Have you ever experienced that kind of surprise of being caught off guard by God’s grace or the Holy Spirit’s power?
I am most comfortable when I know how things are going to happen – when there is a plan, and a clearly defined set of operating instructions. But divine power doesn’t often show up in the places where I am most comfortable – I have experienced God’s presence most powerfully in those times and spaces where I am pushed beyond the boundaries of my comfort zone, when I find myself in unknown territory, struggling to get my bearings.
Has that happened to you?
I can think of a dozen examples of this in my own life, unfamiliar places where I had unexpected and life-altering encounters with God, but this week, I was thinking about how the Spirit keeps showing up somewhere much closer to home: in our joint worship services with Emmanuel Antioch Presbyterian Church, like the one we had last Sunday.
I don’t know how you all experience these joint worship services, but they always have me a bit on edge: planning them is hard work. In addition to the language barrier, our congregations have very different worshipping styles, and significant theological differences. We have to search hard for hymns that both congregations know. I was surprised, last week, to see the rather intense audio set-up that EAPC uses every week in this very small space. Pastor Timothy is very clear that the call for both himself and his congregation is evangelism, and he shares the gospel in a way that is very, very different from how I do.
I am always on edge when we have these joint worship services – because I am out of my comfort zone. And, as your pastor, I also want to make sure that worship in this space and for this congregation is a place of honesty, that it represents, to the best of our ability, what we know and believe about God. When others – with differing worship styles, theologies and understandings of who God is – are in charge, well, there’s no way to know if that will happen or not.
There are always things that make me uncomfortable. And yet, every time we have shared worship, there have been moments of deep grace, moments when I have felt the Spirit move in ways that would be almost impossible if we did not make the move out of our comfort zones and into something unknown and a little threatening.
Those gigantic speakers project a kind of singing and praying that we do not practice regularly in this space. Singing together with EAPC is a joy. Listening to Soo Min translate for Pastor Timothy’s sermon is always amazing – her gift of proclamation reminds me of the gift of tongues given to the people in the book of Acts, of Moses’ brother Aaron, of all those prophets in scripture who are called and commanded to speak the words of God in ways that the people clan hear. And, of course, there’s always the bulgogi and the chap chae at the shared potluck afterward: as sure a sign of God’s grace as any I know.
I think there is something important about this: I – maybe all of us – are more likely to notice God at work when we are off-centered, out of our comfort zones, out of control.
I’m grateful that our shared worship was just last week, because we are diving into a sermon series on the book of Revelation today, and Revelation is nothing if not DISTINCTLY outside of our comfort zones. And, the first passage from Revelation that we encounter this month is from Chapter 5, a vision of a heavenly worship experience that far exceeds any worship experience we’ve had here on earth.
The first glimpse of Revelation we see is a multitude (“myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands”) of every kind of creature – not just humans, but angels, animals, earthly and heavenly beings, gathered together from across innumerable boundaries and barriers surrounding the throne of the one who is worthy to open the seventh seal and SINGING together, singing, the text says, 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!”
Worship is important in Revelation. There are more than fifteen hymns sung in the book, all of them hymns of encouragement to God’s people on earth.
But worship is probably not your first thought when you think of this weird, final book in the Bible. What comes to mind when you hear someone say “Revelation”?
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be diving into Revelation a little deeper than usual. It’s so tempting to either ignore it altogether or to attempt to map Revelation’s powerful images onto the current realities of human history, but neither of those is a responsible way of reading Revelation.
Here are a few things that Revelation is NOT:
- a horror movie script
- a one-to-one correlation of over-the-top imagery to on-the-ground, present-day occurrences
- a timeline for the end of the world
- literal rendering of what judgement day will look like
Revelation belongs to a genre of literature called “apocalypse.” This book is not the only example of such strange, off-balance visions of the end time. And, unlike the big screen, bombastic, violent movies we tend to associate with the term apocalypse, it does not mean “end of the world.” Apocalypse means “uncovering.” It means, just as the title of the book implies, a “revealing.”
Revelation is the only apocalypse in the New Testament, but it was not the only apocalypse circulating at the time it was written.
There is a rich tradition of Jewish apocalyptic writing, in both the centuries before and after Jesus’ life. Apocalypses all have several things in common: they are revelations, set in a narrative framework. In apocalypses, an unveiling about the cosmic realities of the world are mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient.
In other words, apocalypses are stories that reveal a larger truth about reality by showing a human being guided through time and space by divine figures.
And apocalypses have a purpose: they are written in particular times and places, with specific intentions. Usually, the audience of an apocalyptic writing are people who are in seriously dangerous, traumatic, and unsettling times. Scholars suggest that the beginning of Jewish apocalyptic literature is in the late 6th century BCE, when the Israelites had been exiled from their home.
Apocalyptic literature lays out a structure of reality in which humans are not in charge: despite what might appear to be exile, defeat, crisis and trauma on the ground, apocalypses reveal another truth: that God is in control. “The function of the apocalyptic literature,” says John Collins, “is to shape one’s imaginative perception of a situation and so lay the basis for whatever course of action it exhorts.”
Apocalypses are written for people in crisis, reveal a larger truth about reality, and offer a deeper, visceral, imaginative option for what is possible, both now and in the future.
Revelation is an apocalypse. It was likely written by a Palestinian Jewish Christian between 66-73, during the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans – a coordinated revolution against oppression that led to the Romans cracking down on Jewish people, destroying the Temple, and ending the revolutionary state. Revelation’s author was an exile of war, writing to other Jewish Christians who were experiencing the same kind of trauma and defeat.
Revelation is a vision that reveals a God who is worthy of worship, who has been and continues to be in charge of the world, despite what present circumstances may lead us to believe. And, like anything that gets us out of our comfort zones and into what is sometimes called “liminal space,” this uncovering involves some serious surprises, too.
The book begins with letters to seven churches, which is fairly familiar territory: didn’t Paul write letters to churches? Isn’t that what much of the New Testament is made of? But quickly, as soon as the letters are finished, John – who is writing from an isolated island called “Patmos” pulls us into an intense vision.
“After this,” he says, “I looked and a door to heaven stood open!” A voice calls to him and says “come up here! I have things to show you!” And, John says, immediately he was “in the spirit” and standing in a throne room.
This sounds, to me, an awful lot like the beginning of the Chronicles of Narnia series, where Lucy’s curiosity leads her and her siblings to step through the door of the enchanted wardrobe and encounter a whole new world. Or, maybe like Alice in Wonderland, when she travels through the looking glass into an upside down kingdom. Or, if you’ve read the Phantom Tollbooth, when Milo drives through the mysterious tollbooth in his toy car and enters the Kingdom of Wisdom.
One scholar likens the visions of Revelation to Charles’ Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: like Ebenezer Scrooge’s night full of cautionary dreams about what could happen if he doesn’t change his ways, Revelation is a lush, detailed vision of what might be, or maybe of what already is.
And this vision is filled with worship. Except right off the bat, John of Patmos delivers us one of those surprises that come when we are outside of our comfort zones: He has arrived here in the throne room, and listen to how he describes it”
And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. 4 Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. 5 Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; 6 and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.
Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7 the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. 8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,
“Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.”
Whoa. And in the hand of the one seated on the throne is a scroll sealed with seven seals: clearly an important scroll! But no one seems to be able to open the scroll, to reveal what is written there, to unleash this important news that is held by the one on the throne, and John, who has gone through the looking glass, as it were, and ended up here in this jasper/carnelian/rainbow/ruby throne room filled with angels and beings all singing, begins to weep: he has arrived here for nothing, taken the leap only to be barred from hearing the good news.
Ah, yes, the LION! This is an image familiar to John and to us. During Advent, our Sunday School class studied what are called the “O Antiphons” – the names for Christ. The Lion of Judah, the Root of David are two of those names. John surely recognized these names, too.
A lion, a conqueror, would make sense here. In other apocalypses, it is often fierce creatures like this – a roaring lion gripping the scroll in his claws – that advance the plot. In fact, in another apocalypse of the same time period, Second Esdras, the Messiah IS portrayed as a lion – roaring and prophesying judgement against Rome’s violence.
But when John looks over at the throne, it is not a lion that he sees there. Instead, he says, “Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered…”
And, interestingly, the Greek word here for “lamb” is not just “lamb” – it is arnion, which is more like “lambkin” or “little lamb” or “lamby.” One scholar translates the word as “Fluffy.”
Here, in the middle of this bombastic vision, in the rainbow-emerald throne room, on the thundering, flashing, flaming throne surrounded by creatures covered in eyes, is a tiny, slaughtered lamb – perhaps the most vulnerable creature we could imagine. This is a huge surprise. This does not follow the pattern of other apocalypses. This is a huge departure both from the genre and from the expectations that John has set up for us.
And this surprise, this unexpected lamb, this vulnerability seated on the throne of heaven: this is what will help us to understand the entire book of Revelation.
Because surrounding the throne are myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands of creatures – earthly and heavenly, every creature on earth and under the earth and all that is in the sea are SINGING, worshipping, together, declaring:
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”
Like those first hearers of the book of Revelation, we too find ourselves in certain kinds of exile and defeat. American politics holds up profit and oppression as the signs of victory. American economy says that the one who dies with the most accumulated wealth and possessions, wins. Even American religion tries to convince us that might makes right, political power is the way of Jesus, and violence is divine.
But here, we find another possibility, an assurance that despite how things might look to us on the ground, God is in control; that no matter what the ruling powers of the day say, the Lamb that was slaughtered – and not the lion who boasts his way to power – is the one and the only one worthy of power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing. And so, with the gathered multitudes of Revelation, we join our singing and our worship, pledging our allegiance and our lives to THIS divine power, and this only.