"The Sea of Glass," sermon 34 in Kingsley's The Good News of God (1863), appears here with page breaks represented in the following form so readers of the Victorian Web can cite the print version or compare this text to it: [288/289] — GPL
And when those beasts give glory, and honour, and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever, the four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive 'glory, and honour, and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created. — Revelation iv. 9, 10, II.
HE Church bids us read this morning the first chapter of Genesis, which tells as of the creation of the world. Not merely on account of that most important text, which, according to some divines, seems to speak of the ever-blessed Trinity, and brings in God as saying, 'Let us make man in our image;' not, Let me make man in my image; but. Let us, in our image. — Not merely for this reason is Gen. i. a fit lesson for Trinity Sunday: but because it tells us of the whole world, and all that is therein, and who made it, and how. It does not tell us why God made the world; but the Revelations do, and the text does. And therefore perhaps it is a good thing for us that Trinity Sunday comes always in the sweet spring time, when all nature is breaking out into new life, when leaves are budding, flowers blossoming, [278/279] birds building, and countless insects springing up to their short and happy life. This wonderful world in which we live has awakened again from its winter's sleep. How are we to think of it, and of all the strange and beautiful things in it? Trinity Sunday tells us; for Trinity Sunday bids us think of and believe a matter which we cannot understand — a glorious and unspeakable God, who is at the same time One and Three. We cannot understand that. No more can we understand anything else. We cannot understand how the grass grows beneath our feet. We cannot understand how the egg becomes a bird. We cannot understand how the butterfly is the very same creature which last autumn was a crawling caterpillar. We cannot understand how an atom of our food is changed within our bodies into a, drop of living blood. We cannot understand how this mortal life of ours depends on that same blood. We do not know even what life is. We do not know what our own souls are. We do not know what our own bodies are. We know nothing. We know no more about ourselves and this wonderful world than we do of the mystery of the ever-blessed Trinity. That, of course, is the greatest wonder of all. For, as I shall try to show you presently. God himself must be more wonderful than all things which he has made. But all that he has made is wonderful; and all that we can say of it is, to take up the heavenly hymn which this chapter in the Revelations puts into our mouths, and join with the elders of heaven, and all the powers of nature, in saying, 'Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory, and [279/280] honour, and power; for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.'
Let us do this. Let us open our eyes, and see honestly what a wonderful world we live in; and go about all our days in wonder and humbleness of heart, confessing that we know nothing, and that we cannot know; confessing that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and that our soul knows right well; but that beyond we know nothing; though God knows all; for in his book were all our members written, which day by day were fashioned, while as yet there were none of them. 'How great are thy counsels, O God! they are more than I am able to express,' said David of old, who knew not a tenth part of the natural wonders which we know; 'more in number than the hairs of my head, if I were to speak of them.'
This will keep us from that proud and yet shallow temper of mind which people are apt to fall into, especially young men who are clever and self-educated, and those who live in great towns, and so lose the sight of the wonderful works of God in the fields and woods, and see hardly anything but what man has made; and therefore forget how weak and ignorant even the wisest man is, and how little he understands of this great and glorious world.
Such people are apt to fancy men are clever enough to understand anything. Then they say, 'Why am I to believe anything I cannot understand ?' And then they laugh at the mysteries of faith, and say, 'Three Persons in one God! I cannot understand that! Why am I expected to believe it?' [280/281]
Now, here is the plain answer to such unwise speech (for unwise it is, let it be dressed up in all fine long words, and show of wisdom), whether the doctrine be true or not, your not understanding the matter is no reason against it. Here is the answer: 'You do believe all day long a hundred things which you do not understand; which quite surpass your reason. You believe that you are alive : but you do not understand how you live. You believe that, though you are made up of so many different faculties and powers, you are one person: but you cannot understand how. You believe that though your body and your mind too have gone through so many changes since you were born, yet you are still one and the same person, and nobody else but yourself; but you cannot understand that either. You know it is so; but how and why it is so, you cannot explain; and the greatest philosopher would not be foolish enough to try to explain; — because, if he is a really great scholar, he knows that it cannot be explained. You lift your hand to your head: but how you do it, neither you nor any mortal man knows; and true philosophers tell you that we shall probably never know. True philosophers tell you that in the simplest movement of your body, in the growth of the meanest blade of grass, let them examine it with the microscope, let them think over it till their brains are weary, there is always some mystery, some wonder over and above, which neither their glasses nor their brains can explain, or even find and see, much less give a name to. They know that there is more in the matter, in the simplest matter, than man can find [281/282] out; and they are content to leave the wonder in the hands of God who made it; and when they have found out all they can, confess, that the more they know, the less they find they know.
I tell you frankly, my friends, if you were to see through the microscope a few of the wonderful things which are going on round you now in every leaf, and every gnat which dances in the sunbeam; if you were to learn even the very little which is known about them, you would see wonders which would surpass your powers of reasoning, just as much as that far greater wonder of the ever-blessed Trinity; things which you would not believe, if your own eyes did not show them you.
And what if it be strange ? What is there to surprise us in that? If the world be so wonderful, how much more wonderful must that great God be who made the world, and keeps it always living? If the smallest blade of grass be past our understanding, how much more past our understanding must be the Absolute, Eternal, Almighty God? Do you not see that common sense and reason lead us to expect that God should be the most wonderful of all beings and things; that there must be some mystery and wonder in him which is greater than all mysteries and wonders upon earth, just as much as he is greater than all heaven and earth? Which must be most wonderful, the maker or the thing made? Thou art man, made in the likeness of God. Thou canst not understand thyself. How much less canst thou under-God, in whose likeness thou art made!
For my part, instead of keeping people from learning, [282/283] lest they should grow proud, and despise the mysteries of faith, I would make them learn, and entreat them to learn, and look seriously and patiently at all the wonderful things which are going on round them all day long; for I am sure that they would be so much astonished with what they saw on earth, that they would not be astonished, much less staggered, at anything they heard of in heaven, and least of all astonished at being told that the name of Almighty God was too deep for the little brain of mortal man; and that they would learn more and more to take humbly, like little children, every hint which the experience of wise and good men of old time gives us of the everlasting mystery of mysteries, the glory of the Triune God, which St. John saw in the spirit.
And what did St. John see? Something beyond even an apostle's understanding. Something which he could only see himself dimly, and describe to us in figures and pictures, as it were, to help us to imagine that great wonder.
He was in the spirit, he says, when he saw it. That is, he did not see it with his bodily eyes, but with his soul, his heart and mind. Not with his bodily eyes (for no man hath seen God at any time), but with his mind's eye, which God had enlightened by his Holy Spirit.
He sees a throne in heaven, and one sitting on it, bright and pure as richest precious stone; and round his throne a rainbow like an emerald, the sign to us of hope, and faithfulness, mercy and truth, which he himself appointed after the flood, to comfort the fearful hearts of men. Around him are elders crowned; men like ourselves [283/284] but men who have fought the good fight, and conquered, and are now at rest; pure, as their white garments tell us; and victorious, as their golden crowns tell us. And from the throne come thunderings, and lightnings, and voices, as they did when he spoke to the Jews of old —signs of his terrible power, as judge, and lawgiver, and avenger of all the wrong which is done on. earth. And there are there, too, seven burning lamps, the seven spirits of God, which give light and life to all created things, and most of all to righteous hearts. And before the throne is a sea of glass; the same sea which St John saw in another vision, with us human beings standing on it, and behold it was mingled with fire; — the sea of time, and space and mortal life, on which we all have our little day; the brittle and dangerous sea of earthly life; for it may crack any moment beneath our feet, and drop us into eternity, and the nether fire, unless we have his hand holding us, who conquered time, and life, and death, and hell itself.
It seems to us to be a great thing now, time, and space, and the world; and yet it looked small enough to St. John, as it lies in heaven, before the throne of Christ; and he passes it by in a few words. For what are all suns and stars, and what are all ages and generations, and millions and millions of years, compared with eternity; with God's eternal heaven, and God whom not even heaven can contain? — One drop of water in comparison with all the rain clouds of the western sea.
But there is one comfort for us in St. John's vision;. that brittle, and uncertain, and dangerous as life may [284/285] "be, yet it is before the throne of God, and before the feet of Christ. St. John saw it lying there in heaven, for a sign that in God we live, and move, and have our being. Let us be content, and hope on, and trust on; for God is with us, and we with God.
But St. John saw another wonder. Four beasts — one like a man, one like a calf, one like an eagle, one like a lion, with six wings each.
Those ancient Assyrian sculptures which are now in the British Museum." D. G. Rossetti makes these same archeological finds the center of "The Burden of Nineveh." Click on image for larger picture.
What those living creatures mean, I can hardly tell you. Some wise and learned men say they mean the four Evangelists: but, though there is much to be said for it, I hardly think that; for St. John, who saw them, was one of the four Evangelists himself. Others think they mean great and glorious archangels; and that may be so. But certainly the Bible always speaks of angels as shaped like men, like human beings, only more beautiful and glorious. The two angels, for instance, who appeared to the three men at our Lord's tomb, are plainly called in one place, young men. I think, rather, that these four living creatures mean the powers and talents which God has given to men, that they may replenish the earth, and subdue it. For we read of these same living creatures in the book of the prophet Ezekiel; and we see them also on those ancient Assyrian sculptures which are now in the British Museum; and we have good reason to think that is what they mean there. The creature with tbe man's head means reason; the beast with the lion's head, kingly power and government; with the eagle's head, and his piercing eye, prudence and foresight; with the ox's head, labour, and [285/286] cultivation of the earth, and successful industry. But whatsoever those living creatures mean, it is more important to see what they do. They give glory, and honour, and thanks to him who sits upon the throne. They confess that all power, all wisdom, all prudence, all success in men or angels, in earth or heaven, comes from God, and is God's gift, of which he will require a strict account, for he is Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty; and all things are of him, and by him, and for him, for ever and ever.
But who is he who sits upon the throne? Who but the Lord Jesus Christ? Who but the Babe of Bethlehem? Who but the Friend of publicans and sinners? Who but he who went about doing good to suffering mortal man? Who but he who died on the cross? Who but he on whose bosom St John leaned at supper, and now saw him highly exalted, having a name above every name?
Oh, blest St. John, to see that sight! To see his dear Master in his glory, after having seen him in his humiliation! God grant us so to follow in St. John's steps, that we may see the same sight, unworthy though we are, in God's good time.
And where is God the Father? Yes, where? The heaven, and the heaven of heavens, cannot contain him, whom no man hath seen, or can see; who dwells in the light, whom no man can approach unto. Only the only begotten Son, who dwells in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him, and shown to men in his own perfect loveliness and goodness, what their heavenly [286/287] Father is. That was enough for St. John; let it be enough for us. He who has seen Christ has seen the Father, as far as any created being can see him. The Son Christ is merciful: therefore the Father is merciful. The Son is just: therefore the Father is just. The Son is faithful and true: therefore the Father is faithful and true. The Son is almighty to save: therefore the Father is almighty to save. Let that be enough for you and me.
But where is the Holy Spirit? There is no where for spirits. All that we can say is, that the Holy Spirit is proceeding for ever from the Father and the Son; going forth for ever, to bring light and life, righteousness and love, to all worlds, and to all hearts who will receive him. The lamps of fire which St. John saw, the dove which came down at Christ's baptism, the cloven tongues of fire which sat on the Apostles — these were signs and tokens of the Spirit; but they were not the Spirit itself. Of him it is written, 'He bloweth where he listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence he cometh or whither he goeth.'
It is enough for us that he is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Holy Father, and of the Holy Son; like them eternal, like them incomprehensible, like them almighty, like them all-wise, all-just, all-loving, merciful, faithful, and true for ever.
This is what St. John saw — Christ the crucified, Christ the Babe of Bethlehem, in the glory which he had before all worlds, and shall have for ever; with all the powers. of this wondrous world crying to him for ever, ' Holy, [287/288] Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come; and the souls of just men made perfect answering those mystic animals, and joining their hymns of praise to the hymn which goes up for ever from sun and stars, from earth and sea, — when they find out the deepest of all wisdom — the lesson which all the wonders of this earth, and all which ever has happened, or will happen, in space and time, is meant to teach us: —
'Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory, and honour, and power; for Thou hast created all things, and for Thy pleasure they are and were created.'
This is all that I can tell you. It may be a very little: but is it not enough ? What says Solomon the wise? 'Knowest thou how the bones grow in the womb?' Not thou. How, then, wilt thou know God, who made all things ? Thou art fearfully and wonderfully made, though thou art but a poor mortal man. And is not God more fearfully and wonderfully made than thou art? It is a strange thing, and a mystery, how we ever got into this world: a stranger thing still to me, how we shall ever get out of this world again. Yet they are common things enough — birth and death. 'Every moment dies a man, every moment one is born:' and yet you do not know what is the meaning of birth or death either: and I do not know, and no man knows. How, then, can we know the mystery of God, in whose hand are the issues of life and death? — God to whom all live for ever, living and dead, born and unborn, in heaven and in hell?
So it is in small things as well as great, in great as [288/289] well as small; and so it ever will be. 'All things begin in some wonder, and in some wonder all things end,' said Saint Augustine, wisest in his day of all mortal men; and all that great scholars have discovered since prove more and more that Saint Augustine's words were true, and that the wisest are only, as a great philosopher once said, and one, too, who discovered more of God's works than any man for many a hundred years, even Sir Isaac Newton himself: 'The wisest of us is but like a child picking up a few shells and pebbles on the shore of a boundless sea.'
The shells and pebbles are the little scraps of knowledge which God vouchsafes to us, his sinful children; knowledge, of which at best St. Paul says, that we know only in part, and prophesy in part, and think as children; and that knowledge shall vanish away, and tongues shall cease, and prophecies shall fail.
And the boundless sea is the great ocean of time — of God's created universe, above which his Spirit broods over, perfect in love, and wisdom, and almighty power, as at the beginning, moving above the face of the waters of time, giving life to all things, for ever blessing, and for ever blest.
God grant us all to see the day when we shall have passed safely across that sea of time, up to the sure land of eternity; and shall no more think as children, or know in part; but shall see God face to face, and know him even as we are known; and find him, the nearer we draw to him, more wonderful, and more glorious, and more good than ever; — 'Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God [289/290] Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.' And meanwhile, take comfort, and recollect however little you and I may know. God knows: he knows himself, and you, and me, and all things; and his mercy is over all his works.
Kingsley, Charles. The Good News of God (1863). London: Macmillan 1898. 278-90.
Last modified 1 May 2005