Please forgive the late post; some technical difficulties made an audio sermon this week untenable. As we continue our journey through the Revelation, we get a sneak peek into the worship of heaven. As we read our lessons and sermon text below, plus contemplate what that means for our worship on earth now, may we each take special care to ascend in heart and mind where Christ is now that we might enjoy foretastes of glory divine before his return.
A village rector was contemplating heaven during his prayers one day, thinking of the possible things he might miss from earth. As he was doing so he wondered aloud, “Are there golf courses in heaven?” “Yes,” boomed a voice that startled the cleric, “with perfect greens, ideal weather, and soaring vistas.” “Wow!” marveled the excited priest, “I can’t wait to enjoy them!” “Good, because I have you marked for a foursome with another new arrival, St Peter, and me this coming Saturday.”
As the lectionary moves us through a peek into eternity during this Easter season with our Revelation readings, we pause today consider heaven—specifically the worship of heaven. The lectionary only provides a snapshot of a broader scene. We haven’t gotten to the point where we see heaven arriving on earth yet. We have barely even gotten started with the judgment imagery at this point in the Revelation. So don’t get a headache, like an old college friend of mine used to whenever he tried to peruse apocalyptic passages. And don’t fret about trying to match every last symbol to some purported but unverifiable contemporary figure, government, or event in the newspaper. If it wasn’t on St John’s or the Early Church’s mind, we can hardly expect it to speak much more clearly to us, except as grand symbols of the cosmic battle between good and evil for us later.
But here’s a bit of what we can know. Chapter 5 begins with a scene of sorrow. A scroll, written on both front and back, sealed with seven seals (seven being the number of completion or perfection) in God’s right hand. Later, in chapter 6, we would see the opening of that scroll, and the famed four horsemen show up—bringing plague, war, famine, and death. But for our purposes we only need to know God’s righteous justice is being symbolized in the scroll. The angelic announcement goes out asking who is “worthy” to open the scroll. And there must have been a moment of bated breath, as John is driven to tears, longing to see God’s judgment being brought to bear, so that the evil we sinful humans have brought about might cease. That’s when one of the 24 elders, representing the leaders of the faithful both before and after Christ, comes up to John and assures him with these words, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
That’s right, Jesus has shown up, having won the victory over sin and death, fulfilling—even surpassing—the old covenant’s messianic hopes. And now the scroll of divine justice is entrusted to his capable hands. The elders, who each hold harps and incense bowls—representing praise and prayer respectively—fall down in obeisance to Jesus. And they sing a song extolling our Lord, declaring: Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.
The sacrifice of Christ on the cross is being celebrated, because we who believe are ransomed—bought from unjust captivity to sin and death as it were—and gathered together from disparate classes, ages of history, sexes, and races to be made a new kingdom under Christ’s gracious and benevolent rule. And not only that, we have been elevated in God’s mind to rule and serve alongside our Savior. St Paul elsewhere even offers almost as a throw away statement to the Corinthian church that we are going to “judge angels!” And this is something the elders endorse as a worthwhile focus in their worship of Christ. They are inspired by the rescuing hand of Jesus for all who put their trust in him!
Sorrow has been flipped to joy. And that’s where our lesson picks up today. With the complete panorama of the heavenly host joining their voices with the voices of the elders. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” they echo. And then creation itself joins this heavenly chorus, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the scene caps off with a resounding affirmation of “Amen!” by celestial creatures and prostrating elders. The worship of God in heaven cascades down to us on earth—a veritable answer to our regular prayer of hallowing God’s name and asking for his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Christ is worshipped for his restoring us back to the Father and elevating us in the eyes of heaven. Christ is worshipped for his inherent worthiness as the Incarnate Word. Christ is worshipped for his glorious power in rising up victoriously over death. Christ is worshipped for his willingness to bring the usurping power of evil to an end. Christ is worshipped because he paid the price that a holy God requires of sin. Christ is worshipped because he has set us free! And we are invited into that worship, to ascend from earth to heaven, by the representative company of those leaders in sacred history, both those who have longed for the Messiah and those who experienced the fulfillment of messianic hopes in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Marty Coleman, one of our own local saints, organist emeritus, who has now gone on to join the company of the very elders John mentions today, used to teach the children’s choir, “We don’t bring God down to us, we ascend up to meet God where he is.” That’s the reality of our worship in this in-between time as we await Christ’s return. Later, heaven will come down to earth and the two will be made one and the same, in fully integrated spiritual material perfection for eternity.
Until then—as we consider what we do on Sunday week in and week out; how we pray daily in the midst of busy schedules; looking for moments to share Christ’s love in word and deed; anticipating encounters with the holy in moments of surprise and the humdrum goodness we typically take for granted. Until then, we should be proactive to “lift up our hearts,” just as we pray before holy communion; instead of trying to yank Jesus down from heaven early, before every ear has heard the Gospel, before every knee has had a chance to bow willingly, before every heart has had a chance to fully embrace and confess the love of Jesus.
We need to take every moment of every day and try to set our minds on things above—not be overcome with the trials and temptations of things below. And as we daily ascend in heart and mind to where Christ is—the Lamb seated upon the throne, with full victory, full love, full justice and mercy—we’ll find ourselves naturally sanctifying our lives, seasoning an unpalatable sin-ridden earth with a taste of the heavenly banquet, and breathing the sweet incense of eternity into the stinky areas of life through our prayers. Sunday worship trains us for living in eternity. May we all go up to Jesus in our hearts, that we might see heaven on earth. Let us pray…
Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that as we believe your only‑begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.