As we move from Easter to Pentecost – the celebration of the unleashing of God’s Holy Spirit into the world through the church – we are working our way through the book of the Revelation of John. Last week we talked about this book as a particular description of the way in which God has revealed, and continues to reveal, God’s self through the person, work, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
And so, we have some natural questions that go along with these readings. Who was John, and what in the world was he talking about might be some good places to start. Most scholars believe that John was a Jewish follower of Jesus who wrote about God’s self-revelation about 60 years or so after the ministry of Jesus.
His writing style reflects the tradition of prophets like Ezekiel and Daniel, but it may have been a fairly common style for his day. He wrote primarily to Roman Christians that were being hunted for sport and abused terribly. This book is in the style of writings that told of a personal encounter with God and with heavenly beings.
Last week we talked about the importance of understanding God as the source of our beginning and the purpose that drives us forward. God is the alpha and the omega. God is the ground of all being, and all that we do must be rooted in God’s love for it to last.
So, leading up to today’s passage, John has had an encounter with an older and more stern sounding Jesus, who tells him to write down some things to share with the seven churches of Asia Minor. Then John has a metaphysical experience where he sees the door to heaven opened and is “caught up in the spirit”.
Now, John is careful to hedge his bets here, because he begins to describe God and the heavenly host as being “like” certain things. He knows that mortals are simply not supposed to be able to exist in the presence of God. He knows that part of being “holy” is being indescribably unique and different from all that we know and understand.
And so, he can’t really tell us who or what God is. Instead he describes what God and the heavenly host are “like”. Not only that but he was also describing things in a way that would have made sense for the readers of his time.
So, there he is – John, in the throne room of God – and God is holding a scroll with seven seals. There are these four fantastic creatures that are similar to the ones described by Ezekiel when the heavens opened for him. There are Elders and a host of angels, and one of the angels issues a challenge to ask who is worthy to open the scroll. And when it seems that hope is lost, a lamb “standing as if it were slaughtered” steps forward.
This is the part where the dreamscape is a little hard to follow. But the lamb is Jesus, and the heavens rejoice because of his worthiness to read the scroll of God. It’s really important that this happens first. Worthiness is established, for the rest of the story, through sacrificial love. More than that, it is established as the act of God. What happens next is really described as a hymn of praise. The deepest and purest response to God’s grace is made as a song. Think of it. These characters represent every order of being that has the ability to intentionally respond to or express God’s grace. And their music is like a tuning fork for all the earth. Every creature – even in the depths of the sea – gives praise to God.
For God is worthy to be praised. We say that, or at least read it, often in church, but have you ever really thought about it? Why is God worthy of praise? That may sound like a no-brainer. We praise God because God is God, right? But why do you praise God? Why do I? Do we truly praise God at all, or are we just using the words to make us feel good about the “crazy” in the world? That is the tension we find in our Psalm today. Oh, how good it is to know that God loves us and restores us when we need it! Oh, how easy it is to forget that God is the source of all blessing when we feel so well established that we think that are untouchable. Oh, how hard it can be to make sense of this loving and just God when we suffer, when we see suffering, and when it seems like those who help only themselves are the only ones with any help at all.
And then Psalmist cries out, “How can I praise you from the pit? Isn’t this really to your advantage to help me out here, God?” And while it seems pretty tacky to say to God, “Look you’re the one who is faithful. How does my destruction tell about your faithfulness?” it is still important for us to remember that God is the one who turns our sadness into joy. God is the one who gives us a reason to hope. And the promise and the invitation of the Revelation of John is that we get to join our voices in the chorus of praise. When we realize that there is a love more powerful than death, our hearts and minds become tuned to the same song that all of creation has sung from the beginning of time. The breeze in the trees, the songs of whales and the howls of wolves sing the very same song that you and I do when we remember that God is worth our praise.
God is worth our praise because God does not hold out God’s love like a merit badge or a grade to earn or a bonus that you may or may not get. God is worth our praise because God sees the value in each of us and calls us beloved. When we realize that nothing we can do could ever earn God’s favor and God’s love, then everything becomes a response to God’s favor and God’s love. And everything that isn’t part of that song gets drowned out.
Here’s what that song looks like. A friend of mine told me last week that he got laid off two days after finding out that his wife is pregnant with their third child. We talked about some of his options – they all involved moving – and he said, “You know, when I moved down here it was on a hope and a promise of better money. I’ve been asking God if this was the place for me to stay, and I guess the answer is no. What really matters is that we’ve been going to church since we came here. God wasn’t really a part of our life before. If that’s what we were supposed to get from coming here, that’s really more important than any job I could have.”
Another friend who checks in from time to time is trying to find out how to manage life as a single dad. He said, “Sometimes I feel like I have to fail at five things just to succeed at one.” We agreed that there was no getting around that feeling, and that sometimes just having another soul to call brother or sister because of our faith in God can make all the difference.
You know what else looks and sounds like the song of praise to God? Last Monday I sat in on the Downtown Development Authority’s Task Force for Homelessness. There was a wide variety of people representing businesses, social services, and residents. I was there as a representative of our Downtown Faith Alliance. While we didn’t get very far on specific solutions – and there were those that simply wanted to treat the issue like a problem to be solved – many creative ideas and much important information was shared about the issues faced by those who are without housing.
We talked about issues related to mental health screening and care, addiction issues, and public sanitation. Even now there is a person working with the DDA through Catholic Services of Acadiana who is walking the streets and getting to know those without homes personally, by name. Even now there are conversations with our Sheriff’s department about a facility that can temporarily house those that might normally be arrested for vagrancy and other crimes that are aimed at sweeping those without housing off the streets.
That is a part of the song that glorifies God. That is part of the song that glorifies Jesus, the lamb who was slain, who is worthy of our praise and our attention, who calls us to sing with the Psalmist and the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, because no matter how far down in the pit you may have fallen God is yet with you. So let us let our mourning turn to dancing! Let us sing with all of our might so that it might be echoed in all of creation, and even the heavenly creatures will say, “Amen!”
Next week we’ll continue in the Book of Revelation chapter 7. If you have time to read those first 7 chapters this week, that might help you. Please feel free to contact me if something comes up in your reading that you want to discuss. Other sources with helpful information include Revelations by Elaine Pagels, Brian Blunt's Can I Get a Witness, and Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse by Adela Yarbro Collins.