Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, May 5, 2019 (Revelation 5:1-14) – “And to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

“Hymn of Adoration to the Lamb” (1497-1498) from “The Revelation of St. John” by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Houghton Library, Harvard.

Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.

“Who is this that comes from far,
With his garments dipped in blood,
Strong, triumphant traveller–
Is he man, or is he God?”

“Bozrah,” from William Walker’s Southern Harmony, 1854, sung at the Big Sing in Benton, Kentucky, 1966

So goes the first half of a splendid short hymn known as “Bozrah,” written by the late-18th, early-19th century Congregationalist minister, Joshua Spalding.  Who is this that comes from far? Is he man or is he God? This is a question that has come up a lot lately in our readings. Just last week we had Thomas’ confession of who he understood Jesus to be.  Now this Sunday we hear Paul asking Jesus who he is when he meets him on the road to Damascus, and we have the disciples afraid to ask who Jesus is because they recognize him on the shore after they go fishing.  But it’s the reading from Revelation that I want to look at today. Who is Jesus here?

Revelation (the “Apocalypse of John”), it goes without saying, is a weird book, probably the weirdest book in the Bible, at least from a modern perspective.  It’s not easy to read or understand; it’s a work of prophetic and apocalyptic literature that does not lend itself to modern American eyes and brains. We lack a lot of the secondary knowledge (what linguists call a secondary vocabulary) needed to know just what John is talking about.  We might be able to understand some of the more sweeping narratives of the book, but much of it is cryptic, the imagery bizarre, the supposed referents of the prophecies disputed. Even its inclusion in Scripture and the authorship of the book has been disputed, though historically, the Church has believed and taught that John the Revelator is the same John as John the Gospel-writer, the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved.  So what is John telling us about who Jesus is in Revelation, specifically Revelation 5?

In today’s reading from Revelation, we see John experiencing a vision of heaven in which he is standing in the midst of the heavenly court before the throne of God, surrounded by ranks of angels and strange looking creatures.  I’ll read the verses preceding those we heard in our Epistle reading this morning so you have the full context:

“Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. 2 And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” 3 But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. 4 I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. 5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
6 Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits z of God sent out into all the earth. 7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne.” (Rev. 5:1-7, NIV)

“St. John before God and the Elders” (1497-1498) from “The Revelation of St. John” by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Houghton Library, Harvard.

God holds forth a scroll and a challenge is given.  Can anyone open the seals on it? Is anyone worthy to do so?  That is to say, is anyone, anywhere, able to do so? There is no one, in heaven, on the earth, or under the earth who can.  Not one, and if no one is worthy, then the seals will not be opened and the prophecies associated with them will not be spoken.  And when he hears this, John weeps, because the prophecies will not be spoken. How can God’s word come to pass if there’s no one worthy to unseal the scroll and read the prophecies therein, and by means of reading, bring them to pass?

John’s vision of heaven here reminds us that no one, anywhere in the universe, in all of creation, is worthy to stand before God for any reason, let alone to open the seals on a scroll.  And this isn’t the sort of worthiness where a person has to tick all the right boxes, as if he or she fulfilled the requirements of a job interview. There is no one who is intrinsically worthy in any regard to open the seals on this scroll–no one by reason of his or her person, power, or qualifications is worthy–and that is because these seals are fit to be opened by the ruler of all creation, the pantokrator, the “over-all-ruler.”

But what makes the rest of creation unworthy?  Ignoring the angels, who serve the will of the Almighty, the rest of creation is tainted by sin.  No creature is immune to sin itself or to its effects. Thus, all people are sinful, and all other creatures have been damaged or marred by it, such that creation groans and desires deliverance.  Sin separates all people from God, and prevents them from being able to live according to his precepts, and it’s not just the big sins. We’ve seen some bigs sins lately in the news, most recently at Chabad Poway in Escondido, California, but also the church and hotel bombings in Sri Lanka and the campus shooting in North Carolina.  We even had an armed robbery at the 7-11 up the road here from us in Fairfax the other evening. But the “little” sins also make us unworthy. Have you ever said something unkind about your neighbor? **BRRT** You’ve sinned and are unworthy. Have you ever thought about someone inappropriately? **BRRT** You are not worthy to open any such seals.  Have you stolen? Have you not paid for something you ought to have, or borrowed an idea without attribution? **BRRT** You’ve sinned and are unworthy. I could go on. No human being is worthy to undo the seals on this scroll and to speak God’s prophecies into being. Sin makes that impossible.

And sin taints all of creation.  Because of sin, as we learn in Genesis 3, all of creation has been fractured, damaged, broken, and so all creatures feel the pain and suffering that our first parents brought into the world.  Before the fall, all of creation lived in harmony. Now the world is dog-eat-dog, and where there was once paradise, death now reigns. Indeed, the world is chaotic, and we’re so used to the idea of the world being in the constant flux of chaos and terror that we’re largely blind to thinking about it.  In fact, the chaos and evil that afflict the world are so normal to us that they’ve become central to a lot of our entertainment. How many of our video games reenact war? (And I say this as someone who enjoys historical war-games, for what it’s worth.) How many games and movies glorify crime and violence and the degradation of others?  Game of Thrones, anyone? How about music that does that? Our culture is fascinated by this chaos that comes from sin, and in feeding our fascination, we’ve forgotten that this isn’t how things are supposed to be. In fact a lot of us function as if this fallen world is as it is supposed to be, some kind of “best of all possible worlds.”

“Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1497-1498) from “The Revelation of St. John” by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Houghton Library, Harvard.

But it’s not.  Sin still plagues the earth, and just as you cannot cure the common cold with the further application of the common cold, sin and its chaos cannot be cured by the application of the efforts of sinful people. And so something–or someone–needs to come in from the outside to cure sin’s disease.

So if there is no one above the earth, on it, or below the earth who is worthy to open the seals on the scroll that God holds forth on his throne, who is?  No one is worthy— no one, save one. “How’s that,” you say–“how can one person be worthy if no one is worthy?” John receives the answer to this question from the elder who is with him.  Like a good pastor, this elder who has gone on before John to the courts of heaven, points him to the One who can save him, the one who can break the seals on the scroll:

“Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.
“And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7 And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. 8 And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” (Rev. 5:5-8, ESV)

“The Name of the Worthy,” Douce Apocalypse (1265-1270), Bodleian Ms180, p.011.
“The Lamb Enthroned,” Douce Apocalypse (1265-1270), Bodleian Ms180, p.012.

The Lion of the tribe of Judah.  The Root of David. The Lamb Who Was Slain, Jesus Christ.  He alone is worthy to open the seals of the scroll and to reveal its contents.  He alone has the power to defeat sin, and has conquered it. He is truly man and truly God, and for this reason, sin cannot touch him; he came down from heaven and took on flesh so that he might defeat sin through the medium in which it dwells.  And now ascended and exalted at God’s right hand, it is made apparent to all in the court of heaven that he alone has power and authority over all creation. His power is signified by his eyes and horns, not in the sense that he has seven physical eyes and seven physical horns— no lamb has those.  But rather, the horn is the symbol of power and might, and the eye the symbol of wisdom and intelligence. All strength and wisdom belongs to him, and the number 7, the number of God (3) paired with the number of creation (4), indicates that he indeed is the pantokrator who has dominion over all things.  Only he, the Messiah of all, has perfect might and perfect understanding, and because of this, he has conquered sin and destroyed its power.  He has conquered sin and death. The twenty-four elders sing:

         “You are worthy to take the scroll
     and to open its seals,
     because you were slain,
     and with your blood you purchased for God
     persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
  10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
     and they will reign on the earth.”” (Rev. 5:9–10, NIV)

“The Sealed Book of the Lamb,” Apocalypse Flamande – BNF Néerl3 f.6r, 15th Century.

Christ’s death and resurrection secured the victory.  Christ’s death and resurrection ransomed all people for God, no exceptions, and his coronation here in the court of heaven (because that is what we are really seeing here with John) has sealed it.  This is demonstrated to John, but it is something that has been demonstrated for our benefit as well. Christ is worthy because Christ has saved. The hosts of heaven sing:

     “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
     to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
     and honor and glory and praise!” (Rev. 5:12, NIV)

Christ has saved us from sin and death, too, and we see him as he is, exalted and at God’s right hand, the savior who now rules all of creation.  You no longer need fear or despair when you recognize your sinfulness—Christ has rescued you. When the chaos of life seems overwhelming, and you see no end to the violence, hatred, and exploitation that seems so commonplace, you can rest assured–Christ has rescued you and all people, and he is worthy to wield all power and authority over all things.  He has you in his hand. He will not abandon you. For he, whom the hosts of heaven and all the saints adore and acclaim, has ended the power of sin in your life. It may rage against you. It may try to entice you. It may even try to kill you. But when you trust in the one who is king in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, you will not be left to be destroyed by sin, because sin cannot destroy or harm those whom Christ has made his own.  The One who alone, by his death and resurrection, is worthy to open the seals on the scroll will protect you, and in the fullness of time, will bring you to dwell with him in peace forever. No power in heaven, on earth, or under the earth can separate you from his love.

So who is this that comes from far?  Who is this Jesus? He is your savior, exalted in heaven and given power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise.  To him be praise, honor, glory, and power for ever and ever! Amen.

“Adoration of the Lamb,” Cattedrale di Anagni

Sermon for Quasimodogeniti, the Second Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2019 (John 20:19-31)

Originally preached at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Herndon, Virginia.

First-year seminarians are often asked a lot of questions about what they believe in their beginning theology classes.  It makes sense. Professors want to know just how off-base some of the beliefs might be which their students hold so that they can deliver helpful correctives to false ideas or nip some would-be heretics in the bud before they take their own theories to a more dangerous conclusion.  The seminary is kind of like the army— a group of people show up from different backgrounds and life-experiences and are re-formed over four years into an effective preaching-and-teaching force who can rightly divide Law and Gospel, preach well, and faithfully shepherd God’s church, among other things.  So asking questions of first-years is a great way for the professors there to weed out would-be pastors’ misconceptions and pet heresies while focusing them on what they should know.

So it generally comes as a shock to many seminarians when one of the first questions they are asked by their systematic theology professor is, “Who is your God?”  It’s a big question, and a scary one. Initially, you feel pretty sure of yourself and your beliefs. “I know who my God is!” But then, doubt sets in. That confident attitude you had suddenly starts giving way to unsurety; the sense of security you had five minutes ago starts to slip away.  “Who is my God?”  “Who do I really say God is?”  “Who do I really think God is?”  You think it’s the Triune God, but is that who you’re really worshipping?  Is this a trick question? Is there some hidden idol in my life I’ve been worshipping all along?  The faithful young seminarian is suddenly subject to an existential crisis.

You might say that this is a question that is tacitly posed to the disciples when Jesus died on the cross.  “Who is your God?” Is he this carpenter-turned-rabbi from Nazareth with whom you have traveled for three years, or is it someone else?  John tells us in John 20:9 that on Easter morning, none of the disciples truly understood what Jesus meant when he spoke of the resurrection, and when they found the tomb empty, they didn’t know what to think of it.  Who was their God? Where had Jesus gone? Did the Romans steal him? Did they spend three years roaming Judaea with him for nothing?

But then, he appeared to them, and he showed him his wounds and let them touch him.  He was real! But John doesn’t tell us what they said when they saw him, merely that they were glad.  We don’t necessarily know what they were thinking when Jesus appeared in the room in their midst. But we do know what Thomas, that apostle called Didymus, “The Twin,” thought when he saw Jesus risen from the grave.  John recorded his confession. “My Lord and my God!”

“Doubting Thomas” (ca. 1620) by Giovanni Serodine (1594-1630). National Museum in Warsaw.

Thomas is, as a member of the apostles, kind of an odd duck because we remember him by calling him “Doubting Thomas.”  He’s the only member of the Twelve who’s given a negative epithet (apart from Judas, whose name has become synonymous with treachery).  We could just as easily call Peter “Denying Peter” because he denied his being one of Jesus’ followers, or we could call Mark “Streaking Mark” because he ran away naked from Gethsemane after his tunic was pulled off by an attacker.  But we don’t. Only Thomas is remembered for his apparent skepticism at hearing the report of Jesus’ resurrection.

I have to laugh because I saw this cartoon after I wrote this sermon, and it seems that many of us who have thought about this gospel have had the same issues with Thomas’ unfortunate moniker.

Except Thomas wasn’t the lone doubter.  All of the apostles doubted that Jesus had come back from the grave— they disbelieved the testimony of the women at the tomb; they thought the women were speaking nonsense—, and Jesus gave them the same proof that he gave Thomas.  Thomas just happened to not be there. But only Thomas is recorded by John to have stated, upon seeing these proofs that Jesus had indeed been raised from the dead, that Jesus was both his Lord and his God. And Thomas’ confession that Jesus is Lord is a big and important thing.  It’s big and important because it means a number of things for the one who confesses it.

To say “Jesus is Lord” is radical.  It’s life changing. And it means that the person making such a confession believes certain things about Jesus.  It means that one believes that Jesus is God, and that Jesus is identified with the God of the Old Testament as well as the New.  It means that when we read the explanations of the Ten Commandments in the Catechism and we say “We should fear, love, and trust God that we may do X,” we’re talking about Jesus there just as much as we are talking about God the Father.  It also means that we really believe what we say about Jesus in the Creed, saying with Luther:

“I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won [delivered] me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, in order that I may be [wholly] His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”

Concordia Triglotta—English: The Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, electronic ed. (Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Publishing House, 1996), 545.

This is how we relate to Jesus if we say that “Jesus is Lord.”  When you confess that “Jesus is Lord,” you are saying that you believe what he says and what he has done, and that you are with him in all things.  Dr. Joel Okamoto at Concordia Seminary says this about the act of confessing one’s faith:

“When one confesses, one declares a commitment. The act of confession is like “stepping forward” or “standing up and being counted.” You step forward for a person, and by that act you commit yourself to the person. If he goes down, you go down. You stand up for a person, and by that act you commit yourself to that person. If she goes on, you go on. Similarly, you confess your faith in someone, and by that act you commit yourself to believing in him. If he comes through, you come through. It is striking that simply by the act of confession—by saying certain words—you do something. Those who utter the sentence: “I confess that Jesus is Lord” have confessed.  Those people have by their confession committed themselves to Jesus Christ. Confessors commit themselves to Jesus Christ, putting themselves under his disposal, and positioning themselves in a certain way against everybody else.”

Okamoto, Joel P., “Making Sense of Confessionalism Today,” Concordia Journal Winter, 2015: 40

We live in a world that does not confess Jesus as Lord, nor do we live in a world that really has a single understanding of who God is.  In our modern world, especially here in the west, the word “God” has become a placeholder. It can mean whatever we want it to mean. Think about the Pledge of Allegiance, for example.  Ignoring the fact that the phrase “under God” was added during the Cold War years to indicate that we, unlike the Soviets, acknowledged a deity, who is the “God” meant in “under God”? Is it the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?  The God Jesus called God? We don’t know— the pledge is vague. Maybe it’s Ba’al or Ishtar or Woden or Zeus. It could be Allah, or Krishna. It could be a bunch of them all together, seeing as some see all deities as reflections or manifestations of a single, divine reality.  My point being that in the modern world, “God” can be anything. “God” could be your smartphone. I know I pay obeisance to mine far too often. That owl on Duolingo is really demanding.

No, Duo, please don’t look at me that way! I hit my daily quota for German, Norwegian, and Esperanto revision! Stop! No! Why are you crying?

But in this day and age, when the normal operating procedure for most people is to live as nihilists, “God” can even be yourself.  Why not, if the idea of God has been made devoid of all meaning and we operate as if God doesn’t really affect our lives? And when “God” becomes a placeholder, it really means that you are placing yourself in the place of God.  It means that you become the one who chooses what or whom is worthy to be called God. It makes God subject to your will and your understanding. But when you do that, you break the first of all the commandments of God by making yourself God, and in that, you stand condemned.  For when you break that first commandment, you break them all.

And this is a universal problem for us.  According to Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment in the Large Catechism, a god is anything we put our trust in for our safety and salvation.  We’re sinful human beings, and the first sin our first parents, Adam and Eve, ever committed was, indeed, to place themselves above God by trusting their own judgment over his and making God subject to their own reason.  We make our own gods every day. We put our trust in governments to care for us and do what we think is best for us. We tie the fate of our nation and indeed our own lives to various politicians’ campaigns. Or we make a god of science and technology— “this new energy technology will save the planet and save all of our lives!”  Sometimes we make gods of our possessions— our vehicles, our weapons, our food, our money. Think of all the time we spend counting our money, tallying our expenses. But all these things ultimately will fail us. They won’t deliver us from our sins. They won’t save us from death and hell. There is no constancy in them.

This is why Thomas’ confession is so important for us to hear.  When Thomas calls Jesus his Lord and his God, he is siding with Jesus, making his identity with him, and trusting in him above all others.  Thomas subordinates himself to Christ— his will, his desires, his hopes— they are all subject to Christ and what he has done. And Thomas trusts that Jesus has indeed been raised from the dead; that he has died for the sins of all mankind and risen again to demonstrate to his disciples and all people that he has been victorious over the powers of death and hell and had freed all people from bondage to these terrible entities.  Thomas and all the disciples received proof of this, in the flesh. They saw Jesus, risen from the dead, standing physically among them, and they believed. Jesus had done just what he said he would do, and they could put their faith in him. All of their misconceptions about Jesus were now disproven. Like Thomas, they could see Jesus and say with Thomas that he truly was not just their lord and master, but their God. They could see that he is the one who gives them real peace, who gives them the Holy Spirit to be their guide and helper, who forgives their sins, and who chooses them to be his ambassadors to the world.  And so, Thomas’ confession becomes the first great confession of the church. Jesus is Lord and God. He is not subject to the world. The world is subject to him.

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” (1600-1641) by Adam van Noort (1562-1641). Saltram House, Plymouth.

And Thomas’ statement of faith in Christ as his Lord and God is a testimony for us.  Thomas tells us who Jesus is. We can make Thomas’ confession our own because Jesus’ promises for us are trustworthy and true.  His death and resurrection are for us just as much as they are for his first disciples. But how do we who live so many centuries removed from this know that Jesus is Lord?  Jesus tells Thomas that those who have not seen him in the flesh and who yet believe are blessed and happy. John then writes to us directly–“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.”  We are those who Jesus calls blessed–we are those for whom John has written his Gospel. We haven’t seen Jesus bodily like Thomas and the other apostles had, but we do have their testimony, and we have Jesus’ promises to us recorded in God’s word.  Not only that, but we have the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, whom Jesus sent to us, and we have the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in which we encounter and receive Christ in his body and blood. And when we trust in these things, that Jesus died for us on Calvary and rose again for us on the third day, we can say with Thomas that Jesus is “our Lord and our God,” and receive his peace, his forgiveness, and his sending.  When we believe that Jesus is our Lord and God, we can trust confidently that he has saved us from the power of death and sin. When we believe that Jesus is our Lord and God, we can confidently tell others about what he has done and share the good news of our salvation in him with them. When we believe that Jesus is our Lord and God, we can have peace with God, and live as his redeemed and beloved children. When we believe that Jesus is Lord and God, we can “be [wholly] His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”

And if you are struggling in your sins, or find yourself looking to inconstant, earthly things for your salvation, Christ’s forgivness and peace is for you, too.  Though Jesus did many things after his resurrection, the testimony you have heard this morning is for you so that you might come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth is your Savior and God.  He desires that you have his peace, dwell with the Holy Spirit, be his ambassador to an unbelieving world, and live a life of forgiveness in him. So have faith in him— he will bless and forgive you, “that you have life in his name.”  This is most certainly true. Amen.