Ezekiel 1:4-6, 26-2:2
4As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber. 5In the middle of it was something like four living creatures. This was their appearance: they were of human form. 6Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. 7Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze…
26And above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form. 27Upward from what appeared like the loins I saw something like gleaming amber, something that looked like fire enclosed all around; and downward from what looked like the loins I saw something that looked like fire, and there was a splendor all around. 28Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendor all round.
This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of someone. He said to me: O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you. 2And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me.
We’re digging into a pretty crazy book today. The Book of Revelation, also know as the Revelation of John or the Apocalypse of John is a powerful and bizarre read. It catches our attention with strange and dramatic imagery.
The more I’ve studied the book, the more I like it. It is violent, which I don’t love, but in scripture as in everything else, context is critical. When John was ministering, the church was under threat. There wasn’t the organized persecution the Roman Empire would unleash later, but Christians often faced discrimination, ridicule, official and unofficial harassment, and some scattered persecution. The late first century was a difficult time to be a Christian.
John’s ministry was in what he called Asia and we know today as Turkey. The provinces of Asia were an important part of the Roman Empire. One of the ways the Roman Empire connected with and controlled outlying parts of the Empire was through religion. People in areas that had conquered by Rome were allowed to worship their traditional Gods, but they were also strongly encouraged to worship the Roman gods as well.
That wasn’t really a problem for many people. Most religions at the time welcomed the worship of many gods, and since the Roman gods had been victorious, they seemed like good gods to worship. This arrangement worked well for Rome. Different parts of the empire kept their own religions and traditions, which let them feel true to their history and in some ways independent. The shared religion of the empire helped provide a sense of unity to a very diverse group of people.
The Roman Empire also used religious language for the Emperor himself. This was a slow development, but it was most active in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, especially in John’s part of the world. There were temples and shrines to the emperor and people called him King of Kings or Savior. The message throughout the Empire was that people had lots of freedom, but Rome was still in charge.
In that setting, worshiping God alone as God was a challenge to the Empire. Those who participated actively in emperor worship had an easier time advancing socially and economically. Those who didn’t participate made things harder on themselves. And those, like John, who actively spoke up about God being the only God and Jesus ruling the universe risked persecution, exclusion and death.
When Revelation begins John says he is writing a letter to the churches in Asia. The letter begins with John on the Island of Patmos, a small island off the west coast of Asia Minor. It seems John had been exiled there for his faith. In his vision he sees Jesus, and Jesus tells him to write down what he sees to send to the churches. After that Jesus gives specific messages to each of seven churches in the area. The messages offer encouragement to stay strong in hard times; they also offer challenge to do even better. After the seventh message, the revelation continues with the vision we’re about to see.
We’ll talk through the vision as we go, since there’s a lot to unpack. I’d encourage you to open your Bibles so we can read and discuss together.
Revelation 4:1-4, 6b, 8b- 5:10
After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” 2At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! 3And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. 4Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads.
Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind…Day and night without ceasing they sing, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”
9And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, 11“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; 2and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” 3And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. 4And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.
5Then one of the elders said to me, “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.” 6Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne.
8When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.9They sing a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; 10you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.”
The Book of Revelation was written to comfort, encourage and challenge the church. In hard times, we need the good news of Revelation most. The main idea keeps being repeated because it is important: God is in charge. Our passages for today shows us that by giving us an image of God’s throne room in heaven. God’s throne is surrounded by strange creatures and elders on thrones of their own. This heavenly congress sings praise all the time to God because God created the world and rules it for ever.
The second point is connected to the first: Jesus is Lord. We read last week from John’s Gospel in which Jesus says God has entrusted all judgment to him. This passage shows us that same good news in a visual way. God holds a scroll that only Jesus can open. When Jesus starts opening the scroll the judgment of earth starts to unfold. As each seal on the scroll is broken different disasters shake the earth to its core and bring down the rulers of earth.
We’ll get deeper into that judgment in the weeks to come, but the purpose of judgment is building God’s righteous, loving and peaceful kingdom on earth.
The reason John’s churches needed this passage so much, the reason God gave this vision to John to share with them, was that they needed encouragement that God really was in charge. They needed to know that Jesus really was Lord. The needed to know because the facts around them every day said something different.
Roman soldiers were everywhere, announcing with their armor and banners and weapons that Caesar was in lord. Roman temples and priests and shrines shouted the same message with religious symbols. Rome’s power was always on display, and the message was clear: Rome is strong, Caesar rules and resistance is futile. For the Roman Empire power came first: Rome conquered territory and then, when the local leaders were subdued, the blessings of Roman culture and rule were given to the people, but power and victory came first.
With the constant reminders of Roman rule around them, John’s churches faced powerful temptation to fit in. A little emperor worship here: a small statue in the office or a touch of incense might go a long way in helping someone’s career by showing others they were part of the club.
In our time the symbols of empire are different but still constant and still powerful. People talk half-joking about the almighty dollar and the bottom line. Our stars and celebrities are fantastically wealthy and lottery advertising promises that we could be next. TV ads show the blessings of the empire of cash: success means beauty and wealth; it means dressing right, driving the fanciest car and buying the newest gadget.
We certainly see military power on display as well. We’ll be treated to a fighter plane fly over at the Super Bowl to remind us how important military strength is. We see frequent articles about the dangers of terrorism and how we have to put everything else aside to stay safe. Never mind that drone attacks kill civilians, including children; we’re told that is the sad but necessary cost of freedom. Military power and financial power, we’re promised, will mean we get a piece of the pie.
That’s not the message of God. There’s only one person who can open the scroll of the future. There’s only one who can reveal the secrets of the end of history. The powerful Lion of Judah is the only one worthy to judge and redeem the world. How has this roaring and mighty lion earned the right to judge the world? Through power and the strength to conquer?
No, the Lion of Judah is a slaughtered lamb. Jesus conquers the world’s powers by weakness; he overcomes the mighty with love that is willing to die for the world. Jesus rules because he was killed by the empire, but his death was not the end. Still showing the marks of his execution, the lamb of God is standing at the throne. Death doesn’t have the last word, and the power to kill isn’t the ultimate power. Instead, love, sacrifice and witness win the day. No matter what Rome or the United States or Babylon or the stock market say, Jesus is Lord and judgment is in his hands.
That means your paycheck can’t judge you. Your bills and your credit score can’t define your value. Your popularity and your looks are not the true story. Jesus is Lord, no one else. Jesus is our judge and our redeemer. Jesus is the one who holds the future his hands. Jesus rules the universe.
Jesus knows what it means to be pushed down by the people who think they’re in charge. He knows that the hypocrites will make a show and the haters will hate. He knows the kings of the world will strut around feeling on top of the world, and they will crush whoever stands in their way.
But at the end it’s God on the throne and the Lamb at God’s side. At the end love and sacrifice and weakness are strong. Power and violence are ultimately fragile and they will collapse under their own weight in the face of love. In the end it’s worship and love and justice that are victorious.
It’s fitting to remember the way of the lamb this weekend as we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. In city after city the forces of fear and segregation unleashed the power of the law, the dog, the fire hose against crowds of non-violent marchers, non-violent followers of Jesus. The bodies fell, some broken, but the spirit of justice rose up in righteous victory.
King’s legacy isn’t just about segregation; King stuck his neck out for poor people of every color. He risked his popularity to oppose a war he knew was wrong. His last campaign was a strike for fair pay and working conditions for sanitation workers. King bore witness to the way of the lamb, slaughtered and yet victorious.
That’s the way God calls us to follow too. God calls us to love, no matter what the cost. God calls us to serve, to speak out, to care. John shows us this vision to remind us of the truth no matter what it looks like on TV. God is on the throne, the slaughtered, conquering lamb is there too, and all creation sings praises. Worthy is the lamb who was slain; let us follow in his way.
Thanks be to God