Looking from the Lighthouse
Praise the Lord, all you nations.
Praise the Lord, all you people of the earth.
God’s unfailing love for us is powerful;
the Lord’s faithfulness endures forever.
Praise the Lord! (Psalm 117)
At least fifty times along the east coast, the dark nights are punctuated by the flashing of a light house. One of those sits on the southern tip is St Simons Island, less than five miles from my home on Holly Street. The steel staircase takes the visitor to the observation gallery 104 feet above the ground. From there, you can see Jekyll Island to the south, Brunswick to the west, Sapelo Island to the north, and stretching east to the horizon, the Atlantic Ocean.
From the top you can see all this in every direction. But on the climb to the top, not so much. Four times, a small slit in the stone wall allows the climber to get a narrow look at a thin slice of the landscape/seascape. It is a welcomed diversion from the dark, damp interior. It is a preview of all that can be seen from the top, to the horizon in every direction.
That occasional glimpse of long-distance glory is like this small psalm. Buried in that part of the Bible that is consumed by tribal concerns and territorial struggles, here is a glimpse to the horizon. “All the nations” is what the poet has in mind. “All the people of the earth” occupies the imagination of this prophet. And when the psalmist declares that God’s unfailing love is for ALL OF US, we feel deep down that he is peering through a small stone break in the provincial wall of ancient religion. He or she is able to see briefly and in part much that can be seen from the top of the lighthouse.
Looking from that pedestrian platform and peering through that slit in the stone wall is so very much like our own journey to the celestial city. There we will know, even as we are known, the apostle writes; but until then, an occasional break in the stone walls of our own provincial understanding, our own partial knowledge is all that we can expect.
Today, in this place and at this time, as we together climb up the stairs of our lighthouse, I pray that something said or sung, something prayed or preached will be like an opening for you. I hope you can see something, feel something, awaken to something that will inspire you, draw you deeper into the reality of this one glorious life, and call you to something “higher up and further in” (as C S. Lewis described it).
Show us, O Lord, what we need to see today to be the people you want us to be.
Our Christian journey is like climbing the stairs of a light house. This can be one of many metaphors that will help us. John Bunyan had his journey to the celestial city; C.L Lewis described the walk through the wardrobe; J R R Tolkien wrote about the journey there and back again. There are other ways to imagine our life journey. I like the lighthouse image because I have climbed up those stairs more than once, and you will think about this the next time you see a lighthouse.
One day, the apostle wrote, we will know just like we are known. We will be known by the one and living God, and we will know then more than we know now of the richness and beauty of God and all creation. We will make it to the top of those lighthouse stairs, walk around that observation deck of glory, and see to the horizon in every direction.
Now, however, we know only what is in the confines of this round wall. It is a stone wall, and we are walking on a steel staircase. There are people in front on us, and people behind us. We cannot see anything outside. We know only what those in our excursion party know or remember or think. We are climbing together, limited in what we understand, limited in what we anticipate.
Except every so often we come to a window. There are four of them in the lighthouse on St. Simons Island. Two that face the north and two that face the south. It is little more than a slit in the stone face, not as big as the stones used to construct the outer wall. At each of these small vertical windows, there is a landing, a place to stop, rest, and stare out the window.
It is an opening to a larger more beautiful world. From each landing, you can see more than you can from the inside. You can look across the St. Simons Sound, for instance, to Jekyll Island, Driftwood Beach, and perhaps Sidney Lanier Bridge spanning the Brunswick River. You can’t see to the East, or North, or West. Only South.
The tower is nice. It is strong. The stones are beautiful, exquisitely cut. The steps are sturdy. It is mostly dark inside. But every now and then on our climb to the top we come to a resting place, this stopping place. There is a window, and we see things we have never seen before. We feel things; we think things. We believe things; we hope things.
“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, every round goes higher, higher.” We hurry toward the top of the stairs, anticipating the observation deck from which everything can be seen.
Jacob was on a journey. You recall his story. He knew the family history, the famous encounter of Abraham his grandfather when their tribal God promised him a future, a family, even a fortune. Jacob knew the stories of his family of faith. But you can only go so far on the faith of another.
Jacob was not climbing a lighthouse but was running away. He had double crossed his brother and needed to leave town. He was alone, and lost, and tired. Jacob laid down to sleep in a strange place. It turned out, by the grace of God, to be just the landing he needed, just the place for God to open up for him a break in some tribal stone wall.
The encounter the Bible describes was, as it were, like peering through a crack in the sky. He saw beyond. He saw above. He heard something deeper, truer, even revolutionary. It was for him, like looking through that lighthouse window. He could not see everything, but he saw more than he had ever seen before.
He later described it as a vivid dream, of a ladder with one end on the earth and the other resting on the portals of heaven. Angels were coming and going from this world into that world. This vision shook his worldview, as we would say today. It challenged his understanding of God, and grace, and family, and tribe. “God is in this place,” he said in summary, “and I did not know it.” He learned that God is not confined to the ideas and altars of his family tradition. God is everywhere, engaging everyone, transforming the faith and life of people everywhere.
The Hebrew Bible gives us another example. Amos and Micah were prophets, preachers, poets, seeking to know and love God. They were part of the same excursion group, eight centuries before the birth of Jesus. If not side by side, they were at least in the same traveling bunch: up those steel steps with ambitions to reach the top.
Somewhere along the way, resting on some steel platform and peering through some forgotten break in the stone wall of tradition, they saw something new.
As they stared at whatever it was, they were convicted of this: God is interested not so much in worship order, religious doctrine, and sacred ceremonies. God is concerned about justice and righteousness. “What does God require of you,” Micah famously asked, “but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” Amos echoed that with the call that Martin Luther King made famous for our generation, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
It is wonderful what we can see in a narrow slit in the stone wall of assumptions.
Centuries later, some women were going round with Jesus and those set aside as disciples. They kept to their place, struggling to understand the kingdom of God and the emerging righteousness that Jesus talked about. Until that morning, on the third day after Jesus died, they also peered through a sudden opening in the universe, a wrinkle in time, one writer put it. The gospel story said they were looking for something familiar, safe, heart-warming. They were looking for the Jesus they knew and loved.
But what they saw from their landing in the lighthouse was something they had never seen before. They did not see the Jesus of Nazareth, with his beard, and bare feet, and bold ideas. They saw into eternity. They saw resurrection. They got the first glimpse of the transformation that, unknown to them, extended as far as the eye could see in all directions. Through their slit in the first-century stones of tradition, they saw more that they could imagine.
They went running to the men, saying, “You won’t believe what we just a saw!” And the men didn’t!!
A few years later came Simon Peter. He stopped at the landing on his journey to the top. For him, you recall and told in The Acts of the Apostles, it was the roof. He went there to observe the rituals of his Jewishness: prayer, fasting, guarding against association with unclean people and unapproved ideas. While stopped at this self-chosen platform, he looked out a small window into an alternative universe. He saw Jesus throwing a party for all the unclean, excluded people he could name. He watched through that slit in the stone wall of his first-century religion. For a moment, he looked into eternity, into glory, into the face and smile of Jesus.
That must have been the experience of this ancient psalmist.
He or she lived in the midst of expanded temple worship, with all its rules and regulations, with its guidelines on membership and leadership and access, with its limited understanding of the world, its creator God, and those chosen to guard all of this from contamination.
Traveling with his tribe up the lighthouse steps, this psalmist found his own platform, peered through his small window that opened to him, and saw all the people of the world: red, and yellow, black and white; young and old and in between; Jew and Gentile, Christian and Muslim, believer and unbeliever, ancient and modern—he saw this great host.
He burst out with the blasphemy of his day:
Praise the Lord, all you nations.
Praise the Lord of Israel, all you people of the earth.
God’s unfailing love for all of us is powerful;
the Lord’s faithfulness to all of us endures forever.
Praise the Lord! (Psalm 117)
I have had a few experiences like this in my life, on my journey, haven’t you? When God took me by the hand, pointed to an opening in the walls of doctrine and the stones of superstition, and asked me, “What do you see? What do you feel? What do you think?”
As often as not, standing on the steel platform of some divinely ordained lighthouse, I have not known what to think, how to feel, what to say. But those moments are precious. They transformed me, bit by bit, from one degree of glory to another. Thanks be to God.
Let’s keep climbing. Let’s stop here and there to catch a vision bigger and broader than we ever imagined. When we get to the top, we will see it all, in every direction.