It’s Sunday morning, and we gather together as Christians to worship God.
The specific experiences are as varied as the number of churches, but most worship services have a few things in common.
We sing together—sometimes off-key, sometimes hymns too slowly, sometimes choruses too repetitively, too repetitively, too repetitively.
We pray together—sometimes faltering, sometimes mumbling, sometimes with too little genuine feeling, sometimes with too much “Lord, we just, Lord, want to just ask, Lord…”
We break bread together—not all of us every Sunday, not always in a ritual, sometimes with too little ritual.
We read Scripture and reflect on it together—sometimes with poor exegesis, sometimes with too little Jesus, sometimes going past noon with dinner waiting in the crockpot.
Why exactly do we do all these things, worshiping in these and other ways Sunday morning after Sunday morning? And is this “worship” really all that important?
Revelation 4-5 speaks directly to these kinds of questions—and gives us some surprising and challenging answers.
Let’s start with the big picture, stating the obvious: Revelation 4-5 is all about worship. (That much at least everyone can agree on.)
But notice where this vision is in the book of Revelation. Revelation 1 is introduction, setting up the rest of the book. Revelation 2-3 are specific letters to the seven specific churches Revelation is written to—in a sense still introduction, setting the stage for the main act. And then we hit Revelation 4-5—the first major vision John sees, determining the course of everything else that follows.
The first major vision at the heart of the book—and it’s all about worship.
This tells us that worshiping God is an essential activity. And not just worshiping God individually—worshiping God collectively, gathering together with others in worship, is essential. It grounds our way of life. It sets the tone for everything else.
But why is this? And how exactly does this work?
Let’s focus in on some of the details of this vision.
At the centre of it all, the object of all this worship, is God, seated on his heavenly throne, ruler over all creation. God, the Indescribable One, only imagined in colours and light.
Four “living creatures” are immediately around the throne, one on each side: a lion, an ox, a human being, and a flying eagle. These represent all living things—later they are heard saying “Amen” to the declaration of “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them” (that’s pretty comprehensive). All creatures of our God and king, giving honour and praise to God.
Twenty-four “elders” surround them, seated on thrones, dressed in white robes with golden crowns on their head. These represent all God’s people, the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of Christ—as we hear later when the twelve tribes and twelve apostles are brought together in the gates and foundations of the New Jerusalem. All God’s people, bowing in reverence to God, singing God’s praises.
All creation, all God’s people, from the beginning of the world until its end, worshiping God.
So here’s one answer to our question of “why worship God”: Our collective worship is a participation in something fundamental to all creation, something that all creation is intrinsically engaged in.
The birds of the air, the flowers of the field—they honour their Creator simply by being what God created them to be, doing what God created them to do. Simply by being as God made them to be, existing as God made them to exist, all living things worship God.
Likewise, humans honour our Creator simply by being the way God made us to be, living the way God made us to live. We glorify God in our humanness, by being fully human. Simply by being as God made us to be, existing as God made us to exist, we worship God.
This ceaseless praise of God is intrinsic to creation; it is the very grain of the universe.
And so we are encouraged to see our worship together as a participation in this eternal, ceaseless worship of God by all creation and all God’s people. We are encouraged to see our worship together as giving voice to this never-ending, underlying rhythm of worship that is happening all around us.
But there’s more.
As we keep moving through this vision in Revelation 4-5, we hear some very specific declarations of praise. As the elders and living creatures give voice to the worship of all creation, their voice says some specific things.
God is holy. God is other. God is unlike any other. God is unique.
God is almighty. God is the source of all true power, power that creates and gives life.
God is eternal. God was. God is. God will be.
God is Creator. All that is, is because God is.
God is Redeemer. All that is good, is good because God loves.
Here, then, is a second answer to our question of “why worship God”: Our collective worship is worldview-shaping, crafting the lenses through which we see our world and understand our place in it.
Good worship—worship in both spirit and in truth—is instructive. It teaches us; we learn from it.
Through our worship together we understand God’s role in the world as Creator and Redeemer. All things exist because God is. And although there is hurt and brokenness in our world, and in ourselves, all things can be redeemed because God loves. We learn this in part through our worship together.
Through our worship together we understand the world as God’s beloved creation. God does not hate us. God does not despise the work of his hands. God loves all creation, and imbues it with his grace and glory. We learn this in part through our worship together.
And through our worship together we understand our role as redeemed priest-kings and priestess-queens extending God’s reign throughout the earth. God calls us as God’s people to a particular task, a particular way of being in the world. God calls us to faith, to hope, to love. We learn this in part through our worship together.
Revelation 4-5 gives us a third answer to the question of “why worship God,” and it’s the most surprising one of all: Our collective worship is a profoundly political act; it is a powerful statement about how we should order our lives as human societies.
It’s all too easy for us to pass over the significance of the “throne.” For us, thrones are something from ancient times or fairy tales, or from the Bible. Of course God sits on a throne! God is king, after all!
But when was the last time you saw a king or a queen or an emperor or empress actually sitting on a throne, wielding some real power?
The “throne” doesn’t really mean much to us. But no one in the time of Revelation would miss the significance: the throne was a thoroughly political symbol, even the most potent political symbol one could use. And, in a world filled with absolute claims to absolute power, it was also about as subversive as you could get.
“Worship” is about “ascribing worth”; it is about declaring value. Worship is an expression of devotion and commitment, an expression of allegiance. When we come together and “worship God,” then, we are declaring our allegiance to God above all other claims to power and authority in the world.
But this vision is even more politically subversive than that.
In Revelation 5 we see a scroll, and we’re told that “no one can open the scroll”—no one in heaven or on earth or even under the earth, no creature, no human being, no human ruler, no angelic being. It’s not clear what the scroll represents—the title deed to the universe, perhaps, or the unfolding of human history. Either way, it’s the kind of thing that any good Roman would expect the emperor to rightfully possess and be able to open at will.
Yet it is the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” who alone can open it—Israel’s Messiah, Israel’s promised king from the tribe of Judah, descendent of king David. This is as any Jew in Revelation’s day would expect—but there’s another twist.
The “lion” is in fact a “lamb,” a “lamb who has been slaughtered.” The Messiah, Israel’s king, has not gained the right to rule by crucifying his enemies, but by being crucified. The true Lord and Ruler of the cosmos has not changed the tides of human history by killing his enemies, but by being willing to die for them.
God reigns not as a tyrant, not as a bully, not through coercion or violence or any other form of raw power. God reigns through the humble, self-giving, suffering servant, who gives himself for the world. God reigns through forgiveness and compassion. God reigns in love.
When we come together and worship God, then, we are saying “no” to any other way of being in the world, any other way of ordering our lives as human societies. We are saying that no human society that will stand the test of time, no civilization that will last, can be built on deceit or corruption or coercion or violence or injustice of any kind.
When we come together and “worship God” we are worshiping the God who exercises power and authority through self-giving love. We are declaring our allegiance to this God above all other claims to power and authority in the world.
So the next Sunday you’re in church and the person next to you is singing that hymn a little off-key, or the organist is dragging a little, or you’re on your twenty-fourth time through the chorus of “Oceans,” or the Scripture reader stumbles over “Melchizedek,” or the preacher is droning on while the roast is drying out, remember this: there’s more going on here than meets the eye.
You are participating in the worship of all creation. You are giving voice to the wordless praise of all living things.
Your mind and heart, your very soul, is being shaped by God. God is training you to see the world differently, preparing you to step out and find your God-ordained role in this world.
You are making a declaration of allegiance. You are standing unequivocally with the God who loves, the God who brings life, the God who gives his life in love.
Come, let us sing to the Lord. Come, let us worship and bow down.
This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on April 10, 2016. All images are from a mandala of Revelation 4-5 created by Margie Hildebrand. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.