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 an 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 (and, first, his own yearning heart), how he'd fallen prey to lust and 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, like an impenetrable wall built long before them.

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'! O 'Buddha,' you claimed 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 spoke your 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 under the confession of your lips 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 as you claimed, 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.  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, ready to wrestle. Up stood Aristotle, tutor of generations. “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? Can you interrogate it open? 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, for 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 as they feuded, the scroll remained sealed, 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. Others landed in London, in Ravenna, in the hearts of human culture, to find 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, Vivaldi; they sought further in Graceland for 'the King,' they tracked down the Beatles, they gathered the rappers and the crooners and the masters of reggae and jazz. “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 seals wouldn't budge; the scroll wouldn't unfurl.  Every encore lapsed back into uncomfortable silence.

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, Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, 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. Feynman and Bohr and Einstein were baffled, their theories incomplete and broken by the unbroken seals. 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 and tacticians. There stood Alexander the Great. Next to him, Julius Caesar. Then Attila, Sun Tzu, Charlemagne, Richard the Lionheart, and Genghis Khan; even William Wallace and Robert the Bruce and General Patton 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 or Biden, 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. If it's up to you, the endeavor is a loss – the same as it has been for all others.

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 spirits 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 this Lamb “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 Armageddon, 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!

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