Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing 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!" Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, "To the one seated 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. Revelation 5:11-14The book or Revelation is a strange and wonderful gift. Much of the imagery of the modern horror film industry comes from this unsettling book of scripture. These hallucinogenic and ominous images all come from the pages of the last book of the Christian New Testament: The Antichrist; 666; The Lake of Fire; The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; The Seventh Seal; The Mark of the Beast. Remember when bar codes first came out, some Christian groups were worried that they were a fulfillment of the prophecies of the Book of Revelation. When the first UPC scanners arrived in the early 1970s, there were protests at grocery stores — even though the codes appeared on Coke cans and jars of applesauce, not right hands and foreheads. And in the years that followed, an urban legend arose, warning gullible types that the number 666 was hidden in each bar code. Some claimed that the inventor of the bar code was a tool of Satan. With what proof? His name is George Joseph Laurer. Each of his names has six letters! All together: 666!
The imagery in the Book of Revelation reaches shocking levels of violence. While the tradition of the Gospel of John is has Jesus talking about love as a new commandment, we wonder if John’s tradition of love was lost on this writer who claims to belong to the same school of thought, with all his talk of plagues and punishment.
Here’s what’s happening up to the point of today’s reading from Chapter 5. A Christian named John is held as a prisoner for his faith on the small island of Patmos off the western coast of what is now Turkey. It’s the Lord’s Day, what we call Sunday – the day of the week on which we celebrate Jesus rising from the dead. On the Lord’s Day, an elaborate vision comes to John. In the beginning of the vision, John looks up to heaven and sees a door standing open. A voice invites him to come up and take a look. There, at the center of the scene, is a throne surrounded by a rainbow. And someone sits on the throne. This someone looks like two precious stones: one the color of amber, the other the color of flame. From the throne come sights and sounds: flashes of lightning and peals of thunder. In front of the throne stand seven burning torches. Encircling the throne are 24 other thrones, on which are seated 24 elders wearing white robes and golden crowns. In front of the throne is a sea of glass like crystal. Beside the throne are four remarkable creatures, each of them with many eyes and six wings, and each with a different face. These four creatures an unceasing song: Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come. It is John’s vision of heaven. As this song sounds forth, the two dozen elders cast their crowns before the throne and sing their own hymn celebrating God as creator. We sing about this scene in one of our beloved hymns. “Holy, Holy, Holy! All the saints adore thee. Casting out their golden crowns around the glassy sea.”
John looks again at the gem-like figure on the throne and sees that the figure holds a scroll, a scroll sealed with not just one seal, but seven -- a scroll whose contents remain secret. Then John hears an angel cry out loudly, "Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seven seals?' Nobody speaks. Nobody in heaven, on earth, or under the earth is worthy to do this.
John starts to weep bitterly. The scroll that nobody is worthy to open is the scroll of history. To open it and read it means to make sense of the past, to discern the meaning behind events, to carry out the Creator's intention for creation. But the scroll remains unread, sealed seven times over. History remains a painful riddle.
John is not alone is his tears. Many of us have wept with him. When we run straight into the hard edge of life, when we see suffering unabated, evil unchecked, justice notoriously absent, when we count up the crimes and blasphemies and terrors that fill the chronicles of yesterday and the news magazines of today, when we do not witness redemption and release, when good seems impotent and moral monsters hold sway--whenever these things appear before us, and we have a heart, then we too, like John, must weep, and our tears are bitter.
Maybe we need a vision of heaven? I don’t know. If it’s as terrifying as what John claims to see, I don’t know if I want to experience it. There are plenty of benign, harmless scenes of heaven that aren’t so appealing, either -- some bright place tucked behind a galaxy where birds chirp and organs play with heavy tremolo and angels bounce from cloud to cloud. By the way, this image is used by advertisers to sell items as unremarkable as cream cheese – a beautiful women wearing a size-two angel outfit and a tilted halo enjoying a bagel and cream cheese atop a fluffy cloud. Now for some this may be a remarkable vision of things to come. For me, though, it’s remarkably boring.
Why even worry about Heaven right now? There are people dying, starving and killing each other in our world. We face depression, loneliness, fear, anxiety, and grief on a daily basis. We are too busy to think about some future promise like Heaven. But, if the idea of Heaven doesn’t have some day-to-day impact on the suffering we go through here and now, it is useless. What if Heaven could touch us today? What if Heaven isn’t just some future eternal bliss, but a reality to our Christian lives here and now? What if our tears could remind us that we carry and inarticulate grief about the world around us and need some hope. What if heaven was a reminder that we sometimes filled with heavy sadness that dims the atmosphere where all of us struggle to live. We grieve. We mourn. We cry. We need visions and dreams that keep help us make sense of our history and meet the future with hope.
Back to the book of Revelation. So, we left off at the seven seals. No one can open the scroll. John weeps. One of the elders, dressed in a white robe and a golden crown, one of that worshipping assembly, addresses John and addresses us as well. "Do not weep," he commands. "The Lion of the tribe of Judah, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals." John wipes his eyes and looks again. What he sees is the strangest sight of all the strange sights throughout his vision. The elder promised him a lion, and what stand before him is a lamb. Near the throne, is a lamb who bears the marks of slaughter. The lamb takes the scroll of history from the figure seated on the throne.
The heavens cheer for the lamb who was once dead and is now alive forever. Their cheers encompass the ecstasy and gruesomeness of life. They sing, “ You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.” Then the entire universe erupts in song, with creatures in heaven and on earth, under the earth and in the sea, bursting forth with a cosmic cheer: “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
Someone has come to dry our tears. Those tears we weep when we run straight into the hard edge of life, when we see suffering unabated, evil unchecked, justice notoriously absent, those tears we weep when we count up the crimes and blasphemies and terrors that fill the chronicles of yesterday and the news magazines of today, those tears we weep when we do not witness redemption and release, when good seems impotent and moral monsters so often hold sway. Someone has come to dry those tears.
It reminds me of the story I heard about a woman who is given a tour of heaven and hell. In hell, she sees hundreds of hungry people in a room full of banquet tables. The banquet tables overflow with delicious food and amazing aromas, and all the people have spoons. The spoons have long handles, just too long so the people in hell could not feed themselves – they cannot get the food into their mouths. So they are eternally tortured by their hunger in a room full of delicious food. The tourist asks about heaven. The tour guide says that heaven is much more pleasant. The room looks a lot like this one but everyone there is very happy at their banquet. The woman asks, “In heaven do they have shorter spoons?” The tour guide says, “No, the spoons are the same and the food is the same. But in heaven, they feed each other.”
The elder promised a lion, but what we see is a lamb, slain yet alive, meek yet triumphant – the lamb who died on a cross, rises from a grave, and lives and reigns forever. Easter faith proclaims that a new power has been let loose in the world through the Easter victory of Jesus. This is the power of the Lamb -- the power of the Lamb to help us create heaven on earth – to work in gentle, steady, loving ways to forge a world of peace, liberty, compassion and justice for all, not just a few – a world of people with long spoons where we feed one another. The power of the lamb declares . . .
A love stronger than hatred.
A reconciliation stronger than separation.
A forgiveness stronger than sin.
A joy stronger than sorrow.
A peace stronger than violence.
A hope stronger than despair.
A life stronger than death.
The power of the Lamb! “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
Violence and Nonviolence in the Book of Revelation, by Matthew J. Streett