A Sermon for The 3rd Sunday of Easter: 10th April 2016
A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
The service also included the Baptism of Maria Coley
I, John, looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour 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 honour and glory and might for ever and ever!’ And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshipped.
As Maria grows up in the coming years, how will she know who she is? As your children and grandchildren mature and grow in their self-understand, what will you tell them about what it means to be who they are?
The likelihood is that you will tell stories: stories about previous generations, stories about your own growth to maturity, stories about your family, its history, its values and its characters. So, just to pick one item from Tim and Isobel’s family history, I imagine that you will tell Maria about Isobel’s grandfather, the church organist, whose strategy with music he didn’t like accompanying was to play it very quickly. We’ve all got stories like that, stories of past generations, that amuse, inform and, most of all, provide a web of relationships, events and experiences that help form the backdrop of how we develop and tell us something about who we are. It is from these stories, when added to our own experience and wider education, that we develop our values and our priorities in life. It’s how we discover who we are and what we can do to add the next chapter to the book or the next piece of the jigsaw to life.
But there’s another way of coming to understand ourselves as well, and that is, not to look backwards to history but to look forwards into the future. Thinking about our potential, about who we could be, who we might be and what we are destined to become, this can give us as much of a structure on which to set our life’s goals, priorities and values as the past can. Who we are to become can tell us as much as who we have been.
That is the background to today’s reading from the Book of Revelation and it’s this question of our future shaping our present that is the subject of my reflections this morning.
But I probably need to say something about Revelation before I expand on this thinking. Because we’re often rather daunted by this book among all the books of the Bible. Leslie Spatt, one of our preaching team here at St Mary’s, said to me the other day that she thought the Book of Revelation was St John on magic mushrooms. I know what she means. It’s seriously weird, even a bit trippy to the modern audience, with its visions of violence, its strange imagery of horsemen, bowls, scrolls and angels. It is no wonder that many Christians – not to mention Hollywood filmmakers – have seen Revelation as a book about what will happen at the end of the world. The final countdown.
But that is to misunderstand the purpose of this strange and mysterious book. Rather, instead of some sort of cosmic script for the end of the world, the Book of Revelation is a vision given to St John the Divine of the way in which the Risen Jesus Christ will finally triumph over evil and injustice, of war and tyranny. As one scholar puts it, the issue is not ‘how will God bring the world to an end?’ but in the here and now, ‘who exactly is the true Lord of this world?’ Written in the face of terrible persecution, Revelation isn’t a script for the final scenes of the world’s existence, it’s a vision of comfort and of the triumph of God over the powers of darkness for a group of Christians facing terrible persecution for their faith in Jesus Christ.
And right at the centre of this vision – indeed the Book of Revelation only contains one Revelation – is Jesus Christ. The Revelation is Jesus Christ. That’s who John sees at the beginning of his book in the vision and it is that vision of Jesus Christ – and the risen Jesus Christ as well – in triumph, despite all that evil can do – that is the heart of this book.
No more so in Revelation 5, our epistle reading today. Just a word about what happens before we reach our verses. Before our verses, we have a vision of heaven opened. John sees the splendour of God’s throne and, around it a multitude of people in ceaseless praise. The one who is seated on this throne – God – holds a scroll in his hand. This scroll, according to the vision, contains not only an account of the final events of history, but also by its opening will set those events in motion. But one thing is lacking: someone who is able to open the scroll. A voice from one of the elders says this: there is one who can open the scroll. He, says the elder, “is the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David.” But when John looks for the Lion of Judah, all he can see is not a Lion but a Lamb, and a Lamb, says Revelation, “standing as if it had been slaughtered.” In the vision, the Lamb takes the scroll from God’s hand and then the whole of the heavenly court burst into songs of praise of the Lamb, who is worthy to open the scroll.
Which brings us to our verses this morning. These verses are like a great crescendo of praise in music as the myriads, the angels, the animals, the elders and the whole creation burst into song of praise, first to the Lamb and then to the Lamb and the one seated on the throne. There is no greater moment in the bible of the identification of Jesus (who is the Lamb slain on the cross) with God himself. The divinity of Jesus is on show here without question. It’s worth just mentioning here that the person who wrote this was undoubtedly familiar with the court of the Roman emperor, where crowds of people from various backgrounds would acknowledge the emperor with great songs and chants. The author of this vision is saying that the God who Christians worship and his Son Jesus Christ present a challenge to the way in which earthly rulers exercise power. The Father and the Son have a greater claim to power and adulation than earthly rulers, with their armies, with their wealth and with their Panamanian lawyers. Such praise – which ascribes to the Lamb and the one on the throne – continues for ever and ever. And the things which are ascribed to the Lam and God on the throne are “power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing.” In other words, all that we attribute to earthly power – political, economic, social, cultural – all these by right are claimed by God. Such is the challenge to earthly power that a Christian vision of the future offers.
So here it is: the big question that Revelation and that Christian faith pose to us: who is on the throne. Is it the politicians with their ability to shape the world? Is it the economists, by whom the worth of most things seems to be judged today? Is it the so-called opinion formers, with their access to people’s homes and minds through the media? Is it the cultural icons of our day, the celebrity culture we live in. No, says Revelation, what Easter tells us is that God is on the throne and that the risen Lord Jesus with him are the ones whose world this is and whose reign we are called to live under. We may not recognise it, but this is God’s world, the world which Jesus Christ redeems, and the future we have before us and which this bizarre but powerful book reveals, is one where God’s reign will come and all those who claim to sit on the throne before him will be dethroned, usurped, overthrown in the final triumph of God. This vision is the natural outworking of a belief in the resurrection of Jesus. This is the goal of Easter.
So back to that question I started with: who are we meant to be? What are we to tell Maria about who she is? Well, by all means, let us tell one another stories of previous generations, of amusing relatives, seminal moments and significant events and characters. But let us tell Maria, and let us constantly remind ourselves, that she is a child of the one who not only died for her but who lives for her, and who now reigns with the Father from the throne. Tell her that our allegiance is first to this King and his Kingdom. And tell her that, in the light of this, her values, her vision and therefore the things we teach her are shaped by the great truth that this is God’s world and whatever she is called to do in it and for it, her baptism is the moment when her parents decided that it was the claim of Jesus Christ on her life that would be the thing that would shape her living first and foremost. And let us remember that for ourselves too: for when the words Jesus is Lord trip off of our lips, we are saying however easily they come, that nothing else is the Lord of this world – no sports hero, no political leader, no wealthy individual, nor wealth itself, however tempting it might be to worship these things – only God reigns with the Lamb. That is the central claim of Christianity: when Jesus says “seek ye first the kingdom of God,” he invites us to make the King and his reign – of justice, mercy, peace, forgiveness and love – the heart of our lives.
And he gives us a way to do this as well. Because the one who reigns is not the Lion of Judah but the Lamb of God, the Lamb who was slain. As followers of Jesus Christ we follow a crucified God, a ruler who rules through service and suffering, not through conquest. The Lamb suffers for us and the way to reign of Jesus Christ is by following the way of the cross. The Lion of Judah is the Lamb of God. Our Lord is weak and in his weakness is found true power. When we worship raw power we make an enormous mistake. The God who rules from the throne is revealed most clearly in the weakness of the manger of Bethlehem and the cross of Calvary. The Lion who will rule is the Lamb who was slain.
May we all allow that truth to percolate into our hearts as we baptise Maria today. May we all – she, Tim, Isobel, her godparents and each of us baptised people – come to know the truth that Jesus is Lord. Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!’ Amen.