Sermon for Sunday, May 5th, 2019
Near the end of his life, Johnny Cash had a dream.
And in this rather bizarre dream he was at Buckingham Palace and the queen referred to him as “a thorn tree in a whirlwind”. It was an odd image and when he woke up he pondered what it must mean. The image wouldn’t leave him alone.
A thorn tree in a whirlwind.
For him I think it signified a powerful force of nature stripping off the thorns of this world and off of us. Johnny was intrigued by this image and as a man of faith he began digging into the scriptures to see if he could find some biblical source. He began in the Book of Job, but where he found this dream or vision most strongly reflected was in the Book of Revelation. The imagery there was complex and strange and dream like. Johnny didn’t understand every image or reference in Revelation, just like we don’t always understand everything we see in our dreams, but what Johnny found in his journey through the Book of Revelation was a vision. A vision of the end of all things, a vision of a powerful force stripping the thorns off this world, a vision that he could only express in the way he knew best: in song.
The result of this dream and this journey through scripture was that at the very end of his life, Johnny Cash wrote and recorded, what for my money is his greatest song. When the man comes around.
Now if you have never heard “when the man comes around” I strongly suggest you go home and listen to it, but I will warn you it isn’t a song that tries to tell a story, it is a song that tries to show you a vision. It is a song filled with lots of biblical references and images, mostly from the Book of Revelation, and you may not get, or understand them all, and that is OK. It isn’t supposed to be a story with a beginning a middle and an end like some songs. You don’t have to understand it all to appreciate the vision. But what is fascinating about this song is that it is written and sung by a man very near the end of his life, and he is singing about the end of all things, the end of the world. He talks about death and destruction and judgment and yet, his voice and his music is full of hope, and the tempo is upbeat and there is this sense of joyful expectation.
That’s not how I was originally taught to read the Book of Revelation. Revelation has usually been presented to me as a scary book. An apocalyptic book of fire and brimstone and mysterious symbols and destruction. A book that you have to be an expert bible scholar to understand. It is frequently presented as a book of prophecy that details in masked language the end times. There was that whole “left behind” series that treated revelation as some sort of blueprint that predicts exactly how God is going to end it all. But maybe that isn’t the best way to read Revelation. Maybe the fact that we mostly focus on the destruction in Revelation says more about us than it does about God.
The Psalmist says that God’s “wrath endures but the twinkling of an eye, his favor for a lifetime, weeping may spend the night but joy comes in the morning.” We pay so much attention to the wrath sometimes, but that is momentary; God’s favor and grace is what lasts a lifetime. What we pay attention to in scripture, and what we dwell on can say a lot about us. There is so much more to Revelation than doom and destruction. There is worship and praise and singing and new life and new creation. We get readings from Revelation during Eastertide and I urge you to pay close attention to the image or the vision of eternity that these readings paint.
Angels surrounding the throne and singing with full voice
Every creature in heaven and earth and under the earth singing
All the elders fell down and worshipped
Singing and worship. That is the image we are given in Revelation today. And if you decide to sit down and study the Book of Revelation sometime and read through it, challenge yourself to see the whole picture that it is painting. Yes there is the last trumpet, but there are also angels singing, and yes there is smoke and fire but there is also incense and candles. What is the ultimate end that the author wants us to see? It is the singing and the worship. So maybe the best way to appreciate Revelation is to sing about it. If we really want to appreciate where we are headed, as people that are washed in the blood of the lamb, as people that are invited to his table, it should be through song.
I have to say I studied the Book of Revelation for years, but Johnny Cash really helped me to love it. Hearing an aging man sing about the ultimate end of existence, helps me to appreciate the vision in a way that the words alone never could, because the vision that is being painted in Revelation is not that God is just destroying things. He is stripping the thorns off, that’s for sure, but this isn’t just destruction. God is creating a new reality. He is setting right things that have gone wrong. He is bringing his children home and he is doing it in song. God children were made, created to sing around his throne, and finally that is what they are getting to do. They are singing around his throne. You can’t just tell that story. You need to sing it.
Now you might be thinking that country music isn’t your thing, but don’t worry. Johnny Cash was not the first person to realize that Revelation needed to be sung. In fact there is quite a long tradition in the church of singing about the vision in Revelation. If you have ever been to a traditional requiem mass, there is a sequence called the Dies Irae. It’s basically the Medieval Latin version of “When the Man comes around” and it has been set to music by some of the best composers including Mozart. If you sit down and read the words it may seem severe, especially by our standards these days. But it wasn’t written to be read. It was written to be sung. When you hear it sung you get a vision of the beauty of what God is doing that the words alone can’t convey.
Music touches a part of us that words alone just can’t. That is why music is such an important part of worship. It touches us somehow inside, even when we aren’t the ones doing the singing. If you have ever been given goose bumps or brought to tears by a song then you know what I mean. And worship and praise fill a need in us, feed us, in a way that simply nothing else on earth can do, and there is a reason for that: because that is the way God has designed us. We aren’t just capable of wonder, love and praise…that is what we were created for. And when all of the thorns of this world are stripped away and we can finally be what God created us to be, as God created us to be, we may not need the sun and the stars, but we will still need music. There will still be singing.
So if you expect to be a part of the heavenly choir someday, you might as well start practicing now. That is part of why we are here. You know mass isn’t a performance, it isn’t a lecture, it isn’t a social gathering, or a self-help group. It’s a foretaste. It’s a vision. It’s a glimpse of our eternal destiny. The children of God. Redeemed by the blood of his son. Gathered around his throne. Fed at his table, singing his praises. This is worship and it is like nothing else we do in life and it feeds us in a way that nothing else can. And you don’t have to understand every symbol to appreciate the beauty of the vision.
Singing isn’t the only way to praise God, and church is not the only place where God can be worshipped, but worship and praise should be at the core of everything we do here in church, from printing the bulletins to cooking the food to mopping the floor or lighting the candles. Worship and praise are a fundamental part of who we are; that is what Revelation has revealed to us and that is the vision that we need to show the world.
Sure there is judgment in revelation. There is pain. Some things are cast down…they have to be, because this is, as Johnny says, “Alpha and Omega’s Kingdom Come.” All other kingdoms must give way. But after all that is past, what Revelation shows us is an eternity of worship and praise. That is the real end. That is our real destiny. When the man comes around, that is what his new world is going to look like. We aren’t destined for destruction. We are destined for praise.