Sermon from Advent II: Worthy is the Lamb

Worthy Is the Lamb
Advent II; December 6, 2020
Revelation 5:1-10

The buildup is great. There’s a scroll needing to be opened. It’s sealed tight: seven seals on it. A mighty angel (think Lou Ferrigno) shouts, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” Nothing. They look around the court of Heaven: there are elders and the four living creatures all singing in God’s throne room; there are more angels than anyone knows how to count, singing backup: no one is worthy. They check out the earth: no one is worthy. They scour Hades, the realm of the dead: no one is worthy. “Who is worthy?” No one is worthy. So our visionary, John, starts to weep, and one of the elders stops singing long enough to console John. “Don’t weep; there is One who is worthy: the Lion of Judah, the Root of David; he has conquered; he is worthy.”

So John looks and you and I look with him. We’re looking for a lion, for someone big and strong, able to devour enemies. We’re looking for the Root of David, the King descended from David, the apple of God’s eye. We are looking for someone who has conquered: a descendant of David, strong as a lion, fierce as Alexander the Great, tough as Caesar Augustus. We look, and we see…

A lamb. A lamb! And not only a lamb, but a lamb that has been slaughtered, a lamb that has been taken to the altar of the Temple and killed as a sacrifice for sin. Now you may have noticed when I read it to you that this Lamb had some strange features: seven horns and seven eyes, which John says are the seven spirits of God: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in the Lord’s presence (Isaiah 11:2-3). But nonetheless, it’s not a lion, but a lamb, and a lamb that has been killed.

And the hosts of Heaven go wild. The elders and the living creatures fall to the ground before him, offering golden bowls of incense, and they sing – all those angels still providing backup –

You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
For you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
Saints from every tribe and language and people and nation…

Wait a minute. This just gets weirder and weirder. First we have a slaughtered Lamb when we’re looking for a lion able to tear apart its enemies, and now we hear why the hosts of heaven believe this Lamb is worthy. First: the Lamb was slaughtered. Yes, you heard that right. By the standards of the world we live in, by the standards that come from our own gut, the one who is worthy is the one who slaughters others. We praise the conquering hero, the one who led his armies into battle and killed thousands. That’s even the standard in much of the Bible. Do you remember what the women sang when the young warrior David came back from battle?

Saul has killed his thousands,
And David his ten thousands. (I Samuel 18:7)

We praise the one who destroys, who kills, who conquers by the sword and tank and aircraft carrier and UAV. So the first weirdness in the song is Heaven declares that the Lamb is worthy because the Lamb was slaughtered, not himself slaughtering others.

It gets worse. The second weirdness is they sing that by his blood the Lamb has ransomed for God. Yes, ransomed. By his blood. That strikes us as so wrong. As a matter of policy, we don’t pay ransom. It simply empowers the enemy, right? When Somali pirates would take captives, we would refuse to pay ransom. Yet Heaven praises the Lamb for paying ransom to release those who belong to God. And not only that, the Lamb didn’t levy a tax on his subjects to pay that ransom, the Lamb paid the ransom with his own blood. Well of course you know what they’re talking about, they’re talking about the death of Jesus on the Cross, but I’m emphasizing it to make sure you understand how completely wrong this all is, from our point of view. They praise a slaughtered Lamb as conqueror, and then they praise him for paying a ransom with his own blood.

And to put the capstone on the weirdness, whom did the Lamb ransom? His own people? Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Put your own people first? Care about your own people? Ransom your own countrymen and women and tell everyone else to go to… well. But Heaven praises the Lamb for ransoming for God with his own blood saints “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Every tribe, not just his tribe. Every language. Every people. Every nation.

I don’t know how that strikes people from other countries but for a lot of the citizens of the United States that is patently offensive. We are accustomed to thinking that only the U. S. matters, that everyone should speak English – sorry, American English – and that God has a particular preference for white people. And yet Heaven has the gall to praise a Lamb who ransoms for God saints from every tribe, not just white people, from every language, not just English, from every people and nation, not just the U. S. A. You can yell at me for being unpatriotic if you want to; I’m just repeating what the Bible says, what the hosts of Heaven sing.

So rather than yell at the preacher, stop and think: do you believe the song of the hosts of Heaven? Do you? Do you agree that the Lamb who was slaughtered, who ransomed for God with his own blood saints from every tribe and language and people and nation is more worthy than a lion who tears apart his enemies and makes them serve him? You are allowed to disagree, to decide that this Christianity stuff is nonsense; but if you agree with the hosts of Heaven, that the Lamb is worthy, then how will you live? What are you going to do about it?

This is the other side of the message we proclaim at Christmas. The wonder of Christmas isn’t the birth of a cuddly baby in a manger; the wonder of Christmas is that the God who has the power to create the universe with a word chooses that strange means to come to the world. God comes as a human baby in order to shed his blood to ransom saints from every tribe and language and people and nation. It’s a package; take it all or take none of it.

Our hymnal – some think of it as our “new hymnal,” even though it’s been in print for more than seven years – has in its newer songs a wonderful Christmas song that we have sung every year and which expresses this better than any words I can muster. Here are two verses of it:

Who would think that what was needed to transform and save the earth
Might not be a plan or army, proud in purpose, proved in worth?
Who would think, despite derision, that a child should lead the way?
God surprises earth with heaven, coming here on Christmas Day.

Centuries of skill and science span the past from which we move,
Yet experience questions whether, with such progress, we improve.
While the human lot we ponder, lest our hopes and humor fray,
God surprises earth with heaven, coming here on Christmas Day.[1]

Who indeed would think such a thing? It was the plan of Heaven and it is the way of Heaven, but that is not how we do things on earth. It is what Heaven desires for earth and is trying to build on earth, but does so against opposition. That is not whom we praise; that is not whom we honor. That is not how we decide who is worthy. Whom shall we call worthy? The lion or the Lamb?

The choice is always before us: shall we follow our instincts and praise the hero who destroys others? Or shall we follow Jesus Christ, who ransomed for God with his own blood saints from every tribe and language and people and nation? The choice comes down to the simplest things. During this pandemic, who do you think is praised by the hosts of Heaven? The proponents of “freedom” who refuse to wear a mask? The anti-vaxxers? Those who have tried to make political hay of the world’s suffering? I found my hero in the pages of our local paper back in August. When the people of Omaha were fretting about what to do about school, a senior at North High School named Nate Hipsher was quoted as saying, “I really want to go back to in-person learning, but I don’t want to go back to in-person learning at the expense of someone’s grandma.”[2]

I want this, but I don’t want it at someone else’s expense. I will sacrifice what I want for the sake of the well-being of another. I know nothing of that young man’s religious orientation, but in this pandemic he has been my standard for how we follow the Lamb that was slaughtered: I want what is good for someone else.

Lord Jesus, you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation. Worthy is the Lamb.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska


[1] John L. Bell and Graham Maule, “Who Would Think that What Was Needed” (1987), #138 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Ó 2013 Westminster John Knox Press) verses 1 and 3.

[2] “OPS iPads are windows into homes of students,” Omaha World-Herald, August 31, 2020, p. A2.