3rd Sunday of Easter
Texts: Revelation 5:1-14;
John 21:1-19; Acts 9:1-6
SING A NEW SONG
“They sing a new song” (Rev 5:9). In this bold vision of John of Patmos, written down for us as the Book of Revelation, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders represent the whole of creation. And when they behold the lamb slain as worthy to open the scroll, which presumably contains God’s ultimate plan for creation, they sing a new song.
In 1978, congregations of the predecessor Lutheran churches1 began to sing a new song — essentially, the same new song as we find in today’s reading from Revelation. 42 years later, we sang it again this morning: “This is the feast of victory for our God, for the lamb who was slain has begun his reign. Alleluia!” Before we consider how this was a new song in John’s Revelation, we can take a moment to remember how this was a new song for us forty years ago. We had never sung anything remotely like it as part of our Communion liturgies. Our Communion services were often somber occasions focused on guilt for our sins and the cost of Jesus dying for them. I had a classmate in seminary who came back senior year and told the story of his internship congregation in the Great Plains. The congregation was still offering Communion only four times and year, and Christmas and Easter weren’t among the four. My classmate was aghast. He asked how they could not celebrate Communion on the two most important days in the Christian calendar. The answer was, “Christmas and Easter are such joyful days. You wouldn’t want to ruin that with Communion.” So, yes, when the green hymnal came along in 1978, and we began to sing a hymn of praise celebrating the victory of the Lamb slain, it was truly singing a new song.
By now, I trust that you are beginning to anticipate what I might say next. That the new sing in our hymnal represents far more than us singing a very new kind of song in our worship. For it is a song that represents — here’s the part you’ve come to expect from me — a revitalization of our entire Christian message. In singing this new song in our liturgy, we are shifting from a focus on forgiving our sins to go to heaven when we die, to that of God saving us from our sins as a step to renewing the whole creation. In the final weeks of this Easter season, we will read the ending of the Book of Revelation, which is nothing less than the proclamation of God creating a new heaven and a new earth, of a New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to replace our Rome’s and New York’s with a whole new way of doing business, so to speak.
One of our other favorite songs, George Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” is a joyous celebration wrapped around a verse from the middle of the Book of Revelation. Revelation 11:15 proclaims, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” And we joyously sing, “King of kings and Lord of lords, Hallelujah!” And now on Sundays we regularly sing things like, “The lamb who was slain has begun his reign. Alleluia!” Or, “Salvation belongs to our God and to Christ the Lamb forever and ever.”2 The new songs of the Book of Revelation have become the songs of our Sunday liturgies.
Do we truly know of what we’re singing? Do we understand the full ramifications of what we’re singing about? Again, it’s not about going to heaven when we die, because the Book of Revelation gives us the exact opposite: the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven, and the kingdom of the world becoming the kingdom of our Lord.
This morning’s reading brings the pivot point of the whole drama. That’s why I extended the reading of lectionary, so that we wouldn’t miss it. John the Seer’s vision takes him to the throne room of God Most High, and there’s a scroll which presumably contains God’s plan for the whole creation. “Pretty important!” is an understatement. Yet there doesn’t seem to be anyone worthy to unroll the scroll. A real tragedy — again, understatement. John begins to despair. Just then, someone shouts, “Look, the Lion of Judah.” That person must have needed glasses, because John looks and sees only a Lamb standing in the state of being slaughtered. The Lamb slain is worthy to open the scroll, and the throne room of God erupts into the joyous singing of a new song.
And quite a new song it is. Again, understatement. This Lamb slain — who becomes the one and only hero of the Book of revelation, mentioned 28 times throughout the rest of the Book — represents an entirely different way of being human, an entirely different way of ordering our ‘kingdoms’ and empires and civilizations. The old way is represented by beasts like the Lion of Judah, the national symbol of the Jewish people. In Rome or America, it is the eagle. It’s always some beast of prey at the top of the food chain.
But God is replacing all that with the Lamb slaughtered. It is the vast and dramatic difference between Pilate crucifying Jesus and Jesus letting himself be crucified. It is the difference between emperor Nero persecuting the early followers of Jesus and those early Christians choosing martyrdom. It is the difference in our time of America fighting for our independence from Great Britain through a Revolutionary War and Mahatma Gandhi leading the Indian people to independence from Great Britain through nonviolent resistance. It is the difference between Sheriff Jim Clark violently defending racist Voter restriction laws in Selma in 1965, and John Lewis and so many others choosing to stand up against those laws at the risk of getting brutally beaten.
The human race had for centuries and millennia formed new kingdoms and empires by using force to control anyone who got in the way. God is bringing a new kingdom, and new way to be human, led by the Lamb slain. That is truly a new song! [Extemporized an ending. . . .]
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, May 1, 2022
1. The ALC, or American Lutheran Church; LCA, or Lutheran Church in America; and AELC, or Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (250 congregations who had split off from the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod in 1976) were the publishers and users of the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW) and eventually merged into the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) in 1987.
2. This is a lesser-known liturgical song that was written for a non-Communion service, the “Service of Word and Prayer,” in the hymnal supplement titled With One Voice, published by Augsburg Fortress in 1995. “Salvation belongs to our God” is on page 47, and the congregation I was serving in 2022 still used this service and its Hymn of Praise regularly.