“Praise God – Alleluia!”
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For April 24, 2016 – Fifth Sunday of Easter
*CALL TO WORSHIP Based on Psalm 148
When one of this morning’s liturgists says “Alleluia!”
you are invited to respond saying “Praise God!”
One: Praise God! Praise God from the heavens; praise God in the heights!
Two: Praise God, all you angels of God; praise God, all you host of heaven!
Many: Praise God!
Two: Praise God, you sun and moon; praise God, all you shining stars!
One: Praise God, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
Two: Let them praise the name of God, for God commanded and they were created.
One: God established them forever and ever; God fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
Many: Praise God!
One: Praise God from the earth,
Two: Praise God, you sea monsters and all deeps,
One: Praise God, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling God’s command!
Two: Praise God, mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!
One: Praise God, beasts in the forest, and all cattle, crawling things and flying birds!
Many: Praise God!
Two: Praise God rulers of the earth and all people, nobles and all leaders of the earth!
One: Praise God, young men and women alike, old and young together!
Two: Let all of them praise the name of the Sovereign, whose name alone is exalted, whose glory is above earth and heaven.
Many: Praise God!
The season of Easter – those fifty days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost – prompts us to imagine the splendor of the new life that God is creating. As followers of Christ we commissioned to live now in the presence of God’s promises of new beginnings, acting together with God to work toward their fulfillment. This morning’s scripture comes from The Book of Revelation. The Greek word we translate as revelation means “uncovering” or “unveiling.” The writing of Revelation has been treated many ways. It has been the inspiration of artists, poets, songwriters in every era of the church. Some scholars have treated it as a commentary on the Roman Empire that was persecuting Christian believers. Some have described it as a worship service, and others see it as a dramatic play. In our popular culture the book of Revelation is often portrayed as a prediction of things to come, a timetable of future events. In these many different approaches to the book, Revelation is meant to aid us in our faith – to somehow help us understand God’s work in the world and relationship to creation as God is saving it. The passage we hear this morning is from the 21st Chapter, almost at the end of revelation. The narrator of the book is describing a vision of creation redeemed by God.
- Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and God will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
- And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”
There is an old, old tradition of burying alleluias during Lent. Not only was the word Alleluia not spoken during Lent, but all banners, alter cloths, or vestments that had the word alleluia were removed from the church building, packed up in a trunk, and literally buried. This was then opened up on Easter morning and as a symbol of resurrection the physical alleluias were restored to the church building and the people were allowed again to shout alleluia as praise to God.
(I see some of you have stopped / are still playing the game of saying Alleluia after I say Praise God.)
In this season of Eastertide, these weeks between Easter and Pentecost, we read the book of Revelation to garner a glimpse of what the fullest reign of the resurrected Christ may look like. It is intended to inspire us to live more faithfully, more intentionally, more dramatically as followers of Christ. The book of Revelation is perhaps the most mysterious, intriguing, and complicated books of the bible. And I love it. Praise God – Alleluia
The way some Christians have interpreted this book has forced doctrinal discussions that not all ascribe to and so the book of Revelation may also be one of the most misunderstood books of the bible. I am not going to be able to rectify all that this morning. But let me offer you a couple of ideas that might help all of us in making a new framework for starting again with the book of Revelation.
The central core of the book of revelation is this:
God is glorious.
God is redeeming all of creation. This has already begun, will continue to happen and will come to completion in the future.
God wants to be with us – before, during and after creation is redeemed.
God wants to be with all of us – yes, Christians, the church, but also all of humanity – because God loves us.
And throughout Revelation are these hymns to which you already know the most important words: Praise God – Alleluia!
I think any engagement with the book of revelation needs to keep four words at the front. The first is Praise – because that is what we are call to give God. We humans stand as part of everything in the universe praising God.
Alleluia – I already said this is a special word in the Bible, a word that we use with God – a good, happy shout that usually comes with actions. I actually think the book of Revelation is better when it is danced or acted out rather than read: it is meant to be an alleluia action.
The third word is Glory – because this is one of the attributes of God, especially as the writer of Revelation encountered God. I once had someone ask me if God is glory, how can we then give glory to God? When the bible directs us to give glory to God, it is telling us to pay attention to God’s glory. Glory is what happens when we Praise God – Alleluia!
And fourth, above all else, the book of Revelation is about Grace – the grace that God has given, is giving, and will continue to give. The popular conception is that Revelation is about judgment, about the end of the universe, about God bringing everything to completion.
Above all else, Revelation is about grace. Grace is the foundation of our Christian identity – it is from grace that we praise God; it is from grace that we serve in God’s name; it is from grace that we address ways humanity is reduced; it is from grace that we invite others into Christian fellowship. Grace is our source of joy, the motivation of our service, the purpose for our being together as a congregation that worships, learns, goes out into the world together, embodying and pursuing justice.
And Grace is the reason why we strive to love one another. Jesus commands the disciples and thus all who follow Christ to love one another. This is not puppy love. This is not being playing nice with one another. This is not minding one’s manners in order to be polite all the time. This sort of love a fierce love of standing before God together to be assessed together as we dare to say alleluia. Praise God – Alleluia
Now, here’s the warning that comes with this sermon. Ready or not, willing or not, God has already announced things are going to change. Imagine God making all things new. Imagine God’s people gathering together without barriers. Imagine being able to join with others in familiar and unending hymns. Imagine ourselves encouraged by such a scene where we welcome newness as God’s gift. Imagine Jesus’ followers embracing a new vision of what God is doing in today’s world. We can do this, because we have received grace. We can do this, because we have seen God’s glory. We can do this, because we already know how to Praise God – Alleluia!
Alleluia! God is behind dreams, visions, even new commandments in order to shake us out of our contentment and self-centeredness to help us embrace God’s newness. And here is the big twist: the book of revelation is not telling us to get ready because God is coming. In the book of Revelation, God has already come and will continue to come and all is made full and complete. God hasn’t left the building: God has already brought a whole new building for all of us to gather into so that we may Praise God – Alleluia!
That is why we gather, that is why we worship, that is why we sing: because we have seen God’s glory, we have received God’s grace, and we are here to Praise God – Alleluia!