Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power; for you created all things; by your will they were created and came into being!
Rev. 4: 11
The Book of Revelation has perhaps wrought more havoc on Christian belief than any other biblical text. There is a fundamentalistic way of reading and using the text which is based on our fears and desire for control that make of it a type of “Ouija Board” by which to access the beyond and to predict the future. Such a reading of the text exemplifies what the scholar of world religions Huston Smith describes as our propensity to lose the deeper truth of a spiritual teaching by taking it literally.
In today’s reading from Chapter 4 we are presented with a response to the most basic human questions: What are we for? What is the purpose and fulfillment of human life? The response of the author of Revelation is that ultimately we fulfill our human purpose and potential in the worship of God. The world and all that is in it, including ourselves, is created and comes into being by an act of God. Thus, there is but one sovereign, and our most distinctively human capacity is to worship God — and God alone.
Although this may all seem quite obvious and even, through repetition, banal to us, the truth is that in practice it is enormously difficult. To believe, to assert, and to practice the reality of a true “sovereign” in our lives is to counter most of our daily promptings and motivations. In fact, in world history most gods have not been the source of the creation of human life and world but rather a creation of human beings. And so it remains to this day. We look to our associations, tribes, countries, political parties and leaders to fulfill and to save us. We build financial and political empires, strive for the approbation and respect of others, create personal zones of safety and comfort all in an attempt to gain personal and communal significance. And the harder we strive for absolute security and prosperity, the more chaos we create.
Talk of God’s sovereignty is difficult for us who have been formed in ostensible democracies or republics. Our predilection and desire for egalitarianism applies even in our faith. The pulsations of our cultural and political time lead us to create a god who is one of us. The teaching of Isaiah does not sit well with us: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways” (Isaiah 55:8). We don’t want to distinguish between the call to “fall down and worship” and to act out of our own impulses. Be it at the personal, political, or even “ministerial” level, we are prone, in our own unique but universal tendency, to create a false equivalence between our ways and God’s ways. In this sense, is perhaps every war, every social and political conflict, not somehow a “religious” one?
I tend to spend a fair amount of time in airports these days. if I am successful in finding the airport chapel, I usually find myself sharing the space with Muslims engaging in their daily calls to prayer. As I sit on my chair trying to quiet myself and attend to the presence of God, I observe them, men and women, old and young, taking out a rug, facing Mecca, and bowing and bending in prayer. They are often witnesses to me of the sovereignty of God. Without fail, they break their work and their plans several times a day to worship God, to remember whose they are and what their lives are for.
It is only in recognition and worship of God’s sovereignty, of the reality that all of us are created and come into being by God’s will, that we could ever come to recognize our universal brotherhood and sisterhood and our shared and common responsibility to try, with all our hearts, to realize the coming of God’s kingdom, of the primacy of God’s thoughts and God’s ways for all of us.
The idea of a source and end of life, too transcendent to the desires, capacities, and powers of human life to be either simply comprehended by the human mind or easily manipulated for human ends, represents the radical break of Biblical faith with the idolatrous tendencies in all human culture. This God stands over against humanity and nation and must be experienced as “enemy” before he can be known as friend. Human purposes, insofar as they usurp the divine prerogatives, must be broken and redirected, before there can be a concurrence between the divine and the human will. . . .
Two ideas, basic to a Biblical interpretation of history, are implicit in this radical conception of the relation of God to historical destiny. One is the idea of a universal history. The other is that history is filled with humanity’s proud and pretentious efforts to defy the divine sovereignty, to establish humanity itself as god by its own power or virtue, by the human person’s wisdom or foresight.
The idea of a universal history emerges by reason of the fact that the divine sovereignty which overarches all historical destiny is not the obsession of any people or the extension of any particular historical power. The other idea lays the foundation for the Biblical conception of the complexity of history. It calls attention to the fact that the human agents do not simply conform to the divine will in history; but that they defy the divine purpose precisely because they identify their purpose and power too simply with the divine purpose. Thereby the creativity of human freedom is turned into destructiveness. If there is a pattern and meaning in the historical drama it must be worked out against this human rebellion, which sows confusion into the order of history and makes its final end dubious.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Biblical View: The Sovereignty of God in Human History