In case you missed it, last Sunday in worship we read from the 4th chapter of Revelation. Today our reading is from the 5th. We’re in the midst of a sermon series called Dream Big and we’re working our way through the last book of the bible. There’s no way we can cover all 22 chapters in just a few weeks so we’re focusing on a few that are particularly helpful in making sense of this book that can sometimes be hard to make sense of.
We began at the beginning—reading from the first chapter which reveals that what John writes is not some timeless, abstract vision. It’s not a play-by- play account of the end of the world. Its contents aren’t codes to be cracked by modern day Christians. It’s more like a letter from your pastor and it’s rooted: in a specific person, named John; in a specific time, the first century after Christ; and to a specific audience in a specific place—7 churches located in Asia. The churches were struggling to survive in a world dominated by ruling powers not aligned with God’s vision for the world. Some faced persecution, some were being corrupted by society; some had stopped taking faith seriously. These challenges are addressed in chapters 2 and 3 of the book.
Last week, reading from chapter 4, we found ourselves in the throne room with multi-winged singing animals and elders throwing crowns around—which seems a strange way to describe heaven. What is central in the scene though, is God—God the creator, is at the center of all things—always has been, always will be. John’s vision is to assure the church, then and now, about who God is.
This is a hopeful word. God is still God; not far off, at a distance watching the world self-destruct. God who created heaven, earth and all that exists continues to be at work in our midst, creating, renewing– until one day all things will be made new. That’s something to wonder about; something to be in awe of; something worth singing about. And so we do—every time we worship we draw from the language in Revelation: Blessed be the holy trinity, one God, the author of creation. We sing and praise God here and in the world that others might come to know the goodness of the Lord!
Today’s reading still has us gathered in the Throne Room with God at the center of all things. John’s eyes are drawn to the right hand of God which holds a sealed scroll. And while what’s written inside isn’t yet known—it can be presumed that because it’s held in God’s hand, it’s some sort of divine decree. Only someone properly authorized could break the seal to determine what’s inside and know God’s plan for the future.
Then, an angel’s voice is heard: “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” Hardly a moment passes before the hard truth comes out: no created being throughout heaven or earth is worthy to break the seals. John weeps at the news: we all fall short; none of us qualifies; there’s nothing we can do to earn favor with God or to count our self as one of the privileged with unique access to God.
You and I might want to weep at that truth too. Right? How much time and effort do we devote to building ourselves up—to looking good? Appearing smart? To being “right”, to having the admiration of others and the approval of God? We work to present a particular persona—of someone who’s got things figured out, who doesn’t need help, who’s doing just “fine”, thank you very much. We’re part of systems that move us up and keep others down.
This past week we’re reeling from the news of another police shooting that makes no sense, that never should have happened, an encounter that ended in the tragic death of an innocent person. Police are under immense pressure. People are calling for the resignation of civic leaders. Chaos seems to have new found control. There’s a lot about our lives that move us to tears.
Into this weeping, God’s story speaks: “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
That is the good news given in this part of Revelation. It’s a promise: there is hope. God’s plan includes all creation, all of us–you and me too– but it doesn’t depend on any of us. God’s plan for the world depends on only one—Jesus Christ which should lead us to wonder: who is Jesus?
Toward the end of his life, in a letter to a friend written from his prison cell, the pastor, theologian, activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “What is bothering me most incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed, who Christ really is, for us today. It is—or should be—a perennial question.
Who is Jesus? Any of you feeling courageous to share? How do you answer that question? Who is Jesus for you?
(Friend? Savior? God’s son? Shepherd?)
Your answers aren’t wrong and neither are they complete. Jesus is more than could ever be described by a word or phrase. We get that. But sometimes we forget that. The image John uses to reveal Jesus; it’s one that reminds us that Jesus isn’t always who or what or where we expect.
Back to the first chapter of Revelation and John describes Jesus as “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth”. The vivid image John gives in today’s reading is a slaughtered lamb.
John had heard he should look for a lion—an image that portrays strength and power; one who conquers through fear and by death–but that’s not who shows up. Instead, it’s a slaughtered lamb—an image of weakness and vulnerability, an image of one who’s been defeated and destroyed by death. This is who Jesus is. He doesn’t come in power. He comes in vulnerability. He doesn’t demonstrate his kingly status as a regal lion. He wears his wounds that all see the suffering he’s endured. He’s united with all who suffer unjustly. It’s through him that God’s purposes are revealed.
Every month Bethlehem Lutheran Twin Cities publishes a newsletter that communicates stories from the life of the congregation—at this campus and the one in Minneapolis. It’s available on line and if you’re somewhat computer savvy you can even have it automatically delivered to your inbox. It’s a great way to learn about the ministry and mission of the congregation; it’s also a way as a larger community to stay connected to each other through our stories.
In the upcoming August issue, I want to make sure you catch the Faith and Daily Life page—consistently one of my favorite pages because of the powerful stories people share about their various God encounters. This month there are stories from 2 people: Nan Peterson of the Minnetonka Campus and Naomi Staruch from the Minneapolis campus. Both of them recall particularly times of vulnerability in their life—experiences with suffering that included the revelation of God’s mercy and grace. Nan writes: “through this [experience} and several other instances of complete helplessness…I have come to realize that my faith is strongest and I am closest to my Lord when completely relying on him to see us through.”
If you want to know Jesus better, if you’re hungry to encounter Christ your best bet is to pay attention to places of vulnerability and to lean into the discomfort you find there.–places of uncertainty—like love, honesty, trust & compassion. These are the places the slaughtered lamb has already been; places where Jesus continues to be. Where there is vulnerability the presence of Jesus becomes most clear.
The closing scene of John’s vision in today’s reading is a cosmic song of praise that includes an immeasurable number of angels and living creatures—throughout heaven and earth. It’s a new song still sung today–heard every time you give voice to the wonders of God’s love, grace and mercy and every time you raise your voice on behalf of those most vulnerable in the world. Then, together, with all the world, may we join our voices“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’ AMEN!
 Letters and Papers from Prison, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. pg 279
 phrase coined by Brené Brown