by Daniel Harrell
If you were to paint a picture of Jesus this morning, what would he look like? Long brown hair and a beard, wearing a bathrobe and cuddling little children? Maybe the same look only carrying a shepherd’s staff and herding sheep? Walking on water would be within range, or even compassionately casting out some stubborn demon. Naturally, if you grew up Catholic, a crucifix might come to mind. As Protestants keep our crosses empty to stress resurrection. So something akin to the resurrected Jesus disguised as a gardener? Scaring the willies out of all those who never believed he was serious about rising from the dead? If your imagination tends toward the apocalyptic—we are reading Revelation after all—perhaps something along the line of chapter 19’s white rider galloping forth on a fiery steed, a broadsword protruding out of his mouth. If your skills an artist can’t handle that, there’s always the more figurative route. Jesus described himself as water and light, a narrow gate, a true vine. There’s also images found outside the Bible, here I’m thinking CS Lewis’ popular depiction of the majestic Aslan the Lion from the Chronicles of Narnia.
Whatever you’d paint, I bet you would not have come up with the picture that appears in Revelation 5. It’s not a picture John himself would have made. An elder from among the twenty-four representing God’s people encircling the heavenly throne announced the arrival of the Lion of Judah, Aslan-like language that hearkens back to Genesis and Jacob’s blessing of his lionized son, the Root of King David, one from whose line Israel’s savior would roar forth. John no doubt braced in anticipation to behold a fierce and warrior-like Savior, righteous and mighty, with the firepower to blow Rome and all evil to smithereens. Yet when John turns to look what he sees is not a ferocious King of the Beasts but a bloodied baby of beasts, a little lamb having been slaughtered. Granted, the prophets foretold of King David’s heir as one “led like a lamb to the slaughter,” but that mistreatment applied to his suffering on earth. What’s the Lamb of God doing all beat up in heaven?
Welcome to the second week of Revelation, a book filled with images and ideas that never make any sense. It’s a book everybody thinks they want to read until they actually open it. Last Sunday had the John the author getting a peek at the celestial command center of heaven in Revelation 4. Seated on his throne at the center of all things, all creation praised the Lord. Here in chapter 5, focus shifts to the right hand of God and a sealed scroll held tightly in his hand. Like a safety deposit box, the scroll could only be opened by one worthy enough to read it. Having been sealed for an eternity; the scroll presumably listed those who’d made the heavenly cut as well as a forecast of how things finally come to an end for the earth. Sadly, we read, “no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.” It’s like finally getting to the Pearly Gates only to discover St. Peter can’t find his keys.
John burst into tears, his nice Christian life suffered for nothing. What good is being good if there’s no reward in the end? But then an elder steps up with a tissue: “Stop crying already! Look, the Lion of Judah! The Root of King David! The conquering one worthy to rip open the scroll! The Champion, the Victor, the Super Hero, the Gold Medal Winner!” But all John sees is the defeated loser of a lamb. It’s a wonder John doesn’t start crying again. Such has always been the irony of the gospel: The Great High Priest is the sacrifice. The Good Shepherd is the slaughtered sheep. The Triumphant King rides in on a donkey, his crown twisted of thorns. A Lion conquers by inflicting death, but the Lamb conquered by dying. And though the triumphant Lamb stands tall, he still wears the telltale scars of his slaughter. Despite rising from the grave, Jesus still had the holes in his hands. Crucifixion was not some passing, one-and-done occurrence in the saga of salvation but the indelible mark of God’s eternal identity.
Nature itself bears witness to this mark of God’s character. Death has to happen for new life to emerge. The Lord who was and is and is to come is the same Lord who suffers and dies for the sake of new creation. The Lamb is worthy to break open the scroll because he was slaughtered.” No matter how well versed we are in these verses, they still never makes any sense. Pictures painted of victors are always colored with success: the best-selling author, the profitable CEO, the championship athlete with arms raised high, the million dollar celebrity, the soul-winning missionary, the parent whose kid goes to Harvard. Imagine such pictures as the only ones available to Revelation’s original audience. For these early Christians, devoted to Jesus and therefore doomed to die under Roman persecution, their faithfulness looked like failure and foolishness; more like suicide than anything approaching success. To believe singled them out for abuse, torture and execution. Their accomplishments were the horrors they endured. The God who saved them never saved them from suffering, but only through suffering—and not just their own. Almighty God, lifted high and exalted, humbles himself to endure humiliation to redeem the humiliated. And not only that, but the humiliated Lord redeems the humiliators too. Oppressed and oppressor both get grace. The Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world by taking the sins of the world onto himself. The spotless lamb is the black sheep.
We see this most disturbingly painted in that Good Friday moment when the crucified Jesus is abandoned by God—a child deserted by his father at the hour of greatest need. In Mark’s gospel a heathen Roman centurion, a zealous oppressor no less, sees Jesus utterly forsaken and assumes his utter guilt. This was no successful Savior. He hangs to die with other executed criminals. And yet somehow the centurion sees “this man was the Son of God.” It doesn’t make any sense. The black sheep is the sacrificial lamb. In the condemned and abandoned Jesus, those condemned and abandoned find embrace. Theologian, Karl Barth, labeled the prisoners with whom Jesus died as the first Christian community. Persuaded of this irony, Karl Barth regularly left his ivory tower to visit inmates at nearby Basel Prison. Barth understood prison as that place where Jesus would be found.
Five members of our church are in prison this morning, leading worship for inmates at the Minnesota Correction Facility in Stillwater, the state’s largest close-security institution for adult male felons. They’ve been at it for years. Others from our congregation spend time helping ex-offenders recently released from prison reconnect to the world. I have a pastor friend who taught a seminary class to death row inmates at Sing Sing. Her students always asked how the youth programs are going at her church. Most all of these longtime felons committed their murders as teenagers.
For the past 25 years, the fastest growing housing category in America is prison cells. Almost 2.5 million people live behind bars: one out of every 100 American adults. Ironically, the majority of prisoners report faith in God. Desperation can do that. Christian and criminal Jens Soering, sentenced to life for murdering his girlfriend’s parents when he was a freshman at the University of Virginia, writes how the prevalence of male rape in prison means that in America, more men than women are raped each year. Soering describes a weekend spent gasping for air because his prison’s new ventilation system was so poorly installed; and how prisoners’ few amenities get taken away by legislators, even though physical recreation reduces fighting and educational opportunities reduce recidivism. Politicians continually clamor for the need to get “tough on crime” even though prisons have not been proven to deter crime. Prisons do keep criminals away from the rest of us.
No matter how tough we make them though, prisons can’t keep criminals away from God. In the condemned and abandoned death row convict who is the executed Christ, those condemned and abandoned find power and hope. The apostle Paul did some of his best work in jail, as did Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. But it’s still hard to see Jesus as a convicted criminal. This could explain why Christians don’t take Jesus’ warning about failing to visit prisoners too seriously.“I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Jesus said. When his hearers wanted to know when they’d ever seen Jesus and not done right by him, Jesus answered, “Just as you did not do to one of the least of these, you did not do to me.” The late Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship after his own conversion behind bars, offhandedly remarked how his 40-year effort to get the church interested in prison ministry didn’t work so well. Go to the Prison Fellowship website and they’ve moved on to child sponsorship. We struggle here at Colonial to get volunteers to visit prisoners. Because it’s so hard to see Jesus as a prisoner, it’s hard to see Jesus in the prisoner.
We don’t want to paint Jesus as anything but a winner. Hear again verse 6: “I saw … a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.” Other English translations have “…a Lamb that appeared to have been killed,” or “… a Lamb looking like it had been slain.” Pardon the pun, but English Bibles butcher this translation. There’s an enormous difference between one who appears as if he’s been slaughtered and one who has actually been slaughtered. The verb slain in verse 6 is a perfect participle indicating a completed action with effects that continue into the present: I saw a Lamb having been slain, is how we should read it. Slain and surrounded by the four living creatures representative of all creation with elders who cast down their crowns in prayerful worship. With seven horns (perfect strength) and seven eyes (perfect sight), the slain sheep epitomizes the perfect sevenfold spirit of Almighty God.
Another renown theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, pictures the spirit of God as most perfect and present in that moment of crucifixion absence. Moltmann depicts the space between the sacrificing Father and the abandoned Son as a move of grace ascribed to the Spirit. Father and Son are in the deepest sense separated in abandonment at the cross, yet are at the same time inwardly united through the Spirit of mutual loss. Loss is gain. Out of this loss, the Spirit blows forth into all the world to reconciling the abandoned, justify the despised, forgive the guilty and ultimately bring life to the dead.
“God was in Christ,” the apostle Paul wrote, “reconciling the whole world to himself, no longer counting their trespasses against them.” We too are in Christ, Paul wrote, having been crucified with him. Crucified with him because we are criminals too. Our difficulty with seeing Jesus as a loser may stem in part from the difficulty we have with seeing ourselves this way. We don’t punch our wives in elevators. We don’t bear our four-year-olds bloody. We haven’t done time. We’re basically nicer than that. Good people don’t really need Jesus to save us that much.
Brian circulated an article this week from a popular blog called The Dish posing the question “why be a Christian when you can just be nice?” You see Christians in churches—liberal and conservative both—as basically nice people doing what everybody else does to be helpful: the canned food drive, volunteering in schools, cleaning up parks, donating a few dollars here and there. There’s nothing particularly Christian about any of this. Plenty of unbelievers have a social conscience and do good deeds without holding on to any metaphysical claptrap or reading Revelation or getting up to worship on Sundays. What’s the difference between Christianity and any other vague notion of making the world a better place, We can be good without God.
Jesus says no you can’t. The Dish blogger wrote, “Christianity is not fundamentally about morality. It is not, finally, just a system of ethics. Christianity is a faith that assumes our inability to be moral or ethical. This isn’t because we all fail to uphold certain ideals on occasion, but because even in those occasions when we’re good our goodness is always tinged with self-interest. Nothing pure issues forth from human hands, nothing escapes from the fallibility and brokenness in which we are inevitably implicated. Jesus didn’t just talk about our deeds, but our motives. He told us to pray in closets and not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, such is our capacity for arrogance and self-congratulation. He didn’t just talk about adultery, but lust, and asked those of us who have never murdered someone if we’ve ever been filled with anger. Christianity is not about doing good but about the impossibility of ever doing good.”
Writing of his own vaunted accomplishments and success as a good Pharisee, the apostle Paul concluded that “whatever I gained, I now regard as a load of (literal) crap.” On that Damascus Road, Jesus condemned Paul not for his wickedness as a Pharisee, but for his goodness. Paul’s reliance on his credentials had paved his own road to perdition. “Now I count it all garbage,” Paul wrote, “compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord for whose sake I have suffered the loss of all things so that one way or another, I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
God’s grace is not a reward for getting your act together. Christianity says you are loved before you could ever deserve it—which as sinners you never quite do. This is not the same as saying, “I’m okay, you’re okay.” Churches should be places where we can be honest that we are not okay, places we can stumble into at our worst and one way or another, attain resurrection.
An well worn preacher-story has St. Peter sorting through people at the Pearly Gates while the Archangel Gabriel does a headcount in heaven. A disturbing discrepancy is found: Gabriel counts more people in heaven than Peter was letting in. Peter instructs Gabriel to go figure out what went wrong. A few hours later, Gabriel returned to report it was all Jesus’ fault. He’s pulling people in over the wall.”
Picture the wall as a prison wall and yourself finally inside. Salvation doesn’t get us out of jail. It’s makes us prisoners to Christ. That’s the irony of the gospel. Our captivity is our freedom. Our loss is our gain. Defeat is victory. Weakness is strength. Failure is success. Death is life. Our theology of hope is not some religious aid by which we bypass taking up a cross. Our theology of hope comes from taking up a cross. We join that glorious full-throated everlasting roar of thousands upon thousands inside the walls who surround a butchered lamb to celebrate the loss. None of which makes any sense—it’s too difficult to depict and too impossible to paint.
Maybe this explains why at the end of this chapter, at the end of Revelation and at the end time—all anybody ever does is sing.