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First Presbyterian Church

Dr. Stuart R. Gordon

November 26, 2017

The Lion Is a Lamb

Matthew 25:31-46; Revelation 5:1-14

Mark Allen Powell, who teaches New Testament, was asked once, “What does it feel like to be a Christian?”  He replied, “It feels like being in love with someone who has gone away.”  The questioner said, “That can’t be very pleasant.”  And Powell said, “No, but it is pretty powerful.”  That, to me, is a good, honest answer.  Following Jesus can be hard.  The world can be a tough place, and there are plenty of times when we would love for Jesus to finish what he began, to wipe every tear dry and put an end to death.  We would love for sickness to be no more, and pain and sorrow and suffering to be no more.  In the meantime, until Jesus does return, we are here, waiting for him like a bride waits for her bridegroom, faithfully waiting and waiting faithfully.

Sometime in the first century, less than a hundred years after Jesus departed, John was feeling the Lord’s absence acutely. He was exiled to Patmos, part of a community of people either ostracized or persecuted or even executed because their allegiance to Jesus as Lord prevented them from going along with the worship of the Roman Empire.  Life was especially hard for Christians in that place and time.  So, my guess is that John could sympathize with Powell, or with any Christian of today who gets up in the morning in the face of uncertainty.  I’m pretty sure that John could sympathize with the doctor who cares for cancer patients and loses more than she saves.  He could sympathize with the husband and father who tries to hold his family together in the face of his wife’s addictions.  He could sympathize with the teacher and coach who watches helplessly as more and more students sink into depression and despair.  He could sympathize with any citizen who looks at the state of civic life in our land and wonders how on earth we got here, and whether it will get better.

I’m pretty sure John could sympathize, because he describes his own meltdown. It’s there in chapter five, when he gets a glimpse into what is going on in heaven, when the heavenly host is about to learn how things are going to work out.  God sits on the throne, a scroll in his hand, the scroll that contains the fate of the earth.  But there is one problem: at the very moment of revelation, no one can be found who is worthy to open it.  “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth” was able to open it or look into it.  So John begins to weep bitterly.  In other words, for a moment John believes that he is consigned to a life of meaningless suffering, that he is left to struggle in a corrupt, coercive empire without a glimmer of understanding about how it all might end.  Can you sympathize with John?  Can you appreciate that he weeps because he needs to know that the struggle is worth engaging, that his belief in the Lord Jesus will be vindicated, that God will prevail?  Can you appreciate that he needs to know that his waiting for Jesus will not be in vain, that Jesus really is the Savior he believes him to be?

There are at least three surprises in our scripture lessons today, so it seemed right to me that the surprises be our guide. I just watched the movie Murder on the Orient Express, and because it’s a “whodunnit” it is full of surprises.  Surprises can be vexing and surprises can be delightful; in this case, all the surprises are pleasant.

The first surprise is this: the Savior of the world turned out to be different from what people expected. “See,” the elder says to John, “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll.”  I’m sure you are aware that Jesus of Nazareth upended many a messianic expectation when he willingly subjected himself to trial, flogging, and execution.  No one in his day expected that.  And it looked to no one like salvation. Even on Easter day, when he walked the road to Emmaus with two followers, they were still sad even though he was rumored to be raised.  “We had hoped,” they said, “that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified one, didn’t fit into their expectations.  Imagine their surprise when he broke the bread, and their eyes were opened.

The Lion of Judah, the Messiah of God’s people, turned out to be a lamb. Lambs get shorn; lambs get slaughtered.  So, of course everyone is surprised that the lion turned out to be a lamb.  And, of course, everyone is surprised that a lamb could save anyone, especially by giving his life.  And anyone might be surprised today to find that God’s power is at work even among the sickest of patients who have such low odds of survival.  We expect medicine to perform miracles daily, only to run into the limits of its power; so we are left to be surprised by the power of God at work, even in the face of sickness and death.  It may take eyes of faith to see it, but you can expect to be surprised.

You see, John tells us that Jesus conquered death by dying.  Jesus has power because Jesus is willing to suffer what we suffer, even the worst.  And it remains a challenge of faith for all of us to embrace this truth.  I don’t know why, but all of us have this default expectation that our Savior will be a lion.  He turns out to be a lamb.  And notice that he still has his wounds – as the hymn says, “Rich wounds yet visible above.”  Doubting Thomas even got to see his hands and side.  And any Christian who struggles from time to time with this difficult wait, would be wise to think again on those wounds, those marks of how our salvation came and how it continues to work.

Expect to be surprised. Let’s turn for a moment to Matthew, and to other sheep and the goats with them.  It’s the last judgment, and Jesus the judge returns to bless the sheep and curse the goats.  Now here’s the surprise in this text.  Christians usually read this as an exhortation for us to show compassion to the needy.  Indeed, God commands us in many places to show compassion to the needy.  But that isn’t the right lesson from this passage.  I’ll never forget hearing that for the first time from Paul Achtemeier, who pointed out what verse 32 says, “All the nations will be gathered before the Son of Man.”  Professor Achtemeier said that whenever the Bible speaks of “the nations,” it refers to all the peoples who are not the chosen people.  In the Old Testament, “the nations” refers to Gentiles.  In the New Testament, it refers to those who are not part of God’s covenant people.  So, here is the surprise.  This passage isn’t about the judgment of how Christians treat the needy.  It’s about how non-Christians treat Christians. When Jesus says, “I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was naked, I was sick, I was in prison,” he is identifying with the church, the body of Christ.  It’s just like when he confronted Saul on the road to Damascus and asked him, “Why do you persecute me?”

It’s not a challenge to you, fellow Christians; it’s a word of comfort and assurance. You can faithfully wait for Jesus to return, and wait faithfully, obediently, because others will be judged for how they treat you as you remain faithful to him.  That’s a word, no doubt, that John needed to hear in exile, when every Christian like him faced ostracism or persecution or even death.  He needed to hear that he could endure and he should endure, because faithfulness to Jesus will be vindicated.

Now, you may scratch your head and wonder, “Does that mean that non-Christians are going to be among the sheep?” Well, as Jesus tells it, even they are surprised at the end.  “When did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked or imprisoned?”  “If you did it one of my brothers or sisters,” Jesus says, “you did it to me.”  So, I’m left to conclude, we can expect to be surprised at the census in heaven.

There is a third surprise in our lessons for today. It has to do with that hymn sung in heaven, “Worthy is the lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”  Those are among the most-quoted words in the Bible. “Worthy is the lamb” has inspired hymns and anthems and cantatas and choruses.  And guess what?  The word “worthy” is found nowhere in the Bible except in Revelation.  That’s so strange that students of the Bible started looking around in ancient manuscripts to find where John might have gotten it.  And it appears that he got it from the liturgies of the Roman Empire. That’s right: John has borrowed a phrase from the cult of the Emperor and used it for the worship of Jesus.  It’s a daring move, like taunting your opponent by imitating his touchdown dance.  John praises Jesus and mocks the Emperor at the same time.  He’s like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.  “We will not bow down and worship your statue, O king.  Even if our God does not deliver us, we will not worship your statue.”

You are not worthy, O Emperor, of my worship. You can threaten me, you can ostracize me, you can persecute me; shoot, you can kill me, but I will not bow to you.  Only the lamb that was slain is worthy of worship.  And yes, he is worthy.

Faith in the Lord Jesus will be vindicated in the end. You have to keep the long view as you go through this life, feeling as if the one you love has gone away and might never come back.  You have to trust that what you experience in this life – whether in your work or your family or in our nation and world – is not the whole truth of what God is doing in the world.  When Paul wanted to encourage the Philippians, he said “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”  By that, Paul did not mean that everyone will become a Christian in the end.  No, it’s more like in the Gospels, when Jesus confronted demons as he exorcised them, and they said, “I know who you are!  Have you come here to destroy us?”  Even the demons acknowledge that Jesus is Lord.  They don’t like it, but they acknowledge it.  And John says that in the end, all the kings of the earth shall bring their offerings to the Lamb.  Faith in the Lord Jesus will be vindicated.  So keep the long view.  Don’t sell out.  Don’t imitate the enemy.  Don’t give in to hate.  Return no one evil for evil.  Love your enemies.  Forgive those who mistreat you. Work for peace.  Work for holiness.

You see, even God refused to let the world change him. All those people taunted Jesus as he hung there on the cross, suffering unimaginably.  “Since you’re the Son of God,” they yelled, “come down from the cross.  Then we’ll believe in you.”  You see, they didn’t expect that our salvation would come in the form of a lamb slain.  But God would not be changed by their taunts.  And because the Lamb’s wounds remain, God still has not changed.  God still offers peace.  God still extends mercy.  God still enters into our life here in surprising places, places that are weak and broken and strained.  So keep the long view.  Don’t give up, because God hasn’t given up.

This is Christ the King Sunday in the liturgical year. We remember on this day that what is true in heaven will one day be fully true on earth – that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess.  For the time being, you and I and all believers will continue to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  And by that, we mean, “Lord, make us more holy.  Lord make us more faithful.  Don’t let the world change us, or defeat us.  Strengthen us and encourage us as we wait for Jesus to return.”

Mark Allen Powell, who said that being a Christian feels like “being in love with someone who has gone away,” adds another word. He says, “it should feel like being in love with someone who is about to return.”

We know that Jesus is coming back. And thanks to his faithfulness, his willingness to be slain for us, he was worthy to open the scroll.  He was worthy to reveal how this all will end.  It will be like the heavens opening, and the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband.  God will dwell with us.  Death will be no more.  Mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

So keep the long view as you travel through this life. Faith in the Lord Jesus will be vindicated in the end.  Keep worshiping him.  Keep serving him.  This world will not change God.  Don’t let it change you.

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