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 Lamb Power

Sermon - 4/7/13
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Revelation 5:6-14

The Book of Revelation is full of strange and sometimes disturbing imagery. This will be the first of 4 sermons that I'm going to give (a little mini-series) on Revelation during this period. It's going to be in 2 parts -- today and next Sunday, then we're going to skip a couple weeks because of other things, and then we'll pick up again on the first 2 Sunday's in May.

The Book of Revelation describes a vision given to John while in exile on the island of Patmos, just off the western coast of Turkey.  And I've been to Patmos, when I was on sabbatical in 2008.

I discovered I was evidently not the only Duck fan :)

And if you want to spend the rest of your life in exile, well, and island like Patmos is not a bad place to be.

And if you've been there, you can visit the cave of the Apocalypse.

Now there's a monastery built on the site of the cave, but that's where tradition says John wrote Revelation, wrote the 7 letters that were sent to the churches throughout Asia Minor. And then the vision, which begins in chapter 4 of Revelation, it tells of this fantastic vision of the throne of God where the prophetic scroll that will reveal the so-called 'end-times' is then unveiled.

So I want to read for you the first half of chapter 5, a slight change from the bulletin, of Revelation:

Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals;2and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’ 3And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it.4And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. 5Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. 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.’

6 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. 7He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. 8When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9They sing a new song:
‘You are worthy to take the scroll
   and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
   saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; 
10 you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
   and they will reign on earth.’

 

So the perfect illustration, I think, for this text, is not the icons of the Greek Orthodox church which you will find scattered across the island there in Patmos:

But I really think it's April's children's moment last week :)  Comic books, right?  If you weren't here, you missed a great one, as she compared and contrasted the super-heroes of comic books with the super-heroes of scripture.  And challenged us to figure out which was which. 

 

But I was seriously disappointed that she left out one -- Preacher Man! 

Speedier than a bible translation!  Almost as fast as a discernment process :)  This one was done for me by Monica McKenzie, Ron McKenzie's wife, after they came back from Mexico.

But seriously, what I'm suggestion is that the best way to understand Revelation is to see it as an ancient comic book.  No joke. So what are comic books?  They're stories of super-heroes who overcome super-villains. As depictions of the perennial struggle between good and evil.  And so they take real-world issues and magnify them into these super-large, other-worldly struggles, which often reflect, you see, our own struggles here on earth.  And that is, in essence, what Revelation is all about.  To read it as a literal or a factual description of future events is one of the greatest fabrications of biblical mis-interpretation fostered upon gullible people of faith.

And one of the things that happens when you literalize biblical literature never meant to be taken literally is that you end up with bizarre images which are often comical.  Take the image of the lamb from this text.  Did you read it carefully?  7 eyes?  7 horns? I mean, the image is so creepy we dare not leave it on the screen for very long.

Even Albrecht Dürer, the great German artist, has a wood carving of Revelation 5, where you see the whole scene with the 24 Elders and the 4 living creatures are all there.

And if you look up close at his lamb, indeed, it has 7 eyes and 7 horns. 

But at least Dürer lived 2 centuries before the enlightenment -- they hadn't even figured out that the earth revolves around the sun (rather than the other way around), and for all Dürer knew, the heavens could be somewhere just beyond the Moon, right?  Because after all, Columbus had just discovered the New World, somewhere beyond the Atlantic ocean.  So who's to say it wasn't out there somewhere.

But our understanding of the world has changed significantly from that of 1492, let alone that of 92, which is when we think the Book of Revelation was written.  Thus, to read it as if nothing has changed is like asking Christopher Columbus to steer a modern-day cruise liner. Or fly a 747.

So the first thing we have to do to understand a book like this is to read it in light of its historical context, and to apply the images in it to that context.  And it's abundantly clear when you do that, and this is very well-known among bible students and scholars, that many of those images and symbols are taken directly out of the Roman Empire.  For instance, the infamous number of the beast -- 666 -- is widely understood to symbolize the Emperor Nero.  And other images, like the 7 horns and the 7 eyes are allusions to other biblical passages.  And so John is not describing the physical appearance of a divine mythical being, he's making a spiritual connection to the visions of Hebrew scripture.  The God of creation is the God of history, the God of time.  The God of Genesis is the God of Revelation, you see. 

Thus, the Christian communities to whom and for whom John was writing could take confidence in their struggles with that Empire, that Christ, not the Emperor, was the ultimate authority and power on the throne.  That's the message of Revelation.

So while Revelation may be a comic book about the struggle between good and evil under the rule of ancient Rome, that does not mean we can just ignore it as some religious fantasy in the mind of one delirious man on the island of Patmos. Because it's still a part of our scripture and it reveals to us spiritual insights that are not only right-on, they are essential for our time.

And so I want to focus this morning on the big truth with a capital "T" from Revelation, which I think we need in our time, and suggest its relevance on one of the big perplexing problems we face today, and that is the pervasion of guns and violence in our society.

So I decided to read the first half of chapter 5, rather than the second half, because of one striking image.  In his vision, John reports that this mighty angel says to him "The lion of Judah has conquered", and therefore this victorious, mighty lion is the one who can open the scroll to reveal its contents and to set the events in motion.  But what does he see?  It's not a mighty lion at all, is it?  He sees a lamb.  And a slaughtered a lamb.  So how are we to understand that image?

In 1998, Judy and I went to Scotland, we had an opportunity to attend the national assembly of the Church of Scotland as part of their international delegates.  It was held in Edinburgh.  We left the kids in the care of my mother (they were in grade-school at the time), and we were eating dinner when I heard on a T.V. someone say "Springfield Oregon".  It is not a good thing when you hear the name of your town in a foreign country on the evening news. We sat and watched in horror as these images of Thurston high school and Kip Kinkle were played on the screen.  We immediately rushed back to our room and called home -- we had to talk to Mom and our kids, to make sure they were OK.  The next morning, a picture of the Kinkle family was in the paper, this is the time when you don't want to see the Oregon Duck, right?

I passed a note to the Chair of the assembly, asking to rise on a point of personal privilege.  That was granted.  Asking for their prayers, I spoke to the 1,000 delegates gathered there, asking them to pray for the families of Thurston high school.  The newspaper reports the next day said that I choked back tears as I made "an impassioned appeal to keep children in their country safe from violence".

As I discovered, it was an appeal that I hardly needed to make to that crowd. Because Scotland had been through it's own version of Newtown, just two years earlier, when a mentally ill man murdered an entire classroom full of kindergarten children.  16 children, and their teacher, in Dunblane, Scotland.  Only, the response in the United Kingdom to that tragedy vastly differed from here in the United States. 

Because the following year, they imposed very strict gun controls that made handguns essentially illegal in the United Kingdom (oddly with the exception of Northern Ireland, but that's another issue).  And the result is, deaths from firearms in the United Kingdom are among the lowest in the world -- 1/40th of the rate here in the United States.  Less than 1 per million of population.

Well, since that time (in 1997) when that law was passed in the United Kingdom, the Brady Campaign (named for Jim Brady, who was severely wounded in the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan) lists on their web site 41 pages of school shootings alone, over 200 shootings in the United States.  That's over 12 per year, since 1997.  I mean, everyone recognizes that this is a problem that we have to do something about.  But how do we solve this?

The Scotland solution -- to just ban all these weapons -- is not an option for us because of the 2nd amendment.  So one side wants to post armed guards in every school.  The other side wants more robust and comprehensive background checks, limits on the types of weapons and ammunition. Missing in this whole discussion, I think, is a serious look at the spiritual issues behind the whole question.

And the first spiritual issue that I think we need to address is the correlation between power and fear.  The greater our fear, the higher our need for power to protect ourselves. Whether we're talking about individuals or nations.  And so fear is one of the driving forces behind gun sales, and manufacturers know this, they benefit from all of the fear in our society. And the irony is, study after study and study has shown that firearms in homes dramatically increases the odds of injury by a firearm.  For instance, in 1998, a study found that a gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used in a suicide, a homicide, an assault, or an unintentional injury than it is to be used in self-defense.  22 times more likely.

In 2009, there was a study that found that gun owners are 4.5 times more likely to be assaulted with a gun than non-gun owners.  And even though statistically the majority of us would be much safer without guns, at the same time I know there are those situations in which one feels a legitimate need for that kind of protection.  I have a sister who packs a 44.  Believe me, she is not a person you want to mess with :)  But where she lives, in a very remote area, and the unsavory characters she has to deal with, I don't blame her in the least for that.

But here's why I suggest it's a spiritual issue:  what does it mean to say "In God we Trust" if we're going to rely on weapons for our safety?  I mean, can we have it both ways?  The gospels say a lot about fear and power.  The first words of the angels, to the frightened shepherds is what?  "Do not fear, for unto you is born this day a Savior".  Jesus says "Do not fear those that kill the body but cannot kill the soul".  He tells a father of a dying girl "Do not fear, only believe".  Removing fear is one of the central points of our faith. 

Regarding power, Jesus tells Pilate the only power he (Pilate) has is that that has been given to him by God.  We pray in the Lord's Prayer that God's is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever.  When we rely on our power, rather than God's, to counter our fear, we are more prone to use it wrongly.  Be it in invading countries in search of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, or protecting our teenage daughters from the amorous affections of a would-be suitor (as was the case of the Oregon father in the news this week who used his gun to scare off the unwanted visitor -- invited by the young girl -- and subsequently he was cited for the illegal discharge of a firearm).

When fathers thing using guns is the appropriate means to influence their daughter's choice of boyfriends, we have a serious problem.  And my point is that if you take an issue like parenting, or relationship with your spouse or significant other, or your disagreement with your teacher or your boss, whatever that relationship is, if there's any kind of dysfunction, tension, conflict, does anyone believe that introducing a gun into the situation is going to help it?

The problem may not be the gun itself, but the gun makes the problem that much worse.

The second spiritual issue is violence.  I mean, we're a culture awash in violence. We glorify violence from video games to entertainment to sports.  When a basketball coach thinks cursing and throwing basketballs at his players is the way to teach them how to play, are we surprised when fights break out in the game?  When teenagers use their phones to post a sexual assault of a classmate online, we have failed not only to protect that young woman, we have failed to provide the moral and spiritual guidance for those youth.  When bullies become victims in crimes of retaliation, that's not justice served, that's injustice multiplied.  When more Americans are killed every 2 two years by firearms in this country than were killed in the entire Vietnamese war, and we refuse to change the way we do business, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Now, evidently one of the things I told that Scottish church assembly that was recorded in that newspaper story was this:  "When I was preparing to come to Scotland, one of my congruents who had recently visited there told me of the bloody Scottish history.  The irony is, I found this country to be very loving and peaceful.  It is my own home that is filled with blood".

So you may ask:  what about Revelation?  Is it not filled with blood and violence?  Yeah, it is.  So I want to say 3 quick things about that.

First of all, the violence in Revelation is all of the comic book variety -- super-heroes against super-villains.  Yeah, there are victims in the process, of human blood.  But even then, it's very brief.

Second, Revelation takes the culture of violence, as practiced by the Roman Empire, to such an extreme level, that it reveals the absurdity of such violence in a way that would make Quentin Tarantino blush.  And as such, it's not a validation of violence but a condemnation of it.

Third, the super-hero figure of the slain lamb is the anti-dote to the world's violence.  The one who reveals that true victory comes from enduring, not perpetuating, the violence.

Lastly, the final vision of Revelation, when we come to the end of the book, is of a world at peace.  Where death will be no more.  That is the ultimate utopian vision of God's desire for our world.  A world without death is another way of saying a world without violence.  To worship the slain lamb, not the lion, is the hold up as our example the crucified Christ.  Not as a martyr for whom we seek revenge, but as our Lord whom we follow in humble service to our brothers and sisters.

Ultimately, it says lamb-power, not lion-power, is what will save us.

So if God's vision is for a world free of violence, how do we best work toward that end?  How do we show our trust of God in that vision?  And these are issues I know with enormous implications for both personal decisions and public policy.  Every individual has to make their own choices based on their individual circumstances, value, and faith.  We must be careful of judging those who make different choices than our own.

But in areas of public policy, we should also not be shy of advocating for those decisions that will best help us create the kind of society we would want not just for ourselves, but for our children, and our children's children.  My hope and prayer is that the goal of a violent-free world, as envisioned by John on that peaceful island of Patmos, will be the one that guides us in making it so.

May it be.

 


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