sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 11/21/2010
[audio link not yet available]
Invitation to open to Revelation, chapter 4.
The last book of the bible was written by a pastor who had been sent into exile on the Isle of Patmos, 13 square miles of land off the coast of Greece, in the Aegean Sea. The pastor is named John, and tradition holds that he is the same John who wrote the 4th Gospel, the gospel of John. In Greek, the original language of the New Testament, the book is called "the Apocalypse". Although apocalypse is often used by people to refer to the end of the world, that’s not what it means. Apocalypse just means "to lay bare, to make naked, to reveal, as in the lifting of a veil." Which is why we call it the book of Revelation. There are things going on around us that are hidden, covered in a veil, as it were, but if we could see them as they really are, there would be power in beholding them.
Revelation is written in a unique style, using a particular kind of language, common at the time, but uncommon today, called apocalyptic language. Which can make Revelation seem foreign to us, intimidating, inaccessible, mysterious, wild - especially since we are accustomed to reading in order to gain information. Apocalyptic literature, however, is not written primarily to give us information. It's designed to engage our imaginations, so that we can see the truth that is hidden behind the veil of our ordinary lives and world.
Wendell Berry writes: The imagination is our way into the divine imagination, permitting us to see wholly - as whole and holy - what we perceive as scattered, as order what we perceive as random.
Eugene Peterson says of the book of Revelation: Everything in the Revelation can be found in the previous 65 books of the Bible. The Revelation adds nothing of substance to what we already know. The truth of the gospel is already complete, revealed in Jesus Christ. There is nothing new to say on the subject. But there is a new way to say it. I read the Revelation not to get more information, but to revive my imagination. St. John uses words the way poets do, recombining them in fresh ways so that old truth is freshly perceived...Familiarity dulls my perceptions. Hurry scatters my attention. Ambition fogs my intelligence. Selfishness restricts my range. Anxiety robs me of appetite. Envy distracts me from what is good and blessed right before me. And then St. John's apocalyptic vision brings me to my senses, body and soul.
This morning we are going to look at chapters 4 and 5 of revelation to see what it means to be brought to our senses about worship. This very thing we do on Sunday mornings, or in our cars, or in our small groups, or with our families, or alone walking through the woods. Worship. What is really going on in worship? What's the point? Why do we do it? When we worship, what's happening, anyway?
Keep in mind, what you are going to see is an apocalyptic picture - a revealing picture - not a literal picture. In other words, the scene that will be described is not intended to be what we see if we were to take a photograph of the worship going on to God; it's intended to be an artistic rendering of what goes on in worship that helps us see what a photograph might not reveal. For example, there is a picture of a lamb with 7 horns and 7 eyes. Does that mean there actually exists a lamb with 7 horns and 7 eyes? Not at all. It means that the person represented by the lamb has perfect authority and sees reality perfectly, as it really, truly is.
It is through our imagination that we are woken up, that the revelation of truth happens, so let us begin with our imaginations fully engaged to receive what Jesus wants us to receive today...
Look around you. You see the walls, the pews, the carpet, the people, yourself, the windows, some of the landscape around. The lights, the roof. Your eyes see accurately enough, but not truly enough. What if there is more to see this morning than your eyes are capable of perceiving? What if you could be awakened through your imagination to truth hidden by these familiar, ordinary sights? May you and I, may all of us together, share in an apocalypse today...
[play Revelation 4&5 composition, inviting congregation to join their voices to the 5 songs contained in it...]
4 After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” 2At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. 3And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne. 4Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. 5From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. 6Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.
In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. 7The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. 8Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying:
“ ‘Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,’
who was, and is, and is to come.”
9Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, 10the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:
11“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.”
The Scroll and the Lamb
5 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. 2And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” 3But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. 4I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. 5Then 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.”
6Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center before 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. 7He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. 8And 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. 9And 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
members of every tribe and language and people and nation.
10You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”
11Then 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. 12In 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!”
13Then 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!”
14The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.
The throne. Everything revolves around the throne.
Our attention is drawn at first to the throne at the center of the picture.
John says he sees a door standing open. It must be open to something. The first thing we wonder is: what is on the other side of that door? And then there is an invitation: Come up here and I will show you what must take place after this. We're curious, breathless, anticipating, what will we see?
And what do we see?
A throne. Occupied by an initially nameless and extraordinary someone. And all of the action starts at the throne, and comes from the throne, and centers around the throne, and flows back to the throne. Lightning. Rumbles. Peals of thunder. Pulsing, dynamic power, emanating from the center of the scene, crashing outward, rippling back again. Lamps, blazing light, rainbows, a sea of glass.
Then, our attention goes to those surrounding the throne.
Twenty four other thrones. Elders dressed in white with crowns on their heads.
And a tireless zoological quartet. Living creatures, with eyes and wings aplenty.
Not to mention Angels. Myriads of them, thousands, tens of thousands of angels. Filling the stands.
And from the upper decks and the parking lots and the apartment buildings surrounding the stadium, there is a roar. The voices of every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them.
All of them, around the throne and the one seated on the throne. All of them worshipping. Laying down crowns. Falling down. Surrendered,
Eyes and voices fixed on the throne, on the center of everything.
Notice what this scene does to our attention: starting with the center, moving out to take in the scene, back to the center, then back out further and further, then back to the center, waves coming from and crashing back towards the center. The center of the scene is now the center of our attention.
When our imaginations take in this scene, we cannot help but become aware of one undeniable fact.
We are not the center.
There is a center to the universe, to life, to power and activity, to all that is and ever has been and ever will be and all that happens and has happened and is yet to happen. And we are not it.
The throne at the center is not ours and we are not on it.
And the whole universe is not standing at attention in response to us. The whole universe is not giving us its worship. Not me. Not you either. Not anyone in the Milan News Leader or the New York Times or the Washington Post or People magazine or Forbes or Rolling Stone or Sports Illustrated or even Marvel Comics.
John's apocalypse lays bare the reality that the universe is preoccupied with only one throne, and with the one seated on that throne. And when we enter into worship, we too are invited to be preoccupied and reoccupied. [Mackinac Island, guy one with nature...]
First and foremost, when we enter into worship, we are reminded that we are not the center.
When you awoke this morning, there was an open door before you. An opportunity to escape a false world that had been built up around you where you were the center of everything, and step into the true world, the real world, where there is another center, a worthy center.
When you joined together with your sisters and your brothers, you joined together with others who were, like you, escaping that false world, leaving it behind to plant your feet firmly in the universe that has a glorious center, a gravity that will never fail to hold it together.
And when the first note was played, and you joined your voices in the first words, you said, loudly enough for your self to hear: "Self, you are not the center of the universe. There is a throne, and there is someone on it, and it is not you."
We need to know this. We need to be reminded of this regularly. We are not the center. This is freedom. This is life for us. We are not the center. Hallelujah!
Think about your responsibilities, your work, the place you go to earn a living, the children you spend the day caring for, the household you run. The stress, the challenges, the pressure, the anxieties. Like it's all coming down on you.
Think about your relationships. Your friends, your family, the people that matter in your life. The drama, the concerns, the fine lines you walk, the judgments, the worries, the demands placed on you.
Think about your inner life. The struggles, the hopes, the confusion, the striving, the doubts, the pressure you place on yourself, the hopelessness that sometimes creeps in.
And then you are awakened to this simple fact. You are not the center. It's not all about you. You are not the center of your work. You are not the center of your relationships. You are not even the center of your own life.
Can you feel the freedom that truth brings? The fresh breeze that washes over you as you awaken to that truth?
As long as we are the center of anything that God is meant to be the center of, our destruction is inevitable. Not because God will come and kick us out, but because we are no longer under the influence of his gravity, no longer connected to the waves of life emanating from his throne. It happens gradually to us at first, but it does happen, sure as the sun sets in the west. It is the first thing the snake said to Eve. "You won't die...your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God." What he was saying, in essence, was: God isn't the only one fit to be on the throne; why don't you make your own throne and sit on it?
The experience of being the center is intoxicating at first. But is always dangerous to be intoxicated, despite its allure. That balloon will always pop. It happens so often to celebrities and athletes and the ego driven and the power hungry. [kids at their own birthday party...]
When we are the center, when we become pretenders to the throne, when it occurs to us that worship would be a nice thing to receive, then Shalom is disrupted, and life leaks from us at an accelerated pace.
Others are there to be taken from. Others are there to be afraid of. Others are there to be competed with. Others are there to get in our way.
We exist only for our own pleasure. For our own sakes. Yet we will never be enough for ourselves, and after we have consumed everyone else, we will consume ourselves and there will be nothing left, not even for the vultures.
The truth is, we are made to be near the center. We are made in the image of the one on the throne. That's who the 24 elders are - they represent those in whom the image of God has been restored: the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 disciples of Jesus, the 24 orders of priests. They have crowns, like the crown of the one on the throne. They have thrones of their own, thrones given to them by God from which they are to bear his image to all of creation. But they are not on the throne.
"Failure to worship consigns us to a life of spasms and jerks, at the mercy of every advertisement, every seduction, and every siren. Without worship we live manipulated and manipulating lives. We move in either frightened panic or deluded lethargy as we are, in turn, alarmed by specters and soothed by placebos. If there is no center, there is no circumference. People who do not worship are swept into a vast restlessness, epidemic in the world, with no steady direction and no sustaining purpose." - Eugene Peterson.
When we are the center, we aren't enough for ourselves, so advertisements appeal to us. Perhaps that is what I need. Or that. Or that! And so we run this way and that, after this and after that. And we go nowhere but further in debt.
When we are at the center, our primary aim is our pleasure and glory, and so we are susceptible to seduction. Anything that wants to use or enslave us can simply promise us pleasure or glory, and we run after it like dogs after a bone, tongues slobbering out of our mouths. Oh, you'll promote me if I just do this? Oh, you'll love me if I just do this? Oh, you'll give me your attention if I just do this?
When we are at the center, we have everything to lose, and so every alarming thing gets us running for shelter, for safety, for security. We become afraid of everything, and willing to do anything that will save us from our fears coming true.
The revelation of St. John says to us that when we worship, we gather together around another center, a center that is not us. And so when we worship, our lives become lives that are a response to the true center. We live lives that flow from the true center.
At the center is a throne.
Everything that is good and true, starts and ends with the throne, and with the one who is on the throne.
When we worship, we join something that was going on forever before and will be going on forever after (Day and Night they never stop saying). It doesn't start with us. It doesn't end with us.
And look what happens when we worship:
We fall down.
The crowns come off our heads (tumbling, perhaps?) and we lay them on the ground, surrendered to the one on the throne at the center.
And we say, and we sing.
We say and we sing. These are no small things.
Consider this question. How does the world get set right when billions of egos are the centers of their own existence? Is this not why there are wars and oppression and conflict and jealousy and hatred and misunderstandings and addictions and fears and road rage and black friday tramplings? Is this not the ultimate source of death?
The world gets set right when we find a way to gather together around the true center, from which love flows, and life, and healing, and truth. When we have something else we are surrendered to who has surrendered himself to us and calls us to be surrendered for his sake and for the sake of those for whom he has surrendered himself.
And the way to gather around the true center, the way that is natural for us, even if it feels at first unnatural, is for us to join our voices together in saying and in song.
Words and melodies and harmonies and rhythms are those things which we can join in together that carry us together, that point us together, with all of our egos and desires and worries and anxieties and brokenness, and center us around the throne.
[Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come...]
[Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see...]
And in that throng, and at that throne, we do not lose ourselves, we do not become muddied and gray. But instead, because of the radiance of the one on the throne, our true colors are revealed. (the value of precious stones in ancient culture was not their capacity for decoration, but what they did with light, the way they brought the invisible colors of light into the light, scattering them about for our eyes to see). Jasper and ruby, emeralds, rainbows bathing the worshippers in the light of the one they worshipped.
This is why when we sing, when we give all of ourselves to it, each of us in our own way, with our own weaknesses and strengths, with our bodies, our minds, our hearts, each one of us bringing something different to it, each one of us getting something different out of it, we are caught up in the Spirit of God that brings us to life.
And we help each other come around the center as we sing together, too. Oh, he is not the center, she is not the center, oh, I am not the center either. Who is she looking to...? who is he laying his crown before...? aha, there is the throne! There is the my center too. And oh what a center that would have to be to be the center to a group as diverse as this group, to be the center to one who is as different from me as that person is from me and I from him and I from her. [going to a concert and looking around at the crowd...] [this is why the worship with Agape was so powerful and life-laden last week, and by the grace of God will be tonight as well...]
Notice the four living creatures.
They represent all of sentient life on planet earth: the lion, the noblest, the ox the strongest, the man the wisest, the eagle the swiftest. They all share something in common: eyes and wings. Each one in worship is fully alert (covered in eyes), soaring on 6 wings... We come to life in worship! Because we are gathered around the true center of all life, the Lord God Almighty, the source of life.
And of course, there is at the center the one who sits on the throne, and there is also the Lamb.
Oh, the lamb! Next week we talk about the Lamb. Because not only does it matter that we are not the center. It matters most the one who is the center. The Lamb who was slain. Jesus, the Christ.
1. Do an advertisement, seduction, and siren inventory. Consider the intended course of your life, and ask yourself if you have been derailed in any way by your responses to advertising, seductions, or sirens. May this inventory awaken you to ways in which you have bought the snake's lie that you are the center of your universe. Repent, and respond to the door Jesus has opened to you for wakeful worship.
2. Worship like your life depends on it. And with others, as often as possible. And when you do, start by saying to yourself: There is a center to this universe, and I am not it. And we are not it.
3. Memorize "Holy, Holy, Holy..." Commit "Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is and is to come" to memory. Say it at the first sighting of every advertisement, seduction, and siren. And every time you say it, remember that you are not alone in saying it, and you are not the first to say it, and you will not be the last to say it; your voice is joining countless other voices in the stream of eternity.
4. Coax all of your self into worship. Involve as much of yourself as you are able in your worship. Involve a little bit more of yourself than you did the last time you worshipped. More mind (use your imagination), more body (use your voice, your hands, your arms, your legs, your knees), more heart (choose to yield your place at the center), more soul (we come with cracked and brittle relationships - bring yourself to the one on the throne, inviting him to be the center of each of those others).
additional resources: Reversed Thunder, by Eugene Peterson