In the Heavenly Throne Room: Victory Redefined

lamb  Easter, 6:30 AM, 8:30 AM, 10:45 AM … Revelation 4:1-2; 5:1-13 …

 We are in the final sermon in a series on the Book of Revelation, a series that has taken us through the season of Lent, which we have recorded on video, with links on my blog. Today, because it’s Easter, I will show fewer slides, and stay in the pulpit! Throughout the series, you’ve heard my regular reminder that the visions recorded by John, though they display an intricate pattern of organization, are NOT ordered chronologically. My decision to focus on chapters four and five in this final sermon is based on their importance for understanding the entire book, which I hope will become clearer to you by the time I complete this sermon.

As the text begins, John’s visionary experience takes him to a heavenly room in which a figure sits on a throne. It isn’t surprising that John doesn’t name the figure, for the Jewish tradition always is reluctant to name God out of a great sense of reverence: to describe the infinite by a finite name might be considered blasphemous. So John is careful to offer a number of images, suggesting some of the qualities of God, but always leaving room for God to be something other than can be described in human words.

The one on the throne “looks like jasper,” probably a transparent form of a semi-precious stone, that sparkles and flashes like a diamond. Perhaps John is suggesting something about the glory and holiness of God.

“Carelian” is mentioned, a stone of deep reddish color, through which light plays to look like fire smoldering in the stone. With this image, perhaps John is calling to mind God’s justice, which burns in anger against the Church’s enemies.

Around the throne is a rainbow that “looks like an emerald.” For the Jewish people, the rainbow was a symbol of God’s mercy. Perhaps the radiant emerald-green rainbow emanating from God on the throne is meant to convey the soothing power of God’s mercy.

In front of the throne is something like a sea of glass, like crystal, calling to mind, perhaps, Paul’s words about now seeing God “through a glass dimly.”

Twenty-four thrones are seen before kneel 24 elders, perhaps symbolizing the 12 patriarchs of the Old Testament and the 12 apostles of the New Testament.

Like so many of John’s symbols, the four living creatures have their basis in Old Testament visions such as the cherubim and seraphim from Ezekiel and Isaiah. The four creatures, who act like choir directors leading worship, have the appearance of a lion, an ox, a human being, and an eagle, symbolizing nobility, strength, wisdom, and speed.

As worship builds toward a crescendo, the number seven reappears in a scroll with seven seals, representing a divine mystery so deep that no one on earth or in heaven is able to look into it until it is revealed. John weeps at the sense of loss, the tragedy of not knowing the mystery, but is comforted by an elder, who refers to Christ in this way: 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.

Notice of what happens next. In one of the great zen-like reversals that characterize the gospel, John sees not a Lion … but a Lamb. The Lamb appears as if it had been slaughtered but is alive again, clearly a reference to the crucified and risen Christ. The lamb has seven horns and seven eyes, seven the number of completeness or perfection. Professor Eugene Boring says, “Although readers of the Bible may have become so accustomed to it that the effect is lost to us, this is perhaps the most mind-wrenching ‘rebirth of images’ in literature.”[1]

The image of lion-messiah seemed so right. In John’s time, God’s people are suffering at the hands of the first beast, the enemy empire Rome. Who wouldn’t want a lion-messiah to place himself between the Church and its enemies? Faithful Christians were subjected to tortures by evil emperors as horrible as being eaten alive by wild animals, and dipped into tar and set on fire. Who wouldn’t want a lion-messiah to rip God’s enemies into shreds?

Instead, John’s vision of Christ the Lion gives way to Christ the Lamb. In the history of God’s people, more than once a lamb was associated with the total unexpected salvation of God.

  • The blood of the lamb on the doorpost protected the Hebrews from the angel of death;
  • the sacrifice of the lamb in tabernacle or temple worship was said to atone from sins.
  • When the prophet Isaiah described the suffering servant of God, he compared him to a lamb led to the slaughter, wounded for the transgressions of others.
  • John, the Baptizer, famously said of Jesus, as portrayed in our northeast window, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

This is the slide reproduced in your worship bulletin today. (And, in this blog, I provide it as a focal point because I believe it to be such a marvelous representation of the crucifixion-resurrection theme at the heart of our faith).

According to my favorite commentator on Revelation, John gives us a “Christological redefinition of winning.” What a phrase that is to wake up to on Easter morning. By it, Boring means that, in these chapters, John reveals the great spiritual truth that sometimes strength lies in apparent weakness. Sometimes, it is only through the path of suffering and apparent defeat that we arrive, finally, at victory.

Perhaps my greatest surprise in this entire sermon series has come in examining the passage about “Harmegeddon” (chapter 16:16). We read about armies assembling, but it is so very different from other accounts of battles in the long history of warfare:

  • There’s no accounting of weapons deployed,
  • no attempt to track the maneuvers of the troops,
  • no stories of valor on the part of the soldiers.
  • Nothing that amounts to a “battle” really is described!

At first it puzzled me. Then it bothered me. All these years, I’ve accepted the notion presented in popular culture and sensationalist interpretation about a final great battle that, technically, doesn’t exist in Revelation. Then through reading and reflection, it dawned on me. There is no “battle,” because the war is already won.

  • In John’s theology, victory takes place through the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
    • His vision of the lamb and the throne confirms it.
    • All the rest is the working out of God’s judgment and suffering, in a movement
      • from evil to good,
      • from death to life,
      • from darkness to light that must surely come.

It’s a like a contemporary story that keeps coming to mind. It’s about Desmond Tutu, and I’m sure that I’ve shared it at least once in the past.

When the South African government canceled a political rally against apartheid, Desmond Tutu led a worship service in St. George’s Cathedral. The walls were lined with solders and riot police carrying guns with mounted bayonets, ready to close it down. Bishop Tutu began to speak of the evils of the apartheid system – how the rulers and authorities that propped it up were doomed to fail. He pointed a finger at the police who were there to record his words: ‘you may be powerful – very powerful – but you are not God. God cannot be mocked. You have already lost.”

Then, in a moment of unbearable tension, the bishop seemed to soften. Coming out of the box of his pulpit, he flashed that radiant Tutu smile and began to bounce up and down with glee. “Therefore, since you have already lost, we are inviting you to join the winning side.” The crowd roared, the police melted away, and the people began to dance.[2]

In this beautiful but broken world, that scene comes as close to the spirit of John’s visions as any that I have found. What a difference it would make if we all would live our lives like the worshipping community that day at St. George’s Cathedral, acknowledging the reality of evil and suffering, but smiling, singing, dancing, in the sure knowledge that they no longer determine our destiny. For in Jesus Christ, death is defeated, and victory is won. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen!

[1] Eugene Boring, Revelation, “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching,” Louisville, John Knox Press, 1989, p. 108.

[2] Related by John Ortberg, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century, 9 Aug. 2003, p. 17.

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~ by JohnH1962 on March 27, 2016.