Friday, August 19, 2016

“The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Terror, and Hope” (Revelation Series #4) - August 21, 2016

Text: Revelation 6:1-8

Classes begin tomorrow at Iowa State, and later this week for the Ames and Gilbert school districts.  Around here, it has been joyful pandemonium as students have been moving in all week.  This morning we are glad to see students who are back as well as new students.  And other new faces.  Welcome, everybody!

So you show up for worship at this church in Ames and discover that they are deep into Revelation.  If I were attending a church for the first time, I have to be honest: that would probably scare me.

Just to be up front about it, we are not the kind of church that constantly goes on and on about end-time prophecy and when Jesus is going to return.  We actually might go a few years without mentioning the book of Revelation around here.  But John’s Apocalypse is a part of our Christian scriptures.  It is part of the Bible, and strange as it is, it is worth knowing what is in the book and perhaps reclaiming it as a scripture written for the church.  John wrote in a time of terror, a time of anxiety, a time of fear, a time of political uncertainty and social upheaval.  Does any of this sound familiar? 

One of the enduring images from Revelation is the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  They elicit fear and terror.  They signal danger.  There are many folks who are not particularly familiar with the Bible or who don’t make a habit of reading Revelation who nevertheless know about the Four Horsemen.

The famed sportswriter Grantland Rice penned the most famous lead in sportswriting history.  It was published in the New York Tribune on October 18, 1924:

Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.
They don’t write like that anymore, do they?  The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, the nickname Rice gave its starting backfield, inspired fear and foreboding – the Four Horsemen brought impending doom as they ran roughshod over opponents.

A couple of weeks ago, as we read in Revelation chapter 5, the Lamb – Jesus Christ - was found worthy to open the scroll.  In our text today, as the first four seals of the scroll are opened, horses and riders are revealed.

First there is a White Horse.  A conquering horse.  The key is that the rider has a bow.  On the front of the bulletin cover, you will see an image of a woodcut by Albrecht Durer, from the 15th century.  The first horseman is farthest away, holding a bow.  The fiercest fighters of the day were archers on horseback, and the Parthians were especially known for their mounted archers.  The Parthians – an empire centered in what is now northeast Iran - repeatedly drove back and defeated the Roman army, putting an end to its eastward expansion.  They were a reminder of the limits of the security Rome could provide.  Those Christians who participated in emperor worship or in sacrifices offered to Roman gods were compromising their convictions for powers that were limited and could not be relied upon.

The second horseman is on a Red Horse.  This horseman takes away peace and brings violence.  If the conquering horseman represents danger from without, this horsemen represents danger from within.  In Durer’s woodcut, he is closer to the reader, indicating that the danger from within may be greater than the danger from outside forces.  He unleashes hostilities so that bloodshed comes to the populace.  Rome tried to cultivate an appreciation for the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome.  This peace allowed for roads to be built and for food and commodities to be available.  But it came with a price.  Dissenting voices were silenced.  Many Christians suffered.  A lot of people accepted executions and widespread persecution as necessary to preserve the peace.  But such peace was not really peace, and the second rider warns that this peace will be taken away.

The third rider is on a black horse.  He carries scales and speaks of wheat and barley being sold for 10 or 20 times the usual amount.  It is a message of economic uncertainty, of famine and scarcity and inflation that come with war.  In Durer’s woodcut, this is the largest image, indicating that economic fears are perhaps the closest to us.  For a lot of people, this is what keeps them up at night.

And then the fourth rider is on a sickly, pale green horse.  This rider is Death.  This is where Johnny Cash ends his song.  Along with death is Hades.  If you look at the woodcut on the cover, Death is the nearest but the smallest horseman, and beside it is Hades.  You may not notice Hades at first.  It is in the very corner, a bizarre figure with a huge mouth – it appears that a king is in Hades’ open mouth.  Hades is pictured this way because the Old Testament personified Hades or Sheol – the place of the dead – as having a voracious appetite and opening its mouth wide to devour the powerful.  Death does its work through war, violence, famine, disease, plagues, and wild beasts. 

This is pretty brutal stuff.  Now, we need to remember that these are symbolic images.  The point is not that we are to be on the lookout for a rider on a White Horse with a bow galloping down Welch Avenue, and that when that happens we will know the end is near.  That wasn’t the point for John’s readers, either.  What these Four Horsemen represent is a kind of timeless truth.  There are always forces at work in our world that are threatening.  War, violence, crop failure, illness, economic distress – most people in most times and places have to at least deal with some of these.  Human institutions and material things will fail us, and in the end, we all have to face death.

Now, it is hard to know what to do with a passage such as this.  But given that what the Four Horsemen represent is a kind of timeless reality, we might redefine the Four Horsemen for today, perhaps for college students, like Grantland Rice did for college football way back when:

Outlined against a sun-filled August sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases.  Their real names are Organic Chemistry, Advanced Thermodynamics, Statistics, and Macroeconomics.
John paints a terrifying picture for his readers. And as we continue reading, it only gets worse.  Since we only have one more week in Revelation, I’ll try to briefly describe what happens up to the last chapter, which we will look at two weeks from today.

I read through the whole book of Revelation in one sitting.  I I would encourage you to give it a shot and then share your impression.  To me, chapters 6 through 20 read an extended hallucination, a bad acid trip - I have to be honest.  The images just keep getting weirder and more violent and more disconcerting.

In this book we have the Seven Seals.  The Four Horsemen are revealed with the first Four Seals.  Then there are Seven Trumpets.  More devastation is unleashed.  There is a Woman with a Child and a Dragon who threatens the Child.  There is a first Beast, with 7 heads and ten horns, and a second Beast, in cahoots with the first, who forces everyone to worship the first beast and marks everyone with the mark of the beast, the number 666.  The number 7 is perfect, so 666 represents imperfection.  Biblical scholar Bruce Metzger notes that in a system where Hebrew letters have numeric value, the letters of the name Nero Caesar adds up to 666.  Throughout history people have tried to identify a political opponent or the pope or some dangerous new idea as the Beast, but it is much more likely that the Beast is the Roman Emperor.

There are Seven Plagues and there are Seven Bowls of Wrath.  There is a Whore of Babylon, with Babylon again representing Rome.  There is wave after wave of judgment and bloodshed and terror.  

In the end, the army of the Beast assembles at a place called Armageddon and is defeated in a great battle by an army led by a rider on a White Horse.  The rider’s name is Faithful and True.  This is followed in chapter 20 by a thousand years in which Satan is bound and the martyrs of this time of terror will reign with Christ.

The part about the thousand years is not really a prominent part of the book of Revelation, but lots of people have taken those verses, added a few verses from 1 Thessalonians and from the book of Daniel and from Ezekiel and elsewhere and constructed an elaborate theology about when Christ will return and how it is all going to work.  There are those who argue that things will get progressively worse until Jesus returns and ushers in the thousand years – that is pre-millenialism.  You will sometimes find people who are gleeful at how terrible the world is – they can almost be giddy about it because it means Jesus is coming soon.  This is where all of that comes from.

Others believe that the world will get better and better, and there will be a thousand year golden age before Jesus returns.  Jesus returns after the millennium, so that is called post-millenialism.

My take on it is that like the other numbers in this book, the thousand years are not meant as a literal number.  They represent a large amount – a long time.  And then as I have said before, John was not writing so that people 2000 years later could come up with detailed schemes for Jesus’ return.  There is no mention in Revelation of an antichrist or a rapture or a tribulation or really even a well-defined return of Christ.  All of these ideas come from other places.

If you don’t believe the thousand years are literal, that is amillenialism.  Or John Anderson offered another choice: he said he was pan-millenial.  That means it will all pan out in the end - or it will all come out in the wash.

Well, after looking at the Four Horsemen, I have just skimmed the highlights of chapters 8-20, setting up the conclusion to Revelation in a couple of weeks. 

Most of the stuff we read in the Bible – most of the stuff we read, period – is linear.  Chronological.  And not just chronological, but just plain old logical.  This is not necessarily the case with Revelation.  The seven seals, the seven trumpets, the seven bowls of wrath, all of the trials and tribulations outlined in the book – this is not a coherent, linear, step 1-2-3 description.  It is more of a spiraling vision.  In a sense, John says the same things several times using various images.  To try to treat this as a logical, step-by-step narrative is to miss the point.

Now, I know there is a question hanging over all of this – it is a question that maybe everybody is asking, me included.  The question is, “What is the point?”  Where is God in all this, and what in the world does this have to do with us today?”

Well, I’m glad you asked.  John was writing to a fairly beleaguered group of believers.  They were facing hostility and oppression, and in some cases had to make a difficult choice of going along to get along in the culture, or living counter-culturally as followers of Jesus Christ.  To say Yes to Christ could mean saying No to Caesar, and to do that, the stakes could be high.  John himself had paid the price; he was living in exile on the island of Patmos.  Back in chapter 2, John was told to write to the church in Smyrna, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”  There is no difficult symbolism there; John is flat-out saying that some to whom he is writing will give their lives for their faith.

Believe it or not, this wild, crazy, weird, violent, sometimes bizarre letter written to seven churches in what is now western Turkey was intended to give hope in a very difficult time.  It told them that the powers that oppressed them were limited powers.  True power belonged to God, and God would have the ultimate victory.  It gave them hope of life beyond the difficult future many of them faced.   

Sprinkled throughout this book, we again and again have that assurance.  And one of the best examples comes shortly after the Four Horsemen, in Chapter 7:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands…
Then one of the Elders said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.  They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
We all face trials in life – perhaps nothing approaching what John’s first readers faced, but then again, life can be hard – for all of us.  And I mean even harder than Advanced Thermodynamics.  We can all face painful situations.  The promise for us is that even through the most desperate of times, God is there, and that in the end God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.  Amen.

“Worthy Is the Lamb: The Power of Sacrificial Love” (Revelation Series #3) - August 7, 2016

Text: Revelation 5:1-14

Like many of you, Susan and I watched the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics on Friday night.  This was not as easy as it should have been.  If any of you have Dish Network, you know what I’m talking about.  Dish and Tribune Media are in a prolonged dispute, and the bottom line is that if you have Dish, you can’t watch any Tribune-owned stations, including Channel 13 in Des Moines.  We basically haven’t watched NBC for a couple of months.  But for the Olympics, we got out the rabbit ears and tuned in.

Now, once you have watched TV with a DVR, it is really hard to go back to “regular” TV.  We are used to being able to pause when there is a phone call or some interruption.  And when you can’t quite catch what was said, it is nice to just rewind and listen again.  We thought we saw Harrison Barnes walking with Team USA, but couldn’t rewind to see if it was actually him.  (Fortunately, there was a good shot of Harrison a moment later.)

I bring this up not to gripe about Dish Network or to say “Woe is me, I have to watch over the air TV,” and I don’t share this to bring up our hometown Olympian.  Instead, I am thinking about the theatrical opening of the Olympic Games, which was a celebration of Brazil’s history and culture and musical heritage.  There were segments dealing with colonization and immigration and slavery and even global warming; there were all kinds of music, and you had Gisella Bundchen as the Girl from Impanema.  This was all accomplished through costumes and choreography and staging and a cool set and a really great projection system and wonderfully creative writing and directing.   Light and colors and images and shape and sound as well as human actors and dancers and musicians and performers all combined to tell the story of Brazil in a stylized and entertaining way.

I think that it can be helpful to think of the Book of Revelation as being something akin to the presentation at the Opening Ceremonies.  It is like a stage production, with characters and images and sight and sound.  It is stylized and visual and symbolic, and just to look at it, it is not always clear what is going on.  John is narrating the show, but he does not jump in and try to explain everything the way the Matt Lauer and Meredith Vierra did on NBC.  (And that may be a good thing). 

Our scripture today again is filled with colorful characters and strange images.  I talked to someone this week who had read this fifth chapter of Revelation, and their comment was, “That’s really weird.”  Well, I need to tell you: this is not the weird part.  This is the relatively normal, relatively mundane, fairly straightforward part.  When you get to the next chapter - that is where it really starts to get strange. 

If you can remember back a couple of weeks ago - I guess it was actually 3 Sundays ago now - we were in Revelation chapter 4.  It is a vision of worship in heaven.  There are four living creatures around the throne, representing all of creation, and 24 elders a bit farther from the throne.  In keeping with Hebrew sensibilities – the name of God is too holy to be spoken – John simply refers to the One on the throne.  And the logistics and choreography of it all is intended as a direct challenge to the worship of the emperor, who would hold court on a throne surrounded by advisors and subjects and favor-seekers who would offer applause and praise.

The vision John is given of heavenly worship is a reminder that the One we worship holds real power, true power, and is far greater than any power in this world.  Next to the God of all creation, Caesar and the power of empire are weak and puny.

From that scene – and again, thinking of Revelation as an extended stage production – from that scene, we continue to our scripture for today.  The One on the throne is holding a scroll that is sealed with seven seals.  An angel calls out, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break the seals?”  Apparently, no one is worthy.  No one in heaven or on earth is able to open the scroll and read what is written.  At this, John begins to weep bitterly, but one of the 24 elders says, “Hey, take it easy there.  Don’t worry.  The Lion of Judah, the Root of David has conquered and can open the scroll.”

The Lion of Judah and the Root of David hark back to the Old Testament.  Judah is one of the tribes of Israel, the tribe from which the kings came, like King David.  The Lion of Judah is a reference to Christ.  Jesus is found worthy to open the seal.

John looks again at the throne and sees the four living creatures and the elders and there among them is a lamb.  The description is very strange.  The lamb is standing as if it had been slaughtered.  Which makes no sense; if you have been slaughtered you are certainly not standing.  And the lamb has seven horns and seven eyes.  We have a stuffed animal lamb at home, but you wouldn’t want a stuffed animal looking like this.

We are told that the seven horns represent the seven spirits of God.  In the symbolism of numbers, seven is a perfect number.  The lamb is from God, of God, has God’s own spirit.  The seven eyes tells us that the lamb is all seeing.  From this point on, the Lamb will be the primary way that Christ is spoken of in Revelation.

Now, to expect a powerful lion but instead see a slain lamb is rather shocking.  And the vision seems pretty underwhelming.  This lamb is the great conqueror?

A number of years ago, the American Baptist Biennial was in Providence, Rhode Island.  We went to the biennial and took some vacation time after the convention – we went to Boston and Plymouth and Cape Cod.  At Plymouth, we went to see Plymouth Rock.  I mean, it’s what you do.  There is a park along the ocean, and a platform and a wall surrounding Plymouth Rock.  (They don’t want anybody chipping off a piece as a souvenir.)  You look down and see this rock, and it’s not that big.  Lots of people have bigger rocks sitting in their yards as decorative landscape stones.  The rock has 1620 chiseled into it – I assume that part wasn’t there when the Pilgrims landed.  I remember seeing this rock and thinking, “That’s it?  This is the famous Plymouth Rock?”  

Plymouth Rock is a tourist destination, and for many people it has a lot of meaning.  But it has meaning not because it is an impressive geological formation, but because of what it represents – the place where the Pilgrims first set foot in the New World. 

Sometimes less can be more.  John sees this Lamb, and at first it might seem like a letdown.  This is no Lion.  This is no mighty figure.  But the Lamb has power because of what it represents.

The Lion of Judah evokes a strong and powerful ruler.  The kings of Israel were lions of Judah.  John is told that the lion is worthy, but what he sees is a lamb.  What’s up with that? 

In a sense, the Lion is the Lamb.  Or the Lion has become a lamb.  The Lion has conquered, but not in the way that people expect, because the conquering hero is a lamb that has been slain.

When human beings conquer, they do so by inflicting death and suffering on opponents.  Roman armies had extended the borders of the empire through such conquest, capturing and subjugating people of many tribes, languages, and nations.  Captives most often became slaves, living at the lowest rung of society.  They were not even considered citizens.

Minus the slavery - at least minus the formal slavery - this is still the way it works, and we are unfortunately reminded of that nearly every day.  You conquer and you rule through force, with a powerful army and the coercive power of the state.  And if you don’t have an army, and don’t lead a nation, you can still go about this strategy of conquering through threat and domination and terror.

The Lamb, however, operates in an entirely different way.  The Lamb conquers through sacrifice, through faithfully enduring suffering, and the result of his victory is that those of every tribe, language and nation are not enslaved but made free.  They are brought into a new relationship with God and with one another.

The Lamb conquers not with the sword, not with military might, not with coercive force – but through the power of love – the power of self-giving, sacrificial love.

When John wrote to the seven churches, there was a battle going on.  His readers had to choose whether to worship and serve the Lamb – who conquered through the power of sacrificial love and brings life – or the beast, who shows up in a few chapters and who rules through the coercive power of death.

In the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games, the countries entered alphabetically in Portuguese, the language of the host nation.  I am thankful that they did.  The United States is Estados Unidos in Portuguese, so they entered with the E’s.  I was long asleep by the time the U’s rolled around.  Somehow I especially noticed the second country to enter – South Africa.  The South African team entered the stadium, and they were full of joy and excitement, some of them practically dancing their way into the stadium, like many of the teams.  What stood out to me was what a mix of humanity they were.  Black athletes from various tribal groups, white athletes of both Dutch and British descent, and I’m sure more, athletes of Indian ancestry and athletes of mixed racial heritage.

I remembered that it wasn’t that long ago that South Africa was banned from the Olympics because of its policy of apartheid, which separated the races and kept the white minority in power.

Nelson Mandela was a leader of the African National Congress, which fought against apartheid.  Mandela was arrested in the early 1960’s and sentenced to life in prison.  What he did in prison was amazing.  Despite facing what were often humiliating conditions, he chose to treat the guards with respect, with kindness.  He would ask about their families.  He genuinely cared about them.  While he had every right to be angry and bitter, he appeared to be at peace, even in hellish conditions.  The guards came to love and respect Mandela.  

Finally, he was released from prison in 1990.  The first free elections were held in 1994, and Mandela was elected president of South Africa.  But he did not use his office to exact revenge.  He knew that the only way forward as a nation would be as a united people.  He was gracious to the outgoing President F.W. deKlerk, who became vice-president.  He established a Justice and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the horrors of the country’s past but offered amnesty to all who would testify, allowing the country both to heal and to move forward.

He famously cheered for the hated all-white South African Rugby team, the Springboks.  Rugby itself was a symbol of racial division.  The Springboks were a symbol of white identity but for blacks, the team was a symbol of apartheid, a symbol of oppression.  Mandela received a great deal of criticism for his support of the team and was seen by many as selling out.  But he got to know the team and led them to serve as peace ambassadors to both white and black communities.  When the Springboks unexpectedly won the 1995 World Cup in Johannesburg, he wore a jersey with the name of the team captain on the back and personally awarded the trophy.  The thing was, the whole country was behind the team before that last game was played, and this played a big part in easing racial tensions and bringing national unity. 

Mandela’s personal bodyguard force was half black members of the African National Congress and half white officers from the South African police force.  His chief bodyguard was a white man who had thought of Mandela as a terrorist but came to love and respect him as the father of a new South Africa.

Nelson Mandela nearly did the impossible in bringing the nation together, and he did this despite constant threats both from racist whites and from blacks who felt he was too accommodating to the white minority.

Mandela is a case study in the power of sacrificial love over the power of coercive force and violence.  In the early 1990’s, civil war was a very real possibility.  And no one could have blamed Mandela for giving those who had propped up an evil and inhumane system what they deserved.  But revenge and payback would have destroyed the country.  Instead, Mandela chose forgiveness and love and personal sacrifice.  And that wonderfully diverse, joyful, enthusiastic South African Olympic team walked in to that stadium on Friday night because Nelson Mandela chose the path of love.

The Lamb conquered through love, through sacrifice.  Through laying down his life for others.  And because of this, heaven and earth join together in worship.  The elders offer bowls of incense, which are the prayers of the saints – of those on earth.  Worship on earth and worship in heaven are linked together.  And the scene reaches its highest point as John’s gaze goes beyond the four creatures and the 24 elders to see millions and millions of angels surrounding the throne, singing “Worthy is the Lamb.”

It is a song that we can join is singing when we worship together, offering praise to God and praise to the Lamb.  But it is also a song that we join in singing when we ourselves reject the power of coercive force, the power of violence and death, and embrace the power of sacrificial love.  It is a song we sing when we choose to live for others and not simply for ourselves.  Amen.

“Worthy Is the Lamb: The Power of Sacrificial Love” (Revelation Series #3) - August 7, 2016

Text: Revelation 5:1-14

Like many of you, Susan and I watched the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics on Friday night.  This was not as easy as it should have been.  If any of you have Dish Network, you know what I’m talking about.  Dish and Tribune Media are in a prolonged dispute, and the bottom line is that if you have Dish, you can’t watch any Tribune-owned stations, including Channel 13 in Des Moines.  We basically haven’t watched NBC for a couple of months.  But for the Olympics, we got out the rabbit ears and tuned in.

Now, once you have watched TV with a DVR, it is really hard to go back to “regular” TV.  We are used to being able to pause when there is a phone call or some interruption.  And when you can’t quite catch what was said, it is nice to just rewind and listen again.  We thought we saw Harrison Barnes walking with Team USA, but couldn’t rewind to see if it was actually him.  (Fortunately, there was a good shot of Harrison a moment later.)

I bring this up not to gripe about Dish Network or to say “Woe is me, I have to watch over the air TV,” and I don’t share this to bring up our hometown Olympian.  Instead, I am thinking about the theatrical opening of the Olympic Games, which was a celebration of Brazil’s history and culture and musical heritage.  There were segments dealing with colonization and immigration and slavery and even global warming; there were all kinds of music, and you had Gisella Bundchen as the Girl from Impanema.  This was all accomplished through costumes and choreography and staging and a cool set and a really great projection system and wonderfully creative writing and directing.   Light and colors and images and shape and sound as well as human actors and dancers and musicians and performers all combined to tell the story of Brazil in a stylized and entertaining way.

I think that it can be helpful to think of the Book of Revelation as being something akin to the presentation at the Opening Ceremonies.  It is like a stage production, with characters and images and sight and sound.  It is stylized and visual and symbolic, and just to look at it, it is not always clear what is going on.  John is narrating the show, but he does not jump in and try to explain everything the way the Matt Lauer and Meredith Vierra did on NBC.  (And that may be a good thing). 

Our scripture today again is filled with colorful characters and strange images.  I talked to someone this week who had read this fifth chapter of Revelation, and their comment was, “That’s really weird.”  Well, I need to tell you: this is not the weird part.  This is the relatively normal, relatively mundane, fairly straightforward part.  When you get to the next chapter - that is where it really starts to get strange. 

If you can remember back a couple of weeks ago - I guess it was actually 3 Sundays ago now - we were in Revelation chapter 4.  It is a vision of worship in heaven.  There are four living creatures around the throne, representing all of creation, and 24 elders a bit farther from the throne.  In keeping with Hebrew sensibilities – the name of God is too holy to be spoken – John simply refers to the One on the throne.  And the logistics and choreography of it all is intended as a direct challenge to the worship of the emperor, who would hold court on a throne surrounded by advisors and subjects and favor-seekers who would offer applause and praise.

The vision John is given of heavenly worship is a reminder that the One we worship holds real power, true power, and is far greater than any power in this world.  Next to the God of all creation, Caesar and the power of empire are weak and puny.

From that scene – and again, thinking of Revelation as an extended stage production – from that scene, we continue to our scripture for today.  The One on the throne is holding a scroll that is sealed with seven seals.  An angel calls out, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break the seals?”  Apparently, no one is worthy.  No one in heaven or on earth is able to open the scroll and read what is written.  At this, John begins to weep bitterly, but one of the 24 elders says, “Hey, take it easy there.  Don’t worry.  The Lion of Judah, the Root of David has conquered and can open the scroll.”

The Lion of Judah and the Root of David hark back to the Old Testament.  Judah is one of the tribes of Israel, the tribe from which the kings came, like King David.  The Lion of Judah is a reference to Christ.  Jesus is found worthy to open the seal.

John looks again at the throne and sees the four living creatures and the elders and there among them is a lamb.  The description is very strange.  The lamb is standing as if it had been slaughtered.  Which makes no sense; if you have been slaughtered you are certainly not standing.  And the lamb has seven horns and seven eyes.  We have a stuffed animal lamb at home, but you wouldn’t want a stuffed animal looking like this.

We are told that the seven horns represent the seven spirits of God.  In the symbolism of numbers, seven is a perfect number.  The lamb is from God, of God, has God’s own spirit.  The seven eyes tells us that the lamb is all seeing.  From this point on, the Lamb will be the primary way that Christ is spoken of in Revelation.

Now, to expect a powerful lion but instead see a slain lamb is rather shocking.  And the vision seems pretty underwhelming.  This lamb is the great conqueror?

A number of years ago, the American Baptist Biennial was in Providence, Rhode Island.  We went to the biennial and took some vacation time after the convention – we went to Boston and Plymouth and Cape Cod.  At Plymouth, we went to see Plymouth Rock.  I mean, it’s what you do.  There is a park along the ocean, and a platform and a wall surrounding Plymouth Rock.  (They don’t want anybody chipping off a piece as a souvenir.)  You look down and see this rock, and it’s not that big.  Lots of people have bigger rocks sitting in their yards as decorative landscape stones.  The rock has 1620 chiseled into it – I assume that part wasn’t there when the Pilgrims landed.  I remember seeing this rock and thinking, “That’s it?  This is the famous Plymouth Rock?”  

Plymouth Rock is a tourist destination, and for many people it has a lot of meaning.  But it has meaning not because it is an impressive geological formation, but because of what it represents – the place where the Pilgrims first set foot in the New World. 

Sometimes less can be more.  John sees this Lamb, and at first it might seem like a letdown.  This is no Lion.  This is no mighty figure.  But the Lamb has power because of what it represents.

The Lion of Judah evokes a strong and powerful ruler.  The kings of Israel were lions of Judah.  John is told that the lion is worthy, but what he sees is a lamb.  What’s up with that? 

In a sense, the Lion is the Lamb.  Or the Lion has become a lamb.  The Lion has conquered, but not in the way that people expect, because the conquering hero is a lamb that has been slain.

When human beings conquer, they do so by inflicting death and suffering on opponents.  Roman armies had extended the borders of the empire through such conquest, capturing and subjugating people of many tribes, languages, and nations.  Captives most often became slaves, living at the lowest rung of society.  They were not even considered citizens.

Minus the slavery - at least minus the formal slavery - this is still the way it works, and we are unfortunately reminded of that nearly every day.  You conquer and you rule through force, with a powerful army and the coercive power of the state.  And if you don’t have an army, and don’t lead a nation, you can still go about this strategy of conquering through threat and domination and terror.

The Lamb, however, operates in an entirely different way.  The Lamb conquers through sacrifice, through faithfully enduring suffering, and the result of his victory is that those of every tribe, language and nation are not enslaved but made free.  They are brought into a new relationship with God and with one another.

The Lamb conquers not with the sword, not with military might, not with coercive force – but through the power of love – the power of self-giving, sacrificial love.

When John wrote to the seven churches, there was a battle going on.  His readers had to choose whether to worship and serve the Lamb – who conquered through the power of sacrificial love and brings life – or the beast, who shows up in a few chapters and who rules through the coercive power of death.

In the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games, the countries entered alphabetically in Portuguese, the language of the host nation.  I am thankful that they did.  The United States is Estados Unidos in Portuguese, so they entered with the E’s.  I was long asleep by the time the U’s rolled around.  Somehow I especially noticed the second country to enter – South Africa.  The South African team entered the stadium, and they were full of joy and excitement, some of them practically dancing their way into the stadium, like many of the teams.  What stood out to me was what a mix of humanity they were.  Black athletes from various tribal groups, white athletes of both Dutch and British descent, and I’m sure more, athletes of Indian ancestry and athletes of mixed racial heritage.

I remembered that it wasn’t that long ago that South Africa was banned from the Olympics because of its policy of apartheid, which separated the races and kept the white minority in power.

Nelson Mandela was a leader of the African National Congress, which fought against apartheid.  Mandela was arrested in the early 1960’s and sentenced to life in prison.  What he did in prison was amazing.  Despite facing what were often humiliating conditions, he chose to treat the guards with respect, with kindness.  He would ask about their families.  He genuinely cared about them.  While he had every right to be angry and bitter, he appeared to be at peace, even in hellish conditions.  The guards came to love and respect Mandela.  

Finally, he was released from prison in 1990.  The first free elections were held in 1994, and Mandela was elected president of South Africa.  But he did not use his office to exact revenge.  He knew that the only way forward as a nation would be as a united people.  He was gracious to the outgoing President F.W. deKlerk, who became vice-president.  He established a Justice and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the horrors of the country’s past but offered amnesty to all who would testify, allowing the country both to heal and to move forward.

He famously cheered for the hated all-white South African Rugby team, the Springboks.  Rugby itself was a symbol of racial division.  The Springboks were a symbol of white identity but for blacks, the team was a symbol of apartheid, a symbol of oppression.  Mandela received a great deal of criticism for his support of the team and was seen by many as selling out.  But he got to know the team and led them to serve as peace ambassadors to both white and black communities.  When the Springboks unexpectedly won the 1995 World Cup in Johannesburg, he wore a jersey with the name of the team captain on the back and personally awarded the trophy.  The thing was, the whole country was behind the team before that last game was played, and this played a big part in easing racial tensions and bringing national unity. 

Mandela’s personal bodyguard force was half black members of the African National Congress and half white officers from the South African police force.  His chief bodyguard was a white man who had thought of Mandela as a terrorist but came to love and respect him as the father of a new South Africa.

Nelson Mandela nearly did the impossible in bringing the nation together, and he did this despite constant threats both from racist whites and from blacks who felt he was too accommodating to the white minority.

Mandela is a case study in the power of sacrificial love over the power of coercive force and violence.  In the early 1990’s, civil war was a very real possibility.  And no one could have blamed Mandela for giving those who had propped up an evil and inhumane system what they deserved.  But revenge and payback would have destroyed the country.  Instead, Mandela chose forgiveness and love and personal sacrifice.  And that wonderfully diverse, joyful, enthusiastic South African Olympic team walked in to that stadium on Friday night because Nelson Mandela chose the path of love.

The Lamb conquered through love, through sacrifice.  Through laying down his life for others.  And because of this, heaven and earth join together in worship.  The elders offer bowls of incense, which are the prayers of the saints – of those on earth.  Worship on earth and worship in heaven are linked together.  And the scene reaches its highest point as John’s gaze goes beyond the four creatures and the 24 elders to see millions and millions of angels surrounding the throne, singing “Worthy is the Lamb.”

It is a song that we can join is singing when we worship together, offering praise to God and praise to the Lamb.  But it is also a song that we join in singing when we ourselves reject the power of coercive force, the power of violence and death, and embrace the power of sacrificial love.  It is a song we sing when we choose to live for others and not simply for ourselves.  Amen.