At the beginning of the COVID crisis, our church shifted to meeting online, like lots of other churches. But knowing that some members of the congregation would miss out on that, because of their “tech” capabilities or comfort, we – technically, our pastor, but with the enthusiastic concurrence of the Session – started mailing out a home worship packet to anyone who wanted that, and also emailing it to everyone else. It goes out on Wednesdays. In the twenty months since this began, it has become something that people say they like a lot. “I love that you send out the sermon on Wednesday.” This is from people who come to church in person – now that we are back to doing that – and who read it ahead of time, and think it over, and then come to church and get something different out of it in person. [I report. What people have said to me.]
What this means for substitute preachers, especially for those who do things at the last minute, is that “the last minute” has moved from Saturday night to Wednesday morning.
Or really, it’s more like there are now two last minutes – because the new one on Wednesday morning hasn’t actually replaced the traditional one on Saturday night, it has modified it. Now it’s possible to review that whole message that went out on Wednesday. And it’s not to late to fix it, if it turns out – as it turned out this past week – that the midweek version was too boring for words, and even your long-suffering spouse can’t listen to the whole thing once through without taking a nap. Literally.
Here’s the Saturday night / Sunday morning version:
The book of Revelation tells the vision of a first century Christian, John of Patmos. It’s a vision of heaven, a vision of what is happening and “will shortly” happen, in heaven and on earth, for an audience of first century Christians. The symbols and images he shares would have meant something to those early Christians, we think something encouraging.
Unfortunately, these same dramatic images often mean something different to us, two thousand or so years later, with our different culture and history.
So what seemed like a good idea a couple of weeks ago, to use one of the texts we studied recently in the Present Word Bible study class, started to seem less and less obvious as Sunday morning drew closer. Can we listen to a Biblical text that depicts God sitting on a throne – even a really splendid one – surrounded by fantastic beasts, or – maybe worse, in our day and age, by a shouting mob of people in white robes – and find a message for us, in our own time, in this fantastic and dreamlike or even at times nightmarish book? I think so … but it may take some work …
Early in the book of Revelation, John has been invited by a voice from heaven to look directly into heaven, and has seen that great difficulties – natural disasters, war, famine – are in store for people on earth; and then in the middle of all this earthly upheaval, he sees this scene, of worship, taking place in the heavenly throne room …
9 After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 All the angels stood around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures, and fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying:
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom,
Thanksgiving and honor and power and might,
Be to our God forever and ever.
13 Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, “Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?”
14 And I said to him, “Sir, you know.”
So he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple. And He who sits on the throne will dwell among them. 16 They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; 17 for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”Revelation 7:9-17
If we were early Christians, and especially if we were familiar with the Old Testament scriptures that were still being read in the Christian church, we would recognize that heavenly throne room and those four living creatures right away. This is God’s glorious presence, the same one seen by the prophet Ezekiel, when the people of Judah were in exile in Babylonia; then, too, God was transported and attended by all-seeing cherubim, mighty supernatural beings that are part of the immense unseen world of forces that are at God’s command.
We would know, of course, that the Lamb is Jesus, Christ, “the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.”
And that crowd clothed in white robes would not remind us of anything sinister. Just the opposite, we’d probably think of the chalk-white togas worn by Roman senators and other well-off Roman citizens – but these people aren’t citizens of the Roman Empire, they’re obviously citizens of an even better empire, of God’s empire of righteousness and justice.
If we were first century Christians, we’d probably notice how alive and ecstatic these people are. Our translation says they are “crying out” – but we might have a better idea of what John is seeing and hearing if we imagined a rock concert, or maybe a stadium in the middle of a game the crowd’s team is winning. The crowd is literally “screaming” at the top of their lungs “salvation belongs to our God.” If we pictured them waving those palm branches like foam fingers – “Christ’s Number One” – we’d probably have the right idea.
We would notice what a big crowd this is, too. So vast no one can count it. And as diverse and inclusive as the entire world. The people are from everywhere, every nation, every group, every language. There is no segregation or discrimination or exclusion, just the opposite. All the social categories John can name are part of this congregation.
And we would certainly take comfort in hearing those encouraging words of promise: that the citizens of the heavenly empire are done with suffering. They won’t hunger or thirst, won’t have to toil in the heat of the day, all their sorrows will be over.
We often think of the book of Revelation as being about the end of the world. About the end times. As a book of warnings, of “fire and brimstone.” We forget that in its own time and place it was a word for “here and now” – and in that “here and now,” we think, its goal was to encourage those early Christians to hang in there, to stay focused on the main thing, on staying loyal to Jesus Christ.
For a long time, scholars believed that the book of Revelation was written to a Christian community that was suffering persecution. They thought the message of the book was: don’t be afraid of suffering, or even of dying, just stay focused on how good things will be for those who stay faithful to Jesus. That’s what really matters.
There are many Christians today for whom that message is acutely relevant. Who live in places where they might show up to church and be met with a bomb, or by someone toting a gun, bent on ending their lives. In fact, that would include some Christians in the United States, within living memory.
Lately, though, some scholars have suggested that the audience for Revelation had more in common with our own time and place than we used to think. That these were believers who lived in the midst of a large, powerful, and prosperous empire that celebrated wealth and prestige and power, and rewarded it, and encouraged its citizens to pursue those things. Possibly, the greatest temptation facing Christians was not physical suffering, not torture and death, but the temptation to go along with those cultural values; to admire the strong, scorn the weak, and take care of number one. Their need was to stay focused on resisting that pressure, to stay focused on keeping God central, to hold fast to loving God with all their heart, and their neighbors as themselves.
Either way, the message is to hang in there, because there’s more to reality than meets the eye. When John pulls back the curtain to show his little Christian community what’s really going on, behind the scenes, it’s obvious that the mighty Roman Empire is no match for God’s even greater unseen realm. So, Christians, don’t give up, don’t give in. Jesus is Lord. Worship the Lamb. Serve God.
We should not be surprised that a message like this is wrapped in a vision of worship. Of worship taking place in heaven – literally heavenly, or “ideal,” worship. Worship to look forward to.
Because images of worship are how the Biblical authors talk about people’s priorities. “Worship” reveals what those really are. Because worship is what we do, not just what we say. Worship – especially public worship, gathered worship – requires choices, and displays those choices. We are here, not there. We value this, not that.
We probably think of worship as something we do “in church.”
But for the early Christians, worship took place in temples. And those early Christians would have thought of God’s temple as the one Jesus and his first disciples were talking about in the gospel of Mark, the temple in Jerusalem, that had such large stones. But that temple was actually destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Just as Jesus says in our first reading, not one stone is left on another. It looked like Team Rome had won. The evidence was all around them: It was the Greco-Roman gods, of war and of wealth and of whatever, whose temples were still standing.
So when the elder who explains things to John says these people serve God day and night “in God’s temple,” he must be talking about a different temple – an indestructible one –
In John’s vision, God’s temple seems to be as ever-present as time and space, as the heavens and the earth, that all belong to God. And how matters REALLY stand is that this God is still the center of worship, not only of humans, but of a brilliant, unseen reality that hovers just beyond most people’s normal sight.
That vision would encourage us to think of this heavenly worship as already taking place, even now – and to think that we can be part of that worship – and should be.
Being part of that looks like – as much for us as for the early Christians – turning towards Jesus. Because Jesus shows us how the divine nature looks in this world, the world that looks and feels real to us.
It looks like love – Jesus’s kind of love, the love that lays down its life for its friends. It looks like compassion – Jesus’s kind of compassion, like when he tries to teach the disciples that what looks like power and importance around here often isn’t, or warns them that there are a lot of hardships ahead. It looks like life – Jesus’s kind of life, of courage and faithfulness, which in this world included the cross – but also, rising from the dead.
When the curtain of John’s vision is closed again, God’s ever-present temple looks and feels like ordinary space and time to us. Sometimes, that’s beautiful and awe-inspiring, say on a sunny fall day when all the trees are shining gold or fiery red. But even on those other days, when the sky is gray, or rainy, or windy, we can know that God is alive and at work.
How do we know what is real?
If we are like most people, most of the time, we trust our senses: what we can see, hear, taste, touch, smell, that’s real. Most of us, most of the time, don’t see or hear God the way the author of the book of Revelation did.
That can make God seem a little unreal to us. When our daughter was little, she had that same question: why don’t we ever see God? And me, thinking I was being very smart, said, well, it’s because God is so big – because God is everywhere, like the air. She thought this was really hilarious. In the car? Yes. In the mail box? Yes. In the trash can? Because obviously, God is not supposed to be in the trash can … but by now I was stuck, and I had to say, yes, EVERYWHERE …
But in the years since that conversation, I have sometimes felt like I was in the trash can myself. And then I think – it helps to know God is in there, too, with me.
Although what would help even more would be thinking that God can, and will, do something to get me out of that trash can.
That’s one of the things the author of the book of Revelation is trying to show his readers – those early Christians living in the heyday of the Roman empire. That God really was with them, even when it looked like they were the losers; and also, that even when everything looked like it was going wrong, God was actively working on making things right. That even beyond what we can see, hear, touch and taste and smell, normally, God is at work in the world – and we can be part of that work – which is worship.
The worship in heaven, day and night, led by angels and elders and awesome beings, looks like everyone’s pouring back to God what God has poured out on them, all that God intrinsically is: blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving (literally, good gifts), honor, power – that is, the ability to act, sometimes in unbelievable ways; and might – that is, the strength to hold on. The worship song the angels sing in John’s vision reflects back to God God’s own nature and activity. Turning towards God, acknowledging God’s reality, giving back to God what belongs to God, that seems to be the essence of the heavenly worship.
But … that’s the essence of worship on earth, too.
Worship in the temple of this real world looks like giving ourselves to God: following Jesus; being the body of Christ, or as Paul said in Romans, “presenting your bodies a living sacrifice.”
That isn’t just what we do “in church.” It’s whatever we do to reflect and give back to God the blessing, glory, wisdom, good gifts, honor, and capable action that God is continually pouring out into the world and into our hearts.
That includes all the ways we turn towards God, wherever we are, all day long. For instance, tomorrow in the kitchen or in the CLC, when we are cooking or serving meals to people who are made in God’s image, in response to what God has asked us to do and with the abundance God has given us, we are joining that heavenly worship.
Or when we sit down and pray and listen for what God is leading us to decide about our resources and our needs and our priorities and what we are going to pledge to the church this year, we are joining that worship.
Whenever we use the gifts God has given us for the well-being of our neighbors; whenever we refrain from the unkindness the world around us encourages, like not talking about someone behind their back, or not posting that snarky comeback on facebook that we know would get 27 likes; whenever we share the best of ourselves with the world around us; all of that, and more, is joining that heavenly worship. It as real as our next breath, our next choice. We share that vision, we join that worship, whenever we choose to live in this world according to the way of Jesus Christ, the way of the God we know through Jesus Christ.
Let’s do that. Let us worship God.
For Corydon Presbyterian Church, Sunday, November 14, 2021 [online here]
Images: “Burning bush,” Amos Oliver Doyle, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “The Four-and-Twenty Elders,” William Blake, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons