What is the worship like in your church? I belong to a tradition about which the following (apocryphal) story was told. A stranger walked into the service and started 'Amening' and exclaiming 'Hallelujah/Praise the Lord'. One of the elders approached and rebuked him: 'We don't "Praise the Lord" in this church!"'
On the other hand maybe you belong to a church where 'Praise the Lord' or 'Hallelujah' is a kind of spiritual punctuation offered after almost every sentence. At the University of Edinburgh a non-Christian student went with some friends to a Christian Union praise service. At one point there was a time of 'open praise' where individuals could just start up a song or prayer and everyone would just join in. He found this such a strange and bizarre experience that he decided to try a little experiment. When a silence occurred he started singing 'He'll be coming round the mountain when he comes...' Many people joined in – until he got to the chorus, 'singing Aye, Yi, Yippee, Yippee Aye'!
Is it not the case that our praise is too often mediocre or weird? It's heartless or thoughtless. Our songs and sermons are so much about ourselves. Yes, we use lots of spiritual language about God, Jesus and the Spirit, but it's a code that is really about us. Maybe we could learn from Revelation, where every verse is suffused with the rest of the Scriptures. Maybe we should learn to sing again the Psalms of the Bible and the songs of heaven.
Maybe our praise would be a little more heavenly if it was focused on the God of heaven and earth and not just on us and our immediate needs.
In Revelation 19 we have a description of a praise service in heaven which is mind-blowing – and if we could hear and see it, it would be deafening in its sound and blinding in its magnificence. The first four verses tell us of the praises in heaven by the angels, the 24 elders and the four living creatures. They call for praise and response – and this comes from the saints, apostles and prophets on earth. It is one almighty Hallelujah!
Salvation includes deliverance from the anti-God powers and so includes thanks for God's judgment. It seems strange to us to celebrate judgment. When were you last in a church where that happened? Many churches, if they mention it at all, seem almost embarrassed by the idea and want to offer an excuse for God.
But think of it in a different way. Can you imagine standing by the shores of the Red Sea after the Exodus? You and your people have been oppressed for years by the dictator Pharaoh, you will have many memories of brutality and loved ones killed, and finally just when it looks as though you are going to escape Pharaoh turns up with his army and seems about to slaughter you.
Then God comes in judgment and Pharaoh and his riders are drowned in the sea – before your very eyes. How would you respond? 'Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord: I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea' (Exodus 15:1). little wonder that Miriam and the women with her, took their tambourines and danced! Perhaps if we had a greater awareness of the spiritual forces we face and the evil in the world, we too would be a little more celebratory about the Lord defeating evil.
I wonder if we in the Western Church have become so detached from the reality of suffering that we have created a plastic Jesus whom we worship as the cuddly toy of our life's rather than the awesome God who 'condemns the great prostitute, avenges the blood of his servants and saves his people'. Maybe we are not as ready for heaven as we think we are. Maybe some of our songs are more like pathetic little ditties more suited for spiritual nursery rhymes than praise to the glorious triune God – who is worshipped with the sound of rushing waters, loud peals of thunder and great glory.
Although this worship service celebrates the just and righteous judgment of God and the defeat of evil and all its powers, there is much, much more. This is judgment not as an end in itself, but for a purpose. And the purpose is a wedding. This is the party beyond all parties. It is the wedding of the Lamb. Unlike other weddings there are no tensions between families, no worries about catering or weather, no objections to be feared, nor a future to be apprehensive about. There are no debts to be paid for. It's all been paid.
There are some wedding invitations you get and they sit on your mantelpiece and you wonder if you can even be bothered going. And there are others that have you jumping for joy even at the prospect of getting an invitation. Even as I write this I am preparing to head to the beautiful island of Harris to join in the wedding of a lovely young couple from my congregation. We are delighted to go because of who is getting married and where it is. This is like the heavenly wedding supper of the Lamb.
The venue is the new heavens and the new earth – a place without blemish or defect, so extraordinarily beautiful that even the beauties of the Harris beaches or the grandeur of the greatest cathedral pale into insignificance. But what is even more astonishing is that we are invited not just as guests or observers but as the bride. The whole purpose of Christ is to redeem for himself a people whom he describes as his bride. Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her (Ephesians 5:25). Right now we may look at ourselves as the Church and see something that can be pretty ugly – but here we get a glimpse of what we shall be. The angels roar and praise – not just because of the destruction of the evil that had threatened to overcome the good, but because the Lamb who sits on the throne has a bride – and she is pure, glorious, holy and beautiful.
The bride wears fine linen – bright and clean. John adds an explanatory note that tells us that the fine linen is the righteous acts of God's holy people. When you go to a wedding you don't just jump into your everyday wear – you put on your glad rags and make a real effort. The Bible tells us that our good deeds are just like filthy rags – they won't get us into the wedding feast, they will get us thrown out. So what are these righteous acts? They are the things we do because we belong to Jesus and so have been set free to serve the living God. They are the forgiveness we show, the love we demonstrate, the kindness and gentleness we exemplify because we know whom we have believed. We give the cup of water in Jesus' name (not for our own glory or self-justification) and every cup so given becomes part of that glorious wedding dress. This is what real holiness is. Likeness to the beauty, goodness and purity of Jesus. We shall be like him for we shall see him as he is.
It's a stunning idea that when we grasp it makes us want to fall down and worship. And that is precisely what John does – but he gets it wrong. He falls at the feet of the angel and the angel says, 'Don't do that. I am just like you – a fellow servant with your brothers and sisters who hold to the testimony of Jesus.' Isn't that also an astonishing thing – we have been elevated from the dregs of a humanity in rebellion against God to being on a par with the angels. We are fit to join in the greatest praise and worship service ever. That's why all ideas of 'intermediaries' or 'special religious ceremonies' or 'good works' that take us to God are so wrong. We have been invited. We cannot earn that invitation, or work our way up through the spiritual ranks to get there. It's an invitation that applies to the prostitute as much as to the priest.
Little wonder that the angel tells John: 'Write this: blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!' And he added, 'these are the true words of God'. As John will remind us at the end of this book – there is no need to add to them, or to take away from them. The question is do we believe them? And do we act upon them? Will we accept the invitation to the greatest praise/worship/wedding/feast/party of eternity?