Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 10, 2016
Revelation 5:11-14 Commentary
Lucy pushes past the woolen and fur coats only to discover that the wardrobe’s back has disappeared and suddenly snow is crunching beneath her feet. Alice falls through the looking glass and lands in an enchanted realm where rabbits talk and mad hatters hold funny tea parties. The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another, his entire bedroom transformed into a jungle world that brought him to that place where the wild things are and where Max was king.
Over and again in literature, on television, and at the movies, the notion of parallel worlds has long intrigued us. What if, just beyond the veil of what our ordinary sight can perceive, what if there is another whole world waiting to be discovered? The possibility of parallel universes has long been a staple in science fiction. Something funny happens to the USS Enterprise and suddenly Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock find themselves on a different Starship Enterprise in a parallel world where everything looks familiar and yet where everything is the opposite from their usual world.
That’s the stuff of science fiction, but in the real world of science you can likewise hear a lot of talk about the specter of alternative realities, parallel universes, other dimensions in the space-time continuum to which we don’t have access. Maybe black holes are the portals to these different dimensions. Maybe cosmic string theory holds the clues to such things. Some atheistic scientists who find it difficult to explain the emergence of life in this universe (but who most assuredly do not want to give any room to the possibility of a Creator God being behind it all) claim that maybe right this very moment there are millions of alternative, parallel universes in existence. After all, if there are enough universes out there, even random statistics could suggest that somewhere in the midst of all those realities one would hit it lucky and lead to human life, and we are in the one universe that hit it right.
Of course, writer Greg Easterbrook once pointed out the irony in such theories. Because it is odd that the same scientists who belittle the “blind faith” of Christians somehow manage to spin out theories of whole universes for which there is not one shred of evidence. Tell the average scientist you believe in angels, and he will roll his eyes. “If you can’t see it, you shouldn’t believe in it,” she may claim. But then this same person may turn right around and deliver a one-hour scholarly lecture that suggests the existence of whole universes that eyes have not seen and ears have not heard. Talk about blind faith!
But the fact remains: whether it is Lucy tumbling into Narnia, Captain Kirk slipping into a mirror-opposite starship, or Max sailing off to where the wild things are, we remain curious about the idea of parallel dimensions and worlds. As Shakespeare had Hamlet say, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Indeed, and so now enter the apostle John. On a lonely island called Patmos one day, banished from the civilized world because of all his Jesus-talk, John suddenly slipped through a cosmic crack and fell into a whole new world every bit as strange and foreign as anything Alice saw in Wonderland and yet undeniably real as well.
One of the mistakes people often make about the Book of Revelation is thinking that this whole chronicle of what John saw and heard is about the future only. The Greek title of this book is Apocalypse, which also has a futuristic ring to it in popular speech. The “apocalypse” is about the end of all things somewhere down the road. When the apocalypse happens, it will be the end of the story, but until then, the story goes on and so the apocalypse is at least a little ways off yet. It is later, not now.
But the meaning of that original Greek word has to do with revealing something right now. It’s like that old TV game show Let’s Make a Deal. What is behind Door #1? What is inside the box that Carol Merrill is even now carrying down the aisle? You don’t know until someone reveals it to you. The door has to be opened, the box cover must be removed. That also counts as an apocalypse, as is someone whispering into your ear, “Psst, you’ve got a smudge of dirt on your nose” or “Pssst, your slip is showing, dear.”
The first three chapters of Revelation contain pointed messages for the churches that were in existence in John’s day. Those messages were every bit as relevant then as the announcements I made at the beginning of this service this very morning. There is no missing the contemporary nature of those first chapters, and yet somehow in our minds we shift gears once we get to chapter 4 and beyond. Suddenly we let our thinking about these words switch from something as up-to-date as the headline in today’s newspaper to something that extends deep into the mists of some indeterminate future time. But John himself doesn’t make any such break in reporting what he saw. It all flows together.
So do the people of God, world-wide and history-long. We are all one Church, one people, one holy gathering of God’s elect. We mostly think of “the church” as “my church,” the church on the corner. Maybe we get a bit broader in our thinking and ponder “my denomination.” But Revelation 5 wants you to think far more grandly and broadly. Certainly the vision John reports must have been inspiring to him. There he was, all alone on that remote island. For all he knew, he was the last Christian alive. Maybe the same Roman authorities who had already managed to murder Paul and Peter, James, Andrew, Stephen, and the other apostles had succeeded in wiping out everyone else, too. But then the Holy Spirit of God did the profoundly kind thing of pulling back the curtain so that John could peer into another dimension to reality, a parallel universe that we neither see ordinarily nor, alas, ponder very often, and yet it is every bit as real as the tile beneath your feet or the wood of the pew in front of you in this sanctuary this very moment.
John saw the communion of the saints, the one holy catholic and universal church that is never alone, is never without powerful forces guarding it. John saw the prayers of the saints as precious incense filling up golden bowls, reminding him and now all of us that no prayer is ever lost, no prayer is ever forgotten, no prayer is ever anything less than the most precious commodity in the cosmos, fully worthy of the opulent golden bowls that hold the prayers. But above all, John saw the Savior who is both Lion and Lamb, both that powerful Pantocrator we thought about some weeks ago and the humble creature who bears all over himself the marks of having been killed. In the deep magic of all reality, somehow the death of this being created a whole new reality that just is the one church of Christ, the communion of the saints, the ones now known as the kingdom of God who serve this God forever.
That is the vital fact we dare not forget. Because if that is what created us as a communion of saints, as a single and holy church, then that is also our charter. Since we owe our very existence as a community to that Lamb that was slain, we know that humble service and loving sacrifice need to be the hallmarks of us, too.
But in this harsh and brutal world, that can be difficult to remember. It doesn’t seem to make sense that the mild way of service and the meekness of sacrifice could accomplish anything. Ours is a world where might makes right, where it’s survival of the fittest, where nice guys finish last. The forces arrayed against the truth seem to be so powerful and so numerous. In this country we have in times past found it easy (maybe too easy) to presume that public policy and Christian doctrine would go hand in hand. But there are any number of issues of late that seem to go the other way. Popular opinion, and sometimes also the law of the land, are at variance with a few things we think the Bible teaches. Truth is, that has been the experience of most Christians throughout history, but we’re not accustomed to feeling like a minority voice and it frustrates us a little but maybe also frightens us a little.
Like John languishing on Patmos, we worry that we are outnumbered and outshouted. We fret that maybe ours could be a voice lost in the larger din of this noisy world. Those are the kinds of feelings that can lead to desperation, and desperation has a way of leading to violence, to unduly harsh rhetoric, to un-Christian acts of intimidation. But maybe it is precisely at a moment like that when we, too, need to have the curtain pulled back for us to give us a glimpse of what John saw. We are not alone. Our cause is not lost because, when you get right down to it, we cannot lose because the Lamb has already won!
Our faith shows us that what was revealed to John was not some future, hoped-for reality that may or may not come into existence somewhere down along the line. What John saw was real then and it is just as real right now, this very day as well. As the Catechism claims, we share in Christ and all his treasures and gifts and we do so in this present moment. The Holy Spirit is eager to pull back the curtain to show us yet again this fantastic vision of all those angels, of all those golden bowls filled with our prayers, of all those saints in glory. But the Spirit shows us this not to foster pie-in-the-sky optimism for the future but to shore us up to witness and work and serve today.
There is no cause for desperation, panic, or the kinds of clutching and clawing actions that can too easily result from the fear that we are on the losing side of history. Instead we have the calm confidence and the joyful repose that comes from having seen that the universe’s sovereign received all the power and honor and glory there is, and he did it by being the servant of all. For all the rest of us who are now called to be fellow servants in the communion of the saints, this provides more than a little encouragement to stick with our Lord’s program and with his way of running that program as well.
Revelation 5 ends with a most stirring image. We are told that in the end, it is not enough to have ten thousand times ten thousand angels singing out our Lord’s praises. The real capper comes when every last creature in the world, including those in the deepest oceans, likewise rise up to sing the doxology. You expect God’s holy angels to sing a song to Jesus the Christ, but perhaps nothing so vividly shows the scope of our God’s victory than the fact that eagles and dolphins, jaguars and hummingbirds, sandhill cranes and elephants will also give the Lamb honor and glory and praise forever and ever.
Have even these creatures gotten a glimpse of what is behind history’s curtain? If they have not yet, they will. That’s why they will sing. But by the Spirit of God, we have glimpsed this sacred apocalypse. We’ve seen it. We believe it. The only question that remains in the communion of the saints is whether or not this is making us sing with joyful confidence. Can you see it? Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! And with those four living creatures that John saw, all God’s people said, “Amen!”
Neal Plantinga once preached a sermon with the curious title “The Wrath of the Lamb.” We don’t usually expect lambs to roar any more than we could anticipate being frightened by a puppy or getting beat up by a baby who had just been baptized in a church service. Lambs, puppies, and babies inspire us to coo, to make exclamations of “Awww, how cute, how adorable, how cuddly!” Yet John gives us a Lamb that has been to hell and back, and if those scars are not enough to take us aback, there is also a fire burning now in that Lamb’s eyes–a fire that lets you know that an all-powerful Lion is in there, too.
And in fact, were you to read on into Revelation 6 and 7 as those seven seals of the scroll are undone, you would discover that just about every one of those seals unleashes terrible (and terrifying) forces of darkness, destruction, death, and judgment. It is not a pretty picture. But then, this world itself seldom presents what anyone would call a pretty picture. That’s why everything that is wrong with this world–its warfare and terrorism, its injustices and inequities, its love affair with murder and violence, its racism and discrimination of all kinds–all of it is going to be dealt with by the very Lamb of God who himself became a victim of this planet’s ugliness.
Just that is the key, however: the Lamb now receives accolades beyond the telling of it. Apparently you could not possibly exaggerate the honors due to Jesus. So we are told that all power, wealth, wisdom, strength, honor, glory, and praise get drawn toward Jesus like iron filings to a powerful magnet. But the reason is his bloody death, his awful sacrifice. Jesus rose to the top by sinking first to the bottom. For all the resplendent glory of Revelation 5, despite all the wonderful songs and choruses that have been composed based on these words, there can be no missing the prevalence of all that talk about death, about being slain, about being killed, and about the spilling of blood.
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