incense

Worshiping What We See

When I introduced this series on Revelation last week, I told you there would be symbolism. Lots of it.

This week, we’ve skipped past the letters to the churches—they in and of themselves are worthy of a sermon series—and returned to scenes of heavenly worship. Revelation 5:11-14 concludes some of the most powerful worship imagery you will find anywhere in the Bible.

In chapter 4, John begins to paint this astonishing, brightly colored portrait of worship with a view of God, who is the audience for all worship. Well, John attempts to give us a view of God, anyway. He is like a man who has stared into the sun and then, fully dazzled, tried to describe what he saw. His symbols reflect the nature of God, holy and burning inside against sin, but surrounded by an emerald rainbow. This last touch brings what New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger once described as a soothing sense of mercy to the overall impression.

Remember this one important fact about biblical symbolism: Whatever you “see” barely begins to describe the reality of what is most true and real. When God burns against sin, it is a fire we can never come close to imaging; when God offers mercy, it abounds in ways beyond our comprehension.

There are other mysteries, easier to gaze upon but nearly as perplexing. It is debatable who the 24 elders surrounding the throne represent. Perhaps they are 12 patriarchs from the Old Testament and the 12 apostles of the New Testament, standing as witnesses to the covenants God has used to bring sinful humanity home. What is important is that even though they have crowns given to them by God, they cast them down in worship, remembering the source of all goodness and power.

And then there are those peculiar beings called the “living creatures,” six-winged and full of eyes. They are your eternal choir directors, leading worship in heaven. No need for preachers here; what preachers declare on earth will be fully evident in heaven. I guess I’ll have to learn to sing.

Perhaps strangest image is the one called “The Lion of Judah.” Surprisingly, he appears as a seven-horned, seven-eyed lamb with all the markings of having been slaughtered. This, of course, is another image of the Christ, very different from the image we had last week. His description initially makes him seem weak, but he is the only being in heaven able to open a scroll with seven seals.

All these “sevens” are marks of God’s holy completeness—remember, numbers in Revelation always have a symbolic meaning. The scroll itself is a symbol of God’s will fully expressed. Only Jesus could unroll it. That is, only Jesus could grasp the full intent of God’s will. Only Jesus could go to the cross and carry out a plan of sacrifice, a sacrifice good enough for all people, giving those who believe eternal life.

We also see something particularly glorious and meaningful to us now, right now, as we worship where we are. For we participate in this vision, too. We are told that in the heavenly worship, there are bowls of incense, which represent the prayers of believers worshiping on earth.

I find that image particularly comforting. Think about it: All your fears, all your worries, all your desires, all your pleadings, all your cries for justice, all your pleas for mercy and forgiveness—all of them make their way into worship in heaven. Heaven and earth come together in worship.

I don’t know how you each individually feel about worship. Some of you look forward to it, craving it each week. Some of you, I suspect, find elements of it or perhaps all of it boring. I’m sorry I cannot bring you the creatures and the millions of angels and the slain lamb in full each Sunday. But I do pray you can close your eyes now and then, open your hearts, and sense something greater than the world we plod through each day.

This portion of Revelation is a call to us to fully embrace what’s going on in any kind of worship. We participate in a greater glorification of God, and we prepare ourselves for the day when we are in a doubtless, overwhelming kind of worship, the kind of experience we will never want to leave.

I pray we walk away from this earthly worship with a sense of hope and of a great victory still to come.


The featured image is “Homage to the Lamb,” a folio from the Bamberg Apocalypse, c. 1000.

 

A View of Heaven

Fourth in a Sermon Series

Fourth in a Sermon Series

Revelation 4:1-11

Pay attention now. I’m going to tell you up front what really needs to be heard today.

The door is open. The door remains open.

When John of Patmos looked through the door, what did he see? Well, God, of course. And despite seeing, he could not find words for what he saw. The best he could do was describe exotic items of our world—jasper, carnelian, emerald, crystal—and say they somehow look like God and what surrounds God in heaven.

John’s vision reminds me of Plato’s allegory of the cave, written 380 years before Christ. Plato compared unschooled people to people who have lived all their lives shackled in a cave, their backs to the opening, seeing nothing but shadows against the wall before them. The shadows would be their reality.

If one of these prisoners were to break his shackles and escape through the cave’s mouth, he would find reality incomprehensible. There would be no way initially to connect the movement of the beings and objects outside with the shadows that had seemed so real. And if the man were to go back to his shackled friends and try to explain, they would think him mad.

John of Patmos was like Plato’s escaped prisoner. Instead of a cave opening, he looked through the open door of heaven. And he found it very difficult to describe in words what he witnessed.

There are aspects of his vision that remain familiar, however, and we’re reminded we can get at least a glimpse through the open door. We have moments where we’re lifted just high enough to briefly peek over the threshold, particularly in worship and prayer.

In John’s view of heaven, God is the point of worship, as God should be here on earth. In heaven, beings both bizarre and familiar to us sing of God’s holiness and exist in a constant state of pure and perfect worship.

There also is evidence in John’s vision that our worship here lets us participate in worship there. As we read on into chapter 5, we see the prayers of the saints—those of us here on earth—used as incense, our smoky praises and petitions floating before God.

We also see Christ in the midst of this vision, described as the “Lion of Judah” but appearing as a slain lamb. He passed through the door and came our way to be with us and die for our sins, and then returned through it at the ascension, carrying our humanity with him. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, he has complete power over our fates and how history is to unfold.

Yes, the strangeness of the vision is surprising, but just as surprising is how we are connected to what goes on in heaven. That’s why it makes sense that we have those moments where we feel God’s presence in difficult-to-explain ways.

Whew—that’s a lot of ethereal thinking. But the point of this sermon series is to talk about what’s in it for us now, how we benefit from church involvement in an immediate, temporal way.

Well, a view of heaven changes everything, doesn’t it? At least for as long as we can remember the view, hold onto it, cherish it, and revisit it through worship and prayer.

A view of heaven should make everything look different. People who look lost suddenly have infinite potential. Situations that look hopeless are full of promise.

This shift in thinking happens because we see those people and situations against the backdrop of the open door. The light that shines through, twinkling as if it has passed through jasper and carnelian and crystal, makes us a people who live like we are infinitely hopeful.

God’s hope, embedded in your heart, will change for the better everything that shapes your life—your planning, your decisions big and small, your relationships. A view of heaven is a constant benefit of being in the body of Christ.