Monday, October 5, 2009

"The Lamb's Drama: Who Can Stand?"

Scripture readings: Revelation 4:1-5:7; Revelation 7:9-8:1

When I was little my parents bought a big set of encyclopedias to help us kids in school, when we were older. I have always been addicted to reading, and it wasn’t long before I became a reader of encyclopedias, although I must confess that I started out with the pictures. One of the kinds of pictures, in those encyclopedias, that fascinated me was, for lack of a better word, the cross section. (I know there’s a better word for this.) It was something like a three dimensional picture; say of the human body, or of a gasoline engine. It was always done on several pages of clear plastic that overlaid each other.

For a gas engine (for example), it would show, first, the outside of the engine. Then you would turn that page and see what was under the outside of that engine (maybe it showed what was under the head of the engine and some of the other systems). Then, the next page would show you the next thing under those (maybe the valves). Then it would show you the next thing under those (maybe the cylinders and pistons). These pictures gave the illusion of looking through the layers of the engine and its various systems.

From the earliest centuries, Christians believed that the Book of Revelation was like a wonderful set of these pictures. It doesn’t so much show us one thing after another. The Book of Revelation is not a complicated time-line or order of events. It just peels back views beneath the surface of one great thing. It shows us a cross-section of one great thing: the change of the heavens and the earth (as they are now) into the heavens and the earth as they will be, when God recreates them. It shows us this one thing from different depths and different angles; until we have something like a three dimensional vision of the one great thing that God intends to do.

It is hard to get our minds around this one great thing that God intends to do; taking the heavens and the earth as they now are, and recreating them into the heavens and the earth, as he intends them to be. It is a really big thing. So he gives us this book of many pictures, to help us imagine what he wants to do, and why.

The Book of Revelation gives us many pictures of nature and God’s creation. Some of these pictures are scary. In some of these pictures, nature seems to be in crisis and turning on the human race. Waters turn bitter, or as red as blood. The earth shakes. The world burns. The skies turn dark. Things in space fall upon the earth. That’s one scary picture.

Another picture is a heavenly view of things; a heavenly view of nature and God’s creation. We see this picture in the fourth chapter of Revelation. The four living creatures standing by the throne of God are a picture of this.

In the Bible, the number four represents the world of nature and God’s creation. One living creature is said to look like a Lion; the second like a bull; the third like a human; the fourth like a flying eagle. For the ancient people, the lion represented nobility, the bull represented strength, humans represented wisdom or intelligence, and the eagle represented swiftness. The four living creatures represent everything that is noble, and strong, and wise, and swift in God’s creation.

And John sees that the creation is all eyes. Not only is creation wonderful, but it is full of wonder. Creation is full of attention toward God, and full of worship. Creation, in some mysterious fashion, not only worships and glorifies God, but creation is aware of God. It sees God. Perhaps creation sees us, as well.

So the pictures of nature and God’s creation show us that the creation can play a part in the judgment of the human race. But creation is also right beside us in the presence of God. Creation is a partner with us, in our wonder and worship of God.

This helps us understand the extreme passion of God for everything he has made. It helps us understand our accountability to God for how we live on this planet.

This is true, because we can see ourselves standing side by side with God’s universe, before the throne of God; standing, and bowing, and singing alongside nature in the presence of God. We can see ourselves in that picture, represented by the twenty four elders with their crowns, and their thrones, and their harps (5:8). The number twenty-four (or 2 times twelve) is what identifies us. The number twelve represents God’s people. There were twelve tribes of Israel in the Old Testament, and there were twelve disciples, or apostles, in the New Testament. More than once, the Revelation brings the two times twelve together. (Revelation 21:12-14) The twenty-four elders are all of the people of God from Israel and the Church, the Body of Christ.

Some of the pictures of us, in the Book of Revelation, show us persecuted, and hunted, and endangered, and even dead, but this picture, early in the vision, shows us safe. We see ourselves as God sees us. We are just as Paul describes us in his letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 2:6): “God has raised us up in Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly places.”

We are enthroned, sharing in the Lord’s rule of the universe, as we say “yes and amen”, and cheer the Lord on through all the things that he does. We see pictures of us, in prayer and worship, and we see pictures of how all our prayers are wound up in the things that God does. (Revelation 8:3-5)

This is our job: to be involved, however we can, in what God wants to do in this world where we live. Prayer is part of our involvement in God’s activities. This is the job of our lives: to become a living prayer in action.

We see many pictures of Jesus in Revelation. There is the Lion. There is the Lamb. There is the one who can open the scroll in heaven.

There is a vision of a scroll with seven seals that cannot be opened. The scroll contains the explanation of everything that is going to happen in human history, and in the judgment of the human race. We are told (in this vision) that no one can open this explanation of everything, except for the Lion of Judah.

John turns around so that he can see the picture of the Lion, but he sees the picture of a Lamb instead, and this Lamb has been killed. It has had its throat slit. It has the wounds of a lamb that has been sacrificed for our sins.

We often want the Lord to be a Lion, and scare away our enemies. Instead, the Lord does his greatest work as a lamb who dies for us.

We often want God to use his great power in order to deal with the way the world works; when his chosen way of dealing with our world is by being the Lamb that was slain for the sins of the world. In all the horrible things that go on in this beautiful world only a wounded God can make sense. In Christ, God gave himself for the sins and evils of this world, and only this can explain everything. Only this can ultimately answer our questions about the meaning of everything. The great Lion can only open the scroll because he is also the Lamb who was slain.

The Lamb who was slain has the kind of authority to explain the meaning of everything the way a surgeon would have the authority to perform a particular surgery based on the fact that that surgeon was not only competent to do that surgery, but had actually had that surgery performed on him or her first. This is the authority that the birth, and the life, and the death, and the resurrection of Jesus give him to be the only one who can unseal the scroll that explains everything.

There is this vision of the scroll that explains everything, and this part of Revelation is in the fifth through the beginning of the eighth chapters. If we want to know what this world is really like, we can see it, from beginning to end, in the opening of the seven seals.

The first seal reveals a rider on a white horse who goes forth to conquer (see also 19:11), and this is another picture of Christ, to add to the Lion and the Lamb. The first explanation of this world is that we live in a world where Christ goes out to win people, to claim them, to meet them and make them his own. This is a fact of the world we live in. If we don’t understand this, then we don’t understand what anything means.

The second seal reveals another rider on a red horse. This rider carries a big sword and takes peace away from our world. This shows us that the world we live in is a place of conflict, and destruction. But the lack of peace is not just about war.
Paul said this about a world that is empty of peace: “People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – having a form of righteousness but denying its power.” (2 Timothy 3:2-5) Don’t you think the world has been a place like this (a world without peace) for some time now?

The third seal represents another rider (this one on a black horse) carrying a set of scales, and the rider says that we live in a world where many people will barely have enough, if anything at all, and yet the luxuries of the world will be safe. This third explanation of the world is that we live in a world of terrible poverty side by side with great abundance. This is a fact of the world we live in.

The fourth seal represents a rider on a pale horse. This rider’s name is Death. This tells us that we live in a world where we all die, and where too many people die tragically, and untimely. This is a fact of the world we live in.

The fifth seal reveals those who have been slain for the word of God. This tells us that we live in a world where good people suffer, where good people suffer for doing good, and where those who trust in God and seek to show his love and justice in the world may be hurt and killed for their lives of faith, and love, and justice.

The sixth seal reveals that we live in a world that will be judged accordingly. It will be as if everything in the world of human affairs and everything in the world of nature is falling to pieces and turning against us. It will be terrifying.

And, at the end of this, John says that the sky itself and everything in it will be gone (all rolled up together), and the mountains and islands and the masses of the earth will also be removed. The world as we have known it will all disappear, in order for a great change to take place.

The seventh seal reveals silence. This is an odd place to stop. What happens beyond the silence is what we will see at the end of the book. But the silence is an amazing thing in itself. The silence means that what happens next will be wonderful beyond words.

There are two more pictures of us in these chapters. John shows us a world that is set on pause, where angels at the four corners of the earth hold back the four winds. The winds represent the forces that bring pain and judgment into the world. John is taken back in time before any harm comes to the world and, I think, before there was any need for the gospel, before there was anything to take away the peace of the world, before there was any scarcity, before there was death. Before anything happened, God’s people were all numbered, and claimed, and sealed.

It is like going to camp, and your mother writing your name on all your clothes, even on your underwear, so that you can sort them out if they get mixed up with other people’s clothes. No one will take them because they have your name on them.
God labels us with his own name. That is what it means to be sealed. But he labels us on the inside. He labels us with his Holy Spirit. He puts more than just his name in us. He puts his resemblance in us so that, in our heart of hearts, we are made for him.

We are all counted and accounted for. John hears this action described as if it happened to the people of Israel; as if they were the ones being counted and sealed, but when he turns to see the people of Israel, he sees a surprising sight. Instead of seeing only the people of Israel, as he expected, John sees a multitude, an uncountable crowd of everyone who belong to Jesus; Jews and Gentiles both. (For the case in favor of identifying all Christians with the people of Israel; see Romans 11; Ephesians 3:6; Philippians 3:3; Colossians 2:11).

Everyone who belongs to Jesus has something in them, something about them, that cannot be taken away, that cannot be lost.

The world sometimes seems like a scary and dangerous place. This world is a place where there is a lot of anger, and fear, and injustice, and evil. The Book of Revelation puts you and me face to face with the consequences and the responsibilities of living in such a world.

It tells us that we are not alone. We are not alone because we are labeled by God and we are always, essentially, in his presence. We are also not alone because we have brothers and sisters of every nation, tribe, people, and language.

We all hear the same words. We all have the same work of prayer, and of being faithful witnesses, and examples, and servants of the good news of the love of God in Christ. We are all nurtured and strengthened by the same things, including this meal and this table.

When we share in this meal, we all come to the same God who will help us to overcome all the way. We all come to be fed with the same bread and cup that unite us with the body and blood of Christ.

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