“On Earth As It Is in Heaven”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
April 10, 2016
University Baptist Church
I was having breakfast with a number of clergy a while back and the question came up, “what is your favorite passage of the Bible to preach on.” A lot of us have just one sermon that we preach over and over again. One person said that they liked the scripture passage about the transfiguration. They especially liked the temptation on Peter’s part to build a temple right here and right now for Moses and Elijah and Jesus. Another person liked the scripture: “see I am doing something new.” Another liked Micah 6:8 “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”
They about fell over their chairs when I said I liked to preach on Revelation. Revelation? You mean that book that is used to justify violence and murder and injustice all because it is supposedly part of God’s plan? You mean that book that talks about the end of the world and on the back of which preachers make millions as they predict the exact time it will end? You mean that book which the common lectionary ignores except for the last few hopeful chapters about the new heaven and the new earth? That’s the one.
Revelation is the bloodiest, most violent, second sexiest book of the Bible. Revelation gives zip to our lives. It also gives adventure, blood-tingling terror, and hope. It also contains more singing than any other book, with the possible exception of the Psalms.
Revelation is my favorite book in the Bible because it challenges us to live a faithful life in the midst of a power-hungry world. Rather than predicting the future, it uses metaphor to describe the present. It encourages us to live faithful lives.
It challenges us to live out of the mainstream, and to live in such a way that your life is really meaningful. Mel Roy, a retired minister from this congregation said the question that ought to haunt us is, if you were called into court and accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict?
The message of Revelation, behind all of the language of dragons and beasts and lampstands and seals and veils is simple. We are to bear the faithful witness and believe in the Good News—especially when the world is filled with bad news.
The writer of Revelation spoke in code to those churches because it was a time when churches were being persecuted. For believing the blasphemy that Jesus is Lord and not Caesar, Christians were being beheaded, drawn and quartered and persecuted in ungodly ways. Worldly Caesarean ways were the rule and it became hard to separate between church and state. Even the currency said that Caesar is the Son of God.
Revelation, believe it or not, was written as words of assurance. The Christian community to whom Revelation was written in about 96 CE was hiding out in catacombs, trying to maintain their faith against huge odds. They had lost many, too many of their family members and loved ones in a wicked war with the state. They met in people's homes, not in huge churches. They did not have a whole lot of established traditions, save Baptism and a communion celebration. Like all challengers of the status quo, wild stories got made up about them. They were accused of cannibalism. People confused what it meant to be consuming the body and blood of Christ. Since they followed one who was crucified by the state, they were clearly seen as unpatriotic. Nero accused the Christians of starting a fire, which destroyed much of Rome in 64CE. The Christians therefore were socially and economically discriminated against. They had to publicly worship Roman Gods including the Emperor.
The hero of the book of Revelation is the Lamb, which symbolically refers to Christ. The enemy is the Beast, which likely refers to the Roman Emperor Nero. However, the writer of Revelation makes it very clear that it is difficult for all but the most astute to tell the difference between the Lamb and the Beast. The Beast appropriates the language of the Lamb in order to win support and confuse the faithful. The followers of the beast represent all of the masses of people who are too scared to follow the lamb. The followers of the lamb are the people of the persecuted church, the faithful witnesses who see the larger picture.
And the heavenly Chorus is waiting there in the wings, ready to rejoice with us when we succeed and point us in a better direction if we falter. Today’s scripture reading comes as the scrolls are open and the deeds of the world are being exposed. The people are rightfully scared, but then comes the chorus: “Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “worthy is the lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might, and honor and glory and blessing.”
Jesus was killed to stop the messianic movement. But instead, the Lamb received power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing. It’s the great reversal that Jesus spoke of when he was alive of the first being last and loving your enemies and giving up your lives for your friends. The meek shall inherit the earth, not the wealthy bullies. The Beast uses violence in a futile attempt to maintain control. But it’s a losing strategy. As others face death because of their convictions, the angel chorus sings them on. It is saying, keep the faith. It is saying, we’ve been there and it is worth it. Fight the good fight. You are on the side of right.
When we take to the streets in a movement of justice, like Black Lives Matter or any others, the whole tenor changes when we start singing. Three years ago thousands of us gathered at the state capital while the senate deliberated about extending marriage rights to all people. There were thousands and thousands of us, myriads and myriads. We called it the thunda in the rotunda. And we started singing, “Going to the chapel and we’re gonna get married.” “O say can you see by the dawn’s early light.” The music lifted us and carried us as we awaited the good news. Just as Jesus’ crucifixion did not silence him or his followers, it will not silence the people either.
We sing this music this morning, and each time we do, I am reminded that we are carrying on a tradition that has spanned generations, socioeconomic backgrounds, denominations, even faith traditions. And each time we lift our voices together, we are joining along with those who have gone before and who sing from across the world. And Revelation says that they sing loud.
The heavenly chorus in Revelation tells us not only to celebrate in heaven after our death, but to help make our earth worthy of celebration. How can we celebrate our love for the earth? Can we sing with the same gusto that the angel choirs will use in heaven? What’s stopping us now?
The animals and all the beasts of the earth sing in concert with God and the heavenly chorus. It’s in those moments of ecstasy that we encounter something of God. We sacred Harp Singers have experienced this, which is why we keep doing it. It might not sound like ecstasy to you. It might sound like torture. But there’s something ethereal, something powerful, something divine in the singing. It’s doing it together. It’s the words, it’s the tunes. It’s the ability to be in sync with each other. It doesn’t just happen. It takes practice. 12-steppers would say fake it ‘til you make it. Sacred Harp singers do that, too. It’s a good thing we believe in forgiveness.
The angels and the elders are already singing in heaven, and they beckon us to sing on earth. And one of the best places to do that is in church. For all of its flaws, the church is the epicenter of God’s movement. Some of you might take issues with that. Maybe it seems more like the opiate of the people. But when we sing like this, there is no falling asleep. We continue an ancient tradition that changes lives. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Church isn’t always going to be stimulating or transformative. But there’s something to be said for the beauty of repetition. Some of us have missed a Sunday, just to find out that something incredible happened while we were gone. It might have been an anthem from the choir, a piece of hand bell music, a poignant instrumental piece, a powerful prayer by our worship leader or a halfway decent sermon. More often than not, it is the word that gets shared in the Joys and Concerns. Those times where someone reveals their vulnerability and we sit in awe of their courage and respond to the humble invitation to be in solidarity with them. Bill Easum wrote that "In the postmodern landscape, community is our first and best apologetic for Christianity."
And so we come week after week because God will do something to us and for us if we just pay attention. Church is important, because we are a community. And the community on earth seeks to be worthy of the community in heaven.
This year, we have had as our congregational theme, “For the Beauty of the Earth.” We have looked at scripture passages that have challenged us to recognize beauty and to preserve and create beauty in this world of ours. The fact that the writer of Revelation includes animals in the praise chorus of the heavenly choir ought to tell us that we need to do whatever we can to preserve this earth.
I’m going on Sabbatical in a few weeks. I find myself renewed by music and adventure in the natural world. So, I’ll be travelling to Sacred Harp singings that often happen on weekends that I usually can’t attend. I’ll canoe in the Boundary Waters (something I have never done), and I plan to hike the entire Superior Hiking Trail.
Henry David Thoreau once wrote, "If you spend a day walking in the woods and taking in its beauty, you might be labeled a loafer. But if you spend the day cutting down those trees and making the earth bald, you are considered an industrious and enterprising citizen."
I encourage you to take this spring season and recognize beauty. Take this spring season and take on some new opportunities to do something good for yourself, another person and the planet. Imagine that holy trinity. Take some time to sing with another who needs it. Next Sunday morning, several members of the singing community will be going to Eagle Crest to sing for the weekly worship service. The chaplain came to a Sacred Harp convention and was enraptured by the music. She knew that the people of Eagle Crest would benefit from the music—it’s the bridge after all to those who have gone before. Even nonverbal folk find that they can sing every once in a while. It’s a different part of the brain. But I think it’s also a bit of the Spirit that is ignited when we sing together.
Here’s the truth. The people for whom Revelation was written needed the reminder of the angel chorus. They needed to remember that they weren’t alone. They needed the sense that their life was worthwhile, that their struggles were going to be ultimately redemptive, that those they loved and lost in the struggle did not die in vain. And we sing here on earth to get a little taste of heaven.
And so we sing. We lift up our voices, not just because we can, but because we must. And when we do, we give voice to the longings of our hearts. And we are joined with those who have gone before and we mystically remember and garner the courage for yet another day.