Sunday, July 7, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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