The Eye of the Beholder

April 25, 2004



The Eye of the Beholder (4/25/04)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

I seldom preach from the Book of Revelation. I did a short series on that mysterious book a while back, but did so primarily to show how some misguided zealots have misinterpreted the book. When you hear a sermon based on Revelation, it is usually intended to scare you witless. The words of Revelation are passed off like some mysterious 2000 year old code that contains a precision roadmap of the horrible things that are soon to unfold on planet earth.

But the Book of Revelation should not be approached superstitiously. It was written as a political attack against the Roman Empire, which was persecuting the early church. And it envisioned a world where the powers and principalities of that day would be overthrown by the glorious and unspeakable power of God.

Listen again to an expanded version of the passage you heard read from the lectern this morning:

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

The author of those words is trying to shake up the way we look at the world. He is trying to change our thinking about things. This is an ecstatic vision. He is seeing the world in a whole different way, and he wants to give us a glimpse of the way he sees things. He is overcome with the spiritual reality that he senses before him.

And there is no way to convey this except by using some pretty strange language. Isaiah did something similar. After going to the Temple and having a spiritual experience in which he was certain he had been in the presence of God, you can feel him searching for the words that will convey a sense of what he felt. Isaiah says, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Angels were in attendance above him; each had six wings, with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And they called out to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

What a mental picture! It seems to me that before Isaiah’s experience, he had always figured the Lord was just some really amazing, but human-like being. But when he experienced God, he was lost for words, so he talked about the Lord being seated on the throne, and the hem of his robe filling the whole temple! And he uses this ecstatic vision of angels and wings and shouts of glory, saying the whole earth is full of God’s glory.

I just don’t think Isaiah, or the author of Revelation, ever intended for us to think the descriptions they were giving were perfectly accurate snapshots of what they experienced. They experienced something beyond words, beyond comprehension. They are trying to shock us into a new way of looking at the world, and the only tools they have with which to do that is language.

Consider modern art. I don’t understand most of it, although I occasionally get a glimpse of what an artist is trying to express. But those smears of paint and squiggly lines of color are not meant to portray something the artist actually sees in the physical world. The artist is trying to point to something beyond what we see when our eyes are open but our minds are closed. And the same can be said of the ecstatic apocalyptic visions we find in the Bible.
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I appreciate what those biblical authors are trying to do, because that’s what I think preachers are supposed to do. We are supposed to challenge people to look at the world in a different way. We are supposed to challenge the world that seems obvious—the world that appears before our eyes—and point to something else—something more.

Shakespeare said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. He was right, but that’s only a small fraction of the truth. Everything is in the eye of the beholder. One person looks at the world and sees beauty; another sees misery. One person looks at the world and sees meaning and purpose; another sees nothing but useless emptiness. The eye of the beholder—that’s what makes all the difference.

It reminds me of the old joke about the guy who goes to see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist shows him an inkblot and asks him what he sees. The patient says he sees a couple making love. The psychiatrist ends up showing this guy 20 or 30 inkblots, and every single time the patient says the same thing—that he sees a couple making love. The psychiatrist finally says, “Well, it’s easy to see what your problem is. You’re obsessed with sex.” And the patient says, “I’m obsessed with sex?! You’re the one with all the dirty pictures!” The eye of the beholder…

Well, we took a strange detour from the apocalyptic ecstasy of Revelation to that little scene in the psychiatrist’s office, but I hope the point is made. When Jesus says we have eyes but do not see, he is begging us to look deeper—to look at the world with a little imagination. At the same time, we don’t want to use so much imagination that we become like the patient in the psychiatrist’s office and see things that simply aren’t there.

Still, I think most of us are guilty of looking at the world with a lack of imagination. How many times have we been in a conversation about some terrible problem, and ended the conversation by saying, “Well, that’s the just the way it is. It’s always been that way and always will.”

I’ve said it myself countless times, but I think we must admit it shows a terrible lack of imagination. Nothing ever changes—nothing ever gets better—unless somebody manages to imagine a better world. What else could Jesus mean when he tells us we have eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear?

Spring mornings are a great example. Spring mornings are pretty noisy. The world is springing back to life after a long winter’s sleep. But what do we hear when we rise with the sun? All those birds and insects—is that a bunch of racket, or is it God’s symphony? It all depends on whether or not we have ears to hear—whether or not we have the imagination to hear beneath the surface of things.

I enjoy reading the teachings of Buddhism, and there are many similarities between the things taught by Guatama Buddha and the teachings of Jesus. For example, when people sensed the greatness of the Buddha, they wondered what type of man he was. And they speculated. Are you a prophet? Are you a son of God? Who are you? What are you? And his answer was this: “I am…awake.” Awake!

I can almost hear him saying, “I have eyes to see and ears to hear!” Likewise, when Jesus tells us we have eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear, I can almost hear him shouting, “Wake up!” Both of these great spiritual leaders saw the world differently from the masses, and they each asked us to imagine the world as they envisioned it.

Are we asleep? Are we blind, even as we stare out upon the world, day after day, year after year? Jesus, and Buddha, would say that we are. But the question is, How do we wake up? How do we start seeing and hearing in the way they ask us to see and hear?

I have no simple answer, but it seems logical that the place to begin our search for a new way of looking at the world is to challenge the way we look at the world now. And to make this point, I’ll venture into an area that I normally stay away from in the pulpit: politics. Now, listen carefully, because I have a feeling that when I’m done, those of you who are republicans will accuse me of being a partisan democrat, and those of you who are democrats will accuse me of being a partisan republican. But I can think of no better way to point out the lack of imagination we employee when we look at the world, than to look at the modern political situation in America.

We are close-minded and partisan. We’ve decided how we want to look at the world, and there is nothing that could happen that would change the way we look at the world. And we, as Americans, are pretty much split down the middle in the way we see things.

Now, I’m no expert on politics. I don’t want to be an expert on politics. But let me tell you what I see. Look at our two most recent presidents—Clinton and Bush. I honestly believe there is about half the country that would love Clinton and hate Bush no matter what they said or did; and the other half of the country would love Bush and hate Clinton no matter what they said or did.

Furthermore, I believe that Jesus Christ himself could appear on earth and give his strongest endorsement of either Bill Clinton or George Bush, and those who previously did not like the man would leave their religion before they admitted that he could possibly do anything right.

We are polarized, and we are not thinking with any imagination. What we have at work here is what the Bible calls the powers and principalities. When we hear those words—powers and principalities—we tend to automatically think they are evil forces. But they are not! Theologians tell us that the powers and principalities are created by God. Powers and principalities are the tools God uses to run the world.

Almost every organization, every institution, is a power or principality. That includes University Congregational Church. That includes the Catholic Church. That includes every political party. The powers and principalities are not bad things. But like human beings, they are fallen. They do not live up to their true purposes. Like human beings, the powers and principalities become self-righteous, and self-centered. And then something terrible happens. The people who comprise a power or principality place it above God. And that is when they become corrupting powers.

Now, let’s think about what we mean when we say the word “God.” There’s no need going into a lot of theology here. The simple fact is, every major religion of the world, when it talks about God, advocates doing what is right and not what is wrong. Every major religion talks about peace and justice. Peace and justice are two sides of the same coin, and that coin is the world in which God intends for us to live. We don’t need a theological dissertation when we talk about God, because we should all be able to agree that God wants us to live in peace, with justice, and to do what is right.

So when we talk about putting God first in our lives, what we are saying is that peace and justice are first in our lives. Oh, it can be difficult to have peace and justice at the same time! I mean, when Adolph Hitler is killing Jews by the millions, we can hardly sit back and say, “Peace brother.” I am not advocating unconditional pacifism in this sermon.

But I am advocating a new way of looking at the world. I am saying that when we look out at this world from these amazing bodies God has given us to carry our eternal spirits, we should confront every problem with the question, “What is right? What will bring peace and justice into this situation?”

That, I believe, is what is means to put God first in our lives. And I don’t see that when I look at this radically divided nation today. When people reach the point that they believe their particular political party can do no wrong, and they would vote for their party no matter what, they have fallen prey to the powers we are warned about in the Bible. They have elevated a principality or power above God.

And it’s not just politics. Look at the horrible situation the Catholic Church is in today. The child molestation that has taken place in that institution is almost impossible to comprehend. But the way they responded to that terrible situation truly is incomprehensible: they ignored it! Don’t let word get out that Father Jones has a fatal attraction for six-year-old boys. And if it looks like people in the parish are starting to ask too many questions…move him to another parish. After all, what is more important: right and wrong, and justice, or the Catholic Church? And we all know how that question was answered.

It’s the nature of things. Institutions become corrupt. Modern organizational theory explains what happens. An organization is created with the best of intentions. Consider a typical non-profit organization. Let’s say it is founded to combat hunger. For the first several years, the people of the organization dedicate themselves to the purposes of the organization—fighting hunger in the community. But the organization reaches a point somewhere along the line where the most important thing is not the original purpose of the organization, but rather the survival of the organization.

I sit on the board of directors of several non-profit organizations, and I’ve seen it happen. I was in one non-profit that hung on by its fingernails for years, and then received a $25,000 donation. What do you think the board voted to do with that money? Directly address the problem for which we had been created in the first place? No. We took the $25,000, and hired a fundraiser.

It was easy enough to justify. Once the fundraiser started producing, not only could we do lots of good in the community, the small staff would have some job security. It’s a delicate balance. Did we cross the line? Did we loose sight of our reason to be, and become more concerned with making sure we would continue to be?

Of course, we face these types of decisions at church every day, and it is never an easy balance. We all make a financial sacrifice to this church for two reasons: so we will have a beautiful place to worship, and so we will be able to work together and do some good in this hurting world. I think we do a good job of balancing those things, but we should always guard against becoming an institution that is more concerned with its own survival than with being a faithful church.

Well, maybe I’m crazy, but I have great hope for the world. Because all those powers and principalities—they are not evil—they are simply fallen. Just like people. But also just like people, they are redeemable. Their worth can be restored. Our churches, our political parties, all of our organizations and institutions—they are redeemable, if only we have the imaginations to envision them as redeemed; if only we have the wisdom to place them not first in our lives, but beneath God, where they belong; if only we approach them critically, and lovingly, always asking the question that must be asked: Is this institution-slash-church-slash-political party honestly trying to discern right from wrong, and seeking peace and justice?

And if somebody tells us we are being simplistic, and idealistic, and we just aren’t seeing things the way they are; then we should say something like, “No—you are the one who has eyes but do not see! We see things as they could be, because we are Christians!”

And if they still don’t understand, show them some work of modern art. Or better yet, say something ecstatic, like…

“I see the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of God’s robe fills the church; and all around God there are angels calling out to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord! The whole earth is full of God’s glory!”

People might say you’re crazy. No, they will say you’re crazy. And that’s okay. Just tell them, “I’m not crazy. I’m awake.”