What are we here after?
Do you ever walk into a room or go to the store and ask yourself “Now what was I here after?”
We all know that feeling, don’t we? That feeling of not being so sure what we are doing. Maybe we’re not so sure we are doing what we should be doing, why we have started some difficult project, or why we continue to read some long and boring book.
But even with more important areas of our life—our careers, our relationships, our family, our church—we sometimes ask, “Is this what I signed up for? I’m not sure why I’m doing this! What am I here after?”
Married individuals, for sure, often think to themselves, “Now, what made me think that he was the right one for me?” Well, the truth is that you never marry the right person. In other words, love is never easy. Real love is not sentimentality–just something you do because it feels good. Love is a battlefield. Those who have been married for many years can testify to this. Your heart, more times than not, has to be taught what to love. You have to give in. You have to embrace one another, even when it’s boring sometimes. You have to give of yourself, without the expectation of getting anything in return. Even if it is not exciting. Even if it is the hardest thing you have ever had to do in your life. Love is a battlefield, and your heart is the prize.
That is what marriage is all about. That is what worship is all about. When we gather together as a church, I think that is what we are here after.
The Good News of the gospel is that God is worthy of our worship. And this is the message at the heart of Revelation. I know a lot of people are not sure what to make of the book of Revelation. It is full of mystic images, often portrayed violently, as a scary ending—a kind of hereafter that puts most of us in fear and creates a crazy kind of anxiety within us. But I hope that any fear or anxiety you might have about Revelation can be, at least, the result of a well-informed reading of it. My proposal is that the whole book is an image of worship, and John’s encounter with the Living God. It is not anything else if not primarily a testimony of a revelation of who God is, and that God is worthy of worship. And a question like that requires us when we gather together to ask about the hereafter: What are we here after? What will we be after we leave here?
Who is God?
Many are nervous about the mystical images of the apocalypse. They hear the word–apocalypse–and it sounds to them like the ultimate destruction. But the word actually comes from Greek (ἀποκάλυψις) and is the original title of our book of Revelation. It means “an unveiling” or “an uncovering.” It is about the unfolding of a mystery. It is the breaking of the seals that have kept this mystery hidden. It is about “things hidden from the foundation of the world” (Mt 13:35; cf. René Girard’s book with this title). It is no less, about a revelation of who God is.
John (the seer) begins the testimony with a series of letters written to seven churches that mostly do not remember what they were here after. They have forgotten who God is; lost their first love (2:1-7); they are governed by fear (2:8-11); turned away and fallen in love with others (2:13-17; 18-29); they have fallen asleep and become careless (3:1-6), lukewarm (3:14-22). All, that is, except the church at Philadelphia, which is being persecuted for their faith in Jesus. (Just to be clear, John means the ancient city in Asian Minor, not the one where that dancing Fanatic is from. I feel like that needs to be said, since so many Christians are quick to take text from Revelation and try to decode it into today’s reality without trying to make sense of its original context first.)
We have this image of John entering a scene of worship before the throne. And yet, the One on the throne has this scroll in his right hand that no one can open. So John begins to weep. See, here is a key image. Even God (as far as John can see it at this moment) cannot unseal the mystery, cannot open the scroll. It seems that, at this stage, even God is not worthy to unroll this hidden mystery. But how can this be?
Isn’t God worthy?
Much of the world is convinced (both Christians and non-Christians) that the Christian God is a vengeful god, a violent and mighty warrior, waiting to smite the wicked, searching for someone to punish. Righteousness and judgment are depictions of this vengeful god.
But what difference is there between this god of war and Zeus or Mars? If we are honest, like John, most of us are not sure this god is worthy of our worship.
You betcha! Better get in line if I do not want to be punished.
But worthy of worship? Worthy of my love? My devotion? My heart?
So John is left with a painful realization, that maybe even God (god?) is not worthy. Not worthy of the future. Not worthy of his heart. Not worthy of devotion. These are the tears of a man at a time in history when the world seemed to be destroyed. Faith lost. God seems, perhaps, powerless. A god of vengeance, of power, of war? This is the god of Rome who can only be blamed for the tragedies, for the pain and suffering John sees around him.
It doesn’t end there.
One of the twenty-four elders who had been there, casting their crowns before the throne, says to John, “Don’t weep. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah has triumphed. He can open the scroll.”
Agnus Dei: The God who is worthy.
The Lion of the Tribe of Judah: now that’s a mighty warrior image. Yet, to John’s amazement, at the center of the throne is not a lion, but a lamb—a slain lamb, no less.
You can imagine John’s amazement. At this point, something unexpected unfolds and John is forced to ask the question: Is this a throne, or an altar?
Yes, an altar. Instead of a throne with a violent warrior king god, John sees an altar with a lamb, an image of peace, innocence, humility, weakness, fragility—an innocent sacrifice. The Lamb, it is revealed to John, who is then able to open the scroll—and receive worship.
Now, how can this make sense?
What we had always thought to be a Lion was really a Lamb. And the throne is really an altar.
A sacrificed God?
Two kinds of sacrifice
To get at this seemingly contradictory idea of a sacrificed God, let’s revisit a familiar story we all know from the Hebrew Scriptures: a story of Solomon’s wisdom (1 Kings 3:16-28).
Solomon was dealing with two women who were fighting over a child. Which one is the mother? In this story we see there are two forms of sacrifice. Solomon, in his wisdom, says, “I will cut the boy in half and each of you can take half for yourselves.” One woman was willing to sacrifice the boy, so as not to lose. The other woman was willing to sacrifice her own needs for the sake of the child, even if that meant she would lose and never be with the boy again. The first is a kind of sacrificial offering—a giving of something but the aim is to receive something in return, you sacrifice for your own sake. The latter is a different kind of sacrifice—a sacrificing of the self for the sake of someone or something that you love. This is called devotion. It is adoration. It is love in its purest form. Though the story never reveals who the biological mother is, that is really of no concern. What Solomon knows matters the most is who will care for the child. What matters is who is worthy of being called mother!
The problem with the Lion image in the book of Revelation is that he is an image of might, of warfare, of vengeance, of violence. And a god like this is no different than any of the false gods or kings of the nations (even the oppressive Caesar).
What this revelation experience teaches John is that the real enemy to be destroyed is violence itself. The Lamb that was slain on an altar exposes the violence and untruth of the kingdoms of the world. It exposes the lie at the foundation of human society—the lie that claims that ‘might makes right,’ that violence is necessary, and that the end goal is to be efficient, even practical.
But the Lamb represents a new kind of kingdom—a kingdom not of this world—built on repentance, selflessness, peace. Instead of a kingdom with a king, we get peaceable community centered around a self-giving sacrifice, a criminal crucified on a cross, “the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world.”
It is a kingdom of love, not fear and violence. Like the woman who will sacrifice herself, and thus is deemed worthy of being called mother, the Lamb is the revelation of the truth about God. It may make God look foolish and week. But “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25).
So what is worship?
And so, what we have is a moment when John has entered heaven and finds himself at the center of a moment of worship. So I think this text challenges us to also ask what kind of worship is appropriate for this kind of God, the Lamb who is worthy? Here are three things about worship this text challenges me to see.
- Intentional moments of worshiping the Lamb are times and places of repentance and revelation. These are the places where we declare together that from here and on after, we will live differently. We will live as worshipers of this Lamb-like God.
- Worshiping the Lamb is a not just something that happens some morning once a week. It is lifestyle—a belief that we must live in the world differently because nothing is really as it appears to be. We must be a peaceable people, called to give ourselves—even when it may not seem efficient, even when it may not seem practical.
- Worshiping the Lamb is total surrender. It is what we are here after. It is everything to us.
Worship is a battle for our desires, for our hearts. It is a place where we must learn to declare in everything we do that God is worthy, even when it doesn’t feel good or make sense. Worship is a returning to what we were really made to be because it has been revealed to us who God is and what God is like.
Love is a battlefield for our hearts, for our souls, for the goodness of creation. Do we desire to be followers of Jesus? Really? If we love Jesus, we love those whom Jesus loves. We do not love our neighbors because they seem worthy of our love—we love them because Jesus loves them.
Whatever the future holds, the Lamb will be worthy. Do we do what we do for our own benefit, or because of our love for each other?
Conclusion and Confession
But have I really surrendered? Do I really live my life modeled after the Lamb, in a way that honors the Lamb? No. I know I don’t. But…luckily, God gave me a church to live in communion with. When we gather together as a church, that is what we are here after. We gather together to get a glimpse of God’s relentless love for us and help each other learn to imitate it, to live it out in our lives…together…because we know the Lamb is worthy.
When my wife and I got married, we declared before the world that we would be in this together. It may not always be easy. Sometimes it would even be hard. Sometimes we even need to do things to remind our hearts how to love each other. That is what the church is about. That is what the church is supposed to be living before the world. That is what the world so desperately needs to learn from us–if we can ever learn it for ourselves.
But here is the thing, God is worthy of every moment of our lives, of our desires, of our very hearts. This is what we are here after. God is our here after. Love is not easy, because it requires us to let go of ourselves and let something else take a hold of us. This is exactly how the Lion has triumphed—by being a Lamb—by giving himself for us. Worship is not about us, it is about the Lamb, the crucified Christ, the One “who was and is and is to come,” about the “Alpha and the Omega,” about the “here and now” and the “hereafter.”
The Lamb is worthy! To the Lamb alone belongs the glory and honor and praise, for ever and ever, Amen!