Call to worship: Psalm 24.
Lessons: Revelation 4–5 and Matthew 21.1–16.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.
DEAR brethren in Christ, we are gathered today to fear God and worship him. Today, on the Sunday before Easter, we remember when the Lord came to Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt and knocked at the gates of Jerusalem’s heart. Today, we remember that the Lord Jesus came knocking to bring us near to God, as he has said in the seventh of the letters in the Revelation to John:
‘As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent. Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. To him that overcomes will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.’
We are here today to remember a victory that our Lord won by passing through the darkness of the shadow of death. The path to the knowledge of the glory of God leads through Jesus’s death on the Cross, and by the promise of God this path of humility is the noblest in the world.
In the Revelation to John, as soon as our Lord Jesus has dictated his letters to the seven churches of Asia, the very door of heaven is opened, and the scene changes from letters on earth to visions in heaven. So our author is taken up to heaven by the sound of a trumpet. Many decades after the Lord Jesus has been taken back up to heaven, to sit down as a man at the right hand of God the Father, now the old man John is taken up to heaven in order to see things which, in his words, ‘must be hereafter’. Thus he is caught up from earth to heaven to see what, at the time of his writing, is yet to come. Hear the sound of the trumpet that speaks to him: the trumpet says, Pay attention! The wisdom of heaven; let us attend.
And immediately, says John, I was in the spirit. What he saw, these spiritual realities, he saw by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Let us then see what John saw. A throne is set in heaven, and there is one who sits on the throne. We are reminded of the last throne John mentioned, when he said, ‘To him that overcomes will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.’ Let us look at this throne, and at him who sits upon it.
This is our God, whom John sees in heaven by the Holy Spirit: His throne is girded about with a rainbow that gleams with the depths of an emerald. Around his throne are the twelve tribes of ancient Israel and the twelve Apostles of the new Israel – this is you, if you put your trust in Jesus – clothed in white and crowned to reign with God, forming the circle of the cosmos. He himself sits upon a throne with lightnings and thunderings and voices, and his seven fiery spirits blazing before him. This is the God whose face none can see and not die.
The Lord, he dares you to be lukewarm in the presence of his power, before the vision of his throne. Look at a sight like this, look at it truly, and tell me if you can be lukewarm. Either you will share in this glory and be drawn into it, or you will flee as far as you can flee from this presence. You can be hot, or you can be cold, but think which you will be.
And before this throne are four angelic beasts full of eyes before and behind, and six wings on each of them, wings full of eyes. As they cry ‘holy, holy, holy’ to the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, day and night, the twenty-four elders fall down before him that sits on the throne, and worship him that lives for ever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created. This is the God who was, and is, and is to come, the God who spoke the worlds into being.
This is the worship into which we are come today; this is the worship into which we are come every week, into the presence of uncountable angels, into the presence of the living God; this is the worship for which mankind itself was made, for which the Church was made, for which the only-begotten Son of God rode up to Jerusalem the Sunday before Easter, that in heaven he might offer this worship up to God. This is a noble and worthy purpose.
But who is worthy to open the book that lies upon the open right palm of him who sits on the throne of God? Who is worthy to open the seven seals that seal the book, to open up the knowledge of God, that his heart might lie open to us, and that we might lie open to one another, heart to heart? The voice of the angel that asks this question, his voice pierces heaven, earth, and hell; his voice pierces, and the human heart answers. This is the longing of the heart, to know what is in the book of his future purposes, to look into the future and see the heart of God and see him face to face. But no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book, neither to look thereon. And I wept much, because no man was found worthy to open and to read the book, neither to look thereon. This is why Jesus rode up to Jerusalem the Sunday before Easter, because no man anywhere could open that book of life where everything is declared.
And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof. How did he prevail? The word of God declares it, by the pen of Matthew. The disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them, and brought the donkey, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon. And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way. And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest. When a true king is crowned, there is always rejoicing. But this ‘hosanna’, the Sunday before Easter, was not Jesus’s victory. It was only a sign of the praise he would receive for the victory he was to win in a week. Jerusalem hears the great noise of people rejoicing, and David asks in Psalm 24, Who is this king of glory? This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee, the Lord of uncountable hosts of angels: he is the king of glory.
Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? Who can open the seven seals of the book in God’s right hand? Matthew shows us. Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, and said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them.
But he had ridden that day into Jerusalem not to be proud, but to be humble; not to be served, but to serve, and to give up his life as a ransom for many. His cleansing of that filthy temple, his kicking out the buyers and sellers, his overthrowing the tables of the moneychangers, was for you. God is to be worshipped, and Jesus had to stand in his holy place and make us able to worship. One does not simply walk into the worship of Almighty God. In the Old Testament, under the law of Moses, in order for God to live with his people, the priest had to wash the temple with blood, because the sins of the people stained the temple and made it a foul place, too sickening for God to dwell in. That foul sin in the temple, that corrupting of God’s praise into the seeking of gold, of gain, of money, of all the things we grasp for instead of God – the soap for scouring that sin out of our hearts is blood. Blood is the price for sin. Sin is in our hearts, and the seven seals of the scroll could not be opened, and Jesus had to humble himself that week.
And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that Jesus did, and the children calling out in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the Son of David; they were sore displeased. The path to glory is not an easy one. The course of true love never did run smooth. The rich and powerful opposed Jesus. They hated Jesus. If you love Jesus and follow in his footsteps, they will hate you. If you are willing to stand for the truth against all the power of the newspapers and the schools and the banks, they will call you anything they can think of to break your heart. At school, they will call you a fool and an enemy of science; at work, they will call you a sexist, a racist, and a homophobe; at church, they will call you a blasphemer against the Name of God. Imagine this: You know that both the Old and the New Testaments call homosexual acts a shameful and hateful thing before God. You see a Christian friend come out as ‘gay’. What do you do? If you see that friend’s post and refuse either to like the post or to write a favourable comment, people will try to get you rejected at school, and sometimes they will get you rejected; they will try to get you fired, and sometimes they will get you fired; they will try to get you shunned by Christians, and sometimes they will get you shunned by Christians who are afraid and call you a judgemental, unloving, false Christian. Can you bear this rejection by people you know, or will you never reach that point? Think carefully whether it is better to be with Jesus or to be against him. If you choose every day to be with Jesus and not with his enemies, those who hate him will also hate you and call you haters of mankind. Jesus himself rode into Jerusalem to cleanse the temple, and the chief priests and scribes were displeased and tried to find a way to kill him.
But there is something noble here. Jesus saw what was before him, he saw what he had come to do, and he humbled himself to do it. The book of God’s right hand had to be opened for us, that we might know God. He who was God and had laid the foundation of the earth, he now trusted in God. He knew he was coming to his death. He had chosen to do this. He willingly came to give himself up to his enemies, and to lay his life down before those who did not want him to cleanse the temple and show himself as the Root of David. A man who hands himself over to his enemies without any hope of being vindicated, justified, upheld, so that his case is justly avenged, such a man is a fool. There is nothing noble in being a fool. There is only shameful death, to die alone, scorned, rejected, and supported by neither man nor God. And Jesus, on the path to his own kingly glory and to bringing many sons to glory, accepted having this said about him, that he was a fool. He knew that his powerful enemies and the whole nation of the Jews would despise him and mock him, saying, ‘He trusted in God, that he would deliver him, if he delight in him.’ Trust, if not based on facts, is useless. But Jesus was willing to be called a fool, because he was not a fool. His mission was already declared by the prophets who spoke in the Old Testament, and he trusted that God would vindicate him as righteous and wise and worthy. Therefore, for good reason, he would humble himself lower than he deserved; and in lowering himself as a man, betrayed, beaten, stripped of all his clothes and hung upon an instrument of dishonour and death, he would become worthy to be the king of Israel and of all the nations of the world.
This is how he humbled himself in order to truly and spiritually make the worship of God clean, spotless, holy. On Friday morning, five days after today, Jesus was delivered by the Jews to the Roman governor, and by the Roman governor back to the Jews, and he came to the place where he took upon him all our sin and shame. He had taken the nature of man upon himself in order to deliver it from sin, to make it holy again; and now he was nailed to the wretched thing that the Romans used to kill criminals and slaves. As some Christians sing on that Good Friday,
Today he who hung the earth upon the waters is hung on the tree,
The King of the angels is decked with a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan is slapped on the face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the Cross with nails.
The Son of the virgin is pierced by a spear.
Why did Jesus do this? He knew that God’s promise to him was faithful and true. And so, being a man like us, he trusted in the justice of God. He trusted that the mockery of the bystanders saying, ‘He trusted in God,’ would be changed by God into a testimony of his worthiness. ‘Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices: my flesh also shall rest in hope. For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.’
This is the path we must all take if we would see the glory of God, if we would have the seven seals of the book of God opened to our eyes. As people say, No guts, no glory. Weep no more, says the elder: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof. When we say we follow Jesus, we must follow him in the path of the Cross, to be killed in the flesh with all its lusts for comfort and ease and power, so that our souls and bodies may be justified with him in glory.
And God, who is faithful and just, did not leave Jesus in the land of the dead. And I beheld, says John, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth. Jesus had been slain, had been shamefully slaughtered before the eyes of all Jerusalem, but here he now stood in the midst of the throne of God, surrounded by the winged beasts and all Israel of the Old and New Testaments. His human body had been raised from the dead in glory, and 40 days later his human body had been lifted up to heaven, where he now stood. And here, in John’s vision by the Holy Spirit, the God-man Jesus came and took the book out of the right hand of him that sat upon the throne.
And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints. And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; and hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.
Take part in the glory of Jesus. Accept, as he did, the shame and spitting of those who hate him. If you already love him, do not be afraid. If you live your life trusting in what he has done for you, you are there in heaven today when you worship him with your whole heart. God by his Holy Spirit lifts you up in Christ Jesus to those heavenly places where John saw this vision. If Jesus is the one you trust, you are there in heaven today with the four beasts and twenty-four elders. You have nothing to fear from the enemies of God, because the one you love is with you, and being despised and rejected like him will only make you partake of the glory into which God has transformed the Cross.
Jesus comes knocking at your door, and he has ridden up to Jerusalem today to cleanse the temple of your heart. He wants you to be able to worship him in the purity of truth, in the beauty of holiness. He humbled himself; he wants you to bend the knees of your heart and follow his humble path to the Cross. He wants you to die to yourself every day, that you may truly live. Every nation must bow before him, because the earth is his, and everything in it. As he says at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’ The reward, of knowing God and inheriting the earth with Jesus, is for those who humble themselves now because of the love he has humbly showed to us. As he said to the church in Philadelphia, so he says of his enemies and yours, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.
And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands; saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever. And the four beasts said, Amen. And the four and twenty elders fell down and worshipped him that liveth for ever and ever.
Let us pray.
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility; Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Psalm of response: Psalm 130.