Revelation 5: Bitter Weeping

Peace Mennonite Church (Lawrence, KS)
August 22, 2021
Joanna Harader

You can hear a podcast version on the sermon here.

There’s an awful lot of stuff in the book of Revelation that is completely outside my realm of experience. Last week, I had to look up all the stones that were mentioned to try to figure out what they look like. I’ve never really been into fantastical beasts with extra eyes and horns and heads. Even this whole idea of being in the throne room—I can’t relate to that; I have no experience with royalty. And now we’re reading about the scroll with the seven seals, but I’ve never had to open any seals, just remember the passwords for my computer.

So I’m reading along in Revelation, trying to process what John, the author, is describing, projecting a kind of mental movie in my head of these strange goings on up there, over there, out there.

Then comes chapter 5, verse 4: “And I began to weep bitterly.”

You all, I feel that this week.

John began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll and read it. This scroll had seven seals, which is a lot, which means it is an extremely important document. And it has writing on the inside and the outside, which means there is much being communicated on the scroll.

And it isn’t just that opening and reading the scroll will grant people knowledge of what is inside. It’s that the words on the scroll could enact the future that God promises by those words. The Word of God created the world; the Word of God became flesh and lived out salvation; these Words of God on the scroll have power.

They have power to dismantle the systems of violence that kill people for entertainment and execute people to prove political points. They have power to disrupt the economic system that requires many to live in desperate poverty so a few can live in luxury. They have power to disrupt the nationalism that demands loyalty to country and emperor at the cost of people’s souls.

These words have a power that the world desperately needs. But John can’t access the words. And so he weeps. Bitterly.

I feel in this text the weight John is bearing. I feel how utterly overwhelmed he is. Overwhelmed.

There are seven seals. And no one is able to open them. No one in heaven. No one on earth. No one under the earth. No. One.

“And I began to weep bitterly.”

I expect none of you have had visions of the Divine throne or winged creatures or a sealed scroll this week. I certainly haven’t. But wow, do I feel the bitter weeping.

In Haiti, first an earthquake and then a storm. Over 2,000 people dead. Over a million impacted. Devastated communities. Supplies moving too slowly. Medical facilities damaged and unable to care for the many injured people.

In Afghanistan, the level of violence and chaos is almost incomprehensible. Many people have been brutally murdered at the hands of the Taliban. Others have died clinging to airplanes, desperate to get out of the country. The future seems terribly bleak and dangerous, especially for women and girls.

In the US and Canada, wildfires are raging, destroying homes, displacing people, creating dangerous smoke. As of August 1, there were 91 large fires in the US, covering 13 states—with the bulk of them in Montana, Idaho, Washington, California, and Oregon. In Canada, as of August 11, there were 220 fires categorized as “uncontrolled.” Those of us in Zoom worship have been hearing from Thomas and Tara about smoke warnings and road closures and evacuations.

Not to mention the COVID numbers that keep climbing. The hospitals, including children’s hospitals, that are filling up. Again.

“And I began to weep bitterly.”

Like John, we know the world is a mess. We know people are suffering. And it seems that no one is worthy to open the scroll. No one is able to address these problems, to move us toward safety and peace and life and health.

I realize, also, that it’s not just the suffering of people “out there” that overwhelms us. We have our own personal struggles and grief. And there’s a lot of it for a lot of you right now. (The week I got back from vacation was especially intense.) I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the physical and mental health struggles, the stress of care-giving responsibilities, the legal system trauma, the relationship challenges, the grief, that many of you are experiencing.

I love you so much. And you’re going through so much. And then I think, “If I’m overwhelmed just knowing about and praying for what you are going through, how overwhelmed must you be having to actually live through it?”

“And I began to weep bitterly.”

John is weeping “because no one was found worthy to open the scroll.” Because he doesn’t see how the suffering in the world is going to end. And maybe, maybe, John is also weeping because he is exiled to an island, separated from friends and family, from his home, not knowing when or if he will be able to return. Maybe John is weeping for his fellow Christians, possibly even friends and family members, who have been beheaded, crucified, or thrown to wild beasts. Maybe he is weeping because he has no way of knowing who is still alive, how his beloved churches are doing. Maybe the weather has been bad and he threw out his back and he has a head cold and it’s all just too much.

“And I began to weep bitterly.”

I wonder, too, if John of Patmos was not only weeping because of the world’s problems, and because of his own suffering. I wonder if he was heartbroken because he, in particular, wasn’t found worthy to open the scroll. He has been preaching and teaching about Jesus faithfully, even though it got him exiled to an island! He has welcomed an angel and written down their words to the seven churches. Yet somehow, despite his faithfulness and his openness, he is not worthy to open the scrolls. He is not the one to reveal and bring into the world the saving power of God.

Don’t we want that, too? To be worthy, to be able to ease the suffering: for ourselves, for our loved ones, for the world. I know how much you all want to help each other. You ask me, “What can I do for this person?” “What does that person need?” “How can I help?” You offer prayers and send cards and take meals. And you know it’s not enough. It helps, to be sure. But the suffering continues. The scroll is still sealed.

“And I began to weep bitterly.”

As I read Revelation 5, I find I have a hope that might seem a bit odd. At least, it seems odd to me. But I find myself hoping it anyway.

What I hope is that there was some space between verses 4 and 5. I hope there was some time between “And I began to weep bitterly” and the angel’s words, “Do not weep.” I hope John had a chance to feel and express his grief, to be present with God in being overwhelmed, before the angel stepped in to say, “There, there, John. Don’t cry. It will be OK.”

I hope you have that space, when you need it, to weep bitterly. To let yourself feel the grief of the world, the grief of your loved ones, your own grief; to let go of whatever illusions you might have that you are the one to fix it all. I hope you have the time, when you need it, to know God’s presence with you in the midst of being overwhelmed.

I hope, also, that the angel steps in, eventually, to say, “You can stop weeping now. The seals can be opened; the Word of God will break into the world. Look!”

Here’s an interesting thing, though, about the angel’s words here: they are wrong.

The angel says that “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” has conquered and will break the seals. But it turns out that what John actually sees, when he dries his tears and looks back toward the throne of God, is a “Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.”

As gruesome as it is, the slain Lamb is an apt symbol for the saving work of Jesus. While people—and apparently even angels—might expect God to defeat evil and put the world right through ferocious power, that is not God’s agenda.

By God’s agenda, somehow, it is the slain Lamb, the crucified Jesus, who opens the seals and brings into reality the saving power of God in the world.

By God’s agenda, somehow, it is the One who lived out compassion and healing who is able to conquer the powers of oppression and death.

By God’s agenda, somehow, it is the One who refused the sword who is able to defeat the military force of empire.

By God’s agenda, somehow, when the Lamb takes the scroll, the worship of people from every tribe and language and nation is directed away from the powers of the world and toward the throne of God.

I don’t quite know what to make of this vision. Like I said at the beginning, there’s an awful lot in this book of Revelation that is just beyond me. But there are two things I think I see clearly in this fifth chapter of Revelation:

First, that God will probably not show up in the ways we expect, or even in ways that make us comfortable.

Second, that worship is, somehow, a centerpiece of the world’s shift toward the love and justice and peace of God.

And these insights leave me with more questions than answers. But they are, I think, good questions. Questions worth considering when we begin to dry our eyes and look, again, toward God. Questions you might want to carry with you this week.

If God isn’t where we are looking, where might God be? If God isn’t showing up how we expect, might God be showing up in a different way that we don’t yet recognize? If I’m feeling uncomfortable, does that mean God’s comfort has left me, or that God is uncomfortably close?

How can our worship be more than a thing we do once a week (or so)? How can our worship be a way we help each other see God’s unexpected presence? A way we claim the odd and awkward power of God against the powers of the world? A way we encourage each other in our faithful—if inadequate—attempts to live according to God’s agenda?

So, my friends, in what is, for many of us, a season of bitter weeping, I wish for you the space you need to weep. I wish for you a clear and honest vision of God, however unexpected and uncomfortable it might be. I wish for you comforting angels. And I wish for you the power and peace of Jesus Christ. Amen.