Sing as wayfarers do

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” They were shouting, perhaps singing, a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, along with angels and elders and four mysterious creatures. “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

According to the book of Revelation, the risen Lord appeared to a man named John on the island of Patmos in the eastern Mediterranean, and gave him messages to be sent to the seven churches in the Roman province of Asia, the part of the world we know today as Turkey. John was then caught up into what he described as the heavenly throne room, where he saw a book with seven seals which no one but Christ was able to open.

The vision unfolds with each broken seal; the seventh seal opens into seven trumpet scenes, and the last trumpet announces another set of seven: bowls of divine wrath poured out. John sees plagues and devastations, climaxing in the destruction of Babylon, the “great city.” Then he sees visions of the final triumph of God as Christ returns: the dead are raised, the final judgment is held, and the new Jerusalem is established as the capital of the redeemed creation.

Revelation raises many questions, but for all who hear John’s witness the most important question is, will we orient our lives toward “the great city” that is already fallen, Babylon the great, or will we have the courage to keep our eyes on “the holy city” where God is at home among us, the new Jerusalem, already descending from heaven?

Revelation is meant to be read in its entirety in worship, perhaps with the congregation singing along with the many doxologies and anthems woven through the text like threads of gold, uniting the saints on earth and the saints and angels in heaven in worship. The whole thing feels like a script for a cosmic-scale performance, and it’s no coincidence that the rich, symbolic world of Revelation has inspired poets, musicians, painters, and even architects. However, the same symbols, writes L. T. Johnson, have also “nurtured delusionary systems, both private and public, to the destruction of their fashioners and to the discredit of the writing (…) Few writings in all of literature have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation. Its history of interpretation is largely a story of tragic misinterpretation.”[1]

Revelation was written to fledgling churches during a period of oppression and persecution. It was written to strengthen their faith in the God who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead during a time when the Roman empire was making claims on believers’ allegiance that made it challenging and costly for them to hold on to their confession of Jesus Christ as Lord. Revelation was written as a letter of encouragement, urging believers to keep the faith as the worlds of empire and kingdom were clashing.

Most of the letter’s first audiences probably knew how to read it; they were immersed in the language of the Hebrew prophets, they were familiar with John’s world of symbols and the letter’s countless allusions to other parts of Scripture. But it didn’t take long before the book began to be read as “something akin to a train schedule” for the final years of the world. Rather than a source of hope, the text soon became an instrument of fear and abuse in the hands of those who claimed to know the true, but hidden, meaning of its bold declarations.

“My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book,” wrote Martin Luther. “For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it.”[2] John Calvin wrote commentaries on every book of the New Testament, except Revelation. Chances are that already among the seven churches to which it was originally addressed not everyone accepted it as authentic Christian teaching. The book contains plenty of material that is difficult to absorb if your faith has been shaped by the Jesus who embodied love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. In scene after scene, God, the heavenly armies, or Christ are presented as violent perpetrators. There’s no turning the other cheek, no prayer for those who persecute, no love of enemies. Eugene Boring writes, “The reservations of some [against Revelation] have been based on the real dangers that have emerged when [the book] has been interpreted in foolish, sub-Christian or anti-Christian ways. Although every biblical book is subject to misinterpretation, no other part of the Bible has provided such a happy hunting ground for all sorts of bizarre and dangerous interpretations.”[3]

The way to read Revelation faithfully is to keep our eyes on the throne that stands at the center of the heavenly worship John was privileged to see and hear. Amid the scenes of unimaginable destruction and cosmic upheaval John lets us see the heavenly throne where God is seated together with the Lamb, the crucified Messiah, risen from the dead. Amid the chaos of every fear and terror imaginable, we get to look into the very heart of the universe, and we see Jesus.

When German voters put the Nazis in power in 1933, the churches were unbearably slow to respond and Christians failed almost completely to resist. Protestant churches in particular were paralyzed not only by the pervasive fear but by generations of teaching that, according to Romans 13, “there is no authority except from God (...) [and] whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed.”[4] Only a handful of Christians remembered Revelation 13, where the state is pictured as a beast emerging from the sea, uttering blasphemies against God and persecuting God’s people. Only a handful of Christians had the courage to call Berlin Babylon, the great city, already fallen; only a handful had the courage to orient their lives to the holy city, the new Jerusalem, descending from heaven. Only a handful kept the faith and stood up against the Nazi terror.

In South Africa, when the system of apartheid seemed firmly established, Bishop Desmond Tutu was among those who remained faithful. He saw clearly that much of Johannesburg was in truth Babylon, and he joyfully affirmed that Babylon the great had already fallen. Bishop Tutu got used to having members of the Secret Police in the pews on Sunday; he could identify them easily since they were the only ones taking notes during his sermons. One Sunday morning, he looked two of them in the eyes and said, “I know who you are; I know why you are here; you have already lost, so why don’t you join us?”

The violence of apartheid was real and painful, but it couldn’t last. The Nazi empire of death was real and painful, but it couldn’t last. The terrors of slavery – pervasive and persistent – will not last. All of the hurtful and cruel incarnations of our dreams of domination, asserting themselves with such power, will not last. They have already been conquered by the Lamb, John declares. They have already been conquered, the witnesses tell us, conquered by the love of God who embraces the enemy. They have already been conquered, we dare to confess only in the power of the Spirit, conquered by the men and women who walk in faith in the way of Christ, their eyes fixed on the city of God.

John saw a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands, and singing. John saw humanity gathered together not by imperial order, nor by coercion or ideology, but by the gentle gravity of Jesus’ life.

John heard one of the elders say, “The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Our dreams of domination are powerful and dangerous. Just this past week we received another reminder in a report about humanity’s impact on our fellow creatures on this planet. As many as a million species of plants and animals are under threat of extinction over the next few decades. The ways humans live in our shared home pushes other inhabitants into oblivion, and we are only beginning to grasp that this path of extinction is ultimately suicidal. We are only beginning to grasp that God’s creation is indeed one, fearfully and wonderfully made, carefully knit together, intricately woven into one gorgeous fabric.

There is much in the book of Revelation that worries me. Too much room is given to vengeful fantasies that don’t reflect the grace and compassion of Jesus. But I love the affirmation that the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd. It’s a curious, species-hopping play with metaphors: a human being likened to a lamb, and the lamb in turn likened to a human figure of care and protection.

As believers we trust that the Lamb at the center of the throne will indeed shepherd and guide us to springs of the water of life. We trust that the life to which Jesus is calling us will not be less than what we have seen and heard, smelled and tasted, felt and known in our most joyful moments of participating in the miracle of creation. We trust the promise that life will be fulfilled, creation completed in communities of mutual blessing, one life, peace without end.

To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing … To God and to the Lamb, I will sing—
To God and to the Lamb, Who is the great “I AM,” … While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing! … While millions join the theme, I will sing.

John saw them, a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, singing along with the angels, praising the wondrous love that heals creation and fulfills the covenant of life.

“God’s praises are sung both there and here,” wrote St. Augustine.

Here they are sung in anxiety, there, in security; here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live for ever; here they are sung in hope, there, in hope’s fulfillment; here they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country. So let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do—sing, but continue your journey. … Sing, but keep going.[5]

[1]Johnson, L. T., The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Rev. ed.), (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 573.

[2] Martin Luther, Preface to the Revelation of St. John [1], 1522, Luther’s Works, vol. 35 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1960), 398-99.

[3] M. Eugene Boring, Revelation (Interpretation), (Louisville: John Knox, 1989), 4.

[4] Romans 13:1-2.

[5] Augustine of Hippo, quoted in Gabe Huck, A Sourcebook about Liturgy (Chicago: LTP, 1994), 35.

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