A sermon by Margaret Hall
Our four-year-old grandson recently found me in the living room, working on a jigsaw puzzle. He couldn’t contain his surprise. He said, “You’re always standing up in the kitchen. Why are you here?” As far as he was concerned, the natural order of things was not being followed.
“Why are we here?” is a question we could all ask. We might also ask, “Where is the order we long for, and instinctively feel the world is meant to have?” In every sphere of life, we see disorder – so much misunderstanding and striving with each other, as we all seek first our own good. Is there such a thing as a natural order?
The natural order as God intended it was glimpsed by the writer of the last book in the Bible, who saw through a door opening into heaven – the sphere where God is honoured by all and his will happily done. The natural order there is uniting in our common delight in God’s good rule over his universe.
The last book in the Bible was written to encourage Christians who were suffering, because they’d chosen to believe Jesus is the world’s true King. The author of the Book of Revelation was given a glimpse into heaven – the sphere where God’s rule is accepted by all. Someone’s described what John saw as ‘the control-room at Supreme Headquarters.’ That is, there’s a war going on, and John’s about to see something of the complexity and scale of its operations, as well as its victorious end.
But the control room is really a throne room, so magnificent John’s hard put to describe it. He looks at the one sitting on the throne, and all he sees is dazzling colour, all alive with flashes of lightning and voices and peals of thunder, reminiscent of the activity on Mount Sinai, when God was about to speak to Moses.
Surrounding the throne are twenty-four more thrones, whose occupants John can describe: they’re dressed in white, as a sign of purity, and have gold crowns on their heads as a sign of victory. The number twenty-four suggests they’re the people who’ve accepted God’s revelation of himself through Jesus, represented here by the twelve patriarchs of the time leading up to his coming and the twelve apostles who followed him. Through Jesus we’re made pure – forgiven through his death to take away sin. We share in his victory on the cross, which was the beginning of the end of evil’s power to destroy.
Central to what John sees are four living creatures, also gathered round the throne. They stand for God’s creation – the lion as the king of the wild beasts, the ox as the massive leader of tamed animals, the human being as the part of the creation entrusted to care for it, and the eagle as the undisputed king of the birds. Together they proclaim without ceasing the difference between them and their Creator, saying: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”
Those are the first words John hears of what becomes one great crescendo of sound. Creation begins it, God’s people chime in, then those two groups join together in praise of the figure of a Lamb, standing at the right hand of the One who sits on the throne – the Lamb whose death purchased for God people from every nation and tribe and language, because that death was the sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world.
At that point, ten thousand times ten thousand angels join them in praising the Lamb. Finally, every creature that exists unites the praise of God with the praise of the Lamb, and the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders shout ‘Amen!’
Five proclamations, breath-taking in their magnificence – and for seeing the human being Jesus – the Lamb – as equal to God – one with him, in sovereignty over the universe, and in worthiness to be praised.
Anything good quite naturally calls for praise. Take, for example, a soccer final. Let’s say that right to the closing seconds it’s a draw, but then, from twenty-five metres out, the striker curves the ball so it goes in at the very top corner of the net. The whole stadium spontaneously erupts into praise.
But imagine how it would be if the rule at soccer finals was silence. Surely such stifling of our natural instincts would put us all into therapy. The very purpose of our being there is to enjoy what’s going on, and adding our voices to everyone else’s is a natural part of that enjoyment. In the same way, we find the purpose of life in this world when we add our voices to the eternal choir of the universe, ever-increasing in number as it praises its Creator for everything he’s worth.
Of course, praising God is more just singing about him. We honour God when we express our dependence on him by praying for what we need. We honour him by careful study of the Bible that leads us into living the way he wants us to. We honour him when we reflect his love for us by loving each other – appreciating one another’s strengths, overlooking each other’s weaknesses, caring for each other’s needs and forgiving each other.
If we find ourselves less than whole-hearted about praising God, is that because we tend to see him as somehow like us? Bigger and better, of course, but still like us, just as the ancient gods and goddesses were simply more powerful versions of humankind. Just as we resent big egos in our fellow human beings, so we feel uncomfortable with the Bible’s constant calls on us to praise God. As if, to use Philip Yancey’s image, he’s like the Queen in Snow White, daily demanding from her mirror-on-the-wall to know who’s the fairest of us all. Could God really be so insecure?
But the truth is, God is not like us. Mere human words can’t describe him, but that doesn’t stop the biblical writers trying. He’s holy three times over. The mere edge of his robe fills the Temple. He’s the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity. He dwells in unapproachable light. The whole earth is full of his glory.
Praising God is the natural and unstoppable response to the revelation of who he is, in all that perfect love, that sheer unadulterated goodness, that lack of thought for himself that’s so completely different from how we are. The theologian Don Carson defines worship as the proper response of all creatures to God, ascribing all glory to their Creator simply because he’s worth it – worth praising and thanking, worth listening to, worth talking to, worth talking about, worth depending on, worth obeying, worth serving.
So then, worship is acknowledging God as Lord of all – according him the worth that’s due to him by doing his bidding – by serving him.
Think of servants as they’re portrayed in the television series Downton Abbey. A bell rings and they scurry off, on the move from dawn to well beyond dusk, all to ensure Lord Grantham’s world is run the way he wants it. Compared to them, Adam and Eve in the garden led a very easy life. What they were told to do was to be fruitful and fill the earth and oversee it. There was only one thing they were not to do and that was also for their good – so that evil would not take hold, in them or in God’s creation.
We live with the results of their choice not to acknowledge the worth of the One who’d given them everything. They refused to honour him by doing what he said, and the war between good and evil has raged ever since. But now, in the light of the cross on which Christ died, who in the world would not want to thank and praise and honour and serve the God, who himself bore the terrible suffering evil’s caused, in order to bring it to an end?
Over a third of the world’s population identifies as Christian, but there is an assumption, more perhaps in the western media than elsewhere, that Christian beliefs are somehow irrelevant. Recently on the radio there was a discussion that mentioned what the scout movement in Britain has done. They now have four versions of the old pledge to honour God – one for Muslims, one for Buddhists, one for Hindus and one for atheists. The interviewer clearly thought it was high time Australia followed suit. ‘Anachronistic’ was the word she used for the pledge to honour the Christians’ God.
But God’s revelation of himself has made it clear that the natural order we’re here to follow is acknowledging the Creator who is also the Redeemer – the one who paid the price of freeing us from the consequence of ignoring him. It’s the natural order Isaiah said the Messiah would restore, so that we might ‘wear a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.’ Jesus assured the synagogue congregation in Nazareth that he was that Messiah. we follow the natural order – when our priority is to honour God for what he’s done through the risen Christ – he responds by revealing more of his grace.
When Napoleon’s army was advancing through Europe, the citizens of Feldkirch in Austria had to decide whether to defend themselves or surrender. It happened to be Easter Sunday, and the people had gathered in the church. The pastor stood up and said, “Friends, since this is the day of our Lord’s resurrection, let’s just ring the bells, have our service, and leave the outcome to him.” They agreed to it, and the church bells rang out. The enemy, hearing the sudden triumphant peal, concluded the Austrian army had arrived during the night. They broke camp and left.
The physical world worships its Creator unconsciously, simply by moving to the rhythms for which it was created – sunrises and sunsets, tides and seasons, the migrations of birds and sea creatures. God pointed that out through the prophet Jeremiah, and then added, “It’s my people who ignore my laws.” Creation does ‘groan,’ to use Paul’s word, with events like earthquakes and famines, while it waits for humankind to come back to God. But we’re grateful for the order that still exists, despite our rebellion.
We’re doubly grateful that state of rebellion can now be turned around. In John’s vision, he heard how that became possible. “You were slain,” God’s people cried to the Christ-figure beside the throne, “and with your blood you purchased for God people from every tribe and language and nation. To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever! Amen.”