1 Kings 8.1-11
According to the ‘Visit Cambridge’ web site, Cambridge has beautiful architecture, beautiful colleges, beautiful art galleries, and even beautiful pubs. I’m not sure if they were thinking of Wetherspoons.
But, as those of us who stay here in the summer know, vast numbers of people from all over the world flock here to see the beauty of Cambridge. I’ve even seen tourists photographing themselves in front of the Chemistry department. Which was the first bit of the university they found on their way from the station. Hopefully they found their way to King’s Chapel later on.
Beauty attracts and inspires people. Sometimes, we even call it irresistible. Helen of Troy is supposed to have had the face which launched a thousand ships. And Downing chapel on a sunny spring day with the crocuses outside is a sight to linger over. Something to look forward to as the days lengthen.
Beauty is important to the Psalmist also. He says that there’s one thing he wants. One thing that he seeks. And that is to behold the beauty of the Lord. To live in God’s temple and to behold his beauty.
It’s perhaps a curious thing that we might call one who is invisible beautiful. When it comes to being beautiful, not being visible might seem like the equivalent of not turning up to the exam. 0% and an automatic fail.
But the Bible is full of references to the glory of God. Moses was permitted to see just a glimpse of the glory of God from a cleft in the rock. And he came down from Mount Sinai with his face shining. And the glory of the Lord filled the Temple when it was dedicated, as we heard.
We cannot see the beauty of God directly. But the radiance of his glory is reflected in the universe and in people. Psalm 19 says that the ‘heavens declare the glory of God’. The starry night skies display something of the majesty, beauty and wonder of God. Creation gives us a glimpse of the glory of God. Oceans, cliffs, forests, planets, rivers, lions and eagles all reflect something of the radiant splendour of God himself.
And, for many of us, that moves us to respond in awe, wonder, delight, praise and thanksgiving. The glory of God shows us the love of God, and inspires us to respond to him in love.
The Psalmist longed to be in the Temple, because the beauty of that magnificent building communicated something very powerful about the beauty of God. It conveyed something wonderful about the loving presence of God.
And so the beauty of God can be seen indirectly by us. Stars, forests, oceans and cathedrals reflect a little of the beauty of the one who holds them in existence. But they are not God himself. The Psalmist saw the beauty of God reflected in the magnificence of that great building. But it was not God himself. God himself is even greater, more wonderful, and yet also beyond our sight.
If God wanted to, he could utterly overwhelm us with his glory. He could reveal himself to be so wondrous, so attractive, that no one could possibly resist. He could command the full attention of every human being, in a way which would give us no choice about our response
But God doesn’t choose to overpower us. His glory is partly veiled. We glimpse it indirectly. We see it in hints and shadows and dim reflections. What we see of him is enough to captivate many of us. But many others pay little attention.
So the world as it is now offers us the space to make some important decisions for ourselves. It allows us to choose whether or not to seek after God and to respond to him. That means that our relationship with God, if we develop one, can be one which is genuine and loving. A relationship which is based on power and coercion is deeply flawed. But a friendship which is entered into freely is much more authentic and meaningful.
God’s glory is veiled, so that when we respond to him, we do so as those who choose to do so. As those who are seeking him. As those who genuinely want to know him. But then we may find that the glimpses of divine beauty we see are more than enough to inspire in us a response of heart-felt wonder and adoration. That we find, in the beauty of creation, in Christian worship and in humble service glimpses of the awesome glory of God.
And there’s something about the beauty of nature, art, architecture and music which can express the reality of God very clearly. The universe reflects the glory of its creator. So there’s a potential for great beauty within the fabric of creation. We see that in flower and rivers and galaxies. But we can also see it in the fruits of human creativity. Our own response to God can make use of the potential for beauty which he has placed within us.
The great Temple in Jerusalem involved an amazing outpouring of creativity. In its architecture. In its furnishings. In its elaborate decorations The cherubim made of olive wood. The doors made of cypress wood and carved with palm trees. The pillars made of bronze. The priestly robes with gold thread and jewels. The harps and lyres and trumpets of the musicians. Here we see human beings using their God-given creativity to display forms of beauty which point to the beauty of God. Here we see human beings joining creation in its declaration of the glory of God. Adding their voices and their works to the witness of creation to the beauty of God.
This Chapel is part of that tradition of using human creativity to respond to God. It’s a beautiful place, at the centre of a beautiful college. Its architecture, elegant proportions, carved woodwork and stained glass say something about the beauty of God, and seek to make that visible. And this is a place for wonderful music of different kinds. Where we’re so privileged to have Andrew, Ed and Camilla to lead our singing in the morning. And a choir and organ scholars in the evening. The beauty of music can convey something of the glory of God. And we can come here, like the Psalmist, out of longing to behold the beauty of God. We, like the whole cosmos, can echo the glory of God in the beauty of our worship. It’s a great delight to be able to do that.
Nevertheless, in the world as it is now, God’s glory is only partly seen. God allows us the freedom to seek his glory, or to go in our own direction. And so there is sin, and evil and the ugliness of lives which do not reflect God’s light.
But the Book of Revelation tells of a day when the glory of God will blaze out in the world in a new way. When Jesus Christ returns, and the Kingdom of God fills the world. When God’s glory will be seen in all its splendour. When the holy city appears from heaven and is established here on earth. Then the glory of God will be its light, and it will have no need of sun or moon to shine in it. The city will be filled with the glory of God and a radiance like rare jewels. It will be decorated with every precious stone. And its streets will be paved, says Revelation, with pure gold that is transparent as glass. I’ve no idea what pure transparent gold is going to be like. The materials scientists are going to have great fun with that one. But it sounds wonderful.
This penultimate chapter of the Bible gives an image of perfect, divine beauty being revealed on earth, as the glory of God blazes forth for all to see. And that sounds so much better than any of the beauty which flows from the work of our hands. More lovely even than our carved Chapel woodwork, our decorated furnishings and even than Camilla’s flute-playing.
But here’s something remarkable. Revelation says that the kings of the earth will bring their glory into the holy city. And people will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations. What an amazing image.
That means, I think, that all that is good and true and beautiful in our world will be gathered up into this holy, divine city, and then used to transform the world. God’s glory doesn’t obliterate the beauty which we see in our own work and in our creativity. It embraces it. God rejoices to see the ways in which our lives can grow to reflect his glory. And all the good things of this world will be caught up into the wonder of the Kingdom of God.
Picture the Queen arriving in her finest gold carriage at the jewelled gates of the holy city, and laying the crown jewels at the feet of Jesus. Her crown and her 530 carat diamond sceptre. And then David Cameron turning up with the entire contents of the National Gallery – centuries of amazing artistic treasures. And all the nations of the world offering all the fruits of human creativity to God. From illuminated manuscripts to iPads. Every human achievement which draws out the good potential of God’s universe being offered back to him. Every form of beauty being joined to the source of all beauty.
And the music of our voices and flutes and guitars and pianos being joined with the music of countless people from all centuries and all nations, with angels and archangels, in a surge of ecstatic praise and celebration. As the beauty of God is echoed by the beauty of his creation, and all are united in the dazzling splendour of his glory.
That’s the future which God invites us to. And we anticipate that future whenever we do something beautiful for God. Whenever we make something, or sing something, or do something which will be joyfully included in the holy city. Whenever we gladly serve God and work with him to build for the Kingdom of God. We anticipate that future whenever we help others to see the beauty of the Lord. Whenever we can bring hope and comfort and dignity and joy to those who face hardship and fear. Whenever God’s glory is seen in our actions, our relationships and our words.
Today, in our own small way, we seek to see something of the glory of God. And to show forth that glory in our lives. And we dream of the day when we and people from sall the nations of the world will live by the light of his glory.