A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Easter 3 ~ Revelation 5:11-14
Today’s passage in Revelation 5 is a beautiful celebration of praise and adoration for the risen Christ, and for God. Unfortunately, many of us in modern, Mainline Protestant churches can’t hear that because the other language about the slaughtered lamb leaps out and dominates our reading – and we can’t get past it. Maybe you’ve had a hard time singing some of the words in the music we’re singing today. I get it! I hope by the end of this sermon you’ll have a way to sing those with authenticity! I’m going to take it straight on and try to give us a way to redeem and transform these words and images into something lovely and helpful. Kind of a tall order, but I’m game if you are. (Yes, this is going to be a heavy one!)
Let me start by saying that whatever you started thinking when we said “A reading from the Book of Revelation” is probably a view distorted by terrible interpretations of the book. It’s actually quite a beautiful and powerfully helpful part of the bible – but over time, especially in recent time, it has been used in ways it was never intended to be used, and interpreted in ways that would make Jesus spin in his grave – if he were in a grave, but he’s not, because as we know from a couple of weeks ago “He is Risen!” (Notice how I tied Easter in there?)
The Book of Revelation is, frankly, weird – but only because we don’t easily understand what’s going on. The style is called an apocalypse – which was a known genre or form of writing in which a representative seer goes on a journey up into heaven and then returns with an urgent message to the community. It’s basically a dream – and aren’t some of your dreams kind of wild?
It’s a kind of writing that uses crazy weird imagery and dazzling, mystifying metaphors to try to make a point.
What’s the point? The point is that God is present, Jesus is present, the Spirit is present, the kingdom is present, and we are all blessed beyond imagining.
The book is centred around a series of report cards on seven fledgling Christian communities. It’s really kind of an oversight report from a ‘bishop’ to the churches in their charge – and the bishop isn’t all that happy! These seven churches all have good points, but they are all being kneecapped by their bad points – and the bishop wants a change – or else!
Now, this is my take on Revelation, you may have another, and scholars may disagree with me, but I like this take.
For me, Revelation is like an epic one person play on Broadway. It’s a theatre piece!
Remember, scripture in the ancient church was not mass produced and read at leisure at home – there was one hand-written copy, and it was read out loud to the gathered community – usually in one sitting!
But Revelation, with all its sci-fi special effects – fireworks, dragons, horsemen, fabulous cities descending from the clouds, threats, promises, angels, rivers of life – all that stuff demands much more than a straightforward reading like we read it in church.
It would take a tour-de-force dramatic oration to bring it to life.
And when that happened it would be like us going to watch the Avengers: Endgame movie, or Star Wars, or Game of Thrones, or something spectacular and dazzling like that. The listening audience would be blown away – and you’d better be sure they’d get the message to pull up their socks and do church better – because the promises that await if they did so were inconceivably wonderful.
The Book of Revelation is NOT about the end of the world and the rapture. In fact, the rapture isn’t even in this book, it’s in 1 Thessalonians, kinda – then certain folks read it into Revelation and make scripture say something it was never meant to say!
So, let’s dive in, let’s look at this lamb language (that I said at the start we can have a hard time getting by), and try to figure out exactly what it IS meant to say. The lamb is referring to Jesus. Let’s find out why.
Jesus and his followers were initially observant, practicing Jews. Jesus certainly preached a reformed vision of Judaism, but it’s an outright error to say that they were Christians. They weren’t; they were Jews. They lived in and adhered to a sacrificial system, even as Jesus taught that spiritual transformation, and oneness with God, and the revelation and unfolding of God’s Kingdom made that system (or any system, for that matter) unnecessary. The sacrificial system was the intermediary between the person and God – but Jesus taught that we had direct access and didn’t need an intermediary, not even him!
So, (stay with me here), if for his Jewish-based followers, Jesus and his transformational, world-changing Way fulfilled and transcended their previous “system”, then its logical that they would talk about him, and describe him, and theologize him as the ultimate feature of their system – the perfect answer for their system, the ultimate fulfillment of the purpose of their system.
So they call Jesus the purest and most complete sacrifice, an unblemished lamb.
In order to understand this language and why they used it we have to understand that if your entire religious and social culture is immersed and enmeshed in a sacrificial system that says the way we get harmony with God is through physical, ritual sacrifices, then regardless of whether Jesus ever sanctioned the sacrificial system or not (he didn’t) they will still see him through that lens.
They cannot help but see him through that lens. So they reach into the only religious language they know and call him the Lamb of God.
You could think of it as a nickname. Simon became Peter. But Peter in Greek is petra, which means rock. Jesus essentially nicknamed him the rock, or rocky. And now they’re naming Jesus the Lamb.
Then we add on another layer.
The Book of Revelation is the last book of the bible, but it was also the last one written, chronologically. It was written around the year 110 or so. That’s 75-80 years after Jesus’ earthly time, and fully 30-40 years after the gospels were written. It was also 40 years after the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and their ritual sacrifice system came to an abrupt halt. No Temple meant no place to do the proper sacrifices, and that was still shaking their sense of spirituality. In a sense, that heightens the need and desire for a once-and-for-all-time sacrifice that can tie a bow on the old system and get on with a new one. (Again, this is just referring to the early Christians, not the Jewish folks.) So, Jesus came to be understood and described as that ultimate sacrifice – the Lamb of God.
And in the same way that it is completely natural in their context it’s completely alien in ours.
When we hear language like Revelation 5:12 “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” – when we hear that we recoil in revulsion.
Of course we do!
One reason for our revulsion may be that we think by using that language of Jesus as the Lamb of God that we’re saying that we agree with a whole area of theology called sacrificial substitutionary atonement. I don’t think we have to go there, although many do.
Substitutionary atonement basically says that God was angry with the world and demanded a perfect sacrifice to make things better so Jesus is sent to be that sacrifice – to die to appease an angry God.
I can’t go there. That’s not my theology.
It’s the difference between “before the fact” and “after the fact”.
Simply put, substitutionary atonement says God set Jesus up as the Lamb before the fact – from the beginning, it was all planned out.
I reject that.
My theology says that God loves the world and from day one – literally, according to Genesis – God has viewed the world as good. Jesus didn’t get sent to die “for” us to appease God, in my view – although it’s probably fair to say he died because of us – because of a system that we still perpetuate and participate in!
For me, his death wasn’t to appease God’s anger – instead, I’d say Jesus comes forth and tries to show us that God actually loves us, and that we’re wasting our energy trying to sacrifice our way out of God’s bad books when we’ve never actually been there.
We’ve always been in God’s good books; we were just unable to see it.
But that kind of paradigm shifting theology that Jesus taught – that the Kingdom of God is actually already right here and all around us now – and that the powers of this world are foolish in comparison – well, that stuff got him killed.
Then, upon reflection, “after the fact”, his followers started to understand and view the arc of his life as fulfilling the point of their sacrificial system in its entirety. And so they called him the Lamb of God.
That’s a lot of words, and perhaps it’s too nuanced a theological point, but for me it makes all the difference in the world. We’ll talk more about that another Sunday.
Another reason that we may be repulsed by Lamb language is all that talk about blood. It makes us feel squidgy.
In the upper room at the last supper Jesus held up wine and said, “This is my blood.”
He didn’t hold up a cup of actual blood. It was wine.
Friends, that is a metaphor! And it’s a pretty obvious one.
Our blood is the stuff that courses through our veins and keeps us alive. The stuff in that cup, was representative of the stuff that courses through Jesus. I like to say he was talking about his life-blood – his juice, his verve, his passion, his drive, the stuff that made him go. In other words, it was his love. The wine in that cup represented his love. His life-blood was love.
The words even rhyme – blood/love. If you can’t sing the word “blood” sing “love” instead – for me, it means exactly the same thing!
So why would we abandon that imagery that Jesus himself transformed, and revert to thinking that the “blood of the Lamb” only meant sacrificial atonement and doesn’t still refer to Jesus sharing his life-blood?
If they understood it all as a metaphor why on earth would we force it to be literal?
It makes no sense.
Looking back, they view him as the Lamb.
Remembering his metaphors, they celebrate the “life-blood” of the Lamb, and they solemnly remember that it didn’t come cheaply – it cost Jesus his life.
Worthy indeed is the Lamb who was slaughtered by the Roman oppression system because he dared to speak truth to power and challenge the way the world is actually supposed to work.
Now, finally, after all that, we can hope to have a chance to look at the actual reading and get something really wonderful from it.
Listen to it again:
Then I 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 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.
The bishop is telling the churches that Jesus, and his teaching, and his life, and the wondrous, glorious mystery of his resurrection and ongoing spiritual presence in the lives of his followers (including us!), ought to be sending us into wave after wave of enthusiastic, heartfelt, passionate praise and worship of the Lamb, and the One, forever and ever.
Remember, it’s a sci-fi movie, a vision, a dream – it’s not a historical textbook.
A picture is being painted – a picture of how spectacular and wonderful the presence of God, and Jesus (Lamb), and Spirit is – and that the response of every creature in heaven and on earth ought to be to fall down and worship.
The purpose of the Book of Revelation isn’t to scare the hell out of us – it’s to inspire us to worship.
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:
We fall down, we lay our crowns at the feet of Jesus.
The greatness of mercy and love at the feet of Jesus.
And we cry holy, holy, holy;
And we cry holy, holy, holy;
And we cry holy, holy, holy is the Lamb!
And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.
[Sing together the praise song: We Fall Down]