Worthy Is the Lamb
Rev. Glenn F. Merritt
Grace and Peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen
In the words of our text, the eternal song of Easter--the song of angels—resounds through heaven and echoes into history. John writes—“Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. The encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Revelation 5:11-14)
My dear brothers (and sisters) in the faith;
‘Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain’ is the eternal song of Easter and of all who seek to worship in truth and purity. In a day and age when so many seek self-serving, self-centered, self-gratifying worship services, we have much to learn from John’s description of holy and God-pleasing worship.
The central focus of all worship is the endless song of the angels—“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain!” In these timeless words, we learn to focus on Christ and his enduring sacrifice for our salvation rather than on ourselves. This is fitting and proper.
The story is told of Sir William Cecil, Lord Treasurer of England that when he went to bed he would throw off his official robe and say, “Lie there, Lord Treasurer!” By bidding adieu to all the affairs of state, he could rest quietly for the night. So it is that when we engage in worship through meditation and prayer, the use of the sacraments or singing, we too bid adieu to all affairs of this life so that we may concentrate on the worship of Christ, the Lamb who was slain. And, in our worship singing is important, even vital.
Earlier, John writes of a new song sung by the 24 elders and the four living creatures who surround the throne of God—”And they sang new song: You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, You have made them to be a kingdom of priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Rev 5:9-10).
Again, the reference is to Christ. He alone, they proclaim, is worthy to take the scroll from the hand of God and reveal the future for all mankind. As believers, our future is secure in heaven and in eternity because we have been a kingdom of priests to serve our God.
The Lamb has revealed God’s will for us through his death, resurrection, and ascension. For the unbeliever, the eternal counsels of God are a sealed in the scroll and remain the great unknown and the dreadful secret that only brings fear and trepidation about the future.
We sing, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain!” The resurrected, living, and ascended ‘Lamb of God’ stands next to his Father’s throne and reveals the future from the scroll taken from the hand of God. ‘He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne.’ And, it is a bright clear hopeful future for believers—a future where God wipes every tear from our eyes and peace & joy abound.
Imagine the image John paints! Imagine the power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and praise shown to God and Christ in heaven. This is true worship!
The Lamb evoked a triple chorus of adoration from the living creatures and elders, from myriads of angels, and from every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and on the sea, and all that is in them. In true worship all creation bows down to sing—
‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever! The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.’
My brothers (and sisters), for John to write, ‘Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain’ was a dramatic and dangerous and daring thing to do while yet under Roman rule. Citizens of the Roman Empire were expected to worship the gods of the pantheon and the Roman emperor.
At first, the emperors were declared to be gods only after they died but then came Nero, who called himself Dominus et Deus “Lord and God”—the Latin equivalent of what Thomas said when he called the risen Jesus “My Lord and my God” in John 20:28.
When the Roman people greeted the emperor in processions, they would cry out in Latin, “Vere Dignus” “You are worthy!” Because the Christians would not so honor the emperor they were considered to be atheists and the Romans hated them with a vengeance. These Christians were considered blasphemers and idolaters because they called a crucified Jewish criminal “worthy” rather than the emperor or the many gods of Rome. Those who honor Christ paid with their lives, especially during the reign of Nero. History records that many proclaimed as they died, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,”
My friends, such dedication to Christ comes at a price even today. Jesus reminded us that we would be persecuted and hated on account of him. It is never easy to pick up our cross and follow Christ. Earlier, in Revelation, Jesus is recorded as saying, “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution…Be faithful even unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Roman armies conquered the Mediterranean world and established the Pax Romana (the so-called peace of Rome) but the Lamb of God conquered sin, death, and the devil to established peace with God at a bloody cross and empty tomb. Therefore, we worship him with a new song where all attention is focus on the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.
The new song of the church always focuses on the One who saved us with his blood, not on our own human efforts and earthly achievements. These we cast aside in worship. The new song always remembers you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.
In the Old Testament, a new song celebrated a new act of divine deliverance or blessing, always referring to the salvation God had in store for his people. That is true here where the new song remembers that ‘with your blood you purchased men for God.’
The sacrificial, atoning, and soul saving death of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, is central to all New Testament preaching and must of necessity be central to our new songs. Every new song must reflect heaven’s song—“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain!”
I love most of the new songs the Commission on Worship has introduced. We’ve been singing many of them at Grace. A special favorite of mine is ‘The Lamb’ which we’ve used mostly during Communion but also during the Lenten Season. In every verse and in the refrain, the lyrics point to Jesus—
’He sighs, he dies, he takes my sin and wretchedness. He lives, forgives, He gives me his own righteousness. Worthy is the Lamb whose death makes me his own! The Lamb is reigning on his throne!’ (verse 4)
But, Christ’s death does more than make me his own. His death has made us “to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and [we] will reign on the earth” (5:10). As priests of the Lamb, we are freed to serve, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to represent God to others, and to represent others to God in prayer—to be God’s reconcilers and Christ’s ambassadors of peace (2 Cor 5:20).
As priests, we reign on the earth as we serve others in Christ’s name. For this we have been chosen as Peter reminds us, ‘But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.’ (1 Peter2:9-10)
For these blessing, many and manifold, true worship always focuses on ‘The Lamb who was slain.’ In our liturgy, the ancient message of the church, which so many despise and distain today, we are forced to look at the Savior rather than ourselves. I love it!
When Leonardo da Vinci (died 1519) was working on his famous painting The Lord’s Supper, he had but one object in view—that the person of the Savior should attract and hold the attention of all who beheld the painting. But in one part of the picture there was a tiny ship that he had painted with great care for three weeks.
When the painting was exhibited and the people came to see it, Leonardo noticed that they all crowded together to look especially at the one comer of the picture with the small ship that had cost him so much pain and labor. “Just see how grand that is! Truly, he is a master artist!” he heard them exclaim.
Chagrined at this, he took his brush when they were all gone and with one sweeping stroke blotted out the little ship, declaring, “No one shall find reason for admiring anything except Christ alone.” (Walther League Messenger)
It’s easy to get off track. The Hymn of Praise from Divine Service II in our hymnal does excellent joy of keeping us on track. You may know it as ‘This is the Feast’ but no matter, it is a repeat of our text—
‘This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God. This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Power, riches, wisdom, and strength, and honor, blessing, and glory are his. This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.’
Worship celebrates Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the devil—a victory that unites us with him and with God. This is the new song of the church—“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”
A noted theologian observed, “A man may go to heaven without riches, without honor, without learning, without friends, but he can never go there without Jesus Christ.”
Now, call to mind the vision of the four living creatures and the 24 elders and the ranks upon ranks of angels and the whole company of believers of all time singing—“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”
During the 19 centuries since the writing of the book of Revelation, many kings have held incredible power—some would awe even the emperors of Rome. Go to Beijing to see the body of Mao Tse-Tung. Walk by the body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in Moscow. But, then go to Jerusalem and visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with its Chapel of the Resurrection inside. Except for a black-robed monk, candles, and a few icons, the tiny chapel is empty.
Kings and kingdoms may all pass away but not the King of kings and Lord of Lords. No tomb could hold him. At the empty tomb, he burst the bonds of death. The dead body of the Lamb who was slain, lay in a sepulchre, maybe even the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem for less than 40 hours two millennia ago. But, that’s not what’s important. His tomb is empty. The Lamb that was slain is alive. The words of the Easter angel echo and resound in his empty tomb—He is not here! He has risen!
Not only is he risen and ascended on high but he will return, and we shall see him—we, the people of every tribe and language and nation! Then the new song will be heard by the whole creation gathered around the throne and the Lamb. “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”