It was meant to be a put down, a remark aimed to put me in my place. In a way, it did, but not as intended.
Why is Duke Chapel so often full when many university chapels or local churches are so often empty? He said, “Well, Duke Chapel puts on such a show on Sunday morning. And there are always those who want church to be nothing but a good show.”
The buildings, the windows, the great choir, music from two organs, and sermons by two adorable ministers — Humph! It’s all just a show. And I, not one to be put down without a fight, said, “So what’s wrong with a show — if it is a very, very good show?”
I hesitate to speak for God-although I do so regularly from this pulpit — but I can’t think of any reason why God should be opposed to a Sunday morning show, unless it’s not a good show.
Tell me, as you leave after service today, “Good show!” I won’t take offense.
We’re putting on a show for God. Why do you think we’re all dressed up and the candlesticks are polished and the linen is pressed and the timpani are tuned? We’re doing it for the benefit of a God who enjoys our prayers, our hymns, our trumpets and “loud clashing symbols” (Psalms 150). If God didn’t seek and enjoy our praise, thanksgiving and petition, we wouldn’t be here and this building could be subdivided into faculty offices.
As Kierkegaard said, here is Sunday morning theater in which God is the admiring audience and we — choir, preacher, musicians, congregation — are on stage doing our best to make it a show worth watching.
But we’re at a show in a twofold sense. For we are not only performing for God: God is also performing for us.
The Germans have a word for worship: Gottesdienst. It means “God’s service” in the twofold sense of the service we render to God and the service God renders to us.
There are many Sundays when you are busy singing, praying, listening to God only to find that (surprise!) God is listening to you. You came here depressed and leave exhilarated. You wander in, plop down in the pew, only to sail forth with new wings by the end of the service. You come, anxious because of the silence in your life, and leave reassured by a clear word. God has been serving you.
You come to serve God so that God might have a better opportunity to serve you. And I hope it will be a good show.
Which brings us to today’s Epistle from the Book of Revelation. Friends, do you suffer from the post-Easter blahs? Has the ecstacy gone out of your Easter? Oh, it was great here two weeks ago. But now it’s back to business as usual. And what difference did Easter make? Well, here’s a song for the post-Easter doldrums.
Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped. (Revelation 5:11-14)
This vision was addressed to a dispirited, disheartened church. The Easter exhilaration was past. There were persecutions by the emperor for some of these churches. Others were simply ignored by their pagan neighbors. Now, it was the long haul.
This vision was given to John who was on the island of Patmos, the Alcatraz of the Roman world. Was the whole Easter thing an idle tale? A dream? Wishful thinking?
What does God do for the post-Easter blahs? God gives a vision, a show.
The show opens when the curtain is raised in heaven itself (Revelation 4:7). First we see the heavenly throne, surrounded by twenty-four elders seated upon their thrones (Revelation 4:2). And what theatrical effects! There are flashes of lightning, peals of thunder. These announce that God himself is now on stage; heaven and earth quiver and shake before God.
Encircling the throne are four living creatures — a lion, a bull, a human, an eagle — who shout unceasing praise to God on the throne and sing as the elders bow in unison.
Next, the spotlight falls upon a scroll sealed with seven seals. A book so well-sealed must contain the deepest of mysteries. But no one in the heavenly court can break the seals.
Then, from the misty backstage, there emerges a lamb whose bloody wounds show that it has been slaughtered. As it moves center stage, the whole heavenly court becomes a great choir singing homage to the lamb, homage which they previously gave only to God. Hallelujah! The lamb is worthy to break the seals (Revelation 5:9-10); His wounds make him worthy.
And it is here that today’s text, Revelation 5, begins. The chorus, bigger than even our Chapel Choir, widens to include voices of thousands of angels, animals, elders, all circling the throne, moving in concentric processional, all moving, singing, looking to the throne.
“Praise to the lamb!” they sing, “power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor, glory, blessing” (Revelation 5:12). You’ve heard our choir do it at Messiah, just like that.
The circle widens even further to include not only the elders, the four animals, the angelic hosts, but every single living creature “in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea” (Revelation 5:13). There is no corner of creation where some creature, some beetle or goldfinch or bluewhale is not singing for all it’s worth.
The anthem now heaps every accolade on the lamb that can be sung: “power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor, glory and blessing” (Revelation 5:12). The chorus prepares us for the breaking of the seals and the scene ends with the lamb and God, seated together, center stage backed by a loud, operatic, “Amen.”
O what a lovely show!
And what does it mean? What does a wild vision like that mean for ordinary people like you and me? What difference does it make that the slaughtered lamb sits beside exalted God, the Creator almighty on the golden throne at the center of heaven?
A friend of mine, Jim Wallis of the Sojourners Community in Washington, was visiting Coretta Scott King during the celebration of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. She asked him to go to the Georgia State Penitentiary and visit a young man who has been in jail since he was 16 and murdered a young woman. He has been on death row for three years. He will be executed later this year.
Wallis said that, when he saw him, the first thing that the young man said was, “Hey preacher, What’s the good news?”
“For one long moment,” Wallis said, “I looked at this one who would be dead in a few months for having caused the death of another and I didn’t know any good news.”
Two weeks ago, when the glorious Easter services here were done and the show was over, I went to my office and there was a note on my desk. The note said, “We are from South Carolina and were in the Chapel this morning because our twelve-year-old son is in Duke Hospital, paralyzed. Thanks for the beautiful service.”
Thanks for the beautiful service. Does a beautiful show explain a paralyzed twelve-year-old boy? What difference does it make?
Well, what word do you say to the victims of those on death row and to those who are on death row? What is the good news for a paralyzed child and his parents? If there is a word it must be bigger, grander, than our usual prosaic exhortations for self-help. It will have to be a word that’s cosmic, poetic, outside, beyond the bounds of the expected, the conventional. It will be sung by a choir rather than argued by a preacher-that sort of word.
The Lamb, which a few weeks ago was stripped, beaten, humiliated, and nailed on a cross to die, this one now sits enthroned in glory next to the Creator of the universe.
Everything that God has — all wisdom, power, blessing and honor — now belongs to the lamb, the lamb who knows what it’s like to be on death row because he’s been there, the lamb who knows what it’s like to be helpless because he’s been there. And because the lamb, who has been here, sits on the throne up there we do have something to show the child dying of starvation in the African desert, the refugee perishing in the camp in Lebanon, the young man on death row in Atlanta, the child in Duke Hospital.
What we show is a vision of a new heaven and a new earth where the one who was slain, in behalf of all these who are slain, now rules in glory.
Oh gentle, hurting, baffled, tearful ones, wherever you languish within the sound of my voice, peer through the bars of your cell, turn your head to catch the light through your hospital window, see the vision and hear the song, sung by hosts in heaven and choirs on earth: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!”

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