BECAUSE YOU MUST HAVE WORKED LONG AND HARD TO GET HERE, AND LIFE AT OXFORD WITH ALL ITS STIMULATION AND FUN ALSO CONTAINS A GREAT DEAL OF HARD ACADEMIC GRIND.

CHRISTIANS WHO’RE PREPARED TO WORK LONG AND HARD WITH LOYALTY & DEDICATION ARE THE BACKBONE OF ANY CHURCH & THIS CHAPEL COMMUNITY NEEDS A GOOD NUMBER OF THOSE PREPARED TO BEAR BURDENS & RESPONSIBILITIES FOR THE COMMON GOOD.

CHRISTIANS WHO WORK LIKE OXEN FOR GOD’S CH & GOD’S WORLD HAVE THEIR HEROINES LIKE MOTHER TERESA CARING FOR THE DYING ON THE STREETS OF CALCUTTA. “I WOULND’T DO THAT WORK FOR A MILLION POUNDS “A VISITOR SAID TO HER. NEITHER WOULD I SHE REPLIED. CHRISTIAN OXEN DON’T WORK FOR THE MONEY, BUT FOR THE LOVE OF THEIR LORD & COMPASSION FOR THEIR NEIGHBOUR.

IT’S A HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS AGO THAT DAVID LIVINGSTONE GAVE TWO ROUSISNG LECTURES AT THE UNIVERSITIES OF OXFORD AND CAMBRIDGE CHALLENGING PEOPLE TO FOLLOW HIM TO AFRICA TO HELP HEAL ITS SORES AND BRING THE GOSPEL OF CHRIST TO AN ENSLAVED PEOPLE.

MANY HEEDED THE CALL, AND AT GREAT PERSONAL COST. AT ONE TIME I WAS CHAPLAIN TO THE UNIVERSITY OF KENT AT CANTERBURY AND WHENEVER MY SPIRITS SAGGED, I USED TO POP INTO S. AUGUSTINE’S COLLEGE AND SIT IN THE CRYPT CHAPEL. ST AUGUSTINE’S USED TO BE THE MISSIONARY COLLEGE OF THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND, THE PLACE WHERE MANY OF THOSE VICTORIAN MISSIONARIES PREPARED FOR THEIR MINISTRY.

THE WALLS OF THE CRYPT CHAPEL TODAY ARE STILL COVERED IN PLAQUES COMMEMORATING THOSE WHO HAD GONE OVERSEAS. EACH PLAAQUE BEARS A NAME AND TWO DATES – A DATE OF DEPARTURE AND A DATE OF DEATH, AND IT’S AN UNUSUAL PLAQUE FOR THOSE TWO DATES TO BE SEPARATED BY MORE THAN 5 OR 6 YEARS.

IT MAY BE FASHIONABLE TO CRITICISE THOSE MISSIONARIES WITH THEIR CULTURAL PREJUDICES AND DOGMATIC ATTITUDES, BUT THEY WERE PEOPLE OF GREAT FAITH AND COMMITMENT. THEY PRAYED EACH MORNING DURING THEIR TIME OF PREPARATION SURROUNDED BY MANY OF THOSE MEMORIALS. THEY KNEW THAT THEY WERE GOING TO ALMOST CERTAIN DEATH AND YET THEY WENT, CONFIDENT IN THE LOVE OF GOD AND THE POWER OF CHRIST’S GOSPEL. WE MIGHT CRITICISE THEIR CULTURAL IMPERIALISM, BUT THERE’S NO DENYING THEIR COURAGE AND CONVICTION. CHRISTIAN OXEN WORKING HARD AND TIRELESSLY FOR WHAT THEY PERCEIVED TO BE THE COMMON GOOD OF GOD’S CHURCH AND WORLD.

IF THE FIRST GUILDED CREATURE IN S JOHN’S VISION IS THE OXEN AND THE SECOND THE OX, THE THIRD IS THE CREATURE WITH THE HUMAN FACE. I LIKE TO INTERPRET THAT AS THE CAPACITY FOR INTELLIGENT LOVING. TRADITIONALLY THE AUTHOR OF OUR GOSPEL READING THIS EVENING, S. MATTHEW IS REPRESENTED BY THE CREATURE WITH THE HUMAN FACE AND THAT’S APPROPRIATE FOR MATTHEW PRESENSTS A JESUS WHOSE HEART AND HEAD LIE WITH THE MISSION OF TEACHING AND HEALING – IMAGINATIVE PARABLES CAPTURING THE HEAD AND MOVING THE HEART, GENTLE TOUCHES BRING HEALING TO BROKEN LIVES – INTELLIGENT LOVING.

ANY CHURCH NEEDS MEMBERS WITH THIS CAPACITY FOR INTELLIGENT LOVING. I LIKE THE STORY TOLD BY THE ARCHBISHOP OF YOR, JOHN SENTAMU, BEFORE ORDINATION HE WAS A HIGH COURT JUDGE IN UGANDA DURING THE REIGN OF IDI AMIN & LIKE MANY OF HIS FELLOW COUNTRYMEN JOHN WAS IMPRISONED & BEATEN. HE WAS AT THE POINT OF DEATH, INDEED HE REPORTS THAT HE ONLY WANTED TO DIE.

IDI AMIN HAD FALLEN OUT WITH THE ANGLICAN CH & SO JOHN WAS VISITED IN HIS CELL BY A ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST WHO WAS ALLOWED INTO THE PRISON. NOW AT THAT TIME RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN THE ANGLICAN CH OF UGANDA & THE RC CHURCH WERE NOT CLOSE, THE CHURCHES OFFICIALLY HAD LITTLE CONTACT WITH EACH OTHER.

JOHN WAS STAGGERED THEN, WHEN THE ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST OFFERED HIM HOLY COMMUNION. “BUT FATHER YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO DO THAT I’M NOT A CATHOLIC, I’M AN ANGLICAN” HE TOLD HIM. “NEVER MIND, EAT IT” THE PRIEST REPLIED, “IT WILL DO YOU GOOD” & EAT IT JOHN DID, & IT DID DO HIM GOOD, IT WAS AN ACT OF HOLY COMMUNION, HOLY CONNECTION. IT CONNECTED JOH WITH THE WORLD OF SUFFERING HUMANITY IN THE GAOL. IT CONNECTED HIM WITH THE WORLD OF CARING HUMANITY OUTSIDE THE GAOL. IT CONNECTED HIM WITH THE WHOLE CH OF JX WORLD WIDE, HISTORY ONLY. JOHN MAINTAINS THAT THAT ACT OF XN KINDNESS ON THE PART OF THE PRIEST SAVED HIS LIFE. THEOLOGICAL NICETIES APART, THE CHURCH IS OFTEN CALLED TO FOLLOW THE EXAMPLE OF THE CREATURE WITH A HUMAN FACE. THE EXAMPLE OF INTELLIGENT LOVE.

THERE IS OF COURSE BOTH KINDNESS OF HEART & KINDNESS OF HEAD. KINDNESS OF HEART PLUMPS THE PILLOW OF THE SICK PERSON. KINDNESS OF HEAD ASKS ‘WHAT HAS CAUSED THE SICKNESS” KINDNESS OF HEAD IS AT THE ROOT OF THE NEW HUMANAITY – THE HUMAN CAPACITY FOR INTELLIGENT LOVING – THE CREATURE WITH THE HUMAN FACE.

THE LION, THE OX, THE CREATURE WITH THE HUMAN FACE, THEN FINALLY IN HIS VISION OF HEAVEN S JOHN SAW THE FLYING EAGLE. SOARING INTO THE AIR, GETTING, AS IT WERE A GOD’S EYE VIEW OF THE WORLD BELOW. AND THE FLYING

THE EAGLE, I’M TOLD, HAS A NATURALLY BIFOCAL EYE. IT CAN AT THE SAME TIME HAVE A WIDE VISION TAKING IN THE WHOLE SCENE, & IN THE CENTRE OF ITS EYE ARE A BUNDLE OF CELLS WHICH ENABLE THE EAGLE TO FOCUS ON THE PARTICULAR, THE LOCAL. THE EAGLE CAN SEE THE SLIGHTEST MOVEMENT OF THE SMALLEST MOUSE ON THE WIDE EARTH BELOW.

JESUSA CHRIST HAD A COSMIC VISION. HE KNEW THAT HE WAS ENGAGED IN A TIMELESS CRUSADE AGAIST THE FORCES OF SIN & EVIL, HE WEPT OVER JERUSALEM AS HE SAW THE WAVE OF HISTORY COMING TO SWEEP IT’S LIFE & ITS TEMPLE AWAY. HE HAD A WIDE VIEW OF EVENTS & YET AT THE SAME TIME NOT A SPARROW IN THE MARKET PLACE ESCAPED HIS ATTENTION.

IN THE CRUSH OF THE CROWD HE KNEW THAT AN INDIVIDUAL IN DEED NEED HAD TOUCHED HIM. NOBODY ESCAPES HIS NOTICE & CARE FOR IN THE EYES OF J EACH ONE OF US IS SPECIAL.

THE CHURCH STILL HAS ITS VISIONARIES, THOSE WHO NOT ONLY SEE THE WORLD AS IT IS, BUT HOW IT MIGHT BE WHEN TRANSFORMED BY THE GRACE OF GOD.

OUR GOSPEL READING FROM THE FIFTH CHAPTER OF ST MATTHEW SPELLS OUT THE KIND OF COMMUNITY THE EARLY CHURCH WAS CALLED TO BE. PEOPLE WHO WERE VISIONARIES STANDING OUT FROM, AND ABOVE THE WORLD AROUND – THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD LIKE A CITY ON A HILL, PROUD OF ITS DISTINCTIVE LIFE, SALT OF THE WORLD BRINGING FLAVOUR AND TO ALL LIFE – ENHANCING WHAT IS GOOD, AND COMBATTING THE POISONESS.

VISIONARIES ARE NOT IN SHORT SUPPLY IN TODAY’S WORLD AND CHURCH. THERE ARE THOSE CONCERNED WITH CLIMATE CHANGE AND CHALLENGING US TO REUCE OUR CAPRBON FOOTPRINT IF FUTURE GENERATIONS ARE TO HAVE WHOLE LIVES. THERE ARE THOSE RISING ABOVE GLOBALISATION AND SEEKING TO REPRESENT DIFFERENT AND WHAT THEY BELIEVE TO BE BETTER VALUES.

VISIONARIES ARE EVER NECESSARY IF THE WORLD IS TO MOVE ON, BUT THEY CAN BE DANGEROUS PEOPLE TO BE AROUND, FOR ALTHOUGH THEY ARE STRONG ON VISION THEY SOMETIMES ARE WEAK ON DETAIL.

WHEN DEAVID LIVINGSTONE CALLED THE UNDERGRADUATES OF OXFORD AND CAMBRIDGE TO FOLLOW HIM INTO THE HEART OF AFRICA HE HAD A VISION OF A STEAM BOAT DRIVING UP THE ZAMBIEZI INTO THE HEART OF AFRICA, THERE ESTABLISHING COMMERCIAL ESTATES AND PLANTING CHRISTIAN SCHOOLS, HOSPITALS AND CHURCHES. HE OMITTED TO DISCOVER THAT IN FACT THE GREAT RIVER WAS BLOCKED BY FIERCE UNNAVIGATABLE RAPIDS, AND SO THE EXPIDITION HAD TO TAKE A QUITE DIFFERENT DIRECTION, THE COMMERCIAL ESTATES WERE FORGOTTEN, AND A CHRISTIAN SETTLEMENT WAS LEFT TO ITS OWN RESOURCES WHILST LIVINGSTONE SET OFF IN A VISIONARY PURSUIT FOR THE SOURCE OF THE NILE.

VIRUTALLY ALL THE FIRST MISSIONARIES DIED OF DISEASE, PRECOMINATELY MALARIA AND THE BASE WAS SOON ABANDONED, MUCH TO LIVINGSTONE’S FURY, AND A FRESH START WAS MADE AT THE COAST AT ZANZIBAR.

HAD HISTORY STOPPED AT THAT POINT THE STORY OF LIVINGSTONE’S VISION WOULD HAVE ENDED IN TOTAL FAILURE, YET AFTER HIS DEATH MUCH OF THE VISION HE’S HELD CAME TO FRUITION – THE END OF SLAVERY, CHRISTIAN MISSIONS PLANTED THROUGHOUT CENTRAL AFRICA. AS CHRISTIAN CREATURES WITH A HUMAN FACE WITH A CAPACITY FOR INTELLIGENT LOVING PLANNED CAREFULLY AND WELL, AND WERE JOINED BY HARD WORKING CHRISTIAN OXEN, DOCTORS, NURSES, TEACHERS, PRIESTS WHO WERE PREPARED TO GIVE YEARS OF THERE LIFE IN TURNING VISION INTO REALITY.

AND THE PARABLE – WE NEED ONE ANOTHER IN CHURCH AND WORLD IF THE CHURCH IS TO BE AN AGENCY WHICH HONOURS GOD’S LOVE AND VISION AND THE WORLD IS TO BE CHANGED.

SO DEAR BROTHERS & SISTERS IN CHRIST, PASSIONATE LIONS, HARD WORKING OXEN, INTELLIGENT HUMAN BEINGS, VISIONARY EAGLES, GO ON WITH THE WORK WHICH YOU HAVE BEGUN, AND AS YOU GO, REJOICE THAT TOGETHER, LIKE THE FOUR CREATURES IN HEAVEN, YOU CAN WORSHIP TOGETHER AROUND THE THRONE OF GOD’S GRACE, SINGING, HOLY, HOLY, HOLY IS GOD, THE SOVERIEGN LORD OF ALL, WHO WAS, AND IS, AND IS TO COME.

IN THE NAME OF THAT HOLY GOD BE ALL HONOUR & GLORY, WORSHIP & POWER, NOW & FOREVER. AMEN.

Rt. Rev’d Dr. Tom Butler, Bishop of Southwark
7th October 2007