Sunday, April 14, 2013

Can You Hear the Song Above Us?

Revelation 5:6-14
Easter 3
April 14, 2013
William G. Carter

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’  Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’ And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshiped.

 To prepare you for the sermon, we have to teach a song. The song is an old spiritual and it goes like this:

Over my head, I hear music everywhere. Over my head, I hear music everywhere.
Over my head, I hear music everywhere. There must be a God somewhere.

It’s a song from difficult times. An anonymous slave put that tune together. Undoubtedly it was composed in difficult times. Down here on the ground, human beings had been imported to this country from Africa. Their full humanity was reduced as they were bought and sold as mere merchandise. They could cling to hopes that they might see their families once again, but there was nothing certain about the future.

Every day was hard work. They were forced to labor for those who purchased them. If they resisted or rebelled, they were treated fiercely. The African slaves were strangers in a foreign land, identified and demeaned by the color of their skin. To this day, the emotional scars of slavery have never been healed in our country.

And yet, in the middle of that brutal enterprise, this song emerged. As some slaves were compelled to go to the white people’s churches, they heard about a God who is above all the brutality down here on earth. The words were formed, then repeated. The melody swirled and emerged. The song pulled the singers off the ground and up toward the sky.  Can we sing it again?

Over my head, I hear music everywhere. Over my head, I hear music everywhere.
Over my head, I hear music everywhere. There must be a God somewhere.

There must be a God somewhere. Take that, not as a statement of ambiguity, but as a word of protest. There is something beyond the pain and suffering on earth. There is Someone beyond the people who oppress, demean, and destroy. There must be a God somewhere.

On December 16, 1985, the police in Johannesburg, South Africa, got word of a worship service of Christmas carols. It was schedule for Athlone, a township where people of mixed races lived together. It made the police nervous. Athlone was a community where people were weary of the minority of white people who ruled with an iron fist over the large majority of people with darker skin. When they spoke up, the police struck them down. A thousand people of color died.

Church people held prayer services, often interrupted by the authorities. Candlelight vigils were broken up by the police. They had no interest in large groups of people gathering to speak out against apartheid, a policy of white superiority in an African country. So what did the riot police do? They declared that the singing of Christmas carols in that town was “illegal,” that it stirred emotions, that it was deeply subversive. They threatened to use tear gas and horse whips to break up any such gatherings.

Do you know what the people Athlone did? They sang Christmas carols.[1] They remembered that King Herod tried to shut down the first Christmas, but they also knew there is a king greater than Herod. Do you remember the song?

Over my head, I hear music everywhere. Over my head, I hear music everywhere.
Over my head, I hear music everywhere. There must be a God somewhere.

A song like this is the key to understanding the book of Revelation. Revelation is a book of Christian protest against the forces that would oppress, demean, or destroy God’s people. The prophet John was exiled by the Roman empire. They wanted to silence him, to squelch the Christian voice. We don’t know exactly what he did to get himself sent to the rocky, little island of Patmos. Whatever it was, it got him in a lot of trouble. It might have been as simple as to say that Caesar didn’t run the world. This is God’s world; God made it, God loves it, and God is the rightful ruler of everything and everybody.
The historical records are spotty, because it was a time when the global empire had turned against the small group of people called Christians. Most of the history books are written by the empires, not by the minorities, so history is easily skewed. We do know that the Emperor Domitian was annoyed whenever anybody did not bow down and regard him as divine.
We also know that locally, citizens were encouraged to turn in their neighbors to the authorities. Was there somebody who dared to worship anything other than the empire? He or she would need to be silence. Was there anybody who would not go along with the general drift of an empire in perpetual war, an empire that used up anybody who got in its way? They would need to be eliminated.
And then, on the rocky island of Patmos, the prophet John says he saw a door swing open from heaven. The great Voice that first spoke to him like a trumpet said, “Come up here!” John was caught up, carried up. He saw a throne – The Throne! – and Caesar was not upon it. Oh no! He had a vision of God, who alone is worthy to sit on the great throne.
And then, he heard the music. The great, glorious music. Do you remember the song?
Over my head, I hear music everywhere. Over my head, I hear music everywhere.
Over my head, I hear music everywhere. There must be a God somewhere.

Some people sold us a bill of goods about the book of Revelation. They have spooked us into thinking this book is a bus schedule for the end of the world. That’s nonsense. Do you know how I know that? Because people like that haven’t read the whole book. They cherry-pick a verse here, a verse there, and glued them together a verse from the book of Daniel, and a line from that bizarre prophet Ezekiel. Then they write books that aim to scare us into speculating about Middle Eastern politics and allowing multinational companies do whatever they want.

No, if you read the whole book, Revelation is a worship manual. This is a hymnbook for the worshiping church. Lyrics are compiled from the Psalms and the prophets, all aimed at praising the God who rules over everything else. “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” Or as the worship leaders sing, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

If we sing those words, we start seeing things differently. We begin to identify the fakes and the counterfeits who want nothing to do with a God who loves everybody. We start saving our praises for God alone, the only God who is worthy of our praises, and not the steroid-injected athlete, the silicone starlet du jour, or the get-rich-quick advisor. The song of praise trains us to praise the God we cannot see, and to take God’s concerns as our own.

In a recent book called The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice, Mark Labberton reminds us, “In the midst of a world of suffering and need, we sing. We enter into the longings and laments of God and thereby share God’s heart. We do this for the sake of enlarging the context and perspective we live in … and we are changed and called.”[2] Worship lifts us out of our isolation and our insulation. It brings us so close to God that we begin to see life differently. And it begins with a song . . .

Over my head, I hear music everywhere. Over my head, I hear music everywhere.
Over my head, I hear music everywhere. There must be a God somewhere.

Listen, I don’t know all the troubles that all of us brought to church today. I know some of them. A number of them are written on the prayer cards that we share. Others are hidden in a secret place in our hearts. I do know that if all we have are our troubles, they begin to drag us down. So I remember John the prophet of Patmos, the anonymous slave who composed today’s refrain, the Christmas carolers who ignored the riot police in South Africa. I also remember the people who work and struggle for a better world for all people. All of them know there is something more than the pain and abuse and sickness down here. It may be over our heads, but it is real.

You see, we are Easter people. Easter is more than a day; it’s a lifetime, it’s the life of eternity breaking in down here. And it comes after a hard-fought battle. In the text that we heard from chapter five, all the heavenly beings are circling around the heavenly throne. They sing that God is worthy. They know that God has written down a plan for saving the world. It is inscribed upon a scroll, perfumed by the incense-prayers of all God’s patient saints. And who is going to open this scroll? Who will reveal the plan?

None other than Jesus. John struggles to describe what he sees. He sees a Lamb standing; the Lamb had been killed, but is now standing. He has perfect power (that’s the seven horns). He has perfect clarity (that’s the seven eyes). It was the Lamb’s blood that paid the ransom to win back all God’s people. It is the Lamb’s authority that calls them to be his servants on earth.

And it is the Lamb who is given the seven-fold declaration of worthiness: power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, blessing. Jesus suffered, and takes all suffering into himself. Jesus is raised, now standing in all authority, because he stands taller than all that can put us down. When we sing the song, we praise him.

Over my head, I hear music everywhere. Over my head, I hear music everywhere.
Over my head, I hear music everywhere. There must be a God somewhere.

So we sing. We lift our heads and sing. We sing because God is alive, Jesus is worthy, and the Spirit keeps filling our lungs. We sing because the song is greater than anything that threatens to destroy us.

I’ve mentioned to some of you before. Some time back, before the mayor of New York City  cleaned up the  subways, I saw a piece of graffiti that changed my life. I think it was written by the prophet John once he got off the island of Patmos. The message said,

You can punch my lips so I can't blow my horn,
but my fingers will find a piano.
You can slam the piano lid on my fingers,
but you can't stop my toes from tapping like a drum. 
You can stomp on my foot to keep my toes from tapping,
but my heart will keep swinging in four-four time.
You can even stop my heart from ticking,
but the music of the saints shall never cease.

© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] The Montreal Gazette, 16 December 1985. See
[2] Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship (DownersGrove, IVP Books, 2007) 123-124.

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