You have to hand it to John for his honesty in reporting this scene in Revelation 22:8-9, but you almost wish he hadn’t! Embarrassing, isn’t it? Here was a man who had seen into the throne room of the universe, a man whose eyes had seen spiritual wonders that no human had ever seen before, a man who had been given visions about the majesty of God and the victory of the Lamb that were almost unspeakable, visions that could only be hinted at with symbolism and metaphor, a man who was an apostle and devoted pastor to churches in Asia Minor. And then this man falls down to worship an angel. He knew better. Angels are created beings, and to worship any created being constitutes idolatry. It’s a sad sight.
To be fair to John I should point out that he was guilty of a rather common sin among the people of God: worshipping the revealer rather than the revealed, falling in adoration before the messenger rather than the God of the messenger. The messenger — be it an angel or prophet or pastor or author or musician — is concrete, often more immediately interesting than an abstract God. Too often we worship at the messenger’s feet in the most convenient way — by lifting him or her onto a pedestal.
Twice now I’ve been invited to attend the Christian Bookseller’s Convention. You don’t have to be there long to discover the Christian world loves its celebrities just as the secular world does. Hundreds of people line up to get autographs and pictures. More than once I found myself praying, “Lord, I hope you have a sense of humor.” Then you see John the apostle doing the same thing! It’s embarrassing. But it’s also comforting in a way — even an apostle had a hard time getting his spiritual act together. And this was the second time he made this mistake! In the Revelation 19 we read that he did the same thing. I guess he just had a hard time getting it right. Can you imagine how he felt? “Oh, yeah, uh, sorry .. I should have known better .. I don’t know what I was thinking.” Awkward moment for the man. As Richard Mouw put it, he suffered from spiritual dislocation. I suppose you might have expected this sort of thing from someone who had been going through great suffering, say, or someone for whom God had seemed distant, or someone who had been plagued by spiritual doubts. But John? Remember the visions he had just had! He was still on the spiritual mountaintop! Very, very awkward situation.
I think we all go through spiritual awkwardness. I regularly feel a kind of spiritual dislocation. When I hear people testifying to their signs and wonders I often want to crawl under the pew; I don’t exactly feel like a spiritual giant. Maybe it’s because of my childhood.
My father was a pastor, and so I could never come up with enough homework to get out of Wednesday night prayer meeting. After a Bible lesson we would get down on our knees to pray for what seemed an eternity. I always began with the best of intentions but regularly drifted off into a sound sleep. Everyone else would pray until they sensed it was time to get up. And there I would be — sprawled out on the chair. They must have thought, “My, isn’t that Donny spiritual!” It was embarrassing! All those people seeking God while I’m sawing logs.
People say to me, “Pastor, I really do have faith. But I feel uncomfortable praying out loud in front of others.” I can understand that. I haven’t always found public prayer the easiest thing in the world.
Once I led the congregation in the Lord’s Prayer and completely forgot the phrase “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” I went from “give us this day our daily bread” right straight to “lead us not into temptation.” I sensed every head in the sanctuary jerk up. Talk about embarrassment! It was years before I had the courage to lead the congregation in the Lord’s Prayer without having it printed in front of me. Very awkward feeling.
One Sunday morning my Uncle Harold fell deeply asleep shortly after the call to worship. As the ushers came forward for the offering, the pastor called on Uncle Harold to pray. So Aunt Olive put her elbow into his ribs very firmly. He must have felt very refreshed, must have thought he slept through the whole service — so he got up and dismissed everybody.
Sometimes it’s just hard to get it right — even in our worship services. I believe worship is the most important thing we do. I try to lead this congregation in offering the very best to God in praise; I like things to be done well. Sometimes I wonder, though, if we’ll ever get it right.
One Thanksgiving Eve communion service, we had just started the first hymn when my associate leaned over and whispered to me, “Don, there’s no bread on the table!” Images flashed through my mind of ushers racing across the parking lot to the grocery store. I tried to think of alternative communion liturgies that don’t include bread. In my panic I caught the eye of someone in the front row who also had seen the problem. With my eyes I said to her, “Do something!” So she got up and went out. When it came time for the offering, the ushers carried the plates forward. I noticed they were holding them a little strangely. During the prayer of dedication, I peeked — and I will never forget the sight of ushers chucking bread up onto the table as fast as they could. It’s just hard to get it right sometimes, you know.
A few years ago Walter Wangerin preached at our church. He is a wonderful preacher, a great storyteller. When it was time for the Lord’s Supper, Walter helped me serve. After giving the elders and deacons the bread, we sat down. Then Walter leaned over and said, “Don, I think there’s mold on the communion juice.” Mold on the communion juice. We’re talking the depths of embarrassment. A nationally-known guest preacher telling me there is mold on the communion juice. I said, “Let’s switch sides.” Sure enough, there were little bits of mold on top of the juice in the cups. I didn’t know what to do. I tried to stand where nobody could see me and poke the mold down into the juice (I was trusting that God would prevent you from getting sick). But I discovered that mold does not sink. Well, a leader sometimes has to make quick decisions. I could see there were too many cups affected, so I set that tray aside, which meant we had one extra elder. I can still see Bill Rendleman standing there, waiting for a tray.
We have a hard time getting it right! Annie Dillard, in Teaching a Stone to Talk, comments, “A high school stage play is more polished than this service we have been rehearsing since the year one. In two thousand years, we have not worked out the kinks. We positively glorify them. Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God is so mighty He can stifle His own laughter. Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God, for reasons unfathomable, refrains from blowing our “Dancing Bear” act into smithereens. Week after week Christ washes the disciples’ dirty feet, handles their very toes, and repeats, ‘it is all right — believe it or not — to be people.”1
No wonder we feel spiritually awkward. We are! Even in our highest moments of reverent praise and adoration, we blow it again and again. We’re just people, after all.
The problem isn’t just in the externals. Our awkwardness has to do with a whole lot more than just getting fresh communion juice served up. Stumbling through public prayers and having sound systems go haywire and forgetting to put water in the baptismal font — all that awkwardness symbolizes a deeper, more serious awkwardness.
The really embarrassing part of our spirituality is that we can’t get right with the most important things. You know how it goes: you have a good time in prayer, sense God’s presence, and promise to be more like Christ, to be a gentler, more sensitive person. But about five minutes after you say “amen,” you’re irritated enough to punch the lights out of a heavyweight champion because the baby has been crying for fifteen minutes and no one in the house seems willing to help even though you’re trying to get a quiet time with God to become a more spiritual person.
Or you pray for patience. You really sense the Lord speaking to you about this, and you ask for this fruit of the Spirit. But a little later that day you sit down to balance the checkbook. And after two hours you finally discover the problem: your brilliant husband has neglected to record a check he wrote for $137.29. You know that people have gone to divorce court for less than this!
Or you earnestly pray for help with wild fantasies. Your thought life has been getting out of hand, straying past the R-rating into the X-rating much too often. So you do what any good Christian should do: you ask for forgiveness and pray for help. But even as you do, you start thinking of the specific thoughts you need deliverance from …. Yep, those very interesting thoughts …. and before long you’ve pretty much forgotten about God.
We all suffer spiritual dislocation. We have a hard time getting it right. Bowing down before angels when we know better. Awkward disciples.
We’re quite a bit like John, aren’t we? Well, what happened to John? This is the comforting part –he was not struck dead! He was not abandoned by a totally disgusted angel. He was not even reprimanded! He was simply reminded of the need to worship God alone. In other words, the angel was saying to him, Don’t focus on any created thing. Don’t even focus on this failure of yours. Focus only on God.
That’s what worship is. It’s turning our eyes away from all created things, turning our eyes away from even our failures in order to focus on God. The angel told him to worship God.
And then the angel immediately proceeded to give him instructions about what to do with his visions. The Lord is coming, he said, so get with it. There’s a witness to make, ministry to get done. The angel treats John in a matter-of-fact, no- nonsense way. No time to grovel around in guilt. Too much to do. Onward!
John Claypool tells the story of a peasant who lived in a village at the foot of a mountain range. “In full view of the village on the side of the mountain stood a monastery. A monk once descended from the mountain to the village below. The peasant, running up to the monk, said, ‘Oh Father, surely yours is the best of all lives — living so close to God up in the clouds. Tell me, what do you do up there?’ After a thoughtful pause, the monk replied, ‘What do we do up there? Well, I’ll tell you. We fall down and we get up. We fall down and we get up.”2
We all fall down. Let’s also get up and get with it.
1. Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk. p. 20.
2. As told by Gary L. Carver, “Joy and Suffering,” Preaching, September/October 1990, p. 44.

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