The Sunday Sermon: Third Sunday of Easter – May 5, 2019
Scripture: Revelation 5:(1-10) 11-14
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The Scroll and the Lamb
The season between Easter Sunday, only two short weeks ago, and Pentecost, June ninth this year, is called Eastertide. I always liked the maritime sound of this season. We “set sail” in a very real sense in this season, riding the tide of Easter Resurrection with our sails full of the “wind,” in our biblical languages the “Ruach,” the “Pnuema,” otherwise translated as the Spirit of God. In other words, the sails of our ships are full of the Spirit, blowing us where it will, toward the day we commemorate the arrival of … that same Spirit!
In five more Sundays we’ll once again celebrate the arrival of something that is always with us – God. We do that at Christmas. We eagerly await the Incarnation of God in human form, even as we know full well that God is already here in human form – in you and me. At Easter we eagerly await the Resurrection, even as we know full well that Resurrection is ours for the living, or the re-living, every moment of every day. We do this at Pentecost – eagerly await the arrival of the Holy Spirit that is already filling our sails and moving us forward into the life God intends. Good stuff.
This year, in this Eastertide season, our sails are full of the powerful and provocative Word of God as it can be heard in the book of Revelation. We are a community that doesn’t understand this Apocalypse for the simple reason that we don’t allow ourselves the opportunity to hear it. The Revised Common Lectionary, which we’re following (mostly) this season, includes only ten readings from the last book of our Bible. We read the first last week, part of the introduction in which John asserts that the rule of God and Jesus Christ have dominion over all other powers, including and especially for him and his contemporaries, Rome. In that introduction, John did not name and image God and Christ as simply the ones who “will be,” but as the ones who are and the ones who were. In other words the Ones who have always been. “God” and “Christ” are the Alpha and the Omega, have always been, always are, and always will be working in the world, against Empire, to end suffering and injustices. So then, should we … be … about such work. Are we? John seems to think we’re not. This morning’s reading and hearing sets the stage for the drama that will unfold in the weeks ahead.
Pray with me …
Before we read and hear the Word of God, a few of my own words. We study, explore, and explain Revelation to ourselves because it is in our Bible. But we must remember that John (of Patmos, not the Apostle and not the Gospel writer) did not write this as “the last book of the Bible.” That was not his intention, but the result of a canonization that happened centuries later. No, this was a letter to Christians he almost certainly knew and for whom he felt a pastoral responsibility. As with Paul and Peter and Timothy’s letters before this one in our biblical canon, this was not a private communication intended for silent reading, but was written to be read aloud in the worship services of the churches in Asia. That’s made perfectly clear in the third verse of the writing: Blessed is the one reads aloud the words of this book, and blessed are those who hear them.
It is very difficult, we may find it impossible and not a little bit unfaithful, to pick and choose a few verses for a few Sundays that are supposed to “explain” what is being revealed in Revelation. But choose we must in the few hours we’ve given ourselves to reveal all of God’s hopes and dreams for the world!
So, keep this in mind as we “pick and choose” our short passages for Sunday morning: At the end of the first century the Roman Empire is demanding conformity not only to its political and economic agenda, but to its religious and moral standards – to its worship of the Emperor and the Empire. The dispute in this book centers on how far Christians could go in conforming to these demands. John of Patmos takes a very hard line. Anyone want to guess? No conformity whatsoever!
The questions we must ask about this writing as we engage it on our way to Pentecost this year are not about what any of this has to do with the end of the world. We must ask ourselves how John is trying to change the way Christians look at their world. And not just “back then,” but right now. John will try in the weeks ahead, through this poor vessel’s (my) mouth, and through your ears, to communicate to us that only God and Christ are sovereign and worthy of worship; that trials will come and we can (and must) overcome them; that God loves us even as God holds us accountable for ending the suffering and injustice in our world, and; that in the proper understanding and worship of the true “God” we will be given the courage to be .. all we were created to be and to change not just ourselves, but the world, itself.
(I don’t know that a long introduction like all this won’t be a part of every week this Eastertide. We’ll have folks coming and going each Sunday, missing one, or two or more. But even those of us who will be every Sunday will need some sort of reminder every week that Revelation is not – not, Not, NOT – about how the world will end, but about how the world can and must change … through our faithful involvement in it. We’ll see …)
For now, we’ve got to get to our morning’s task. (I’m three pages into my sermon manuscript with very little scriptural work!) The few verses that we’ll read from the end of chapter five will not make much sense without noting their context. They are the culmination of a scene that began in chapter four. John has provided his introduction and delivered his messages to the seven churches in Asia Minor, chapters one, two, and three.
“After this,” chapter four begins, “I looked, and there in heaven stood a door open!” The scene shifts for us, now, from earth to heaven. Through the eyes of John, we are now witnesses to the splendors of heaven as he describes them here and throughout the rest of the writing. No other writing has so influenced our “picture” of what heaven looks like than Revelation, whether we realize it or not. The divine throne, a glorious court that surrounds it; a multitude of hosts offering ceaseless praise to God. And as chapter five begins, in the midst of all of this, a scroll … in the hand, the right hand, “of the one seated on the throne.” This is the scroll of truth, the “book” that contains the story of judgment. A writing that not only explains history but whose opening will set those events in motion.
But alas … “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth (is) able to open the scroll and look into it.” 5:3 We will never know. The truth of the universe, the path to Peace, the practice of Justice, the Way of Love is sealed and will go unheard, lost to the world who so desperately need to hear “what is written.” John weeps bitterly. So should we. I wonder if we would? We’re pretty comfortable with our own truth and our own paths and practices. Do we weep when God’s Truth goes unheard?
We’re spared the answer to that question because just as all seems lost, one of the elders speaks to John, speaks to us: Do not weep. There is One who can break the seals, who can read the truth, who can bring peace and justice, who has loved as God asks us all to love. The elder speaks of a Lion, but John turns to see a Lamb, “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.” 5:6 This is a critical moment of deliverance for us. This “symbol,” the identification of Christ with the Lamb, made throughout the rest of this book, suggests that an “act of witness”, at great cost – namely the witness of Jesus of Nazareth at the cost of his life – has turned the world upside down.
The Lamb takes the scroll from the right hand of God and the heavenly court breaks forth in song, praising and acknowledging this One as the only one, thus far, worthy to open the scroll. It’s at this climactic point in the vision that our reading comes.
Read Revelation 5:11-14. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Verses eleven through fourteen are a “great crescendo.” The heavenly court that broke forth in song earlier grows to include “many angels” along with “the living creatures and the elders,” and the numbers are now “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands.” By the end of our passage, “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea” is singing. Why?!
Because, John screams at us, all in “heaven” know and witness to what we know, too, but what we refuse to acknowledge – to ourselves, let alone to others: That sacrificial Love, love of self and neighbor and world that loves without counting the cost, that offers its own life for the life of others, that speaks truth to power in the face of Empire, is the only thing that can reveal anything worth revealing. That’s the Lamb. Love incarnate, the only thing that can break the seals on the scroll of Live and reveal the Truth about salvation.
Verses nine and ten, just before our reading, proclaim that “saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” have been made “to be a kingdom and priests serving” God on earth. How can they do that if there is no earth?! nThis is not now, nor will it be in the weeks to come, about the end of the world. It’s about a new beginning, a second coming that will happen only when we realize the first coming is the only one and we get with the program.
How is John trying to change the way we, Christians, look at our world here and now? Revelation, chapter five is the pivotal chapter in this book. A human being, he reminds us, shares the intimacy of God’s throne. Might that be you or me? Only if, and when, we understand that true power on earth comes not by force of arms or violent triumph, but by costly love and non-violent justice. Only if, and when, we actually live the life that is acceptable to God – not as the mighty of the world who attract fame and attention, are “worldly” wise, and who run the system best of all. But as who work in service to the victims of our worldly empires.
This is so difficult for us to hold onto when we are pressured from every side to conform to a culture of exaggeration that uses violence to maintain a status quo that serves the powerful and hides any and all oppression through blaming the victim, or imprisoning them – literally and figuratively, or avoiding them altogether. This is the way of Empire that John says the church, itself, has taken up. John is trying to “reveal to us” how our culture is based on violence in all its forms before it destroys us. His writing unmasks the fact that this violence lies at the base of human culture. We have an alternative pattern – a path that was first offered, not by a lion, but by the Lamb, the “One for others” revealed in our Gospels, the one who taught and lived, not death, revenge and destruction, but love, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
So the stage is set. This Third Sunday of Easter is not yet a day to proclaim judgment. Instead, we the faithful are offered an opportunity to join “every creature in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that I within them” in praising Love and a God who reaches out to all. There is one who has and will forever read from the scroll. We have heard it. What will it take for us to live into it?
Much wailing, John writes.
His depiction for the coming judgment is not only designed to comfort the afflicted, but to conflict the comfortable. Which are we? The answer to that question will likely be the best interpreter of the chapters to come. John will unabashedly declare that God’s sovereignty means an end to human control and human power structures. Those in his “world and time” will not find that comforting. What about us? We’ll find that out next week.
Blessed are the ones who read aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and keep what is written down. May it be us. Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / April 28, 2019