Epiphany 2, Year B               

“You will see heaven opened”  

John did so, as recorded in Revelation. We’ll come later to what he saw there and to what he heard, which was a new song.

First, today’s readings began at Mattins with a time when: “the word of the Lord was rare in those days” – the time of Eli. Somehow Hannah’s longing and her prayer for a son give voice to Israel’s need in those days of the last Judges, when corruption was rife. Eli is faltering; his eyes are dim; his authority ignored. It is not Eli but the boy Samuel - himself the answer to Hannah’s prayer - who watches the light beside the ark of the Lord. He hears the Lord calling; he responds promptly and it is he who receives the word of the Lord. It is something new from the Lord, as he Samuel is himself born from the Lord.

This word in the night, in the Temple, presages something further that is new and will unfold over time: the replacement of Eli’s line of priests, the legitimate line, with the priesthood of Zadok and the rule of the line of David, the Shepherd-King. The word of the Lord is heard by this boy and it snowballs - for his own times, for the next generations and at length giving rise to the messianic hope of Israel. The word of the Lord was rare in those days but Samuel heard: “Speak,” he said, “for your servant is listening.”

We might think of St Antony in days when the word of the Lord was rare and he went to the desert the better to attend on the Lord and how, from his listening heart, the Lord chose over time to unfold something new, something to reform his people: the religious life in the Church. “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

So to John who, on Patmos, was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day. “I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open!” The book Revelation is presented as his account of what he heard and saw there. It is also perhaps the most theatrical of all the books of the Bible - and nowhere more so than the passage from Chapter Five we heard as the New Testament reading just now. We find, perhaps to our surprise, a longing present also in heaven, just as longing characterised the opening chapters of 1 Samuel: Hannah’s longing for a son mirroring Israel’s longing for the word of the Lord and God’s longing for a worthy priest and shepherd for his people. Here in heaven also God’s will seems occluded: wrapped up in a scroll and, like someone’s last will and testament, sealed with seven seals. “Who is worthy to open the scroll?” The question rolls over heaven and over the face of the earth and over the deeps without reply. The tension mounts.

John begins to weep, because there is none found worthy. We might wonder why the One whom John has seen seated on the throne in heaven doesn’t simply open his own scroll. However, the scroll represents something sure, given by God to his creatures, to all living things. It is sealed up; the connection between the perfect life of heaven and the needs of earth is not yet complete. So the One on the throne can hardly be seen by John: he is only ever described as “looking like jasper and carnelian.” It needs one worthy, one who embodies the life of earth but manifests in that life the perfection of heaven: a connector – opening heaven to earth.

John’s weeping is ours and that of everyone over the centuries who has felt deeply the sundering of earth from the true and good life of heaven. It is longing for just rule and vindication. John’s weeping is the tears of those bereaved through murderous hatred; it is the sighing of those sickened with self-serving lies dressed up as prudence; it is the vigilance of heart of those who pray for the coming of the kingdom.

The n one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’” The re’s an intake of breath in this theatre. Now, now, we shall find the one who links earth and heaven so that they cannot be parted. Now, we’ll see Israel’s centuries-long hope realised: the Lion has conquered – the Lion whom Jacob predicted and whom Amos heard roaring and whom Ezra saw rescuing a remnant of the people. John looks. Where is he, this lion? The throng parts – you can imagine how a celestial director would make the most of staging this: there’s the throne – there are the four living creatures giving way – there are the many elders stepping back and now at last there’s … the lion? No. No, he’s … a Lamb! A lamb with the marks of slaughter upon him.

This is the great hope of the ages. This is the conquering which God promised through the many prophets to Israel. Not vengeance, after all. Justice? Yes but justice given through self-sacrifice – a justice which ransoms the guilty at high cost to itself - the power of God made known in human weakness. The great scroll of God’s perfect will is taken and opened by this humble, gentle creature, who sees all. The drama overturns the expectations of the ages. We’ve been looking in the wrong place. Not a conqueror who comes with the sword but one who knows what it is to be powerless. One who chooses to bear others’ hurts. One who endures until hatred runs out.

We can guess how the revelation of this Lamb must have struck John’s first readers – there, there in the centre of heaven and accounted the one creature worthy to open the great scroll of the future, is one like themselves, battered and meek and who overcomes wrong not by wielding power but by enduring in love. A baby born in a stable, a man baptised alongside all who come needing baptism, a martyr suffering with other martyrs.

So the stage of heaven bursts into song: the new song for the Lamb. “ The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” – this is a stage direction which probably only works in heaven, not one for our ritual notes. Yet it is the song they sing which we need to hear – the new song. The Lamb is new: this is who the Lion of Judah, the root of David, truly is. It is for such a Lamb that we need to be vigilant, looking for One who conquers by self-giving.

Also the work of the Lamb is new. He ransoms, not a remnant of Israel; not even the full 12 tribes only but “saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” and has made of this unlikely and diverse flotsam of the world “a kingdom and priests serving our God”. Zadok and David both have gone multicultural and universal.

It is good to hear again this new song of heaven – the newness of this song of heaven – at the beginning of the week of Prayer for Christian Unity. In days when the air-waves are filling again with talk of a clash of civilisations, it is God who achieves new things. If we would see them, if we would see heaven opened and justice for the earth, then our hearts, like Nathanael’s in the Gospel, must be prompt to receive these new things – without guile, that is, without self-seeking, not holding on possessively to the rightness of our ways but hearing the invitation to come and see and spontaneously getting up - even from under the fig tree of the messianic bounty we have already received - drawn by continuing longing and tears for the one who is worthy and looking with a single eye to follow the Lamb.

God willing, we shall find him, the Hope of the ages, surrounded by myriads and myriads, all of whatever race or faith or creed,  all who long for heaven to be opened in justice and in enduring love to the earth.

“O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvellous things.”

            Oswin Gartside CR