Monday, October 22, 2012

The Survivor's Song--A Sermon for Everybody

The title of the book intrigued me, Survival Stories. The subtitle is memoirs of crisis. The book grew out of a workshop by a very fine writer when she instructed her class to write stories of crisis situations in their own lives. These were their instructions: write about the hard things in your life, the threatening things. And they did. Those in the class wrote with urgency about their personal wars. Depression, loss of friendship, divorce, illness, death. Someone wrote about a benign brain tumor, another wrote about a malignant brain tumor. There were personal stories of a cousin that died with AIDS, infertility, a mother’s death. Someone wrote about a hospital’s incompetence that led a woman to have to abort her baby. They wrote about adultery and what it did to them and their marriages, what it felt like to care for a retarded daughter years after year. A very fine teacher forced out of his job and now worked in construction wrote about what this experience did to him. They wrote about what happened when personal tornado tore through their lives and how they sorted through the debris, picked up the pieces and started life all over again.

Reading the book I realized all over again that we are all survivors. You and me. If we had time or the courage or the trust we could stand one by one by one and talk about some moment or occasion then or now that changed it all—that brought us to the precipice—that made us different. And if the church is to do anything it is for us to help one another across the swirling water to safety.

Interestingly enough the last book in the Bible tackles this very subject: survival. We think Revelation was written somewhere between 81 and 96 AD. The Roman Emperor Domitian made it compulsory for all the citizens on the Roman Empire to worship him as God. Caesar is Lord they were to say. But the Christians could not say that—their first creed was: Jesus is Lord. And because of their refusal, some fled into exile while others lost their lives. Churches were either being stamped out, or acclimated to the culture, or many just fell away in great droves. And out of this difficult time the book of Revelation came into being to encourage Christians in a time of great danger. And, over and over, John would write: Christians need not be paralyzed by fear of the future. John gave his troubled friends, what Robert McCan has called: a vision of victory. 

It is a strange book. It is written in symbols and mysterious imagery. Some think it was written in code language so that the Roman Empire would not understand. It was written to give courage to Christians then and now. It is a survivor’s story. It addresses the questions we have all asked: How shall we survive this terrible ordeal? How shall we make it?

Chapters four and five become the basis of all that will follow. This is the key to the whole book. One word stands out. Day and night without ceasing the believers sing. (4.8) The twenty-four elders cast their crowns before the throne singing. (4.10) In the fifth chapter the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders sing a new song. (5.8-9) And then, if that were not enough, we read in verse 11: “Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads and thousands and thousands, singing with full voice…” But even this is not the end, for in the thirteenth verse he pulls out all the stops: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing…” Five times he uses the word: sing until by the end of the fifth chapter the choir loft is full—everybody is there—standing, every creature that God ever made is singing in full voice: Alleluia…Alleluia…Alleluia. It is so cosmic and so all encompassing that they are all taken in and no one is left out. They are all singing.

What is it they sing? It is a survivor’s song. We find our answer in Revelation 5.12: "Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing." This is their song.

Worthy is the lamb. We are told that when Caesar came marching into the city with his horses and banners and trumpets and minions the people would shout over and over: “Worthy art Thou.” Worthy.  The Greek word is axion. It is an old and rare word found only a few times in the Scripture. Six times we find the word in Revelation alone. It means to value or appreciate. And the song the survivors sang is that we find our worth and our value not in this world. We find our value in the other world—silent, unseen but there.  

They were not fooled by the pageantry or by the flags or by the power or by the majority. There is a majesty that is above all the worldly things around us. For the Survivor’s Song says it is not money and it is not this world. The heart of the matter is spiritual. And if we are going to survive we don’t place our worth in Caesar or Angelina Jolie or Mercedes or our retirement or fame or making it or health or popularity or winning. This is not it. The writer of Revelation puts the word God down beside Rome, Caesar—and your little old half-acre of real estate and says: It will not last. You see the only reason we remember Domitian is because he is linked with the history of the people he tried to stamp out.  

Worship comes from the word, worth-ship. Want to survive? You learn to worship. I'm not talking about coming to church.  I’m talking about finding your worth in something outside this world. Through a hymn, a prayer, a Scripture, stained glass—silence, sitting out underneath the stars—you being to say: “Ahhhh.” And with John we begin to say as he said three times: “You are worthy, our Lord and King to receive glory and honor and power for you created all things, and by your will they were created and existed.”(4.11) Worthy is the first stanza of our song.
The Lamb 

Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered.  If the first stanza is about worthiness—the second stanza is about the source of our worth. Worthy is the Lamb. 

What a strange gospel. Chapter five says John, in a vision, sees the elders weep and he says to them: Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered. (5.5) But he keeps looking and the Lion fades away and we see now a Lamb. And four times he doesn’t talk about the worthiness of the Lion. He talks about Worthy is the Lamb. (5.6,8,11,13) We find our redemption not in the powerful lion but in the fragile and seemingly helpless lamb. All our lives we struggle with power. All our lives we struggle with influence and making it and securing ourselves. All our lives we have thought the secret was power. Lions. And this gospel points in the other direction. The Survivor’s song is not about lions but about lambs. Weak, vulnerable, powerless. Servants. We find out redemption in him who took the form of a servant.  

So the lamb in weakness stands against the mighty power of Rome. And the strangest thing emerges. We find our redemption in the lamb that was slain. The cross is triumphant. The cross endures. And we are redeemed by the lamb that was led to the slaughter.So it isn’t the lion after all. It’s vulnerability. It’s suffering. It’s weakness. It’s a strange twist. The Lamb of God takes away our sins. He died for us. He gave his life as a ransom for many 29 times John points us to the Lamb in Revelation. In Revelation 8. 13f is one of my favorite passages: “ Then one of the elders address me, saying `Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, `These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching hear; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”(8. 13-17) It isn’t a lion. It’s a lamb that’s what the song says.

The third stanza is praise. John says if you want to survive then learn to praise. Those Christians crushed by Rome were told to praise the Lamb. Look at the words they sent up to the Lamb: power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, blessing! And then if that were not enough the chorus come back on stage and begins to sing a second time: “To the one seated on the throne and the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”(5.13)

When old David had come to the end of his great reign I chronicles gives his last and most poignant speech. The words here are even greater than those moving words when his son Absolom died. “Oh, Absolom…Absolom.” He totters on stage. And the audience is hushed. For, you see, he was the great king, the greatest King Israel had ever known or would ever know. They would look back with misty eyes on the reign of King David as the high water mark.  Even greater than Ronald Reagan if you can believe it. And now, he stands alone on stage. His hair is thinning. He leans on a cane. His eyes blink and are watery. And he speaks for a last time to his beloved people Israel. He tells them the secret of his success. “Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our ancestor Israel, forever and ever. Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours in the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we give thanks to you and praise your glorious name.”(I Chronicles 29. 10-13) He has learned on that twisting, winding journey of his life to praise God. It is the missing note in most of our lives and most of our worship.  

The Church growth folk keep talking about if you really want a church to grow you have to be user-friendly. Put your ear to the ground and find out what they want and give it to them. Put down that practical piece of advice down beside: “The Lord is my Shepherd…he leadeth me beside still waters…he restores my soul…. yea though I walk through the valley and shadow I fear no evil…Thou art with me.” See the difference. Focus. One: we lift up our little lives by our own bootstraps. But praise God from whom all blessings flow lifts us up beyond the hills and we are stretched.

The grateful survive. That’s what he said. The ungrateful just keep on bumping into the furniture making themselves and everyone around them miserable. Learn to look up. Learn to whisper: Thanks. Thanks. Thanks. The third stanza is praise.

The fourth stanza of the survivor’s song is All. There is a universality here that is cosmic and all encompassing. All. In 5. 9 the saints from every tribe and language and people and nation sing. In 5.11 he writes: “Then I looked, and 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 in full voice…” And if that were not enough, he writes: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them singing…”The whole company of the universe leaves their pews and comes up front and joins the choir. Tribes with all sorts of costumes, languages that we don’t even know, countries from around the world—nationalities and customs from all over. And John puts it down beside the exclusivism of Judaism which prided itself on being chosen. The church, which is the real church, prides itself on knowing no nationality, no political party, no cultural or racial boundaries. 

Something has happened to me these last few years. As I stare in his face I see someone who loves us all. Someone who commands us—and that is an order—to love one another and get along. I see someone who shatters the myths and categories and the little bitty barricades that we have erected: us and them and us and them and us and them.  

Do you want a secret to survive? Join the family. Not the Kentucky family. Not the Baptist family. Not the middle-class family. Not any category where you define yourself. Woman is not big enough. Gay is not big enough. Straight is not big enough. Military or Democrat or Republican or Yankee or Southerner or whatever adjective you have tried desperately to turn into a noun is just not big enough. How about person. P-e-r-s-o-n. Survivors are members of the human family. Pogo was right, you know. We have met the enemy and he is us. Not them—us.  

One of the great scenes I have ever seen in a movie takes place in The Shawshank Redemption. It’s out in video and I recommend to anybody that can take strong language. It is the story of Andy Dufrense who is sentenced to two back-to-back life terms for crimes he did not commit. The murder of his wife and her lover. Everything about Shawshank Prison conspires to utterly destroy humanity. As the story unfolds, we are given glimpses of how Andy hangs on to hope. These moments are pinholes of light in a valley of terrible darkness. After two years of unanswered weekly letters to the state legislature requesting books and educational materials for the prison library, a huge shipment of used books and records, accompanied by a check, gets dumped in the warden’s office. One of the records that turns Andy inside out is Mozart’s `Aria’ from The Marriage of Figaro. Andy locks the warden out of office and plays the Aria on the prison loudspeakers. It is the greatest moment of the movie. Prisoners stop and listen. They quit talking. It is a spiritual moment in which they are transcended. Andy is tortured for what he does. And somebody asks him why he did what he did. And Andy explained to his friends: “I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company. It is in here (pointing to his head and his 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 yours.” 

Revelation gives us a song of hope in a hard time. It is a way to survive the craziness of our time. Those that sing the song make it through whatever comes. And I came all the way from South Carolina to say that it is my hope for us all that some hard when the wind blows...some day... 

“When the strife is fierce...the warfare long—
(There will) steal on our hearts the distant triumph song—
And our hearts will be brave again—
And our arms will be strong—
(And we will all sing again) Alleluia! Alleluia!”

(I preached this sermon at the Faith Baptist Church , Georgetown, Kentucky October 21, 2012. I served that church for over 6 1/2 years and this congregation was one of Camelots. They have recently celebrated their 50th anniversary. )

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