Sermon July 21

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

July 21, 2013

“The Scroll in the Hand of God”

Revelation 4:1-8; 5:1-10

The scripture reading was a little longer than usual because I wanted you to get the feeling of this passage. This is my favorite section of the book of Revelation. I said in the first sermon of this series that Revelation is a pastoral letter to the church. John has a word of hope to bring to Christians. His message is intended for our comfort and joy. I’m not sure whether you believed me or not. After all, Revelation has a reputation. The apocalyptic language of this book is wildly imaginative. It is filled with images of judgment and destruction. There are visions of creatures which defy description. It can be downright scary in places. But once we look beyond the strange images and cryptic symbols, we find a message of great encouragement. That is what I want you to see in this passage this morning.

In this sermon series on Revelation we have yet to reach that beautiful vision of heaven in chapter 21 with the gates of pearl and the streets of gold. But I have to say I think chapter 5 could be an equally fitting conclusion to this book. I realize there is still much to come – the breaking of the seven seals, the final judgment, a new heaven and a new earth. However, once we have read chapter 5, all of that is anti-climactic. Once we’ve read this chapter we know what will happen; we know how it will end.

I think chapters 4 and 5 have the most dramatic scene in the whole book. If we could put ourselves into John’s shoes, we would discover the tremendous emotional highs and lows he experiences. There is fresh understanding and deep mystery. There is reverent awe and bitter tears. Let’s travel with John as he experiences this vision and try to see what he is seeing and feel what he is feeling.

After his first vision, which is the first three chapters, the vision of the Risen Christ and the letters to the seven churches, John has another vision. John sees an open door in heaven and a voice says – “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” The first thing John sees is a throne in heaven and one seated on the throne. As with Isaiah’s vision, there is no description of the throne or of God who sits on the throne. All John can describe is a color and brilliance like that of precious stones and the rainbow. This is in keeping with the kind of literature that makes up this book. Descriptions are meant to be symbolic not literal. John uses metaphorical, picturesque language to convey a very real and powerful message.

John writes to people enduring hardship and persecution and the very first thing in his vision he encounters is God enthroned in the heavens. Christians suffered at the hands of those who ruled in power and yet the ultimate and eternal truth is that it is God who sits on the throne of the universe. The power of Caesar was only temporary and derivative. John wants us to know that it is God who rules the universe.

What John describes is the most magnificent, the most splendid scene imaginable. There are flashes of lightning and peals of thunder. Before the throne, he says, “there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.” Around the throne of God are the 24 thrones of the 24 elders clad in white. And on each side of the throne are the four living creatures. There is no definitive explanation for these except that they are all created beings whose sole purpose is to worship God. Unceasingly, they sing, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” They cast their crowns before God singing, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

This is a scene beyond comparison and we can only imagine how this vision must have moved and inspired John. Earl Palmer wrote: “The splendor of the vision has the effect of shocking our senses much like the pageantry of the grand entrance of Her Majesty, the Queen, into the House of Lords on the opening day of Parliament.”

And then John says, “I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals.” The scroll is a document of unparalleled importance. It is written on front and back; it is overflowing. The scroll contains God’s purpose for the consummation of human history. The scroll contains the meaning of history. It is rolled up and along the outside it is sealed with seven seals. The seven seals show that its contents are closed to the eye of humanity. The riddle of history is closed to the reason and understanding of humankind.

An angel proclaims, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in all of creation is able to open the seals. The one who must open them cannot be found within creation. We have to sympathize with John. He is ushered into the presence of this heavenly court. God is on his throne and in his hand is a scroll which unlocks all the mysteries of human history, which reveals every secret, which answers every question. And no one is found who can open the scroll and read it. What a heart-breaking dilemma! John is overcome with emotion and he begins to weep.

But then there is good news. John is told: “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” These are terms used to refer to the Messiah: the Lion of the tribe of Judah and the Root of David. These are prophetic symbols – a ferocious Lion and a mighty Tree.

John’s hopes soar again and he turns his gaze from the angel back to the throne. This is the turning point, the central focus of the entire vision. John turns expecting to see what? – a roaring lion. John turns and he sees a lamb – a lamb with its throat cut from ear to ear, fresh from slaughter, and yet alive and standing at the throne of God. The lamb has seven eyes and seven horns. Eyes are symbolic of wisdom and seven is the number of completeness. And so this little lamb is immensely wise, all-knowing. Horns are symbolic of power. And so this little lamb is all-powerful. When the lamb takes the scroll the 24 elders and the four living creatures fall down and worship him, singing, “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; and you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they shall reign on earth.”

I believe there are two ways that this passage speaks very powerfully to the church today just as it did in John’s age. The two things I want us to see have to do with the hand of God and the heart of God. The scroll is in the hand of God. The scroll contains God’s will and purpose for human history and it is also God’s will and purpose for our lives. We sense that there is meaning to history and yet we do not know it. We believe that our lives have meaning too and yet so many things are beyond our understanding.

Each person here could relate their own story of how tragedy has touched their lives. We hear about the death of someone’s spouse; a friend who gets a diagnosis of cancer; there are broken relationships, broken dreams. We are painfully aware of all that happens to us that we do not understand. John wept and we can identify with that.

But however fearful and uncontrollable and confusing the circumstances of our lives may be, it does not alter the truth that behind all that we see and comprehend God is on his throne governing the universe. The scroll is in the hand of God. It has not been wrenched from his grasp. He has not lost control. He has not been dethroned. Even when we think all is lost, that things are out of control, God is still in command. He is still ruling.

There is a wonderful story in Corrie Ten Boom’s book, “The Hiding Place”. I am taking it out of context, but it helps to illustrate what I’m trying to say. Corrie and her father were riding on a train and Corrie, only a young girl, was asking questions that her father did not feel she was old enough to comprehend. He was silent for a long time and at last he stood up, lifted his traveling case from the rack over their heads and set it on the floor. “Will you carry it off the train, Corrie?” he asked. She stood up and tugged at it. “It’s too heavy,” she said. “Yes,” he replied. “And it would be a pretty poor father who would ask his little girl to carry such a load. It’s the same way, Corrie, with knowledge. Some knowledge is too heavy for children. When you are older and stronger you can bear it. For now you must trust me to carry it for you.” And she was satisfied. There were answers to these and all of her hard questions. For the time being she was content to leave them in her father’s hands. And we too can trust our hopes and fears into the hands of God.

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