Apocalypse Now? Worship
Pastor Marissa Jadrich Ortiz – August 16, 2020
Hey Church! This is your friendly apocalypse update. Some of you have probably been wondering—is the apocalypse on the way? Has it already begun? The world seems to be getting in worse and worse shape—dramatically so—in 2020. We have a lot to be scared of or worried about, especially when we look to the future.
So is it the apocalypse now?
A lot of our images, our hopes, dreams and fears for what the end times will be like, come from the book of Revelation. So we’re going to spend the next 3 Sundays in this book. Hopefully we’ll get a little clarity about the end times. But to be honest with you, the End is not what their book is about. Revelation really wants us to know how to live as faithful followers of Jesus during dark times. It was dark times then, it’s dark times for us, so Revelation has a lot to say to us. But it’s just a little about the End, and a lot about now. I want you to know 3 important things about this book before we charge ahead into the apocalypse
#1: Revelation is a book of PROPHECY. Now I don’t mean prophecy like telling the future, I mean prophecy like a true word from God for a person or group of people. The author of this book, a man named John, not necessarily the same John as any other John in the bible, interprets dreams, visions, and messages he received through the Holy Spirit.
#2: This book is also a LETTER. It is written to…the church. John addresses his letter to seven churches in Asia minor. He gives them each a special, very specific introduction in chapters 2-3. He mentions their struggles, their strengths and weaknesses, with a lot of detail and care. John knows these churches; he was part of these communities just like Paul had a personal connection to the churches he wrote letters to. HOWEVER, the number seven means something. Seven in the scripture is a number of completion, wholeness. I promise you this is not some mystical code to unlock divine secrets. It’s the number of days in the week, the seventh day declared holy by God’s own rest. So when there’s seven of something, it’s a way of saying “all of it”, just like for us saying a store is open “seven days a week” is another way of saying “every day”. When the psalmist says he praises God seven times a day, it doesn’t mean he pauses every 2.5 hours for prayer, it means he’s praising God the whole day. Okay, so addressing this letter to SEVEN churches is John’s way of indicating it belongs to ALL the churches. The whole thing. So we’re going to listen to why John’s prophecies are important to the good people of Asia Minor, while also knowing that we count as recipients also. We’re part of that seven, part of the whole.
Finally, Revelation is written in a unique genre known as “apocalypse”. Apocalypse writings all use dramatic imagery to figuratively peel back the layers of what we see in our ordinary life in order to reveal what’s really going on at a cosmic or spiritual level. They usually include a “behind the scenes” look at human history from God’s perspective—calling idolatry and demonic powers at work for what they really are. John’s readers in Asia minor would have recognized the apocalypse elements of John’s book from Daniel and Ezekiel as well as other writings we don’t know as well.
My best analogy for you here, as genre goes, is dystopia. I think you’d be hard pressed to read or watch The Hunger Games, Brave New World, or Farenheit 451, without some feeling of “wow that’s so much like our world today, in a really horrifying way.” But books like this aren’t really trying to predict the future. And they’re not journalism. Their impact comes from REVEALING something that is already going on in the world in a way that makes us reconsider how we relate to that behavior or cultural trend. Revelation is not a dystopia, but it uses extreme images to reveal really destructive things happening beneath seemingly normal life. It’s scary stuff sometimes, but the point isn’t to make us scared. It’s to inspire us to live a different and better way. If the way you’re reading Revelation adds fear to your life, you’re reading it wrong, okay? God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of love, power, and discernment. Those are the good fruits that should come out of studying this book. Love for God and others, power to live courageously like we belong to God, discernment to see what’s true and what’s a lie around us.
Apocalypses do often include a vision of the Final Future, because it’s the end of the story that really puts our present situation in perspective. I say this because it’s easy to read through some of these stories and get derailed by questions about the timing. But that’s not really what apocalypses are for. Apocalypse writers ask, “what MUST be true in the end, if God is really righteous and just? What MUST be true in the end, if God is really merciful and forgiving? And what MUST be true about right now if that’s what the End is like? The parts about the future are here to remind us how to live and die in the present.
Okay are you with me here—Revelation, part letter part prophecy part apocalypse, seven is a magic number and then something about the hunger games. Great. We’re on the same page.
Let’s jump ahead to chapter 4 John is on a journey to receive the message God wants to give to these seven churches (which is also all of us). Here’s where he begins:
At once I was in a Spirit-inspired trance and I saw a throne in heaven, and someone was seated on the throne. The one seated there looked like jasper and carnelian, and surrounding the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald. Twenty-four thrones, with twenty-four elders seated upon them, surrounded the throne. The elders were dressed in white clothing and had gold crowns on their heads. From the throne came lightning, voices, and thunder. In front of the throne were seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God. Something like a glass sea, like crystal, was in front of the throne.
In the center, by the throne, were four living creatures encircling the throne. These creatures were covered with eyes on the front and on the back. The first living creature was like a lion. The second living creature was like an ox. The third living creature had a face like a human being. And the fourth living creature was like an eagle in flight. Each of the four living creatures had six wings, and each was covered all around and on the inside with eyes. They never rest day or night, but keep on saying,
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is coming.”
Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor, and thanks to the one seated on the throne, who lives forever and always, the twenty-four elders fall before the one seated on the throne. They worship the one who lives forever and always. They throw down their crowns before the throne and say,
“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
because you created all things.
It is by your will that they existed and were created.”
Wow what a picture! Remember that apocalypse is all about seeing what’s really going on in the world, and seeing it from God’s perspective. The first thing John sees is WORSHIP. He sees that no matter what is going on on earth, HEAVEN is filled up day and night with worshipers. Angels, unimaginably complex living creatures, crowned rulers of God’s realm, praising God over and over and over.
And listen to what they’re saying. They’re saying, God, you are the absolute uncontested TOP POWER IN THE UNIVERSE. You’re the creator. You’re the only reason everything else exists. All the glory and honor and power that anyone has ever is your doing, and you deserve to be treated that way. You deserve to be honored most by the most honorable, to be glorified most by the already-glorious angels. To be worshiped and bowed down to by the ones with the most power. In the heavenly realm, all of those truths are totally uncontested and they are lived out all the time every day.
As a kid, this was the real sticking point for me in my seven year old foray into apocalypse. I could handle the throne and the gemstones with strange names and the creatures with four faces. But here was my dealbreaker: these elders are supposedly throwing down their crowns before God and singing praises, over and over all the time. And you can’t, you just can’t continually throw down a crown. Either they have a big stack of crowns piled up behind them and they’re working through it. Or else every time they throw down their crown and sing God’s praises, afterward they pick the crown back up and scramble back on top of their thrones. And that seems to kind of defeat the purpose right?
So here’s what I know now that I didn’t know when I was seven. Well a lot of things, this is one of them. Here on earth, most of the time one person getting power means someone else loses. Fame goes to one person by taking the spotlight away from another. Honor and glory are a contest.
But it’s not like that with God. When you give God glory, you don’t lose that glory you gave. Respecting God as the all powerful creator does not make you weak. And this becomes a kind of theme through revelation. When the earthly powers are trying to make themselves great, they accumulate power at the expense of their worshipers. But worshiping God is what makes God’s worshipers great. Somehow, in a way that is barely comprehensible to us because we live in this world right now, even the most powerful of God’s worshipers give God their crowns and still have crowns to give.
So maybe you’re thinking, worship is great. But I’m pretty sure that’s not what Revelation is all about. What about the plagues, and the mark of the beast, and the rapture, and the end of the world?
Okay here’s how the world ends, Revelation 21:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
(I’m skipping ahead here)
I didn’t see a temple in the city, because its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb. The city doesn’t need the sun or the moon to shine on it, because God’s glory is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there. They will bring the glory and honor of the nations into it.
In the end, God gets worshiped here on earth just like we saw it happen in heaven. It’s not just angels and heavenly powers who give God glory and honor, it’s all the nations and kings of the earth. When God is in charge right here on earth like in heaven, you might think we wouldn’t need nations and kings anymore, we’d just have churches everywhere. When instead it’s the opposite—we don’t need churches anymore because all people are God’s chosen people. The mission of the church to share God’s truth and freedom everywhere is actually fulfilled. When God is with us all the way, all the kings and nations, cities and streets, all people and institutions and cultures that choose to give God glory will thrive under God’s rule.
Worship is how the story ends. And Worship is what’s happening all the time in heaven. But here on earth, the parts between chapter 4 and chapter 21, we are in the middle of a cosmic battle over who you’re going to give that worship to. John knows that in the world we live in, many people and institutions are asking for the glory, honor, and power, that belong to God. Demanding it even.
We can’t give in. The stakes are too high. This isn’t a cosmic argument about who is right, okay? This is not a cosmic exchange of unpleasantries on the comments of someone’s tweet or Facebook post. This is a cosmic battle for fidelity—what we’ve talked about as “hesed” love, that unshakeable loyalty, commitment, and belonging to the family of God that we accept through Jesus and live out in our worship and allegiance to God alone. The battleground is everywhere in our lives—it’s in our political climate, it’s in how we spend our money, it’s in our education system, it’s in our cultural obsession with fame and celebrity, it’s in our military dependence, it’s in our addictions, in our relationships. There are powers everywhere around us—not out there, right here. They desperately want that loyalty, commitment, love and belonging that we give to God when we worship. They will do anything to get that from you. They will lie to you. They will make promises to you. They will bribe you. They will offer to meet you halfway. They will threaten you. They will certainly get angry with you. They may bully you. They may kill you. We know this because that’s how it went for Jesus, and he’s the one we’re following.
And many of us also aspire to keep a fair amount of honor, glory, and power for ourselves. The most seductive promises from idolatrous powers are the ones that promise to put US in charge, or share that power with us. The biggest threat to God’s lordship over my life is me. And that actually makes me very vulnerable to these other powers in the world around us, because they’re selling me a story that with the right job, or the best degrees, or being on the right side, or achieving a level of influence, or getting the perfect relationship, or protecting myself with tools of violence…whatever that story is, it always ends the same way, that I will then be empowered to call my own shots in my life.
Some of us are already in cahoots with one of these systems, you know how it’s controlling you or the power you’re trying to get from it. Today is a great day to have a talk with the Holy Spirit, bring some confession into your worship. Confession isn’t about groveling and saying you’re the worst, it’s about telling the truth to God and others. Just tell God how great God is. Tell God, “you’re the creator, I’m the creature.” Tell God the ways you’ve been trying to get power or glory from other places instead of giving it to God and getting it from God. And listen to what God has to say about it.
For all of us who are pretty comfortable being the one who calls the shots around here—I invite you this week to practice being a creature. That’s just one way to think about what worship means. If God is the creator and therefore responsible for the existence and sustenance of all things, it must also be true that I am not the sustainer of all things or responsible for all problems. Nor are these systems or powers I seem to depend on, like government, education, economy, military, culture. What would it be like to live today like God is in charge?
See if you can think of one thing to try this week that helps you remember you’re a creature. One thing that has helped me with this is my garden. I’ve spent some time with my pumpkin and it helped me remember that much as I wish I were in charge of this plant, calling the shots about what happens to it or how it grows, that is not the case. Many of my efforts to control this pumpkin have been foiled. Because the pumpkin and I are both creatures. We have a lot in common. God runs the show, the pumpkin and me we just do our parts. What reminds you that you’re a creature? What things that you do, places you go, or people you see, remind you that you have a maker, you’re not in charge, and All of This Stuff is about someone other than yourself? That’s worship. Maybe singing some songs to Jesus reminds you that Jesus is our Lord. Sing some songs. Maybe you bake biscuits or build something with your hands, and as you’re making them you remember that you too were made. Maybe being around children or somebody younger than yourself reminds you that you too are deeply worthy of love despite all you cannot do for yourself. Give it a try and see what God has to show you.
I think you will find there is extraordinary freedom in giving up on the lie that we’re in charge. It feels good to be a creature. And as we offer up to God our power, our gratitude, our reverence, it doesn’t empty us out. It becomes our strength. The world is full of different powers, as revelation calls them, “beasts”, who want our worship. But the story we’re living in starts in Heaven, where God is on the throne, and that’s good news for all us creatures.