Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Resisting Trump with Revelation (11)



Five Hymns (1)


The Gathering portion of our Resistical Worship service comes to a close with some hymns – five of them in fact. We’ve looked at the Call to Worship and John’s introduction of himself as Jesus’ interpreter and Jesus as the guest preacher for the morning. Jesus then offered his own messages to each of the seven churches in his congregation. Now it’s time to sing!

With these hymns John (and we with him) find ourselves caught up into the very throne room of God to join in the celestial worship going on there. So far we have learned that John’s vision (revelation) unveils the truth of the Sovereign lordship of God and of Jesus Christ his Son over all earthly authorities and powers no matter their pretentions.

We sing in worship today, though many us not very enthusiastically. I recently heard congregational singing described like this. Mennonites and Baptists, the speaker explained had good congregational singing. Methodists and Presbyterians mumbled their songs so low you couldn’t understand them. And Episcopalians paid people to sing their hymns! I think it was St. Augustine who claimed that to sing was to pray twice. Singing, despite its present low estate in many churches, is crucial to our experience and expression of our faith and our resistance to Trump. Our hypothetical worship service is well served here by four hymns in the place in worship we usually sing.

John reminds us again that he is “in the Spirit” (v.2; see 1:9). Even if he is referring to a special visionary experience it remains the case that it is the Spirit in and through whom we worship.

The striking scene John sees would daunt the greatest of special effects producers to effect. Some elements reflect Israel’s temple (“seven flaming torches [the Menorah]; “a sea glass, like crystal”; vv.5-6). Another takes us back to the flood story with the “rainbow” around the throne (v.3) suggesting the disposition of God is redemptive and healing, not angry and punitive.

Twenty-four thrones on which sit the twenty-four elders surround the throne (probably suggesting the totality of God’s people, the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles.  On each side of the throne are four living creatures – one lion-like, one ox-like, one human-like, and one eagle-like. With eyes all over they ceaselessly sing God’s praise (vv.7-8). “It is likely,” Paul Spilsbury writes, “the four living creatures . . . represent the whole created cosmos of heaven and earth. Their role is to spend their whole lives worshiping God.”[1] 

All of creation, all of God’s people, doing what they are created to do – praise God. What is to be done on earth is already being done in heaven (Matthew 6:10). And we get to participate in that worship “in the Spirit”!

The First Hymn (4:8): God’s Holiness

The four living creatures, all of creation, testifies to God’s holiness. Holiness if primarily about godness, the unique, and uniquely sovereign God. Not the Emperor. Not some King or Queen. No cosmic power or force. None of them have godness, or holiness. None of them have supreme authority. None of them deserve our unconditional or absolute obedience.  None of them are holy.

But the Bible’s God is – thrice holy! That’s the message of this first hymn. You might look at or listen to the great hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty” to get a feel for the hymn’s claim here.

The Second Hymn (4:11): God’s Worthiness

The twenty-four elders join the living creatures in extolling God’s worthiness. God, the eternal one (“who lives forever and ever,” 4:10) is the Creator. As the source and goal of all things he has made, God is unique and in that uniqueness is intrinsically worthy of all praise and honor. The Creator of all is worthy of all praise!

The Third Hymn (5:9): The Worthiness of the Lamb

In ch.5 we enter what many consider the most important chapter in Revelation and, indeed, in the whole New Testament. The praise of the hymns here is elicited by the drama depicted. They witness to the central reality of the biblical story. The drama begins with God on his throne, a scroll resting in right hand (symbol of power in the Bible), sealed with “seven[2] seals” (v.1). A most desirable item to take a gander at.

Yet no one anywhere in creation is found worthy to open the scroll (v.4)! Only someone worthy as God is worthy can do it. But where is such a one? “Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals’” (v.5).

John turns eager to glimpse these regal being who is so worthy. But what he sees does not seem to match the description he hears. “Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (v.6). In this one verse, as Grimsrud puts it, John “creates a theological revolution that leads to a transformation in how theo-politics is to be understood – and actually reorients the way we understand the vision of the one on the throne in chapter four.”[3] In other words, this is “the” game-changer in the New Testament!

The Lion of Judah as a slaughtered Lamb. The One seated on the throne (ch.4) as a slaughtered Lamb. Yes, that’s what John sees and what his vision means. This changes everything! No longer do we seek to discover how godlike Jesus is. Rather, astonishingly, we are confronted with the reality of how Jesus-like God is. The New Testament, and John here in Revelation, tells us that we do not know who or what God is until we have looked in the face of Jesus Messiah and his work on our behalf. His life led to his death. The unthinkable – God in and as this man Jesus died (gasp!) for us (gasp again!). A Declaration of Faith captures something of the scandalous wonder Text Box: We believe that in the death of Jesus on the cross                                                                                         God achieved and demonstrated once for all                                             the costly forgiveness of our sins.                                                                     Jesus Christ is the Reconciler between God and the world.                  He acted on behalf of sinners as one of us,                                          fulfilling the obedience God demands of us,                                      accepting God's condemnation of our sinfulness.                                               In his lonely agony on the cross                                                                                    Jesus felt forsaken by God                                                                                                 and thus experienced hell itself for us.                                                             Yet the Son was never more in accord with the Father’s will.     He was acting on behalf of God,                                                             manifesting the Father's love that takes on itself                                         the loneliness, pain, and death                                                                                that result from our waywardness.                                                                   In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself,                                           not holding our sins against us.                                                                       Each of us beholds on the cross                                                                       the Savior who died in our place, so that we may no longer live for ourselves,                                                                                                                          but for him.                                                                                                                               In him is our only hope of salvation.and mystery at work here[4]:































This One, this slaughtered yet living Lamb takes the scroll and opens it up. He is worthy, because of his life of self-giving, sacrificial love to unfold the consummation of God’s plan for creation. He is worthy because, as God in action, he has demonstrated this love as the power that makes the world go around. The power that envisioned, created, sustains, and will bring to final fruition everything God wants.

Therefore the living creatures and the twenty-four elders, all creation, acclaim the worthiness of the Lamb.

“You are worthy to take the scroll
   
  and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
    saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
                                                  You made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
    and they will reign on earth.”

He is worthy precisely because of his redeeming death which reclaimed and restored God’s creation dream!

“Many angels” add their voices in acclamation of the worthiness of the Lamb in the fourth hymn (v.12).

And, finally, “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea” bring us full circle in acclaiming both the One on the throne and the Lamb (v.13):

“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might
forever and ever!”

Here the notions of power and sacrifice (throne and Lamb) are brought together in a full, final, and eternal way. The living creatures add an “Amen” and the twenty-four elders bow down in worship. As do we.

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 These hymns add to and deepen our worship and acclamation of the world’s true and rightful Emperor. All the tokens of Rome’s imperial pretentions that saturate the world these churches live and work in are cut down to size here. The church is in the most desperate need of this kind of ballast to its theological convictions. Rome/empire constructs what is called a “plausibility structure” to catechize and reinforce its way of seeing the world. John’s vision in Revelation debunks this imperial worldview by borrowing many of its symbols and ideas and reworking them around what the God made known in Jesus Christ has revealed and done to make known and incarnate God’s true designs for human life and creation’s flourishing.

Singing is one of the best ways to construct a new plausibility structure calibrated to God’s gospel rather than Rome’s or Trump’s. Remember, if you are old enough, how vital the songs and music of Dylan, Seeger, Joni Mitchell, Negro spirituals, and the like were to the 60’s upheavals. Or how, more recently, how Pussy Riot galvanized and focused dissent in Russia. Revelation’s hymns function the same way, those in chs. 4 and 5 and those elsewhere in the vision, to consolidate and extend our resistance to the empire-building of Donald Trump!



[1] Spilsbury, The Throne, 58.
[2] Here’s that number “seven” again, completeness. The scroll contains the fulfilment of God’s plans and purposes. That it is written down and sealed suggests its certainty and finality.
[3] https://peacetheology.net/2014/03/30/revelation-notes-chapter-4/.
[4] A Declaration of Faith (PCUSA), ch.4, par.4 at https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/theologyandworship/pdfs/decoffaith.pdf.

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