I have to say, I detest the practice of giving sermons a ‘title.’ And, even more so, the catholic bones in my body shake when I see such titles branded on church signs – like the advertisement for the next blockbuster movie. And, I go into total apoplectic shock when I see ridiculous attempts by some pastor or another try and be real ‘cute’ or “cutting edge” with their sermon title.
Really, honestly. . . passersby don’t give a hoot.
But, having said all that – preaching a sermon on the 7th chapter of Revelation this week entitled “Falling on Your Face” is just too good. Even I could let it slip.
Not that you’ll see it on my church sign, mind you – but I won’t pass unrelenting judgment on another if you were to try it.
‘Falling on your face’ (as the elders do in the heavenly worship scene in Revelation) as a ‘good’ thing is as paradoxical as the major theme of the day: Jesus the shepherd juxtaposed with Jesus the Lamb.
In the well-known 23rd Psalm it is the Lord who is our shepherd. He leads us, he tends to our needs. In the Gospel lesson from John, Jesus is our shepherd and the relationship between sheep and shepherd is so intimate that we know each other’s voice. And we are eternally protected.
But, in the Revelation to John (which we have with us for the whole of the Easter season) the shepherd who leads us, tends to us, and comforts us with abiding protection – is also the Lamb.
The lamb at the center of the throne we be their shepherd.
The vulnerability of that imagery: a young seemingly powerless sacrificial lamb – makes for great homiletical fodder.
But, I think the heart of this passage – and maybe the heart of the lessons today – is what’s going on around the Lamb.
Of course, the Lamb is Christ – and in the wake of the Resurrection, where Christ is made new, and where death is turned upside-down – the place of the lamb has been turned upside-down. All of a sudden the helpless victim becomes the Victor.
And the ramification of the Resurrection are witnessed to by a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.
And they have palm branches.
Which might lead someone to think about Palm Sunday – and the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. However, really you have to go back much further than that.
Palm branches were used long before Jesus’ entry on many occasions but especially during the festival of Tabernacles. This is the festival that God told the Israelites to observe to remind them of their sojourn through the wilderness. All Israel was to journey to Jerusalem and erect three walled little huts (tabernacles) and remember the time when they didn’t have homes, or even a land to call their own. They streamed to Jerusalem, built their huts, and waved branches of palm in the air.
Some have commented that this festival was near the end of the dry season and so this waving of palm was a physically enacted prayer request for rain for the new planting season. Because blowing palm branches sound like rain. Interesting. . .
They also prayed Psalms with the word ‘Hosanna’ in them – which means ‘save us.’ (Maybe, in a fragile agrarian society, ‘save us from the doom of famine by sending rain.’)
This festival was celebrated many times, but two key times: it was the festival which kicked off the consecration of the Temple by Solomon, and it was the festival celebrated as a rededication of the Temple after the the Selucids and Antiochus Epiphanes IV were kicked out of Israel by Judas Maccabeus (later celebrated as Hanukah). Because Tabernacles became so intertwined with the Temple it became intimately associated with the Festival of Dedication – which Jesus is in Jerusalem for in our Gospel lesson!! (OOOoooohhh. . . the compliers of the lectionary DO know what they’re doing!)
But, even more interesting is the great multitude who are gathered before the throne and before the Lamb in Revelation. Because they have palm branches. And the first word of their song is “salvation” – or ‘save us’ . . . or Hosanna.
See what’s going on here?
The whole earth – all nations, all peoples – have come together around the Heavenly throne for a new dedication. Reminded that at one time they had no home, but now in God’s Kingdom they do. Reminded that God has always saved them. And together they dedicate a new Kingdom – with no Temple, because in this new (Resurrected) world, there’s no need for one special place where God dwelt. Because now God reigns everywhere.
And what does this new world (cosmos) look like? No hunger, no thirst, no scorching heat, no tears in our eyes. And the Lamb wins and reigns from a throne.
All because on the morning of the third day, the first day of the week, the tomb was empty.
Fall on your face for that.