It seems in some ways appropriate that Revelation 5 begins with a sob but ends with a hymn. That, after all, doesn’t just encompass part of the range of emotions within which God’s adopted sons and daughters generally live. It also follows the arc along which God wants to move God’s beloved people. That’s why it’s in some ways regrettable that the RCL omits the sobs and God’s gracious response to them from the text it appoints for this Sunday.
Preachers and teachers who follow the RCL’s guidelines for preaching on the epistles will want and need to prepare hearers for our proclamation of Revelation 5:11-14. Much, after all, elapses between last Sunday’s Revelation 1:4-8’s Epistolary Lesson and this Sunday’s lesson.
After spending chapters 2 and 3 explaining why the churches to which he writes need to hear Revelation’s message, John basically begins to “reveal” what God is doing not in the world in which those churches live. Revelation 4 describes the spectacular heavenly throne room (and King) from which that activity is being directed.
Yet Revelation 5 begins with grief over the fact that no one can seem to reveal God’s plan for God’s redemption of God’s creation. In essence, it seems as if the grief flows from that fact that no one can figure out just what God is doing in God’s world.
One of the heavenly elders, however, signals that there’s no real reason for that grief. He tells John that One can open that scroll that contains God’s plan. He’s “a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain” (5:6). He is able to unlock the mysterious scroll that reveals God’s plan for everything God has created.
This unleashes what we might call a rousing hymn sing that culminates with this Sunday’s RCL Epistolary Lesson. Its imagery invites God’s beloved children imagining a celestial organist pulling out all the stops as she leans on its keys. Or a massive choir belting out a hymn in mezzo forte mode.
The choir the heavenly director leads includes perhaps millions of angels who surround the living creatures as well as elders that encircle the Lamb’s throne. It’s a breathtaking scene that nearly defies human imagination or description. Yet it leaves us with the sense that every last heavenly being is belting out their praises to Jesus the Lamb who gave everything to redeem people of every background.
This massive, glorious choir sings three hymns in Revelation 5. The first praises the Lamb not only for redeeming his adopted brothers and sisters, but also turning those siblings into kingdom and priests. The second hymn, of which this Sunday’s Lesson is a part, offers Jesus the Lamb that of which he is “worthy” (12): all the power, wealth, wisdom, strength, honor, glory and praise the creation can muster.
Walter Taylor (Preach This Week: April 18, 2010) says the word axios (“worthy”) was a political term with which John’s contemporaries would have been very familiar. Taylor compares it to the “Hail to the Chief” that bands play upon the entrance of the president of the United States. After all, Roman crowds were expected to shout “Worthy! Worthy! Worthy is the emperor!” when Rome’s emperor appeared in public.
Of what, then, does Revelation 5’s majestic chorus claim not the emperor but the Lamb is axios? Absolutely everything. Even the number of attributes the chorus assigns to the Lamb – 7 — affirms that. The number seven is, after all, one of the biblical symbols of completeness and perfection.
The majestic chorus’ hymn announces that, as N.T. Wright (Revelation for Everyone, Westminster John Knox, 2011, 57) notes, “The wealth and strength of the nations belongs to him; everything that ennobles and enriches human life, everything that enables people to live wisely, to enjoy and celebrate the goodness of God’s world – all this is to be laid at [the Lamb’s] feet.”
Verse 12’s hymn is the kind that lingers on the lips of Christians who have recently passed through Holy Week’s memories of Jesus the Lamb crucifixion into the Easter’s season’s “hallelujahs.” Yet those who preach and teach it don’t want to ignore its image’s apparent incongruity. Who on earth, after all, can imagine a slaughtered lamb receiving all that praise … and more? Only those whose imaginations the Spirit of Jesus the Lamb shapes.
But then, as if myriads of angels, heavenly hosts and elders’ just can’t muster enough praise, every creature somehow rises up to join them in Revelation 5’s third hymn of praise. As my colleague Scott Hoezee wrote in a stirring earlier commentary (April 2016) on Revelation 5, “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 [more] 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.”
Again, however, those who proclaim Revelation 5 will want to note the incongruous nature of the recipients of that universal hymn. We can understand how the One who sits on the throne (13) receives all that praise and honor and glory and power forever and ever. But a slaughtered Lamb? Go figure!
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s imagery is mysterious and breathtaking. However, since its language is also apocalyptic, those who proclaim it do well to handle it with a somewhat “light touch.” After all, its inspired truths come to its readers embedded in poetry. Revelation 5’s proclamation may call for a poetic, lyrical approach instead of a “three points and a poem” approach.
While perhaps especially 21st century Christians sometimes assume Revelation predicts our own future, biblical scholars remind us that it’s first of all addressed John and his first readers’ current realities. In fact, some scholars have talked about its application for John’s contemporaries, the Church universal and the time of the return of Jesus Christ.
That it to say John didn’t just speak Revelation for his contemporaries or for people near or at the end of measured time. He also speaks to every era as well as each adopted daughter and son of God. Revelation 5’s song of hope is for all those who want to follow Jesus into the future contained in that scroll and mapped out by God.
It is, to say the least, a message that’s appropriate for every time and place. The book of Revelation graphically describes the spiritual and political darkness that enveloped its first readers. However, 21st century readers also find ourselves wrapped in all sorts of spiritual and political darkness.
It remains tempting to suspect that the darkness may even finally win the day. This Sunday’s text reminds its readers of all times and places that no political or spiritual might but that of the slain but risen Lamb is both in charge and will win the final victory.
So those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might respond by rhetorically asking, “If the Lamb is worthy to receive the whole creation’s power and wealth, doesn’t he also deserve our offerings of our authority and wealth? If the Lamb deserves the whole creation’s wisdom and strength, doesn’t he also deserve to have all of our wisdom and strength devoted to the service of our neighbors and him? If the Lamb deserves all that honor and glory and praise, doesn’t he also deserve our wholehearted and unending worship and praise?”
The biblical theologian Elizabeth Achtemeier adds a kind of creation stewardship perspective on texts like Revelation 5. She notes that when a species goes extinct, verse 13a’s universal chorus shrinks. When someone wantonly takes even just one human life, that chorus also becomes a little bit quieter. Might that at least suggest that our own hymn of “praise” includes being better stewards of each of the members of Revelation 5’s majestic chorus?
While people offer a lot of what someone has called “measured praise,” in his delightful book, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (HarperOne, 1993), Frederick Buechner writes, “The way the 148th Psalm describes it, praising God is another kettle of fish altogether. It is about as measured as a volcanic eruption, and there is no implication that under any conceivable circumstances it could be anything other than what it is.
“The whole of creation is in on the act – the sun and moon, the sea, fire and snow, Holstein cows and white-throated sparrows, old men in walkers and children who still haven’t taken their first step. Their praise is not chiefly a matter of saying anything because most of creation doesn’t deal in words. Instead the snow whirls, the fire roars, the Holstein bellows, the old man watches the moon rise. Their praise is not something that at their most complimentary they say but something that at their truest they are.
“We learn to praise God not by paying compliments but by paying attention. Watch how the trees exult when the wind is in them. Mark the utter stillness of the great blue heron in the swamp. Listen to the sound of the rain. Listen how to say ‘Hallelujah’ from the ones who say it right.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 5, 2019
Revelation 5:11-14 Commentary