A Sermon: The Difference Heaven Makes

I am never sure how helpful this is to others, but here is the text of a sermon that I am about to preach at chapel here in College, on Revelation 5.11-14, one of the lectionary texts for this week.

Introduction

I received an
email this week – an exciting email. It didn’t come from Nigeria, promising to
deposit 5 million dollars in to my bank account (I tend to forward those to
Synod Head Office as my little contribution to solving the annual deficit). No,
it was an email from Amazon telling me that a new book is on its way.

 

The arrival,
unpacking, opening and, if you are lucky, reading of a new book is always for
me a moment of some suspense, anticipation and expectation. And that sense,
that opening the book might just change your life a little – well that is I
think what the scene presented to us in Revelation 5 also suggests. In the
great dramatic vision of The Revelation of John, this is one of those moments
when the frame freezes, time stops, the drama is suspended and we look and see
an extraordinary tableau – of a book that is about to be opened.

But it is not
only the imminent arrival of my new book that happily coincides with the text
that I chose to preach from before the email arrived. The title of the book
connects in an even more important way. It is called The Difference Heaven Makes.

The Problem of Heaven

You see, the
great difficulty with most of the stuff that happens in Revelation is that it
happens in heaven.  This is why we
avoid it (with the exception of the bits about the churches in 2-3 – that is
down to earth enough for us to be able to make some sense of it.)  But this scene, as so many in
Revelation takes place in heaven – John introduces it with the words ‘then I
saw…’ directing his and out attention into the heavenly realm to God sat on a
throne (just try to imagine this without also imagining an old man with a
beard) holding on his right hand a book, a book that is there to be opened.

But what
difference does heaven make? What difference does it make that this stuff is
happening ‘up there’?

The Book and the Problem

Revelation 5
opens with a vision of God, sat on a throne, and balanced on his hand a book
which is sealed with seven seals. 
The seals will be opened, stage by stage in chapters 6 and following,
but in chapter 5 we hear that there is a problem in heaven. Understanding the
nature of the book, and the nature of the problem is the first step in understanding
the difference that heaven makes.

The book probably
refers to what one writer calls ‘God’s redemptive plan’, the stages of which
are to be revealed as the seals are open: step by step, chapter by chapter.

The problem is
how the plan gets going. It lies hidden, bound up in the book’s pages,
unavailable to human knowledge or understanding.  We want to know what God plans for God’s world, but without
someone to open the book we have no chance of knowing, no chance of hearing, no
chance of living in or contributing to this great plan for the salvation of all
things, that lies in the heart and on the hand of the one who sits on the
throne.

So the angel
cries ‘who is worthy to open the book and break the seal’. The prophets tell us
that there is no-one. There is no-one on earth – well we kind of knew that,
didn’t we. But the stranger and more desperate truth is that there is no-one in
heaven either. The prophet weeps. There is no hope for the world, no hope for
God’s people, no hope for him if the plan of redemption is stalled, if the book
is never opened.

But there is
hope, because there is one who is worthy, one who has conquered, one who has
the credentials and the power and the authority to open the book and kick start
the plan. What we need is a King, and in this particular jungle the only King
worth having is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.

So we sit and we
wait – and we look for the Lion who has conquered.

Looking Back: The Lamb Who is Slaughtered

As you will know
if you have ever read Revelation, what happens next is probably the key to
understanding the whole book. Instead of the roar of a warrior King, what we
hear is the feeble bleat of the new born. Instead of the conquering lion, we
meet the slaughtered lamb. A lamb, less than a year old, with its throat still
cut, walks into the scene and takes the book from God and in their shock and
awe, with mouths wide open and hearts and minds transformed, the audience of
heaven begin to bow down and offer their praise.

For this Lamb is
the one. The one who is worthy, and he is worthy not despite the gaping wound
that marks his body but because of it. ‘You were slaughtered and by your blood
you ransomed for God saints from every tribe, language people and nation.’

Heaven worships, because in Jesus Christ, God’s
redemptive plan for creation finds its new beginning.

But that is not
the difference heaven makes.

For this is, of
course, only the beginning.

Looking Forward: A New Heaven and a New Earth

Seals have to be
opened, events have to be disclosed, and the chapters of the book must be
revealed to those who God now has made to be a kingdom of priests. The slaughtered
Lamb taking the book is the beginning, the end is when the kingdom of this
world finally become the kingdom of our Lord and his Messiah and he will reign
forever and ever’.

It is this
vision, of a universal salvation, in which God will create and new heaven and a
new earth, in which God will make his home with us, in which death and tears
and crying and mourning will be no more… it is this vision that is taken up in
the verses from chapter 5 that we read this afternoon. Here heaven worships not
as it looks back to see how the crucifixion and vindication of the Messiah
makes him worthy to open the book. Instead they look forward to the day when
all the book is open, and so in anticipation we are told that there are no
longer 24 elders and a few angles, my myriads of myriads, thousands of
thousands.  The worship of heaven
becomes the worship of every creature in heaven and on earth and under the
earth – the whole creation singing ‘ To God and to the Lamb be blessing and
honour and glory and might forever and ever.’

Heaven worships because it looks and longs for the
day when heaven and earth and hell itself shall be joined in praise of God and
his Messiah.

But that is not
the difference heaven makes.

The Present: The Inbetween

You see, we are
neither at the beginning or the end. Our worship and the lives that are shaped
by it are shot through with the tension, anxiety, frustration and hope that
comes from knowing that in the death and resurrection in Jesus, the story has
begun but it is not yet finished. The New Testament, and the Revelation of John
regularly insist that this is the location and vocation of the people of God.

The British
comedy act the Goodies once had a hit record about being middle aged: we are
the in-betweenies. This is the calling of the church. And it means that we live
with the double temptation of falling into despair – because it looks sometimes
as if the book has barely been written, much less opened and revealed and
succumbing to an easy confidence that suggests that nothing really needs to
change, especially not us.

But we are those upon
whom the ends of the ages have come. And so we are those who like and love, and
work and worship as the seals are, in ways that we don’t always see, being
opened. This is why it is likely that God holds and what Jesus opens is a book
and not a scroll.  If it were a
scroll, then nothing would be known until the last seal is broken. But if the
seals mark of the different chapters of a book, then revelation is possible –
we can know something of the story, and of the outcome.

What heaven does is worship God for putting us in
that place.

Our worship is
offered not just out of thankfulness to God for all that God has done in Jesus
Christ – his slaughter, his victory, his saving and calling of you and me to
become the people of God who share in that suffering and victory. Worship is
not simply the recitation of what God has done.

Our worship is
offered not simply in confident hope that God will ultimately gather and
restore creation to its intended purpose, where Christ is all in all. Worship
is not only the anticipation of what God will do.

Worship is the
way that we live in between the recitation and anticipation that shapes the
Christian life. It is what we do when we know that we are held, suspended in
that moment. This holding, which is the work of God, is no holding back or
holding down, it is the holding of us all, so that through our obedience and
the suffering that may come with it, we may become the kingdom and priests who
serve God and who reign as he reigns through faithful witness and obedient
suffering. In this we are continually in suspense as we look and work for the
day when the kingdom of this world become the kingdom of our Lord and his
Messiah. This is our location. And our vocation is  the ceding over of our lives to the one who was and is and
is to come. It is the Easter vocation – to be like Peter and to hear and
respond to the invitation, interrogation and command of the risen Jesus. And it
is to know that the Lamb that was slain, but to whom now belongs all power and
wealth and wisdom and might – Jesus the first and the last, is neither confined
to the events of the first Easter, nor postponed to the final chapters of
history, but is here, with us, standing by us as we work, joining with us as we
eat, speaking to us by name. If we can only see that, then as we look up and
see the worship of heaven, we may be able to add our Amen.

That is the
difference that heaven makes.