Full of Eyes
January 23, 2022 Rev. Drew Stockstill
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 honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,
“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.
In those days, it seems life revolved around church. Perhaps it was because it was a small town in South Georgia, in the early days of the internet, before smart phones, and weekend sports dominated the lives of many youth, but it seems the central role of the church in life held on longer there. Our family was at church multiple times a week, and I loved it. Sundays at church began early with a breakfast prepared by the deacons every week: cheese grits, sausage, eggs, and monkey bread when Mrs. Jones was on duty. Our family of 10 took up two long tables pushed together in the fellowship hall. Mom made sure I shook hands and gave hugs to the older adults who took a genuine interest in my life. After our big church family breakfast our family would spread out around the church to our various Sunday School classes, one for each age. Then at 11:00 we’d come back together for the church service. Later, on Sundays, I’d be back at 4:00 for Youth Choir practice followed by youth group and supper.
Then on Wednesdays we’d be back at church for Family Night Supper. After supper there was a program for the adults taught by the Senior Pastor, and age appropriate programs for the kids. My folks had to enjoy that three full meals each week were handled by the church. They kept us well fed. And I loved it. It was where my best friends were, where my faith was fed as much as my stomach, where I came to see family as more than those I lived with. I wanted to be there every time the doors opened. And so that’s where I was when the Youth Pastor was talking about what heaven would be like. He said, it will be like church all the time, which sounded pretty good to me. “Yes,” he said, “It will be like a never-ending church service: praise and worship of God, without ceasing for all eternity.”
Wait. Church service? That doesn’t end?
See, for me all that time I spent at church, that one hour of worship on Sunday morning, that was the price of admission. That was the part I accepted as necessary in order to get the good stuff – the community, the friends, the games, the bible studies, the flirting, the food. Eternity of that sounded good to me, but I thought our church services were long enough. How could I endure that forever? That, sitting still and listening, standing and singing, sitting, waiting, that didn’t really sound like heaven to me as a kid.
But here, in Revelation, St. John the Revelator has confirmed it with his vision: the door to the sanctuary stands open and he hears that familiar voice, the one like a trumpet and when he pokes his head inside… well it might as well have been the organ calling, and the saints of First Presbyterian, Thomasville, GA, lined up in packed pews, dressed in their Sunday best, blue hymnals proudly open, all “in the Spirit,” belting out “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!”…forever.
It was this I imagined would greet me when I died, and go on without ceasing. Now, at this point in my life, in this role, I have different feelings about that then I did as a kid. Now, I know, for example, that it was these people from church coming together to worship God that was at the very heart of all that I loved about church. When I was a child it made sense that in some way I viewed myself at the center of my time at church, but for that one hour my desires were not what was being served, God was. What I wanted – food, playing, hanging out with friends, cooler music – was not the primary objective. I was not the center of worship, God was. And it was from that worship that all that I loved about church flowed. I joined the elders, and the kids learning the old hymns, the prayers, little by little growing in my faith and understanding of God. It was for the love of God that these people came together, grew into a holy family, welcomed children, found joy in providing meals and games and fellowship for them. God is at the center for that one hour, once a week. But what that youth pastor was trying to tell us is that in heaven, what John sees in his dream, God is in God’s rightful place, the center of our attention, our lives, our worship at all times, forever and ever.
The church in the western world today is experiencing declining membership not because there is something particularly wrong with our worship of God, but because our society has now come to expect that it is the individual who is the center of the universe. As a culture, we have been finally so thoroughly marketed to that we believe it is our wants and desires that should be at all times the center of attention. Want a meal? Pick up your phone and we’ll bring it to your house. Want to be entertained? We have whatever you want on demand. Feeling lonely? Want some companionship? There’s an app for that, just keep swiping. Feeling uncomfortable about some information you’re hearing? Well, file a complaint. Your wish is our command. You shouldn’t ever have to wait, be bored, or unsatisfied. Many churches fearing the loss of members in this era started to cater to the teenage version of me: young Drew, we don’t want you to be bored at church. You must be entertained. Here, let us now cater our worship of God to what you want, what will hold your attention, because isn’t worship all about you, Drew?
The elders singing in John’s vision tell us something very different about worship, they are surrounding God in their worship, and they sing that because God created all things, because it was God’s will and not my own that I even exist, God is the one worthy of worship. St. John presents an alternative vision, one which is the reality of heaven, and that for which we pray when we ask God to make God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.
Once again, John is “in the Spirit,” in this vision, and he hears again that voice like a trumpet inviting him to come and see what is to come. He is suddenly in heaven. A worship service is underway. There is a throne, one on the throne, surrounded by 24 more thrones. It is a fully sensory experience – sights and sounds – light bouncing off precious stones creating a rainbow around the throne, lightning flashing, rumblings and peals of thunder. There are the four living creatures: ox, lion, human faced, and eagle. There are humans present, but it’s definitely not all about them. There are 24 elders on thrones, perhaps representing the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles. They are the gathered church, the people of God. But what is happening is not for them, it is for God. They are continually throwing off their crowns, because it’s not all about them. They are continually throwing themselves before the throne, because it’s not all about them. And the creature with a human face is simply one among the other animals, because here, in heaven, all creation is present in worship of the creator, human and nonhuman in harmony, as God created it to be. It is worship. Day and night. Never ceasing. It is not boring.
At the beginning of Revelation, John meets the Son of man.
But now, in heaven, seated on the throne, it is not one like the son of man, it is not one like a human at all. John describes the one seated there as looking like jasper and carnelian – those are precious stones. It is God on the throne. The late pastor and theologian, Eugene Peterson taught “the ancient world valued stones not for decoration, but for their capacity to reveal and deepen the colors of light.”
“Precious stones are precious because they collect and intensify light.” In heaven, God is collecting praise, reflecting back on all gathered that glorious light, refracting it, expanding it, intensifying it, casting light as a beautiful rainbow on all gathered around God’s throne. This is worship. God is at the center and God is here collecting our praise and casting back on us a beautiful light. It’s not all about us, and yet, putting God at the center turns out better for us, adding beauty and goodness and light to our lives.
John’s vision of worship sparks imagination for what worship in the world is like. We gather here with the belief that God is really here, God is present and what we do here is to give God our attention. Peterson writes, that those unfamiliar with worship, “see a few people singing unpopular songs, sometimes off-key, someone reading from an old book and making remarks that may or may not interest the listeners, and then eating and drinking small portions of bread and wine they are supposed to give nourishment to their eternal souls in the same way that beef and potatoes sustained their mortal flesh.” That was some of what I thought as a child. But, by the grace of God, my vision grew and sometimes I have the eyes to see what is really going on here.
As John tries to describe this vision for us and he is so captivated by one central component. He comes back to it twice as if to make sure we hear him. The four living creatures with all the wings, “are full of eyes, in front and behind.” Again, they “are full of eyes all around and inside.” As if being in the presence of God, you can’t have enough eyes, you want to make sure you see it all, take it all in, the light, the beauty, the awe. I can’t take my eyes off it. Looking at God, finally, fully with eyes on the outside, they are able to also look inward with their eyes on the inside, and see God there too.
That is what worship is all about, getting our eyes pointed in the right direction, reoriented to God. There is so much that competes for our attention: screens, social media, our calendars, careers, our illnesses, whatever it is that demands so much of your attention that is not God. Whatever that is, I bet it is not always concerned with you being your best, healed, whole self; but God is. It’s good news that worship isn’t about us, isn’t about our popular culture, because honestly our culture is constantly in a state of accelerating change, but God is constant. Our self-obsession is making us sick, it’s harming creation, it’s not serving us and certainly not God. But worship redirects us, gives us eyes to see the world differently, shining, resonating with God’s light reflecting off all God has made for us to celebrate and enjoy. Worship is our place to turn around, course correct our lives to be directed at God as we take up these old prayers and songs and join with the many eyed creatures of earth and heaven singing God’s praise.
To do so brings us back to reality, that God is everywhere with us, and here in worship, where we hear again the good news for a hurting world: Christ has come to us, “to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” It’s not all about us, and that’s good news, because God has done all this and more, for each of us.
“Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”