WHO DO WE FOLLOW, A LION OR A LAMB?
This Sunday is known as "Good Shepherd" Sunday. But our second lesson from Revelation 7 turns that around: "for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd," it says. And then it even picks up on the imagery of Psalm 23: "The Lamb will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." On this Good Shepherd Sunday, I would like for us to reflect on the Lamb who is a shepherd, the Lamb of God.
The Book of Revelation is rich in symbolic language. In fact, that's primarily what it is, as it tells a story about the world through a long series of symbolic words. To fully experience this symbol of the Lamb of God, we need to go back to the place at which the Lamb first appears, in chapter 5. It is one of the most dramatic moments in the entire book. Let me be your guide and interpreter, as we journey through this part of John's revelation.
"Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne"--that's God, whose name is not spoken here. God is simply referred to as "the one seated on the throne." And in God's right hand is "a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals." A scroll with seven seals--what does that mean? In Revelation, the number seven stands for completeness, as in a full week of seven days; so seven seals stands for that which has been completely hidden, closed up to human eyes. Since it is God who is holding the scroll, it must contain something very important. We are safe to assume that the scroll contains something like God's entire plan for Creation. It holds the mysteries of life itself. Wouldn't you just love to get a peek at it?! To know what God knows about the fate of all that there is?!
Well, John continues: "And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, 'Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?' And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And"--John responds for all of us--"I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it." John cries for all of us, that God's plan for Creation has remained completely hidden to us.
But wait! As John's head is bowed in tears, he hears a voice: "Then one of the elders said to me, 'Don't cry! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.'" But here comes the real shock. John looks up to behold the mighty Lion of Judah, the great and powerful Messiah who will devour God's enemies, but what does he see? Listen: "Then I saw, between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. The Lamb went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne." Now we go from crying to rejoicing! There is someone who can open the scroll and reveal to us God's hidden plan. What happens next is a scene of glorious worship, which has become the basis for one of our favorite songs of our liturgy: "Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!" Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, "To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!" And the four living creatures said, "Amen!"
Amen! Do you understand this symbol of the Lamb of God? The contrast is striking between the Lion and the Lamb, between what John expected to see and what he saw. What John expected to see, the Lion, symbolizes the usual shape of human power, doesn't it? A lion doesn't get its blood shed; it sheds the blood of another creature, like a lamb. It devours; it doesn't get devoured. That describes human power, doesn't it? Those in power in the human world focus their efforts into making sure it is someone else's blood who is shed, not theirs. It's a dog-eat-dog world, right? So it's better if you and I are those doing the eating. A lion is king of the jungle, one who never gets eaten.
A lamb, on the other hand, is the typically victim, the one who is slaughtered, the one whose blood gets shed. A lamb gets devoured by its enemies and is never the one who does the devouring. Like John, isn't our first impulse to always look for the Lion, to look for a display of power human-style? And so, according to John's vision here, God's plan for us, sealed up in the scroll of life, remains hidden. We most typically look for the answers to life among the world's powerful and wealthy. But St. John tells us, in the no-uncertain-terms of his picture-language, that we flat out miss the mark. Only the Lamb who is slaughtered can reveal God's power of life to us! What has remained completely hidden to us in God's book of life is the fact that this power of the Lion is not the kind of power which ultimately gives life. We will never see God's answers to life, unless we look to the victims of this world's powerful and wealthy.
But the Lamb of God reveals even more, because it is the Lamb who sits at the throne of God, the throne of real power behind the Creation. And our passage from chapter 7 this morning picks up near the climax of this series of symbols. The Lamb is about to open the seventh seal of the scroll. But the revelation really comes first, as we are introduced to those who are dressed in white robes at the throne of God. They are the ones who have come through the ordeal, those who have hungered and thirsted and suffered under the sun. What is revealed to us is that these victims of the human power-play are the those who are closest to God. So, when we look to them, we don't just see powerless victims. Instead, we also see God. We see the true power of life. In other words, the Revelation of St. John is inviting us to see the world in an entirely different way! When we look at victims, we should not simply see powerlessness and death. We are to see God's power of life residing with them, because God, through the Lamb, has been shown to be with them. God is on the side of this world's victims, not this world's powerful.
What does this all mean? I have to admit that this is the point in the sermon where I usually get a bit stuck, because there is so much to say. And yet, at the same time, it is easy to say too much. For what this means to our lives is something we have to determine together, during the rest of the week--not something I can stand up here and tell you in a monologue in five easy steps. What this all means is that the entire shape of our lives, and the shape of how we build community together, must be totally different from that of the world's.
I will give one brief example. One of the speakers at our synod assembly last week was John Kretzmann, a researcher and teacher of urban studies. His specialty is to help people build community together, and he does so in neighborhoods that present the greatest challenges by modern standards. He told the story, for instance, of sitting and talking with an elderly African-American woman on her front steps in the South Bronx. This woman used her own picture-language, ala St. John, to describe her experience. She is in prison, she told Mr. Kretzmann. What kind of prison? We might guess, as people who stand outside her community, that she is imprisoned by the crime and violence, the drugs and sex, that fill her streets. But no. That was not the kind of prison she was talking about. She told John Kretzmann that she was imprisoned by the perceptions of we who live outside her neighborhood, we who only see the crime and the violence and the drugs. We look at her home and see nothing but emptiness, powerlessness, and hopelessness. We no longer look at her or her neighbors and see children of God who were given gifts by their Creator. We look and only see victims; we do not see God and the Lamb who gives life.
So John Kretzmann has changed the way in which he goes into such communities as a consultant. He does not begin with a needs survey, as prelude to efforts to fill the emptiness. Rather, he begins with a gifts survey, as prelude to nurturing the powers and potentials that already exist there. And it works. People in the most down-trodden of communities begin to come together and build positive communities.
When it comes to the community of Emmaus, June Beck has already so wonderfully given this part of the sermon for me. She set before you her vision, her nightmare of a void of volunteers here at Emmaus. But when she awoke, she gave thanks once again that this is not the case. Each of us here this morning has been given gifts to use for mission in Jesus Christ. And we ask your pledge of time and talent to continue building community and reaching out to others. Please don't be a lukewarm Christian, as St. John accused the members at the church in Laodicea of being. He tells them that there is no such thing as a lukewarm Christian. You can't be lukewarm, when you are guided by a vision of reality which turns 'the Establishment' upside-down.
And yet St. John doesn't just chastise these churches. He also gives them words of comfort and hope and encouragement, like in this morning's passage. The Lamb is the Good Shepherd who leads us beside the still waters. And God stoops down to wipe away our tears. We are the ones, through faith in the Lamb of God, who are privileged to have the scroll of life opened before us, to know where the true power of life resides. We are the ones washed cleaned in the blood of the Lamb. And so we come here to worship and to be refreshed: "This is the feast of victory for our God, for the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign. Blessing and honor and glory and might be to God and the Lamb forever. Amen. Alleluia!"
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, May 6-7, 1995