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The mystery of God


22 May 2005 11:00 | Rev Canon Dr John Cullen

NT: Revelation 4.1-11; Gospel: John 3.1-15

Reflecting on those two rather puzzling readings for this Trinity Sunday brought to my mind the works of two artists I saw recently: the paintings of the British artist JMW Turner at the Turner, Whistler and Monet exhibition at the Tate Britain, and the works of the 16th century Italian painter Caravaggio on display over the last 3 months at the National Gallery. What strikes me about those two very different passages of scripture is that each of them presents us with a vivid picture: the first, a dramatic set of very powerful images taking us way beyond any normal frame of reference; the other, an intimate picture of two figures in conversation, but a conversation in which so much more is going on than we might see or hear.

The first of our two readings, from the last book in the Bible, the Revelation to someone called John, is a collection of colourful and dramatic visions or dreams. It is this reading that took me back to the paintings of Turner - particularly those that feature what is often referred to as 'the Turner sky': characterised by vivid, swirling yellows, golds and pinks streaked with white, creating a shimmering haze of light and colour - almost dazzling the viewer - with a truly amazing sense of movement and drama.

'A shimmering haze of light and colour, a dazzling vision of movement and drama'? Can you not see it, painted in the words of the writer of Revelation? "I looked and behold a door was opened in heaven…" For me, and I guess for most of us, that's stepping into very unfamiliar territory. And so the picture builds up:
- a throne;
- and he that sat upon it like a jasper and sardine stone;
- a rainbow round the throne… like an emerald;
- four and twenty elders, clothed in white raiment, and waving golden crowns;
- lightnings, thunderings, and voices;
- and before the throne a sea of glass like unto crystal;
- four living creatures full of eyes before and behind…

It's all there: 'the light, the colour, the shimmering haze, the movement and the drama'. As with Turner's paintings, this picture is not to be analysed with an eye to literal detail. The writer tells us he was caught up "in the Spirit", and therefore reading or listening to this passage requires that we allow ourselves to experience the unimaginable, a vision of heaven. We are invited not to analyse, but to gaze, to imagine, to contemplate, in wonder and in awe. Unfamiliar territory perhaps? But not for those of us familiar with worship?

So much of our worship in Western Christianity (Roman Catholic, Anglican and Protestant) tends towards the cerebral, verbal, literal, whereas the worship of the Eastern Orthodox Churches draws the worshipper into the numinous, inviting wonder and awe.

So often on this Trinity Sunday preachers are tempted to expound complex theological doctrine. Let's leave that for the lecture room or the study group. Today is rather an opportunity simply to allow our hearts to be touched, as we might be before a Turner sky, and to imagine, to gaze, to be lost - in wonder, love and praise.

Our second reading is the one that immediately brought Caravaggio to mind. Caravaggio is a master of dramatic atmosphere: lots of brooding darkness, and shafts of light, all the more powerful because they are so sparingly employed. His paintings are full of tension, focussing on the interplay of characters: the sideways glance, the taught muscles, the lips holding words back rather than releasing them. I know of no one who can paint fright, fear, curiosity or suspicion like Caravaggio can.

I'd love to know if he ever contemplated painting the visit of the man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus: the same who came to Jesus - by night! The Gospel writer immediately creates an atmosphere of tension in which the voices are hushed, the eyes sharply focussed, or as deliberately turned away. Nicodemus is a man of power and influence. He's curious about this Jesus. He wants to know what makes him tick. But as the whispered conversation unfolds, he's left wondering what makes himself tick!

"We know you are a teacher come from God," he tells Jesus. But Jesus is aware that in making this visit under the cover of darkness, Nicodemus hasn't simply come to pay compliments. He has come seeking…. And Jesus is clear what he is after.

"Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus is a ruler of the Jews, a master of Israel; he is a scholar, whose job was to teach others about the kingdom of God. And yet Jesus detects that this teacher's own faith has become rather thin. But faith depends on more than one's own resources. The images Jesus puts before Nicodemus, of birth, of water, and the Spirit, blowing where it will, are all beyond human control. For a man accustomed to having and exercising control, Nicodemus does not hear this as good news. "How can these things be?" he asks. Jesus replies, "You are a teacher of others, and yet you do not understand?" Nicodemus is by no means the only religious expert to discover that knowledge is not the same as faith, and religious observance without a personal spirituality nurtured by prayer is arid beyond belief.

Jesus words come as a shaft of light across the scene. As well as exposing, they also illuminate, and they also have the potential for healing. Nicodemus the teacher has become the listener and the learner. The healing and fulfilment he is seeking can come only from beyond himself, from reaching out in believing. Is he willing to take that step?

Exercising faith, believing, trusting, all require effort on our part. Knowledge will only take us so far. The final step is the risk, the leap of faith. It is in a very real sense a 'falling in love': an opening of ourselves to the wonder of God in worship, surrendering to belief in his Son, and a willingness to be transformed by the Holy Spirit. We will never be the same. That's what it means to have eternal life - here and now!
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