Worshipping the Slaughtered One
A sermon on Revelation 5:11-14 by Nathan Nettleton, 29 April 2001
Our worship is a part of a cosmic liturgy of praise to the One who was slaughtered in reconciling a suffering universe to God.
Ive decided to break with our usual pattern of fortnightly sermons to preach a short series on the Revelation to John. It is only for six weeks once every three years that the lectionary gives us the opportunity for a series on the Revelation, and despite the level of confusion and mystery about this book, I think it is actually one that comes to life much more vividly when preached in the context of worship than when taught in the classroom or study group. The Revelation is not a series of coded messages to be unravelled and explained, but a sweeping cosmic vision that we abandon ourselves to in prayer and praise. The experience of worship is so integral to the visions of the Revelation that participation in worship is probably the only way to begin to experience the truth of the Revelation.
One of the common mistakes that you may need to try to get out of you head if you are to free yourself to get into the visions of the Revelation is that these are predictions of the future; that they have no present reality. When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, he did not usually speak of it as a future event that we all look forward to, but as a present reality which is even now coming near to us. It was more like a spatial image than a time one. The reality of the Kingdom and the reality of a broken world exist alongside each other and some people live with a foot in each. Similarly, the visions of the Revelation are not presented as predictions of what will one day happen, but as descriptions of a present reality that exists alongside and partially overlaps with the reality that we mostly see and touch and hear. And as I said last Sunday, the Revelation describes us as the priests who stand stretched out between these two realities and in our own lives embody the ministry of reconciling the two. And as I also said last Sunday, it is when we are gathered in worship that it becomes most apparent that we are living in both these realities at once.
The vision described in this weeks reading is one that helps us get into this, because it places what we do here each week in its context. In so doing, it enables us to better understand what we are doing here and so participate more fully in the worship of the One who is the centre of all our worship.
At the centre of the vision is the one who is described as the Lamb who appeared to have been slaughtered. Part of the significance of this description is found in what the witness is told he is going to see, just before our reading commenced. He is told that he is about to see the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the root of Jesse, who has conquered. Even if you dont understand all the background to those words with their importance in the Jewish expectations of the coming Messiah from the line of Jesse, it is still an image of strength and power. The Lion who has conquered. But when the witness sees the one to whom this description is given, what he sees appears like a lamb who has been slaughtered. An image of helplessness, defencelessness, weakness and defeat. But it is to this vulnerable one that the worship and praise of heaven are offered.
We are given a picture of concentric circles of worshippers starting with four awesome creatures, then twenty four elders, and then uncountable crowds of angels all falling down and singing the praises of the Lamb who was slaughtered. Dont get hung up on trying to identify each of these categories of worshippers. Simply allow yourself to be drawn into the action of the vision described. If you go to the Anzac parade you dont have to be able to decipher all the banners and uniforms and insignia to be able to participate in the meaning of the event. It is the same here. The mystery of the unknown is not a barrier to entering into the worship that is taking place.
And our being gathered up into it is exactly what is described. The four awesome creatures and the elders and the angels fall down and offer their song of praise, and then we are told that every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them join into the song. The concentric circles of praise just keep getting wider and wider until they encompass every creature, everywhere, the living and the dead. All creation joins its voice in the cosmic liturgy of praise, worshipping the lamb who bears the marks of slaughter.
When we gather here to lift our voices in praise and prayer, those concentric circles are drawing us into what is going on always and everywhere in a reality that we only occasionally glimpse but which is nevertheless gathering our realities into itself. If you only ever see what is done in here by the few who gather here, it might look rather insignificant and perhaps a little clumsy and awkward. But if you see what we are doing here in the context of the cosmic circles of praise where the focus is not on us at all, but on the one on the throne at the centre of heaven, whose appearance is that of a Lamb who was slaughtered, then what we are doing here looks very different indeed.
You will begin to capture this vision as we gather around the table and say Therefore with the whole realm of nature around us, with earth, sea and sky, with the angels and archangels who envelop us, with the saints before us and beside us, with those who are separate from us, and yet in this mystery are close to us, we sing the hymn of unending praise: Holy! Holy! Holy!
And what do we see in our midst as we sing? An image of power and victory and success? Hardly! A simple loaf of bread. Bread for breaking. Bread that bears the scars of the world. Bread that points us to the Lamb who was slaughtered. And yet bread that points us to that same juxtaposition of power and weakness, victory and failure. On the bread is a simple Greek inscription that says Jesus conquers and yet that inscription is set in the cross, the sign of slaughter, of brokenness, of apparent defeat and failure.
And it is in this juxtaposition of power and weakness, victory and failure, that we enter into the heart of the mystery that calls forth all our prayer and praise. For it is in this Lamb who is slaughtered, this bread which is broken, that we see all our own weakness and brokenness and suffering and failure drawn into the life of God. It is in this One that we see our vulnerability and Gods glory reconciled. It is in this One that we see that it is not the successful and the rich and the powerful who are gathered into the life of God, but the weak and the broken and the victimised. And it is in this One that we see that even though the powers of evil might crush and destroy the worlds little ones, death no longer has the last say, for the lamb who was slaughtered gathers our pain and brokenness into himself and stands before us alive and says, Here touch the scars in my hands, place your hand in the wound in my side, and we fall to our knees with all creation and worship, affirming our faith, offering our prayers, and accepting the gift of new life that the Lamb offers us in his own broken body and spilt blood.