A sermon preached at Community Mennonite Church Lancaster
May 8, 2016 by Ted Grimsrud
The book of Revelation is a mystery, right? Scary, intimidating, fantastic, wacky, off-putting. When Kathleen and I first moved to Harrisonburg 20 years ago, we attended Park View Mennonite Church. We learned there how back in the 1950s, the Mennonites in Harrisonburg had intense conflicts about the interpretation of Revelation. So, in good Mennonite fashion, they decided they needed to stop talking about it. So, those who grew up after that had no exposure to Revelation. However, maybe, also, Revelation is fascinating and even inspiring. I think it’s worth wrestling with, and it may even have special importance for we who live today in the center of the world’s one great superpower.
What are we looking for?
When we take up Revelation, though, just like any other religious text, so much depends on what we are looking for. Let me give some examples from who have written on Revelation. Are we looking for the date of the rapture and the identity of the Antichrist (like with the Left Behind books)? Or are we looking for the lunatic ravings of a hallucinating first-century fanatic (that’s what British novelist D. H. Lawrence thought)? Or are we looking for words of encouragement in face of a vicious authoritarian state (like South African theologian Allan Boesak 30-some years ago)? Or are we looking for a challenge to American imperialism (with the great American prophet of the 1960s and 70s William Stringfellow)?
And what kind of God do we expect to find “revealed” in this book? We all tend to try to find what will reinforce our already existing beliefs. We don’t always look very kindly toward images and ideas that threaten what we think we know. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, from the social thinker John Kenneth Galbraith: “Sometimes we face a choice, do we change our minds or do we prove that we don’t need to. When faced with such a choice, most of us most of the time get busy with the proof.”… We tend not to want to change our minds. So if we expect a mean God in Revelation, that’s likely what we will find.
Still, it is a good idea to at least try to listen to different views. And certainly it’s a good idea to try at least to listen to the Book of Revelation with an open mind, to listen with the possibility that it might have something to say to us a bit different than what we expect—maybe it’s actually meaningful! Or meaningful in a different way that what we have assumed.
My sense with Revelation is that most people start with the assumption that Revelation’s God is violent and judgmental. Some might want that kind of God—some don’t. One of the pivotal moments in my own theological journey came nearly 40 years ago when a couple of friends had a formal debate in our church about pacifism. The non-pacifist drew heavily on the judgment in Revelation. He used it to support his belief that sometimes God is violent and thus may, at times, want us to be as well. That statement challenged me to study Revelation to see for myself.
This assumption about God and violent judgment in Revelation can lead some Christians to be happy. A few years after that debate, I visited some folks from my old hometown church. This was during the days of Ronald Reagan. He led an acceleration of the arms race that heightened fears of a nuclear war. One old friend smiled and talked about how great it was to know that God would be behind such a war—punishing the godless Communists and bringing in paradise for born-again Christians.
There are others who also might agree with the God-as-violent-judge reading of Revelation—but for these such a picture of God is a good reason to reject Christianity altogether. If this is what the Christian God is like, forget about it. Or at least this picture of God-as-violent-judge would seem a good reason to reject Revelation itself.
Well, we do have other options for how we think of God—even in relation to our reading of Revelation. Our text for today gives us some challenging images. As we think about Revelation, what do we think God is like? Let me read a condensed version of Revelation 4–5. While I read, think about what you think the book of Revelation says about God. What do you hear in this text? What other impressions do you have of Revelation’s God. After I read, we’ll take a few moments and share our impressions. What do we think Revelation’s God is like—especially as pictured here?
I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! A voice like a trumpet said, “Come up here.” At once I was in the Spirit. There in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne who looks like jasper and carnelian. Around the throne is a rainbow as well as twenty-four other thrones, and seated on those thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns upon their heads. In front of the throne burn seven torches, the seven spirits of God; and also in front of the throne there is a sea of glass.
Around the throne are four living creatures, each of them with six wings, full of eyes all around and inside. Without ceasing they sing, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one seated on the throne, the twenty-four elders fall down and worship the one who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals. A mighty angel proclaimed, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll. So I began to weep bitterly. Then one of the elders said to me, “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.”
Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. They sing a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood 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 I looked, and I heard the voice of angels beyond measure surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders, 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 4:1–5:10
So what do you think? What is Revelation’s God like? Share a word or two, maybe based on what I just read, or maybe more what you have already thought about Revelation’s God before you heard these words….
A single vision of worship
This passage I read, Revelation chapters four and five, actually describes one single vision. This is a vision, we could say, of a worship service. It begins with the twenty-four elders worshiping, then moves to the four living creatures, and then to the central focus, the Lamb who takes the scroll from the right hand of the One who is on the throne. Then the service kind of repeats itself with more worship that ends with the living creatures and finally back to the elders.
This movement from the elders to the four living creatures and then back emphasizes the point in the middle. If we want to learn about God from this vision, we should center our attention on the high point of the worship service. And what we notice may be a shock. In the middle of this vision is the message that the Lamb defines God’s self-revelation.
But let’s first back up a bit before we pay more attention to the Lamb. The first vision in Revelation is given in the last part of chapter one and chapters two and three. It tells us what the book cares about. John writes to help seven congregations negotiate life in the Roman Empire. These were actual congregations. Each existed in an Empire-devoted city. In each city, followers of Jesus had their loyalty severely tested.
There are precisely seven messages (seven being a hugely important number; it signifies wholeness, completeness). This number indicates that these messages are for a broader audience (including us today!) beyond only those original seven congregations. But the meaning of the messages is to be found mostly in that original context. In a nutshell, those messages challenged Jesus’ followers to maintain their commitment to his way of self-giving love even in face of temptations to give loyalty to an Empire based on domination and peace through force. They are called to conquer—that is, they are called to remain committed to the lamb’s way, even in face of suffering and hostility, even in face of the temptation to find comfort and security in trusting in the Empire’s way.
The next vision, then, is today’s account of what John sees when the door to heaven is opened. It provides a grounding for the call to “conquer” the violence of empire through suffering love—to embrace power in the “weakness” of that love that exposes the actual weakness of power as domination.
The first scene of the heavenly vision centers on the one on the throne. This character is never physically described—evidence, actually, that indeed the One is God—whose physical appearance the Bible never describes. The surroundings make this clear: the throne, the worship by all creation. This vision of the power of Revelation’s God echoes the claims for the mighty and ferocious god-emperor of Rome who was envisioned in similar settings. But there is no hint here of anger or judgment, only joy and celebration. This is the true God, comparable to the emperor but profoundly different. That is, the true God and the emperor are rivals. You cannot divide your loyalty between the two, Revelation insists.
The difference between these rival gods becomes even more clear as the vision proceeds. When read as a whole, the most remarkable element of this vision is how the One on the throne and the Lamb are seen together. Both receive the same worship. This vision underscores the Christian affirmation of Jesus’ divinity. Jesus, the Lamb, stands on the same level as the One on the throne. However, with tragic consequences, Christians have tended to misunderstand this affirmation. Jesus as linked with the One on the throne, Jesus as divine, all too often becomes a kind of supernatural “Christ”—separate from the vulnerability and peaceableness of the Lamb image.
Fairly quickly, the loss of Jesus’ vulnerable humanity led to terrible problems for Christianity. Jesus’ cross, for example, became a symbol for the violence and militarism of empire—the very empire that had executed him. The Roman Empire became Christianized, or, we could say, Christianity became imperial-ized. Church members became the empire’s best soldiers—the conflict of loyalties central to Revelation was decisively settled—in favor of the Empire. Jesus’ professed divinity became a way for Christians to ignore the political meaning of his self-giving love that resisted empire and led to his execution.
The linking of the exalted Christ and Empire has continued to our day—just think of how politicians wrap their embrace of American military power in the cloak of being Bible-believing Christians. We have Jesus’ divinity defined in terms of a notion of God’s coercive power, rather than God’s divinity defined in terms of Jesus’ vulnerable love.
I think there is a different—and much better—way to read this vision. The worship of the Lamb is not about exalting Jesus as divine in a coercively powerful way. It’s about seeing God in terms of Jesus’s non-coercive power. Again, let’s focus on the high point of Revelation 4 and 5’s worship service. The service begins and ends with praise; in between, we could say, comes the content. The One on the throne has a scroll—meant to signify healing, the fulfillment of God’s creative will for God’s creation. But at first, we are told, no one can open it. Will the promise remained unfulfilled? John himself first simply describes what he sees, and then he bitterly weeps. The possibility of this scroll being opened is at the heart of everything.
John, then, is comforted with words from one of the elders—One has been found. This one is a great king. This one is a mighty warrior. Perhaps the one who can open the scroll will be like the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great, or the great Christian emperor of the Middle Ages, Charlemagne, or maybe, like great 20th century warriors for Christian Empire such as Winston Churchill or Douglas MacArthur. This is what John hears.
But then, and I can’t overemphasize the drama here, then John sees something that redefines his entire world—what John sees interprets what he hears. What John sees makes clear the meaning of victory. What John sees is meant to transform our very understanding of God and the universe. “I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (5:6). This Lamb, slaughtered (that is, crucified) and yet standing (that is, resurrected), walks over and takes the scroll. As Revelation continues, we will learn that indeed the Lamb does conquer. The Lamb does have the power to open the scroll. By the end of the book, we learn of the Lamb’s power to bring the promised healing to God’s creation—and it is the power of love, love all the way down, that wins, not the power of brute force.
Love all the way down
We can imagine these two verses, Revelation 5:5-6, as the center of a calm pool of water. Then we drop a sizable rock into this center and watch the waves ripple out. These verses bring a revolution of expectations and understandings of power and victory. This revolution can spread and reorient the way we read the whole of Revelation—that the victory of God is the victory of love, not the victory of coercion. This revolution can reorient the way we read the New Testament and the rest of the Bible. It reorients the way we understand life in God’s creation itself—love all the way down.
That is, the most fundamental expression of God’s power is the self-giving love of the Lamb. The most fundamental expression of God’s power is the self-giving love of the Lamb. This love cannot be conquered even by the Empire’s crucifixion. Whatever we can imagine as the Empire’s greatest expression of might cannot defeat this vulnerable Lamb. To realize that this is God’s power transforms how we understand the One on the throne. To realize that this is God’s power transforms how we understand the “Revelation of Jesus Christ” that this book is about. It will also change how we understand the later visions in Revelation that are filled with judgment and blood and destruction (though you will have to read my forthcoming book of Revelation to learn about this!).
A crucial part of this vision in Revelation 4 and 5 follows from the Lamb taking the scroll. He is praised by all creation—the elders, the living creatures, thousands of angels, and ultimately every creature in heaven and on earth and under earth and in the sea. And, we must notice: this praise is for what already has happened: “You have liberated for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (5:9).
This already-ness is central to John’s exhortations in the seven messages in chapters two and three. He calls his listeners to conquer, not in the sense that they have to find a way to defeat empire—but in the sense that they have to find a way to live in harmony with the way of the Lamb that already stands in contrast to empire and offers life to all who join with it.
History is full of moments when this already-ness of the Lamb’s victory over Empire has found expression. Though they always seem all too fleeting, these moments do remind us of the true character of God’s power, constantly at work in our world—even if it seems so hidden so often. The death of the great Czech prophet Vaclav Havel in 2012 helped me learn of one such moment. Dissidents to the Soviet Empire realized they could not (and should not) resist violent domination with their own violence. Instead, they simply sought to create space for being human, to (as Havel put it) “live in truth.” And a revolution did happen, the “Velvet Revolution”—and the Empire fell. This is the spirit our recent Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements have sought to embody.
According to Revelation, the way of Empire has already failed—it revealed itself to be a tool for evil when it slaughtered the Lamb. And, it revealed itself actually to be unable to defeat the Lamb’s love when God brought the Lamb back to his feet through resurrection and empowered him to stand. To realize this, to realize that only the Lamb’s way gains the praise of creation itself, is to realize that one need not give in to the Empire’s demand for loyalty, one need not accept the Empire’s call to take up arms or to sell one’s soul for the sake of corporate profit and empowerment.
So, then, what is God like?
Let me supplement the Revelation 4-5 vision with a verse from John’s Gospel: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). And with a text from the first letter of John: “God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him….No one has ever seen God, [but] if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us” (1 John 4).