The Scroll and the Lamb – August 13, 2017 – Revelation 5: 1 – 13

The book of Revelation is a highly political book. In order to properly interpret the book and understand the signs, symbols and language, we need to look at the politics of 1st century Rome. This will lead us to politics in the 21st century United States. As we get there, I will do my best to be political but not partisan which is difficult because there are very few things that are political and not partisan anymore.

Regardless of what party we identify with or if we find a party to identify with at all, we do so, as people of faith, informed by our faith. I don’t think God or Jesus can be particularly claimed by one party or another. The Republicans have become the party of the Evangelical Christians but there is a growing Religious Left movement among Progressives. Both are faithful people and strive to direct their public lives rooted in their beliefs about who God is and what God does. So, I will tread lightly.

In our throne room, we have God at the center being worshipped by 4 living creatures and surrounded by 24 elders dressed in white robes and wearing crowns. The elders cast down their crowns before the throne. Casting down crowns is a political act in 1st century Rome and indicates allegiance. If the emperor was visiting, a delegation of citizens would go to see him. They would be given golden crowns to wear which they would lay down before the emperor. This laying down of crowns is a sign of being the emperor’s subject. It is a sign of allegiance.

This scene of elders laying down their crowns before the throne of God is an act of resistance to the Roman empire. The elders are saying there is no god but God. The emperor or head of state can’t be likened to God or elevated to that status because there is only one sovereign God to be worshiped and due our allegiance. The imagery is counter-cultural in a culture that worshiped the emperor for elders to lay down their crows before God and pledge allegiance to God alone.

In God’s presence any reference or sign or symbol that distracts our attention from God or draws us away from our relationship with God or calls us to pledge allegiance to anyone but God or any kingdom but God’s kingdom is simply disgraceful. American Christian practice allows some space for distraction. We have an American flag in our sanctuary. A sign that we have an allegiance to a leader and a nation other than God and His Kingdom. We are the only country, according to a survey I did of a Facebook group of other clergy who serve all over the world, we are the only country to have national flags in our sanctuary. Our flag is here as a sign of our allegiance to God and country.

John’s vision continues in Chapter 5. John sees God seated on the throne holding a scroll in His right hand sealed with seven seals. An angel asks, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” The angel searches for someone who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll which we know to contain the will of God. If the seals are not broken and the scroll read, we will never know God’s plan for the final victory and the fullness of the coming kingdom. The one found to be worthy will be the one who reveals the will of God.

No one in Heaven or on earth or under the earth was found worthy and able to open the scroll or to read it. John wept bitterly because no one was found worthy to reveal the will of God. Then, one of the elders said to John, “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.”

John turns to look for the lion but sees a slaughtered lamb. The lamb goes to the throne and takes the scroll from the right hand of the One seated on the throne. The four living creatures and the 24 elders fall before the lamb, worship Him and sing, “You are worthy” and “You ransomed the saints” and “Worthy is the lamb.”

No one had been found worthy, but then, the lion of Judah was found worthy. For John, this conjures up the expectations of the Messiah. This goes back to the long-expected warrior Messiah that would destroy the Roman empire by military action and the kingdom of Israel would be restored under the Messiah who would be like King David. But, that is not the Messiah we got. Jesus is the slaughtered lamb. In God’s world order, where He is at the center, worshipped by all around, sacrifice is a sign of power. Sacrifice is the act through which God saved the world and continues to save us.

In verse 5, the elder says “the Lion has conquered.” The Greek word nikhen is translated conquer. It can also be translated victory. It is the word from which Nike took their name. In Roman culture, the one who is worthy is the one who is victorious in winning a battle, especially one of winning the throne. He is worthy of worship for being a conqueror and dominates. The victor oppresses, enslaves, subjugates.

But, Christ is not that kind of victor. Christ’s victory comes through loosing bonds and setting the oppressed free. Christ is victorious over death through redemption and salvation. In Christ’s kingdom, we are saved to be brought in, not defeated to be subjects. Here, Christ is worthy of worship and worthy to open the scrolls because He has been victorious over death and able to reveal the will of God.

And, the choir sings, “Worthy is the Lamb.” The Greek word axios which is translated worthy is a politically charged word in Rome. When the Roman emperor was seen in public, the crowds would yell, “Worthy! Worthy!” The emperor was thought to be worthy of their worship because he was a conqueror. One of my sources likened this to a band playing “Hail to the Chief!” when the President of the United States enters a large gathering. But, again, in God’s kingdom the only one worthy of our allegiance and worship is God and His lamb.

As we read the book of Revelation and begin to understand the political message of John’s vision with its politically charged signs, symbols and language, our questions should be, “Who do we give our allegiance? And, who do we trust to reveal God’s will?” I can’t help but think of a particular example from this past week when asking these questions.

This week, Pastor Robert Jeffress, one of the president’s spiritual advisors, advised the president that God is okay will bombing North Korea. Pastor Jeffress said “God has given the president full control to take out North Korean leader Kim John Un. The pastor looked to a passage from Romans and wrote that rulers have full power to use whatever means necessary – including war – to stop evil.”

Pastor Jeffress is one the president trusts to reveal the will of God. The problem I have with Pastor Jeffress’ message is that I don’t think God gets into specifics like take out Kim John Un. I think the scroll that Christ opened revealing the will of God says something more like peace among nations. I’m not saying that war is never justified. The Just War theory is rooted in Christian theology. There are right reasons to go to war and rights acts in war understood through the lens of our Christian faith.

I think we can discern when war is necessary, but what I really want us to consider…is that when God’s will is revealed it is in the long tradition of the Bible. And, we find worthy the One who never declared violence against anyone, who is named the Prince of Peace, and who promoted peacemakers. Before we go pledging allegiance to the President, trusting his spiritual advisors, and supporting war with North Korea, or Venezuela or whoever, we need to enter the throne room of God, pledge our allegiance to God first, and ask, “What is the path to peace among the nations? How do we protect the innocent? And, how do we set free the oppressed?”

We must remember that the power of God is unleashed through the sacrifice and death of Christ. We cannot understand the will of God apart from the Slaughtered Lamb whose journey leads to the cross and victory is in the resurrection. Peace among the nations will come through humility and self-sacrifice, not ego and might.

Sources: I read so much I don’t remember where I read what so here are the links to the articles I read and the podcasts I listened to.
https://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=900
https://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=901
https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3285
https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=567
http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1693
http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2823

The Promise of a Revelation – November 13, 2016 – Isaiah 6: 1 – 8

Our story from Scripture begins with setting the context as the year that King Uzziah died. King Uzziah became king of the southern kingdom of Judah where Jerusalem was. He was crowned at 16 years old and reigned 52 years. The Bible tells us “he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Chr 26). He sought the Lord as instructed by the priests and prophets. God gave him great success over Judah’s enemies. He brought lots of jobs to the people building the infrastructure of the city of Jerusalem and building up the military.

But, King Uzziah wasn’t perfect. He became arrogant and went into the sanctuary, reserved for the priests, to burn incense. God afflicted him with a skin disease for his profane actions and he suffered for the rest of his life. Regardless of his shortcomings, King Uzziah was a good king. He protected the people of Judah from their enemies, created jobs, and led them as a person of faith.

Starting to sound familiar?

Because King Uzziah was such a beloved king, Judah was at a great loss when he died. The country seemed destabilized. The threat of Assyria was coming. Assyria had already defeated the northern kingdom of Israel. The people of Judah had thought that God would deliver them from their enemies because they had such success under King Uzziah. The people of Judah thought they were God’s special chosen people and somehow God had abandon the northern kingdom when King David’s kingdom was split in 2. The northern kingdom had already been devastated by Assyria; yet, Judah remained untouched. They thought this was a sign that God was protecting Judah, but not Israel.

Then, when their beloved King Uzziah died, they questioned what the future held for them. Who would be their leader? Would Assyria come? Was God still protecting them? There were many questions and a lot of fear.

Sounding like things haven’t changed nearly 3000 years later?

Following King Uzziah’s death, a young priest Isaiah went into the Temple to pray, into the Holy of Holies where it was believed that God lived. There, God revealed Himself to Isaiah. God was seated upon the throne of Heaven surrounded by angels singing “Holy holy holy is the Lord of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory.” The angels were in such awe of God they used their wings to hide their eyes, feet, and middle parts because it was too much to see God in His full glory. There aren’t a lot of adjectives in the Hebrew language. Holy, holy, holy was the adjective in their limited vocabulary the angels could use to describe God. The noise of the angels’ praise was so loud it shook the building.

In a sense, the vision comforted Isaiah because he knew, regardless of who lived in the king’s palace, God sat upon the throne. This vision brought some comfort to Isaiah, but it also was so awe inspiring and glorious that it humbled Isaiah. God was majestic and overwhelming and Isaiah was small and meek. The presence of God caused Isaiah to see himself as he truly was, a sinner in need of grace. The holiness of God led Isaiah to honestly look at himself.

Isaiah feared for his life. He knew from his study of Scriptures that no one saw God or stood in His presence and lived. He thought for sure he would die after seeing God. But, there was grace as God called Isaiah to lead His people.

Isaiah was cleansed of unclean lips. An angel took a hot coal from the altar and touched Isaiah’s lips with the coal. It must have been extremely painful for his lips to be burnt by the fiery hot coal. Yet, he withstood the pain. His unclean lips were cleansed and his guilt departed and his sin removed. Covered in grace, cleansed of his sin, Isaiah was ready to lead God’s people. God asked, “who will I send?” Isaiah said, “send me.”

Isaiah was shown mercy in many ways in this story. Isaiah was able to see God. Isaiah lived after seeing God. And, Isaiah was called by God. All signs of God’s mercy.

The revelation of God upon the throne is meant to comfort us a little and also unnerve us, especially in this week following a presidential election. God seated upon the throne does not give us permission to say now that God has a plan or God chose the elected. We live in a democracy in which we have control and we have the power to elect leaders not a theocracy in which God ordains a king. God did not exercise Divine power and authority to help us chose the candidates who would govern us. Because of freewill, God did not assert His power and authority upon us to ordain a leader.

The revelation of God upon the throne may comfort those who mourn at this time, because we know regardless of who occupies the seat in the Oval Office, God sits upon the throne with Christ at His right hand. But, the revelation of God upon the throne should humble us, all of us, whether we voted for one candidate or another, we are all God’s people who need to recognize ourselves. The revelation of God is meant to draw out of us the realization that we are sinners in need of grace yet unworthy of God’s grace. The grace of God to cleanse us from our sin should open our ears to our call which was Isaiah’s call to go to God’s people.

Isaiah speaks of his call in chapter 58,but clearly defines that call in Isaiah 61: 1 – 3, Isaiah tells us what his call is. After Isaiah has preached message of judgment, after the people have been defeated, after years in exile, Isaiah proclaims that his call, as the people of God are about to receive God’s grace, Isaiah has been anointed and sent to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for the captives and liberation for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn, to provide for Zion’s mourners, to give them a crown in place of ashes, oil of joy in place of mourning and a mantle of praise in place of discouragement.” It is the same call Jesus claimed in the synagogue reading Isaiah’s scroll in Luke 4: 18 – 19. It is our call as Disciples to proclaim good news to the poor, release the captives, give sight to the blind, liberate the oppressed, and proclaim the Lord’s favor.

Early in his prophetic ministry, Isaiah proclaimed to the Jewish people a message of God’s judgement that God did not accept their worship in which they honored God with their lips and ignored the poor, widow and orphan. Isaiah called the people to repent of this sin of taking advantage and leaving out in the cold the most vulnerable of society. Because true religion according to James 1: 27 is to care for the widows and orphans. Isaiah’s message was that the true way to honor the Sabbath was not going to the Temple and paying God lip service. The true honor of the Sabbath was to take care of the poor, the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, the vulnerable and the stranger.

Regardless of who won Tuesday, he or she were not God’s elect. No candidate was perfect. No president would have been the best ever world leader. But, we know throughout the Old Testament, God judged the kings of Israel for leading the people to false worship. God will judge us based on our honor of Him. Not by our worship attendance on Sunday, but on our care for the vulnerable.

Our call now is to celebrate the actions and policies of our government and our churches and public organizations that benefit the welfare of all people and challenge the injustices that take advantage of or withhold care from the most vulnerable in our society, because we are called to bring good news to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, liberate the prisoners, release the oppressed, comfort those who mourn, bring joy, give sight, and proclaim Christ. Amen.

A Voice Cries Out in the Wilderness

In prayer group at my church this morning, I gathered with 3 women who voted for different candidates for different reasons yesterday. I tried to avoid the topic of the election, but someone else brought it up. We had a civil discussion about what America voted for and what America declined. In the end, we agreed that as people of faith we can have our differences, agree to disagree and still gather at the Table for fellowship come Sunday morning.

When it came time to close in prayer, I cried. I barely got through the shortest prayer I’ve ever prayed to close our time of prayer. I prayed with a choked voice and tears streaming down my face. I cried because I have such pain in my heart, not only for myself, but for so many loved ones who hurt this morning, too.

I don’t know what hurts the most. I don’t know what I fear the most. As a Christian minister, I have devoted my work to being a prophet. Perhaps what I fear the most is that my voice has not been heard, not my vote, my prophet’s voice.

I had begun writing a sermon for Sunday morning based on the message of the prophet Isaiah. I had thought I would be preaching to a white working class congregation that overwhelming voted for Trump who needed to be assured of God’s work in the world and God’s seat upon the Throne of Heaven regardless of who lived in the White House. I, instead, need to preach that message to myself, a couple others who I suspect voted for Hillary and a couple others who voted against Trump.

I fear that my prophet’s voice was not heard above voices of bigotry, hatred, and exclusivity. In seminary, as I was equipped for the work of ministry, I read Jesus and the prophets with professors who taught me about God’s message of welcome, love, grace and inclusivity. I learned that God’s people were blessed to be a blessing. I learned that God throughout the First Testament taught the Jewish people to care for the poor, widow and orphan, which were the most vulnerable of society. I learned that God judged the people for not honoring the Sabbath’s call to care for the vulnerable. I learned that Jesus was for the poor and downtrodden.

I have continually preached messages challenging people of faith to consider their call to care for the vulnerable of society, to consider what it means to be blessed to be a blessing, and to consider others before ourselves. I have preached that, but I don’t know if that’s what has been heard. Maybe I haven’t lived up to my call to be a prophet. Maybe I haven’t preached boldly enough.

I don’t know. I’m thinking about Sunday’s message. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know why my white working class congregation voted for Trump or against Hillary or against Trump or for Hillary or for an independent candidate. I don’t know if they decided not to vote. I don’t know.

America’s choice was not necessarily between 2 parties or 2 candidates. I believe the choice was between worldviews. One candidate supported a nationalistic worldview and the other candidate supported continued diplomacy harnessing our power to build bridges, build up countries, and build up people to progress toward a peaceful and just world while defending the safety of the homeland and creating opportunities for prosperity and welcome for all people. I believe what America chose was to put ourselves before others, to hoard our blessings for ourselves, leave the vulnerable to fend for themselves and reinforce the privileges of middle class, heterosexual, white, Christian men.

The voice the American people heard that was elected to be our next president was one that does not resemble the message of Jesus and the message of God’s prophets. The voice that was accepted hurt me and many of my friends. The voice that our children heard said:

* We won’t protect our daughters from sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, rape and sexual abuse, I fear the safety of our daughters in a world where a man that bragged about sexually assaulting women has been affirmed.
* There are people that are in and there are people who are out. I keep hearing again the words of a friend whose daughter told her dad that she was afraid a President Trump would deport all her Latina friends. This African-American girl with 2 fathers and a diverse set of friends heard words of discrimination as acceptable.
* We will use our power and privilege to protect ourselves leaving others out in the cold. I hear words expressing fear and discrimination of people who are of different races, classes, creeds, religions, sexual orientation, ages, gender identities, nationalities, and abilities.
* We don’t want to help those who can’t help themselves. I see the faces of widows who need help with their energy bills. I see the faces of young mothers trying to figure out how to work and care for children. I see mothers of children with disabilities worried that their sons and daughters aren’t getting the education they need to have a chance in this world. I see faces of all ages who struggle with food instability. We have heard “entitlement” programs who now help these good people will be cut.

If I had sackcloth, I’d wear it. If I had ashes, I’d sit in them. I’ve shed my tears. I’ve confessed my sin. I asked for mercy for our nation. Now, I need to figure out what I, a prophet, am going to say Sunday morning about an ancient prophet whose words are still true and relevant today as I wonder, “will my voice be heard?”