Sunday, July 14, 2019

What the Lamb Lets Loose: Homily on Revelation 6:1-8

An overweight Italian shoemaker's hand trembles as he writes about dark days – how his own hands had laid to rest his wife and five children. Agnolo's quill scratches out the inky words, “So many died that all believed it was the end of the world.” And given everything that his generation had lived through, no wonder. Although his birthdate isn't known, maybe he was a boy in 1315 when the weather changed and the crops failed and the Great Famine began. Even some kings found it difficult to find food. One in ten, maybe one in four people starved to death. One poem of the time lamented that “when God saw that the world was so over-proud / he sent a dearth on earth, and made it full hard. // … A man's heart might bleed for to hear the cry / of poor men who called out, 'Alas, for hunger I die!'” In those years, crime surged rampant, with rape and murder common events. As the famine eased off, it left its mark in Europe's collective psyche.

Fifteen years after the famine's end, Europe was swept up in the start of the Hundred Years' War, entangling nearly every kingdom. Agnolo was undoubtedly relieved that the war and the revolutions stayed away from his town. But then, breaking into the war came a mysterious power. It was May 1348 when it reached Agnolo's city. He could only call it “the mortality.” People would be stricken dead, wherever they were, even in mid-conversation, after parts of them swelled. Parents abandoned their children, wives abandoned their husbands. Death was suddenly everywhere, hundreds by day and hundreds by night, dumped unceremoniously in ditches. It took Agnolo's wife. It took his boys. But beyond the walls of Siena, the same death – the Black Death, a massive plague pandemic – raged from China to Spain, killing queens and kings and archbishops and peasants. In some places, the majority of people died. Death could only be measured in the tens of millions. Overall, one in three Europeans – and perhaps one in five humans on earth – died in the span of a few years. It was a dark, ugly, and terrifying age to be living in, a generation facing famine and war, plague and uprising. No wonder many thought it was the end of the world. And no wonder many turned to the Bible for understanding.

Centuries and centuries before that generation, a visionary named Zechariah “saw in the night, and behold, a man riding on a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen, and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses. … These are they whom Yahweh has sent to patrol the earth” (Zechariah 1:8-10). “And they answered the Angel of Yahweh who was standing among the myrtle trees, and said, 'We have patrolled the earth, and behold, all the earth remains at rest.' Then the angel of Yahweh said, 'O Yahweh of Hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?' … Thus saith Yahweh of Hosts: I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion, and I am exceedingly angry with the nations that are at ease...” (Zechariah 1:11-15). And immediately after that, Zechariah saw four craftsmen who “have come to terrify … the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah” (Zechariah 1:21). In due time, Zechariah writes, “I lifted up my eyes and saw, and behold, four chariots came out from between two mountains. … The first chariot had red horses, the second black horses, the third white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled horses – all of them strong. … The angel said to me, 'These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth.' … When the strong horses came out, they were impatient to go and patrol the earth. And he cried, 'Go, patrol the earth!' So they patrolled the earth” (Zechariah 6:1-7).

And now, in his own visions recorded in the Book of Revelation, John sees that celestial patrol set loose to terrify the nations indeed. As the first four seals on the scroll of God's plan are broken one by one, these four colorful patrol sentries are identified and commissioned to cause great havoc throughout the coming ages – great havoc meant to greatly terrify. John sees them signifying the four things the Roman Empire most feared.

John says, “I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, 'Come!' And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer” (Revelation 6:1-2). To the people living in John's place and time, there'd be no mystery here. John sees a mounted archer on a white horse. Rome didn't excel at using mounted archers, but their rival empire the Parthians did, and they used white horses in every army. A few decades before John writes, Romans were shocked when not only did one of their armies lose a humiliating victory, but the Parthian king Vologaeses nearly invaded the Roman province of Syria. The Roman sense of immunity began to crumble. They were terrified of the empire being invaded and conquered – foreign armies rampaging through their land, stealing their territories, dominating their people. That's what John sees.

Next, John says, “When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, 'Come!' And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword” (Revelation 6:3-4). The sword-wielding rider on the blood-red horse was another big fear of the Romans: internal conflict. A few years after the close call with the Parthian invasion, a revolt against the Emperor Nero allowed a general named Galba to replace him in June 68. The following January, Galba was assassinated, leading to what's been called the Year of the Four Emperors – a season of immense upheaval. And while all this was going on, the province of Judaea was in open rebellion, trying to break free of the empire. Decades later, John would only be set free from his island exile after the Emperor Domitian was assassinated and replaced by his advisor Nerva. It all reminded the Romans how fragile their society could really be. Civil war, rebellion, violence in the streets!

John goes on to say, “When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, 'Come!' And I looked and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, 'A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!'” (Revelation 6:5-6). Upon the black horse rides yet another of a Roman's big fears: Famine. It must be a famine, because the scales are for careful rationing of food and the prices quoted for wheat are about eight or ten times the normal going price at the time. At the prices John hears, it'd take a normal man's entire daily wages to buy a day's worth of wheat for himself or the lower-quality barley for his small family – barely keeping them alive. A few years before John writes, his province had tangled with a grain famine. The prospect of having the food supply choked off – that got Romans nervous.

Finally, John says, “When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, 'Come!' And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and famine and pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth” (Revelation 6:7-8). The main new terror introduced by the pale horse – really, a sickly-yellowish-green horse – is the pestilence. It represents the spread of disease epidemics, even pandemics, not unlike the plague in the Black Death.

Invasion, civil war, famine, and epidemic – the four biggest fears any Roman could have. The things lurking in his subconscious, looming over his shoulder, unsettling him, making him nervous about the future, filling him with anxiety. John warns that they're going to be set loose as a judgment on the world – stampeding like horses across the world they know, afflicting them, destabilizing them.

Our society shares many similar fears. Here in America, we haven't historically had to fear invasion – but our sense of security was shattered on 9/11, a foreign attack in our own homeland. And before and after, we've at times been worried about the prospect of nuclear war. There's our white horse. And we can feel the bonds of our society weaken and fray, we know of places with riotous violence in the streets. There's our red horse. It's been a while since we've had a famine – to us, perhaps it best conjures up images of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Economic recession is perhaps our black horse. And the last decade has seen the bird flu, the swine flu, Ebola, and the Zika virus all start to make us nervous and take evasive action. Maybe epidemic, with natural disasters following it, remains our pale horse. Just like the Romans, Americans have our fears, our four horsemen, stalking the edges of our consciousness. We know they're out there. And they frighten us.

It's no wonder we think of this as starting off the scary section of the Book of Revelation. Because, yes, we're shown some rather imposing figures, whose purpose is to terrify the nations. Forces of judgment and peril are being let loose as the seals break. And in frightful, nerve-wracking times, we're right to come back to these verses to try to understand what's happening in the world. The horsemen do pace and prance around us. But John would have us ask just one key question. Yes, the Four Horsemen are let loose as the first four seals break. But who's doing the breaking? Who lets these forces loose and gives them the power they have?

The seals are being opened by the Lamb. By Jesus Christ. The One who laid down his life for you. The One who continually calls for you, who wants to love and cherish you, who wants you by his side, who paid a dear price to breathe life into you! It's Jesus Christ, as the sacrificial Lamb of God, who lets these forces loose into the world. They are not random. They are not out of control. Even in their wildest stampede, they are under his authority. He commissions them for a purpose, and all the destruction they cause will achieve his will. The Black Death, for all its devastation, not only rebalanced Europe's stewardship of resources, not only spurred new technological innovation, but it exposed cowardly ecclesiastical leaders and awakened a deep spiritual thirst among 'ordinary people,' who began to yearn for a personal relationship with God. God can work even the Black Death together with other disasters and turn them toward his people's good (cf. Romans 8:28). When the Four Horsemen rampage, yes, they do great harm, and yes, it seems like the world is coming undone. But they come only with the consent of a Lamb who loves his people. So when the horsemen intimidate you, shout back to them that you know who holds their reins. When the state of the world concerns you, take a deep breath and remember that all of this only moves the plans of God forward toward an ultimately beautiful end.

Whatever it is our society fears, we know that it's in the Lamb's hands. If he lets our fears loose into our world, it's only because he has a purpose for them. And he means to bless us, not destroy us. He aims to bring us into the open arms of his gracious love, and hold us tight through every storm. In days of invasion, he will embrace us. In days of violence and strife, he will embrace us. In days of famine and plague, he will embrace us. We know he died for us, know he bore the cross for us, know he lives again. And all power and authority are his. Even our rampaging fears bear witness that the Lamb is worthy, that the Lamb is the man at heaven's throne.

The Lamb, Jesus Christ, does not let these forces loose in the world to destroy his church, but to judge nations and to purify his people. Too often, we've averted our eyes from the Lamb and instead warily watched, with thundering hearts, for the horsemen. But that isn't how he means us to live. He doesn't want us fixated on the dangers in the world or on the decay of society. He wants us fixated on his goodness and beauty and truth. Let the horsemen trot around – they may patrol the earth and terrify the nations, but as for us, we will keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. We will rejoice during the darkest days, because we have seen the Light. And we trust that, no matter which of our fears must be let loose in the meantime, still his plans for our fears will make for a better eternity than ever we dreamed. For Jesus means to bless us.

So, since he means to bless us, we gather at his table of blessing. He's our host, he's invited us. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” through the place where the horsemen roam, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me – your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (Psalm 23:4-6). He sets this table before us in the presence of our enemies. Even in the midst of galloping horsemen, where we belong is at the Lamb's table. Even when violence threatens us, even when famine and poverty and disease weaken us, still Jesus sets out his table. He wants to share a communion with us that not a thing we fear can take away. So let us lift high an overflowing cup in the face of death, and if our fears teach us anything, let them teach us to crave more and more of the Lamb who gives himself to us, goodness and mercy, body and blood. Let us eat and drink and be merry in him, for though the horsemen kill, the Lamb brings life abundant, everlasting. Amen.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Fireworks of Universal Praise: Sermon on Revelation 5:11-14

I'd like to start off by asking to see a show of hands. Who here watched any of the broadcast of the Fourth of July fireworks display out of our nation's capital this year? Anyone? I didn't catch it live while it was taking place, but I did watch a couple recordings the next day, and oh, what a sight! For the whole length of it, about a half-hour or so, just this unbroken chain of explosions, one atop the next, sometimes many at a time, just filling the sky behind the Washington Monument with radiance and color and smoke! See how they make the heavens dance with reds and greens and whites, and so much more. It got so that they didn't even let one firework fade away before the next was already detonating. The night sky over Washington DC was smoky but splendid – loud and flashy – without interruption.

But even if you didn't see that show, maybe you caught one of the local ones. It seemed like I had fireworks going off in every direction from my house – different shows launching on every side, maybe the occasional private contribution – I still heard a few others last evening, I think. There's just something about watching the fireworks that caps off the holiday or the celebration, makes it feel complete. Because fireworks are spectacular – they're meant to be a spectacle, meant to perform, meant to dazzle and fascinate. They express how we've been feeling all day – the desire to burst into exuberance, to be bold on behalf of the cause.

It's nothing new. Americans first began celebrating Independence Day with fireworks before the Revolutionary War was even actually over. In fact, the day before the Declaration of Independence was formally adopted in its particular wording, but the day after a formal resolution for independence was passed by the Second Continental Congress, John Adams himself predicted that the anniversary would be commemorated by future generations, and that it would be “with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.” John Adams was right – especially about our use of “illuminations,” or fireworks. Even though some of the advancements in fireworks didn't develop until Italians perfected the art in the 1800s, we were already building on the progress out of China, which used them by the 1600s to make colorful military smoke signals. In fact, though, fireworks are about a thousand years old, in one form or another.

Yet about a thousand years before the invention of fireworks, a visionary named John was taking seven church communities in various stages of health on a grand tour – showing them life as viewed from the control room of the universe. In any fireworks display, if you don't have the right angle, you won't get the full effect. A camera down here aimed at the ground just captures a cacophony of noise. We might or might not see a great show by looking up. But have you ever seen an aerial view of a fireworks show, by drones flying through from the heavenly side? It's an entirely new sort of beauty. And just so, John offers us a heavenly-side view of things.

In particular, as we've been exploring for a number of weeks in the fourth and fifth chapters of Revelation, John has given us a heavenly view of what worship is all about. And the lessons we've learned are many. We've seen that worship is about encountering God – ultimately, aiming to behold him, reigning in power and majesty from his throne, surrounded by his brilliance. Worship means seeing the world as it is – the good, the bad, and the ugly of it all – and resolving to praise God in the midst of it, no matter what's going on. That's what the four living creatures that we meet do, all covered in eyes on every side, surveying all history as it unfolds. And like them, worship means celebrating God simply for who he is – the Holy One at the heart of it all.

Worship also means celebrating God as our Creator – finding a pretext in every existing thing, past and present and future, that points to his value, because it could not exist without him, and neither could we or any animate or inanimate thing. And in recognition of that, worship means surrendering our rights and our dignity and our blessings and whatever else we treasure – it means referring them back to him continually, it means actively celebrating that everything we get is a gift contingent on his continued approval, and then talking and living that way. That's what the twenty-four ancient priest-kings – the “elders” – are seen doing.

But then, when we reach chapter 5, we find out that worship means seeing Jesus at the center of everything. It means that all eyes should be on Jesus. Worship means seeing Jesus as the victorious warrior Lion by seeing him as the slaughtered sacrificial Lamb, whose shed blood lays the foundation for a new kind of universe. Worship means measuring the value of everything in terms of Christ Crucified. Worship means recognizing that self-sacrifice, not domination, is where value comes from. Worship means celebrating our redemption, which not only gets us out of a bad future but gets us into the opening of responsibilities and privileges we'd never even dreamt of – appointing us as royal priests to God the Enthroned.

Worship requires a new view of our prayers, both individually and together. Our prayers, we see, are incense for heaven's worship – devoted to God, pleasant to God, encompassing all the circumstances of our lives in which we conceivably could pray, each being necessary to the final perfect blend. And we trust that God will use those very prayers as his tool, setting them ablaze like a sacrifice, to make right what's wrong with the world we live in. But worship also requires a new view and new practice for our music, individually and together. It shows that our musical worship should be new – it should be fresh, it requires us to stretch and grow, it needs to be centered on Jesus but ever exploring the infinity of his grace, and always developing and increasing to express our daily discoveries in the endless adventure through his glory.

And now, as we come to the end of the chapter, as the song gets catchy and passes from voice to voice, we hear over and over again that Jesus is worthy, that Jesus and his Father together are worthy. Hear the next chant as the angels take it up: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive the power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Revelation 5:12)! How marvelous! Because the Lamb was slain, he should be empowered with authority and strength. Those belong to him in their fullness, and he has them. No one and nothing is superior to the Lamb, for he shares fully in the authority of God his Father. There is no defeating the Lamb. Slain though he's been, that's how he wins. Throughout Revelation, everything the world thinks they can do to thwart his plans – killing his faithful people, for instance – only further secures his victory. The Lamb has all the power and might. And because he was slain, he also deserves all riches and all wisdom. There's no one as resourceful as the Lamb, and no one cleverer than the Lamb. No one else has it all figured out. We get easily confused and outmatched in life, but the Lamb has us covered, if only we follow his path and share in what he's done. And the only proper response to the Lamb is honor and glory and blessing. We must respect and defer to the Lamb. We must turn our attention to the Lamb. We must celebrate the Lamb. We must speak well of the Lamb. Because the Lamb is Lord. The Lamb is God. The Lamb is at the heart of it. Jesus the Lamb of God is worthy to get it all.

And in the end, the last word to resound to the very ends of the universe is this: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13). In the end, worship of the Enthroned God and worship of the Lamb Who Lives have to share the same voice, the same words of blessing. They have the same honor and glory, they work with the same might. They are One God, from whom their Spirit radiates and burns and flows. And they never pass out of style. They never are obsolete or irrelevant. The opinions of the day may not match what they say, but so much the worse for that day and its opinions. There will never come a day when the Enthroned Father and the Lamb are less than honorable, less than glorious, less than mighty. There will never come a day, not even in our darkest hours, when they don't deserve to be spoken well of, in the very same breath together. Because they are the eternal anchor, the one true constant in a whirlwind world, from the first century to the twenty-first century to the ninety-first century to the quadrillionth century and eternally beyond. In every age, to them be blessing and honor and glory and might! All good things are found in them, and they deserve all the best from us and from everything.

What I really want us to see, though, is the trajectory of this chapter. We start with the open question of whether anyone can open the scroll, whether anyone will be able to advance God's secret plan (5:1-4). But then we find out that the answer is yes, and we see the slaughtered Lamb present himself and take up the scroll (5:5-7). After that, we hear the new worship begin, in a song sung by the Four Living Creatures and the Twenty-Four Elders (5:8-10). But what we'd seen so far as of last Sunday was only the opening movement, the first measure, the initial move. It was like a pebble dropped into a pond – no, a boulder hurled into a heavenly ocean, sending out waves of worship for others to ride. Because now we hear others start to catch the tune.

When the prophet Daniel dreamt of heaven, he saw the Ancient of Days seated on a throne, and “a stream of fire issued and came out before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened” (Daniel 7:10). But glory was reserved for the “One like a Son of Man” who presented himself before the heavenly throne (Daniel 7:13-14). Just so, glory accrues to the Lamb who's the Son of Man now that he's presented himself before the One seated on the Throne and has taken the book to be opened. And as this happens, we see that there are a thousand thousands to serve and ten thousand times ten thousand to stand before God. For John records that he looked and “heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” (Revelation 5:11). What we have here are angelic crowds, counting into the hundreds of millions, all surrounding this scene at God's throne. John uses the biggest numbers for which there's a ready-made word in his language. He's saying he sees more angels than there were humans on earth in his time. And all of them are focused on Jesus, celebrating the One who came by way of the cross.

What a comfort that must have been to the seven churches, each a tiny minority in their city, representing their vulnerable minority status in the Roman Empire and in the broader world. The Christians in John's churches must at times have felt like, unless they accommodated and curried favor with popular opinion, then they were irrelevant, relegated to society's margins, out of touch. Sometimes, churches today – especially small churches – face similar temptations, feeling the burden of being a small faithful minority vastly outnumbered in broader society. But here, John sees more angels than he has words to count. And all of them are focused on Jesus. To follow Jesus is really to be in the majority. It's those who currently resist Jesus who are the odd men out.

But things don't stop with the angels. The cascade of worship goes on from there, stretching from this spiritual realm to the more familiar world we know in part. John doesn't have eyes to see that far, but he can still listen. And as he listens, he says, “I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea – and all that is in them – saying, 'To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!'” (Revelation 5:13). Every creature in heaven. Every creature now standing on the land. Every creature under the earth. Every creature in the water. All giving voice to the same message: Glory to the Father and the Son!

We know that, right now, the whole creation groans for its salvation from the oppressive bondage of corruption. Paul tells us that: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now,” having been “subjected to futility,” but “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage of corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:20-22). Which means that Jesus is more than good news to just you and just me and just the man or woman or boy or girl down the street or across the globe. He very much is that! But Jesus is good news for stars and starfish, for chimps and comets, for birds and barricudas, for pine trees and peonies! Jesus is good news for every created thing – he comes with healing and freedom for all of creation – and so every created thing will praise him.

We'd already heard that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). John gets a heavenly view of what Paul was saying, but he sees creatures without knees and without tongues joining in the worship. John sees the fulfillment of the Psalms and the Prophets. For didn't the psalmist urge, “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy” (Psalm 96:11-12)? And the prophet Isaiah said that God's redemption of his people was a reason for the heavens to “sing” and the “depths of the earth” to “shout” – “break forth into singing, O mountains, O forest, and every tree in it” (Isaiah 44:23). He said that as the redeemed marched to their freedom, “the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). Creation praises God for redeeming us – because ours is the glory into which freedom all creation longs to enter.

Listen to the words of Psalm 148, really listen: “Praise Yahweh from the heavens, praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts! Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars! … Praise Yahweh from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds! Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and maidens together, old men and children! Let them praise the name of Yahweh, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven. He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his saints, for the people of Israel who are near to him. Hallelujah!” (Psalm 148:1-3, 7-14).

John sees this psalm coming true, really true. Not only is God praised in the heights of his throne room by the Four Living Creatures and by the Twenty-Four Elders, but he's praised by all his angels and all his hosts. And now he sees the cascade of worship sweep up every creature in heaven or on earth or under the earth or in the sea. He sees it reach the sun and moon, which radiate worship. He sees the animals that live in the sea praising God. Fire and hail give their worship, as do the snow and the mist and the stormy wind. Each mountain gives its worship, and so do the trees. So do the wild animals and the domesticated ones, all the creepy-crawlies and all the birds that soar through the sky. And so does human society, in the psalm. All praise the name of one God – only John sees that the name of 'Yahweh' surrounds both Father and Son, Enthroned One and Lamb. But all must worship, each in their own way.

I don't know what that looked like, as John saw it. I don't know what that will look like when we fully see it. I can scarcely grasp what it might mean for a cat to worship Jesus, let alone for a gecko or goldfish or geranium to worship Jesus. But they either do or will! We know it because John hears it here. John, with heavenly ears, can hear the geraniums worshipping God and the Lamb, and he can hear the goldfish worshipping God and the Lamb, and he can hear the geckos worshipping God and the Lamb, and he can hear cats and dogs worshipping God and the Lamb. Perhaps that gives John a newfound appreciation for the creation around him on earth, and makes him want to treat each animal and plant more kindly, knowing that they're meant to take part in the same great concert of worship as he is. Maybe it inspires John to tend each animal and plant well, showing it the love of the Lamb in his own heart so that they can share the Lamb's love too. Perhaps there's wisdom in these words for Christian gardeners and Christian farmers and Christian hunters and Christian pet-owners and Christians of every vocation as we interact with the creation around us – creatures now subjected to futility, but longing for our freedom to be their freedom, and ready to learn how better to worship the Jesus who makes that happen.

What interests me is that, as the cascade of worship like a wave spreads to every creature, it unites them in one message, one gospel, one blessing spoken by mushrooms and minnows and microbes and more. Now we see creation so out of harmony. Now we see creation torn by conflict. And there is only one way to restore unity and harmony to creation, and that's for the same universal worship to bridge every divide. If there's one page for all creation to get on, it's the page marked “Worthy is the Lamb.” All creation needs its E Pluribus Unum, its “out of many, one” – not eroding creation's diversity, but each creature lending its diverse praises to the same worship of one astounding God with a Lamb in his heart. And then, as the wave of worship reaches the outermost limits, the extent of creation, that wave bounces back as a reflection to the very heart of it all, and we hear the Four Living Creatures, with all their eyes on God's pleasure, pronouncing this universal worship good. For “the four living creatures said, 'Amen!' and the elders fell down and worshipped” (Revelation 5:14).

Perhaps the best way to describe what John's seeing is like a fireworks show. “Praise like fireworks,” dazzling with colors yet unknown, lit up by every angel and every creature, until it relentlessly illuminates all heaven and all earth from every side, booming and sizzling and sparkling and shining with worship. And what John saw is in progress now – slowly, steadily. This display of the fireworks of universal worship is stretching out towards the grand finale. The destiny of every creature is to light up the universe with worship. But we are not to stay passive observers, looking up at the sky, aloof from the action as it plays out for our amusement. No, we must allow these fireworks to surround us and overjoy us and make us bright and beautiful. We are called to join in the cascade of worship and to spread it along to all creation within our reach!

So often, the church has bickered about what our real purpose is. Do we exist primarily to worship, or do we exist primarily to witness, or do we exist primarily to work in the world? Liturgical churches have often given the first answer, but at times that focus on worship has been reduced to a mere ritual performance. Evangelistic churches have often given the second answer, but at times that focus on testifying, witnessing, has been reduced to a sales pitch. Social-Gospel churches have often given the third answer, but at times that focus on working in the world has been reduced to whatever the latest cultural and political cause du jour is. The EC Church is currently veering toward a missional-church model, which hovers between the second and third options, to the point that some of our congregations have chosen certain Sundays to skip meeting together for worship so that they can do service projects in the community instead. At times, self-described 'missional churches' can be at risk of reducing worship to, if not an afterthought, then an instrument that recharges us to work for God whether or not we actually encounter God. There are dangers in that path, dangers to which we must not become blind.

The truth is that John portrays our purpose very well. Our purpose is worship. That is why we were created, and that is why the church has been gathered from every tribe and tongue: to worship. But our worship is only taking part in these fireworks of universal worship. And our worship should be attractive to other creatures who come sniffing 'round what we're doing. Because our worship is attractive, and because our worship is leaning into the destiny of all creation, we must invite other creatures by our witness – hence, in the service of worship, we must be evangelistic. Our worship celebrating the good news of Jesus must broadcast the good news, and we must share the good news so that others can celebrate in the same concert of worship. And just the same, taking part in the concert of worship should change us into people who long for creation's healing and who just naturally get to work in the world on our way to ride the wave of worship back to the throne of God and the Lamb, who will use our worship and witness and work to make all this world new.

There's a fireworks display going on, a fireworks display of worship that's meant to be universal. And our task, like that of the angels, is to see the Lamb and detonate with worship for him and his enthroned Father. But as we do, we don't want anyone or anything else to dilly-dally on their way to the fireworks display – we want the timing to stay constant. Nor do we want the clutter of a broken world to obstruct the visibility and efficacy of any firework, like the tree that hides most of the local fireworks from my line of sight from my window. So, to tear down obstructing clutter, we work for the healing of the world around us. And we reach out to everyone we know and impress on them the beauty that's begun. We do all that because we ourselves have started catching the cascade, the fireworks of universal worship. We see who God is and who the Lamb is, we've experienced what they've done, we've heard the good news reach our own eyes and ears, we're fireworks going off, and we're eager for the grand finale – we want the beauty of the fireworks of universal worship to fill all things, to the glory of God and the Lamb!

That is what our worship should be like. It isn't ours alone. It doesn't start here. It starts in heaven and spreads to here, and from here outward. It's the destiny of all creation. It's leading up to a grand finale that will dwarf any celebration we've ever seen or heard or imagined. So burst into exuberance. Be part of that fireworks display. Let loose praise like fireworks, and let your worship be so dazzling, so infectious, that other creatures around you – human and beyond – light up too.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Brightest Heaven of Invention: Sermon on Revelation 5:9-10

Not far from the Tower of London, in a room owned by another man, a 32-year-old pastor – short, pale, and thin – prayed, his large head bobbing slightly, over the manuscript pages of his essay. Pastor Isaac led one of the several non-conformist churches that met at Pinners' Hall, rented for them by the man in whose house he'd been living, Thomas Hollis. But Pastor Isaac's attention was on his explosive manuscript and the daring case it made.

All Isaac's life, churches in his country had been embroiled in what we'd call 'worship wars' for the past century. And Isaac, for his part, was sick of it. We think we have it bad today, but Isaac was born into a country where some churches refused to sing in worship at all – a country where some groups of Christians had actually burned the Psalms in protest of singing. Other churches would allow singing, but only songs improvised on the spot – they felt that nothing else could be truly spiritual, certainly nothing read out of a book and shaped by someone other than the singer. Some authors denounced singing any “pre-composed songs,” even biblical ones, as “a corrupting of the pure worship of Jesus Christ” that “will lead us to apostasy.” But, of course, you can imagine how that sounded, when they devised impromptu songs. One critic, hearing it, called it “nothing but a sacrifice of fools and the confusion of Babel.”

Yet there were other pastors in the country who wrote passionately in defense of the right to sing in church – either for a choir to sing, or for the whole congregation to get to sing, like we do. Yet of those pastors and their churches, nearly all of them had a very particular type of singing in mind. They were accepting of only one group of songs: the Psalms themselves. After all, they reasoned, God had himself given us these for singing, so why should we desire any others? Surely God had withdrawn the extraordinary spiritual gift of composing songs worthy of God – these authors condemned “the presumption of a hot brain that he has a gift of composing psalms and songs and hymns for the edification of the church.” So why should we give place to anything else when we could be singing divinely inspired songs? And so, in most churches in the land that did sing, the rule was that only songs taken from the Bible itself were allowed. Some sang them exactly as written, chanting them. Still others conceded that they could be paraphrased to rhyme, but with as little change as possible. And that, for the most part, had been the range of musical worship in the churches of seventeenth-century England.

Isaac didn't like that. He didn't like the narrow-mindedness. He didn't like the restrictiveness. He didn't like the bickering. In the decade when he was born, plenty of churches were being ripped in half by these 'worship wars.' Isaac was born into a family that didn't belong to the Church of England – they were independent, kept their distance from the religious establishment. In fact, at the time of his birth, his dad was in jail for it, and baby Isaac was himself nursed by his mother on the prison steps. When Isaac was sixteen, a year after being born again, he turned down a full college scholarship to go instead to a dissenting academy where he could study under the tutelage of Thomas Rowe. And right then was when the controversy exploded all over again, bitter books flying to and fro on the nation's presses, vigorously debating whether to sing in church, and what.

As a young man of twenty coming home to his parents during the thick of the controversy, Isaac quickly grew bored with the stale music in their old family church. He thought it was dull, boring, ugly. He thought it was lazy, dysfunctional, passionless, and that no one seemed to understand what they were singing. And, as many young men would, he complained to his family (because that's what we do when we're annoyed at our church: we complain in the car on the ride home, right?) – specifically, his father, a deacon of the church. And his dad told him what many dads have told their sons over the generations: 'If you don't like it, then quit whining about it and fix it, kid.' Now, Isaac had long loved language and rhyme. After starting to learn foreign languages at age 4, he'd been a poet since age 7. So Isaac, having formed a conviction that this stale music couldn't be all God wanted from us, set to work writing a song of his own. The church rather took to this new hymn, and they asked him to write another, and before you knew it, he was writing them all the time.

But years later, he'd become pastor in a church of his own – though his chronic poor health led them to appoint an assistant pastor to help him just a year later. That was four years ago. Now it was 1707. And with a century of 'worship wars' firm in his mind, Pastor Isaac prepared to share his hymns with the whole Christian church, not just his own congregation. But he knew he was taking a big risk in publishing this book of Hymns and Spiritual Songs he'd written. It would be controversial. Many would think him arrogant for writing new songs for God's people to sing – as if he were saying he were better than David and all the other psalmists.

But Isaac's convictions burned hot. If it isn't arrogant for churches to pray prayers other than the ones the Bible records Daniel and Ezra praying, and if it isn't arrogant for churches to hear sermons other than the ones Moses and Isaiah preached, then why – Isaac always asked – just why would it be arrogant or scandalous for churches to compose and sing songs other than the ones David and Asaph composed and sang? Besides, Isaac saw the gospel as so big, so expansive, that no definite and limited repertoire of songs could ever be enough to express all its beauty for everyone. Any set of songs would always fall short of everything we need to celebrate about God and offer up to God from all the details of each and every one of our lives. “There is an almost infinite number of different occasions for praise and thanksgivings, as well as prayer, in the life of a Christian; and there is not a set of psalms already prepared that can answer all the varieties of the providence and the grace of God,” he believed. And Isaac thought that was especially true when it came to the Psalms of David, Old Testament songs where the victory of Jesus and the good news of salvation could only be hinted at in advance, instead of being flung open wide in public majesty. So, Isaac thought, what churches need is gospel-worship, centered on Jesus Christ, made for the time and place where we really live.

Knowing that he needed to make his case to defend the legitimacy of the songs he'd written, his hands scrawled the manuscript pages of a preface to raise at the front of the book and a longer essay to tack onto the back, both showing “how lawful and necessary it is to compose spiritual songs of a more evangelic frame for the use of divine worship under the gospel.” As Isaac read the Bible, “new favors received from God were continually the subject of new songs, and the very minute circumstances of the present providence are described in the verse.” It can only be God-honoring if we “make [our] present mercies under the gospel the subject of fresh praises.”

And so Isaac had finished the essay. And now, having read back over it, he sent it and the rest of the book over to John Humphreys' print shop. I'm sure none of you have ever seen a copy of that controversial book of hymns that some called not “hymns” but “whims” – the songbook over which churches did still split, over which pastors were still fired – a book many people loathed and many others loved. You haven't seen the book itself. But the song we heard at the start of this morning's service was taken from pages 69 and 70. And many of you know the words of page 189 pretty well. They begin with the line, “When I survey the wondrous cross.”

They asked him what to put on the title page beneath his name. And Isaac thought of one Bible verse above all else. So Humphreys the printer put there, at Isaac Watts' instruction, the words: “And they sung a new Song, saying, Thou art worthy, &c., for thou wast slain and hast redeemed us, &c. Rev. 5.9.” For that was the passage that had inspired Isaac's very first hymn as a younger man dissatisfied with his dad's church: “Behold the glories of the Lamb / amidst his Father's throne: / Prepare new honours for his name, / and songs before unknown.”

This is our fourth Sunday exploring the heavenly worship scenes in Revelation 4-5, and we've found more than I could sum up. Three weeks ago, we caught a glimpse of God's throne, surrounded by the four living creatures who've seen it all and still worship God simply for his holiness. We also caught sight of twenty-four elders who worshipped God by throwing their crowns at his feet because he's the Creator of all things. But then, two weeks ago, we caught sight of the scroll of God's plan for history, and we watched the fruitless search for someone in heaven or on earth or under the earth who'd be worthy to open it up and set it into motion. But that fruitless search became fruitful when we heard about the Lion of Judah, who turns out to be the Lamb who was slain: Jesus Christ. And he changes everything in how heaven worships, and so he changes everything in our worship. Last week, we saw that the elders held up “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8) – our prayers, if we belong to Jesus. And we learned that heaven worships God by using our prayers, and that our prayers, pleasing to God, will be God's tool for breaking down all that's wrong in this world so that something new and whole can be built.

But now we get to the song the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders sing, celebrating who the Lamb is and what he's done. “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10). What a vision! Jesus is worthy because he gave up his life. He didn't give up his life just to die. He gave up his life for us – for our redemption, for our ransom. He gave up his life so that in his blood, a new universe could be born, a world where self-sacrifice is victory and where love outweighs every strength. And that's the world we're living for. Jesus wasn't content to just save Jews, or to just save Greeks, or to just save Romans, or to just save Americans. He ransomed people from every nation. He ransomed people of every skin color. He ransomed people who speak all kinds of different languages – English and Hebrew and Spanish and Russian and bunches you've never even heard of. And he brought us together into one kingdom and appointed us all as royal priests, so that we can serve God and rule the world in his name. All that, Jesus did when he surrendered his life and shed his blood. For being slaughtered, for pouring out his life to rebuild the universe and to make us something glorious, all heaven sings the praises of his worthiness. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!

But there's that word: 'sings.' Whereas heavenly worship in chapter 4 was spoken, heavenly worship in chapter 5 starts to be sung, now that Jesus is on the scene. And not only that, but John describes it by saying that “they sang a new song (Revelation 5:9). With Jesus in the picture, the worshippers in heaven cannot be content with what they'd known before. No song is ever a stopping place. What this tells us is that heavenly worship is creative worship. Heavenly worship is innovative worship. Over the heads of our souls hang brightest heavens of invention. And in this brightest heaven of invention, worshippers sing a new song.

This is the fountainhead of what Watts called “songs before unknown.” In this scene, Watts sees that “all the assembling saints around / fall worshipping before the Lamb, / and in new songs of gospel-sound / address their honours to his name.” Isaac Watts finds here “mention of a New Song, and that is pure evangelical language suited to the New Testament, the New Covenant, the New and Living Way of access to God, and to the new commandment of him who sits upon the throne, and behold, he makes all things new.” Watts insisted that these verse really is an instruction to “the gospel-church on earth.” By imitating this example, he wrote, “churches should be furnished with matter for psalmody by those who are capable of composing spiritual songs according to the various or special occasions of saints or churches.” Composing new “spiritual songs,” finding “spiritual songs” that are new to us, lets us “sing a new song” like these heavenly worshippers. And we know, from Revelation 14, that the redeemed followers of the Lamb do learn new songs, for they're seen “singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders” (Revelation 14:3). What accompanies them is a sound “like the sound of harpists playing on their harps” (Revelation 14:2).

What Isaac Watts saw, what we should see, is that godly creativity in worship is forever fueled by the refreshing newness of Jesus. Jesus is never old hat. Jesus is never dull. Jesus is always as fresh as the first Easter morn. The good news is always news because the gospel is always new. If we start taking it for granted as something we've heard before and think we know, it's because we're not keeping up. Jesus is too worthy, Jesus is too wonderful, Jesus is too new and fresh and exciting to be nailed down to our past record of achievements in the art of praise and song. The Father chose Jesus, upholds Jesus, put his Spirit on Jesus, sent and commissioned Jesus “as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:6-7). Jesus gives a new covenant, a new light, new sight, new freedom. The Father celebrates over Jesus, “Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare!” (Isaiah 42:9). And how does the Bible tell us we should respond? “Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise from the end of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that fills it, the coastlands and their inhabitants. Let the desert and its cities lift up their voice, the villages that Kedar inhabits; let the inhabitants of Sela sing for joy, let them shout from the top of the mountains. Let them give glory to the LORD and declare his praise in the coastlands” (Isaiah 42:10-12). Isaiah would ask us: If you aren't singing a new song, then are you sure you know the new things that God's declared?

And the sweet singers of Israel tell us, “Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth! Sing to the LORD, bless his name, tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!” (Psalm 96:1-3). They call on us, “Oh sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things! His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. The LORD has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations. … Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!” (Psalm 98:1-4). And so they might ask: If you aren't moved to sing a new song, then could it be your view of salvation is too little? If you aren't learning new songs 'from day to day,' could it be you think God has stopped doing marvelous things?

What does all this mean for us? Well, we know that the 'worship wars' – those tensions in the church that Isaac Watts knew all too well, over the style and nature of church music – haven't left us. The goalposts have merely shifted. I've seen people abandon their home church simply because the music was getting too contemporary. Just like people who left their churches when Isaac Watts' “Joy to the World” was first brought in, they couldn't abide by a new song. They got frustrated, they got resentful, they sneered at a new song, and they quit that church. I've seen other people abandon that exact same church because too many of the old classics – Isaac Watts' hymns, played on that old church organ – were still being sung. And so, unwilling to breathe freshness into the words and tunes and find them new after all, those people also quit that church. Both are tragic. As Isaac Watts said three centuries ago, “Let us have a care, lest we rob our souls and the churches of those divine comforts of evangelical psalmody by a fondness of our old and preconceived opinions!”

See, we all carry these “old and preconceived opinions” about worship music should sound like and where we should rest content on our laurels. But apparently, heavenly worshippers don't share those “old and preconceived opinions.” Because, after thousands of years of worshipping God one way, they're always ready to take up a new song and get to singin' it. It's not the same style as what they used before – and that's okay. It's not the same sound as what they used before – and that's okay. It's not the same tempo as what they used before – and that's okay. Because 'worship music' is not a style. Worship is about Jesus. And if Jesus always has new things to show us, we always have new songs to learn and sing.

Isaac Watts had a conviction that songs of Christian worship should call out to Jesus Christ, knowing him and making him known. Isaac had a conviction that songs of Christian worship should shine with Jesus' unveiled light, not obscure it in shadows. Isaac had a conviction that songs of Christian worship should announce the good news of what Jesus has already done for us. Isaac had a conviction that songs of Christian worship should meet us where we are – that's why he wrote plenty of songs for children and put so much stress on singing songs that “reach my case” and so can “assist the exercise of my graces or raise my devotion” – a song that “expresses my wants, my duties, or my mercies,” all by focusing on who Christ is to us.

And Isaac had a conviction that songs of Christian worship should bring us to new places in the endless halls of the heart of God – that God was so big, Christ was so big, that no exploration of him was ever done, and that our songs of Christian worship should be celebrating everything we keep finding on that journey, and not stopping short. So out of those convictions, Isaac wrote his “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” And out of those convictions, Isaac wrote his “I Sing th' Mighty Power of God.” And out of those convictions, Isaac wrote his “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” And out of those convictions, Isaac wrote his “Joy to the World.” And he wrote many more – but he never would have said that those words or their first musical settings or styles were enough for every generation in every location.

No, the church's worship should emerge “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:10), from every musical style and every musical subculture. The same tunes on the same instruments, written by people from the same country and era are not enough. Heavenly worship celebrates a wide redemption by the blood of the Lamb, and the Lamb's wide redemption is meant to unleash a tsunami of wide innovation by all those appointed a kingdom and priests to our God, to reign and make music on the earth! A wide redemption calls for wide innovation. This doesn't mean scrapping all the good old hymns and good old choruses you've grown up with, the ones we all know and love. Dumping those hymns and choruses, if they're good hymns and good choruses, would be every bit as limiting as sticking to a handful of them and rejecting everything else. (You all know that, if Paul was a 'Hebrew of Hebrews,' then I'm a hymn-lover of hymn-lovers!) But those songs are only a tiny slice of the grand universe of song God's waiting to hear from us. God poured out his Spirit on all flesh (Acts 2:17, cf. Joel 2:28) so that we can “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). The whole church – our church – is called to be part of the wide innovation launched by our wide redemption. We're asked to press forward, deeper into the heart of worship, questing and adventuring in uncharted territory – or places we've been but now see a new way.

If we take a cue from heavenly worship, our worship should be fresh. Sometimes that will mean singing the old hymns with renewed gusto and appreciation. Sometimes that will mean taking the old words and tunes and breathing freshness and innovation into them, maybe changing the style, maybe recovering lost verses or bringing back entirely forgotten hymns. Sometimes, yes, 'fresh' will mean singing words we've never put together before. But the psalmist tells us to “sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly; let Israel be glad in his Maker, let the children of Zion rejoice in their king; let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre...; let them sing for joy on their beds” (Psalm 149:1-5). The psalmist tells us to “sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts” (Psalm 33:1-3). To me, that sounds like exciting worship: loud shouts, skilled instruments, dancing or singing from bed, and “songs before unknown.” That sounds like exciting worship, fresh and new. Does ours look like that?

Our worship should draw on all the creativity and innovation we can bring to it, in the service of the glory of Jesus Christ. We need to embrace the freedom to explore new angles, so that we can celebrate the same 'old, old story' and tell it in new ways, the same always-true gospel truths but in tones not so familiar. Our worship in song should take us to places and themes from the Bible where we've never camped out before. Our worship in song should show us new things through the light of Christ. It should expand our horizons with new songs so that we can keep praising God amid tomorrow's unseen troubles and unexpected mercies. It should confront newly uncovered things in our lives with newfound splendors of God. For that, we need to sing a new song.

As a church, if we want to worship God in heavenly ways, we cannot allow ourselves to fall into a rut. We can't afford to let worship become routine – and it will become routine, if we never stretch, if we limit ourselves to a narrow set of songs we already know well, songs that spoke to where we were in decades past but from which we've stopped learning and through which we've stopped offering up the complexities of our growing hearts and growing lives to God. We cannot become bound to musical artifacts from one time and one place, so that we miss out on the church's wide innovation unleashed by the Lamb's wide redemption.

This week, I'd like to challenge you: Change your radio dial. Listen and learn from God-exalting music that's not your cup of tea. Maybe that means listening to the newest Christian rock, or maybe that means going back to a good Byzantine chant! Find some Jesus-exalting songs that are new to you, and hear with new ears, and sing back with new lips. Leaf through the hymnal – read the lyrics to one you don't recognize. Catch a fresh glimpse of the gospel story – that 'old, old story,' always being sung in new songs. Open your heart, open your ears, open your mouth, and let the worthiness of Jesus catch you by surprise this week. I'd like to close by sharing with you Isaac Watts' very first hymn, the one he wrote as a dissatisfied 20-year-old man in his dad's church in Southampton. This is the clarion call he heard from the verses of God's word that reached us today:

Behold the glories of the Lamb
Amidst his Father's throne:
Prepare new honors for his name,
And songs before unknown.

Let elders worship at his feet,
The church adore around,
With vials full of odors sweet
And harps of sweeter sound.

Those are the prayers of the saints,
And these the hymns they raise:
Jesus is kind to our complaints,
He loves to hear our praise.

Eternal Father, who shall look
Into thy secret will?
Who but the Son should take that book
And open ev'ry seal?

He shall fulfill thy great decrees,
The Son deserves it well;
Lo, in his hand the sovereign keys
Of heaven and death and hell.

Now to the Lamb that once was slain
Be endless blessings paid;
Salvation, glory, joy remain
Forever on thy head.

Thou hast redeemed our souls with blood,
Hast set the prisoners free,
Hast made us kings and priests to God,
And we shall reign with thee.

The worlds of nature and of grace
Are put beneath thy power;
Then shorten these delaying days,
And bring the promised hour.
In Jesus' name, Amen!

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Where Our Prayers Go: Sermon on Revelation 5:8

It had to be an emergency, for them to come disturb the holy man during his night-time prayers. But, pantingly, that's what someone did. And so this holy man got up and went with the man. For his part, Caesarius, the thirty-something-year-old bishop, wished he were home in the town he loved to serve. But he wasn't. He'd become bishop of Arles (in what's today southeastern France) in the last month of the year of our Lord 502. Then, a few years into his energetic work, his zeal for rescuing captives – regardless of their politics or ethnicity – had gotten him into trouble, and after a false accusation, the Visigothic king Alaric II had banished him westward, exiling him to the city of Bordeaux. Which is where he'd been praying his usual nightly prayers for the peace of all nations and tranquility of every city – when the word reached him. A fire had broken out, and had been spreading, and now threatened with its bestial maw to gobble up the city whole. And who could do a thing?

Caesarius got up at once – there was no time to waste – and he ran. He ran, and he ran, until he found the fire, and to the surprise of everyone, he got in front of its path, the very thing every right-thinking man, woman, and child was running away from. Standing, staring down the advancing rush of flame and heat, Caesarius hurled himself to the ground in worship of his great God, crying out as he hit the dust in prostration, pleading with the Lord Jesus Christ to quell this hellish monster and rescue Bordeaux. He poured out his soul in prayer in the dirt as the fire raged. He didn't even look up at the gasps the denizens of Bordeaux let loose as they watched the fire unwind, retreat, die away, smothered beneath the mighty hand of God. “An apostle for our day!” they hailed.

Alaric later let Caesarius return to Arles, but during another king's reign, Caesarius was accused again and taken to Ravenna (in Italy) to be judged by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great, who saw in Caesarius' face “the face of an angel.” While there, the bishop heard that a local widow, mother of a terminally ill and comatose son who was their sole wage-earner, was desperate for the bishop to pray for the young man. So Caesarius went, fell to the ground in prayer, and left when the Holy Spirit assured him of an answer. He left behind his disciple Messianus to witness the miracle and report back – within the hour, the man revived in good health with thanksgiving for Caesarius' prayers. And Theodoric sent Caesarius back home – back home at last to Arles, the city of his bishopric.

His first day back, the church was packed. Caesarius was one of the most popular preachers in the world in his day. But that evening of his first day back, a woman burst into the church, foaming at the mouth, interrupting worship. Her need was obvious. Bystanders brought her forward to the altar, where Caesarius was. He took her gently and anointed her with oil and prayed over her. And whether afflicted by rabies or another ailment, it was promptly purged out of her system, and the prayers of Caesarius restored her to health. Another day later on, he met a woman with trembling hands, perhaps from Parkinson's or palsy – Caesarius took them, blessed them, prayed over them, and watched her hands grow still and steady. And still another day, he once again hurled himself down as fire burned in a local home, and the flames were beaten down by the force of his prayers. It tended to become known: things happened when Bishop Caesarius of Arles prayed.

It's been 1500 years since Caesarius lived, and I suspect many of us can only hear those stories, written down by an eyewitness to his life, from an experiential distance. Because for most of us, it takes a lot of praying to see things happen. And there may well be times in our lives when it feels as if our prayers must be getting lost in the mail – they seem to smack into some obstacle and fall feebly away, or get re-routed to the wrong address, or otherwise are abandoned. And we might wonder what's the point of praying when our prayers seem like they're going nowhere at all. Because if Caesarius sent his by express priority mail, ours may seem handled by the sloppiest interns the post office ever saw. And we wonder, where in heaven or earth do our prayers go?

Over the past several Sundays, we've begun entering into the beauty of the Book of Revelation. These chapters reveal the heart of worship in the command center of all things, the throne-room of God. We've met the four living creatures covered in eyes, who survey all things and constantly are awestruck by the ever-fresh holiness of God, just by who God is. We've met the twenty-four elders, heavenly priest-kings who praise God for his works in creation, who submit their authority to him again and again by hurling their crowns to the base of his throne. We've basked in the emerald radiance emanating from the throne, wrapping God in light. We've seen the seven torches, signifying the Holy Spirit, there where the crowns land across the glassy sea. And lately, we've welcomed a great surprise in heaven: When it seemed as if there was no way for God's plan to unfold, we heard report of a warrior-messiah, the Lion of Judah, who had conquered his way to victory – and behold, we saw that the conqueror was in fact a sacrificial Lamb, whose victory was redeeming others by his shed blood and laying the foundation for a whole new universe. And now, everything about worship has changed.

See, the Lamb of God – Jesus Christ – is worthy to take the scroll and open its seals. The Lamb is worthy to shepherd history to its goal. The Lamb is worthy to receive worship – worship meant for God alone – and to get it right there in God's presence. If any false worship were offered there, it would be the greatest blasphemy of all time. But the Lamb is rightly worshipped, worthily worshipped, as one with God the Father. From here on out, it's obvious: there's no such thing as right worship that doesn't include the Lamb. The Lamb can't be gotten around, can't be bypassed, can't be overlooked. There's no other name, not even in heaven. There's no other way or truth or life, not even in heaven. The Lamb shares the throne of God, belongs there, is worshipped there forever – worthy is the Lamb (Revelation 5:1-7)!

And now, for the first time, worship becomes a song. As soon as the Lamb takes the scroll, that's when we read that the worship leaders of heaven – the four and twenty-four – all begin singing (Revelation 5:9). That's the first time we've heard that. All their worship in the last chapter – they said those things, but they didn't sing yet. They start singing now. And now they have instruments, too: “The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp” (Revelation 5:8). Instruments in heaven! (And Kenny, you'll be glad to know that the word for 'harp' here is kithara, from which we get the word 'guitar,' so you'll fit right in, won't ya?) The presence of the Lamb really changes everything about worship, elevating it to a new key, bringing a new and resplendent joy that we'd never have without the deep saga of redemption.

But there's something else that changes in heaven's worship when the Lamb steps in, something we haven't yet heard about. See, the twenty-four elders are holding something in the other hand. They don't just have their harps. They also carry “golden bowls full of incense” (Revelation 5:8). And that takes us back to another saga of redemption: the exodus. When the Israelites came out of Egypt, when they journeyed deep into the desert, when they camped in the frightful light of Sinai's blazing summit, Moses went up into the dark cloud, and we know he got the commandments of the law. But he got more than ten things. Actually, equally importantly, he got instructions for building a tabernacle for God's worship, along with all the furnishings necessary for it. And this is the big centerpiece of Exodus: the book doesn't end until that tabernacle is built.

Part of the instructions Moses got were to “make its plates and dishes for incense,” and to “make them of pure gold” (Exodus 25:29). These are the golden bowls that the priests of Israel would have to use, and it's their heavenly counterparts that John's seeing in heaven. Moses was also told to “make an altar on which to offer incense” (Exodus 30:1). God instructed that “Aaron shall offer fragrant incense on it – every morning when he dresses the lamps, he shall offer it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall offer it – a regular incense-offering before Yahweh throughout your generations. But you shall not offer unholy incense on it” (Exodus 30:7-9). God even laid out a recipe for the special blend of incense he wanted, and banned the Israelites from ever using that combination for perfume or anything else – it was to be his and only his (Exodus 30:34-38). Later evidence lists the ingredients in more detail: mastic resin, operculum, galbanum, frankincense, myrrh, cassia, spikenard, agarwood, saffron, costus, cinnamon bark, and Jordan amber – but only one priestly family, the House of Avtinas, knew how to add a secret ingredient that made the smoke go straight up in a pillar.

Exodus ends with the offering of some of this fragrant incense (Exodus 40:26-27), but Moses still can't enter the tabernacle until the priesthood is set up, which is what Leviticus covers. And there we learn that this incense would be an absolutely necessary part of the Day of Atonement ritual, whereby Aaron the high priest would address the sins of the whole nation – for his own safety, he'd have to cover God's throne with a cloud of this incense, in order to step into God's presence (Leviticus 16:12-13).

We find in the next book, Numbers, that the incense dishes were dedicated by each tribe of Israel, each of whom provided some of the initial stock of incense (Numbers 7:86). But the actual offering of incense is reserved to the priests descended from Aaron, who had to make incense-offerings to atone for the people in emergencies (Numbers 16:40-46). This, it turns out, was one of the basic functions of priests in Israel: “to offer incense” (1 Samuel 2:28). It's one of the things they do: they “offer to Yahweh every morning and every evening burnt-offerings and fragrant incense” (2 Chronicles 13:13). As the Bible goes on, we meet kings who are good because they support the priests in doing just that (1 Kings 9:25); we meet kings who are judged because they try to do it themselves, as King Uzziah did and became a leper (2 Chronicles 26); and we sadly meet kings who endorse the burning of incense on other altars and to other gods (1 Kings 3:3; 12:33; 13:1-2; 22:43). But the prophet Malachi looks forward to a day where God's name will be “great among the nations; and in every place, incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering” (Malachi 1:4).

Incense was a big part of Old Testament worship, and so John won't be surprised to see it in heavenly worship. Neither would he be too surprised that the incense is offered by heavenly beings – he knows traditions where archangels gather and collect things to present them to God (Tobit 12:15; 3 Baruch 11:8-9, esp. 14:2 Slavonic). And the Old Testament had also long linked incense with prayer. That's why, when the Baptist's father Zechariah went to make the incense-offering in the temple – which is where the Archangel Gabriel appeared to him – it was as the people outside prayed, so that the rising fragrance of incense could symbolize their prayers going up, up to heaven (Luke 1:10). And the psalmist had already prayed, “I call upon you, O Yahweh; come quickly to me! Give ear to my voice when I call to you! Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:1-2). And now John sees the fulfillment of that psalm. Because he sees these elders holding “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8).

And what that means is this: Even if you aren't Caesarius of Arles, even if you're somebody like me or someone like you, your prayers are not getting lost in the mail! If you've ever wondered what happens to your prayers once they leave your heart and your lips, John sees the answer staring him in the face: the prayers of the saints go into the bowls of incense that these elders present to worship the Lamb.

And that changes everything. On the one hand, the golden bowls hold only the prayers of the saints, the holy ones, God's own people who belong to him through Jesus the Lamb. If you don't belong to Jesus, if the blood of the Lamb is not where you find your redemption, than you can sift through these bowls from here to eternity, and you will not find your prayers there. This is a special privilege for those who know that the Lamb is worthy, for those who've received of his Holy Spirit. But if you do belong to Jesus, if his Holy Spirit has begun to sanctify your life and make you into one of God's “holy ones,” then every prayer you pray to God will find its way into those bowls. They will be purified and prepared and presented in the presence of Father, Son, Spirit. And that is the foundational act of heaven's worship. Heaven worships God by using your prayers. That's what John is seeing. Your prayers are significant enough, your prayers are important enough, your prayers are valued so highly, that they are included in the grandest ceremony of the universe and beyond. Heaven worships God by using your prayers. So if your prayers seem to be floating off, if your prayers seem to be bouncing back, if your prayers seem to you as though they're doing nothing, know this: That isn't true. That isn't true at all, not if you're bought by the blood of the Lamb. If you are bought by the blood of the Lamb, that will never, ever, ever be true – your prayers will never be overlooked, they will never be set aside, they will never be ignored. What's happening is that your prayers are being stored up for the right time. The incense must be collected first.

We know that the incense for worshipping God has to be made from a whole list of ingredients. And each one of those ingredients has its own unique properties, its own smell, its own texture. Some of them, on their own, may not be the most pleasant substances. But they combine into an aromatic whole, and those who smelled the incense used in Israel's worship said it was a fragrance unlike any other. And if our prayers are the incense for heavenly worship, then heaven's incense – being equally derived from varied ingredients – needs all the rich diversity our prayer lives have to offer. These golden bowls need to hold our happy praises. They need to hold our weary petitions. They need to hold our heartfelt thanksgivings. They need to hold our bitter laments. And they need the passion that makes the smoke rise straight. They need all of it, without any being left out. So we can't afford to hold back or limit ourselves to only the bright notes. We are the tribes presenting the ingredients for heaven's incense, and the fullness of a life is what's required, in all its sweet and all its bitter.

The Old Testament also already taught us that this special blend of incense was forbidden for private use – that it was a great offense to offer it on any other altar, and especially to any other god. The righteous king Josiah had to “depose the priests … who burned incense to Baal and to the sun and the moon and the constellations and all the host of the heavens” (2 Kings 23:5). Offering incense to any of those things – good created things or demonic powers, any of them – was a major crime. And if our prayers are meant for heavenly incense, then they are meant for God and the Lamb. They must not be aimed elsewhere. We must not go around praying to the trendy idols of our age. We must not pray to money, asking it to fulfill all our needs and give us security. We must not pray to sexual gratification, asking it to give us an identity and to soothe our wounded souls. We must not pray patriotic prayers to America – but I have seen churches do exactly that, displacing the worship of God with vows, pledges, and prayers to the stars and stripes. God states openly in the Bible that he's offended when we do any of that. He is offended when we pray to any of these things. He says that one who uses his incense in such ways should be cut off from God's people (Exodus 30:38). Our prayers, our petitions, our thanksgivings, our laments – these don't belong to money or sex or family or country, they belong to God and the Lamb, and that's the only address they should have. We do not pray as money-earners or money-yearners, we pray as the saints of God. We do not pray as sex-seekers, we pray as the saints of God. We do not pray as patriots, we pray as the saints of God. We do not pray as devotees defined by anything else, we pray as the saints of God. And as the saints of God, our prayer lives are too holy to God to be shared with any other use.

But just the same, we must pray. We read in the Bible that another righteous king, Hezekiah, led people in great prayers of repentance, and the great sin he named was that their ancestors “have not burned incense or offered burnt-offerings in the Holy Place to the God of Israel; therefore, the wrath of Yahweh came on Judah and Jerusalem” (2 Chronicles 29:7-8). The sin that put Judah and Jerusalem on the wrong side of things was, in part, that they had stopped offering incense at all. And John now sees that we commit the same sin as they did, whenever we give up praying. If we let our prayer lives fizzle out, if we set prayer aside, if we become a non-praying people, then we are no different than the faithless generation Hezekiah was talking about, are we? We, too, if we give up prayer, are withholding incense for the heavenly worship – by not praying, we cripple the purpose of the universe's existence.

So when you're happy and you know it, don't clap your hands – pray! When you're thrilled and thankful, pray! When you're sad and forlorn and alone, pray! When you're exhausted and drained and spent, pray! It doesn't matter if your prayers are happy ones or sad ones, fast ones or slow ones, smooth ones or gritty ones, sweet ones or bitter ones. The incense blend requires some of all of them, and we'll balance one another out. So don't let that hinder you. Just pray – provide incense for heaven's worship.

Because, in the end, it really does matter. In a few chapters, once the Lamb has opened all seven seals, we read that “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them” – instruments for more worship. “And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer,” an incense-burner. “And he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel” (Revelation 8:1-4). There we finally see the offering of what the twenty-four elders were holding. Israel had twelve bowls of incense, heaven has twice that, it comes from us, and now we see the great incense-offering. What does it do?

The next verse will tell us: “Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth – and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (Revelation 8:5). The signs of the invasion of the presence of God Almighty, coming in judgment to set all wrongs right, to vindicate the oppressed and overturn injustice, to cut through all the red tape and make holiness known in the world. Not only do our prayers equip heaven's worship, but that worship – our prayers in heaven's hands, our worship plus heaven's music – is the very tool that God will use to fix what's wrong in the world. Whatever it is you've been praying about – God will fix what's wrong in the world, and the very prayers you're offering, the prayers you maybe fear aren't being heard, the prayers you suspected were lost in the mail – no, God is holding them in reserve as his instrument of breaking down everything wrong so that something better and truer and more beauteous can be born. And that, in the end, is where our prayers go – Caesarius' and mine and yours, if the Lamb's blood's bought you for God.

If our worship here does anything, if our lives do anything, they have to take seriously the privilege of prayer. Did you ever imagine your prayers did all that? Did you know that's where your prayers go? Your prayers, my prayers, our prayers here, have a role to play in heaven's worship, in Jesus' own presence, at the Father's throne. They are what heaven offers to God. They are how God judges and purifies the world. Without them, heavenly worship would be impeded, and the world's redemption would be further off.

So what would happen if you and me and us all together started really believing this about prayer? What if we thought about our prayers like this – as holy incense for heavenly worship? What if, when you prayed happy or sad or thankful or weary or sweet or bitter prayers, you envisioned the incense being mixed and pounded down, the powder being poured into the gleaming bowl in heavenly hands, the solemn dignity of its presentation to God and to the Lamb with shouts of “Worthy!”, the sense of anticipation for the offering and the burning and the falling of fire to fix all that's wrong? What if we prayed as people who see in our prayers what John saw about our prayers? How much more seriously would we take prayer? How much more careful would we be to reserve it to God and to the Lamb? How much more insistent would we be about praying in all circumstances (cf. Ephesians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:18)? How much more awe would we have of the privilege of praying, the privilege we have, not just of releasing words into the atmosphere, but of preparing incense for heavenly worship to heal the world? How eager would we be to pray?

So pray, don't delay! Pray, don't let those incense-bowls linger half-full! Pray to God, pray in the worthiness of the Lamb, pray in the Spirit who radiates sevenfold from them both. Pray as one bought by blood, redeemed out from your nation and heritage and allegiance and identity, and given a new calling in Christ. Pray with the heavens open to the throne of God and Lamb, in the name of Jesus, in the Spirit's power, for whatever rests on your heart, whether light or heavy, sweet or bitter. Pray with faith like Caesarius, even when the fires still burn and the mouths still foam and the hands still tremble. Pray with the blessed assurance that, in Jesus, no prayer of his holy people will ever go to waste, even if the impact can't be seen 'til the very end. Pray, because your prayers have important places to go and important things to do, in bowls more radiant and hands more strong than ours. So pray. May our prayers be counted as incense before the Lord God Almighty, and may all heaven's worship resound with sweeter and louder songs through our worship here, in Jesus' name. Amen.