April 14, 2013
“Worthy is the Lamb”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 singing with full voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”
13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might
forever and ever!”
14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.
I told the crowd last week that I don’t like the book of Revelation and I struggle with it. The Greek word that the book takes its title from, apocalypse, means unvealing or uncovering or revealing but I find this book shrouded in mystery. And I am not alone. Martin Luther wrote, “My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it.”
But we do meet Christ in this book and especially in this passage. In this season of Easter, and we are in Eastertide until we get to Pentecost, we are getting a good dose of Revelation but for good reason I think. Revelation shows us in vivid pictures what Christ’s resurrection accomplishes on a much bigger scale than we could ever imagine.
We “get” Revelation better because we see it through resurrection lenses.
John is in exile when he has this vision that he can barely describe and he uses the images straight out of the Hebrew scriptures to help tell the story. And it is hard for us, who didn’t grow up chewing on the Torah for breakfast, to grasp all the imagery and meaning that John was trying to convey. Nearly three-fourths of the verses in the book contain either a direct or indirect reference to something in the Old Testament.
And interpreting this book has challenged believers for centuries. There is one Word of God but it comes to us in many different kinds of words – in poetry and narrative and history and wisdom sayings and apocalypses, written by many different people – prophets and kings and apostles and historians.
So it would be a mistake to read poetry the same way you would read history, or to read the letters the same way you would read Proverbs. Apocalyptic writing is not meant to be read as history or as if it were a collection of coded predictions to figure out. Instead we bring to it a different set of reading skills, like imagination and emotion, and discover that Revelation’s profound message is about God’s vision of hope for our world in light of the resurrection.
Starting at chapter four of Revelation, which we read last week, John has been taken up in spirit to the throne room of the universe where he encounters the symbols of the entirety of creation worshipping the creator for no other reason than that God is who God is.
They sing, ““Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.”
And the twenty four elders around God’s throne sing,
“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”
You will notice that there is quite a lot of singing in Revelation.
Kathleen Norris writes: “I am attracted to the Revelation also because it was Emily Dickinson’s favorite book of the Bible, and because it takes a stand in favor of singing. In fact, it proclaims that when all is said and done, of the considerable noises human beings are capable of, it is singing that will endure. A new song — if you can imagine — and light will be what remains. I find this a cause for hope.” More than fifteen hymns are sung in the book of Revelation. One pastor wrote that Revelation was not given to us to interpret, but to sing!
Singing, and worship itself, in Revelation is a radical re-orientation, and so really should be our worship here on earth. Dan came across a definition of worship as roughly, a corporate act by a community that provides a new perspective.
And John and the people he was writing to desperately needed a new perspective – when all you see around you is suffering and persecution of Christians, and the might and power and influence of the Roman empire, you might lose perspective. You might need a radical new vision of God’s bigger story.
And there is more to these hymns than meets the eye.
They were subversive. John’s revelation was not only this grand, dazzling vision of God’s glory, but it also pulled back the curtain, like in the climactic scene in the movie the Wizard of Oz, on Roman power – it is not the great eternal power it claims to be. Only God, only Christ, is worthy of worship.
Thousands upon thousands of angels sing, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
That word “worthy” was a well-known political term in the Greek-speaking part of the Roman Empire. Just as today the band plays “Hail to the Chief” when the President of the United States enters a large gathering, so in the first centuries the crowds were trained to shout, “Worthy! Worthy! Worthy is the emperor!” when the Roman emperor appeared in public.
It is the Lamb, Jesus, who is worthy, and no one else, no matter how much power they claim to have. And John and his contemporaries needed to hear that. And with so many things in our lives vying for our allegiance, perhaps we need to hear this too.
As we read through chapter 4 and into chapter 5 the worship is building. At the start of chapter 5 God is holding a scroll that is sealed and the angel asks, “who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” And no one is found – God’s plan cannot be completed – no one is worthy. And John weeps over this.
But then he is told that the powerful Lion of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed and he is able to open the scroll. This is an announcement of victory and it is worthy of celebration.
The root of David was understood to be a David-like warrior messiah who will fight God’s battles and wreak havoc on God’s enemies. The great Lion of Judah is who we have been waiting for all this time, who will set things right with righteous power and indignation.
And John turns to see the lion, and is met with an entirely different sight. It is hard to imagine the radical bait and switch that takes place.
One commentator calls this the most mind-wrenching rebirth of images in all of literature. Instead of a Lion, there stands a lamb.
This is the first time John uses the word lamb to describe Jesus in Revelation and it becomes his dominant description for Jesus; he uses it twenty-nine times. And the word in the Greek isn’t just lamb – it is more diminutive. One commentator suggested “lamby-kins” if that didn’t sound so silly.
It is a little lamb. And the lamb is not just a lamb, but a slaughtered one. We discover with John that the Lion and the lamb are one in the same. And we are reminded that this whole salvation business does not happen the way we thought it would.
I have seen sheep slaughtered. I was in Egypt, staying at a seminary in Cairo during one of the big Islamic festivals, the Eid Al-adha, which celebrates the slaughter of a sheep by Abraham in place of Ishmael (their story goes a little differently). The sheep were gathered in pens in the streets, and we managed to find a family who was willing to allow a group of Christian seminary students to watch the ritual slaughter of the sheep.
It was quick – the sheep didn’t see it coming. And I was struck by how stupid sheep are (not saying that Jesus was stupid) – and just how defenseless. The Lion of Judah being replaced by the slaughtered little sheep, is like expecting the Incredible Hulk and instead having a new born infant placed in your arms.
We are not saved by a show of force, but by suffering love. God awes us in ways we never saw coming.
This depiction of Jesus as the slain sheep shows God in the most vulnerable way possible. I mentioned the TED talk by Brené Brown in a sermon not too long ago about the Prodigal Son.
The youngest son has brought shame upon himself and his family by, in essence, telling his father he wished he was dead, abandoning his parents when he should have cared for them until their death, selling the family land that had been theirs for generations – this shame separates him irrevocably from his community.
But his father forgoes everything, his honor and pride and dignity as a patriarch and runs like a girl, like a mother out to embrace his son and keep him from being cut off from the community and his family. The father takes away the son’s shame through his own vulnerability.
And Brené Brown has spent years studying people – and she says that people are hard-wired for connection. And after pouring over thousands of surveys and hundreds of interviews she found this thing that breaks connection, and it is shame – shame is what tells us that we are not worthy of love and connection. And she dug further and discovered that what restores connection is vulnerability – the willingness, for example, to forgive before the other person is sorry, or to be the first person to say, “I love you.”
And that is what God does. We were mired in this shame and sin with no way out, except for the vulnerability of God in Jesus, the lamb who was slain, who restores us, and we rejoice in this fact with all of creation.
Whatever we may be experiencing in this moment, Revelation reminds us that God said “I love you” first. The only thing left to do is to say, “Amen”- which is exactly where our passage ends.