A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, May 5, 2019
St. Dunstan’s Anglican Church, Largo, FL
The Very Rev. J. Michael Strachan
I want to talk this morning about the book of Revelation. There’s always a bit of danger in this for a few reasons. First, American Christianity has gotten so off course when it comes to its eschatology and how to interpret the book of Revelation that at times it can feel like, to take one step forward, you need to take ten steps backward first and correct all the missteps. I don’t intend to spend a lot of time backtracking this morning, so we’ll try and keep it simple, but suffice it to say that the success of the Left Behind books and movies shows just how off track the American church is in its thinking about eschatology. Second, the book itself is extremely difficult to interpret, and some of the greatest Christian commentators of all time, perhaps most notably John Calvin, decided to take a pass instead of trying to write a commentary on this difficult book.
So, one, most of what American Christianity believes about the end times is just wrong, and two, that’s at least in part because the book of Revelation is incredibly difficult to interpret and understand. And part of the reason it is so difficult to interpret and understand is that it’s a book written in code. I watched that movie The Imagination Game a while back, and it tells the story of Alan Turing, who was able to crack the code of the Nazi’s Enigma machine and help end World War II. Reading Revelation is not the same thing, but it’s similar.
Everything John writes is written in code. Most of the code isn’t as complex as the Enigma machine, but still, it’s written in code, and the one thing you can’t do when you have a message written in code is take it literally. The second you take what you’re reading literally and forget that it’s been written in code, the game is over, and you’ve lost. Everything is written in code. Everything is symbolic. You almost have to repeat it to yourself over and over as you read this book because it’s so easy to fall into the trap of literalism.
With all of that in mind, let’s look at Revelation 5 this morning. By Revelation chapter 5 John has already introduced his book, inserted the seven letters to the seven churches that give them some instruction for the present time, and then at the start of chapter four, his vision turns to the heavenly throne room. What John sees, which is a vision in two parts, is something like the events in heaven right at the time of the ascension. Chapter four describes the general worship of creation which has been going on since the foundation of the world. The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders, representing all created things and all rule and authority on earth, worship God forever saying, ‘Worthy are you, 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’” (Rev 4:11).
This vision is the normal order of the world. John sees in an encoded vision what’s going on in heaven while the world seems to be in chaos below. Much of this imagery is drawn from the book of Daniel, and you’ll remember that in Daniel 7 the four beasts come up out of the chaotic sea to cause problems on earth. In contrast, in heaven, the sea is flat like glass, because all is calm, and instead of four beasts causing problems we get four living creatures who continually praise God forever. There is order in heaven even if there is disorder down below.
But the problem is this: the order in heaven of its own can’t fix the disorder down here. Something has to happen. Creation needs to be brought back into its proper order, and so, as we turn to chapter five, we find the solution. There is a scroll, something like the charter deed of creation, that has the plan to fix and new the world. To take the scroll though, someone has to be worthy, like someone taking the Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor. To fix the world someone has to take the scroll, break its seal, and enact the plan written inside, except no one is worthy.
“And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.” Here we see the story of the Bible and particularly the story of Israel. No one is worthy. God has given humanity a task to complete on this earth but all of us have fallen short, and all of us are, on our own, unworthy of the task given by God to humanity. But the scene continues: “And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals”(Rev 5:2–5). Where all of humanity if unfaithful or faithless, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Messiah, David’s son, Jesus Christ has been faithful.
And so John turns and looks to behold the glorious King of Israel, the powerful Son of David, the powerful conqueror that we all want Jesus to be because deep down we want Judas Maccabeus and not Jesus, but instead when he turns his head what his finds isn’t a Lion at all. It’s a lamb, a slain lamb who somehow still stands. John here’s one thing, “here’s the one who has overcome” and he turns and sees something that he doesn’t expect, the one who overcomes is the one who dies and rises again. That’s what strength looks like according to the heavenly realm because the way up is the way down and the way of the Lord is the way of the cross.
And because Jesus chose the way of the cross, because he chose the path of self-humbling, he is worthy to take the scroll and open its seals. And the opening of the seals is the unfolding of the rest of the book of Revelation, which should give you an idea of what it’s actually about. After all this time of praising God for creation in heaven, finally a new song is sung: “And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev 5:9–10)
So what has the slain lamb done? He has ransomed people from every nation and people on earth and made them into one people, a people composed of kings and priests to God, and he promised them a day would come that they will reign on earth. That is essentially the plan in the scroll. The renewal and restoration of humans to be the people God has called them to be, for God’s people to rule as Christ ruled and overcome as Christ overcame and to be priestly intercessors for the world. That is our vocation. That is why God has redeemed us and left us here on earth. To be his kings and priests. [And if you don’t see the reference to the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in the title of this sermon and don’t get the obvious connection to the Chronicles of Narnia where Aslan makes the children of Adam and Even kings and queen, then here, I’m being explicit about it.
And because Christ has done this, because the Lion of the tribe of Judah has become the slain lamb who still stands, because he has ransomed people from every country and people on earth, because he has made us all into one new people and made us kings and priests to serve him on earth, because he has broken the seals and enacted God’s plan to renew and restore creation until that great day when he can hand the finished kingdom over to his God and Father, he and the Father (and the Spirit with them) are worthy of our praise forever and ever. That’s why we gather on Sunday. That’s why we pray and read our Bible and share our lives together because the risen slain lamb is worthy of all our praise for all our days.
“Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands,saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever! ”And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.” And so when we worship, our worship, our amen, joins the heavenly chorus. Our amen isn’t just a short response to whatever the priest just prayed or said; it is the voice of the four living creatures, the voice of all creation, crying out through us and calling back to its creator and redeemer God, saying, “Yes, Lord, you are forever worthy of our praise for you have made us and you have saved us, and through us you are making all things new.”