Easter 3, Year C, May 5, 2019
Acts 6:1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I have had music going through my brain all week. And it’s all the fault of our Revelation reading. First there’s the Handel: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by his blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb. Then is the Hymn of Praise from setting ten: Come, let us join our cheerful songs with angels round the throne; ten thousand thousand are their tongues, but all their joys are one. But then again, the Hymn of Praise in most liturgies quote this passage: Blessing and honor and glory and might be to God and the Lamb forever. Amen. Not to mention the hymns and songs. Did you know that Revelation is one of the most popular books of Scripture for Christian songwriters to draw on? The only books that are used in more hymns are the Gospels and the Psalms. In the ELW, there are 91 hymns that quote or reference the book of Revelation. And this passage is one of the more popular.
Remember how I talked last week about how Revelation is actually a book of great hope, a book designed to give comfort in times of trouble? A book designed to encourage Christians who live in troubled or dangerous times, that no matter how scary or dangerous or sinful or broken or evil the world seems, God will triumph and destroy evil and purify sin and re-create the whole world. Well, hymn-writers and song-writers have known that for a long time. The book keeps circling around through the evils of the world that God is working to fight, and then returning to God’s kingdom to show us a foretaste of the joy and hope that God brings. This does two things: first, it is a foretaste of the feast to come, and second, it shows us how to rejoice and worship God and trust in God’s power and mercy even in the midst of turbulent and difficult times. Because no matter how troubling things get, God is always with us.
That’s true of this particular passage and many others in Revelation, some of which we’ll be reading over the next few weeks. But this particular passage has a message all its own about the one whom we worship. The thing about this passage that we don’t notice that people back when it was written would have spotted immediately is that it’s intensely political. See, in those days whenever some great leader—the Emperor, a noted general, whoever—came to a major city they’d have a big celebration like this. Especially if they’d just won some battle or other. The celebration was called a triumph. And everyone in the city and outlying areas would gather around the one being honored, and they’d bow low in homage, and they’d sing songs of praise to the great leader, and they’d wish them blessing and honor and wealth and power and wisdom, and they’d say how worthy they were of all the honors and accolades being heaped on their heads. It was the ultimate in ego-stroking, but it was also a power-move for the one being honored: if you were given a triumph, you were one of the absolute cream of the crop, the most important people in the Empire. You were a force to be reckoned with. Emperors and victorious generals got triumphs; and many generals throughout Roman history used a triumph as the springboard to overthrow the Emperor and place themselves on the throne. They were serious business.
And notice that the one receiving the triumph in our reading is not the Emperor, and he is not a general. He never fought a battle in his life. In fact, the one time he came face-to-face with any serious violence, he died. He died an agonizing and humiliating death. He was not a brave, cunning warrior who slaughtered his enemies and brought wealth and glory back to the empire. He was a nobody, a victim. By the standards of the world, he was absolutely worthless. And this passage doesn’t try to hide that. In fact, it revels in that fact. It doesn’t refer to Jesus by name, but calls him “the lamb that was slain.” Most people of the day would have been deeply offended, because a slaughtered lamb is not what power looks like. A minor traveling preacher from a poor backwater, who got on the wrong side of powerful people and got himself killed because of it, is not what power looks like. At least, not according to the world’s standards.
And yet, it is part of the Christian mystery that the power of God does not look like what we expect. The power of God is not found in the might of empires or emperors or armies or generals or political leaders or rich people or industry or beautiful buildings. The power of God is not found in the bright, shiny, perfect-looking people we take as our role-models and idolize. The power of God is not found in imposing buildings or mighty armies or huge bank accounts. The power of God is not found in winners.
The power of God is found in the victim. The lamb that was slain. The one who was tortured and suffered and died. The power of God is found in the loser. And that is a truth that we give lip service to today, but deep down even most Christians find it offensive. We are more like the ancient Romans than we would like to admit. We still look at worldly power and might—at the ability and resources and willingness to make other people to do what you want—and assume that that’s the goal, that’s the right. Luther called that a theology of glory. We look at the world’s glory, at the people who win by the world’s standards, and assume that it’s good. After all, it’s got so much going for it! If it looks good, it must be good. If it’s winning, it must be right. If it brings power and wealth, it must be the way God wants the world to be. And therefore if people suffer—if people are poor, or sick, or abused, or oppressed—it must be their own fault and they must deserve it.
Problem is, that’s not what the Bible shows us. The Bible shows us a God who repeatedly hears and saves those who are weakest, those who are lost, those whom the world has chewed up and spit out. The Bible shows us a God who is most truly present in Jesus Christ, who was not born to wealth and power but born in poverty and obscurity, who suffered and died on the cross to save the world. That’s the most powerful act in the whole Bible. That’s the thing that turns the whole universe on its head. That’s the reason we are here today: God took the thing we humans thought was the weakest, most disgusting, most shameful thing imaginable, and used it as an instrument of his power to save the world. God took death itself and turned it into life. When we recognize this, we have what Luther called a theology of the cross: if God works through the despised, the wretched, the disgusting, the shameful, the painful, and the horrifying, then we should look for God in the places today that we find shameful, or horrifying, or painful, or weak. Because we know God will be there. God will be there giving strength and bringing life and healing even in the midst of death itself. If God can work through the cross, if God can use God’s own death and resurrection to transform the world, then there is no place too shady or too sinful or too broken for God to work in.
We do not see with the world’s eyes. We do not see God’s power in physical might or worldly power, but rather in the Lamb who was Slain. We see God’s power at work in the cross, in every place where people suffer, working to bring healing and life even in a world filled with death and destruction. And it is that self-sacrifice that we honor, that great love that makes Jesus worthy to receive honor and glory and power and might. Wars and politics and wealth don’t make anyone truly great, in the eyes of God; only love and service can do that. And that is why we worship Jesus, the Lamb who was slain, who sacrificed himself for the salvation and healing of the universe. Blessing and honor and glory and might be to God and the Lamb forever.