Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Scandal of Judah's Lion [The Revelation of Jesus Christ 5.1-14] (18 August 2002)

[For accompanying presentation click here]

Did you see it? Did you see it? We are so accustomed to hearing portions of scripture that we often miss the important points. Or is it that Isaiah’s words are true of us: “Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand”? Is it indeed that our hearts have grown dull because we reject what is revealed to us? Did Isaiah have us in mind when he said, “Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

Let us pray.

The passage you just heard was from The Revelation of Jesus Christ 5.1-14. What you heard was a recording of a dramatic reading of the book on December 31, 1999 at Glendale Presbyterian Church. Alice and I were two of the seven readers. May be you recognized our voices. Whether or not you did, the question remains, “Did you see it?”

The last book of the bible is a book meant to be read aloud. John tells us this in chapter 1 verse 3, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy.” The book is meant to be read aloud because through its vivid imagery it aims to reach into our imaginations and enable us to see things that cannot be seen with our physical eyes. It is only the eye of the imagination that can see the unseen.

Throughout the book, John hammers home this point. Even in the passage we heard, he informs us about the key role of the imagination. In v. 11 he writes, “I looked and heard the voice of many angels” How does one look and hear? We would expect to listen and hear. But John looks and hears. Such mixing of metaphors, juxtaposition of language, is characteristic of the book and we will miss what John is trying to tell us if we do not recognize the startling way in which he uses language.

So, did you see it? Perhaps some visual aids might help. What animal is depicted on the screen? And what about the second picture?

That would be our normal response.

However, John is telling us something else. Listen to the scriptures again. [Read vv. 5-6.] Did you see it? John is telling us that the second picture depicts a lion.

You see, when the angel tells John to look at the Lion of the tribe of Judah, in John’s mind, what he is going to look at is the quintessential lion, the lion who has conquered, the lion who is victorious. But when John turns to look, he sees a lamb—A lamb standing as if slaughtered. The Greek word implies a lamb standing with its neck slit.

When the angel tells John to look at the conquering Lion of Judah, we would expect John to describe next a powerful lion, standing with a proud mane, the blood of its victims dripping from its mouth. But no! The conquering lion who is worthy turns out to be not one who has inflicted wounds on others but one on whom mortal wounds were inflicted. The victorious Lion of Judah turns out to be a lamb standing with its neck gashed.

The church has consistently taught that Jesus will return to judge all people. Often the scenarios are gory. Jesus will descend on clouds and ride on to battle with the forces of evil, killing all those who have aligned themselves with Satan. The word “Armageddon” sends chills up people’s spines. Popular Christian literature mints money by scaring readers about the terrible day when Jesus returns as conqueror.

But do we not see how abhorrent this is? Let us do some statistical work. The word “lion” refers to Jesus only in this passage in the entire bible. However, the word “lamb” refers to Jesus once in the Old Testament in Isaiah 53:7, four times in the first twenty-six books of the New Testament, and 28 times in The Revelation of Jesus Christ. It is by far the favorite title for Jesus in the Revelation of Jesus Christ.

You may wonder why I call the last book of the bible “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Most bibles may have the title “Revelation,” or “The Revelation,” or “The Revelation of John,” or “The Revelation to John,” etc. I have not found a single bible in which the title is “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Yet, that is the title of the book. The first words of the book, which in those days served as the title of the book, are “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” See in your own bibles the way the actual text of the book begins.

You see, the last book is not only a revelation given by Jesus to John. It is also a revelation about Jesus. That is, Jesus gives John a series of visions to show John what Jesus is really like. And, if our statistics help us, we realize that Jesus is most like a lamb.

The point is not to be missed. Jesus is first revealed to be the lamb right after John is told to turn and look at the Lion of the tribe of Judah. The title Lion of the tribe of Judah, though never used in the Old Testament, served as a messianic title in the first century. The Jews were waiting for the warrior messiah to come and vanquish the Romans. They were waiting for the Lion of the tribe of Judah.

So, when the angel tells John to look at the Lion of the tribe of Judah, all John’s messianic expectations would have been aroused. He was at last going to get a glimpse of the warrior messiah.

But he saw a slain lamb.

What Jesus is telling John—and through John us—is that Jesus’ way of conquering is different not only from the world’s way of conquering. It is also different from the church’s way of conquering.

You see, we Christians are bloodthirsty. Though Jesus himself said, “Those who live by the sword, will die by the sword,” we think that he has made an exception for himself. Though at his arrest he refused to resort to violence, we think that he will come back with weaponry that will make the gizmos of Men in Black or Matrix look like water pistols. And that he will then blast his enemies to smithereens.

And if asked, “Where in the bible do you find this?” we are quick to point to John’s vision of Jesus’ return in Revelation 19:15, where John tells us, “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.”

But have we paused to observe three things?

First, what kind of warrior rides with a sword in his mouth? If this were to be a physical battle with real literal swords, Jesus would be the most pathetic warrior of all. After all, he rides out with the sword in his mouth!

Second, the judgment is directed not at humans but at the nations. That is, the judgment in chapter 19 is directed at human communal life rather than human individuals.

Third, in chapter 19 verse 13 we realize that Jesus’ robe is bloodstained before the battle. This blood can only refer to the blood he shed on the cross. Even at his second coming, his death on the cross is at the fore and visible.

The point about Jesus made by Revelation 19 is that he is the one who speaks God’s word, that same word, which Hebrews tells us is a sharp two edged sword capable of carrying out God’s judgment. John is telling us that Jesus’ weapon is not a literal sword but the truth that he but need speak. In context, the truth Jesus proclaims will be that in death he was victorious. Judgment proceeds from this declaration on everything that rejected or opposed Jesus’ victory on the cross. And the first aspect of human life that is judged by God’s word is our communal life—church or state, sacred or profane, religious or secular—by which we not only justify our violence in God’s name, but by which we also claim that God is a God who through Jesus will inflict violence. After all, the final reason for judgment on Babylon in chapter 18 is “in you was found the blood of prophets and of saints; and of all who have been slaughtered on earth.”

Make no mistake about this. The more we insist that Jesus is going to return and make Braveheart seem like Little Miss Muffet, the more we will call down the judgment of God’s word on ourselves. The more we insist that Jesus will inflict physical violence on God’s enemies, the more we reveal that we really believe that it is not the truth Jesus speaks that sets us free, but violence. The more we insist that Jesus is going to lead an army at a final battle, the more we reveal that we really do not believe that it is by Jesus’ word that the universe is sustained. To put it blatantly, the more we insist that Jesus is going to put into effect God’s judgment with more than his word, the more we show ourselves to be idolaters who worship not the God who gives life and who condemns the slaughter of humans but the various pagan gods of war, violence, and death.

Does this mean that Jesus is not a conqueror? Far from it! In the Revelation of Jesus Christ, Jesus is warning us not to view conquest in ways dictated by the world.

Remember, the angel tells John to look at the Lion of the tribe of Judah who had conquered. Jesus’ victory is not up for grabs. Jesus’ victory is not being questioned. What is being scrutinized is our understanding of victory and how it is to be achieved.

Let us allow the scriptures to shock us. What can be more jarring than the idea that the victorious one is the victim? Who would ever think of a slaughtered lamb as anything but the one who was defeated? “Look!” cries the angel, “the lion of Judah!” But what John sees is something that is completely different from a lion. He sees a meek butchered lamb.

This scandal is one over which the church continues to stumble. We are so dissatisfied with this meek, slaughtered Jesus, that we project all the violence we would like him to do onto his second coming. We are so fraught with violent tendencies that we make Jesus do at his second coming everything he refused to do at his first.

More shamefully, we draw a sharp contrast between Jesus’ first coming—supposedly in humility—and his second coming—supposedly in glory—when the New Testament time and time again tells us that Jesus’ glory is best revealed when he strained against the nails that held him to that blood stained cross.

Why? Why do we not see this? Why do we refuse to see the full glory of Jesus on the cross? Is it not a sign of a rejection of Jesus’ glory on the cross to insist that he will return as a commander-in-chief of a literal army? If the forces of evil were defeated once and for all at the cross—and which of us will say that they weren’t?—then what more does Jesus have to do but announce his victory to those defeated foes?

Why? Why do we refuse to recognize Jesus’ glory? Why do we make Jesus out to be no different from pagan gods who vanquish their enemies in gruesome battles?

There is only one reason. Listen carefully, for none of us likes to hear this.

If we believe Jesus will abstain from violence at his second coming, we will have no justification for our violence today. If, however, we believe Jesus will inflict violence when he returns, we will be able to justify in his name our violence today.

You see, we Christians are like all other humans, bloodthirsty to the core, seeking vengeance in every way possible. Instead of reading scripture and letting its portraits of Jesus transform us, we find ways of reading scripture that justify our blood lust, thereby creating Jesus in our image.

Our desire to see ourselves avenged makes us ashamed of the slaughtered lamb. In our minds, this slaughtered lamb can only show himself the victor if he became a ferocious lion. And it is here that scripture condemns us. For what The Revelation of Jesus Christ ultimately tells us is—mark this—there is no lion! There is no lion. There is no victorious lion for whom we wait. There is no conquering lion who will come to solidify his reign.

What The Revelation of Jesus Christ ultimately tells us is this—there is only a lamb, a butchered lamb. At the center of creation, at the focal point of history, in the throne room of the universe stands a lamb who was slain and who forever will bear the marks of his victorious death.

The obstacle for the church has been the same as that for the Jews. The Old Testament in many places tells us not to resort to violence.

Unlike pagan creation stories, in which creation is the by product of a war among the gods, Genesis tells us that creation is the good work of a good God who was never opposed in his designs. Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt without their having to raise a sword. Joshua witnesses the walls of Jericho fall to the sound of worship. Gideon commands his small band to shatter earthen pots and watches as God confuses the Midianites.

God warns the Israelites against having a human king precisely because human kings would lead them to war. Isaiah tells us that a time is coming when humans will beat their swords—tools of destruction—into ploughshares—tools of production. Jeremiah counsels the Jewish exiles not to plan revolt but to pray for their captors. Ezekiel pronounces Yahweh’s judgment on the leaders of Israel for sending the young men to war and not relying on Yahweh’s supernatural deliverance.

Daniel has a vision of earthly kingdoms established by violence being superceded by God’s kingdom established without violence. Hosea denounces the international treaties made by Israel, which have only led to bloodshed. Joel comforts Israel by telling them that God will, without the aid of their armies, deliver them from their enemies. In Amos, God announces that he detests Israel’s fortresses, with which they display their strength.

God admonishes Jonah for wanting God to refuse to forgive the Ninevites even though they repented. Micah repeats Isaiah’s call to beat swords into ploughshares. Nahum rebukes Nineveh for the bloodshed it had caused. God tells Habakkuk that the right way to deal with impending conquest is to have faith that God would deliver them, not from, but through the disaster.

Zephaniah paints a day of cosmic calamity, which turns out to be for the purification of the world. In Haggai, God urges the Israelites to finish building the second Temple so that God could usher in worldwide peace. Zechariah challenges the Israelites who returned from exile to watch as God changed them from being objects of cursing to objects of blessing among the nations. And Malachi foresees a great and terrible day of the Lord, which is characterized not by destruction but by healing.

Despite all this, the Jewish people in the first century expected God’s deliverance to come through a warrior messiah. We Christians pooh-pooh them for this as if to say, “If only they had eyes to see!” As though we had eyes to see!

If we did have eyes to see, why is it that we hang on to the only mention of Jesus as a lion—even when John never sees a lion—and neglect the 28 instances in the same book that tell us that Jesus is—and always will be—a lamb? Like the Jews of the first century, we cherish a vision not of the suffering and victorious Jesus but of a sword-wielding, destroyer Jesus.

But the Revelation of Jesus Christ tells us that, if we are expecting Jesus to be like the deliverer that the Jews of the first century expected, we are looking for a phantom. That Jesus does not exist. The only Jesus who exists is the Lamb of God, who by his death has exposed the lies of Satan, defeated the forces of darkness, and who need only speak the word of truth in order to completely unravel once and for all Satan’s lie—the lie that we in the church also believe, namely that there is violence that is redemptive.

This is the only Jesus there is. This is the Jesus who offended even John the Baptizer. But as Jesus told John, so also he tells the church today, “Blessed are those who are not scandalized on my account.” The scandal associated with Jesus is the scandal of Judah’s Lion. We may wait all we want for Judah’s Lion. But he will not show up. Because the scandal of Judah’s Lion is that there is no lion. The only one who will show up is not Judah’s Lion, but Calvary’s Lamb. “Blessed are those who are not scandalized on his account.”

1 comment:

  1. What a picture!! The world looks for super heroes to avenge their perceived hurts, when what they actually need is the Lamb who doesn't destroy but who comes to bring wholeness and healing. Thanks Deep