Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Lamb

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (August 20, 2017)
Revelation 5:1-10 – “Lamb”

Today we continue with the Narrative Lectionary’s series on Revelation. To set some context for this reading, as we noted last week, John is imprisoned on the island of Patmos and he’s writing a letter to seven churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). In this apocalyptic letter he recounts this wild and fantastical vision of the cosmic battle between good and evil, this war in heaven that spills over into the events of John’s time.

Boiled down to a single point, John is urging the people in these seven churches to not accommodate the ways of the Roman Empire. These Christians were under intense pressure—social, economic, political, and religious pressure—to blend in with the culture by worshipping the Emperor and his Roman gods. To worship Domitian’s gods was to endorse and declare allegiance to the imperial system, which dominated the known world by brute force. John is basically saying, “Don’t give in! I know you may be persecuted, I know it’s tough, but the ones who endure will reign with God when Christ comes again to sort all this mess out.”

The imagery in this passage is odd and dense, so it might help to follow along on page 248 of your pew Bibles. John is describing his dream of the heavenly throne room when he writes…

Then I saw a scroll in the right hand of the one seated on the throne. It had writing on the front and the back, and it was sealed with seven seals. I saw a powerful angel, who proclaimed in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or look inside it. So I began to weep and weep, because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look inside it.

Then one of the elders said to me, “Don’t weep. Look! The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has emerged victorious so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then, in between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb, standing as if it had been slain. It had seven horns and seven eyes, which are God’s seven spirits, sent out into the whole earth. He came forward and took the scroll from the right hand of the one seated on the throne. When he took the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each held a harp and gold bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They took up a new song, saying,

“You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals,
because you were slain,
and by your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation.
You made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they will rule on earth.”

This is Holy Wisdom, Holy Word… Thanks be to God!


There’s a lot to absorb in there. Scrolls, seals, angels, a Lion, a Lamb, four living creatures, twenty-four elders. What do we make of it?

Interpreters do some very strange and terrible things with the imagery from Revelation. There’s much in the letter that can be warped to suit the needs of whoever’s reading it. The violence, duality between good and evil, demonizing one’s opponents, predicting the future—all of that can be dangerous if placed in the wrong hands. So let me shamelessly see what I can do with it…

If you are into sci-fi, fantasy fiction, or apocalyptic movies, Revelation is your kind of book! Make some time this week to read it if you can because it gets even weirder from here: horses, locusts, dragons, beasts… it’s all in there. It’s a common misconception that each symbol in Revelation has an exact analogue, that there’s a hidden code in it that needs to be cracked. It’s more the case that the writer uses these picture-images, most of them partially based on symbols from the Hebrew Bible, that hold several layered meanings at once.

Take these elders, for example. There are 24 of them: 12 tribes of Israel plus 12 apostles, and 24 hours in the day. Or take the four living creatures: they’re like some creatures Ezekiel described; four seasons, four cardinal directions, animals from the wild, farms, the air, and humans, too. These picture-images are like a multiple choice tests back in school: the best answer is “D, all of the above.”

Let’s focus on the Lamb for a moment. John writes, “Then, in between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb, standing as if it had been slain. It had seven horns and seven eyes…” Who’s the Lamb? Jesus, of course. This picture-image is also layered: it draws meaning from the Passover lamb, the lamb sacrificed daily in the temple in Jerusalem, the sinless lamb from Isaiah, and probably others. It has seven horns, symbolizing power, and seven eyes, symbolizing wisdom. The Lamb is slaughtered, although “executed” would be a better word, executed as in crucified. Are you with me?

“I saw a Lamb, standing as if it had been slain.” The Lamb is standing. Standing in victory. There was a piece of service music that we sang weekly in the Lutheran church in which I grew up and it included the line, based on this passage, “This is is the feast of victory of our God… for the lamb who was slain has begun his reign.” [1]

But here’s the thing: a slain Lamb doesn’t exactly evoke victory does it? That previous image, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, that’s more of a winner! Lions are strong and fierce. John’s readers were familiar with that one because in the Hebrew Bible the Lion signaled God’s promised, conquering Messiah.

I think we’d prefer that one too. It was General George Patton who said when he was rallying the Allied troops before D-Day, “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win all the time.” To win, you’ve got to beat someone. To beat someone, you have to apply force. So the choice is stark and simple: winners use coercion, physical or otherwise, but only losers and weaklings talk about peace.

Slaughtered Lambs don’t win.

While most of us know that most situations aren’t that black and white, “winner takes all” is the prevailing logic these days. I remember a sign I saw at last Sunday’s march against white supremacy: “Save America. Punch a Nazi.” Believe me, I’d love to, but the Christ within me says that’s not helpful in the long run!

But seriously, this is a mentality that affects us on a worldwide scale, with this simmering conflict between the US and North Korea, nuke for nuke. Nationwide, many people would have us believe that if enough people had guns with them, we’d all be safer. We saw it in Charlottesville last week. Disagree with protesters? Get rough with them.

And it’s not just in the political realm, but in the personal, too. There’s the temptation to be a winner in that argument with your co-worker on Facebook. Or to win by spewing vitriol in the comments section of an article. Or by trolling someone relentlessly on Twitter. There’s that temptation to win that stalemate with your spouse by being the one to hold out longer. Don’t apologize or take the first step toward reconciliation, you know. Only losers cave first.

“I saw a Lamb, standing as if it had been slain.” It’s a small sentence, easy to miss, but John is trying to remind the Christians in Asia Minor that they follow the crucified  One. Yes, the Lamb was slain. The Lamb was slain because of his faithful witness to the reign of God, John argues. The same one who said “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” was executed for his radical work of inclusion, justice, and love. [2] True, that’s what can happen when you stand for something. When he was executed, he even said, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.” [3]

John’s also trying to encourage them, reminding them they follow the risen One. In his vision the Lamb is still standing—standing with integrity, standing with courage, standing in the hardwon victory of the long game of love, not the short game of hate.

We still see the Lamb standing.

We see the Lamb standing in everyday situations. Taylor Mali, a teacher and poet, quips:

I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:
Hi. This is Mr. Mali. I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,
I just wanted to talk to you about something your son said today.
To the biggest bully in the grade, he said,
“Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don’t you?
It’s no big deal.”
And that was noblest act of courage I have ever seen.

We saw the Lamb standing in Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, whose steady witness in the face of a fascist government saved thousands of lives. Romero’s words are on a poster back in our narthex: “I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the people.”

We saw the Lamb standing in Lisa Sharon Harper, an author and activist, who helped organize non-violent resisters in Charlottesville last week.  She was talking about how dangerous it was that Saturday when they weren’t sure what would happen one moment to the next. She remarked, “It really felt like every step you take could be your last… With each step, I just kept holding on to the call to love.” In an article about the clergy who were involved that day, when hundreds of them came from all across the country to stand agaisnt white supremacy, some of them were threatened, cussed at, shoved, maced, a reporter wrote that:

As [Harper] stood for hours in front of a line of militia members—who were reportedly instructed not to speak to press or protesters—she says she began to wear him down. When she turned to leave to avoid increasing violence, she addressed the man one last time. “I just want you to know, we love you,” she said.

Harper said the man’s face, grizzled and tired from the day, suddenly softened. After a moment, he replied: “I love you, too.”

The victory of the Lamb is a grand, sweeping, cosmic one, as John of Patmos illustrates, but it manifests in a million small moments when the Lamb’s people “from every tribe language, people, and nation” witness to that victory by choosing peace. That’s a posture that is needed now more than ever in times that are very tense in society and in many of our personal lives. This is a time for boldness, for confronting injustice, but also to clutch tighly onto our call to be instruments of peace, to remember that love is our goal,

To choose peace, John reminds us implicitly, is the truly strong, truly wise route to take. The slain but standing Lamb wins through love, and so shall we.


[1] “This Is the Feast of Victory,” from the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978)
[2] Matthew 5:44, New Revised Standard Version
[3] Luke 23:34, Common English Bible

Featured image: “John’s Vision of Heaven” by Matthias Gerung (16th Century)