The Central Question of Our Times: Who is Worthy?
I can’t get the power of narrative out of my mind. So I keep asking, what storyline will your life follow? What vision will inspire your action in the present and your hope for the future? I think God’s Story of love, redemption, breaking down walls, and radical inclusiveness trumps them all!
On Sunday, July 24th I gave a sermon from Revelation 5. Listen or read it here.
Who is Worthy? (Revelation 5)
As we come towards the end of our journey through God’s Story, we’ve landed in the book of Revelation, which reads a lot like a sci-fi fantasy novel with all of its vivid imagery. Call it weird, but just remember that today, people think Pokémon is normal.
While the exact circumstances of Revelation are debated, we know that times are tough. It’s a time of hardship, and a time when the church is at odds with the surrounding culture. The church is wrestling with its identity and role in the current climate of events.
In the first chapters we read seven different personalized and detailed letters to churches. It’s evident that God sees clearly into the everyday reality of these people. God is so intimately aware of their context, that he nuances what he says, showing he knows their unique strengths and weaknesses. But God also gives a universal invitation to behold a heavenly vision that includes them all.
The seventh letter ends with this invitation: “Look! I’m standing at the door and knocking. If any hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to be with them…[and] I will allow them to sit with me on my throne…” (Revelation 3:20-21)
We are left wondering, what would it be like to really open the door to Jesus?
What is it that we as a people are closed off to if we hold the door shut?
If you turn the page or slide your finger up your touch screen, John says, “After this I looked and there was a door that had been opened in heaven…” (Revelation 4:1) The imagery explodes as John tries to describe what he sees. Basically, all kinds of creatures are gathered around this throne, lifting their voices singing never-ending praise to the God who created all things.
Revelation 4:3 says that “surrounding the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald.” All the colors of the spectrum of the rainbow are shining in all the fullness of glory around this throne in a stunning display of unity in diversity; rare precious stones are reflecting the glory of God in a multi-faceted array of wonder.
The worship continues to crescendo through chapter 4 into chapter 5 where the vision gets even more specific that there are “persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9) united together worshipping God around this throne.
The Heavenly Vision: You Cannot Be Color Blind
You cannot be color blind when seeing this vision; there is not just one pigment present; not just one skin tone. The heavenly vision doesn’t blur or diminish or dull our different identities; heaven intensifies and celebrates the colors; it brings clarity and beauty and it makes people sing.
There is a radical openness around the throne of God. When people open the door to Jesus and orient themselves around him as the center of reality, a surprising and seemingly impossible thing happens. Do you see it?
Let me ask you this, if you close your eyes and picture heaven, who do you see there with you? Who is present? Who is missing?
If you are like most human beings, you probably envision people you know and love, people who look a lot like you. People who match your life and experience. And if you are like most human beings, there are a whole lot of people you don’t picture or may feel uncomfortable picturing there.
The Radical Inclusiveness of God’s Story
Every time God’s Story describes who is included at God’s table and welcomed in God’s presence, it is people of every type, every color, race, ethnicity, age, gender, socio-economic status. The door that opens into the God-center of reality is radically diverse.
Do you see it? Is every person simply absorbed or assimilated at this throne into one blurry, homogeneous clump? Do people lose their identity? Their uniqueness?
In a God-centered reality, there is this centripetal force that draws all people to that center where their unique reflection of his image is allowed to shine; their identities become more defined. Their colors radiate in beauty. And as they come together they worship in a convergent harmony.
Keeping it Real Real
If you know me, my personality tends towards optimism. I’m somewhat of an idealist. It isn’t just that I see the cup as half full, I’m like, can we all just pause for a moment and appreciate that cup—isn’t it delightful?
But I’m also the kind of person who wants to keep it real real. So, here is a little Allison unplugged, summer jam, Allison in the raw. I love the multi-cultural vision of worship I see in the Bible, but I also find myself at a loss for how we really experience it here and now. There are things that keep happening in our nation and in our world that make me wonder if such a vision is possible.
In the last two years that I have been one of your pastors at First Church, we have experienced a lot of disorienting moments. We have had to address more tragedy, violence, shootings, and issues than I remember in all my years of ministry prior to here.
I have found myself wondering—Are the times that we live in now more challenging than other times?
Gun violence and mass shootings are now a regular part of our pastoral prayers because of their frequency. In my first few weeks on staff, there was a shooting next door at SPU. A month ago the LGBTQ community in Orlando was targeted in one of the largest civilian mass shootings in our nation. The names of several cities around our country have taken on new meaning as places like Ferguson and Charleston challenge us to face the present reality of racism in it’s modern day forms.
We’ve become familiar with the names of people like Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castille because black lives are taken far too often without justice being served.
And as a church who gathers around a heavenly vision of multi-cultural unity, we’d like to think that saying All Lives Matter is a good enough theological statement. But we’re coming to know it isn’t because it denies the problem of color blindness, racism, and systemic injustice that persists in our country.
So we make the necessary theological statement and proclaim that Black Lives Matter because in our history and in our nation, black lives have not been treated equally. We as a nation have a history where we counted black people as only 3/5ths of a person. We lived under Jim Crow laws in the south, and now live in a time when our policing and modern prison system still perpetuate a racism that does not value all life equally.
We also have seen people turn to more violence as an answer to violence with the police officers killed in Dallas and Baton Rouge, and we say that’s not right either.
About ten years ago I got to know some Free Methodist brothers and sisters from Rwanda who came to the US as refugees. As they shared their story they said, “in our country we were beaten and killed, not for the color of our skin, but for the shape of our noses.”
Throughout the world certain people groups have been oppressed in some way at the hands of others for myriad reasons: for the color of their skin, for the place they were born, for the religion they practice, or for their economic status. People are oppressed for their gender, their sexual identity, how much they weigh, or what kind of accent they have.
Are Things Really Getting Worse?
Are things really getting worse or is it that social media has brought more awareness to what has been happening all along? Were we really that great in the past or is the brokenness of the human condition that results from sin just being exposed in new ways in our day?
Disorientation: What Narrative Defines Reality?
What narrative will you allow to define reality for you?
There is this poignant moment in Revelation between the heavenly vision in chapter 4 and the heavenly vision in chapter 5. John is looking and he sees a sealed scroll in the right hand of the one seated on the throne. An angel asks him: “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or look inside it. So I began to weep and weep, because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look inside it.” (Revelation 5:2-3)
John is overcome by emotion. He sees the heavenly vision and the throne, but that’s not all he sees. John is fully aware of the current state of affairs on earth and in the world.
This moment where he is weeping and weeping is the moment he experiences the dissonance between what is and what he hopes will be. And the only thing that can come out of his mouth are tears of desperation.
The heavenly vision feels like an impossible dream in light of present circumstances. We too get disoriented and feel the distance between hope and reality.
The Central Question of Our Times: Who is Worthy?
“Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” is the central question of our times.
Who can truly bring an end to suffering and violence? Who can truly bring peace? How will we ever experience healing and wholeness? Where does justice come from? Who do we trust to be our leader? Who is worthy to open the scroll?
John weeps and weeps because he looks around and sees no one who is worthy. John is prophetically articulating the fear and disappointment of the people. To ask who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals is to ask who really is in control? Who holds the future? Who can interpret the stuff that is going on our world?
Have you ever asked those questions? Who do you trust? Who do you listen to? When the world seems to spin out of control; when things feel unsafe; when the unknown scares you — where do you turn?
The book of Revelation is addressing some of our deepest questions about God’s divine purposes in the world. Questions of hope in the midst of chaos; peace in the presence of violence; justice in the face of oppression. What kind of heavenly vision should inform our present reality?
The Heavenly Vision of the One Who is Worthy
As John is weeping, one of the elders says, “Don’t weep. Look! The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has emerged victorious so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” (5:5)
John sees: “a Lamb, standing as if it had been slain.” And people start singing a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals,
because you were slain,
and by your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation.
You made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they will rule on earth.” (5:9-10)
Who is worthy to open the scroll? Who is the one who brings order into chaos? Who is the one who brings peace and justice? Who is the one who can cause each person to shine in the full glory of who they are created to be?
The one John sees and the one whom every creature and every person recognizes as worthy is Jesus. Jesus the Messiah – the lion of the tribe of Judah – the one who is mighty in victory, strong and powerful. Jesus who gave his life for you and for all people.
Who is worthy? It is Jesus who is the Lamb who was slain. Jesus — the Lamb who is gentle and vulnerable. Jesus who knows our sorrows and our grief. Jesus who suffered and died. The one who is worthy is the Lamb who is seated on the throne; the one who has overcome death, division, and destruction in all its forms.
Jesus life, death, and resurrection is the only way we make sense of our history, our present, and our future.
It’s Jesus who unravels the plot of the biblical story and brings it to the only kind of resolution that is good and right for all the peoples of the world.
When John looks and sees Jesus on the throne, he sees the God who is with us, the God who “will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore…” (Revelation 21:3-4)
What Narrative Will You Allow to Define You?
What narrative will you allow to define you? Where will you put your trust? Will you buy into a narrative of fear? Will you grasp the door to God’s kingdom reality shut because you are not sure what might be on the other side? Or will you trust this Jesus who draws all people to himself and open your life to him?
We live in a time where people get drawn into a narrative of fear that shuts the door to us experiencing the fullness of God’s glory. It’s fear of the other, fear of the unknown, fear of those different from you and me; fear that creates an “us and them” world; fear that defines an enemy and treats “them” as a threat.
It’s a fear that would say to be a Muslim equals being a terrorist when that equation doesn’t add up in reality.
It’s a fear that calls some people illegal when people cannot be illegal because all people are human beings created in God’s image.
It’s fear that fixates on certain behaviors while losing sight of the person.
It’s fear that grows into anger, anger that turns into hate, hate that manifests in violence, and violence that creates more fear.
What narrative will you allow to define you and the world around you? What storyline will your life follow?
Who is worthy to open the scroll of your past, present, and future? Who do you look to?
To look to anyone other than Jesus Christ will only set you up for disappointment.
As God’s people we do not put our trust in any human being. We do not put our trust in any political candidate. Left, right, or middle — without Christ as your center, no position will get us to where we need to go.
Human history teaches us over and over again that when left to ourselves, we really make a mess of things. But when we open the door to Jesus, walls don’t go up—they start coming down. God breaks down the barriers that divide us. We find ourselves filled with the kind of love that casts out fear.
And our hearts are lifted in a harmony of praise to the one who alone is worthy, who alone is strong enough, wise enough, loving enough to actually give us a hope and a future.
We need to keep the heavenly vision of God’s throne in front of us so that our lives may become rooted and grounded in a God-centered reality.
That vision will anchors us. That vision will cause us to come fully alive. That vision will teach us how to love others. That vision will inspire us to action.
Will you open the door to Jesus who is on throne?
Will you let him define the narrative of your life and your world?
Will you trust him?