Sunday, April 10, 2016

Time for Worship - Sermon for Easter 3C

Revelation 5:11-14

The Book of Revelation is in many ways a book of worship! In fact, I think it is a call to engage our holy imaginations in the worship of God. 

If you’ve read any of the Chronicles of Narnia books, you know that the imagination can have a powerful effect on the way we see spiritual realities. In the best known of these books, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy, who is the youngest of four siblings, discovers a pathway into the magical land of Narnia. When Lucy returns from her visit to Narnia, she shares her discovery with her older brother and sister. They dismiss her report as a mere tall tale. When she shows them the wardrobe, all they find is a wardrobe filled with old coats. There is no pathway, no portal, just the wooden back wall of the wardrobe. 

You see.  They weren’t ready to set their imaginations free. That meant that they couldn’t see what Lucy had seen. Thankfully, Lucy will prevail upon them and they will discover this alternate world for themselves. Unfortunately Lucy’s other brother, the mischievous Edmund had followed her into Narnia. Rather than meeting up with Tumnus the Faun, he met the White Witch, who took him captive.   

Before we get back to Edmund, we need to hear the word from the Book of Revelation. In this reading from the fifth chapter, we find ourselves standing in the heavenly realm before the throne of God. We stand in the company of the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders, along with the myriad of angels who sing: 
Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!
If those words sound familiar, it’s because Friedrich Handel based the chorus “Worthy is the Lamb” upon them. If you’ve sung or listened to this powerful chorus you know that it is quite moving. In the Messiah, this chorus comes after the Hallelujah Chorus, which celebrates resurrection. In this chorus Handel takes further into the realm of God, so that we can stand before God and worship God in God’s fullness. Indeed, it’s not just the angels who sing God’s praises. Every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth, and in the sea sing praises to the “one seated on the throne and to the lamb.”

You may be wondering: who or what is this Lamb? And why is the Lamb important to us? If you  go back a few verses in this chapter, you will hear a word of concern on the lips of the citizens of heaven. They’re wondering who is worthy to open the seven seals on the Scroll of Destiny. It’s at that moment that the Lamb that was slain enters the throne room, and offers to open the seals. This is the Lamb who is worthy to receive power and honor and glory. 

This image of the Lamb is quite striking. You will find it present throughout Revelation. John uses this symbol to speak of Jesus. Looking back to the cross, John portrays Jesus as the Lamb who was slaughtered. Since we live in a post-Easter world, we know that the Lamb who was slaughtered is very much alive. Because the Lamb is worthy to open the seals on the scroll that reveals God’s purpose, the Lamb receives blessing and honor and glory and power forever and ever – together with the one seated on the throne of heaven.

This message of the Slaughtered Lamb is timely, because it speaks to the question of competing loyalties. Greg Carey writes that “As worship names that which is worthy, it also dismisses competing claims on our loyalty” [Feasting on the Word C, 2, p. 419].  The recipients of this letter from John, face the challenge of an empire’s claim on their lives. The recipients of this letter know that members of their community have suffered persecution and have even died because they professed their allegiance to Jesus. As they wonder about their own futures, they find encouragement in their worship of the Living God. Therefore, they find the strength they need to remain faithful in their witness to their Lord.  

This image of the Lamb also serves as a reminder that God’s vision of power is very different from that of the World. Rome believed that might makes right. It had the largest and most powerful military in that part of the world. If you obeyed the Emperor, then you were relatively safe, and you got to enjoy the benefits of living in a military-run state. That included the blessings of Roman Roads, which were designed to move troops quickly across the land – just like the Interstate Highway system in America. The Roman aqueducts that provided fresh water to the troops brought refreshment to the cities they patrolled. Just don’t question the Emperor’s authority, and you’ll be okay! 

The Book of Revelation offers us a different vision of power. In the preceding verses of the book, one of the Elders speaks to John’s question about who was worthy to open the seals. The elder 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” (Rev. 5:5).  When John looked around the throne room, he didn’t see the Lion of Judah. What he saw is the Lamb that was slain. 

What’s going on here? We know that the Lion is fierce and powerful, but what about the Lamb? The Lamb is weak. The Lamb is a victim. But of course, in God’s understanding of things, power takes on a different form. So the Lion becomes the slaughtered Lamb. Greg Stevenson points out that the “Lamb is the embodiment of the Lion not its replacement.”  He goes on to say that “this apocalyptic merging of the Lion and Lamb communicates that Christ’s victory and Christ’s power manifest in forms that appear weak to the world” [A Slaughtered Lamb, pp. 134-135].

Greg’s linking of the Lion and the Lamb leads us back to C.S. Lewis and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. You see, Lucy’s brother Edmund came under the influence of the White Witch, who had control over Narnia. Under her rule there was endless winter, but no Christmas. The magical beings -- the animals that talk -- must live underground in fear of the Witch’s wrath. But when Aslan the Lion returns, things begin to change. The Witch’s hold on power begins to dissipate. Winter begins to recede, and Christmas returns. This is all good news for the residents of Narnia, but what about Edmund?  Fortunately, Aslan has a plan. He will offer his life as a ransom for Edmund’s. So at the Stone Table, Aslan allowed himself to be tied down, shaved of his mane, and then summarily executed. In this exchange, Edmund is released, but Aslan the Lion is dead. The Lion of Judah has become the Lamb of God who was slaughtered. 

Yes, Aslan is dead.  But then something powerful happens. The Stone Table is broken in two and then standing before them is Aslan, who is very much alive! That’s because there is a deeper magic than what the White Witch relied upon. This deeper magic, from before the dawn of time, declared that  “When a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward” [Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, p. 179].

We come to worship God in the knowledge that the ways of God and God’s vision of power are different from those of this world. What looks to the world like weakness, is really the way of divine power. The question posed to the recipients of John’s letter and to us is this: to whom will we give our allegiance? 

Several years back I preached a series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer. In those sermons I suggested that the Lord’s Prayer functions as our pledge of ultimate allegiance to God and God’s realm. In this prayer that we recite each week as part of our worship, we commit ourselves to the will of God, which is done on earth as it is in heaven. 

With this pledge of allegiance we worship the One who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb. Blessings and honor and glory and power be unto God and unto the Lamb that was slain!  May we then release our holy imaginations so that we might enter God’s throne room and join the heavenly chorus, singing praises to God!  

Adoration of the Lamb, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved April 9, 2016]. Original source:

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Easter 3C
April 10, 2016

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