Sunday, June 9, 2019

Casting Crowns: Sermon on Revelation 4

It felt strange to look the enemy in the eye. Especially here at Rhandeia, and on an occasion like this, with all their troops gathered on every side. But Tiridates, king of Armenia, was ending the war. His opponent, the Roman general Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, was an honorable one, at least. To think things all started eleven years earlier. Tiridates' big brother Vologaesus had become king of the Parthian Empire in AD 51/52. Needing a territory for his little brother Tiridates, Vologaesus had taken advantage of chaos in Armenia, invaded it, and made Tiridates the king there. Fortunately, the locals decided they liked Tiridates better than his rivals. But the Roman Empire hadn't been happy – they were accustomed to crowning the kings of Armenia. And so when Nero came to power in 54, he sent Corbulo east, and four years later, it came to war between the empires. For several years, Rome and Parthia duked it out, and Tiridates had been one of Rome's great devils, humiliating a Roman army at Rhandeia. But then came time for war to stop. In 63, Tiridates met Corbulo – at Rhandeia.

And this was the day. The Parthian cavalry was there in squadrons, each displaying the emblem of their people. The Roman legions stood there, golden eagles shining in the sun, idols of their gods crowding around, making them look almost like a temple. And there in the heart of it, Tiridates approached a platform the Romans had assembled. On it sat a throne. And on the throne, not a man but a statue. A statue of the Roman emperor. But this was what they'd agreed. Tiridates came closer, had the animals summoned. And he made a sacrifice there. Approaching Nero's statue, he took the Armenian crown off of his head, felt its heft in his hands – and then he gently placed it at the foot of the throne, vowing to be crowned as king only by Nero himself. And he left the crown at the base of the throne where the statue was.

A couple years passed, as Tiridates returned to Parthia, visited his mom and brothers, gathered personnel for the big trip. As a devout Zoroastrian, he wouldn't sail more than a day over water, so it would be a long trek by land – a nine-month journey, nice and slow, with his three thousand horsemen, with his nephews and wife and sons, with a band of magi like himself – the ones whose grandfathers had once journeyed to a little Judaean town called Bethlehem. So Tiridates set out, with a Roman escort, too. And in October of 65, he met Nero in Naples. Fascinating to meet Rome's emperor in person – Nero was just twenty-seven at the time; Tiridates, likely in his thirties. After the entertainment of gladiatorial games in nearly Puteoli, they marched to Rome in early 66. And there, in the forum of a city recovering from the Great Fire, early one morning Tiridates, his dagger nailed to its sheath at his hip, marched between columns of Roman soldiers toward a platform with a throne – this time, with a living Nero seated on it. All around, the very roofs of Rome were crowded with spectators. Banners filled the city, and the forum was thronged with citizens in white robes, carrying laurel branches.

Swallowing his pride, Tiridates approached the base of the platform atop which sat Nero's imperial throne – and Tiridates did what he never expected: he bowed in worship. Tiridates' voice rang out: “Master, I am the descendant of Arsaces, brother of the kings Vologaesus and Pacorus, and your slave. And I have come to you, my god, to worship you as I do Mithras. The destiny you spin for me shall be mine, for you are my Fortune and my Fate.” Nero, deeply flattered, invited him to walk up the ramp to come closer. He declared Tiridates the rightful king of Armenia. And as Tiridates knelt below Nero's feet, the emperor took him by the hand, raised him, kissed him, and then presented the crown once cast before his throne and placed it back on Tiridates' head – and the crowds went wild on that 'Golden Day.'

News traveled far and wide. Nero proclaimed it as the dawn of world peace: he had the doors of the Temple of Janus closed, minted coins to commemorate the occasion. 'World peace' didn't last – in just a few months, a revolt in Judaea would lead to the war that would see Jerusalem's temple burnt to the ground. But the story of Nero and Tiridates would spread. It was likely just three decades later when, on Patmos, John – living in the era of the Emperor Domitian, the late Corbulo's son-in-law – was invited to come see a brighter 'golden day' in a far more glorious imperial court than Rome ever boasted.

Sometime after John's vision of the risen Christ, whether minutes or months later, he had yet another vision – “After this, I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I'd heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, 'Come up here...'” (Revelation 4:1). A gateway in the sky. An invitation. But how would John get through? He's down on earth, on the land, at a level with me and you. And the place he's asked to see is way up there, beyond all that we know. No nine-month journey around the coasts of the Adriatic Sea could get him through that resplendent portal overhead.

But we keep reading. “At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with One seated on the throne” (Revelation 4:2). There's the bridge! There's what gets John through that heavenly door – he's once again “in the Spirit,” experiencing reality not merely through his natural senses but through the Spirit of God. What a nine-month march couldn't ever do, the Spirit of God does immediately, shifting John far beyond all he's ever seen or heard or touched or known.

The scene he sees there is absolutely mind-blowing. He dares not dwell too much on what it was like to see a vision of the One seated on the throne: “The One who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald” (Revelation 4:3). This colossal throne outshone Nero's in every way, outstripped all Rome's pageantry, all Parthia's exoticism, dwarfed any and all earthly kings. The only way John can get even part of an image across is by comparing the vision to jewelry – to precious gemstones and crystals, refracting light into an emerald rainbow, a vivid halo around the throne. John's seeing what Isaiah saw, what Ezekiel saw. He's seeing “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD(Ezekiel 1:28), a vision in which his eyes have to take in, and his brain has to interpret, the perplexing vista of the God “who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16). And yet in the Spirit, John sees the Unseeable, beholds the Unbeholden, seated on heaven's royal throne, “enthroned in the heavens” (Psalm 123:1).

And that's not all. “From the throne came flashes of lightning, and sounds and peals of thunder” (Revelation 4:5a). It has to remind John of the story of when Moses and the Israelites waited at the base of Mount Sinai for God to appear, and then “Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire,” and “there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled..., and the whole mountain trembled greatly, and as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder” (Exodus 19:16-19). And so in heaven, John meets the Storm of the Almighty; he stands in Moses' shoes, but the smoke is gone, John sees only the brightness and the dazzling figure, far outshining all Rome's glittering gold, which now looked cheap.

And as if that weren't enough, “before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God; and before the throne, there was – as it were – a sea of glass like crystal” (Revelation 4:5b-6). Blazing in front of the crystal sea, smooth and tranquil, which rests above the world, John sees the same Spirit that fills him and surrounds him, the Spirit through whom he can see any of this blessed vision. The same Holy Spirit is forever in God's presence, multiply ablaze at the base of his throne, connected integrally with heaven's authority and never dying out. We'll find in the same chapter that the exact same Spirit also radiates like seven horns from the head of the Lamb who is Jesus Christ – one Spirit radiating from the Father and the Son, a perfect picture of the Holy Trinity. But the Spirit can't show John the Father until the Spirit has come from the Son.

It's much the same for us now. We could not have a personal encounter with God apart from the Spirit. And the Spirit would not be indwelling us if Jesus had not first died and lived again and ascended into heaven so that he could pour out the Spirit from God's throne. If not for Good Friday, if not for Easter, if not for Ascension Thursday, there could be no Pentecost Sunday; and no Pentecost means no vision, no Pentecost means no power, no Pentecost means no encounter, no Pentecost means no revelation – and heaven's open door would remain forever beyond reach. So praise God, it's Pentecost! Praise God, Jesus lives and sends down his Spirit – the same Spirit through whom John viewed a vision – and that Spirit lets us encounter the Enthroned Glory!

As he stands in heaven, John sees some strange things around the throne – but then again, maybe those things would think John the strange one, dull and quiet and made of mud, when life's for splendor and song and flame. He sees, for one, four “Living Creatures” around the throne, maybe supporting the throne – “four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes around and within” (Revelation 4:6-8). If you can't picture it, you aren't alone – nobody really can. The psalmists said their God was “enthroned upon the cherubim” (Psalm 99:1), and when Ezekiel saw God's throne, he saw it suspended over “four living creatures” with humanoid bodies but four faces and four wings (Ezekiel 1:5-6) – and the prophet later added: “the living creatures that I saw underneath the God of Israel … were cherubim” (Ezekiel 10:20). But John sees creatures with six wings, like the seraphim that Isaiah saw around God's throne; and they're saying what the seraphim say (Isaiah 6:2-3). Neither prophet caught the full view of what John's looking at. These creatures – hybrids of Ezekiel's cherubim and Isaiah's seraphim – sum up in themselves all that's best in the whole animate creation (lion, ox, eagle, human) as they shine and burn. They see things from every angle – nothing on them is sightless. They have no blind spots, no rose-colored glasses – they see everything as it is, nothing escapes their view.

And no matter where they look, they see just one thing. They see the glory of God. And so “day and night they never cease to say: 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!'” (Revelation 4:8). Wherever they look, they see the holiness of God. They see everything as it is, and so – to the capacity of any created being – they see God for who God is. And to the extent they see God for who God is, they're in the throes of worship. They don't praise God for anything in particular he's done. He doesn't have to do anything to win their allegiance. He just has to be himself. God is God, he is who he is – that's enough for them. That right there suffices to elicit their galaxy-shaking shouts of praise. No matter what happens, so long as God is God, they proclaim him as triply holy, the eternal God who can do all things, the Almighty Lord who never fades and never fails. And if we want to learn the heart of worship, John writes so that they can teach us. Revelation is a book on worship, and here's Lesson #1: God gets worship just because he's his holy self.

We have a tendency sometimes to functionalize or instrumentalize God. We praise God because of some cause, some act that we approve of. That in itself isn't bad the psalmists frequently praised God in reference to some specific deed or deeds but, if disconnected from God's intrinsic worthiness, it can make worship mercenary. What these living creatures see is that, even if God did nothing, even if God created nothing, even if God were God alone and there were no heavens and no earth and no angels and no creatures – even then, God would be holy, eternal, almighty, glorious. God alone would rightly see that God alone is worth praising, even in the depths of timeless eternity where the Father, Son, and Spirit praise each other without end and without beginning. And if God is worthy of worship even if God is all that exists, that truth still holds true when creatures live to give voice to that truth. That's what these heavenly worship-animals exist to announce, what they live to say.

And they never stop saying it! “Day and night, they never cease to say, 'Holy, holy, holy'” (Revelation 4:8). It's a perpetual chorus, each calling to the other. It's the concert that's lasted since the dawn of Eden. It was going on when Nero and Tiridates had their little 'Golden Day.' It was going on when John languished on Patmos. It's going on this very instant. Right now, as I preach to this sermon, these four living creatures covered in eyes can see me behind the pulpit and see you in the pews, and they're saying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” They've seen all the joys and sorrows of history. Their eyes have, from afar, watched cruelty and kindness, abuse and healing, outrage and jubilation, genocide and reconciliation, abortion and new birth, enslavement and liberation, destruction and redemption. And still, with one foot immersed in the rivers of tears and sweat and blood and another foot atop the dazzling mountain of beauteous exhilaration, having a far better sight than we of what the world's really like, beholding every pain from every angle, still they talk of the glory of God! Still they think God worthy of honor! Still they thank God for being the God he is! For John tells us: “the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the One seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever” (Revelation 4:9). 
Having seen all they've seen, and seeing everything that's affecting you right now, and viewing and understanding it better than you ever will in this world with the two eyes you can aim one direction at a time – they keep glorifying and honoring and thanking God. And that's how we know that heaven's throne is no seat of mismanagement! Those who've seen the most – and perhaps have eyes enough to spare that some of their eyes see the world through our eyes are yet the most thankful that God's on the throne. And if they see so much and find such abundant cause to thank God, you can thank God, too, no matter what's within the limited horizons of all your eyes can see.  Nothing your eyes have seen is justification to detract God's glory or subtract from God's honor or withhold thanksgiving in life – not if you only saw still more.

What's more, these heavenly living creatures keep saying their praises “day and night,” without ceasing. No lunch breaks. No time-outs. Their life is fueled by worship. This message, this gospel of God being God, is the sum total of their existence. There's a beloved hymn – and you know this one – where we sing, “When we've been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we've no less days to sing God's praise than when we first begun.” And I'll be honest, there was a time in my life when I thought, “How frightening! A never-ending task of one thing, stretching out beyond all I can imagine, with no end in sight? It's like a prison sentence that keeps multiplying for eternity!” But then I started thinking about these four living creatures. Since the start, they've been saying the same thing, over and over again. Why don't they get bored? Why don't they need to shake things up, branch out? And then it hit me: Every time they see God, they see something they've never seen before. He's like a gem with countless facets that, every way the light shines through it, brings out something new. These living creatures are on an endless voyage of discovery of the infinite God, who contains more limitless variety in himself than the universe will ever attain at any definite point in its past, present, or future. The life of these living creatures is the very opposite of boring. For them, each minute is gripping, is captivating, is on-the-edge-of-their-seats enthralling. They never have a dull moment! They're learning every second of every day! And what they learn is life-changing, transformative, astounding, amazing! Their whole existence is a thrilling adventure into God's infinite riches of character and quality and being – new and fresh at all times, always and forever! And if that's true, then if our worship really does bring us into contact with this God, it should never be stale (however dry and dusty our dull and debilitated hearts may misperceive it). Our worship grows deeper and deeper every time we connect with God, because there is literally no end of fresh brilliance in him.

Honestly, if these living creatures were all John saw around the throne, that'd be enough to teach a lifetime of lessons. But they aren't all he sees. Before he even mentioned them, he already told us that “around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads” (Revelation 4:4). And there's a lot that's mysterious about that. But these are, in all likelihood, the ones whom biblical scholars call 'the divine council.' As one psalm says, “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment” (Psalm 82:1). We glimpse it in other verses, like when the prophet Micaiah says, “I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left” (1 Kings 22:19). It's the court staff of heaven, the council of God's administration. And here they correspond to the twenty-four divisions David made in Israel's priesthood and the twenty-four divisions David made among the Levite singers, the worship leaders of Israel (1 Chronicles 24-25). These elders are heavenly priest-kings whose thrones ring the greater throne of God, whose authority is part of his administration, who are set apart to minister in his presence (cf. Revelation 5:8).

And when the living creatures shout out and give them their cue, these ancient heavenly priest-kings – who themselves outshine the gods worshipped by Rome and all nations – they themselves “worship the One who lives forever and ever,” and they say, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Revelation 4:11). The living creatures praised God just for who God is. And that inspires these elders to praise God – specifically, for who God is to them. They praise God for what God has done: created all things. He is the Creator; all else is created and contingent, dependent on God's will. Everything else receives its very existence as a gift from God. They themselves, like the living creatures, would not even exist unless God had decided they should. Every beauty in creation – it's God's artistry. Every marvel in creation – it's God's engineering. Every novelty in creation – it's God's inventiveness. God is the Creator of all things. No exceptions. There's nothing for which anything else can take credit. In every way, we are creatures, created things, but God is Creator. No one invented God, no one dreamt God up. He is not the fancy of our wish-fulfillment or the projection of our ego or the artifice of our sophistry or the misfire of our cognition. He does not depend on us at all. But we depend entirely on him. And, these elders say, that makes God worthy! It means that, when we worship God, we can appeal to an endless variety of reasons. We can worship God by citing his greatness in stretching out vast galaxies. We can worship God by citing his craftsmanship in designing the inner workings of the humblest bacterium and its genetic code. We can worship God by celebrating the colors of the sunset and the songs of the birds at the dawn. We can point to any plant, to any animal, to any rock, to any star, and understand that it's a reason to proclaim God as worthy to receive glory and honor and power! Our worship has an endless string of rightful justifications, because God created all things. The universe was not designed by committee, and it developed under his careful and loving hand, by his sovereign will and choice. Not a thing has ever existed apart from God's will. He is Creator and Sustainer.

And in the face of this, how do these ancient priest-kings in heaven worship? How do they express their vivid conviction of God's worthiness? How do they respond to the gospel of the living creatures? “The twenty-four elders fall down before the One who is seated on the throne and worship the One who lives forever and ever: they cast their crowns before the throne” (Revelation 4:10). Just like Tiridates in front of Nero's throne, they bow down to the ground and worship and give up their crowns. It's a surrender of authority. That's what their worship is all about. They know that their crowns, their authority to rule in God's administration, any power they have or influence they exert – it's all a gift. They possess their authority by grace. And they perpetually submit that past and present grace to God, leaving it up to him whether to graciously continue to crown them anew and keep them in office.

As I said, it's a lot like Tiridates. He proclaimed Nero as his master and his god. He announced that he would worship Nero. He accepted Nero as the fate deciding the future course of his life and the fortune holding all his hopes and dreams. He bowed to Nero, submitted to Nero. He took the crown off his head and surrendered it to Nero, conceding that Nero had the right to authorize royal authority over Armenia (even if Parthia would be the nominator of the man to be coronated). He vowed – be it sincerely or insincerely – that he didn't want the crown unless it came from Nero's hand, unless his rule received Nero's permission and blessing. He relinquished that power and prestige, trusting Nero to return it more splendidly than ever.

And what Tiridates ascribed to a young Roman tyrant, these elders ascribe to God on heaven's throne, their Emperor of Emperors. They proclaim God as their master and their God, they worship him, they accept him as the fate and fortune holding their hopes and deciding their future. They bow to him and surrender their authority, knowing that only God can re-authorize it, over and over and over again, each and every moment. And they sincerely do not want to have any power or prestige or privilege that's overstayed its welcome. Every time God gives them a gift, they thank God for it and submit it to God's continued approval. They live by grace, and grace alone!

And that's how our worship should look. No matter how high and mighty we think we are, worship is defined, at a fundamental level, by what we refer back to God. Every talent, every trait, every blessing, every breath he has given us so many gifts we can't even name them, so many crowns we can hardly believe them. But if he does, our proper worship is to continually take them and place them at the foot of his throne – surrender our every right and our every dignity back to God, returning it to him as glory, letting him be the Heavenly Emperor who chooses, in every moment, whether to re-authorize us to continue in our privileges or not. Our proper worship defers to God in everything. Our proper worship doesn't get bogged down in our personal preferences – our best-beloved styles, our best-beloved tunes, our best-beloved postures. When we cast our crowns before the throne, we're saying it doesn't matter what we might prefer: our greater preference, we're saying, our greater choice, is to erase our preferences and put God's in their place. We acknowledge our rights as continually subject to God's choice. And we trust that, if he chooses, he'll keep on restoring us, keep on creating us anew as kings and priests to him in Christ by the Spirit (cf. Revelation 1:6).

You see, Revelation is a book of worship. It's not a confusing book of endless puzzles. It's not a scary book of fear and doom and dread. It's a book of worship – of basking in God's light and learning how to react to him and to what he's done, and then live in a way that announces how worthwhile this God – and only this God – is. That's what John's visions are for. That's why John has led us away from the cheap pageantry of Rome or of Parthia or of any earthly country, and led us to the throne room of the heavenly empire, where God holds court and his glorious servants worship him in truth. And when we read it, we learn what our worship should be like, what we should be doing here on Sunday morning and what we should be doing the rest of the week – “day and night.” And when our worship says what theirs says, and when our worship is truly focused on God, and when our worship has us hitting the dirt and casting our crowns before God's throne, and when that worship fills up our lives – then we can say that heavenly worship is happening here. Then we can say that we have heaven on earth. And that is what the church is for – possible only as we encounter God in the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Spirit that radiates from the Lamb and burns before the Father's throne. May we be a church that sees! May we be a church that falls in love! May we be a church where seven torches of Spirit-fire burn forever, to the glory of the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come, amen!

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