In the book of Revelation (chapter 4), St John depicts the glory of God. His throne shines with the colours of gems, flashes of lightening and thunder witness to his awesome power, all living things acknowledge his greatness as creator, and finally, in the centre of his throne is a Lamb, “looking as if it had been slain.” Both God and the Lamb are praised by the saints.
Must we wait for heaven to witness God’s glory?
The Christian life has often been represented as one of service and suffering, with a promise of glory to come. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is the archetype, describing the life of faith as a long and turbulent journey with the new Jerusalem glimpsed at its distant end. The book of Hebrews paints a similar picture in chapters 11 and 12. The patriarchs and prophets led tough and often painful lives, and Christians are encouraged to run the race of life with courage, like Jesus, “for the joy set before him”.
But even Jesus, while on earth, saw God’s glory in a flower. And we glimpse it from time to time in nature, in the infinite splendour of the stars, in peaceful pastures and rippling streams, in magnificent sunsets, and in the animated features of beautiful young men and women.
People of all cultures have been inspired to celebrate the beauty, life and power of nature in poetry, art and ritual. Buddhists and others enjoy contemplating nature, and some identify with it, seeing their lives as involved in the cycles of the birth and death of beauty all around them.
Should we regard such glimpses of beauty as merely natural events or as epiphanies, as manifestations of God? Plato said that things that radiate beauty had their origin in heaven, and that through them we have an idea of the perfection which informs them. But Plato’s heaven was not the creation of a single god.
If we believe God created the universe, then it follows that the beauty it contains is his creation, a gift for us to enjoy. Believing this to be the case, we appreciate not just the beauty of things, but also God’s love of them and us that their creation expresses. They are wonderful, undeserved gifts that give us a hint of His glory.
It is surely right to remind worshippers of God’s glory in the art and architecture of our churches, and to celebrate it with flowers and music and song. These remind us of His amazing, endless creativeness, so that we lift our hearts to the Lord. There is no need to wait for heaven to glimpse God’s grandeur, and to praise him for it.
But the beauty of nature is always transitory. A splendid sunset evolves, and then fades into a black night. So are the gifts of God transitory, here one moment, gone the next?
St John’s Revelation supplies the answer: in the centre of God’s throne was the crucified lamb, the symbol of God’s unending love for all the people He has made. He sent his Son to live and die for us, and to be with us until the end of time. And He has sent his Holy Spirit, to guide, empower and animate all who love him, without ceasing. As St Paul said: nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 8: 39)
But where do we find this love, in a world so torn with greed, pride and hatred? We often find it in families and among friends. We can find it in Christian communities that are focussed on Jesus. And some find it in the gift of the Holy Spirit, who guides their thoughts, motivates their actions, and comforts them in times of trouble. In these ways we experience God’s love, and are enabled to love others.
The beauties of nature are fleeting expressions of God’s love. But the steadfast love of people, and of God’s spirit, are what sustain us through difficult times, indeed lighten our load and provide cause for rejoicing. No wonder people say that the marriages of those who truly love one another are made in heaven.
Are there any other expressions of God’s love for us that should be acknowledged? Is a free space in a crowded car park ever a gift from God? The story of David, in the Old Testament, is interesting. It suggests that God assisted and protected David to enable him to establish a just and godly kingdom. The Psalms repeatedly praise God for his aid to those who honour him. Christians also witness to prayers for minor blessings being answered against the odds. So there is some reason to think God does bless those who love him by meeting their needs in his service.
However, as Hebrews reminds us, faithful servants of God have also suffered dreadfully, as Jesus did. Sometimes, it seems, God’s plans are not what we imagine them to be and He does not give us what we ask for.
We can only pray for God’s blessings, and thank Him when our prayers are answered.