the power of praise

We continued with Revelation on Sunday, with a passage from Revelation 5 that revolves around praise. Before all is said and done, all of creation joins in praise. Their praise, though, has a pretty surprising object–a slaughtered lamb. This text is an encouragement for everyone who finds themselves pulling for the underdog. Thoughts after the jump. And, as usual, you can find a podcast of this sermon over at the Bethany website. It’ll be up later today.

We sang our way through the scripture because it seemed a shame not to sing when the text tells us that the whole creation was caught up in song!

That sense of joy and praise is the backbone of this passage. It’s the core around which everything else revolves. And so it’s gotten me thinking about praise, about what we praise.  What or who have you praised recently?

We praise things and people we admire, that we approve of, that we, in some way, want more of, or want to be more like. As a result, the things we praise shape us, and shape our world.

When we watch Downton Abbey and appreciate the immaculate posture every single character has, and the way that Maggie Smith always chooses exactly the right word at the right time, or when we watch James Bond and are so impressed by how he’s so strong and capable and knows just what to do in all situations, that admiration, that internal sense of Wow, points us toward what we want to be like. I always drive a little bit faster after an action movie, because I want to be like those guys.

What we praise shapes us. We emulate what we praise, and encourage it in others. What we praise shapes us and shapes the world we live in.

So it’s somewhat surprising to hear what everyone is praising in our scripture this morning.

We talked last week about how the book of Revelation is literally one long strange trip. It’s a vision that a man named John had. Because it is a vision, we know it is outside of the bounds of normal reality. If it seems too outrageous to take literally, you are correct. And, as we all know, so much of the most real stuff in life is far from literal.

In the vision this week, John is before a throne that is surrounded by angels and people called elders and some sort of living creatures. They make up the heavenly host and there are thousands and thousands and thousands of heavenly creatures. And they’re all singing praise to, to what? To a Lamb that’s been killed. —What now?

We might have breezed right past it when we heard it the first time—right, slaughtered lamb, classic churchy image—but, pause a second. Seriously? They’re praising a slaughtered lamb?

Maybe it would make sense for the entire heavenly host to burst out in praise and song if they were watching a youtube clip of an adorable lamb frolicking with a wolf cub or something.

But a slaughtered lamb? That just sounds sad, and messy. This is what they’re praising?

It doesn’t help much if we back up and get context, either. When the lamb was introduced, John was expecting to see a mighty lion—the Lion of Judah, the root of David, the One who has conquered—something like Aslan from the Chronicles of Narnia. But instead, this slaughtered lamb appears.

Any way you imagine it, it sounds macabre and considerably less imposing than a lion. If this creature, this lion/lamb creature, is supposed to be Jesus, then the slaughtered lamb form is a reminder of all the most unpleasant parts of the Jesus story.

Last week our image of Jesus was glowing and beautiful and powerful, and he declared, I am alive forevermore! That Jesus is a winner.

But Jesus as a slaughtered lamb? Even knowing that some early Christians thought of Jesus as a sacrifice, it’s still weird. Because a slaughtered lamb, a crucified Jesus, doesn’t seem very triumphant. It seems like losing.

And everyone bursts into songs of praise.

What is this upside-down world? What sense does it make to praise such weakness?

If praise shapes us, if it indicates what we want to be, then why praise weakness and defeat and death? Why not praise the lamb made whole? Why praise a slaughtered lamb?

This, right here, this image at the heart of John’s vision is a vivid illustration of a paradox that lies at the heart of Christian faith.

Our faith proclaims that ultimate victory does not lie with the strong, but with the weak. Our faith proclaims that life is not found by avoiding death, but by going right through it and emerging on the other side. Our faith proclaims that those the world considers mighty, are not really, and those the world dismisses as too small or too old or too poor or too weak, that those are the ones who hold the keys to the kingdom.

Our inclination is to seek after those things that will make us appear powerful or strong, and to shun those people, and those parts of ourselves, that appear weak and insignificant. But in Jesus we hear that God’s power is not made perfect in our strength, but in weakness. The slaughtered lamb wins the day.

Those early Jesus followers, John of Patmos and his fellow travelers, were not strong or powerful by any standards of the day. They were oppressed and persecuted. They were tortured and martyred. And yet they persisted, because they knew, deep in their bones, that the lamb had conquered, and the mighty power of love that they praised could never be overcome.

What we praise will shape us, just as it shaped them. They were able to be faithful because they focused not on the illusory powers of this world, but on a lamb that in weakness and self-offering, conquered all that would keep us from love.

If we want to live as they did, we can begin by paying attention to what we praise. We can begin by turning our attention away from the winners, the mighty, the powerful, away from all those outer markers of success, and instead seek out the weak, the insignificant, and the quietly, deeply faithful and give that our praise.

When our neighbors get together on a Saturday morning to strategize for ordinary people to write letters and advocate for the hungry in our community, we can lift our voices in praise for their faithfulness.

When we see people all around this globe who protest injustice through hunger strikes and self-immolation and putting their bodies on the line to bring God’s kingdom just a little bit closer, we can lift our hearts in praise, and seek ways to join them.

When we watch parents teach their children, day after day, to share, and not to hit, and to say I’m sorry, we can lift our voices in praise for the seeds of peacemaking being planted and the fruit God may bring forth.

When we see our loved ones bearing the humble yoke of service as care-takers, performing the endless tasks of love, we can sing in praise that Christ is present in their toil.

When a friend, or when we ourselves, find that our lives have become unmanageable, and admit powerlessness to free ourselves from whatever holds us captive, we can shout in praise for the goodness of our God who will be present in weakness.

When we see the ordinary, everyday faithfulness of Christians all around us, helping customers in a store, teaching children day after day, changing bed pans, managing money, doing whatever they have been called to with gentleness and kindness, patience and joy, we can join the heavenly host in praise that in these small acts performed with great love, Christ is made present.

In all of this we lift our voices and join that chorus of all creation that sings praise, to God and to the Lamb, because we know, deep down in our souls, that the lamb has conquered, death is no more, the light has come, and love will win.

by Sarah W. Wiles
April 28, 2013
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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One Response to the power of praise

  1. Bob Braxton says:

    “Bethany Presbyterian Church” Link – fails (browser is Chrome)

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