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 Surely God had withdrawn the extraordinary spiritual gift of composing songs worthy of God – these authors condemned “the presumption of a hot brain that he has a gift of composing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.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

A Scroll for Sheep: Sermon on Revelation 5:1-7

Can there be such a thing as an awkward moment in heaven? You wouldn't think so. Heaven is perfection and bliss, heaven is purity and harmony. And yet... And yet, while John expected no awkward moments when he passed through that doorway in the sky, he had to admit: Things were now feeling mighty awkward. They had been fine, at first – more than fine – as he'd watched these majestic living creatures and this ring of enthroned elders all worshipping the Enthroned One who radiated the emerald rainbow and shone like gemstones. All the air of heaven was suffused with light and flame. It was beautiful beyond compare. And what John had been watching was synchronized flawlessly, an elaborate dance. He could have watched it for an eternity. Maybe he had, he thought to himself. He'd lost track of how many cycles of holy-holy-holys and crown-hurlings he'd seen thus far – could be three, could be three billion. He was simply and surely entranced.

And that's when he noticed it. Had it been there all along? Or was it newly introduced? But there, at the right side of the radiant throne, was a large scroll, resting at the Enthroned One's right side, on something like an open palm. The scroll... The scroll was massive, thick, wound tight. And it was shut, sealed with seven seals, each burning with the impression of a fiery signet-ring, one after the other. But John could see some writing on the outside – the thing was so overflowing with text that it seemed the letters could just run off, dance away, fly through the stars. John was mystified, but he felt a deep intuition about that scroll. He felt that, whatever else was in it, it was where his utmost hopes and dreams were written down. He felt that it was the path history was supposed to take. In his very bones, he sensed that the scroll was the plan – the plan, the plan to solve the world, the plan to advance to a beautiful conclusion. There it all sat – the plan, locked away behind those seals, waiting to be implemented as the words were loosed. And suddenly John was consumed with desire. Like the deepest hunger he'd ever felt, he wanted that scroll, the scroll prophets before him had left unshared. He wanted it free. He wanted to live it out to the end. He wanted to watch the pause-button of cosmic time thrown into fast-forward. He wanted to reach the ending, and the scroll was the only way (Revelation 5:1).

John stood, staring at the scroll. Did anyone else see it? Could the holy ones hustling and bustling in heaven's court notice it? The question demanded an answer. Was there a plan after all? John wondered and mused. But John stopped wondering when a large angel, tall and strong, possessed of gravitas, strode through the distant crowds and took flight. Hovering over John's head, he looked up in time to hear the thunder crack. And the angel, like a preacher breathing fire from a pulpit, like a general shouting for his troops to charge, announced the question: “Who is worthy to open the scroll and loose its seals?” (Revelation 5:2).

Now isn't that the question! The scroll, John realized, is there – that's not the matter at issue. The question is, can it be opened? If God holds it forth, is there anyone equal to the task of unrolling it and letting it loose? Can someone carry God's plan to completion? Is there anyone who can conduct the orchestra of creation so well? Who is going to be the one to take the scroll from the depths of emerald brilliance and bring about a new world? John watched as all heaven reacted to the question. And that's when things got... awkward.

All eyes turned to the ones with all the eyes – the four living creatures, who lived closest to God, who shouted the holy-holy-holys and flew on six wings. Surely they would be worthy! I mean, basking in the divine glory for endless eons, living lives of constant praise – how could that not be worthiness? How could that not meet the qualifications? But, confesses the one with the ox-like face, it doesn't. Neither he nor his associates can go take that scroll. They may support the throne-chariot of the Lord, they may dwell in his presence, but action is not for them. A test confirms it: the scroll is not theirs to open. And disappointment settles over every eye.

Well, focus then turns to this broader ring, the twenty-four ancient priest-kings robed in white, seated on thrones and crowned with golden splendor. The question is asked: “Are you worthy?” Surely they should be worthy! They've received authority from God himself, they minister to him as priests, they rule as kings in administering the whole of creation, they live the lives that the gods of the nations could only dream of! But in unison, in horror they rip the crowns from their heads, slide them across crystalline pavement, and collapse off their seats. “No!” goes up the impassioned cry from one of them. No, they are not worthy. Look elsewhere.

The awkward silence thickens. The twenty-eight lead contenders are out of the running. A summons is issued. Archangels begin marching into the thick of the action. Michael at the head of the band, Gabriel close behind, then Raphael and Uriel, and so forth. Living in God's presence since the dawn of dawns, commanding angels and carrying out missions, surely an archangel can open the scroll! But their efforts fall flat. No archangel can get it. They aren't worthy to open the scroll, break loose the seals, and see what's inside.

Now things are getting really awkward, as each angel, thousands upon thousands, is put to the question. But the results are no different. Each is measured against the enormity of the task. Each falls short. None can open the scroll. And as for John, he starts to worry. Pangs of fear creep into his heart, even here in heaven's command center. Having a plan is good, but if it can't be put into motion, what good is it, really? And all the spirits who inhabit the heavens have been tested. The solution just... doesn't seem to be here. So, what if there's no one to do it, John wonders? What if the scroll can't be opened? Will it just be filed away? Will the world continue on as it has been – suffering and pining for a fresh breath that'll never come? Will all creation meander lost in the labyrinth of impossibility for a trillion eternities? Or will it simply fizzle out in a pathetic whimper, fading to black in an unsatisfying anticlimax? What happens if God's plan can't be unrolled?

The question seems like a live one. John's heart beats faster with anxiety. He thinks of everything he's been through, everything he's going through on Patmos. If the scroll can't be opened, it's all pointless, all in vain. If the scroll can't be opened, there's no telling what might happen next. It's one thing to suffer for purpose. It's a far grimmer thing to see all hope lost, to surrender to mere absurdity. That sort of nihilistic fantasy is not for John. Can anyone open this scroll? Is there anybody worthy?

Angels in desperation form search parties. They fly through space and time, on a hunt. They visit John's seven churches – is anyone there worthy, up to this challenge? But no. Perhaps, though, that's the wrong place to start – perhaps they should stretch to the beginning. An angel flies to the tomb of Adam, known only to heaven's secret-keepers, and calls out to the bones long lost. “Adam, Adam! Oh how we need you now, Adam! There at the start you were, made in the image and likeness of the One seated on the throne. It's written that you could even be called a son of God. You breathed the fresh air of a garden, you walked with your Maker, you embodied innocence once, before centuries of toil and sweat wore you down and reduced you to bone and dust. Oh Adam, if is the end in the beginning? Could you be called back from dust, would you be worthy, Adam?”

And the sad voice murmurs back from the grave, faint and distant. “Unworthy, unworthy. What have I done? Brought sin and death to all my kind. Cloaked my shame in fig leaves and folly. I failed what I was made to do, though I named all things. But I can't name what's in that scroll. Nor can the bride whose bone is of my bone, whose flesh was of my flesh, whose dust is forever by my side. You'll have to look elsewhere.”

Frustrated, the angel calls out to the dirt. “Earth, you hide the blood of Adam's son, the one who made a good sacrifice but perished at a mad brother's hand! It's Abel I want, Abel I need! Abel, you pleased God then, in the days of your pilgrimage. Your faith was so strong, so pure! Can you open the scroll?” The angel waits to hear. The blood cries out from the ground in reply. “I cannot. My blood doesn't speak a good enough word. I only wait for justice – justice I hope will be in that scroll somewhere. But I'm powerless to unroll it myself. I can only entrust myself to the one who will.”

As John watches and listens by staring down through the sea of glass, he begins to worry all the more. If not Adam, if not Eve, if not Abel, then who? The angel moves on to Hebron, to Machpelah, to the cave-tombs of the patriarchs. “Abraham, Isaac, Jacob – bearers of the promise! You struggled and fought your way toward faith; you overcame great odds. And matriarchs, matriarchs – Sarah and Rebekah! You, too, did the same! Are any of you, all of you together, up for this? Are you worthy to open the scroll?” But, one by one, each said no.

Michael was fed up. He went to the secret place where he'd concealed Moses' body. If anyone could, shouldn't God's great prophet, the one who stood on Sinai's mount and received the law, be worthy? And so Michael himself went to ask. But his angelic heart of lightning fell flat at what he heard. Moses was unworthy – he'd sinned, he'd raged, he hadn't even been worthy to set foot in the promised land, much less unroll God's scroll. The whole thing was sealed to Moses. The lawgiver could do nothing to help.

The angel search team continued on. At Jerusalem, they checked in with David and Solomon, the great kings who'd built God's people into an empire, who'd overseen a slice of God's kingdom on earth. But David cried out about Bathsheba and a baby, about a census taken, about a family falling into chaos and a life plunging into bitterness. Solomon lamented how his wisdom had been blinded by the wiles of a thousand women, how he'd fell prey to seduction, how everything ended up as vapor and smoke. They alike protested their unworthiness.

To the prophets, then. Angels called forth to Isaiah, to Jeremiah, to Ezekiel, to Daniel. Those who'd written some of the scroll in the first place – couldn't they open it? One by one, they and the others answered back. No – they had some familiarity with what was in the scroll, they whispered a few foggy secrets, but the seals were too great for them. They, too, were desperate to get in, eager to look into the great mysteries to come. But they could catch only glimpses. And they certainly couldn't put the plan into action. Angels asked Ezra and Nehemiah next. Having led their people back to the promised land, restored God's law to them, built up the defenses of the holy city – couldn't they open the scroll? But they couldn't, either. It was sealed to them, too.

Looking down, John started to wail. Angels took pity, redoubled their search. If not among these worthies of biblical renown, they'd have to go far and wide. Fly forth, angels, fly forth! One flew to India, to a burial mound in Kushinagar, where lay the ashes of the sheltered prince who'd walked away and sat under a tree and found his balanced path. “Siddhartha Gautama,” the angel yelled, “the one some call an Enlightened One, or in your language, 'Buddha'! You said you grasped the real nature of things, and you taught your dharma to your sangha, your community of disciples. With all the insight you gained, can you open the scroll?” The mound was all but silent at first – stilled. But the angel strained to hear the whisper. And it disappointed. The Buddha had no desire for the scroll. The Buddha was ignorant of the scroll. And this prince-turned-monk, Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha, was unworthy to break those seals, even if he wanted to. Whatever Buddha could teach, it wouldn't help the matter at hand. And so the cycles of suffering would continue.

Another angel touched down in the Arabian Peninsula beneath the soft moonlight. He went to Medina, and his voice shattered the night. “Son of Abdullah! You defied your tribe's scattered loves and called them to one God and one cause. You taught what you said we'd given you from above. You spoke the words, and some listened. And with them, you fought for supremacy, and you retook your city, and you shattered idols in the shrine. You united your people and unleashed a wave that, long after you, took the world by storm. You called all to submit, and millions upon millions have listened to you. They love you, they revere you, they say you're the seal who finalizes the work of all prophets. O Muhammad, if you're the Seal of the Prophets, can you unseal these seals? Are you worthy to open the scroll, to bring this sealed book to light?” The answer would surprise many. For when all was said and done, Muhammad ibn Abdullah was not worthy to open the scroll. He could not unseal the seals. He could not see into and recite from the heavenly book. Not this one, not the one right next to the Enthroned One. Muhammad, his bones resting in an Arabian tomb, was unworthy to open the scroll. And when he saw that, John beat his breast and wept a little louder. Can no one?

The angels moved on. They went to Greece, called forth the philosophers. Up stood Socrates, his lips tinged with hemlock. Up stood Plato. Up stood Aristotle. “You wise men taught the world reason. You revealed form and matter, justice and truth, you set a million minds to work. But here's the puzzle for you. Greater wisdom is sealed away, locked behind seven seals, in a scroll. Can you approach? Can you reveal? Are you limited to groping in the darkness of the cave, or can you see in the light?” But faced with the question, Socrates only asked more questions about what a scroll really is, and what it means for something to be open or sealed. Plato and Aristotle fell to bickering, since Plato felt that any scroll was merely a reflection of the abstract idea of a scroll, but Aristotle thought the form resided in the matter of the scroll and gave it shape. And it was soon plain that none of these, nor their disciples and heirs, would be of any use in actually getting the scroll open.

So if not the philosophers, well – the angels searched throughout Europe for the tombs of great writers. One went to Stratford-upon-Avon to summon the bard, William Shakespeare himself. Others located John Milton, Dante Alighieri, and the rest of the poets and story-tellers. “You've all written so much,” the angel effused, “but can your artistry recapture what's in that scroll?” And they had to confess they couldn't. Milton told of angels and devils, of paradise lost and regained – but while he could dream of paradise, he couldn't bring it to earth. Dante confessed his words too little for such a heavenly flight, said that he could not gather the scattered leaves of the book of love. Shakespeare replied in a sonnet, but his sound and fury signified too little – all were unworthy. Perhaps charm, then? The angels found Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. “Play a fresh song for us, men! Your compositions have lasted through the ages. Your melodies are unmistakable. Can you not go and get into the scroll, treat it as a musical score, and play, play, play?” But the musicians couldn't charm the seals off the scroll, no matter what instrument they used, no matter what sonata they played. The scroll wouldn't budge.

Another tactic is required. Watch as the angels keep moving, keep looking. They called forth that Renaissance man, painter and inventor and thinker, Leonardo da Vinci. But others came up too – Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, the Wright brothers. They'd thought so far and so hard, they'd come up with insights, they had more brainpower combined than most rooms ever hold. “O scientists and inventors,” the angel begged, “can't you reverse-engineer the seals? Can't you figure out the mechanics by which they work, and devise a way to pry them loose?” But Orville and Wilbur couldn't fly high enough. The lights of Edison and Tesla were no match for the emerald rainbow. Einstein was baffled in the dark. Even the “Universal Genius” left stumped in the end. They were unequal to the task, their intellects depleted.

Well, if not to clever engineering, perhaps to brute force! A surly angel swept the world, calling forth kings and warlords. There stood Alexander the Great. Next to him, Julius Caesar. Then Attila, Charlemagne, Richard the Lionheart, and Genghis Khan; even William Wallace and Robert the Bruce stepped up. “Attention!” shouted the angel. “You have your strategies. You have your armies. Your objective: Shatter the seven seals. Charge!” But no lance or blade ever got close. One by one, the conquerors fell, conquered by the scroll. Alexander wept, for he could not conquer. John wept, too, for it seemed like no one could.

Can angels panic? If they can, this is when they would have. Some came closer to here – one at Mount Vernon, another to Monticello, a third to Quincy, a fourth to Montpelier. “Arise, George Washington! Get up, Thomas Jefferson! John Adams and James Madison, you too! We need you all! You great men, fathers of a country, could our hope be in you? Are any of you honest forefathers the ones we need – worthy to open the scroll?” They took a vote. The result was unanimous. Unworthy. The seals were as inalienable from the scroll as their natural rights from their souls. So the angel strode to the White House, to its current occupant. Others went back to earlier Oval Office sitters; others went forward to who'll be there next. And it may surprise you or not, but once again, all are unworthy to open the scroll. No Trump or Obama or Bush or Clinton, no Reagan or Carter or Roosevelt or Lincoln, can open the scroll. The angels even summoned forth the symbols – why not? – of Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty. Embodiments of America itself, everything we salute, standing tall in civic freedom. Hear the angel: “Surely you can open the scroll?” But they can't. No American right extends so far. No court can order the seals unsealed. No soldierly death in battle – not all who fell from Gettysburg to Normandy, from Iwo Jima to Fallujah – has shed the blood that dissolves these bonds. The star-spangled banner will sooner unravel to threads than outlast those seals. America is unworthy.

What about the corporate world? As a last-ditch effort, the angel calls out for Amazon and Apple and Google and Facebook. With all their databases, with all their algorithms, with all their economic dominance and savvy, can they search the scroll? But it isn't in their databases. They, too, fall as unworthy. Defeated, the angels keep looking, interviewing everyone, one by one. Your grandparents. Your grandkids. Your mom. Your dad. Your son. Your daughter. Your sister. Your brother. Your boss. Your neighbor. Some think they're worthy. But the test proves they aren't. Others have the sense to admit it up front. And then the angel gets to you. Are you the one who's worthy? Can you do what no cherub or seraph, no man or woman, no country or corporation can do? And whatever you answer, in time you know the truth. You aren't worthy to open the scroll and see what's in it.

And John breaks down. No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or look into it” (Revelation 5:3). Which means that God's plan can never unfold. It can never be implemented. It has to be stored away in the archives – not just in the archives, but locked down, sealed, unlisted from inventory. Forever unconsulted, unread, unopened. No wonder John's hot tears ripple the glassy sea! Because with no one to open the scroll, hope is dead! All dreams are dead! Heaven and earth are dead, dead, dead (Revelation 5:4).

And just then, one of the twenty-four elders turns around to John and gently urges him to dry his tears. “Look!” he says. “Just look!” And the elder begins telling him that a new contender has shown up, one who in the midst of human history has done something no one else ever has or ever will. He's the one Israel long expected – the Root of David's line, the Great King, the icon of Judah's whole tribe, the mighty lion-warrior out for conquest and victory and triumph! “Do not weep: See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered – so he can open the scroll and its seven seals!” (Revelation 5:5).

At this point, doesn't that just sound too good to be true? The entire creation, from top to bottom, has just been scoured by search parties, looking for just such a person. And every human and animal and angel, every living and deceased figure, even symbols and conglomerates, have all fallen flat. Isn't a tedious string of billions of disqualified candidates a reason enough to cease the hunt, close the contest, throw hope in with the rest of the garbage? What's the point of believing this speculation about a Jewish lion who can do the impossible?

Then John actually looked – and he saw no lion. No, he saw... a sheep. A lamb. Fresh from the slaughterhouse. Killed, bloody, but on its feet and looking strong and healthy. Radiating paradoxical power. Beaming the Spirit of God in all completeness into the whole creation. “I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as having been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirts of God sent out into all the earth” (Revelation 5:6). How could this be a winner? A meek and mild lamb? A tiny ball of fluff and wool, stained with blood, carted here and there by butchers making mutton chops? This is the conquering lion – a vulnerable victim, a sacrifice doomed? One last contender. One last hope. But when all else has failed, doesn't that pattern mean the last piece will fit the same dismal puzzle?

So imagine John's surprise when “he went and took the scroll from the right hand of the One who was seated on the throne” (Revelation 5:7). The Lamb really did take the scroll! And how does all heaven respond? The creatures and elders call out to this Lamb, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals!” How can that be? How did this one, this... this Lion-Lamb, conquering through vulnerability, become equal to such a task as no cherub or seraph, no president or potentate, no inventor or artist, no priest or prophet or king could do – how? “For you were slaughtered” – that's a qualification? You have to fall into violent hands? You have to be victimized, brutalized, beaten down? “For you were slaughtered, and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). There it is! The Lamb's blood is the blood that speaks a better word than Abel's (Hebrews 12:24). The Lamb's blood creates a new world, sets the tone for a whole new universe, drawn out from all the rich diversity of the old one: a world where sacrifice is conquest and redemption is triumph and an ounce of love outweighs a trillion tons of strength. From Adam to the end, from cherubic circle to infernal pit, no one else has done this. And that's what shows that the Lamb is worthy. It's true, what the elder said: “He can open the scroll and its seven seals!” (Revelation 5:5)!

And with that, John's tears are dried. The frozen course of destiny surges suddenly into motion; all color flushes back into the world, all heaven breathes a sigh of excited relief. He is worthy! He is worthy! Only one is able, only one is worthy, but when that One is Jesus, that One is enough! The scroll of God's plan is not a scroll for patriarchs and prophets, not for philosophers and ponderers, not for wordsmiths and warriors, not even for Mary and all the saints. It isn't available to Hollywood or Silicon Valley, not to Washington or Wall Street. The scroll from God is a scroll for sheep – the Sheep, the Lamb of God, is alone worthy. God's plan cannot unfold without the scroll in his hand. You need fear John's fear no longer. God's plan can move forward. History is arrested and frozen no more. There will be justice, there will be mercy, there will be hope, there will be redemption and healing and new creation. The Lamb is worthy to save, worthy to rule, worthy to unseal the scroll of all secrets and to open every destiny wide! He is worthy! Jesus Christ is worthy! Hallelujah! Ascribe all to him! Amen!