We had a fantastic week of Music Camp. We had 42 campers from at least 15 different schools from Ames and all around the area – Boone, Roland-Story, Nevada, Gilbert, Marshalltown, Des Moines and more, not to mention campers and counselors from Minnesota, Nebraska, and Indiana. We had great guest musicians including the Parkinson’s Disease singing group that Elizabeth works with. It was wonderful to see the campers interact with members of the group. The campers not only sang along with them but asked some very good questions. Other activities included painting a piano that will become a public piano that will go on either Main Street or Welch Avenue here in Campustown. We had our usual fabulous Campers Talent Show, and then some of you were able to come to the closing program on Friday where our campers presented the musical they learned through the week – we heard some of the music from that musical a few minutes ago.
It was a wonderful week, but it was a very busy and very full week, and with a funeral and various and sundry near-emergencies and other matters popping up, time was at a premium. Last week we started a series from the Book of Revelation, but when I looked at our text today, from Revelation chapter 4, I admit that it did cross my mind that maybe we could just make it a one week series on of Revelation and call it good, and go on to something else this morning. But that would be the easy way out.
As I read our passage for today, dramatic and rather strange as it may be, one thing in particular stood out. We get a lot of our hymns and worship music and other worship material from the Book of Revelation, and a good deal of it comes from this chapter.
“Holy, Holy, Holy.” It was hymn number 1 in the hymnal I grew up on, and it was sung a lot. There was a time when it had to be among the top 2 or 3 most commonly sung hymns in America. There is a reason it was number 1 in that hymnal we had at my home church. The words come largely from Revelation 4. “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.” And “All the saints adore thee – casting down their golden crowns beside the glassy sea.” If that part about casting down crowns along the glassy sea ever struck you as odd, well, this is where it comes from. The imagery is straight from our reading today.
Chapter 4 of Revelation is a vision of worship that goes on in heaven. And it is interesting the way it begins. Last week, we had an introduction of sorts to the book of Revelation and to John’s letters to the seven churches. We looked particularly at his letter to Ephesus, a church that had lost its passion, had lost the love it once had. John continues with letters to six other churches, in one way or another calling for faithfulness from these churches, whether it is Smyrna - encouraged to be faithful in the face of persecution and even martyrdom; Thyatira, which tolerated a false prophet; to Sardis, which seemed to be more dead than alive; to Philadelphia, a church with little power but great faith; and to Laodicea, which was neither hot nor cold but lukewarm – it made God want to spit them out. Pretty striking imagery. And toward the end of the letter to Laodicea there are those frequently quoted words: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in.” That is used as an evangelistic kind of verse. We just need to open the door for Christ.
But while the Laodiceans are told that Christ is knocking and asked to open the door, just a few verses later, in chapter 4, we don’t have to open the door; a door to heaven has been flung wide open. John sees through this open door to heaven and we can see with him a scene of heavenly worship.
How is John to convey this vision? The limits of human language make it impossible to convey the infinite realities that John is privileged to see, so he uses earthly analogies with the understanding that the glory that he sees far surpasses the earthly symbols that he uses.
Biblical scholar Bruce Metzger wrote about the symbolic meaning of this passage. In accordance with Jewish sensibilities, John avoids descriptive detail of God and in fact does not even mention the name of God – God’s name is too holy to be mentioned casually - but John speaks of One seated on the throne who appeared like jasper and carmelian, surrounded by a rainbow that looked like an emerald. John perhaps has in mind a translucent form of jasper that was clear as crystal and when polished sparkles and flashes. This is John’s way of describing what other writers refer to as the holiness and glory of God. Carmelian is a semi-precious dark red stone; when you hold it in your hand it can appear that a fire is smoldering within the stone. This may refer to God’s burning judgment against sin.
The rainbow reminds us of God’s covenant with Noah after the flood – a reference to God’s mercy. And of course John knows that a rainbow is made of all the colors of the spectrum, but says that it is like emerald – green - like a meadow, like a forest, a soothing color. Altogether, John may be saying that after being exposed to the brilliance of God’s holiness and the heat of God’s wrath against sin, he was comforted by the overarching reality of God’s love and mercy. And then, around the throne is lightning and thunder and flaming torches. The power of God is obvious.
The point of all this, says Metzger, is that John is using poetic language to describe the nature of God in a way that is altogether in keeping with what we read of God elsewhere in the scriptures – a God of glory and holiness, a God of power and majesty who stands in judgment of sin and is yet merciful toward humanity. (Breaking the Code, 48-50).
Around the throne are four living creatures – one like a lion, one like an ox, one like a human being, and one like an eagle. These might represent what is noblest, strongest, wisest, and swiftest in creation. Or, this might represent wild animals, domestic animals, human beings, and birds – together, all of creation, and it is notable that the human does not have preeminence over the others.
Later, the Church was to associate these creatures with the four gospels – the man with Matthew, the lion with Mark, the ox with Luke, and the eagle with John. These were fanciful designations, but they are commonly seen in sacred art.
Then moving outward, as the scene unfolds, there are 24 elders surrounding the throne. It is unclear what or whom the elders represent; some suggest the 12 tribes of Israel along with the 12 apostles. Maybe more important that who they are is what they are doing. They take off their crowns and cast them into the crystal sea in front of the throne. There is no mistaking the fact that glory belongs to the one seated on the throne, not to the elders themselves. The scene in its entirety is one of adoration and worship. The four creatures sing “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” And then the elders continue with, “Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you have created all things.”
It is a scene of endless heavenly worship described poetically. This is only one vision of heaven, and it is a broad and sweeping vision, a magnificent vision, but I have to admit that in the end, it is not all that appealing to me as an activity. Not that I don’t want to go to heaven, don’t get me wrong, but singing the same thing over and over for all eternity doesn’t do that much for me. I mean, we switch our offering response every couple of months, and we only sing that just once a week. And a lot of songs just don’t have legs – don’t have staying power. “Pass It On” was cool when I was in high school; now it’s kind of a cliché. Our black hymnal, which was actually published as a supplement to the Methodist hymnal, containing newer music, is already dated as far as new music goes. They have already published another supplement with a good bit of even more recent music. And for a lot of churches, having any kind of hymnal is a relic of a bygone era. It’s like doing the Macarena – it had its time and now it’s gone.
I am not trying to be irreverent here; the point is that latching on to a vision of heaven from Revelation and taking it literally as the future that awaits us in not that helpful and not what this vision was intended to do in the first place. This is not a sneak preview of coming attractions. For John and for those to whom he wrote, particularly those seven churches, this is a vision of the reality of the universe, a reality greater than what they might see playing out in their communities and within the Roman Empire. In as grand and glorious a way as human language might describe, the vision that John sets before us says that ultimate power on earth and throughout the cosmos belongs to God, the Creator of all that is, and that God alone is worthy of our worship.
Now, what 21st century readers such as ourselves might not realize is that the vision that is described here held up an unmistakable contrast to the power of Rome.
Craig Koester described the situation in the Roman Empire at the time that John wrote:
Public appearances of the emperor often featured him sitting on a throne and accompanied by a crowd of friends, advisors, and attendants. When the emperor traveled, communities would send representatives, sometimes dressed in white, to greet him and present him with golden crowns to show their recognition of his sovereignty. Those who approached the throne would prostrate themselves, sometimes even bowing before the throne when the emperor was absent.Koester went on to say that admirers of the emperor could keep up a thunder of applause day and night, and did so not so much out of coercion but in the hope of winning favors from the emperor and advancing their social position.
Toward the end of the first century, the emperor Domitian apparently demanded that people address him as “Lord and God,” but such blatant compulsion seemed to be the exception. Emperors preferred to cultivate the impression that people sang their praises because their virtues were universally recognized and made them worthy of such honors. (Revelation and the End of All Things, 75.)
John gives his readers a vision of the heavenly throne room that makes such worship of the emperor seem feeble and pathetic by comparison. The power of Caesar was no match for the ultimate power and authority of God.
Knowing this, we understand that this vision of the heavenly court is meant not as a preview of the afterlife but as a vision to give hope and meaning in the here and now. We live in a world in which there are sources of power that can look pretty overwhelming – political power, corporate power, military might. We see the power of unbridled wealth, the power of the privileged and well-connected to dominate the poor and marginalized. We see time and again the power of even very small groups to terrorize large numbers of people. We see the power of fear used as a tool to control people. And in many ways, we see how the hardships and setbacks and frailties of life can bring us all to our knees.
All of this would have been painfully familiar to John’s readers. And so this soaring vision of the heavenly throne room, where real power, ultimate power, belongs not to Caesar but to God served as a vision of hope and strength for believers.
In a sense, this is what worship is about. In worship, we remember who we are and who God is. We remember our place in the world and we remember and celebrate the power and love and grace and mercy of God, which is stronger than any power in this world. When you think of it in this way, worship can be a countercultural activity. The purpose of worship is simply to offer praise to God, but it is nevertheless something that profoundly affects our lives right here and now.
Many of us were here on Friday for Russ Watson’s memorial service. Russ had been a faithful and much-appreciated member of our choir, and the choir sang at the service. We sang “River in Judea,” a beautiful anthem and a choir favorite, and the music just soared. Afterwards, many people commented on how much they appreciated the music, and one family member said, “It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.” Now, the choir is not going to win a Grammy for it; it was far from perfect from a technical and musical standpoint, even if it was pretty good. But those comments say something about the power of worship and the way that praise offered to God – praise offered by the four living creatures, praise offered by the 24 elders, or praise that we offer - not only expresses our love and commitment to our Creator, but can make a difference in our lives, right now.
A few minutes ago we sang along with the four living creatures, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” We are going to continue now in worship as we sing along with the elders, “Thou art worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things.” The hymn is “Thou Art Worthy."