There is a tradition within both Christian and Jewish theology of saying that God doesn’t exist. Sounds provocative, doesn’t it—God doesn’t exist? God doesn’t exist, it is said, in the sense that existence is a property of things. A building exists, your thoughts exist, but both of these share in the sense that they have been caused and that they are part of the created order. God by definition is different. God doesn’t share those things. So, it can be argued, God doesn’t exist. Which isn’t to say that God is not; rather, it’s to say that God simply is. Those things that do exist do so within the is-ness of God. Think about it again; it isn’t as provocative or as complicated as it seems at first.
Here’s my reason for starting with this bit of philosophy: much of the book of Revelation can have a similar effect. Just as this thought about God’s non-existence can broaden our understanding of what we mean when we say ‘God’, so can the imagery and the liturgy of the book of Revelation. However, this happens bests when we realize that we’re encountering imaginative images, scenes that strain to bear witness to the truth, not photographs of God or video of the future. A Lamb slaughtered, a God who does not exist: we realize our view of God is too small.
Here’s a quick outline of John’s book, just to get us oriented: As we noted last week, it begins with observations about the church, seven real churches that also stand for Christians throughout time (through c. 3). Then John of Patmos offers a description of Jesus as the key to history (c. 4-5). This is followed by a series of visions, several repeating the same theme, that depict the challenges to faithfulness throughout history. Each of them depict the allegiance demanded by empires but culminate with the worship of God (c.6-16). Finally, there is a depiction of the heavenly banquet a final reckoning (c. 17-20) and then the joining of heaven and earth (c.21-22).
Today our attention is drawn to chapters four and five. In these chapters there are several doxologies praising God. These sections are better experienced in worship than simply read. The vision of these chapters is of a heavenly court. It’s quite fantastic:
At once I was in the spirit and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne. And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads.
John goes on to describe lightning, rumbling, peals of thunder, flaming torches and so on.
There’s something we need to recognize here. Last week I described John’s visions as symbols or metaphors and the whole book as something like a comic book or a political cartoon. The main point is that apocalyptic literature like Revelation isn’t pretending to show us a video of some other time and place. John’s apocalypse isn’t a newsreel from the future. John gives us a series of signs, images that stand for something else or even multiple things.
Here is a second bit of philosophy: The American philosopher C. S. Pierce has something helpful to tell us about how signs work. Pierce had a hard time interacting with people, but his grasp of logic was impressive. Pierce says that ‘signs’ are generally one of three types. First, a sign can function as an icon. An iconic sign uses an image related or resembling what is being signified. Think of the sign for recycling or a sign beside the road alerting you to a bump or grooves in the pavement. Second, Pierce says we have signs that function as indexes. An index is a sign correlated to what it signifies. Think of a weather vane or of smoke that signifies the presence of a fire. Last, Pierce tell us that some signs work as symbols. A symbol signifies something simply by convention. We all agree that a green light tells us to go or that a dollar sign represents currency. To read Revelation well we need to be alert for all three of these: icons, indexes and symbols. This doesn’t mean we can ‘figure it all out’. There’s still lots of mystery and lots that challenges us, but Pierce’s insights help us read the book with more integrity than we often do.
The twenty-four elders of Revelation chapter four, then, are an icon representing the people of God, the twelve tribes of Israel plus the twelve core disciples of Jesus. The seven torches symbolize the fullness of God’s Spirit. The vision of John is not a photograph of anything, but a wildly representational collection of icons and symbols. The words intoned by the six-winged creatures full of eyes give us the meaning:
Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.
John’s vision of the heavenly throne is a picture of God’s otherness and mystery. It is an icon of God’s power and otherness.
The crux of this iconic vision occurs in chapter five. One of these worshiping elders asks if someone can open the scroll. The scroll, we believe based on what follows, represents the meaning of history. Ancient scrolls were sealed with wax, at least the important ones were. They were sealed with wax so that they couldn’t be opened without the tampering being obvious. The scroll in John’s apocalypse had seven seals. It was top secret.
Now we have to be careful with this idea. I’m convinced that one of the least helpful things we can say when someone is suffering is “everything happens for a reason.” In a recent issue of the New York Times Kate Bowler describes her experience of being diagnosed with cancer shortly after writing a book on the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel is the idea that God wants Christians to be healthy and rich here and now; if you are not it’s your fault. You can see the challenges this creates for someone diagnosed with a serious form of cancer. Kate Bowler says that when well-wishers show up at their house and tell her and her husband that “everything happens for a reason” her husband often intervenes. He is apparently a Mennonite fellow from Manitoba: he asks them what that reason is. It’s a valid question. Score one for prickly Manitoba Mennonites. The scroll in John isn’t about the nitty-gritty of human limitation and it isn’t about some idea that every little thing that happens to us has some beautiful purpose. It isn’t giving us some neat rationale for the fact that our bodies are frail and break down. Sometimes the ballo hits the fan. (Who remembers their Koine Greek idioms from a couple of months ago?) The scroll is about the big picture. It’s about how we might think of suffering writ large. It’s about the macro question of what creation is for.
That’s a question that’s important to press. It’s a question we think about in the setting of a faith community. The sciences can’t tell us. The market can’t tell us. Sadly, even most of our universities have sidelined this ultimate question. But what can tell us? Who can open the scroll? That is John’s question in chapter five. John weeps because it looks like the scroll will remain sealed, but then one of the elders tells him not to weep. John expects the arrival of some authoritative and powerful beast, maybe even something ferocious. That isn’t what shows up. John sees a “Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.”
A Lamb—an iconic sign for Jesus. Where we would expect something obviously powerful, we get a vulnerable domestic creature that gets lost and that can drown in a bucket. And this particular specimen, John notes, had already been killed.
We sometimes worry that the book of Revelation encourages violence. It has been read that way, and some have even went so far as to say John’s theology can’t line up with the Jesus of the gospels. But I’m not convinced; I’m not convinced that this text inherently encourages us to be violent. If we want to do violent things to others we can probably find phrases in the book to sooth our guilty conscience but that’s about it. In Revelation the saints are not those who take up weapons, they are those who endure. They are the ones who aren’t deceived by the evil system’s propaganda. They are the ones who aren’t taken in by the corrupting economics of the empire.
The most significant thing, though, in defense of John’s apocalypse is that the Incarnate God is depicted as a Lamb. Revelation tells us that ultimate justice is in the hands of God. There’s no room for revenge. Even so, it’s important to notice that John isn’t a Pollyanna or a preacher of positive thinking. The Lamb had the appearance of having been killed. This is not some naive cuddly view of the world. It is true that we celebrate Easter with little rabbits, chicks and lambs, but those symbols are from the mythology of springtime. The Lamb of the Christian Easter isn’t cuddled. He suffers with the untold millions of God’s creatures who have also suffered.
This Lamb is not worthy to open the scroll because it’s cute or because it blesses everyone with a sprinkling of fairy dust. The Lamb is worthy because it has taken the worst that the power of evil can do and emerged victorious. Make no mistake, the Lamb is symbolic of divine power. When the Lamb takes the scroll six-winged creatures full of eyes sing: “You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals . . . .” And they proclaim that the Lamb has brought people from every tribe and every language and from every people group. What a grand thing! The Lamb’s triumph is not the victory of one ethnic group or one economic group. It is the victory of God’s patient love.
And then comes the passage assigned by the lectionary. John looks on and he sees a huge crowd of angels, myriads of myriads. They sing with full voice: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered.” Then John hears something. He hears every creature on earth, in the sky, in the ground, in the sea—the snowy owl and the earthworm, the javelina and the blue whale—every creature that we would say is just an animal, every one sings:
To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!
And then the six-winged creatures shout “Amen!” And the elders fall down and worship.
It’s implausible, of course. It’s supposed to be that way. We aren’t just talking about the arrival of a new piece of furniture. This isn’t about your chance to order a ‘reasonably-priced’ Tesla. It’s about God and the one whose life cuts through the clutter. The first shoot of spring to plow through the still-cold dirt of death.
* * *
Seventy years or so before John’s vision Peter was in a boat with other disciples. They had fished all night; they had tossed their nets into the ‘Sea’ of Tiberias again and again. The ‘Sea of Tiberias’ is another name for the Sea of Galilee, which is really a lake. Anyway, as we read, it was just after daybreak, Peter had taken off his clothes. I presume he did that because hauling nets was wet work. It must have been fairly warm too. Have you ever seen the Discovery Channel show Deadliest Catch? It takes place off the coast of Alaska. I can’t imagine any of those crews following Peter’s sartorial example. The Sea of Tiberias must have been warmer.
It was just after daybreak when the men saw a figure on the shore. The figure hollered at them and suggested trying the other side of the boat. Now, one would imagine that these tired fishermen didn’t take the advice without mumbling some pretty salty things under their breath. But they did it, and wouldn’t you know, the net was full to bursting with fish. John says to Peter, “that must be Jesus.” And then it hits Peter, hits him like a net full of fish. “Of course it is! Of course it is!” He pulls on his Ninja Turtle boxers and jumps into the sea. He’s in such a hurry to see Jesus that he hurls himself over the side of boat and splashes his way to shore.
When do we do that? When are we swept up in adulation like that? Maybe at a concert or a major sporting event.
The Greek term that stands behind the NRSV’s “jump” is this word ballo. It’s the same word used to describe Jesus ‘pouring’ water into a basin to wash the disciple’s feet, and the same word for the solders ‘casting’ lots for Jesus’ clothes, and for Thomas ‘putting’ his finger in Jesus’ wounded side. Here in John 21 it’s the word used for ‘casting’ the nets into the sea. And now Peter casts himself in. Peter is like those winged creatures; he is like those twenty-four elders; he is like those myriads of angles. They sing and bow; Peter hurls himself into the sea. All in recognition of Jesus.
Worship is a leap into the sea. Not that it’s irrational; not that it’s spontaneous. Worship is something we cultivate and it’s something that we put our minds to. But worship is a bit like love. It orients how we use our reason and it sets the trajectory for our spontaneity. When we worship something we give ourselves to it. In worship we find a place to lower the volume of our skepticism and recognize something greater than ourselves. In worship we find our smallness and our dependency. We hurl ourselves into the sea of divinity because our hearts burst with the beauty of the world and because they are broken by the sadness of life.
The creatures of John’s vision worship in a huge, dramatic context. When I think of finding smallness as a worshiping creature I’m reminded of the time I visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The tradition is that in the second century a church was built over top of the cave where Jesus was born. Apparently it was common for herders to keep cattle in caves. When you visit the Church of the Nativity you have to stoop to enter through a very small door. Then you enter a large worship space. It’s dim and cool. When your eyes adjust and you explore a little you can find steps that lead down into the grottos below the church. I did that once when there were only a few visitors. I sat there contemplating the spot where Jesus entered the world. (It might not have been there but that’s as good a spot as any to commemorate it.) It was just me and an elderly nun sitting in the grotto. It felt like we were at the center of the world, like the tectonic plates were over our heads. It felt like the cave was packed with angels. We sat there in quiet, the two of us and the angels. We all looked at the spot in amazement.
In the eighth chapter of Revelation the Lamb opens the scroll’s seventh seal, and we are told “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” Worship isn’t always about making things happen, singing on key or hammering together a service. Sometimes it’s about silence . . . or jumping into the sea. In either case it’s about the submission of our agenda.
A final and closing, philosophical note: One of the things I gather from Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age is that worship is hard for modern people. It hard because we live within an imminent frame. Our understanding of things is squared off by what we can touch and see. It no longer goes without saying that there is something out there to worship. For people in an earlier age it was simply assumed that there must be some broader context to life, but we moderns have built a different frame. We read from a different scroll.
We don’t hurl ourselves into the sea in worship; we don’t bow down or sing instinctively. We hesitate. We calculate. For us there is a choice to be made about whether to worship something beyond this world or not. It isn’t that as a culture we lost our naiveté or have finally now gotten beyond the stupidity of other eras. No, this choice we live with is a creation of the modern way of thinking. However, we can’t go back. We can’t make worship as natural as eating or kissing. We can’t make it as easily sublime as fishing or baseball or baking bread. We can’t do that, but neither can we ignore the haunting thought that there is a God who is, that there is something or someone that sets loose the mouths of six-winged creatures and evokes songs from myriads of heavenly messengers. And sometimes we look up and we recognize what’s more Real than our doubts and we jump.
Later we figure out what that was all about.