Scholars debate the origins of apocalyptic theology and literature, but its basic function seems fairly clear: to sustain the people of God, especially in times of crisis, particularly evil and oppression. Apocalyptic literature both expresses and creates hope by offering scathing critique of the oppressors, passionate exhortations to defiance (and sometimes even preparation for confrontation), and unfailing confidence in God’s ultimate defeat of the present evil. — Michael Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly
Perhaps you’ve noticed we’ve been hearing from the Book of Revelation lately. You know, it’s been said that Christians can be divided into two groups: those who open Revelation as often as they can, and those who never open it at all.
Many of us are tempted to be in the ‘Keep Revelation Closed’ group. But let’s take a peek inside today, shall we? You never know what you may find…
Oh, but one thing you won’t find is a detailed prediction of what is going to happen in the near future. You won’t find whether Donald Trump is the Antichrist, or whether the rise of China was prophesied.
What you will find is help ‘to sustain the people of God, especially in times of crisis, particularly evil and oppression’. (Michael Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly) Revelation is a book of hope: hope for a new future for God’s whole creation.
So, let’s turn to today’s reading from Revelation. Did you pick up which character was mentioned most? Let’s hear part of it again. John, the visionary, writes:
After this I looked, and there was 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.
They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the centre 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.
Who is the major character here? The Lamb. In fact, the Lamb is mentioned twenty nine times in the Book of Revelation. It is easily the most common way of referring to Jesus in Revelation. It’s even more common than the name Jesus itself! (‘Jesus’ occurs twelve times.)
To really get why Jesus is the Lamb in Revelation, we need to go back a couple of chapters to chapter 5.
There, John the Visionary sees a scroll that no one could open, and he becomes very sad. Then, he says,
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’. (Revelation 5.5)
A lion is a pretty scary beast. Let me tell you about the first time I came across a lion.
I was ten, and it was my first long trip anywhere. It was a school outing, a day trip to Edinburgh. It was a whirlwind of a day, taking in Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood House, St Giles Cathedral, the Forth Rail Bridge, all the big Edinburgh touristy things…
One stop was the Edinburgh Zoo. I’d never been to a zoo before. Now, you’ve got to realise it was 1964, and everyone still thought it was cool to keep animals in little concrete enclosures.
I approached the lion enclosure. There were lots of people there, but I managed to squeeze through to the front. A lion, a male with a fabulous mane, was standing there looking right at us.
So I decided that I would roar at the lion. I took a deep breath, and let out the biggest roar my ten-year old prepubescent body could possibly make.
Well, the lion must have decided to teach this little pipsqueak a lesson. He let out the biggest roar I had ever heard. I was petrified! If I’d been a cartoon character my hair would have been standing on end.
I was very scared I’d get into trouble. So I beat a very quick retreat, to the general amusement of everyone else there.
So, back to Revelation. John hears that a lion can help the situation. And not just any lion, but ‘the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David’, who has conquered.
The Lion of the tribe of Judah is an Old Testament image of the Messiah, the Christ, the mighty anointed One of God.
Well, John probably thought, we’re in business now! So he turned to see this great Lion, who could roar 10000 times louder than my Edinburgh lion.
So, what does John see? He sees something so totally unexpected that nothing could prepare him.
I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered…
He hears the all-conquering Lion has come…but he sees a Lamb. This is one of the most shocking reversals in the history of literature! John is told of a mighty Lion; his eyes fall upon a Lamb, standing but bearing the wounds of slaughter.
We need to unpack this just a bit.
Firstly, the Lamb itself. The word John the Visionary uses is the one for a little lamb, a lambkin if you want. ‘Mary had a little lamb’, if you like.
This tiny Lamb isn’t a cute little thing though. Apart from bearing mortal wounds, he has seven eyes, which symbolise the fullness of the Holy Spirit.
He also has seven horns, symbolising the fullness of power. But the power of the Lamb is very different from a lion’s power.
As I found out in Edinburgh, a lion is very fierce. But I’ve never heard a lamb roar. I’d walk through a paddock of sheep, but I wouldn’t step into a lion’s space.
John heard there was a lion, but he saw a lamb. I wonder how the Lion and Lamb are related?
Both are images of the Messiah, the Christ. So is the Messiah sometimes a Lion and sometimes a Lamb?
If you google for images of the Lamb in Revelation, it’s easy to get images of the Lion too. There’s one in which Jesus is standing between the Lamb and the Lion. Does Jesus balance the Lion and the Lamb, like yin and yang? Is Jesus a kind of mediating principle
Did Jesus die a Lamb, but rise a Lion?
Was he perhaps a Lion in the Old Testament and a Lamb in the New?
Is he maybe a Lion to unbelievers and bad people and a Lamb to people like us?
Is he a Lamb now, but one day he’ll come back as a Lion to punish the wicked?
None of that will do. John hears there’s a Lion. What he sees is the Lamb. And while the Lamb is mentioned twenty nine times in Revelation, this is the first and last time we hear of the Lion of Judah. The Lion disappears after this.
Say it how you like: the Lion is the Lamb. The Lamb subverts the Lion. The Lion fades away, the Lamb remains.
The power of this Lamb is the power of innocent suffering. The way of this Lamb is non-violence. The Lamb suffers that mortal wound to bring peace.
We spoke of the wounded God a couple of weeks ago. Here is the wounded God once more. But we have a problem: it’s very hard to let go of the Lion!
Let me put it another way.
If you were given a choice, which Messiah would you rather have? The Lion or the Lamb? Be honest. Would you have straightforward power of the Lion, or the hard-to-grasp power of the suffering Lamb?
If you still can’t make your mind up, think about the Federal Election next Saturday.
Who would you vote for? The Lion Party, with its proud, majestic beast protecting you? Or the Lamb Party, with a mortally wounded little lambkin? What could the Lamb Party even do?
Who would you vote for? Those who control the agenda through the use of power, even force, or those who are willing to work so that others can know liberation?
And do we even have that choice?
John was expecting a Lion, but he got a Lamb. A slain-yet-standing Lamb. I’m not sure how John felt; I’m sure he was surprised. But was he disappointed? Or did it all make sense of the cross? Did it show that in times of hardship or even persecution, God’s people are to take the way of the Lamb?
What kind of church are we? We are a church of the Lamb. We seek to bring life and hope into dark and cramped places. We seek to do it in the Name and in the Spirit of Jesus, the risen crucified One. We seek to do it with gentleness and care.
When we gather next week, the election will be over. In the lead up, let us pray that the Australian Government may not stand in the way of the coming kingdom, and that God’s will may be done on earth as in heaven.
West End Uniting Church, 12 May 2019