[1996–2] The Triumph of the Lamb

Revelation 5:1-14

Salem Mennonite Church, Freeman, SD—Ted Grimsrud—4/21/96

One of the interesting things in life is what we could call “confounded expectations”.  It’s like when we expect one thing, and end up with the exact opposite happening.  Or, we form a first impression of someone, and then find out that we were totally wrong.

I can think of several examples of confounded expectations I have had with other people.  When I was in college, I enjoyed playing pick-up basketball games.  Early in my freshman year, I noticed a really doofy-looking guy hanging around in the gym.  He wasn’t very tall, was kind of chubby, looked like anything but a basketball player.  Then I noticed him around campus a little—wearing a stocking cap pulled way down over his ears.  I chuckled to myself about this guy, whose name was Mark.

Then, at the beginning of basketball season, I was surprised to see Mark trying out for the freshman team.  Then I started to play with him.  And, to my surprise, he was pretty good.  As I learned to know him, I found out that he had been first-team all-state in high school.  He could really put the ball in the basket.  More than that, though, I learned that Mark was a wonderful person.  In fact, he was the best friend I made while I was in college.  We were roommates one year, played on intramural and city league teams for several years, and have stayed in touch with each other in the twenty years since college.

My expectations were confounded.  I thought I had Mark figured out from observing him, but it turned out that I was wrong, drastically wrong.

Confounded expectations.  The Bible is full of confounded expectations.  God is a God who confounds expectations.  In the time of Noah, God spoke words of judgment and the rains fell and fell.  But in the middle of chaos, God remembered Noah, and solely out of mercy saved Noah and re-established human beings as God’s caretakers of the earth.  Abraham was a wandering nomad, with a wife, Sarah, who was growing old, was childless, and without hope for a future.  God called Abraham, promised him and Sarah a future, gave them a calling to be a light to the nations of the world, showing people God’s mercy.  This promise seemed absurd.  We are told that at first Sarah laughed.  But Abraham and Sarah did believe.  And God responded to their faith by giving them children.

We find a different kind of confounded expectation with the great King David.  David became a powerful general, seemingly all-powerful.  So powerful that he could steal the wife of one his soldiers, have the soldier killed, and expect that he could go on with life as usual.  This expectation, too, was confounded. The prophet Nathan confronted David with his terrible sin.  And things never were quite the same for David—or for ancient Israel.

However, God also confounded the expectations of despairing Israelites following their nation being wiped out by the Babylonians.  They expected death, but God sent words of hope through the prophet Isaiah.  “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you.  In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer” (Isaiah 54:7-8).

The confounded expectations continue, in spades, with the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.  The people expected God’s messiah to come and bring a new day of salvation.  But they expected a mighty warrior-king, one who would put the Romans to route and re-establish Israel as a great nation-state.  The messiah that God did sent spoke of a different kind of kingdom, different from kingdoms relying on power-politics and violence.

When Peter confesses that Jesus is indeed the messiah (Mark 8:29), Jesus begins to explain that his calling as God’s messiah is to bring salvation through his death and resurrection.  This is different than Peter expected—he expected salvation to come with the sword, not with suffering.  Jesus rebukes Peter sharply, but it will still be awhile before Peter changes his expectations.

When Jesus was arrested and put to death, his followers fled.  They now expected the state’s wrath to fall on them as it had on Jesus.  They expected simply to suffer and die, just as their leader had.  And did God ever confound those expectations!  God raised Jesus from the dead, against all the expectations of Jesus’ followers.  They expected death and, instead, discovered life.

So, it comes as no surprise to discover that the Book of Revelation is also a book of confounded expectations.  I think if we read Revelation with an openness to having the expectations of the world’s conventional wisdom confounded, we might be better able to understand what Revelation is actually about.

Last week we talked about the messages to the seven churches in Revelation, chapters two and three.  We already see expectations confounded in these messages.  There are two churches which are small, struggling, probably little known outside their tiny membership.  But these two churches, in the cities of Philadephia and Smyrna, are given unqualified praise by Jesus.  These churches surely were not following all the latest church-growth techniques, they were barely hanging on.  But Jesus praise them for their faithfulness.  These are the churches Jesus holds up as models for what he wants from Christians.  They are genuinely rich, spiritually, even amidst their material poverty.

On the other hand, there is one church which is offered no praise by Jesus, the church in the city of Laodicea.  This church was not useful in any way to Jesus.  He speaks strong words to them:  “You say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’  You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.…I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (3:17,16).

We would expect that those churches which to outside eyes are prosperous, growing, vital, wealthy—we would expect that these are the faithful churches; and those which are struggling barely to survive, we would expect that those are having the most trouble being faithful.  Isn’t their lack of faithfulness evidenced by their poverty and small membership?  These messages to the seven churches tell us maybe not.  Don’t be too quick to judge on external indicators.  Faithfulness has to do with following Jesus’ commands, not with prosperity and success in the world.…

We come today to the most important confounding of expectations in the Book of Revelation.  Chapter five of Revelation presents the central image of the book—the slain Lamb who is triumphant.

Chapter four speaks of a vision of the all-powerful creator God seated on the throne; worshiped, really, by all creation.  Then we are presented with a problem.  The one seated on the throne holds “a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals.”  The contents of the scroll have to do with the fulfilling of God’s redemptive purposes, the establishment of the New Jerusalem, and the destruction of evil.  John tells us that “no one in heaven or on earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it” (5:3).  When John sees this, he begins to weep bitterly (5:4).  He passionately longs for redemption and is broken-hearted that it apparently won’t come.

Then John is told by one of the elders worshiping the one seated on the throne to weep no longer.  One has been found to open the scroll—“The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (5:5).

We are being set up here for the revelation of some mighty warrior-king.  That is certainly what the symbols of the Lion and Root of David would have implied to first-century Christians.  These were symbols often connected with the hope for God’s promised messiah.

The “Lion of the tribe of Judah” alludes to one of the first messianic prophecies in the Bible, in Genesis 49.  The figure of a lion was used to indicate the warrior-like conquering Messiah.  The reference in Genesis is not to a humble, suffering messiah but to one who wielded the scepter as a ruling king.

The “Root of David” is an allusion to Isaiah 11.  The royal family of David was likened to a tree which had fallen; but out from its roots sprang a new tree to restore the kingly rule of David.  The verses that follow in Isaiah give a vivid prophecy of the promised triumphant king.

So, the expectation suggested by the terms “Lion of the tribe of Judah” and “Root of David” is in line with Peter’s expectation concerning the messiah—an all-powerful, conquering king.  To open the scroll, it would appear, requires great, brute power.

The next verse, however, confounds this expectation.  John actually sees something very different.  He has heard all-powerful, warrior-king.  That is not what he sees, though.  “Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered…, and he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne” (5:6,7).

What John sees is, of course, the Christian’s crucified and resurrected messiah, Jesus Christ.  This confounds the expectation that brute power is what truly matters in the world.  What matters most is God’s love, and Jesus’ obedience to God’s loving will even to the death.  This crucified and resurrected Jesus is the Lord of history, the bringer of God’s redemption to all who trust in him.  The power of God is best seen in what seems like weakness and failure.  The slain Lamb reveals this power.

What John hears, the traditional expectation of military deliverance, is reinterpreted by what he sees—Jesus’ death and resurrection.  John sees a “Lamb” who bears the “marks of slaughter,” which are explained by the heavenly choir later in chapter five:  “You were slaughtered and by your blood you 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.…Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (5:9-10,12).

It is also true, though, that the slain Lamb which John “saw” should be interpreted by the Lion of Judah of which John “heard”.  That is, the death of the Lamb is not weakness and defeat, as it seemed to be, but power and victory.  The victorious Messiah has indeed come.  His victory, though, comes through sacrificial love—not brute strength and military might.  The Lamb which appears to be slain stands.  The slain Lamb is the risen Lamb.  This is no ordinary lamb.  It has “seven horns and seven eyes” (5:6).  The horns symbolize power and royalty.  “Seven horns,” then, signifies fullness of strength.  The Lamb of God is immensely powerful.  The “seven eyes” signify fullness of knowledge.

John defines God’s power here.  The power of the Lamb, the power of God, is not to be understood as the power of unlimited coercion, as brute strength, as the power to impose his will no matter what.  That is not how the scroll is opened.  That is not how salvation is won.

God’s power is not unlimited coercion but infinite persuasion.  God’s power is the power of sacrificial, persevering love.  The gospel tells us that the way of victory for the messiah came through the cross, not through matching sword for sword.  This insight is crucial for understanding the rest of Revelation.

God’s work is a work of love.  The goal of God’s work is salvation for all people.  The most powerful aspect of God’s love is not that it renders everything else powerless in its might.  No, God’s power is best seen as the power to empower others.  The power of the Lamb is the power to give life, not the power to take life.  The Lamb is a messiah of love, not a military ruler.

In verses nine and ten of chapter five, the living creatures and elders raise a new song.  They sing praise to God for the Lamb’s triumph.  They sing praise to God for the salvation the Lamb has brought.

The Lamb is worthy to take the scroll, to break the seals, and eventually to open the scroll.  In this way he brings history to its completion and brings about final salvation.  Because of what Jesus has done, all of creation worships him.

Verse 13 tells us that “every creature” worships God and Jesus.  The Lamb’s work is good news for every creature, person or animal.  Whether everyone will actually recognize this is an open question which the Book of Revelation doesn’t clearly answer.  This vision of the triumph of the Lamb, though, makes it clear that what follows in Revelation beginning in chapter six, the threats and images of destruction, what follows in Revelation somehow serves God’s will of salvation for all of creation, and all people. This vision of the triumph of the Lamb also makes it clear that the victory of God is won by what Jesus has already done, not some future act of massive violence and warfare.

The vision of the slain and resurrected Lamb is one of the most important visions in Revelation.  We see the power of God to fulfill humankind’s hopes most centrally in the slain Lamb.  God’s power is not the kind of power that forces people to go along simply because of the brute force of it.  God’s power is the power of unshakeable love.  God wins people over by loving them and inviting them to choose the life witnessed to by Jesus and Jesus’ followers.

All the forces of evil could not conquer this love by killing Jesus, the Lamb.  He conquered evil not by retaliating in kind but by remaining faithful to the way of love and overcoming death in the resurrection.

The Lamb is worthy to take the scroll, the Lamb has true power, because it was willing to be slain for the sake of God’s truth.  This act was not an isolated happening, something the Lamb did so that none of his followers would have to.  Rather, this act of the Lamb was something his followers are to imitate.  In chapters two and three, Jesus called upon the people in the seven churches to be victors.  Jesus called upon the people in the seven churches to follow his way even if that led to their death.  God vindicated Jesus’ faithfulness through resur-rection.  So too will God vindicate the faithfulness of all who follow Jesus’ way.

The power it takes to share in the Lamb’s triumph is available only to those who have faith.  We gain faith by trusting in God’s mercy.  We gain faith by trusting in Jesus as our savior.  We gain faith by stepping out, following Jesus’ way and allowing his Spirit to empower us as we do so.

The gift of faith comes when we allow our lives to be shaped by the values of God’s kingdom.  When we are living lives of love and compassion, when we forgive as we have been forgiven, when we are merciful as God is merciful, our eyes will be opened to see that the Lamb that was slain is victorious.  And we will know that no earthly power can separate us from God’s love.

[Let’s pray: Dear God, we confess that the Lamb that was slain and stands, victorious over the powers of evil and death, we confess that this Lamb is Jesus our savior.  We also confess that we find it difficult to follow his way.  We find it difficult to believe and live as if true power is the power of love and mercy, more than the power of brute strength.  Forgive us for our misplaced values and help us to grow in the ways of the Lamb and his genuine power.]

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