Delivered at Rainbow Mennonite Church, Kansas City, KS
April 14, 2013.
Scripture: Revelation 5:11–14
Over the course of many years of deplorable living conditions, his health steadily declined. This was back before the days of counseling, psychiatry, and mood-altering medication. In one of his poems, Smart wrote of his “caretakers”: “For they work on me with their harping-irons, which is a barbarous instrument, because I am more unguarded than others.”
He was eventually released from the asylum in 1763, spending seven short years in freedom before some previous financial debts caught up with him and he was arrested in 1770. He was imprisoned early in January 1771, but succumbed to pneumonia alone in his cell just a few months later in May of that same year. He died miserable and utterly alone, abandoned by his family.
Over the course of four years between 1759 and 1763, during his confinement, Smart penned seven hefty fragments of poetry that later came to be collectively known as Jubilate Agno, or Rejoice in the Lamb, which went unpublished until 1939, almost 200 years after its composition. At first glance, Jubilate Agno appears to be little more than the frenetic ramblings of a seminary student gone mad. However, a close reading reveals Smart’s mastery of liturgical style—being himself a high church Anglican—in addition to some fine wordplay. Still, with all of its liturgical grandeur, the poem reeks of mental, emotional, and spiritual anguish.
The lengthy poem is written in a sprawling call-and-response form, and begins on a cosmically tremendous note:
Rejoice in God, O ye tongues!
nations and languages and every creature
in which is the breath of life!
Let man and beast appear before him
Let man and beast appear before him
and magnify his name together!
The most striking thing about this poem to me is the sheer joy welling up in Smart’s writing through the depths of his despair. Though his family had left him, though he was under great financial stress, though his health was failing and though everyone around him thought he was a fool, Smart found hope in his cat Jeoffrey. He found hope in the characters of the Old Testament, found hope in the apocalyptic image of the lamb, and found himself in a state of mind that allowed him not only to rejoice in the lamb himself, but to envision all of creation joining in with him, even as his own caregivers beat him with iron tools.
Like Jubilate Agno, the Book of Revelation emerged at a time when the Johannine community—the group of early Christians for whom it was written—was under an extreme amount of duress, persecution, and hopelessness. Revelation is not a book that was ever intended to “predict” the future, to be milked into a profitable series of 16 novels, or to be made into a really bad Kirk Cameron movie. Instead, this “apocalypse,” or “revelation” was written as a polemic against the Roman Empire, but also as a message of hope to those Christians suffering at the hands of Caesar. These Christians not only suffered the violence of physical persecution, but also the indignity of what appeared to be their philosophical error—this was almost a century after Christ; surely God was not coming back to establish God’s reign on earth if it hadn’t already happened by now.
And then John has this vision. This revelation.
To get you up to speed with where we are today: John is whisked away to heaven in a vision, and at one point he sees this scroll, and all of heaven is mourning because no one can break the seal on this scroll that holds the great mystery of the universe. But then, just as the Revelator himself begins to weep, he hears a lion roar with a ferocious bellow. But when he turns, he sees not a lion, but in fact a little slaughtered lamb. Now, the lamb is slain, but for some reason is yet alive—still bears the marks of his wounds from death—and stands in the presence of the throne of God. And it is seemingly because of these wounds that the Lamb is “worthy.”
But I want to draw your attention to what exactly the Lamb is worthy of:
[Read Revelation 5:11–12]
Power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, blessing—what’s wrong with this picture? The slaughtered lamb has none of these things. Even as all creation is singing its praise, the bloody, mangled, victimized lamb is the very definition of weakness, of poverty, of foolishness, of dishonor. The real, proper response for such a sight should be laughter, not praise. And yet, the lamb is the only one with the power to open the scroll, and ultimately the only one with the authority to establish God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven. A place of justice and mercy, where the trees grow leaves for the healing of the nations.
See, the Lamb defies our worldly expectations of glory and redefines these terms. No longer is power defined by politics and intimidation, but now by humility and self-sacrifice. No longer is wealth associated with monetary gain—what would the lamb need with money?—but now by poverty, empathy, and by love. No longer are might and honor defined by getting the upper hand against someone and forcing others to submit to your will, but instead by binding up the broken hearted and by setting the captives free. No longer is wisdom defined by gray hairs, by theologizin’ and philosophizin’, but now by the very foolishness of the cross. Just as Jesus in the Gospels heralds the reign of God as the anti-Rome—where we turn the other cheek after being struck, where we walk the extra mile when forced to carry the gear of our oppressors, where the poor are exalted and the rich are sent away empty-handed—so do these anti-values become values under the Reign of God. We look for Jesus expecting a lion, instead we get a lamb.
And it is in the lamb’s weakness that we see true strength.
One of my favorite movies when I was a kid was the 1984 film, The Neverending Story. In the movie, there’s a character called the Rock Biter, whom the hero Atreyu encounters early on. The Rock Biter is called the Rock Biter because he is basically this giant mountain with arms and legs and a face, who eats rocks (which is kind of weird, if you think about it) and rides around on a big stone bike, and he has these tiny friends that travel with him—a guy with a “racing snail” and a guy who rides around on the back of a giant bat. But at the end of the movie, when an approaching darkness of nonexistence known as the Nothing is eating up everything in its path and threatens to rip the world apart, Atreyu runs into Rock Biter once again, and this time, he sits alone, staring at his hands that are as big as houses, waiting for the world to end. “They look like good, strong hands, don’t they?” the Rock Biter says. “My little friends. I couldn’t hold onto them. The Nothing pulled them right out of my hands. I failed.” The Rock Biter’s admission is one of the most empathetic, heartbreaking moments of the whole film, because we look at this giant mountain of a creature, we see his monumental strength, and yet in his inability to save his friends we see something of ourselves—we see our own weakness and vulnerability. How many friendships have we let slip through our fingers because of things we have done or haven’t done? How many loved ones have died of illness, despite our best efforts to take care of them? How many times have we failed, picked ourselves up, and failed again?
Canadian theologian Jean Vanier says that “the greatness of humanity is that we are programmed to become weaker, that we all ultimately become conscious of our own fragility.” When we fully reveal ourselves to one another in all our brokenness, we catch a glimpse of Christ. We catch a glimpse of the lamb who redefines weakness as power, poverty as wealth, foolishness as wisdom, frailty as might.
In our weakness, we find strength in one another. In our despair, we find joy. In our brokenness, we encounter God.
So we see in this passage that the Book of Revelation doesn’t predict the future. It eternally informs the present.
Like the Rock Biter who finally has to admit his own weakness, like those who praise the upside-down values of the Lamb in John’s vision, and like Christopher Smart, who discovered joy even in his suffering, we must find each other in our vulnerability. It’s just like in our celebration of the Eucharist—we not only recognize Christ’s brokenness in participating in the Lord’s Supper; we recognize that breaking the bread together in some way recalls our own brokenness before one another. And in that mutuality is power. We see that in Christ’s brokenness, we are to follow suit.
Let us follow the Lamb into weakness.
Let us follow the Lamb into vulnerability in our relationships with one another.
Let us follow the Lamb into the spiritual poverty that cultivates true humility.
Let us follow the Lamb into the Lamb into the community of the broken.
And may we all join those myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands in the unending cosmic hymn of praise for the foolishness of Christ.