Before one song was played by U2 during their famous Rattle and Hum concert tour of 1987, the band’s lead singer, Bono, was fond of saying, “This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We're stealing it back!" The song he referred to is a Paul McCartney tune recorded by McCartney and the rest of the Beatles nineteen years earlier, in 1968. It’s called Helter Skelter, a frenetic, screeching, relentless, driving, but altogether harmless rock song, which the demented Charles Manson claimed contained orders to him and his crazed followers to kill people, especially black people. After Manson and his group went on a murderous rampage and were taken to trial, the song Helter Skelter fell into disrepute. For years, no one played it. But in ’87, Bono and the rest of U2 were intent on rescuing Helter Skelter from its undeserved bad reputation. It worked. The song became a showstopper. For a number of years now, McCartney himself has felt it safe to play a song he once had been forced to put in mothballs.
I told the adult Sunday School class last week, as we prepared to begin this sermon series on Revelation, that I felt a bit like Bono and U2. Like Helter Skelter, the New Testament book of Revelation has an undeserved bad reputation pinned on it by kooks and financial opportunists. I hope that we, as Lutheran Christians, can help rescue Revelation from its disrepute. I hope that we can take Revelation back for the glory of God!
The stakes are much higher when we talk about Revelation, of course. It’s not a four-and-one-half-minute rock song; Revelation is one of the books that make up the inspired, perfect, inerrant Word of God. It’s important that we ignore those who misuse Revelation and overcome our own wariness of it, to hear and see what God wants to tell us on its pages.
Last week, I laid a general foundation for Revelation, talking about its main messages written, originally, to Christians in western Turkey who were facing persecution for their faith. In order to understand today’s lesson from Revelation, it’s important that we discuss a few other key background issues.
Most importantly, it's critical to remember that Revelation can be broken, broadly, into two big sections. Section one is made up of the first three chapters. There, John the Evangelist, the writer of Revelation, presents messages from the risen ascended Jesus, to seven churches in western Turkey.
When you come to chapter four of Revelation, you enter the second big section of the book, one that runs all the way to its end in chapter 22.
At the start of chapter 4, John says that while he was imprisoned, still exiled on the island of Patmos, he was simultaneously placed in the heavenly throne room, where he saw and witnessed extraordinary things.
This automatically sounds weird to you and me. But to the people living sometime between 81 and 96 AD, when Revelation was written, it wouldn’t have seemed weird at all. There was a well-established form of writing common among Jews, Christians, and even people of other Middle East religions, known as apocalyptic. You may remember from last Sunday that the book of Revelation takes its name from the very first word in the original Greek text, apocalupsis, meaning a revelation, or a lifting of the veil. The moment the first hearers or readers heard or saw that word, they no doubt would have known that they were about to hear an apocalyptic letter.
You can find examples of other apocalyptic literature in the book of Daniel and in sections from the book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament and in chapter 12 of Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, found in the New Testament. Apocalyptic literature always presents vivid first person accounts of believers who find themselves swept into heaven's throne room. The second section of Revelation is another example of this literary genre.
The two big sections of Revelation need to be seen as two sides of a single mysterious coin. Scholars might have other names for them, but I'm just a shirtsleeve preacher. So, I describe the two sides of Revelation as down and up, respectively. In chapters 1 through 3, Jesus comes down to John with a message for His earthly Church. Jesus cares about what happens in our everyday lives. He's a Lord unafraid to get His uniform dirty. Just as in His original incarnation, when the Word became flesh and lived among us, Jesus still comes to us in Word, in the Sacraments, and in the fellowship of Christian believers. In chapters 4 through 22, the risen Jesus pulls John up to the holiest of holies, allowing John to get a glimpse of what all who are faithful in following Him have to look forward to.
As chapter 4 begins, John says he walked through an open door to heaven. There, he sees an imposing throne. Around it are 24 smaller thrones for those John calls "the elders." Scholars tell us that these are probably composed of 12 for the 12 tribes of Israel and 12 more for the 12 apostles, representing the fullness of God’s reign over all the world.
John also sees four living creatures, each with four eyes, representing God’s capacity to watch over the entire universe at all times. (I always thought that my mom had eyes in the back of her head. John is saying that God really does see everything that happens to us!)
Just before our lesson in chapter 5, John writes that he saw a scroll sealed by seven seals. You know that in the ancient world, before kings and important people sent documents, they would use wax to seal them and imprint them with their rings or signets. No one but the recipient was authorized to break those seals.
The scroll sealed with seven seals, the number of them representing the perfect, complete sovereignty of God, detailed the future of our fallen world, what is to become of a world imprisoned by sin and death and afflicted with problems. In John's presence, it's determined that there is no one there worthy of opening up the seals, nobody with the power or perfection to move the future of humanity beyond the grave.
On hearing this, John says that he wept bitterly. An elder tells John to stop his weeping, that the Lion of Judah, the descendant of David, can open the scroll and the seven seals. Suddenly, on the throne of God, John saw a Lion Who was at the same time “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.”
John’s apocalyptic scene is different from others you might read in the Bible or elsewhere. As one scholar points out, it’s almost a parody of the standard apocalyptic throne room scenes. Here's why: When we think of a conquering deity, we think almost exclusively as first century people did: of powerful beings which, in human form, have straight white teeth, are always in perfect health, bestride the world unencumbered by opposition or challenge, and whose every hair is always in place. This is how Jesus is often portrayed in popular imagination. But when God told Isaiah how the Messiah would look some six centuries before Jesus’ birth, that’s not how God said the One we know as the Lion and the Lamb would appear at all. In Isaiah, we learn that Jesus will have
no form or majesty that we should look at Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him…despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;…one from whom others hide their faces…held…of no account.In heaven, the clear object of worship, on the throne with the Father (actually sharing the throne with the Father) is One Who is described both as a Lion and as “a slaughtered Lamb,” sacrificed for your sins and mine!
Then we come to the verses of our lesson in Revelation, chapter 5. John sees myriads of myriads (a myriad is 10,000) and thousands of thousands of living creatures singing the praises of the Lamb. Some of the words they sing are undoubtedly familiar to you:
Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!... To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”For us this morning, the take-away message is simple, important, and relevant.
This past week, one of our young members, considering all of the earthquakes and disasters being reported in the news these days, wondered if the end of this world might be coming upon us soon.
I understood why she might ask that. It’s easy to get caught up in the panic and fears on which the world, the devil, and even we ourselves like to feed.
But we need not fear! The One Who was and is and is to come, has already conquered sin and death. His kingdom has already begun. We are already safe in His hands even if, like John the Evangelist and the early Christians to whom he first wrote Revelation, we face persecution, difficulties, or death. The Lamb of God Who was slaughtered for our sin and Who alone is worthy to break the seals on our destinies, has control of the future.
Instead of spending time or energy on fear, we should use our lives to do something else. We get an important insight into what that something else is by looking at one single word used by the myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands as they sing to Jesus, the Lion and the Lamb. Do you know which word it is?
It's worthy. They sang that Jesus was worthy to break the seals on eternity, worthy of their praise and glory. Our word worship is a contraction of the Old English word, worthship. When we worship the God we know in Jesus Christ, we join the myriads of myriads and the thousands of thousands in declaring Jesus’ “worth-ship,” the unmatched, superior, eternal worthiness of Jesus. By His suffering, death, and resurrection, Jesus has made Himself, worthy of our utter and complete devotion!
We’re called to worship Jesus not just when we gather here on Sundays, but also in our everyday lives. We worship Jesus in...
- how we respond to His Word and will,
- how we love our neighbor,
- how we fight injustice against the weak and despised of the world,
- how we strive to do our very best as parents, students, citizens, employees, employers, and neighbors, and
- how we share the Good News of Jesus with others.
The Lamb of God is worthy of all our worship, honor, devotion, and love. The God Who comes down and lifts us up is worthy of all our praise!
This world is a fragile, fleeting thing. It has come into being and it will one day pass out of being. But the kingdom of Jesus Christ is eternal. This is the word of God we find in today's lesson in Revelation: Christ has given all for us; in lives spent in worship of Christ, we give our all back; then, come what may, we leave the future to Him, certain of His love and His good will for our eternal destinies. Amen