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.