Rev. 5: 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 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. 8 And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. 9 And they sang a new song, saying: “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.” 11 Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. 12 In a loud voice they were saying: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” 13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” 14 The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.
When I pastored a church in Minnesota, there was one worship leader who could always be counted on, after reading the Bible passage before the sermon, to drop a question about it on me, usually one for which I was not prepared. She’d say something like, “Let’s see if Pastor Mathew can explain to us why….” Those sermons would then start out with, “Well, uh, uhm….maybe…”
I remember those questions fondly now, even with gratitude for how they sharpened my practice. Now, whenever I prepare a message, I find myself asking, “What curve ball of a question would she throw at me from this passage?” This week I have imagined her reading this passage aloud and then saying, “Let’s see if Pastor Mathew can explain to us “the seven Spirits of God sent out into the earth” in verse 6. They are represented by seven horns and seven eyes on “the Lamb that was slain,” that is, Jesus.
Did anyone else wonder about that? Does that mean that our creeds and confessions should speak of God as a Nine’ety, instead of a Trinity, Father, Son and seven Holy Spirits?
Well, let’s remember that prophecy in the Bible often makes use of very figurative and poetic imagery. So, don’t think of Jesus as really, literally a seven-eyed, seven-horned zombie sheep. That he bears mortal wounds tells us that he has made, or that he is, the perfect sacrifice to end all ritual sacrifices.
As for “the seven spirits of God,” the best explanation I’ve come across is that the phrase, “seven spirits,” comes from the long Hebrew and Christian tradition about seven aspects of the ministry of God’s Spirit in Isaiah 11. It’s a passage that we often hear in Advent, about the coming Messiah:
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
3 and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
The seven horns, or eyes, of God’s Spirit in Hebrew and Christian tradition from Isaiah 11 are seven powers or works or qualities or evidences of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might-or power-, knowledge, the fear of the Lord, and delight, or joy. I won’t go more into those; that would be another sermon, or series of sermons. But any Jewish Christian of John’s time who had gone to Sabbath School might have understood that John’s Lamb with the seven horns and eyes was the Messiah identified in Isaiah 11, who is the bearer of God’s Spirit and his seven-fold ministry.
So, now let’s get into the first question in the bulletin outline: What is this passage about? Long ago, I would have said that this passage is about some event in the future, just before Christ’s return, maybe after the Antichrist shows up. But I eventually gave up on trying to figure out timetables for the events of John’s Revelation. All my attempts to line them up with the news headlines kept crashing and burning.
Another thing that changed that approach was my study of Eastern Orthodox Christian Theology and Bible interpretation. That was my paternal Grandmother’s cultural and spiritual heritage, the one who bought me my fiddle. I learned that our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters do not read John’s Revelation for timetables of the Lord’s return, though they believe in it, of course. Instead, they read Revelation for what it says about worship. That’s why their worship services include incense and icons. Because they believe that worship here and now should somehow copy the pattern of the images, or icons, of heaven that they read in John’s Revelation.
Now I’m not about to recommend that we add incense and icons to our worship commission budget. There are reasons that I’m Mennonite. Yes, I still confess, with the ancient creeds, that “He shall come again to judge the living and the dead.” But I got pushed even further in the direction of the Eastern Orthodox understanding of Revelation when I was at a regular Protestant worship service where, at the end, the worship leader prayed a prayer of benediction for us starting with these words: “And now, Lord, as we go forth from this time and place of worship into the real world….”
And that’s where he lost me. That was as far as I could pray with him, when he said, “the real world.” As though our time and place of worship was “the unreal world,” or “the fake world.”
“Oh,” I thought, “by ‘the real world,’ do you mean the world of artificial intelligence? Of virtual reality, of advertising and of politics that appeal to our false selves with false promises? The world of ‘alternative facts,’ and of computer generated special effects, now getting so good that we can’t tell the real thing from a digitally modified picture anymore? In which my phone rings, and I think it’s a neighbor or a friend calling, but, instead, a computer algorithm has spoofed the number and it’s actually, “Rachel from card members’ services” telling me that this is my last chance at a really good credit card rate, again, for the fifth time that day? All the sham, scam and spam we have to sift through? Is that the real world?’”
If so, then the world which John the Revelator saw around “the Lamb who was slain” is infinitely more real. For it is timeless, eternal, holy and sinless, 100 % truthful, all light with no shifting shadows, distortions nor illusions because of the direct presence and the blessed vision of the God in whom there is no shadow of turning.
In this passage, John the Revelator has given us an icon, or an image, like those in my grandmother’s home church in Eastern Slovakia, but an icon or image in words and symbols, of the real world, real because of the real and sincere worship of the real and true God. What makes the world we were going back into, after worship, not quite so real, is the worship of so many false gods. In answer to the first question in my outline, this passage is about the real “real world.”
As for the second question: Why did John’s disciples need this written image, or icon, of “the real world?” Basically, because of the influence of all the false gods being worshiped around them. The disciples of John the Revelator lived in cities and communities dedicated to the worship Mars, the god of war and violence, to the worship of Diana or Venus, the goddess of erotic pleasure, the worship of Mammon, the god of wealth, and, increasingly, the worship of the emperors, the Caesars, who were proclaimed and worshiped as gods or “the sons of the gods.” An immutable spiritual law is that we become like whoever or whatever we worship. Worship false gods and we will become ever more false selves.
John’s verbal, written icon or image of the true worship of the true God in the real world challenges those other gods and goddesses and the worship of them. But it also mirrors the language of emperor worship, and of the worship of war and the war god, Mars, with phrases like, “Worthy are you to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” and, “Yours are people from every tribe, tongue and nation.” That was familiar language to those who burned incense and offered prayers and praise and sacrifices to Mars or to Rome’s Emperors.
But it mirrors them only up to a point. Because John’s icon, or image of “the real world” pulls some stunningly subversive reversals of the language of Roman idol worship and emperor worship. For the Lamb being worshiped is found worthy for shedding his own blood, not the blood of his subjects nor his foes. Nor does this Lamb just lord it over his subjects; he shares his royal status with his worshipers, who proclaim: “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” forever. That’s another subversive reversal of emperor worship, because the emperors also claimed the title of “Supreme Priest.” In “the real world,” the Lamb shares his titles, powers and honors, of royalty and priesthood, with all his subjects, whatever their status or wealth or power in this world.
That’s one reason why John’s friends and disciples needed this image, or icon, of the real world: by unmasking, subverting and reversing the worship of false gods, like the emperors, John the Revelator shows us who our real ruler truly is, and who we really are, and so become who we are truly meant to be: royalty and priests along with the Lamb, joint heirs of his graces and glory.
John’s friends would need this icon, or image, in words all the more also because their world was becoming more militant and merciless against them by the day. John himself had this vision while in exile for his faith on an island in the Mediterranean Sea. His Revelation includes monsters who demand worship, and who make martyrs of those who worship and follow the Lamb who was slain.
Twenty centuries later, we need John’s image and icon of true and sincere worship every bit as much as did his First Century friends. Which sets up the third question: “Why do we need these images, or icons, of the real world today?”
I can think of three reasons. One reason struck me when I was a hiking guide and interpretive naturalist long ago in Grand Teton National Park. One tour group I led included a friendly older gentleman with whom I talked at length afterward. When I told him about my interest in going to seminary and studying for the ministry, he said, “I was a Christian minister once, but I left the ministry when I finally had to admit that the faith was neither logical, scientific nor credible. There were just too many primitive, prescientific and unprovable things for me to swallow any more. And I certainly had no right to push all that magical mumbo-jumbo on anyone else.”
But then he started trying to evangelize me for his brand of New Age, nature mysticism. He even said, “Let me stand back here a ways and see if I can read your aura.” In case you’re wondering, by the way, he said I emanated a reasonably good aura. That was an awkward kind of compliment.
That ironic encounter goes to show how, however secular and scientific our world becomes, we humans remain stubbornly mystical and religious, with a need to worship looking for an object of worship. As the church goes through a purifying decline in numbers, power and prestige today, it seems like new versions of the old gods and goddesses are coming back in new guises. These gods, old and new, are increasingly militant and merciless, as they were in John’s day. Even agencies of the United Nations have expressed alarm at the rising toll of persecution against Christians in places like China, the Middle East and in the drug-and-gang-infested areas of Central America. Again, one reason why we need John’s vision of “the real world” is because the false gods of our world of illusions are very much alive and well and demanding our worship.
A second reason why we need to ponder John’s vision of “the real world,” is more unique to our day and age. I spoke of it two weeks ago, in my message about ideological possession. In our increasingly feverish and rabidly, avidly ideological age, in which people shout shallow, simplistic slogans and partisan talking points at each other on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, it’s easy to turn Christian worship into another platform for one ideology or another.
When you think of it, any human ideology might have just enough in common with Jesus, his values and his teachings, to sneak into church under Christian camouflage. Then, under the influence of this ideology, we may plan and carry out worship for the sake of baptizing our favored ideology with Christian vocabulary and a few Bible texts, so as to make worshipers more liberal or conservative, progressive or patriotic, more capitalist or socialist, more Republican or Democratic, you name it. Then you have worship directed at the worshipers, not at God, and for the pleasure and honor of the preacher, not of God. We need John’s image of “the real world” to keep Christian worship from becoming unchristian, and ideological instead.
A third reason we need John’s icon, or image of “the real world,” today, is that of all the things that any church does, worship is the one thing we’ll do forever. When the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, we won’t be doing Sunday School, potlucks, food drives and many of the other wonderful things that we do now, as much as I love them. But I don’t think we will miss them, because we will be worshiping in the timeless, endless joy of the union of adoration and celebration with God and the Lamb who was slain. In “the real world.”
Those are some reasons why a change is being proposed to our Vision Statement. It’s a sight change in wording, but, I believe, a very significant one: the simple phrase, “worshiping God.” For all my nearly six years here, I have remained very impressed and happy with Zion’s vision statement. My first sermons here gave you my take on our vision statement, phrase by phrase. But I never mentioned worship in those sermons, because the vision statement doesn’t mention them, either. I wonder if that’s because everyone just understood that worship is just what we do. That’s why I overlooked its absence.
No one means for the addition of “worshiping God” to take away from all the other wonderful things named in our vision statement, like “extending our Anabaptist branch into the world,” and “hospitality, service and reconciliation with God and others.” Those are superb ways of defining us in relation to the world and to other churches. But adding “worship” to the vision statement helps define us in relation to God. I think we need reminders of that today. I sure do.
I would also hope that adding “worshiping God” to the vision statement helps us see those other things in our vision statement as acts of worship which we carry outside of this sanctuary into the world, seven days a week.
And, as I started to get a handle recently on the increasingly militant, merciless, and, yes, religious, nature of ideology today, in both the world and the church, I also came to understand how Christian worship could become the handmaid of worldly ideologies– and sometimes does– rather than the antidote to ideological possession. I’ve had to sit and wonder, Have I ever been guilty of that in worship planning? God forbid.
And the world is not getting friendlier to Christ, the Lamb who was slain. To worship this mortally wounded Lamb, is, to the world, a subversive reversal and inversion of the worship of the false gods of war, pleasure, power and prosperity, and so inoculate us from the worship of false gods and ideologies. Another good reason to name worship overtly as part of our Vision Statement is that we might own this calling to be God’s worshipers, and accept whatever cost that might entail.
So, for the last question: How do we enter this really real world? Actually, the real world is coming to us, whether we want it or not. “The real world” came to John the Revelator, as he says in the first chapter, “on the Lord’s Day,” that is, on the Sabbath, while in prayer and worship. John heard the voice of Jesus, and saw a vision of him, while in worship. That’s when he said that he saw the door to heaven open up for him, and saw “the real world.”
But if you’ve never had John’s kind of thrilling, earth-shaking experiences in worship, that makes at least two of us. Worship finally is not about us nor own feelings or experiences. Worship is about the One who alone is worthy. For that is what the word “worship” means. It comes from the Old English word, “worth-ship,” and means to proclaim the worthiness, or worth-ship, of the One being worshiped.
Till we “shall know as we are known,” and see as clearly as John did “the real world,” our imperfect, muddled, distracted worship in our incomplete, muddled and distracted state, is still worthwhile, even necessary. Think of our worship services as rehearsals for the real thing in the real world. Or think of us as children, playing dress-up with our parents’ clothing. The shoes and the shirts are too big for us, the sleeves drag on the floor, and the hats come down over our eyes. But our heavenly Father would never say, “Take those off! You look stupid in them!” God, I believe, says, “How delightful! I see the worshiper you shall be for eternity, even if you can’t. So, keep it up. You’ll grow into those robes and crowns as joint heirs of Jesus, sharing his royalty and priesthood.”
In a way, “the real world” is here already, if the Lamb and the Spirit of God are here. We enter the “real world” now in the same way John did: in prayer and worship. Or, at the very least, we approach it, and practice for it, in prayer and worship. But if, sometime, something in a hymn, a testimony, a word of praise or of lament should ring something in your spirit like a bell from heaven, or touch you briefly with a caress of heaven’s cool, refreshing breeze, or bear a whiff of heaven’s sweet incense, like when a hymn brings a tear to the eye, a catch in the throat or a chill up the spine, know that “the real world” is breaking in on you like it did for John. At least, it is doing so for however much we can endure, and are ready for, in our current divided and distracted state. Such moments are pure gift, not to be earned, engineered, demanded nor manipulated. And yet, by standing together at the threshold to the real world, with faith, hope and love, that put us in reach of the real world. That world is no farther away than a prayer or a hymn of worship in our hearts and on our lips.