The unfolding of the scroll

St Michael’s 30th July 2017

Reading – Revelation 5:1-14

One of the most important victories of the Second World War took place not in direct battle on land or in the air or at sea, but at a site in Buckinghamshire which up until that point was only famous for its manor house that still stands there. It was bought in 1938 by the head of MI6 with his own money because the government didn’t have the funds. But within a few years Bletchley Park had become the centre of the most famous codebreaking operation in history, and it changed the course of the war. Hundreds, if not thousands, of men and women spent every moment of every day intercepting German signals and eventually learning how to decipher them. If there had been no breakthrough at Bletchley Park then possibly the war would not have been won. Certainly it would have been even longer, harder and bloodier than it already was, and many more lives would have been lost.

I was thinking about the breaking of the Enigma code as I came to our passage from Revelation this morning. Because our reading also starts with something top secret that needs decoding. It is a scroll that is covered in writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals (verse 1). The fact it has seven seals shows it is protected with the highest level of security. We know it is important because it is held in the right hand of Him who sits on the throne, that is God. But unlike the Enigma code there is no brain bright enough to be able to open the scroll or even look inside it. What the scroll contains is a deep, deep mystery that not even the best intelligence agency is able to fathom.

Now last week we saw how chapter 4 of Revelation contains the most wonderful vision of heaven. Here is Jesus granting John privileged access to look into the very throneroom of God Himself, and what a sight John sees! It is the most beautiful and mysterious insight into what heaven is like, and it is full of the praise of all the heavenly creatures worshipping the Lord. Yet what does John do when he sees no-one can decode the scroll? He bursts into tears. As chapter 5, verse 4 tells us: I wept and wept because no-one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside.

Clearly there is something about this scroll that is deeply significant. So what does it represent? Well, in the next chapter we will see how, when each seal is opened, something of global importance happens. We’ll be looking at chapter 6 in a couple of weeks’ time, but for now we need to understand that the opening of the scroll literally represents the unfolding of human history. It is the revelation of God’s plan for the world, and the outworking of His sovereign purposes.

And that is why this vision of the scroll is so important to us today. You don’t need me to tell you we live in an age which so often seems full of bad and terrible events. This year alone the names “Ariana Grande”, “Grenfell Tower”, “Mosul” to name but a few examples, have taken on a new and terrible significance. It can be so easy to look at what is happening and believe everything is just a series of random and never-ending accidents. It is a lot harder to see a plan and a purpose and believe that history is actually leading somewhere. Yet the central claim of the Christian faith is that ultimately all things fall under God’s control, that we and indeed all things are held in His right hand, just like the scroll that John the apostle sees.

So how can we be sure that God is charge? We begin to find an answer in verse 5, where one of the heavenly beings says to John: “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Now if we are familiar with the Christian faith, it is easy to guess that the angel is talking about Jesus. But John doesn’t name Him directly. Instead He uses two references from the Old Testament to describe Him. First of all, he calls Him the Lion of the tribe of Judah. That takes us way back to an obscure prophecy that Jacob made in the book of Genesis, chapter 49, where he likens his son Judah to a lion’s cub who will one day rule the nations. And then, secondly, he calls Him the Root of David, referring to a more familiar prophecy of Isaiah, often quoted at Christmas, where in chapter 11, verse 1 of that book, it is announced that A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. John’s point is that Jesus is this Lion, and Jesus is this Root.

To us that may all seem rather obscure but there is a good reason why John describes Jesus in this way. You see, he wants us to realise that all the prophecies of old have been met in Jesus. He is the fulfilment of many, many different words spoken over hundreds of years. His life, His death, His resurrection were no accident, but the culmination of God’s plan right from the very beginning. In other words, there is a very real sense in which all history leads directly to Jesus.

And what Jesus achieved in His earthly life still matters even now, because this Jesus, the Lion of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He has broken the power of sin that so disfigures the world around us by paying the ultimate price on the cross. He has defeated the power of evil by overcoming the penalty of death. So for those who believe and trust in Him there is a hope that is solid and secure, even in the most troubled of times. There is the promise of heaven beyond the brokenness and pain of this earthly existence. There is the gift of eternal life right now that enables us to know God as a loving Heavenly Father who never abandons or forsakes us. Jesus’ triumph is real. It is complete. And it is there for each one of us to claim.

But we still live in a world that is scarred by violence, disaster and disease. So it is important to add right away that just because we say Jesus has triumphed we do not mean that our misery or pain is unimportant or that somehow it doesn’t matter. Jesus doesn’t ask us to pretend that our heartache or our tears aren’t important, or a sign of our weakness. Because at the very deepest level this victorious Jesus knows and understands exactly what we are going through.

Look with me at verse 6: Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the centre of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. John here is still describing Jesus but now he uses a completely different image, that of a lamb that has been led out to slaughter and sacrificed. For He wants us to understand above else that at the very centre of heaven is Jesus who still bears the scars of His crucifixion, who quite literally went through hell on our behalf. That’s why when we talk about Jesus reigning in triumph we mustn’t think of Him sitting at His Father’s right hand, remote and uninterested in all our cares and sorrows, but deeply and passionately concerned by events of this world.

Now I don’t know if anyone has said to you that the Christian faith is just a load of wishful thinking, a kind of escape from the harsh realities of daily life. It’s a very common accusation levelled against the followers of Jesus. But today I hope you can see that the very opposite is true. Rather than being some kind of fantasy, our faith and trust in Jesus provides us with a real and secure hope in an otherwise cruel and meaningless world. Of course we may wish we understood better the plans and purposes of God, but we can rest assured in the knowledge thanks to Jesus that, yes, ultimately all things are under His control and that He is in charge.

Knowing this, however, does not mean we will somehow avoid times of great sorrow and distress. Indeed what Jesus promises His followers in His life is not comfort but a cross, and He warns us many times that we will suffer on account of our faith in Him. But whether our days are filled with joy or pain, sorrow or happiness, our reading from Revelation tells us we can be certain of three things:

First of all, there is no situation where Jesus is not already Lord. So in verse 6 John tells us that the lamb he sees which had been slain had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. What John means by this is not that the lamb literally looked like this. Rather that number seven tells us that this lamb is all powerful – hence the seven horns – and all seeing – hence the seven eyes. He knows what is happening in Mosul, or in Kensington and Chelsea, or indeed on the streets of Devonport. There is no place where we cannot turn to Him, no place where He is unaware of what is going on.

Secondly, because of Jesus, there is no situation where our prayers will not be heard. Reading on to verses 7 and 8: He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. Isn’t it remarkable that even at the very point at which the heavenly creatures are bowing down in worship before Jesus they are holding our prayers? Those hesitant confused prayers we are not sure make a difference, the cries of help uttered in a moment of crisis, the silent longings that no-one else hears?

You see, our prayers matter to God. Indeed He longs that His children call on His name, that we give Him the deepest desires of our hearts. And these verses also tell us that heaven is never too busy that they cannot be heard. God never puts us on hold, or tells us to call back later. Thanks to Jesus the way into His presence is always open, and prayers offered in the name of Jesus are as sweet-smelling incense to Him. I don’t know about you, but to me that is a wonderful encouragement especially and particularly when life is at its hardest and I really don’t know which way to turn.

And thirdly, although we may not be sure quite is going on in the world, Jesus assures us that one day history will come to an end and all things will be restored in Him. Listen to these words of the angels in verses 9-10:

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”

One day there will be no more news headlines. There will be no more disasters. There will be no more acts of terror. There will be no more famine. And we will at last stand before Jesus, the Lion of Judah, the Root of David, the Lamb of God. But we will not be alone. Alongside us will be our brothers and sisters in Christ from every tribe and language and people and nation. We will be praising God with one voice alongside the angels, and we will finally understand what was written on that scroll.

No wonder that this chapter which began with tears of frustration and sorrow ends with the most wonderful vision of adoration before the throne of God. Indeed the words of Revelation 5:11-14 have been used by generations of believers across the centuries to shape their worship, because in many ways what is described here is the very essence of hope that is ours in Christ:

Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!” The four living creatures said, “Amen”, and the elders fell down and worshipped.

So this morning let me ask: what is your response to this vision? Do you know this Jesus I have been talking about? And are you living in the hope that He offers you? Because how we respond matters. It really does – not just for ourselves, but for the many, many people living around us who know nothing of what Jesus has done for them. Let me therefore invite you to hold a moment of silence and before we pray…

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