Third Sunday of Easter
In The Shawshank Redemption Andy Dufrense is sentenced to two back to back life terms for crimes he did not commit. That tough world of Shawshank Prison conspires to destroy humanity. Andy writes every week to the state legislature requesting books for the prison library. From out of nowhere, a huge shipment of used books and records, accompanied by a check, gets dumped in the warden's office. Andy puts one of the records on the prison record player. Intoxicated by the beauty of an aria, Andy locks out the warden and plays this portion of The Marriage of Figaro over the prison loudspeaker. Everyone in Shawshank Prison stands transfixed by the music, this moment of intrusive beauty in a horrible place.
Torture follows, but Andy explains to his inmate friends how he endured. "I had
Mr. Mozart to keep me company. It is in here (pointing to his head and heart). That's the
beauty of music..so you don't forget that there are places in the world not made out of
stone, that there's something inside that they can't get to, that they can't touch. It is
Well, the Book of Revelation is mostly music, mostly songs. Revelation is the most quoted book of the Bible in the church's liturgy, and well it should be. If you were here before Christmas for "Messiah," you heard some of the musical highlights from Revelation.
Today's scripture is just a song. Sure. It's just a song in the same way that the Chapel Choir's music this Easter was "just a song." A woman came out of that service and told me that, because of that music, she thought now she could endure the immanent death of her beloved little child without being destroyed by it. All that on "just a song."
Well, we gather today, still in the aftershocks of Easter. As I tried to tell you on Easter Sunday, too often we think of Easter as the raising of Jesus, the means by which each of us is able to have a personal relationship with a living Lord. Yes. But there is more. Easter is larger even than this.
Easter is about more than you and me and Jesus. Easter is about the recreation of the world, a whole new world. The church claims that, beginning with Easter, the world is recreated, as if God the Creator starts over, begins again, picks up the pieces and recreates the world in that way that was first intended at Creation.
How shall we speak of this new world? If it is new, then we will have difficulty describing it. How shall we speak of something fresh and new? We live in a prose world of facts, figures, government press releases. We lack the poetry to speak of a new world. Let John help us:
Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and
wisdom and might
and honor and glory
The new world is a vision of thousands and thousands, the whole world surrounding the throne of God, singing, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain!" This "Lamb," the one who was crucified, stripped, stabbed, and nailed to the cross to die the most horrible death, this Lamb now stands in the center of heaven. To this once slaughtered Lamb has been given "power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!" That is, everything that God has, the Lamb has. The Lamb, who knows what it's like to suffer, to bleed, and to die, now rules with God, as God, at the center of a great shout of acclamation.
The vision is of a great victory celebration. The battle is over, the battle with death, and defeat, and dishonor. The battle is over, and guess who won? The Lamb! A Lamb is small, frail, vulnerable, no match for the powers of death and destruction. Those powers thought they had ended the life of the Lamb on the cross. But no, here in the center of heaven, enthroned, is the Lamb in a great victory celebration.
On Easter, victorious Jesus sallied forth from the tomb, Jesus was raised. Yet Easter is even more than that. Easter is the great, decisive battle in the long war between God and death. The war still rages, yes, in your life and mine. There is still death. Yet the decisive battle has been fought. We know how the war ends. Revelation 5 is a vision of the great, final victory celebration. Knowing that final vision gives us hope today. In our present skirmishes with sin, death, and defeat, there is pain. But we are not lost for we know the final chapter.
Here is a vision, not of some other world, somewhere else, but it is a vision of God's world come into our world. Here is God's will done "on earth as it is in heaven." This is where we're headed -- not necessarily to streets of gold and an eternal choir rehearsal -- but rather toward that place, that time when God's will shall be done for the world and the Lamb shall rule.
What at first may seem like a weird, other-worldly dream now takes on present, earthly significance. It makes a great deal of difference, when you are struggling through this life, if you know how the story ends. The present pain is real. But knowing the last act if the drama, the pain is more bearable.
Perhaps that's why Revelation is the last book in the Bible, the last word. The picture
which Revelation paints is more than just wishful thinking. It is a realistic picture of
the world, a world still being born, a world yet to be finished. The picture is painted
poetically, but it is still realistic. Here is the reality of a world we do not yet know
in its fullness. But having a glimpse, a foretaste, a peek into the future, is enough to
keep us going.
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 that the warriors might fight on, despite the obstacles.
How do you do that? King gave the assembled throng a vision. King 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 which keeps us marching.
A man in one of my congregations was in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. It was a place of unbearable torture and human degradation. The prisoners were treated horribly and their lives seemed not worth living.
One of the prisoners, a wonderfully defiant chap from Illinois, would sometimes hum songs to himself as the prisoners were being led out to the fields to work each day. Walking along in the sweltering heat, miserable, unfed, unwashed, he would sing. He often hummed, "America, the Beautiful." The Japanese guards did not know the tune, so the song meant nothing to them. But to the prisoners, the tune, evoking the "amber waves of grain" of their homeland, "the purple mountain majesties," reminded them of home, filled them with hope and courage. Soon, the whole camp was humming the tune each day on the way out to work, with the guards oblivious to the revolutionary significance of this defiant gesture.
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. In heaven, there is much singing, shouting, parading and processing, according to Revelation 5. Having a song to sing, a victory song, enables us to go on, even to triumph because we know the Lamb who sits on the throne.
And it's just a song!