Sermon 3 Easter Yr C

3 Easter Yr C, 18/04/2010

Rev 5:11-14

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta


“Hymns of Praise throughout the universe”

When Martin Luther King spoke before the Lincoln Memorial and gave his immortal “I Have a Dream,” speech, it was a rather dark, perilous time for the civil rights movement in America. Things were not going well. The march was meant to infuse new life into the movement, to give new energy so the warriors might fight on, despite the obstacles.

   How do you do that? King gave the assembled throng a vision. He spoke to them of a dream, a dream of a world in which all would be treated as children of God.

   Was this only wishful thinking, fanciful speech, and nothing more? No. His speech rendered a world breaking in, present, yet not totally available. He gave people a dream to keep them moving, a song to sing in the present darkness, a song which spoke of the inbreaking light.

   That’s the way we are. We need to know the final act. We need some song to sing that keeps us marching.

   In a way, that’s what the songs and symbols of Revelation do for us. They remind us, as we go about our daily lives, of the victory of Easter, the way that God defeated death, and continues to defeat death.1

   In today’s second lesson, John of Patmos shares what he sees and hears in a vision. The vision starts off with seeing and hearing a massive heavenly choir consisting of angels surrounding God’s throne, along with the living creatures and the elders. He says they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice. WOW! What a feast for John’s eyes to see and ears to hear. Can you imagine that?! The shapes and sizes and colours of that massive heavenly choir must have been astounding. And then there are all of those voices singing in a hymn of praise to the exalted Christ, the Lamb of God who has been raised from the dead and now ascended into heaven. I wonder what that heavenly choir sounded like. For those of you who have heard this world’s best choirs singing this passage of Revelation from Handel’s Messiah; you might have a foretaste of what you shall hear from the heavenly choir. WOW! I think we’ll all have goose bumps and feel so full of joy and wonder beyond description. Yes, what a beautiful, holy sound that heavenly choir must have made as they praised the exalted Lamb of God.

   John obviously was filled with such inspiration from this vision that he writes it down and shares it with the persecuted Christians in the Roman Empire. As I reflect on John’s details here, I see two important messages for those early Christians and for us today.

   John tells us that those gathered around God’s throne were diverse and numerous. That is encouraging for people who face persecutions. Heaven, contrary to some folks, is not a small, over-crowded place for only a group of elitists. No! Rather, heaven is a spacious place where there shall be room enough beyond our imaginings. Heaven also shall consist of a variety of beings–here John mentions angels, the living creatures and the elders. That, too, is an encouraging detail. I think we’d all grow very bored very quickly if heaven consisted of everyone being exactly the same. No! Rather, heaven consists of an amazing variety of beings–we’ll have no time to get bored with one another.

Another detail John gives us here is that the beings are busy. They are a massive heavenly choir; singing their hearts out; worshipping the victorious Christ the Lamb. Here I cannot help but think of my late, best friend who has gone to his eternal reward. I wonder what he’s doing now. He used to tell me that he hoped heaven didn’t mean sitting on a cloud all day every day, wearing wings and playing a harp. He said he’d get terribly bored with that very fast! 🙂 Yes, I wonder what he’s doing now–perhaps he’s singing in that heavenly choir. For the persecuted Church, John’s vision of this massive heavenly choir has to be a message of hope–reminding them of better times ahead, filled with joy and celebration; in the presence of Christ the Lamb.

   Turning now to the actual hymn of praise that the heavenly choir is singing, John mentions seven attributes of the exalted Lamb of God–power, wealth, wisdom, might, honour, glory and blessing. John, writing in his symbolic underground language, is fond of the number seven, as we’ve learned before. John sees the number seven as a symbol of completion and wholeness. Seven is an all-inclusive number in reference to God and the Church. Another characteristic of John’s writing in Revelation is his numerous references–either directly or indirectly–to the Hebrew Bible. In this particular hymn of praise sung by the heavenly choir, John may have David’s great thanksgiving to God in mind found in I Chronicles 29:10-12. Listen to the words of that passage now, and see if you can recognize similarities with the heavenly choir’s hymn of praise: Then David blessed the LORD in the presence of all the assembly; David said: “Blessed are you, O LORD, the God of our ancestor Israel, forever and ever. Yours, O LORD, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honour come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all.” As you can see, there are some similar attributes here ascribed to God as in the passage from Revelation. So John likely was a Jewish Christian, well versed in the Hebrew Bible, seeing continuity between passages from it and what he is writing to the persecuted Church in his day.

   Continuing with John’s vision, the music, the worship and the choir grows even larger, becomes ever more diverse and loud. Now John hears a universal hymn of praise to God the Creator and the Lamb. The choir this time consists of every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them singing. WOW! The universe now explodes into what must have been a beautiful, holy, deafening hymn of praise, worshipping God and the Lamb.

I like to discover stories about hymn writers and their hymns. Here is one of those stories: Horatio Spafford was a lawyer in Chicago. When Mrs. O’Leary’s cow overturned the lantern the night of October 8, 1871, the great fire that resulted destroyed Spafford’s home and business. Worse yet, the Spaffords’ only son, a six-year-old, was killed.

These disasters put a heavy strain on the family. Mrs. Spafford became so nervous and run-down that her doctor recommended a vacation, so the family laid plans to sail for Europe in November of 1873.

As the date approached, Horatio realized he was too busy to leave with his family. He sent his wife and four daughters on ahead, planning to catch up with them later.

On November 22, the ship carrying the five Spafford women sank beneath the waves of the north Atlantic. Nearly everyone on board died. On December 1, Mrs. Spafford sent a telegram to Horatio from Cardiff, Wales. It said, “Saved alone!”

How much more would one couple have to suffer? Where was God in all of this? Horatio left immediately to join his wife. As he crossed the Atlantic, he asked the captain to show him where the other ship had gone down. When they came to the spot, Horatio stood at the rail, looking out at the cruel gray sea. Did he cry out to God in pain? Probably so. Did he feel cheated by life? Undoubtedly. Did he turn away from God, saying God had let him down? He could have. But he didn’t, because in those moments he wrote these words:

When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say, “It is well, it is well with my soul.” Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, let this blest assurance control; that Christ has regarded my helpless estate, and has shed his own blood for my soul. O Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll; the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend; even so, it is well with my soul.2

   I don’t think it is an accident that this passage from Revelation has inspired the Christian Church even to this day. In our Holy Communion worship services, the liturgical Hymn of Praise consists of this passage–in my tradition; see Lutheran Book of Worship and Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Some critics of liturgy say it encourages too much meaningless learning by rote. I would challenge that critique and say that the liturgy lends itself to inspiring worship precisely because it is the Word of God set to music. The sung Word of God is powerful; it creates within us an atmosphere, a mood of awe and wonder-filled worship of our Triune God. The familiarity of liturgical worship brings comfort to countless faithful worshippers around the globe every Sunday–reminding them in the sung Word of God of God’s faithfulness and promises in the midst of a troubled and suffering world. The sung Word of God in liturgy and in hymnody connects us with our Triune God in a spirit of adoration and gratitude. In this sense true worship, in spirit and in truth is our spiritual oxygen–we cannot live without it. We, along with John’s four living creatures say, “Amen!” And fall down and worship–for as another biblical passage has it: “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” And let the whole creation cry: “Amen!”    

1 Cited from: Wm. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26 No. 2, Year C, April, May, June 1998 (Inver Grove Heights, MN: Logos Productions Inc.), pp. 20-21.

2 Cited from: Emphasis: A Preaching Journal For The Parish Pastor, Vol. 40, No. 2, March, April, May, 2010 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc.), p. 59.