Tuesday, May 24, 2016

One Tribe

One Tribe
Revelation 7:9-17[1]
We who live in the “United States of America” often find ourselves wondering these days how “United” we really are. We see news reports of events happening in other parts of the nation, and we shake our heads in disbelief and wonder how our fellow citizens can be so different from each other. One author thinks the reason for this is that we are actually eleven different nations, the origins of which can to some extent be traced back in part to the original colonies.[2] Each of these nations represents a group of people with a unique outlook, lifestyle, and culture. From a different perspective, the Jefferson Institute has mapped out every county in the US based on the kind of community it represents.[3] They found twelve basic community types based on a wide variety of economic, cultural, educational, climate, and religious data. When you look at this kind of information, it’s no wonder that we feel more like the “Divided States of America!”
Unfortunately, for most of us, the ways of thinking and living, making and spending money, entertaining ourselves and raising our children, are so ingrained in us that we may not even notice them. We notice when others are different from us. But it’s incredibly easy to simply assume that “our way” is the right way, and those who differ from us have gone astray somehow. So it is that even in the church, we fight over ways of being Christian in this society, over our response to changes in the culture around us, and over what really defines us as Christians today. Unfortunately, most Christian denominations in the US are as divided as the rest of the country.
As we’ve been introduced to the Book of Revelation, we’ve seen how it focuses on what God is doing in this world. And we’ve witnessed the worship of God and of the Lamb who was slain by all creation. In our lesson for today, we get to look in on another worship scene. But this one comes after some seriously troubling visions. In the previous chapter, the Lamb begins to open the seals that initiate God’s judgment. The first four seals unleash the fabled “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” They in turn inflict conquest, warfare, famine, and death upon the earth. The sixth of the seven seals on the scroll initiates cosmic catastrophes: the sun is darkened, the moon turned to blood, the stars fall from the heavens and the mountains topple. These are traditional images in the Bible depicting the end of all things.[4]
After all of that, we would expect to see the end of all things. That would be the logical conclusion of what has transpired in chapter six. But instead of the witnessing the end, we see another scene of worship.[5] In this case, however, the focus is not on the object of worship, but rather on those who are gathered around the throne, worshiping God and the Lamb. As before, the group is described as a vast throng: it is a “great multitude that no one could count,” and it is made up of those “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”[6]  It seems to me that this vision of those who worship around the throne of God is very similar to St. Paul’s vision that “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, …, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11).
I think it is significant that although this multitude that cannot be counted who are worshiping God and the Lamb around the throne are said to have come from different nations, tribes, peoples, and languages, in this vision of worship they are called the “servants of God” (Rev. 7:3).[7] Despite any differences in their ethnic origins, their culture, their race, they are all described as martyrs who have faithfully borne witness to Jesus even to the point of death (Rev. 7:14). And there is no division or disagreement or disunity among them. They are united in their ascription of praise to God and to the Lamb: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:10).
In Revelation, as in the Gospel of John, the ultimate goal of God’s saving work among the human family is that we would all become one tribe: the servants of God.[8] We see this reflected in the description of those worshiping around the throne earlier in Revelation: “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them” (Rev. 5:13). While those who worship God may come from all different races and people groups, from different classes and walks of life, in God’s sight we are intended to make up one tribe: the people of God. And it is significant that it is in worship that all the ways humanity has of distinguishing one group from one another are essentially erased. At the end of all things, there is only the vast multitude of humankind united in their worship of God and the Lamb.
I don’t think that all differences are a bad thing. In fact, I think diversity can make us stronger if we don’t let it tear us apart. But the vision of worship around the throne of God in our lesson from Revelation for today is much bigger than any one people or nation. This vision assures us that regardless of the color of our skin, regardless of our family origins, regardless of our language or nationality, we will all one day unite around the throne of God. We will all one day confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father. That is the ultimate goal of God’s saving work in Jesus, the Lamb who was slain: to unite the divided human family as one people who worship God, one clan who are the servants of God, one tribe who are faithful in bearing witness to Jesus.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/17/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Reid Wilson, “Which of the 11 American nations do you live in?” The Washington Post, November 8, 2013 accessed at https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2013/11/08/which-of-the-11-american-nations-do-you-live-in/ .
[3] Cf. The Jefferson Institute’s website: http://www.patchworknation.org/regions-page.
[4] Cf. Jürgen Roloff, A Continental Commentary: The Revelation of John, 92, where he cites passages from Joel, Amos, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. Cf. also David E. Aune, Revelation 6–16, 424: “the events accompanying the breaking of each seal (with the exception of the fifth) belong to traditional Jewish and early Christian conceptions of the tribulations that will introduce the end …, though the scenario stops just short of the great day of wrath itself.”
[5] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, 127: “They looked for the End and what came was the church, not as a substitute for the act of God but itself a dimension of God’s saving activity.” Cf. also Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 79-80, where he says, “the victory of the Lamb’s followers through martyrdom” … “intervenes between the sixth and the seventh judgements of the first series of seven judgements: the seal-openings.” At this point, it would appear that “The judgment has been delayed only so that they can escape it through martyrdom.” But Bauckham insists that thus far the real secret of God’s purpose for the role of the church in the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth has not been revealed.” That “secret” is that the repentance of humankind is effected not by judgment but by the faithful witness of the church.
[6] In fact, the chapter seems to describe two different groups, the 144,000 from the tribes of Israel and the “great multitude.” However, as Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, 76, points out, in Revelation there is a contrast between what John hears and what he sees. He says, “The 144,000 from the twelve tribes of Israel (7:4-8) contrast with the innumerable multitude from all nations (7:9). But the two images depict the same reality.”  Cf. similarly, Craig R. Koester, Revelation, 419, 424; cf. also ibid., 424: “God’s promise to preserve and restore the tribes of Israel is kept  y redeeming people from every tribe and nation through the death of Jesus.” Cf. also Roloff, Revelation of John, 98. On the other hand, Christopher C. Rowland, “The Book of Revelation,” New Interpreters Bible XII:620-21, where he asserts that the first group is a Jewish remnant, while the second consists of those who are identified with Christ. Cf. also Aune, Revelation 6–16, 440-60, where he argues extensively for the view that the 144,000 represent a Jewish remnant.
[7] Cf. Koester, Revelation, 416-17, where he points out that the marking of slaves on the face was an act of punishment. He insist that this does not fit the context here. Cf. also ibid., 211, where he summarizes the idea of Christians as “servants” of God in Revelation. He says, “God’s people address him as Lord and Master and are to obey (4:8, 11; 6:10; 12:17; 14:12), but the paradox is that God’s servants are truly free, since Christ freed them from subjection to other powers (1:5, cf. Rom 6:18-23; 1 Cor 9:19; Gal 5:13).”
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—the Beginning: The Life of Hope, 150, where he speaks of “the restoration of all things” and “universal reconciliation” as “an expression of hope and of trust in God’s goodness.” Cf. also  Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 256, where he extends this reconciliation and restoration beyond the human family to include all God’s creatures.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


Revelation 5:11-14[1]
When I was an eager college freshman starting out on my educational journey, because I had already committed my life to ministry, I was a “ministerial student.” Those of us who fell into that category underwent significant testing at the beginning and end of our college careers. We took various personality profiles, including one that measured how dogmatic we were. One of the “tests” we took was to arrange in the order of importance the various tasks of ministry, at least according to our perspective. I don’t remember all of how I answered that test, but I do remember that I placed worship near the bottom of the list. Thankfully, by the time I graduated, it was at or near the top.
I’m afraid that many of us might have made the same mistake. If your experience was like mine growing up, worship was a boring event you had to endure. It was a place where you heard the same old things over and over. The sermons were dry and mind-numbing. The music was typically less than inspiring. And the prayers were hollow repetitions of standard phrases everybody said every week. There just didn’t seem to be much of a reason to be there. For all I know, some of you may still feel that way about worship, although I certainly hope not. But I think we’d have to admit that, for the most part, worship is not something that is a high priority for many people these days.
So, when we hear the lesson from the Book of Revelation for today, it may strike us as odd. It comes from two chapters that are completely dominated by a scene of worship. In chapter 4, those who are gathered around the throne worship God, saying, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev. 4:11). And in chapter 5, the vast throngs of all created beings worship Jesus, saying, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12). In our setting, all that may leave us scratching our heads.[2]
As I mentioned last week, the Book of Revelation provides struggling believers with images of God’s rule as the true reality in this world to counter the claims that contradicted their faith. One of the most basic ways in which the Bible has done that throughout the centuries is by reminding people of faith that, regardless of what may happen to us in this life, God remains on the throne, ruling all things with mercy and love and faithfulness.[3] One of the most familiar expressions of that vision is found in the Book of Psalms. Again and again, the Psalms reassure those who may be struggling in this life that we can trust that God will see to it that his grace will have the last word.
One of the fundamental premises for this faith is the belief that God is the one who created all things in the beginning. As the innumerable voices cry out in Revelation, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, … for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev. 4:11). The idea is that God is the only one powerful enough to create all the heavens and the earth and everything in them. And for that reason alone, for the fact that God has created a marvelous universe, God is worthy of our worship.[4] But more than that, Revelation reminds us that this God is the one who is powerful enough to right all the wrongs in this world.
That, in and of itself, would be reason enough for our worship of God. But the vision in this passage goes on to declare that the Lamb who gave his life for us all is also worthy of our worship. Again, the vast multitude praise him, saying, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12). Part of the reason for this worship is actually found in the verses preceding our lesson: the Lamb who was slaughtered “ransomed for God [those] from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).[5] Because he gave his life to set us all free, he is worthy to receive worship alongside the one who sits on the throne.[6]
I think it’s important to recognize that the scene of worship around the throne of God is framed by the fact that the risen Lord is “the Lamb who was slaughtered.” [7] The Easter message is not that a ruling monarch was “assumed” to heavenly glory.  Rather it is that the power to vindicate one who was executed as a criminal is a power that can transform everything and everyone.  We hold this hope in the assurance that if death could not stop him, then nothing can.[8] And he will continue to transform all things until every knee bows and every tongue joins in the chorus, “worthy is the Lamb”!
Our lesson from Revelation, and the context from which it is drawn, presents us with the two most basic reasons for worshipping God. First, God is the creator of all things, and as such he also has the power to ensure that all things work out for good in the end. Second, Jesus is the one who gave his life for us all, and nothing can stop him from finishing his work of making all things new. Like Christians throughout the ages, we worship God because we constantly need to be reminded of these two central affirmations of our faith. We don’t worship because God needs some kind of ego boost. We worship because we need to be reminded who it is who is at work in our lives here and now. We worship because our Creator and our Savior are worthy.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/10/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] In fact, in the overall purpose of Revelation, “The issue of true versus false worship is fundamental to John’s prophetic insight into the power-structures of the world his readers lived in. In the end, the book is about the incompatibility of the exclusive monotheistic worship portrayed in chapter 4 with every kind of idolatry—the political, social and economic idolatries from which more narrowly religious idolatry is inseparable.” Cf. Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 35. Cf. similarly Craig R. Koester, Revelation, 383, where he points out that the visions of the worship of the beast in Revelation includes features that were common to the Roman imperial cult. He says, “It was common to give gold wreaths to Greek and Roman rulers, who might be called ‘lord’ and ‘god,’ but in Revelation the wreaths and titles are given to the Creator (4:10-11). Similarly, hymns were sung to the emperors, who wanted it known that they ruled by the universal consensus of people in their realm …; however, in Rev 5, God and the Lamb are acclaimed worthy of rule by all creation.”
[3] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, 32, where he observes that in Revelation, “true knowledge of who God is is inseparable from worship of God.” Cf. also M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, 102, where he says that “This scene is the theological fountainhead and anchor point for the whole document. The bulk of John’s writing will be composed of visions of the catastrophes represented in the traditional apocalyptic imagery of the seals, trumpets, and bowls of chapters 6-18, … . Yet before portraying these eschatological woes, John wants the hearer-reader to see what he has seen: At the heart of things God rules in sublime majesty, the God who has defined himself as the Lamb who suffers for others.”
[4] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, 48: “The one God is defined as the One who brought all things into existence. As Creator, he alone has ultimate power over everything. As Creator, to whom all creatures owe their very being, he alone is to be worshipped.” He says further (ibid., 50) that “the roots of the religious apprehension of the uniqueness of God” is “the awareness that beyond all the interdependence of creation there is One to who alone all things owe even existence …. This awareness is inseparable from monotheistic worship, in which worship is acknowledgment of the ultimacy and incomparability of this Creator ….” Cf. also Koester, Revelation, 350, where he affirms that in Revelation God’s “sovereignty over the world is legitimate because he brought all things into being.”
[5] The language is intentionally inclusive. Cf. Koester, Revelation, 380: “God’s intent was that the earth’s tribes (Gen. 12:3; 28:14; Ps 72:17; Amos 3:2 LXX) and nations (Gen. 22:18 LXX) should be blessed and that all peoples would serve God (Pss 67:3; 117:1; Mic 4:1). Similarly, Revelation calls people of every tribe and nation to worship God and shows them being redeemed by the lamb (Rev. 5:9; 7:9; 14:6).” Cf. also Boring, Revelation, 111, where he observes that both worship scenes conclude on “an absolutely universal note.” He continues, “The last words of the heavenly chorus of 4:11 worship God as the Creator of all; the choir that sings the final chorus of 5:13 in praise to the Lambe is comprised of the whole creation.”
[6] In answer to the objection that the worship of Jesus would seem to be incompatible with exclusive worship of God, Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, 60, answers, “John does not wish to represent Jesus as an alternative object of worship alongside God, but as one who shares in the glory due to God. He is worthy of divine worship because his worship can be included in the worship of the one God.” He elaborates (ibid., 62): “It was because Christians owed salvation to Jesus Christ that he was to be worshipped. …. The salvation was too closely connected with Jesus himself for Jesus to be bypassed in worship offered to God for it, but at the same time it was salvation from God that Jesus gave and so Jesus was not treated as an alternative object of worship alongside God. He was included in the worship of God. More generally, we could say that it was because Jesus functioned as God in early Christian religion that he was worshipped. All the divine functions in relation to the world—as Saviour, Lord and Judge—wre exercised by Jesus, of course on God’s behalf.” He hastens to add (ibid., 62-63), however, that “it is doubtful whether, once Jesus was worshipped, Jewish [Christian] monotheists could for long be content with merely functional divinity. The one who is worthy of the worship due only to God must somehow belong to the reality of the one God.” Cf. also Koester, Revelation, 392: “In Revelation, Christ is not a second object of worship alongside God but is included within the worship of the one God, since God’s purposes are accomplished through him.” Cf. Boring, Revelation, 106, who goes further when he says, “the throne of the Lamb and the throne of God are one and the same—God is the one who has defined himself in Jesus Christ.” The result is “that when Christians say ‘God,’ the one they refer to is the one definitively revealed in Jesus, the Crucified.”                                                                    
[7] Cf. William Willimon, “A Song to Shake the World,” a sermon preached 4/26/1998; accessed at http://www.chapel.duke.edu/worship/sunday/ viewsermon.aspx?id=70 . He explains how this scene encapsulates the Easter message: “The Lamb, who knows what it’s like to suffer, to bleed, and to die, now rules with God, as God, at the center of a great shout of acclamation.” Cf. also Koester, Revelation, 386, where he points out three aspects of the “slaughter” of the Lamb as his victory: first, “Jesus conquered by dying as a witness who remained faithful to God”; second, “Jesus’ death is unique in that it alone redeems people for life in God’s kingdom”; and third, the fact that the Lamb is seen as standing means that the slaughtered Lamb is alive, thus “Jesus’ victory continues in resurrection.”
[8] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, 73: “Fundamental to Revelation’s whole understanding of the way in which Christ establishes God’s kingdom on earth is the conviction that in his death and resurrection Christ has already won his decisive victory over evil.”