Scripture: Revelation 5:6-14
Psalm 98:4 proclaims, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord all the earth; make a loud noise and rejoice and sing praise.” I am one of the people who is very relieved the scripture specifies making a loud noise, not an on key-noise. I can’t sing, I am absolutely terrible at it. Mr. Malone was the music teacher at the high school I attended. As the music teacher he was also the default director for the school’s drama productions. My school did a musical production in the Fall and a non-musical production in the Spring. I really wanted to participate in the dramas, but I knew that in order to get cast in those I had to participate in the musicals. Even though I cannot sing, I found myself trying out for Bye, Bye Birdie. At the tryout he asked if I was a baritone, bass, or tenor. I told him meekly, that I am neither because I really cannot sing. I remember his exact words: “Nonsense. Everyone can sing.” The next year, the musical was The Sound of Music and I was cast as the Butler: The only non-singing part in the whole production. Enduring the musicals was worth it though, because I did get casts in decent parts in other productions. I really enjoy acting. I even briefly considered majoring in theater for a short time. In the high school theater productions, one of the things that I got a reputation for fairly quickly was that I was always the first person to memorize my lines. It was really important for me to memorize my lines quickly so I could devout as much practice time as I could to being the character. If I knew the lines well, I did not have to expend energy on trying to remember what to say, instead I could focus on being the character and saying the lines the way the character would say them. For me, one of my favorite nights was dress rehearsal. I liked the dress rehearsal because I got to fully be the character without stops and without interruptions for the first time. The dress rehearsal was the first time that all of the work and practice that I had put into to become someone else really came to fruition. The dress rehearsal gave me the opportunity to be comfortable and familiar with what the final production was going to be like. This morning’s scripture describes the final production, it describes what worship is like in heaven. This morning’s scripture gives us a rare glimpse behind the curtain, we get to see what things are like in eternity. I think as we consider what is happening in this morning’s scripture we will see that ideally when we gather as a congregation on Sunday morning to worship it should serve each week as a dress rehearsal for the final production in heaven.
We have to remember the general concept behind the book of Revelation is that John, traditionally attributed to be John the apostle, was given a divine vision which he wrote down and recorded in Revelation. In looking to understand what is revealed in Revelation, we have to start with understanding the nature of the vision. First, biblical visions are not literal. There are multiple examples of visions in the bible and in all instances they require interpretation. Even the book of Revelation itself affirms this, when in Revelation 17:9-18 has an angel describe to John what is happening in the vision he just saw. Biblical visions are full of symbols that represent something else. So for instance, in this scripture we have Jesus depicted as a slain lamb with seven horns and seven eyes. This does not mean that Jesus literally is a seven horned, seven eyed lamb but that this image of him evokes deep truths about Jesus character and nature.
Often one of the reasons why Revelation is an intriguing book to so many is because of the evocative imagery found throughout the book. Descriptions like the ones found here excite our imagination and leave us wanting to know they mean. Since it is often this symbolic imagery that draws us to Revelation, we are going to briefly unpack the imagery here and look at some of the interpretations that church tradition has long upheld.
There are three specific images we are going to consider: the four living creatures, the 24 elders, and the lamb. The four living creatures are described in detail in chapter 4 as surrounding the throne in heaven. They are described as having six wings covered in eyes and each creature has a different head: One has a head like a lion, the other an ox, the third and eagle, and the fourth a man. While these are odd descriptions, it is widely held that these creatures represent all of creation. These creatures are the personification of the Creation which God has made. In Revelation they are right next to throne showing how much God values creation, and the primary vocation of the four living creatures is to glorify and praise God. In essence the four living creatures are visual representation of what is found elsewhere in the bible, such as Psalm 96: “Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it. Let the fields be jubilant everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy. Let all creation rejoice before the LORD. “
The twenty four elders feature prominently in Revelation. In fact every time in Revelation when there is a vision of the throne room in heaven these twenty four elders are there. Some of the earliest interpretations going back to the early church fathers, understand these elders to be a representation of the church. Some commentators see the twenty four elders as comprised as the Patriarch of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. The idea is that this signifies both the gentile and Jewish origins of the early church. Even if it is not that specific, the twenty four elders are the personification of the universal church. They are described as having crowns, as having authority, yet the regularly give that authority up as an act of worship. This does describe how the church is supposed to be. We have been entrusted with the Holy Spirit, with the very power of God, but this is not for our glory, it is meant to all be for God’s glory. The work of the church should not be about building bigger and better buildings, the work of the church should be to glorify God by sharing the love of God and the gospel of Christ to the very ends of the earth.
The final image from this morning’s scripture is the lamb. The lamb, as already stated represents Jesus. The lamb is depicted as slain because Jesus was slain on the cross. Throughout the bible seven is a number that represents perfection and horns represent strength. In the vision the lamb is depicted with seven horns and seven eyes as a way to communicate that the lamb, that Jesus, is as all powerful and all-knowing as God the father. The reason Jesus is represented as a lamb has deep, deep biblical roots. Way back in Exodus, the Israelites were in slavery. God, hearing the cries of His people, sent Moses to tell the Pharaoh to let the people go. Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he refused. God brought plagues to display the power of God and to change the Pharaoh’s mind, but he did not relent. The final and most awful plague was the death of all firstborn in Egypt. To be protected from this terrible judgement, the Israelites were to slaughter a lamb and pain the frame of their door in its blood. By the blood of the lamb, the Israelites were spared the judgement and wrath of God. The Israelites remembered this as the Passover. A little over 1,400 years after the first Passover the Israelites still remembered and still celebrated. It was the tradition at this time that Jewish families would make a pilgrimage to the temple at Jerusalem. As part of the Passover each family would bring a lamb to be sacrificed. This lamb was sacrificed for the sins of the family. The punishment that they deserved for their transgressions against God were taken by the lamb, it was their substitute, their sacrifice. Once again the death of a lamb spared the family from divine judgement. On one specific Passover celebration, Jesus met with his disciples in an upper room. Over the centuries a tradition of a special Passover meal had arisen to help the Israelites remember. On this particular Passover, Jesus started a new tradition. He told the disciples the bread represented his broken body, and that the wine represented his blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins of many. Then he went and became our Passover lamb, as he died on the cross. Just as the blood of the lamb across the door frames spared the ancient Israelites from the death, the blood across the frame of a cross spares us from death. Jesus is our sacrifice, Jesus is the lamb who took the punishment we deserve. He was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds, by his blood we are healed.
It is for this reason that Jesus is praised. It is for this reason that every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea and all that is in them sings out “To him who sits on the throne and the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power for ever and ever.” It is because Jesus being fully God, yet taking on the substance of humanity is the only person worthy of being honored and praised by all of creation. What we have portrayed in this morning’s scripture, is heavenly worship, a genuine outpouring of thanksgiving and praise for what Jesus as done. There is a chorus of cheers and accolades because sits victorious. This is worship on a truly epic scale. I remember attending the Urbana missions conference in 2003. This is one of the largest Christian gatherings in the United States. The conference fell over New Year’s Eve, and as the clock struck midnight we sang “O the wonderful cross, O the wonderful cross all who gather her by grace draw near and bless your name.” It is really hard to describe the atmosphere in that room, there were over 20,000 people all singing loudly in an act of genuine and heartfelt worship. It was truly amazing, but I know that experience will be dwarfed by what it is like to worship Jesus in heaven. When we all get to heaven, I do not know what it is all going to be like. I do not know what to expect, other than it will blow away my wildest expectations. One thing I do feel confident of from scriptures like this morning’s though is that we will worship God in heaven, and that when we do it will be the most pure, true, joyful and wonderful worship experience we have ever experienced.
Worshiping God in our little sanctuary in Edinburgh, IN may not compare to the real deal in heaven, but we should treat every Sunday as a dress rehearsal. There are two aspects of worship depicted in the scene from this morning’s scripture that I think should be present in our worship to help prepare us for heavenly worship. The first aspect is found in verse 9, where it reads “and they sang a new song.” Again, this phrase and concept has deep roots in the bible. In the bible, especially the Old Testament, the concept of singing a new song come up from time to time. A new song is meant to be a spontaneous song, an outpouring of joy to celebrate the LORD’s deliverance and blessing. Several psalms encourage people to sing a new song to the LORD. Perhaps one way to think about this, is a new song has less to do with the words and more to do with the attitude. If we are singing a new song, we are not just repeating familiar words. We are through the lyrics pouring out our hearts and souls in reverent worship to him who sits on the throne and the lamb. A new song can certainly be an old song. This is certainly true for me. I grew up in the church, so I was familiar with the words of all of our classic hymns. However, they were just words. Once I accepted forgiveness, acknowledged Jesus as Lord, and became a Christian these old words suddenly became new songs with deep meanings. “Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me,” was no longer just well-known words to a pleasant tune, but it is now a testimony to how truly incredible the love of God I have experienced is. We sing old songs in new ways, when we sing them from the heart and they become the lines that give voice to who we are as new creations in Christ Jesus. Our Sunday Morning worship can serve as a dress rehearsal when we truly worship by engaging all whole selves in what we are doing.
The second aspect of heavenly worship is that they all fall down in reverence. We are a very self-reliant culture and an individualistic, independent culture. We prefer to emphasize pulling ourselves up by bootstraps more than bowing down to anything. Yet this morning’s scripture is clear that heavenly worship involves falling down, flat on face, in the presence of a power and glory so great that we can do little else. Our worship tradition has evolved away from the physical act of kneeling, yet we can worship with a bowed heart. The act of bowing is an acknowledgement in the greatness and worthiness of something. It is not only an act of worship it is an act of respect. When we gather to worship, we acknowledge what is most important in our lives. Where do we have our focus, is it on the cross or on our phones? When we worship are our minds set on worshipping God or are we more concerned about our afternoon plans? To bow our hearts before God in worship is to respect God for who God is, and give him our complete and undivided selves.
When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be! When we all see Jesus, we’ll sing and shout the victory! I believe that is true, and when that day comes I genuinely look forward to worshipping with you and all the saints. However, Jesus already stands victorious. The blood of the lamb has already defeated death and purchased our forgiveness. Jesus is already worthy of our worship and rejoicing, so let’s not wait until we get to heaven. May today, and every time we gather for worship be a time when we worship in spirit and in truth. May we worship with a bowed heart and with a new song. May we treat every Sunday as a dress rehearsal as we join the chorus in heaven proclaiming, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power for ever and ever. “ And all God’s people said, Amen.