May 26, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
The scripture reading is Revelation 5:1-10 and as I mentioned earlier in this sermon series, the book of Revelation is best thought of as a theatrical presentation, so today rather than reading the verses to you, I will do a re-telling of them and invite you to close your eyes and imagine the scene he describes as I talk.
It is the beginning of the end. Now that John’s vision has finished its critique of the seven churches and laid out the case that sin has become so embedded in the culture and the institutions of the land that God needs to do a reboot of the world, John is propelled in his vision through an open door in the heavens where he finds himself standing in the throne room of God. Lightening crashes around him, thunder claps, and a rainbow of emerald green cascades across the throne. The room is crowded with movement and life: twenty four elders sit on twenty four thrones around the great one in the center, seven spirts burn as torches before the throne, and four great beasts flank each side, beasts with huge wings and a multitude of eyes shifting constantly in their faces, and everyone is singing. It is an impressive scene. Suddenly, an angel strides forward, points to a scroll in the right hand of God, and challenges, “Who is worthy to open this scroll and break its seals?” John looks about at the great beasts, the fiery spirits, the sacred elders: surely one of these is worthy, he thinks, but no one makes a move. If they are not worthy, John wonders, then who could possibly save us? Can there be any person on earth more magnificent than these? John begins to weep in his despair but behold: suddenly there is movement from below. Someone is ascending a ladder from earth. A figure breaks through the clouds, steps up to the throne, and proclaims, “Lord, I am worthy!”
There standing before God is a muscular middle-aged man, clad only in boxing shorts, literal boxing shorts.
“Who are you?” demands the angel, clearly surprised by the man’s appearance.
The man says to the angel in an equally surprised voice, “Surely you know me. You say you are in need a champion? I, Mike Tyson, am the best, most brutal and vicious and ruthless champion that’s ever been. There’s no one can stop me….. I’m the best ever….There’s no one that can match me. My style is impetuous. My defense is impregnable, and I’m just ferocious…..It’s ludicrous that mortals even attempt to enter my realm.’ 1 2
This is, of course, not how the biblical version goes. Mike Tyson didn’t really stand before the throne of God in the vision of John of Patmos, but had he been given the opportunity, he would certainly have nominated himself as a candidate worthy to open the scroll since everything that came out of his mouth in my fractured biblical account is a quote of things he actually said. He has claimed to be a superior being, a matchless champion. He has told the press that when he boxed, he wanted to break the will of his opponent, take his manhood, rip out the other guy’s heart and show it to him. The only weakness Tyson admits to is, in his own words, “his sensitivity.”
“I am too sensitive a person,” he told the press, as the blood from his opponent’s heart dripped down his chin.
OK, I’m just kidding about the blood, but Tyson did like to claim that in addition to being a superior human being, he was also sensitive and humble. He wanted to be the best at everything, even humility, and he felt the need to constantly assert that superiority by bragging and strutting and engaging in spectacles of aggressiveness to prove his worth. Tyson is, of course, an extreme example, but we see the same dynamic at work all around us as people strive to show the world that they are “worthy.” These are the people who work 80 hours a week to prove their worth by the size of their paycheck and the flash of a title. These are the classmates who flaunt their high grade-point averages or the colleagues who brag of Ivy-League degrees and publications. These are the mothers and fathers who claim their children are so gifted that they are destined to become Nobel winning scientists while playing for the NBA in their spare time. Some of these people may swagger because of a true sense of entitlement and a narcissistic self-centeredness but I suspect that for many, the blare of their horn-blowing is a cover for an anxious voice whispering: “Tell me I’m important. Assure me that I’m unique. Promise me that I’ll be remembered when I die.” They are doing everything they can to prove their worth to the world.
In the movie “Necessary Roughness”, a college football coach has to pull together a team from a motley crew of recruits. One of the new players is also a sergeant in the Army Reserves and his military bearing is overwhelming his teammates. If the coach asks the team to do 10 pushups, this player does 100. He barks orders at the other players, and when two new recruits decide to leave the team, he screams at them, “You call yourself [football players!] Then move it, you sorry bunches of quivering civilian slime!”
After watching the frightened young men scamper from the gym, the coach walks over to the Sergeant who stamps to attention. The coach says, “Son, are you all that you can be?”
“SIR, YES SIR!” the player yells.
The coach sighs and says, “Well, it’s a little too much.”
We strive to prove our worth, we work and sweat, and take on ever more responsibilities hoping that if we are busy we will be seen to be important and all the while we grapple with our own insecurities afraid that we are not measuring up. We try to be all that we can be, but in the end, God says, “It’s a little too much.” When the angel called out from the throne room of God, “Who is worthy?” it was not Mike Tyson, or any of the men or women doing their best to be all that they could be who were found to be worthy to open the scroll; the one who steps before the throne was the Lamb who was slain. Because of two thousand years of our adoration of Christ, we easily forget that there was nothing about Jesus that his society valued. “He was despised and rejected,” and only managed to maintain a career for three years before he was arrested and executed. Clearly he wasn’t very good at strategic planning. He started out popular enough but blew his political capital with some risky moves in Jerusalem. The crowds turned against him, the Roman soldiers spit on him, the religious authorities mocked him, and then, one of his own friends sold him out. By the world’s reckoning, Jesus really mucked things up. If he had been smarter, he could have had a long and successful ministry, probably could have even banked on that popularity to build a nice retirement fund but instead, he was a complete and utter failure. And before you rush to point out his victorious resurrection, listen to what the elders in John’s vision sing:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered…” not “because you were raised.” Jesus was not worthy in spite of his awful death that prematurely ended a promising career in preaching; Jesus was worthy because of his death.
Unlike society which measures our worth by encouraging us to be all that we can be, God measures worth by how much we give up of all that we could be for the sake of others. Jesus’ death made him worthy because he made his life into something that wasn’t about him but was about us. He sat with those whom society scorned and was scorned himself so that they might be freed from scorn. He hoisted the weight of a cross upon his back so that others might be freed from the yokes that weigh them down. He died so that we can live.
It is the Lamb that was slain – because he was slain – who is worthy. It isn’t the Mike Tyson’s who are worthy, or even the Mike Trouts or the Bill Gates’ or the Angela Merkels, or the or the Meryl Streeps or the Beyonces or any of those our society elevates because of their wealth or prowess or personality or their marketing savvy. It’s the people whose names we don’t even know because they are so intent on saving others that they don’t spend their time working to promote their own names and prove their own worth. The one who is worthy is the one who sees their life as something that can be spent to elevate the entire world, not just their one little bit of it.
Let me be clear here: I am not talking about becoming a doormat for Christ. Too often, when the church preaches self-sacrifice, people (especially women) take that as a command to renounce their own needs completely and become empty vessels whose only role in life is to take care of everyone else around them. Doing your teenager’s laundry for him, however, is not the kind of sacrifice that Christ is talking about. The world is really not going to be better because you cooked Martha Stewart meals, maintained an immaculate house, organized the booster club food drive, drove your children to a hundred practices, worked a full time job, and completely forgot who you were in the process. The sacrifice to which Christ calls us doesn’t eliminate the self but instead shifts our focus from this self-contained unit that is me or my family to focus instead on the bonds between me and you and the earth and the human community.
My family is a game playing family and we are highly competitive — my sister Wendy once tipped over a Risk game when she saw that she was losing — and yet our favorite game is a cooperative game called “Forbidden Island.” In this game, all of the players are stuck on a sinking island and they must work together to get everyone off the island before it disappears into the ocean. Each player has different skills and no one player is strong enough to complete the game alone, so they must strategize, and share resources, and work together or they will all be doomed. In spite of our competitiveness, no other game gives us the joy and satisfaction that we feel when we cooperate successfully to get everyone off that sinking island and live. Together we have beaten the destructive forces threatening to tear us apart. Together we have triumphed over death and strengthened the bonds between us. The “me” disappears in the joy of the “we.”
When Christ gave up his life so that we might live, God raised him to new life and he continues to live in us. He sacrificed what was unessential — the isolated self — for the essential — the bonds God has forged between us, human, nature, and divine. Christ gave his life so that we may too may learn to stop our grasping and striving and our constant focus on self and instead strengthen, rejoice, and rest in the bonds between us.
“[And the lamb that was slain] went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.And the elders sang a new song:
“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; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.”