The Lion who is a Lamb
Readings: Revelation 5: 1 – 12 and John: 1: 29 – 34
Well this morning I’d like us to take a brief look into the book of Revelation; this rather mysterious part of Scripture which comes at the very end of our Bibles but which doesn’t seem to get looked at all that often. And maybe part of the reason for that is because many readers of the Bible tend to have a sort of love-hate relationship with it. And I can understand that as, at times, it can seem to be unfathomable and quite perplexing. And for those coming to it for the first time it’s not unusual to hear comments along the lines of: “I can’t understand a word of it.” And the difficulty, of course, is that it’s a book with lots of symbolism going on and so it’s not all that easy to follow. But it’s rather sad though if we neglect it – as it has a lot of valuable things to say, not only to its first readers, but also to us as well. This is what one writer says about it.
‘….to understand Revelation we must see it both as a book of vision and imagination – as a book firmly rooted in history, proclaiming Christ as Lord of history and today – perhaps more than ever – we need its eternal timeless realities. And we need its perspective.’
The book is, in fact, a series of prophetic pictures written to encourage a number of the early Christian communities in what was then known as Asia Minor around the end of the first century. And it was a really tough time for those early followers of Jesus as the Roman authorities were beginning to enforce a cult of emperor worship and those claiming Jesus as Lord and not Caesar were beginning to face some really tough persecution. And things were really hard.
There was a special day in the year when every citizen in the Roman empire was required to cast some incense on the altar fire in a local temple and repeat the words: ‘Caesar is Lord.’ But if you were are Christian believer trusting in Jesus as Lord you could not bring yourself to do it. It would be a betrayal of your faith.
And there was a growing concern as to what was what was going to happen next? What would the believers do as the persecution spread? Would they stand firm or would they buckle under pressure? Would they deny Jesus in the face of torture and public executions? And on the top of all this, there was the question as to whether the Church had any future at all. And these were the burning issues running through the mind of John, the author of Revelation, as he is being held as a prisoner on the Island of Patmos, a sort of first century concentration camp.
And when I read Revelation it makes me think of the way the Christian communities in places such as Iraq and Syria today are suffering because of their Christian testimony. And when you read some of the harrowing accounts from people such as Canon Andrew White of what is happening in those places, it makes me realise what the true cost of following Jesus can be. And I find it extremely humbling when I hear of children being told by ISIS militants to convert to Islam or be killed. And do you know how those children answered when faced with that ultimatum? “No” they said “we love Yeshua; we have always loved Yeshua.” ‘Yeshua’ was there word for Jesus. And all 4 of those children were killed by ISIS.
And I know we can feel so helpless when we hear of accounts like this but we can pray. And we need to keep praying for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering so much.
And John was writing to encourage those first century Christians who were suffering from persecution. And he’s an old man now, probably in his 90’s, and says he is being held in this prison type of place for the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus. And in introducing himself he says this: “I John your brother and companion in suffering.”
And one day as he is praying, he has this vision of the risen Jesus in all his awesome majesty and the vision is so glorious that John can barely find the words to describe it. And he sees Jesus, as he is now, in all his awesome glorious majesty as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And John says: “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.” And when we catch a vision of the living Jesus in all his glory, the only appropriate response is to fall before him in worship.
And that word ‘worship’ means to fall or bow down in adoration. It means submitting to God’s authority and acknowledging Jesus as Lord in our own lives. And is that a reality in our own experience I wonder to know Jesus as Lord?
And one of the things we are doing in the preaching this year is looking at some foundational Christian principles. And one of those principles is enshrined in the words: ‘Do you turn to Christ’ that occurs in the baptismal liturgy. And in turning to Christ we are acknowledging Jesus as Lord and inviting him to reign in our lives. But the question is: are we allowing him to reign? Is he at the centre and on the throne of our lives or is he out there somewhere at the margins?
But returning to John and what he sees: and it is not just a vision of awesome majesty, it’s a vision of amazing mercy as Jesus places his right hand on him and says “Don’t be afraid.” And that’s amazing isn’t it. John is lying there face down in the dirt and what does Jesus do? He stoops down from heaven and places his hand upon him. And isn’t that a wonderful picture of what Jesus does for us too when we turn to him. He stoops down from the glory of heaven and, to use the words of Psalm 40: ‘he lifts us out of the mud and the mire and sets our feet upon a rock.’ And that’s the wonderful hope we have in Jesus.
And as I mentioned earlier John is writing to a people suffering for their faith and an underlying theme of Revelation is one of hope as the world grows darker. And it’s a message that despite all the trials and tribulations we face, God is working out his purposes to the time described the Old Testament prophet Amos when: ‘God’s justice will roll on like a river and his righteousness like a never-failing stream.’ A time when his light will drive back the darkness and a time when: ‘God’s kingdom will come – and his will done on earth as it is in heaven.’
And so we move into chapters 4 and 5 where we encounter another of the book’s prophetic pictures; and John says: “After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven.” And John is then transported into the very heart of heaven and into the throne room of God itself where there is this fantastic outpouring of praise and worship. And the whole scene is one of majesty, awe and wonder. In fact, it’s breath-taking; it’s overwhelming and at the centre of it all is God in all his glory on the throne. And this image of the throne becomes a dominant symbol as the vision continues to unfold in later chapters.
And it becomes a dominant symbol because – as we have already seen there was another competing authority that claimed to be on the throne and demanding allegiance. And that was the Roman Caesar. And the point John is making is that in reality there is no-one else; no other thing; no other empire occupying the throne of the cosmos other than God alone.
And it is God, revealed to us in Jesus, who alone is worthy of all our worship and allegiance. And this speaks to us on a personal level as well – as it comes back to the question of who really is on the throne of our own lives – who is at the centre of all we do and think – is it self or the Lord Jesus Christ? He alone is worthy of our worship and if there are other things that occupy that place in our lives that Jesus should have; then the Bible calls it idolatry.
And as the vision continues to unfold, John now sees in the right hand of God, a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with 7 seals. And as is often the case in Revelation, the scene is rich in symbolism. But obviously what the scroll contains is of immense importance and John’s tears begin to flow as no one is found who is worthy to open it. But then one of the elders present says to him: “Don’t weep, look, the Lion of Judah, the Root of David is able to open scroll.” And as John looks what he sees is not a Lion but a Lamb; a Lamb who is alive but bearing the marks of having been slaughtered.
Now this may all seem a bit weird to our modern ears, but what John is doing here is bringing together two streams of Old Testament prophecy and showing us that they are both fulfilled in Jesus. Not only was Jesus the coming messianic king from the line of Judah and the Royal House of David – but he was also the Lamb spoken of by Isaiah – the one who was led like a lamb to the slaughter and took the consequences of all our sin upon himself.
And so how should we respond to a scene of such awesome splendour? Well the response we see from those around the heavenly throne is one of an outpouring of fervent praise and worship. And John says: “I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten times ten thousand” and they were singing in a loud voice: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain.” And shouldn’t that be our response too when we consider all that Jesus has done for us; to give him all our heartfelt praise and worship? To give him all of our hearts and not just a part.
And so we need to be a people with a heart for worship but what we also see from Revelation is that it’s a message of hope to believers undergoing terrible suffering and persecution. And John, as a pastor, is assuring his people that their suffering is only for a season, God is still on the throne, and a day is coming when he will wipe every tear away from their eyes, a day when his kingdom will come in all its fullness and to quote the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, ‘the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.’
And hope is important as we are meant to be a people of hope. The Apostle Paul writing to the Church in Rome says this: ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace, as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.’
And as followers of Jesus we are not meant to be those just clinging on to hope but those overflowing with hope, or abounding in hope as it says in some translations. And our calling is to bring this hope into situations where there is no hope – because, to quote the Apostle Paul, we have: ‘Christ within us, the hope of glory.’
And as I draw to a close let me try pulling all this together.
1. And so firstly, do we turn to Christ. Do we turn to him each day and acknowledge him as Lord and King – and I mean not just in a general and abstract sense but as a living reality allowing his presence to fill every part of our lives.
2. Secondly, do we give him our heartfelt worship – that is worship, praise and adoration that flows from deep within?
3. And finally, as followers of Jesus let us not forget that we can overflow with hope because the God we serve is the source of all hope.
Philip Newell (Reader)
Sermon preached at a service of Morning Worship at St Laurence’s on Sunday 18th January 2015