Sermon: An Unbroken Hallelujah
An Unbroken Hallelujah
Text: Revelation 19:1-10
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 11-5-2017)
[Before reading Revelation 19:1-10]
Near the turn of the first century, John who was exiled by the Romans on the isle of Patmos writes a bizarre apocalypse called Revelation. In this tale of God’s ultimate defeat of the power of the Roman Empire, John is absorbed in a vision, overhearing an outrageous conversation and listening to an astounding concert taking place in heaven.
If you are one who needs to read the Bible literally, even when it is waxing poetic or metaphoric or walking in the minefield of the apocalyptic, I advise you strongly to avoid reading Revelation. If you did avoid this book, you would be in good company. John Calvin, the Swiss Reformer, wrote a commentary on every book of the Bible – except Revelation. Having been duly warned, listen now to a reading of Revelation 19:1-10:
Revelation 19:1 After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, "Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power to our God, 2 for God’s judgments are true and just; God has judged the great whore [ that is Rome] who corrupted the earth with her fornication, and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants." 3 Once more they said, "Hallelujah! The smoke goes up from her forever and ever." 4 And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who is seated on the throne, saying, "Amen. Hallelujah!" 5 And from the throne came a voice saying, "Praise our God, all you God’s servants, and all who fear God, small and great." 6 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out, "Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and exult and give God the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready; 8 to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure"-- for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. 9 And the angel said to me, "Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb." And he said to me, "These are true words of God." 10 Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, "You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy."
The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
The Choir sings Leonard Cohen’s, Hallelujah.
Leonard Cohen is not a songwriter for every taste. His lyrics are complex and often dark, and more than most current songwriters, they are full of biblical allusions. Cohen died on Election Day last year but his music lives on. One of his songs has been recorded by more than 100 artists and in two different versions by Cohen himself. The full version of the song has 15 verses. It is the song (not the 15 verse version) that was just sung so well by the Cove Choir.
“Hallelujah” is the name of Cohen’s song and it is also one of the most important words in Scripture. In Hebrew, it means, “Praise God.” Interviewed about this song, Cohen said, "It explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value." I think that is mostly true. Many kinds of hallelujahs certainly do exist in the biblical story, from praising God for the dawn of a new day to praising God for victory over bitter enemies to praising God “from whom all blessings flow.”
Referencing everyone from King David to Samson and Delilah, Cohen writes: “Love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.” Anyone who has ever praised God for new found love only later to have a heart pierced knows something about a “broken Hallelujah.” Anyone who has ever praised God for a trusted friend only later to have that friend betray that trust knows something about a “broken Hallelujah.” Anyone who has ever praised God for the joy of remission only later to later hear the bitter word recurrence knows something about a “broken Hallelujah.”
You would think that that the masses we meet in Revelation 19 would be singing a “broken Hallelujah.” After all, they are the ones who have been martyred for their faith. They are the ones who stood up to Rome, were beaten and killed by Rome. They sang their full throated “Hallelujahs” on earth but as they sang their praise of God, the Romans ignored the song and took their lives. Surely, theirs should be a “broken Hallelujah.”
In Revelation 19, the entire world’s population from all time is dressed in choir robes and is holding a heavenly concert. It is a concert that would make a rock concert sound like a quiet string quartet. And, the closing chorus is a raucous, bracing, bone-chilling, unbroken Hallelujah.
“Hallelujah turns out to be a shout of praise at a funeral service,” writes Brian Blount, “A shout of praise because Rome has been killed. . . It’s like the climactic scene from the Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy pours water on the wicked witch of the west, and the witch melts into oblivion. When the people recognize what has happened, they break out singing in celebration, ‘Ding, Dong, the witch is dead. The wicked witch is dead’. The multitudes in Revelation are doing precisely the same thing. Hallelujah conveys the same sentiment.
“The singers in the Book of Revelation are the people of God who resisted Rome’s declaration that it was the Lord of human history. . . They refused to buy into the oppressive, monopolizing, self-serving Roman economy. . . They stubbornly declared that their ultimate allegiance was not to a country or a king, but to their God. These believers paid for their witness against Rome with their lives. When they stood up for the Lamb, Rome cut them down. Rome slaughtered them the way it had once slaughtered their Christ.”
Brian goes on to write: “John believes that God is coming soon to judge Rome. It is because of this coming judgment as justice that the people sing: Hallelujah! . . . I am reminded of the picture of a sailor kissing a lady in the middle of a great celebration in Times Square at the end of World War II. A great enemy had been vanquished after much bloodshed and death. Hallelujah. I am reminded of the pictures of Allied Tanks rolling into the areas where the concentration camps were and seeing images of soldiers setting the emaciated Jewish prisoners free. Hallelujah. Further back in history is . . . Abraham Lincoln, at Gettysburg, in the aftermath of a battle that had taken the lives of untold Americans in the pursuit of the hope that government of the people, by the people, and for the people should not perish from this earth. Hallelujah. This is what John is writing about. . . Whenever and wherever oppression is broken, hallelujah is an appropriate response.”
Where Brian Blount and Leonard Cohen diverge is in how they value a broken Hallelujah. Cohen sees all Hallelujahs as of equal value but Blount adds an important nuance: “A Hallelujah that is only a sung Hallelujah is a broken Hallelujah.” Brian goes on to say something about the worship service in heaven in Revelation 19: “For John, being in a church service forever is a good thing. Can you imagine?! Dressed up in your Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, sitting in a pew, listening to a sermon, singing in a choir, ushering at the door, clocks nowhere in sight, cause you were there, in a worship service, for all eternity. We have to get folk in and out of worship in an hour or every Presbyterian soul gets restless and anxious. People have places to go, after all, things to do, other people to see. In John’s vision, all they had to do, all they even wanted to do was worship. Can you imagine?! People would do worship for so long, with such intensity, that they would not only sing Hallelujah they would become Hallelujah.”
In some of Brian’s most powerful writing, he concludes, “. . . they are singing Hallelujah in heaven right now, calling with their voices for a response from us. Today. Right now. The heavenly choir director doesn’t care if we can keep on pitch. It’s not about how proper we sing, it’s about how loud and how real and how powerfully we sing. We don’t just move our lips . . . we break out with God’s song, in our voices, to the tune of persistence and power that break down the very foundations of evil and injustice in our world. We are God’s choir. We don’t break hallelujahs. We break the situations and circumstances that oppress God’s people and defy God’s liberating movement in the world. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. It’s not just a shout of praise. It is a way of life. Our job is to live it as loudly as we sing it. Hallelujah!”
Revelation 19 is set in heaven, far and away from “where cross the crowded ways of life.” But, Revelation 19 is a message for those who traffic on earth right now. It is an invitation, actually, for us to sing an unbroken Hallelujah even when we are being told to stop our jabbering, to get in line, to act politely. It is an invitation to shout our unbroken Hallelujah over the din of noise telling us that we cannot resist evil, we cannot stare down lies, we cannot stand with those falling off the edge of life.
God forgive those who turn Revelation into a horror movie intended to scare us into divine submission. God help us to reclaim Revelation as a call from God to address all the horrors around us by the power of our collected, unbroken Hallelujahs. God help us not only to sing Hallelujah but to be Hallelujah.