Who Is Worthy?
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|"Adoration of the Lamb" by Jan van Eyck|
The text for today is Revelation 5:1-2: “Then I saw in the right hand of Him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’” This is the Word of the Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Three readings today, three different views of Jesus. Each of them, vitally important. All of them together give us a picture of who Jesus is for us and what He is doing. We’ll look at them chronologically (at least from an earthly perspective). (1) Jesus as He appeared on earth to His disciples sometime during the forty days between His resurrection and ascension. (2) As He appeared to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus about three years after His death and resurrection. And (3), Jesus as He appeared to St. John during His exile at Patmos shortly before the end of the 1st century A.D. The same Jesus, crucified and risen.
In our Gospel, St. John describes an appearance of Jesus to seven of His disciples on the shores of the Sea of Tiberius, the same lake where Jesus originally had called the fishermen to make them fishers of men. Whether on account of discouragement, confusion, despair, or boredom as they wait for Jesus to meet them in Galilee, we don’t know why, but now they seem to be returning to the fishing business. Peter says, “Let’s going fishing,” and the others disciples agree.
Just like the previous time, the night goes by without any fish in the nets. At daylight a figure stands on the shore. He calls them “children” and asks if they have any food. When they say “No,” He tells them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat. Again, an illogical bit of advice. How is the right side going to differ from the left for catching fish? What difference would a few feet in one direction or the other make? But at His word, they do… and it does!
Once again, the net is full—big fish this time; and even so, the net doesn’t burst as they struggle to bring it to shore. John gives the count: 153 fish. A number that means absolutely nothing except that it rings of fact. Someone took the time to count them, and John took the trouble to record it so you would believe what he was writing, right down to the smallest detail. That’s how it is with eyewitness testimony. Witnesses tend to remember strange, often insignificant details. Like 153 large fish—all of them “keepers.” It’s the kind of thing you’d expect a fisherman to remember. It was their livelihood, their business.
Recalling the prior catch of fish—the one that took him away from the fishing business and set him on the road to follow Jesus—John tells Peter: “It is the Lord!” Peter puts his robe back on and jumps into the water. Isn’t that strange? How many of you, if you were out on a boat and decided you wanted to go for a swim, would take the time to put on more clothing. What’s up with that?
I submit to you that Peter realized He wasn’t dressed properly to greet Jesus. But being stripped down to his underwear was the least of his concerns. Peter was aware of his own unworthiness. He knew he had failed the Lord miserably. He had denied even knowing Jesus, this bold disciple who was always so quick to speak. And so he put on the robe for cover and jumped into the water, which baptismally speaking is not a bad idea.
Our clothing before the holy God is our baptism, which we wear like a garment. Christ’s robe of righteousness covers our shame. You’ll recall the Fall and how when Adam and Eve sinned against God they became self-aware and realized their own nakedness and tried to cover themselves with fig leaves? But it was God who had to clothe them with animal skins. He covered them with the death of another. The first blood shed for sin. And so we have this reflex, too. We don’t want to be caught undressed. We feel vulnerable, exposed. Some even have a recurring dream of showing up to work and forgetting to get dressed.
Hastily robed, Peter jumps into the water. Can’t be having the Lord see him in his undies! When the disciples get to shore, Jesus has breakfast waiting: bread and fish. Again, another miracle is recalled—the feeding of the 5,000. This time it’s just seven that Jesus is feeding. It seems He’s always feeding.
John wants you to think of the Lord’s Supper here. You are the invited guests. Jesus takes what we bring to the table and makes it so much more. He takes our simple gifts and makes them into His gifts, and with His gifts come all that He died and rose to win for us—forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Not simply breakfast, but a feast. Not simply bread and wine, but His body and blood. Not simply nourishment for this body and life, but soul food—food for eternal life.
The Lord also appears to Saul on the road to Damascus. This is a man who earnestly believes in his mission. No one questions the zeal of Saul, and no one wants to get in his way. He’s no vigilante, but has the sanction of his superiors. There’s little doubt that much of the population agrees with him. But Saul isn’t really worried about public opinion. He’s operating on the utter conviction that he is doing is God’s will. And if God is for him, who will be against him?
So Saul leaves on his first, and last, missionary journey as a Pharisee. His mission is to find anyone who calls on the name of Jesus. And when he finds them, he is to arrest them and haul them back to the chief priests for a trial. If they have to die, so be it, because they’re destructive to his religion.
Saul is an admirer of Moses and the law; and he’s based his whole existence on keeping the rules. God spoke to Moses directly on Mt. Sinai from His cloud of glory. What could be better? But these Christians have a different message. They teach faith in Jesus Christ. Rather than insist on perfect obedience, they declare that Christ forgives them for their sin. Saul will not tolerate this for it threatens his worldview; and Saul fervently believes that his way is God’s way. In the name of the one true God, then, he’s going to destroy anyone who call themselves the Way.
On the road to Damascus, Saul gets to be like Moses. The glorious Lord speaks to him from the midst of a bright light. But there’s no comfortable affirmation. The great I AM who speaks to Saul identifies Himself: “I AM Jesus, who you are persecuting.” When Jesus leaves, Saul is blind and in despair, his world is turned upside-down. His entire life and creed has crumbled to dust.
Three days later, the Lord speaks to a man named Ananias and sends him to Saul. He tells Ananias to go and make a disciple, baptizing and teaching him what the Lord has said. So the reluctant pastor goes to Saul. He speaks God’s Word, and Saul can see. He baptizes him, and Saul is forgiven.
From there, we see the grace of God at work in Saul. He immediately goes to the synagogues and preaches that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Once he used Moses and the law as his reason to stamp out Christianity, from now on he’ll show how Moses pointed to Christ. And he will go on more missionary journeys as Paul, the Lord’s foremost missionary to the Jews, Gentiles, and kings.
And his message is always the same. He proclaims Christ crucified and risen. He emphasizes the importance of pure doctrine and Holy Baptism. He writes about the Lord’s Supper and insists that it be kept according to God’s Word. That’s what Saul would be all about. Keep the Lord’s Word pure with the focus on Christ and His means of grace; and get that message out to the ends of the earth.
What happened that day? There really is no explanation than what the text gives us. Saul encountered the risen and glorified Jesus that day. He saw Jesus in His risen and ascended glory and it forever changed him. People don’t generally retool their theology so quickly. And it’s a reminder to us that the Lord is still active today. He’s not “gone” in the sense that He’s not here. He just can’t be seen. He’s very much alive and active at the right hand of God, lording His death and resurrection over the whole creation. He’s still calling and sending preachers of His Gospel now through the means of His Church, which is His body.
Speaking of His body: Did you notice what Jesus said to Saul that day? “Why are you persecuting me?” Saul was persecuting Christians not Christ. He didn’t know. But you see, to persecute Christians is the same as persecuting Jesus. He takes it personally. To persecute the Bride is to persecute her Groom. They are one flesh. You cannot claim to love Jesus in one breath and yet hate His body, the Church, in the next breath. They are joined together as one.
John was worshiping on Sunday on the island of Patmos with other persecuted Christians when he was privileged to see Christ in His glory and see the heavenward side of worship, the side we can’t see but confess when say, “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” We can’t see this with our own eyes yet, but we are given the gift of John’s report in the Revelation.
John sees a scroll with seven seals in the right hand of God. It contains a prophetic message that for the moment is closed to everyone. It would remain closed and its contents unknown until the worthy person came to claim it. A mighty angel sends out the call: “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” But there was no such figure in all of God’s creation, not even among the angels. No one was worthy, for no one had earned the right to stand before the presence of God and lay legal claim to the scroll.
John senses the great need that someone be found to receive the scroll, for he began to weep. One of the elders comforts him, introducing John to Christ as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” and “Root of David.” Both titles from the Old Testament refer to Christ’s human origin and descent. From the tribe of Judah the Messiah would come; and the lion was the symbol of His messianic reign and power (Genesis 49:8-10). He would be a direct descendant of David, and as such would be the everlasting King upon whom all the nations would place their hope for salvation (Isaiah 42:4; 49:1, 6). He is the Lamb who was slain. He would earn the right to take the scroll and open it by His death and resurrection.
John’s eyes are completely focused on the victorious Lamb, who is about to be received by God and about to have conferred on Him the royal authority to receive and open the scroll. The Lamb of God is both God and man. He stands in the center of the throne because He and the Father, although two separate persons, are one God from all eternity. Jesus became fully human in order to be slain and take away the sin of the world. He appears here as a victor whose work is finished.
All that we know—and all we can ever know—about the mystery of the Trinity is depicted in John’s vision of the throne. Verse 1 describes one throne with one person holding the scroll. John sees the Lamb “in the center of the throne,” possessing seven horns and seven eyes, “which are the seven spirits of God.” Previously, John spoke of the Holy Spirit as the seven spirits before the throne (1:4; 3:1; 4:4). Jesus sends the Spirit from the Father “into all the earth” to testify about Him. There is only one throne, but three distinct persons occupy it.
It becomes evident as the Lamb opens each seal that the scroll has to do with events on earth from the time of Christ’s victory and ascension to the end of all earthly things. The prophetic message is about the tribulation and suffering the human race will experience, but its ultimate purpose is to strengthen the Church’s faith and to encourage her in the midst of all the sufferings to remain faithful to Christ and so to attain the promise of everlasting glory. Humanity is not under the guidance of some mindless force and is not subject to the ambitions of people, but rather it is under the will and power of God as now exercised by Christ who rules everything on behalf of His heavenly Father for the benefit of His Church, so she will be protected in faith and hope and enabled to carry out her mission to the End.
St. John’s account is a picture of the exaltation of Jesus Christ at the right hand of God as it appeared from heaven’s view at His ascension. As the disciples saw the Lord taken up from them to disappear into the heavens, Jesus was enthroned and crowned as Lord so as to rule everything on behalf of His Father.
What John sees, in earthly time, had taken place some years before at the Mount of Olives. However, the celebration that began some two thousand years ago was initiated at the Lord’s enthronement is still going on and will continue into eternity. Heaven broke into a joyful song and celebration that will go on forever: “Worthy are You to take the scroll and to open its seals, for You were slain, and by Your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth…
Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
Who is worthy? The Lamb who was slain. He feeds us. He forgives us. He sends us. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We come to Him broken, lost, confused, rebellious, self-righteous, blind, and dead in our sin. Jesus gathers us, He calls us, He baptizes us, He gives us His Spirit, He grants us faith to see Him for who He is. He feeds us with the bread of His body; He refreshes us with the wine of His blood. He sends us into a broken and lost world with the good news of His victory on our lips.
We are reminded today too that being a Christian is no exemption from suffering. Saul would learn what it meant to suffer for Jesus’ name’s sake. We too will learn in the school of experience. John suffered exile on an island because of Jesus. Peter was crucified upside down confessing the Name of Jesus. We have no idea what awaits us in the days and years ahead, although we can be sure that living as a Christian will only get more difficult as the end grows nearer.
But we do know this. We belong to the Lord. We are baptized into His death and life. We have died with Christ. We’ve been raised with Him. We are glorified with Him. He is with us, with His gathered people, in a most profound way—feeding, sending, forgiving. We do not worship some dead and departed religious figure or some merely inspirational leader. We worship the crucified and risen One, the Lamb who was slain but lives, the Lord of creation whom even the wind and waves and fish obey. The One seen by Mary Magdalene, by the apostles, by Saul on the road to Damascus, by John on the island of Patmos. The One we will see again on His Day when He appears in glory.
“To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” Amen