(Sermon for a chapel communion service)
It’s an honor to get to stand here and share God’s word with you before moving from Zambia and Justo Mwale University later this month. Our passage is Rev 5:1-14.
I’ve appreciated the sermons I’ve heard this term on inviting God’s kingdom to be present in the church. Our passage today also contributes, where Jesus is told, “You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth”.
I’ve not heard many sermons on the book of Revelation in this chapel. It’s a difficult book to interpret because it’s so different from the rest of the books of the New Testament. We’re not used to interpreting a book like this, a book that is three kinds of literature all at once. John tells us at the beginning of this book that what he’s written is an apocalypse (a revelation, an unveiling), but also a book of prophecy, and also a letter to seven churches, one big letter to seven churches during a period of the Roman Empire when it was very difficult to be Christian. And as a letter, it needs to be interpreted in a way that would have been meaningful to those first people who received it, and then as meaningful to us.
Our passage begins with the words… “I saw”. Our passage has three sections, each beginning with, “I saw…” It’s one of the most common phrases in Revelation. John sees visions. An apocalypse includes symbolic visions which reveal things otherwise hidden and unknown.
In chapters 4-5, John is taken up to see the heavenly throne room. And a big part of what he sees is: Who’s in charge. And it’s not Caesar, it’s not the Roman emperor who’s on the throne. Revelation tells us, despite appearances on earth, who’s really in charge. As an apocalypse, Revelation deals with the question: Who’s really on the throne? Who’s really in charge. And it Affirms: It’s God… No matter how bad things may look right now on earth, God reigns.God’s in charge.
Maybe that’s important for us, right here and right now, at Justo Mwale. No matter what challenges we face, God is sitting on the throne. God is still in charge.
Revelation is about learning to see from the perspective of heaven, and learning to see from the perspective of the final judgment, and the final victory. And learning to see what and who are truly worthy of worship. And by seeing differently, we’re empowered to be faithful, to give all our worship where it truly belongs, and so we’re able to overcome.
In the beginning and end of Revelation, the author John calls it a book of prophecy. It’s true that prophecy has something to say about the future. But prophecy especially invites us to see our current situations in a new light. Revelation as a book of prophecy is about discernment. Prophecy gives discernment; it helps us see better.
And maybe that’s what we need now, at this time in our lives, and in the life of JMU – prophetic discernment. Seeing and discerning from God’s perspective – How should we see our present challenges? How should we see ourselves? And our Christian institutions?
The unexpected, surprising path
Let’s now see what John sees in those first several verses. In the beginning of chapter 5, we find there’s a problem that needs to be resolved. A scroll needs to be opened. But no one is worthy to break its seals, open it, and look inside. The scroll is crucial to open because it will announce God’s response to evil in the world. It will reveal God’s justice and get it started.
And John mourns and weeps because no one is worthy.There’s a buildup of suspense: What can be done? Is no one worthy?
And then, there’s a solution. “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” That’s Jesus the Messiah, through the symbol of a conquering lion.
So as this first section ends, we’re prepared and expecting to see Jesus as the great lion.
The next section (v. 6) begins: And I saw… a lamb. The lion … is a lamb. We were led to expect a conquering lion, and instead we see a lamb which has been slain.
Can you imagine, expecting a lion and seeing instead a lamb?
It’s not your average lamb. It’s got seven horns. And a horn is a symbol of power. But it’s not a lion. It’s a powerful lamb standing yet having been slain.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear, he who has eyes to see let him see… this unexpected picture. This surprising path to victory. Jesus, the Lion of Judah, did not conquer as a lion, but as a lamb.
This surprising pathway goes right to the very center of our Christian faith. An unexpected path, and it cuts right through to the center of this table.
The surprising path is heavenly logic: Power through weakness, victory through humility and self-sacrifice.
And when the lamb takes the scroll from the one who sits on the throne, the four creatures and the twenty-four elders fall down not before a lion. They fall down before the Lamb. Jesus conquered as a lamb.
What’s our image of a winner? What’s our symbol of success? Maybe a lion. Maybe a lion who takes what belongs to him. Probably not a lamb who gets slain.
And our image of success may not be of people who fall down and worship a lamb.
But Jesus conquered as a lamb. And this is more than an accidental image. It’s reality.
Our passage even tells us that Jesus being a lamb is the key to our future, and the key to our long-term calling.
The elders and four living creatures proclaim: “Worthy are you… For you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them (US!) a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
Jesus the Lion of Judah became a Lamb who was slain… That’s the key not only to his identity but also to our identity and future.
He has made us a kingdom – The kingdom is something he accomplishes, something he has accomplished for us.
Sometimes we get the idea that a life of ministry is about positioning ourselves, building a name for ourselves, building our own kingdom. But the scripture says: Jesus has made us a kingdom.
Notice the order: You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” We shall reign on the earth BECAUSE Jesus made us a kingdom and priests to our God.
Jesus accomplished this, because he was slain, because he ransomed people for God by his own blood – that’s how he bought people for God. By his being humble and obedient to the point of death.
LET’S TAKE A CLOSER LOOK AT OUR IDENTITY AND FUTURE
Jesus has made us a kingdom and priests. This image is rooted back in Exodus 19, in God’s plan for the nation Israel. They were to be a kingdom and people special to God, with God as their true king. And in Revelation, the early Christians are a new Israel, a kingdom and priests.
And we, like Israel of old, are a kingdom, people who recognize that no matter how things look on earth, God and the lamb are on the throne as king. We believers are their kingdom.
And: We shall reign on the earth (cf 22:5). Revelation reveals a future when heaven and earth will be joined together, and God’s servants shall reign forever and ever. We will reign, because Jesus has made us a kingdom. We do not position ourselves for this honored position. Jesus has done that for us.
Our passage also calls us “priests to our God”. Priests are special people to God, people who serve in God’s presence, with access to God, and people who stand between God and the rest of the world, serving God and benefitting the world. Let’s notice it does NOT say those who are ordained do this. It’s the whole people of God who have this dignity.
Now, if Jesus is the one who makes us to be a kingdom, if what he has done is to make us to be a kingdom, what’s our response? What’s our role now?
We see our proper response in what the 24 elders do: They fall down before the Lamb.
In light of his worthiness, our response is worship. Our role is to see how worthy Jesus is, and worship accordingly. He has given us our positions as a kingdom and as priests. This life is not about what we make of ourselves. He has made us what we really are.
And so what we see in the last section, vv. 11-15, is worship.
John says, “And I saw, and I heard…” thousands upon thousands saying, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” We join the elders and the thousands upon thousands of angels. Our role, our response, is seeing the worth of Jesus, falling down before him, and giving him all of our worship and praise.
Our role is to recognize how awesome, how wonderful, how worthy Jesus is, and then we live and speak and work accordingly. We get occupied, not with positioning ourselves, but with rightly positioning Jesus.
We and our churches and institutions are not about us. We make Jesus Christ the center.
Sure, we have an institution here. We have this big chapel building. But the truth is that Jesus is so big, he’s towering above this chapel… He’s towering above Justo Mwale and every one of us.
And we become content not to be lions, not to be kings, but to be lambs like Jesus, obedient unto death.
We become God centered. Jesus centered. As priests we get to serve in the presence of the king. And what we want on this earth is to praise Jesus with our lives and with our words.
I wonder if JMU can help the church see this great Jesus…Jesus who is worthy of all that we are, all our worship… I wonder if we can help preachers, and thereby the church, to recognize the bigger, greater Jesus. We lift Jesus higher. We fulfill our role to help the world to see the greatness of the Lamb.
Our being a kingdom comes from Jesus our king. We recognize the one who reigns. Recognizing more of Jesus here and now, and embodying more of Jesus the lamb. That’s what it looks like for the kingdom to be more present. More centered in Jesus, lifting up Jesus, here and now.
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
“The elders fell down and worshiped.” And our lives begin to look like these elders. They see that their position, their status, is not about them. It’s all about Jesus the Lamb, about God who is on the throne.
From the perspective of heaven, we succeed when we see our lives are not about us. And our institutions succeed when it’s not about the name and greatness of our institution, like JMU.
Our position, our status, is not about us. It’s all about Jesus the Lamb, and about God who is on the throne.
Let’s look and see, and help others see, this truly great Jesus. This big Jesus, towering above us here at JMU, towering above this chapel. JMU is not about JMU; it’s about Jesus. We are not about us; we’re priests of God. Our lives are about Jesus. We recognize how truly great Jesus is, and we live accordingly.
Our work is not about us. Our preparation for ministry is not about us. It’s about the one who sits on the throne. It’s about the Lamb. It’s all about this truly wonderful Jesus Christ.
How wonderful is Jesus Christ. How wonderful is his death for us. Our life, our ministry, our institutions are all about Jesus Christ. Not us. He alone is worthy of all blessing, all honor, all glory. His being who he is and doing what he has done is what elevates us to be a kingdom.
We’re here for him. We live for him. Our whole lives are about falling down to worship him.
And so we, too, become like lambs. Lambs live not themselves. They live for another. For the true Lion. For the true and great King, for Jesus, for God who is on the throne.
May all we do here at Justo Mwale and all we are on this earth be about the great King, the one who reigns forever and ever. “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever.” Amen.
 See Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, pages 1-22. I rely heavily on Bauckham for my approach to Revelation.
I used these questions recently in a small-group Bible study.
1. Read Mark 4:1-34 while asking: Does anything about this passage stand out which you might not have noticed before? What is striking to you?
2. The word “hear” keeps being repeated. Where do you see it in the passage, and what seems to be the purpose of this word appearing so much?
3. Verses 11-12 have puzzled and alarmed many readers of the Bible. How might reading those verses together with verses 10 and 13, 21-25, and 33-34 be helpful? How do disclosure and understanding take place?
4. Perhaps we all want to see ourselves in verse 20. But where do you see yourself the most in verses 15-19?
5. Based on the evidence of Mark 4, what kind of follower does Jesus seem to be looking for?
6. What might it mean for you to be “good soil” at this time in your life?