[A sermon delivered at a small Southern Indiana church]

The NT reading this morning is Revelation 4. It’s the opening of the vision of heaven reported by the author we know as John in the book we know as “Revelation.” That word in Greek is “apocalypse,” a word that means “uncovering,” so the image there is something like pulling back a curtain, to give us a glimpse of something that’s normally hidden from view. At this point in the story, John has already seen the risen Christ “in the spirit” that is, in a vision; Christ has given John seven urgent messages for the seven churches in his area. Now, the risen Christ is about to show John something more, still in a vision, full of images that would mean a lot to John and his first century readers – so, …

So along with John, we get to peek through that open door into the strange and wonderful world of heaven, and what we see there is …

Church.

Or any way, worship; we see and hear a worship service that is going on “day and night, without ceasing” in heaven;

From what we know about these sights and sounds John is describing, and about the mindset of the first century Christians, John’s first readers would have realized two things right away when they heard this description of the heavenly throne room and the worship going on there.

They would have realized that this is the God, the Lord God the Almighty, talked about in the Bible as King of kings and Lord of lords, the ultimate sovereign – we probably recognized the “royal” meaning of the “throne” ourselves, because even today we know that kings and queens sit on thrones, and the 24 thrones and their crowned heads obviously worship the sovereign. But the first century Christians would also have known this from the mention of carnelian and emerald, because those gemstones would instantly have made people think of Pharaohs or Caesars.

And they would have thought right away of the Temple in Jerusalem, Solomon’s original temple, the one destroyed by the Babylonians, only here restored to its original glory, in fact, surpassing it: because first, the throne is surrounded by cherubim – they would have recognized it as the throne described by the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, and as going with the description of the ark of the covenant in the innermost, holiest part of the Temple – they would never have seen it, of course, because it was stolen by the Babylonians centuries earlier, and even if it hadn’t been they would never have been allowed inside that inner sanctum, but they would have known about it, would have known that the ark, the footstool of this throne, was guarded by golden figures of cherubim …

so these awesome figures around the throne who are full of eyes, which basically means they never stop paying attention, they are watchful – something like the way we talk about mothers as having eyes in the back of their heads – they would have meant all this to these early Christians. And they would have known the seven flaming torches corresponded to the seven-branched lampstand in the Temple, and that the sea corresponded to the huge sea in Solomon’s temple that was used for purifying the priests and the sacrifices … only even more splendid, because that sea had been made of bronze, and this one is sparkling clear glass, clearer than any glass a first-century reader could ever have seen, …

John’s people would have gasped at the brilliance of this description, imagining how every surface he describes reflects the lightning flashing from God’s presence …

But they might also have recognized its similarity to jasper as meaning nurturing, warm, and joyful – this is apparently the meaning of jasper in the symbolic language of gemstones.

And emerald doesn’t only mean royal, it also means life and renewal and rest, because of its color, which is the color of flourishing vegetation …

So if we are understanding the significance of John’s vision properly, we have gotten a glimpse of the ancient eternal God of Israel, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords at the center of this worship, living and life-giving, the creator of heaven and earth, supremely powerful, but also warm and nurturing and joyful …

It’s a wonderful image of God.

But, wonderful as it is to get to share this vision, we might be wondering … why are we getting it? Is there some reason for this …?

And in fact, we think we might have some idea about that … because we think John was writing to a church that was being persecuted – that this was a time when people were losing their lives, or at least their livelihoods, because of their faith in Jesus Christ, a time when Christians were forced to worship in secret.

So the purpose of the Revelation seems to have been to remind these Christians that the world they could see was part of a much larger world, a heavenly world that they couldn’t see – yet – but that ruled the world they could see and experience, which was so full of hardship and suffering.

Those Christians needed to be reassured that, as difficult as their lives were in the present, they were a part of something much greater, that was originally created by, and so could be re-created by, God. Just as God is the absolute center of the heavenly worship, God is the center of everything: not just the center of the world, not even just the center of the universe, but the center of all time and all being; as the 24 elders sing, all the time, it’s by God’s will that everything exists and was created. So, in the end, everything belongs to God and points back to God.

John’s vision would have reminded those early Christians, and reassured them, that their worship, which rejected the idols of their pagan neighbors, for which they were taking so much grief, and their lives, which were so at odds with their pagan culture, for which they were taking so much hostility, were the earthly reflection of that heavenly worship; they were part of the activity of God, and that creative activity was already bringing a beautiful new creation into being. So even though they were having to endure persecution in the cause of Christ, they could be confident that their efforts to follow Christ, to live out the new life they had found in Christ, were also bringing honor and glory and power to God, were acts of worship, were part of the homage due to the Almighty creator of heaven and earth, and were part of what God was doing in the world – what God was doing in the world included them.

That’s a really wonderful, helpful vision.

Fortunately for us, though, we don’t normally have to worry about persecution; and we don’t have to hide our worship of God in catacombs.

So we might think we don’t need this reassuring vision the way our fellow Christians in the first century did.

But then again … our world, that is, the part of the world we can see, still isn’t perfect, still harbors plenty of sickness, suffering, injustice, and death; we catch glimpses here and there of that kingdom of God that Jesus said was at hand, we get glimmers now and then of God’s new creation, but from our perspective in earth time, that new creation still looks like very much “under construction.”

And we suffer the problem of distraction … there is so much tweeting and snapping and glittering in the world we can see, it’s easy to miss the call to worship from that world we know about, but often think of as far away, maybe off in the distant future …

It’s the call to worship we hear in our communion liturgy, that comes from this vision of John’s, when we say “we join our voices with the heavenly choir, and all the faithful of every time and place, who forever sing to the glory of your name, holy, holy holy …”

But if we can pay attention to John’s vision of the heavenly worship, it can serve to remind us that we, too, are part of this reality, created by God, that is much bigger than we are; we, too, are part of a present reality that is already taking shape as the new creation; whatever God is doing in this world, with this world, it includes us.

In our worship in this world, we pray “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – and when we do, we are praying for our worship to be more and more like that of the heavenly worship service; and aside from the thrones and the crowns and the symbolic gemstones, there are two big differences between that worship experience and ours; they have the vision of God right before them; that’s got to be a big help, and it probably explains the second difference, which is that worship is their whole lives, …

Their whole lives are taken up with acknowledging the presence of God, being aware of the nature of God, expressing their gratitude to God, and finally just enjoying the fact that God is the one who lives forever and ever … we might miss the note of rejoicing, of being overjoyed to be in the presence of God that is the subtext of John’s vision. We might have some inkling of what this feels like, though, if we’ve ever been parents, who couldn’t take our eyes off our newborn infant … or if we’ve ever been so absorbed in a sunset or sunrise or the night sky full of stars that we just stopped to try take in everything that we were seeing … or even, if we’ve ever been so engrossed in the project we were working on that we completely lost track of time …

So we may not recognize that inkling right away as the call to worship our Lord and God who is worthy to receive honor and glory and power because it is through God’s will that everything exists and was created. But having this vision of John’s before us might help … might remind us that, In fact, we are even now in the world in which those heavenly beings and the whole people of God are singing ceaselessly, day and night, to and about God; the world we live in is the one in which Jesus Christ is alive, new life is real, and God’s new creation is taking shape; it’s happening, now.

When we know that, we will realize that whenever we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God, whenever we glorify God, whenever we notice and bless God, that’s part of this reality of the worship of the kingdom of heaven. And we do that with each prayer of thanks and gratitude to God; with each act of kindness and generosity; with each instance of humble service to our neighbors and to the people who live nearest to us.

We know this kind of new life is possible, by the grace of God; and when we live that new life, we do get the sense that our lives are gifts to God, as much as the crowns of the 24 elders are; we begin to realize our purpose, “to love God and enjoy God forever,” as the old Westminster Catechism said. John’s vision reminds us that the heavenly worship is happening now, and that our whole lives can be part of it, too, on earth, as it is in heaven.


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