For years, I never used the word “sovereign” as a noun. I knew it could be used in this way—”Like a sovereign,” writes Shakespeare “he radiates worth, his eyes lending a double majesty”—I just never did. But trial and tragedy have a way of waking us to words and realities overlooked. Creation is always groaning, at times loud enough to wake us. There was a season when any time I closed my eyes to pray I was leveled by an image of a throne, and it was empty. It was somewhere in the midst of this recurrent vision that I realized my neglect of the noun. Was God indeed the Sovereign who spoke and listened? I had often used the word as an adjective. But adjectives, like good moods, seem to come and go.
The prophet Jeremiah depicts a Sovereign who cannot come and go, simply because He is. God’s sovereignty is not a coat that can be taken off when all is going well or when all is going poorly on a global scale. God does not cease to be the Sovereign though the world refuses to see it or “distant” seems a better adjective. God’s words are not stripped of their sovereignty when no one is listening or no one responds. The Sovereign of all creation is always sovereign, working, and near. We may be inconsistent, but God is making all things new.
Nicholas Roerich, The Last King. Empty throne., 1922, private collection.
Jeremiah chapter 6 begins with an image of the Sovereign speaking to a people uninterested in hearing, an honorable Judge whose words are dishonored. “To whom shall I speak?” the LORD inquires. The question is a lonely one, reflecting both the prophet who speaks and the Sovereign whose words are ignored. The inquiry also has the force of sarcasm: Why bother speaking to a people who won’t hear? But the words are not a commentary on God’s behavior; God is not throwing his hands up and suggesting the route of silence. Rather, it is a commentary on God’s words themselves, which are weighted with the compulsion to be heard. Though our ears dismiss or ignore, the Sovereign speaks and his words go forth with creative hope. “God is always coming,” says Carlo Carretto. “God is always coming because God is life, and life has the unbridled force of creation. God comes because God is light and light cannot remain hidden.”(1) God’s creative work from the throne restores and reshapes the world. There is a person enthroned in every word, bidding the world’s response to every call and every sound, inviting participation in the signs of new creation.
It is not a blind and stiff obedience God seeks, but a response appropriate for the Sovereign embodied in God’s words and concern for all creation. The people of Israel were responding with formality in sacrifice while acting shamefully in other areas. Today we might respond the same, making nods to religion in public or private, but missing the gift of following after the Most High, and hence, settling for something less than real humanity. For in their failure to listen, the Israelites were losing their ability to perceive altogether. “They acted shamefully…yet they were not ashamed; they did not know how to blush” (Jeremiah 6:15). Missing the invitation to kneel before the Sovereign of all creation and participate in the kingdom God longs for us to see, we lose something of what it means to be human itself.
I don’t know why the throne was empty every time I closed my eyes some years ago. Perhaps I had removed God from the throne long before sorrow hit like a roaring sea and seemed to remove everything in its wake. Perhaps God was ruling from the rooms where we needed God most. I don’t know. But the emptiness of the throne forced me to reexamine the one who inhabits sovereignty itself. Carretto’s words once again hit the gist of such examining: “The true problem is this: Is God an autonomous presence before you, like you before your friend, the bridegroom before the bride, the Son before the Father? […] Can you meet God as a person on your road and prostrate yourself before Him as did Moses before the burning bush? […] Can you experience his presence in the dark intimacy of the temple as did the prophets? In short, is God the God of transcendence, and thus the God of prayer, the God of what lies beyond things, or is God only the God of immanence, revealing Himself in the fruition of matter, in the dynamics of history, in the promise to free humanity?”(2) Is God the Sovereign you will trust at the center of all creation, even a creation that is presently and collectively groaning? Upon a throne high and lofty, God calls us to look closer, to strain toward the signs of one who is working to make all things new, to lean into the gifts of claiming a God who is also a Sovereign, and in so doing to find rest for our souls.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Carlo Carretto, The God Who Comes (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1974), 3.
(2) Ibid., Intro.