Grace to you and peace from the One who is and who was and who is to come, and from Christ Jesus, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. Amen. (Revelation 1:4)
When I was a kid, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was broadcast on tv once a year, and my family dutifully watched it. I saw it numerous times, and I always knew what would happen, but for the first few years, my viewing followed the same pattern:
My eyes would get big when the tornado hit and the house was carried away.
I would close my eyes when the wicked witch of the west discovered that Dorothy’s house had landed on her sister, and I would run to an adjacent room to hide under the desk when the flying monkeys made their first appearance.
Gradually, I would make my way back into the room to watch Dorothy look into the crystal ball, and I would be fully seated in front of the tv when Toto pulled back the curtain to reveal that the power of the Wizard was different than things had appeared.
We are in the midst of a sermon series on the Book of Revelation, and the pattern I just described is maybe not so different from how many of us approach this last Book of the Bible. We are wide-eyed with wonder because it is strange and confusing. We would like to close our eyes or even run and hide from parts of it because it’s terrifying. And yet, we are drawn to parts of the Book because it contains beautiful imagery and words that soar off the page in song providing hope and comfort.
In his book, Revelation and the End of All Things, Craig Koester traces the history of the church’s quest to understand the Book of Revelation. Is it a prediction of the future? Or does it hold timeless truth not tied to specific, future events?
Christians have grappled with these questions for over 1800 years, and there have been a variety of strong-held perspectives. It might not surprise you that mainline churches like the Lutherans have actually not had a lot to say about Revelation. “Christians in these churches,” Koester says, “often treat Revelation with the kind of uneasy silence that is usually reserved for the more eccentric members of one’s extended family…like the distant cousin who doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the family.” 1
As we have noted before, the first word in the Book of Revelation is revelation, which in Greek is apokalypsis – apocalypse. While we have other associations with the word, apocalypse actually means “unveiling,” and it’s an ancient genre of literature. Apocalypses pull back a curtain to unveil or reveal some truth about the world. And while this genre is confusing to us, it would not have been so for the ancients. They were familiar with the structure and imagery, just like we’re familiar with science fiction or horror movies today.
In this form of literature, there’s often a visionary journey that takes a person to the future or the past, up to heaven or down to the underworld. The traveler encounters unusual creatures or images and comes back with an urgent message for other people.
In Revelation, the urgent message is that Christians are to be faithful in worshiping God and not Rome. “Like Toto in the Wizard of Oz,” Barbara Rossing says, “Revelation pulls back the curtain to expose the fact that Rome is not the great eternal power it claims to be. Rome must not be worshipped.” 2
Two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire celebrated victory; in fact, they worshipped victory. They had a Roman goddess of military victory who name was Victoria in Latin or Nike in Greek. Yes, Nike. She was portrayed as a winged goddess, and her image was stamped everywhere. There were even statues of Victoria or Nike with her foot on the globe, symbolizing Rome’s conquest of the whole world.
The message was clear and strong: It was because of Rome’s victory in wars that peace and prosperity were possible. “No one ought to dare to oppose Rome’s dominance over the world.”
And yet, John of Patmos wrote a letter, a revelation, that said Rome does not always win. John declared that God’s reign of peace is an alternative vision for the world. 3
It’s helpful to note that here is not just one visionary journey in Revelation but six of them, and they are not linear. The stories go back and forth like a spiral, overlapping at times, which, of course, is confusing. 4
Today’s reading is part of the second cycle and it’s a continuation of what we read last week. John is summoned to heaven, and he tells a story first-hand that goes something like this:
I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open.
I heard a voice say, ‘Come up here.’
At once, I was there in spirit,
and I saw a throne, with one seated on the throne!
All around were creatures who sang day and night,
‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.
You who are the Creator of all things –
to you be given honor and praise.’
Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll,
and I heard a loud voice announce, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll?
And there was no one – no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth
who could open the scroll and (presumably) make known the will of God.
And so I wept…bitterly.
But then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep.
The Lion of the tribe of Judah,
a long-anticipated king from the line of David,
has conquered, so he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’
I looked, but I saw not a menacing lion;
rather a docile Lamb that had been slaughtered.
The very antithesis of empire.
The Lamb took the scroll from the one seated on the throne.
And when he took it, the four living creatures and the 24 elders,
and all the saints sang a new song:
‘You are worthy. In you is made known the will of God.’
In that vision of the throne room, a curtain is drawn back, and a great paradox is revealed: God’s will is made known, not in the power and might of empires,
but in the sacrificial love of one who gave himself for others. In this love, people from every language and tribe and nation are united in worship.
In Rome’s world, it’s domination that elicits worship. Crush your opponent, and they’ll bow down to you. But in God’s reign, Christ inverts that notion: The Lamb brings victory by redeeming, setting free, by giving people a sense of dignity. This vision is at the heart of all of Revelation. From now on, Jesus will be referred to as Lamb of God.
We live in interesting times. At this particular moment, we are witnessing transitions of power (or leadership) in so many places:
- In the national arena, our heads practically spin as we watch who’s in and who’s out.
- In our city – because of a police involved shooting in Minneapolis last weekend, the Chief of Police was asked to resign.
- Even here at church, a call committee has been formed to discern future leadership for our own congregation.
Perhaps at a time such as this, Revelation has a word for us. Who can make known the will of God? Who can reveal God’s intention for creation?
I happen to live in Minneapolis just 6 blocks from the alley where Justine Damond was killed a week ago. On Sunday night, I gathered with neighbors for a vigil.
On Thursday, I marched with neighbors from her home to a park overlooking Lake Harriet. There were people from the neighborhood and people from around the city. Not surprisingly, there was a cacophony of voices.
- Some expressed sadness and despair, and some demanded justice.
- Some expressed solidarity because they have been down this same road, and for others, a veil was lifted and this loss revealed our common humanity.
- There were prophetic voices that exhorted us to act in love.
- And almost all longed to find meaning and some sort of redemptive end that might result from her death.
There will certainly be additional voices in future days.
Barbara Rossing says that Revelation takes us on a journey into the heart of God and teaches us how to look at the stories of our lives and to look for signs of hope, even when evil seems overpowering. 5
We live in confusing times, and our text today points to Jesus the Lamb: To his self-giving love through which he draws people of every tribe, language, and nation into a new relationship with God that all might join in praise and service to God our Creator and Christ the Lamb.
In days ahead as we are witnesses to change, let this be our prayer: that our eyes be open and our ears tuned to see the presence of the Lamb even in our midst. In our own interactions, may our hearts be moved to follow the Lamb, to lift chains that hold others captive and to uphold the dignity of all people, that all might gather around to sing praises and serve the Lamb of God. Amen.
1 Craig R. Koester, Revelation and the End of All Things, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), p. 32.
2 Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004), p. 81-88.
3 Ibid, p. 104-105.
4 Koester, p. 38-39.
5 Rossing, p. xii.