April 29, 2019
The Easter 3C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 21:1-19 from the Lectionary Gospel; Acts 9:1-6 (7-20) from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 30 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Revelation 5:11-14 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 54 (Lord’s Day 21)
Author: Scott Hoezee
In a recent interview with Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, Union Seminary President Serene Jones makes it plain that she does not believe Jesus physically rose again from the dead. She claimed this in part because “the gospels are all over the place” about the resurrection and she cited the fact that Mark rings down the curtain on his Gospel presenting only an empty tomb but before a single human being had as yet shared the news of any so-called resurrection. Well, it is true Mark ends in confused if not frightened silence but that hardly means the gospels just generally end the story there or that Mark failed to notice a miracle had taken place.
Luke gives us a memorable post-resurrection story on the Road to Emmaus that happened yet that first Easter day (and Jesus definitely seems alive and well in that story) but then Luke rather swiftly fast-forwards to an exceedingly brief account of the ascension 40 days later.
Matthew gives us just a handful of verses but you don’t really notice how little Matthew gives following the resurrection on account of his presenting the soaring words we now call “The Great Commission.” Still, that’s all Matthew has post-Easter.
Not to put too fine a point on it but the Synoptic Gospels are mighty thin on saying anything about Jesus once he showed up as a living presence again after Easter. I have always found that dearth of post-Easter narrative striking. Of course we ultimately have the Book of Acts to fill in a ton of blanks for us but still . . . the Gospels mostly end a little too soon in some ways. (Still, contra Dr. Jones, I think the living presence of a resurrected Jesus who could be touched and ingest fish is pretty clear actually.)
Then again, the only thing that strikes me even more than the absence of post-Easter stories in the Synoptics is the presence of what John does include. After all, in terms of reporting words or events that took place after that first Easter Sunday, Matthew contains 5 verses, Mark contains 0 verses, and Luke contains 4 verses (the Emmaus story was still on Easter itself). John contains 33 verses, including one brief story that happened one week after the resurrection (“Doubting” Thomas’s encounter with Jesus) and then an entire chapter of something that happened at an unspecified post-Easter time (but that happened presumably some weeks later into the 40 days between Easter and the Ascension).
John wins hands down in terms of the post-Easter Jesus. And yet look at what he gives us: Jesus tending a campfire on a beach!
Look, Jesus didn’t have to shake up the whole world and all its powers and authorities within the first 12-18 hours of his returning to life but all these weeks later the last place I’d expect to find the resurrected Lord of lords and King of kings hanging around is an isolated stretch of beach and the last thing I’d expect to find him doing in that remote place is frying fish and cooking biscuits.
Is this what life in this world looks like after Easter?! Is this how the resurrected Son of God behaves across 40 days while physically still on this earth?
You see, if we as preachers or if the members of the congregation as listeners to a sermon on John 21 isolate this text—make it one pearl on a long string of biblical narrative pearls nestled right next to the Sermon on the Mount, Joseph’s coat of many colors, and Elijah’s chariot of fire—then it becomes just another in a long series of nice, cozy Bible stories. But I suspect this story will never disclose its deepest meaning to us until or unless we allow its oddities to shine forth.
Hence we can ask: why are Jesus’ post-Easter words in some ways less startling than what came long before anyone thought to end his life by impaling him on a cross? Here we get no more parables, no more sermons (on a mount or anywhere else), no more walking on water or opening a blind person’s eyes. Instead across the first dozen or more verses of this story Jesus says just some very basic things:
“Come and have breakfast.”
Nothing earth-shattering there.
What is Jesus doing here? Why isn’t he in Rome lecturing the Caesar? Why isn’t he in Jerusalem telling old Herod and Pilate the truth of what had happened to him as a result of their execution orders? Why wasn’t Jesus anywhere else but that beach, maybe curing cancer, healing the blind, releasing some prisoners, making some crooked ways straight?
Even the spectacular catch of fish pales in comparison to stuff he had done before. Ever think of that? Consider: Earlier in John—as in all the gospels—Jesus took a couple of fish and a piece or two of bread and managed to do the eye-popping miracle of feeding 5,000 or so folks out of that meager fare. That was impressive!
But now in John 21 Jesus goes to the opposite extreme: he feeds 7 people from a catch of 153 fish. Not much of a miracle to that feeding!! Leftovers were a given this time. Why were the miracles before Easter so much more interesting than the ones after?
It’s really no wonder that scholars have for centuries sought ways to spice up this little story by looking for symbolism and hidden meanings behind every little detail. Depending on whose commentary you read, everything may be freighted with secret meanings: the boat, the net, the water, and most tantalizingly of all for those on the hunt for secret meanings: the 153 fish. (My favorite on that one comes from no less than Augustine. According to Dale Bruner, Augustine thought this was a symbolic number arrived at my remembering that there are 10 commandments and 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit. 10+7=17 and if you add the integers from 1 to 17 (1+2+3+4 . . .) you arrive at precisely 153. So there you have it: 153 fish = a symbol of both Law and Gospel! Nice try, Augustine.)
No, no, no. Attempts to complexify this story end up ruining the story. We are so desperate to imbue the resurrected Jesus with cosmic meaning that we do not remain content to let him show up in so ordinary a circumstance and performing so common a set of tasks. But when we think about it—and when we ponder how to preach this story two Sundays after Easter in the Year C Lectionary cycle—we probably need to see Jesus in exactly the everyday set of circumstances that John depicts.
Because isn’t that where we need to encounter the Savior, too? We don’t need only a stained-glass Jesus who is other-worldly and who speaks words only meant for the holiest and most obviously sacred of events and occasions. We need a Jesus in the kitchen, “amid the pots and pans” as Theresa of Avila put it. We need a Jesus on the beach and at the office, in the car with us and while shopping at the mall. We need a Savior who accompanies us on our everyday journeys, who sees us in those ordinary circumstances, and who speaks into those times and places, too.
So go ahead and heap lots of layered meanings and Dan Brown “Da Vinci Code”-like hidden symbols onto John 21 if you like. But I’m quite content with the Jesus on the beach, tending a fire, sizzling some perch, and saying to his friends, “Have some breakfast.”
By the way: Some may read the first part of this sermon starter and so will want to assert that if that little breakfast on the beach seemed a little on the trite side as post-Easter narratives go, at least things get more serious once the restoration of Peter takes place.
And true enough, Jesus’ extending his forgiving grace to the disciple who had so fiercely denied Jesus so as to save his own skin is a vital part of this story. But I’d argue that it, too, is part of the larger commonplace nature of this narrative—even Peter’s restoration emerges not from an incredibly spectacular context but, as it were, around the breakfast table.
I suppose those are the kinds of everyday settings where some of our best Gospel work of being gracious and forgiving need to happen, too. In fact, although some folks like Serene Jones thinks it’s enough for the love of Jesus to have been resurrected in people’s hearts or some such, John makes it clear that Jesus was really alive again and if the power of his love did go forward in people like Peter tending all those lambs and feeding all those sheep, it was only because one ordinary day in Palestine they encountered the once-more-living Jesus in ways that changed them and then, through them, changed the whole world.
They did not merely remember Jesus’ love and decide to keep it alive. They met Jesus. Alive. And that changed everything.
Scholars (many of them at least) assure us there’s nothing there. Twice Jesus asks Peter “Do you agape me?” and twice Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know I phile you.” Finally on Round 3 Jesus picks up Peter’s word of choice to inquire “Peter, do you phile me?” and we’re told that Peter was sad because on the third time Jesus asked “Do you phile me” but nevertheless Peter does reply a third time, affirming that yes, he does have phile for Jesus. Semantic fields of meaning, lexical studies of various kinds, and historical inquiries into other writings at the time goad scholars into telling us that agape and phile were sufficiently close to being synonyms at the time that we cannot make too much out of the alternation in this conversation.
And anyway, who knows what the original Aramaic of the conversation was. Maybe. But I still think John was too careful of a writer to not know full well the words he was wielding in his report of this conversation. The import of this exchange does not change a lot whether you make a big deal out of those words or not. But if Peter’s phile was his own admission that he was loving Jesus as best he could—even if it did not rise to the sacrificial and hyper-confident level of a word like agape—how comforting to see Jesus accept Peter as he is, warts and foibles and feet-of-clay and all, but still love him and forgive him and restore him.
The ordinary nature of this scene reminds you of so many other scenes in the Bible and of so many other times when people bumped into God in the least likely of places. Jacob is in a bad place and has to use a stone for a pillow but wakes up to discover that he had bedded down in Bethel, the very “house of God.” Moses is tending his sheep on a mountainside when a bush bursts into flame and the next thing he knew, he was standing barefoot in the presence of the great “I Am.” The spies dispatched by Joshua to scout out Jericho make visiting a brothel the first thing they do in Jericho and though they didn’t exactly go there looking for God, they end up hearing an inspired sermon delivered to them by no less likely a candidate to preach a sermon than the establishment’s chief madam, Rahab. The travelers on that first Easter Sunday left Jerusalem quite literally “to get away from it all” and to escape the sadness they had come to associate with the big city. They end up at Emmaus only to discover Jesus after all.
And in John 21, the disciples are on a beach. Even having seen the resurrected Jesus twice already, they seem at loose ends. They seem bored and restless, uncertain what to do. They go fishing for lack of a better idea and only after they get skunked despite an entire night of trolling the waters for their prey do they suddenly find Jesus.
On the beach.
Of all places.
It happens again and again in the Bible. And it happens to us more often than not, too, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
Author: Stan Mast
As I said last week in my comments on Acts 5, during the season of Easter the Lectionary switches from its customary focus on the Old Testament in the first reading, in order to follow the effects of Easter on the early church in the book of Acts. It is an ingenious way to show how God was creating the new heaven and the new earth (Isaiah 65) through the growth of the church.
That growth was not always pleasant. A surge of new converts after the first persecution of the Apostles resulted in a pastoral problem that had ugly racial overtones, but the church solved the “widow issue” by appointing seven deacons to assure a just distribution of aid and to give the apostles time to preach and pray. Then things got ugly when commands to stop preaching became stones that killed one of those deacons, a Spirit filled man named Stephen.
That martyrdom was the flashpoint for widespread violence against the church, driving many Christians out of Jerusalem back to their homes in faraway places. One of those scattered was another deacon named Philip who was instrumental in converting the first African, though he was still in Judean territory. Peter and John spread the Gospel in neighboring Samaria, thus fulfilling Jesus commission to widen the circle of faith geographically.
All of that was great news, but our text reminds us that even as the faith was spreading to the ends of the earth, so was the persecution that began in Jerusalem. One of the bit players in Stephen’s murder has taken on the role of arch villain. Not content with driving the church out of Jerusalem, Saul of Tarsus, a Hellenistic Jew of high breeding, advanced education, and fervent faith, was determined to wipe this new “Way“ off the face of the earth. How ironic and how typical that God would use this particular man to take that Way to the ends of the earth.
With letters of authorization from the Sanhedrin, Saul was on the way to Damascus, about 150 miles north and east of Jerusalem, to find, arrest, and drag back to Jerusalem anyone who belonged to the company of disciples. What follows is one of the great reversal stories in all of literature. In fact, the phrase “a Damascus road experience” has become a cultural slogan for a dramatic change of life wherever people have even passing knowledge of the Bible.
That’s where Saul was when it happened—on the road to Damascus. The story is told three times in the book of Acts—here, by the narrator (Dr. Luke) and in Acts 22 and 26 by Saul/Paul himself—with some difference in details. But the heart of the story is the same in all three versions. A bright light from heaven knocked Saul to the ground. A voice from heaven confronted Saul with the question that changed his life, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul stammers his terrified response, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord responds with the most unexpected answer Saul could have imagined, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” That alone would have been enough to change Saul from unbeliever to believer, but Jesus had more to say, something that would change him from persecutor to preacher. “Now get up and go into Jerusalem and you will be told what you are to do.”
In your sermon you could dwell on any number of issues: the bright light and thunderous voice are typical of a theophany in the Bible; Jesus’ identification with his persecuted church; Saul’s addressing the unknown voice as “Lord;” Saul’s state of mind upon hearing the voice of the living Christ. All of that would add color and texture to your sermon, but you must be careful not to stop your sermon where the Lectionary stops today.
That would miss the whole point of the story. It’s not just or primarily about Saul’s conversion; it is ultimately about Paul’s commission. Of course, he couldn’t have had his commission if he hadn’t been converted. But his conversion was not just a ticket into heaven; it was the beginning of his task to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
The rest of the story is hinted at in the last word of verse 6—“do.” “You will be told what you must do.” It is hard to exaggerate the change in Saul as a result of his encounter with the risen Jesus. The hard charging champion of orthodoxy who knows exactly what God wants him to do is now a blind and shell-shocked child who must be led by the hand to a home where he will spend the next three days and nights praying and fasting.
He would never have figured what he was to do after his shattering encounter with Jesus, if Jesus had not sent Ananias to explain his mission and introduce him to the rest of the faith and to the community of faith. Ananias was, understandably, reluctant to meet Saul. This man had a well-deserved reputation; who knew what he might do with this lone Christian. But God insists, because he has something very special in mind for Saul. He will be Jesus’ “chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.”
So Ananias goes and completes God’s work of reversing the course of Saul’s life. Note how Ananias instantly incorporates Saul into the new life of the church. He lays hands on him and addresses him as “Brother Saul.” He clarifies the heart of the Gospel; it was the risen Jesus who met you on the road. He heals Saul’s blindness and is the human means by which Saul is filled with the Spirit. Then he is baptized and takes food (the Eucharist?).
Thus strengthened Saul is introduced to the rest of the Damascus church. Immediately he begins to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God, proving that he is the promised Christ. That’s when the other part of Saul’s mission begins to be fulfilled. “You must suffer for my name.” Jewish astonishment at Saul’s complete transformation festered into a murder plot. The reversal is complete; the one who stood by as Stephen was murdered for his testimony about Christ is now the victim who may be murdered for his testimony about the Christ. The would-be murderer is now a potential martyr. The one who wanted to stop the preaching of the Name will now carry that name to the ends of the earth. Only Jesus could change someone that completely.
That is the point you should emphasize as you preach through this marvelous story. It is first and foremost a story about Jesus, about the last appearance of Jesus in the New Testament (at least according to Paul in I Corinthians 15:8). The existence and success of the early church (and of today’s church) depended on the resurrection of Jesus. Saul would never have been changed by human argument. The early Christians would not have braved death for an idea. It was the reality of the risen Christ that drove the church. While the Christian faith is more than “Jesus and me,” it is never less than that. “I am Jesus.” The church lives and grows by faith in those 3 words.
So the message we must always preach centers on Jesus. Luke’s summary of Saul’s early preaching is the standard for all subsequent preaching. He claimed that Jesus is “the Son of God… and he proved that Jesus is the Christ.” That, of course, is exactly what Jesus said was the rock on which he would build his church in Matthew 16:18; “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” The resurrection of Jesus proved that he was the Son of God who became the Messiah. To be Christian, a sermon must always have that Christ-centered focus.
But each Christ-centered message must speak of Christ in a way that is uniquely rooted in a specific text. So a sermon on Acts 9 should emphasize three things. First, no one is beyond the saving reach of Jesus. If someone like Saul could become someone like Paul, there is hope for everyone. As Paul would write later in Ephesians 2, even those who are dead in sin, imprisoned by the power of sin, captive to the Unholy Trinity of the world, the flesh, and the Devil, and objects of God’s wrath, even such people can be made alive with Christ.
Second, conversion always leads to commission. Jesus didn’t come to Saul merely so that he could be a Christian; he changed Saul into a Christian so that he could do a particular work. As my old Catechism books said, “We are saved from sin and saved to serve.” Paul’s fellow missionary, Peter, put it this way in his first letter. Once we were not a people, but now we are a chosen people, belonging to God “that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light (I Peter 2:9,10).”
Third, Saul would not have known what to do and he would not have been able to do it, if it hadn’t been for the community of believers around him, beginning with Ananias. As Charles Campbell puts it, “A call is not simply a matter between ‘me and Jesus,’ but something that requires the discernment, confirmation and direction of the community of faith.” There is a place for solitude, for individual fasting and praying and studying and thinking. But we will not be able to go into all the world and make disciples without the support and encouragement of the gathered Body of Christ. Think of it this way. Jesus could have told Saul directly what he wanted him to do with the rest of his life, but he chose to speak to and minister through an ordinary believer named Ananias. The church is, literally, the Body of Christ on earth. We cannot do without it.
I love the way Charles Campbell summarizes this dramatic story. “The living Christ is ‘loose’ in the world, encountering people and shaping the community of faith, often in surprising ways, for our mission in the world. In the presence of the living Christ persecutors become allies who share the suffering of the persecuted. ‘Ordinary’ believers provide the gift of discernment. Enemies become brothers and sisters. Violence is replaced by witness. Ordination, baptism, and Eucharist become vehicles for the transforming and empowering work of the Spirit. And the Word is lived and proclaimed ‘in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’”
There are two ways to make a U turn. You can do it the way the street racers do in the “Fast and Furious” movie franchise—at top speed with smoking tires in an instant in the middle of a busy street. Or you can do it the way the country singer described it in a classis old trucking song—“give me forty acres and I’ll turn this rig around.” Saul’s turn was fast and furious as he did a dramatic 180 from persecutor to preacher. Timothy’s was more gradual; from infancy he knew the “holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (II Timothy 3:15).” Both are legit. What’s crucial is that we make The Turn. And the turn depends on Christ.
The recent fires in the West and the floods in the South have led to numerous search and rescue missions. Sadly those often become search and recovery missions when it is clear that there are no survivors. Our story in Acts is both. Jesus went on a search and recover mission. Saul was dead in his sins. But because Jesus is the Risen Christ who gives life to the dead, he gave new life to Saul and sent him on a life-long search and rescue mission. The same is true for all of us.
Author: Scott Hoezee
A friend of mine, when noting life’s oft-difficult circumstances, likes to sound a hopeful note by saying, “Ah well, joy cometh in the morning.” Or at least joy may come in the morning but most of us know altogether too well that sometimes it doesn’t. Or the “morning” in question ends up being pretty far off. But the idea of joy coming after a night of weeping sums up Psalm 30’s upbeat tone. It is obvious why this poem got chosen for the Sunday after Easter. It is mostly about life being snatched from the jaws of death, of renewal coming after what looked like the end of all things. Of resurrection in a sense.
Of course, if Psalm 30 can be made to sound like some proto-Easter hymn, it contains plenty of imagery that was firmly embedded in the worldview of the Ancient Near East. In particular this is one of many places in the Old Testament where you can detect ancient Israel’s belief that death might just be the end of everything. In answer to the question “What happens after we die?” most Israelites would have answered, “Nothing good.” Sheol or the realm of the dead or “the pit” as it is referred to here and elsewhere seems to be the common destination of all those who die whether they had faith in Yahweh or not it appears. And Sheol is not a pleasant place, either. It is at best a dim holding cell and most people—including any number of the psalmists—also viewed it as a place where all praise of God would cease. “The dead cannot praise you” many psalmists wrote, and this was usually used as a goad to God to keep them from dying lest he lose more members of his choir.
It is too easy for Christians today to project backwards onto the Old Testament the views of the afterlife most of us grew up learning. Mostly many Christians embrace a fairly simple either-or post-mortem scenario: either you go to “heaven” or to “hell.” The former is wonderful and not infrequently embellished with all kinds of biblically unlikely scenarios in which the things we liked most in this life (golf, snorkeling, singing, eating) go on and on in super-sized paradisiacal ways. The latter is variously pictured as a place of tormenting flames or other physically (or spiritually) dire and unpleasant things. In any event, that’s how a lot of people think. And so we quietly assume that Moses and David and Isaiah and everyone else in the Bible thought the same way.
But it’s not true. Expectations of what happens after one dies evolved over time and in the earliest days of Israel’s covenant relationship with God, post-mortem expectations were on the grim side.
Perhaps, however, remembering humanity’s—indeed, even Israel’s—longstanding fear of death can properly increase (if we need this increased, and maybe we do) our awe and gratitude over what God in Christ did to give us hope in the face of death’s inevitability. If the poet of Psalm 30 was jumping up and down with joy over God’s deliverance of him from the pit, it is in no small part due to the fact that he sensed that without God’s help, death might just have the last word on all of us (and it would be a grim last word at that).
Of course, we humans are good at trying to deny this or, these days, to turn death into something to sweep away in favor of other distracting rituals that look nothing like a traditional funeral from any faith tradition. A recent Washington Post article took note of things that people like author and funeral director Thomas Lynch have been seeing for the last couple decades: a desire to down-size death (and the deceased) as perhaps a way to prevent us from dealing with the potentially harsher realities here. This trend toward celebrating life—sometimes even in churches now where “Celebrations of Life” have eclipsed more traditional funeral practices—has even caught the attention of people who may not be particularly religious. To quote from the Post article, “’Do you think we’re getting too happy with this?’ asks Amy Cunningham, director of the Inspired Funeral in Brooklyn. ‘You can’t pay tribute to someone who has died without acknowledging the death and sadness around it. You still have to dip into reality and not ignore the fact that they’re absent now.’”
“Dip into reality.” That’s a curious but perhaps accurate way to put it. Psalm 30 definitely takes a good reality dip here, reminding us that short of God’s interventions, we would all end up in death’s “pit,” and that’s not a terribly comforting prospect. But on this Sunday after Easter, we can join with the psalmist to note that in Christ and because God is stronger than death, our mourning has been turned to dancing, our sorrow in the night to a joy in the morning, our drab attire of penitence and mortality replaced with the garments of salvation through the resurrection of Jesus our Lord.
That is definitely worth celebrating, especially by a people who otherwise are able to face and acknowledge that the world as we know it where death seems to have the last word on everyone is not the world toward which we are headed in our Father’s bright kingdom. Thanks be to God!
It is, of course, not exactly a full-throated proclamation of Gospel hope but in his own oblique way Tolkien helps us to see what hope beyond death may look like in this scene from the Peter Jackson version of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” as Pippin contemplates what looks to be his impending death only to have the wizard Gandalf point him toward a better hope.
Author: Doug Bratt
It seems in some ways appropriate that Revelation 5 begins with a sob but ends with a hymn. That, after all, doesn’t just encompass part of the range of emotions within which God’s adopted sons and daughters generally live. It also follows the arc along which God wants to move God’s beloved people. That’s why it’s in some ways regrettable that the RCL omits the sobs and God’s gracious response to them from the text it appoints for this Sunday.
Preachers and teachers who follow the RCL’s guidelines for preaching on the epistles will want and need to prepare hearers for our proclamation of Revelation 5:11-14. Much, after all, elapses between last Sunday’s Revelation 1:4-8’s Epistolary Lesson and this Sunday’s lesson.
After spending chapters 2 and 3 explaining why the churches to which he writes need to hear Revelation’s message, John basically begins to “reveal” what God is doing not in the world in which those churches live. Revelation 4 describes the spectacular heavenly throne room (and King) from which that activity is being directed.
Yet Revelation 5 begins with grief over the fact that no one can seem to reveal God’s plan for God’s redemption of God’s creation. In essence, it seems as if the grief flows from that fact that no one can figure out just what God is doing in God’s world.
One of the heavenly elders, however, signals that there’s no real reason for that grief. He tells John that One can open that scroll that contains God’s plan. He’s “a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain” (5:6). He is able to unlock the mysterious scroll that reveals God’s plan for everything God has created.
This unleashes what we might call a rousing hymn sing that culminates with this Sunday’s RCL Epistolary Lesson. Its imagery invites God’s beloved children imagining a celestial organist pulling out all the stops as she leans on its keys. Or a massive choir belting out a hymn in mezzo forte mode.
The choir the heavenly director leads includes perhaps millions of angels who surround the living creatures as well as elders that encircle the Lamb’s throne. It’s a breathtaking scene that nearly defies human imagination or description. Yet it leaves us with the sense that every last heavenly being is belting out their praises to Jesus the Lamb who gave everything to redeem people of every background.
This massive, glorious choir sings three hymns in Revelation 5. The first praises the Lamb not only for redeeming his adopted brothers and sisters, but also turning those siblings into kingdom and priests. The second hymn, of which this Sunday’s Lesson is a part, offers Jesus the Lamb that of which he is “worthy” (12): all the power, wealth, wisdom, strength, honor, glory and praise the creation can muster.
Walter Taylor (Preach This Week: April 18, 2010) says the word axios (“worthy”) was a political term with which John’s contemporaries would have been very familiar. Taylor compares it to the “Hail to the Chief” that bands play upon the entrance of the president of the United States. After all, Roman crowds were expected to shout “Worthy! Worthy! Worthy is the emperor!” when Rome’s emperor appeared in public.
Of what, then, does Revelation 5’s majestic chorus claim not the emperor but the Lamb is axios? Absolutely everything. Even the number of attributes the chorus assigns to the Lamb – 7 — affirms that. The number seven is, after all, one of the biblical symbols of completeness and perfection.
The majestic chorus’ hymn announces that, as N.T. Wright (Revelation for Everyone, Westminster John Knox, 2011, 57) notes, “The wealth and strength of the nations belongs to him; everything that ennobles and enriches human life, everything that enables people to live wisely, to enjoy and celebrate the goodness of God’s world – all this is to be laid at [the Lamb’s] feet.”
Verse 12’s hymn is the kind that lingers on the lips of Christians who have recently passed through Holy Week’s memories of Jesus the Lamb crucifixion into the Easter’s season’s “hallelujahs.” Yet those who preach and teach it don’t want to ignore its image’s apparent incongruity. Who on earth, after all, can imagine a slaughtered lamb receiving all that praise … and more? Only those whose imaginations the Spirit of Jesus the Lamb shapes.
But then, as if myriads of angels, heavenly hosts and elders’ just can’t muster enough praise, every creature somehow rises up to join them in Revelation 5’s third hymn of praise. As my colleague Scott Hoezee wrote in a stirring earlier sermon starter (April 4, 2016) on Revelation 5, “The real capper comes when every last creature in the world, including those in the deepest oceans, likewise rise up to sing the doxology. You expect God’s holy angels to sing a song to Jesus the Christ, but perhaps nothing so vividly shows the scope of our God’s victory [more] than the fact that eagles and dolphins, jaguars and hummingbirds, sandhill cranes and elephants will also give the Lamb honor and glory and praise forever and ever.”
Again, however, those who proclaim Revelation 5 will want to note the incongruous nature of the recipients of that universal hymn. We can understand how the One who sits on the throne (13) receives all that praise and honor and glory and power forever and ever. But a slaughtered Lamb? Go figure!
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s imagery is mysterious and breathtaking. However, since its language is also apocalyptic, those who proclaim it do well to handle it with a somewhat “light touch.” After all, its inspired truths come to its readers embedded in poetry. Revelation 5’s proclamation may call for a poetic, lyrical approach instead of a “three points and a poem” approach.
While perhaps especially 21st century Christians sometimes assume Revelation predicts our own future, biblical scholars remind us that it’s first of all addressed John and his first readers’ current realities. In fact, some scholars have talked about its application for John’s contemporaries, the Church universal and the time of the return of Jesus Christ.
That it to say John didn’t just speak Revelation for his contemporaries or for people near or at the end of measured time. He also speaks to every era as well as each adopted daughter and son of God. Revelation 5’s song of hope is for all those who want to follow Jesus into the future contained in that scroll and mapped out by God.
It is, to say the least, a message that’s appropriate for every time and place. The book of Revelation graphically describes the spiritual and political darkness that enveloped its first readers. However, 21st century readers also find ourselves wrapped in all sorts of spiritual and political darkness.
It remains tempting to suspect that the darkness may even finally win the day. This Sunday’s text reminds its readers of all times and places that no political or spiritual might but that of the slain but risen Lamb is both in charge and will win the final victory.
So those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might respond by rhetorically asking, “If the Lamb is worthy to receive the whole creation’s power and wealth, doesn’t he also deserve our offerings of our authority and wealth? If the Lamb deserves the whole creation’s wisdom and strength, doesn’t he also deserve to have all of our wisdom and strength devoted to the service of our neighbors and him? If the Lamb deserves all that honor and glory and praise, doesn’t he also deserve our wholehearted and unending worship and praise?”
The biblical theologian Elizabeth Achtemeier adds a kind of creation stewardship perspective on texts like Revelation 5. She notes that when a species goes extinct, verse 13a’s universal chorus shrinks. When someone wantonly takes even just one human life, that chorus also becomes a little bit quieter. Might that at least suggest that our own hymn of “praise” includes being better stewards of each of the members of Revelation 5’s majestic chorus?
While people offer a lot of what someone has called “measured praise,” in his delightful book, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (HarperOne, 1993), Frederick Buechner writes, “The way the 148th Psalm describes it, praising God is another kettle of fish altogether. It is about as measured as a volcanic eruption, and there is no implication that under any conceivable circumstances it could be anything other than what it is.
“The whole of creation is in on the act – the sun and moon, the sea, fire and snow, Holstein cows and white-throated sparrows, old men in walkers and children who still haven’t taken their first step. Their praise is not chiefly a matter of saying anything because most of creation doesn’t deal in words. Instead the snow whirls, the fire roars, the Holstein bellows, the old man watches the moon rise. Their praise is not something that at their most complimentary they say but something that at their truest they are.
“We learn to praise God not by paying compliments but by paying attention. Watch how the trees exult when the wind is in them. Mark the utter stillness of the great blue heron in the swamp. Listen to the sound of the rain. Listen how to say ‘Hallelujah’ from the ones who say it right.”