Monday, 6 May 2013

The Lamb on the throne- Rev. 7

Revelation is an unusual book. It is filled with symbols and references to other parts of the Bible. It is mysterious and often difficult to understand. All this means it is not often read, and often not understood.
Different books of the Bible speak to us in different ways. Some speak to our emotions. Others speak to our will, or our intellect.  The Bible scholar Bruce Metzger says, “the book of Revelation is unique in appealing primarily to our imagination- not, however, a freewheeling imagination, but a disciplined imagination.”[1] We should also be careful not to discount it because it speaks to us through our imagination. Like a parable, the book of Revelation speaks truth to us in its own particular way.  
As human beings we tend towards extremes. With the book of Revelation we tend to read literally as a description of future political events, or we tend to dismiss it as not worth reading at all. Speaking about those who tend to use Revelation as a Crystal ball to see the future G.K. Chesterton once said, Though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.” There is another extreme that is equally flawed, which is to completely dismiss the book because of its symbolic nature as if truth cannot me communicated through music, art, or vision.  I knew one woman in a church I served who would roll her eyes at the mention of the book of Revelation and say “fairy tales”. Neither extreme is helpful. There is truth in this book, but it is truth accessed through imagination.
  The book of Revelation is about the second coming of Jesus Christ at the end of the age. It can be summed up as a battle between a huge dragon and a little lamb. Not just any lamb- a lamb that has been slain. … Unexpectedly the slain lamb wins the battle.
          In the portion of the book we are reading today we encounter a multitude standing before a throne. The multitude includes people from every nation, and it is such a large group that no one can count it. This multitude is connected to the 144,000 from the 12 tribes of Israel. It is a symbolic number meaning no one is missing. There is a completeness to the number. They carry Palm branches that signal their victory and they wear white robes that indicate their purity. They have washed themselves in the blood of the lamb, which is a symbolic way of saying that they have obtained their blessed state in the presence of God because of the sacrificial death of Christ. They are gathered around a throne and are crying out “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”  There are angels and elders and four strange creatures all bowing before the throne in worship.
          This is a bit of a side note, but there is an idea out there in the world that heaven is a bit of a dull and boring place- Like a Philadelphia Cream Cheese commercial- Clouds and harps and nothing much going on. That is not the image of heaven we see in the Bible. Go back to a dinner you’ve had when you had that feeling that you never want the moment to end. C.S. Lewis describes Heaven as being like a good book with an infinite number of chapters and the next chapter is always better than the one before it. We have to remember that God is the source of all joy and pleasure. A common description people have when they feel God’s presence, or have a vision of God is that they feel a tremendous and profound joy. The multitude is worshipping before the throne of God- the creator and source of all joy.   
          I would like us also to notice who is seated on the throne. In our reading the multitude is shouting “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne”. Elsewhere in Revelation the one on the throne is described as “him who is, and who was, and who is to come” (1:4); he “had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne” (4:3); “From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder (4:5); “Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne” (5:6); We read that the throne is the heavenly focus of worship, because it is God who is on the throne (7:11);  The one who is on the throne will be the ultimate judge of the creation (20:12). The writer of Revelation has very little trouble associating God with the Lamb. Sometimes God is described as being on the throne. At other times The lamb is described as being at the center of the throne. At other times the throne is described as being occupied by both God and the Lamb. In John’s mind there does seem to be any problem with this. Keep in mind that Christianity arose in a Jewish context, which prided itself on its monotheism. Worship is not to be shared. In Judaism the Shema is sometimes described as their creed- “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”. Jewish people who became Christians did not feel the need to stop defining themselves as monotheists. They saw their worship as being monotheistic. And yet, there seems to be this twoness, (even threeness), on the throne of God in heaven. And yet, there is one throne. There is unity, and yet a kind of diversity.
            In The Gospels we get all kinds of hints about who Jesus Christ is. He forgives sins and his enemies accuse him of blasphemy because only God can forgive sins. He walks on water, which is a description of God from the Book of Job (9:8). Jesus says before Abraham was “I AM”, which is a reference to God’s name given to Moses through the burning bush in Exodus. Jesus calms storms. St. Stephen, as he is being martyred calls for Jesus to receive his spirit, as if crying out to Jesus and crying out to God is one and the same. Speaking about Jesus and God the theologian Archbishop Rowan Williams has said, “the New Testament moves toward the extraordinary notion that the Creator of the universe is at work without interruption in the life and work of Jesus- that it is God who is doing what Jesus is doing.”[2]
            This is a tremendous insight for those who are persecuted. There are many who believe the beast in Revelation is the Roman Emperor Nero. The beast seems overwhelmingly powerful, just as the Roman Empire seemed unstoppable. On the surface there didn’t seem to be much hope for a small group of Christians. … But the lamb is at the center of the throne.
            John would say the same to us. We might not have the Roman Empire to persecute us but be are confronted by other problems- broken families, difficulties at work, financial problems, disease, cancer depression, you can fill in the blank. John would remind us of who is on the throne. Paul says it this way, Rom 8:35 “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
            Those who are gathered around the throne have come through tribulation. They have suffered. They have been without shelter. They have been hungry and thirsty. They have been struck down by the sun and the elements. But now they are gathered around the creator and source of all joy and He will shelter them. They will not hunger or thirst any more, and the elements will no longer oppress them. Oddly, it is the slain lamb who will be their shepherd, and the one who will wipe away their tears will be one who himself shed tears.       

[1] Bruce Metzger, Breaking the Code, p 11
[2] Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, p62-63

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