Sing a New Song: “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!”
Lesson: Revelation 4:1-11
Certain sensations remind you vividly of your childhood – whisk you back like a time machine. I lived in Stockton for the first eleven years of my life. So for me, those sensations include the taste of fresh peaches. The smell of chlorine. Trying to see across the street through dense tule fog. Impossibly hot pavement. And hearing a congregation sing our hymn for today, “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!”
It probably isn’t even close to true that we sang this hymn every Sunday at Lincoln Presbyterian Church. But it felt that way. We sang from the green hymnal, which was the Presbyterian hymnal before the red hymnal, which was before the blue hymnal we use now. The green hymnal was published in 1933 and almost 2 percent of Presbyterian congregations still use it. There’s a line in the song, “Gimme that Old Time Religion” that goes, “It was good enough for Grandma, it’s good enough for me.” Maybe that’s the way some folks feel about their green hymnals.
So I thought of “Holy, Holy, Holy!” as the most Presbyterian of all hymns but in fact, it was written by an Anglican. Reginald Heber was born in 1783 into a privileged and educated family in Cheshire, England. He was something of a prodigy, translating a Latin classic into English verse by the time he was seven, entering Oxford at 17, and winning two awards for his poetry during his time there. After Oxford he became rector of his father’s church in the village of Hodnet in the west of England. One writer describes his 16 years at Hodnet as “a halfway position between a parson and a squire,” a squire being an English country gentleman. He was known for his devoted care for his congregation but also for his literary work. He wrote 57 hymns, served on the staff of a literary journal and was friends with prominent writers of the time. He was the first to compile a hymnal ordering hymns around the church calendar.
Heber abandoned the comfort and prestige of his life in Hodnet when he discerned that God was calling him to India. In 1823, at the age of 40, he was appointed Bishop of Calcutta, where he worked tirelessly for three years until the weather and his extensive travel throughout the region took its toll on his health, and he died of a stroke. After his death, his wife found “Holy, Holy, Holy!” among some of his writings, and passed it on to noted musician John Dykes, who composed and arranged the hymn for publication in 1861. Heber had written “Holy, Holy Holy!” for Trinity Sunday, and so Dykes named the tune “Nicaea,” because it was the first Council of Nicaea that formalized the doctrine of the Trinity in 325 A.D. Heber not only specifically speaks of the Trinity in the hymn – “God in three persons, blessed Trinity” – he uses the symbolism of three repeatedly: God is “holy, merciful and mighty;” God is “perfect in power, in love and purity;” God is worshiped by saints, cherubim, and seraphim; and God is praised “in earth and sky and sea.”
Heber draws much of his imagery in the hymn from Revelation, chapter 4, our Scripture passage for today. Most people’s impressions are that the book of Revelation is violent and fearsome: four horsemen unleash destruction and calamity on the earth, mysterious numbers like 666 spell destruction; mutant locusts and multi-headed beasts terrify, an end-times battle of Armageddon leaves millions slaughtered. It’s small wonder most progressive preachers won’t touch Revelation with a ten-foot pole. It doesn’t help that what many people know about Revelation – or I should say, what they think they know – comes from the Left Behind series, what one commentator calls, “Christian fiction on steroids.” Or that Revelation has repeatedly provided raw material for self-appointed prophets to make predictions about future world events – none of which seem to come to pass.
Revelation is certainly one of the most difficult books in the Bible, full of strange and scary and even violent symbolism. A couple of years ago the Horizons Bible study – that’s the Bible study published by our denomination’s Presbyterian Women’s organization – the Horizons study was about Revelation, and it provided terrific and very accessible insight into the historical context of the book. The title of the study was Journeys Through Revelation: Apocalyptic Hope for Today, and the author of the study, Barbara Rossing, asserts that the most important thing for us to know about Revelation is that it is a message of hope.
A journey through Revelation takes us back in time 2,000 years ago to the struggling churches in the bustling cities of the Roman Empire. Revelation was written late in the first century, during the last years of Emperor Domitian. The author of Revelation, John of Patmos, is a seer – a visionary. He sees the problems, the injustices, the tragedy of the Roman Empire – prosperity for some, violence and misery for many. There wasn’t systematic persecution of Christians at the time, but simply attempting to be a faithful Christian in the Roman Empire led to hardship. Those who openly pledged allegiance to Christ over and against the Emperor were economically and socially excluded from the larger community. Saying no to Rome’s kingship was a daring, subversive claim.
So John of Patmos leads us through a series of visions. Visions are a standard feature in apocalyptic literature. Apocalypse means “revealing,” as though a veil has been removed, and apocalyptic literature is sort of like science fiction today. There’s space and time travel; there are scenes of terrifying and life-changing power; including violence, born of very human desperation. John’s readers knew not to take these visions literally.
As the journey unfolds, each successive vision reminds us that God alone is worthy of our praise and allegiance. The first three chapters take place on earth, and then, at the beginning of Chapter 4, which we read this morning, John is summoned up to heaven.
The first vision in heaven is the heavenly throne room. God, we’re told, looks like jasper and carnelian, two semi-precious stones, and God is surrounded by an emerald-like a rainbow. These images lack something for our twenty-first century imaginations. I have a hard time getting past the idea that this emerald green rainbow is missing five of its six colors. The point is the majesty of God. It might be a fun exercise to conjure up a wildly imaginative image of God that would appear majestic and truly awe-inspiring today, in twenty-first century Northern California. Would God be sitting atop a redwood tree? Would the monstrous crashing waves at the Mavericks surfing competition bow down before God? [Readers: You can witness the power of Mavericks at the link in the footnote below] 
John pictures twenty-four elders casting their crowns before God. The line in “Holy, Holy, Holy” is, “casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.” In the throne room of the Roman emperor, people sang songs of allegiance and liturgies of praise. Petty kings, subject to the emperor, would throw their crowns before him as a sign of his supremacy, a sign of their allegiance and worship. So John uses the image to remind us that only God, not the empire or the Emperor, is worthy of worship. “Only thou art Holy,” wrote Heber.
Now, Heber also lived in an empire – the powerful and growing British Empire. India was part of that Empire. On the one hand, we see Heber leaving a life of comfort to minister to people in a distant and foreign culture. On the other hand, from our perspective a couple of hundred years later, we know that it is always the case with empire that the goals of religion and the goals of economic and political domination get mixed together. How much of that could Heber see? I don’t know.
What I do know is that Heber’s hymn and the book of Revelation remind us that worshiping God is subversive of empire; it is the antidote to empire and to all the powers that are at crossed purposes with God’s purposes. Worship and allegiance are central themes throughout Revelation. In response to the crisis faced by first century Christians, John tried to sharpen the alternatives of worshiping either the emperor or God.
We still have to choose. We don’t live in the Roman Empire in the first century, or the British Empire in the nineteenth. But the Scripture passage and the hymn raise these questions for us: What powers other than God are we at risk of worshiping today? What powers do we give our ultimate allegiance?
The community that worships God is the alternative to empire and to all the powers at crossed purposes with God’s purposes. The community set up by Jesus, a universal community of every nation, every language and every people, created by his witness of nonviolent love, forgiveness, gratitude, inclusion of the outcast, justice for the poor and joy is a community that sings praise to God, not the emperor. It is a community that sings of its hope and trust that God’s will for all creation is peace, freedom, healing, well-being – shalom. Songs are a huge part of the book of Revelation. Perhaps that’s because, as Brian Blount writes, songs “unbind people from their fear.” When we planned worship for today, our resident Francophile John Parfitt suggested an all-French musical program because yesterday was Bastille Day, the French national holiday celebrating the beginning of the French Revolution. We lightheartedly tossed around the idea of using, “Can You Hear the People Sing,” from the musical, Les Misérables, which involves a later French uprising. And then it occurred to me that a desperate song about revolution ending with hope in God’s vision for the world was the perfect anthem for a day we’re preaching from the book of Revelation.
I’m guessing that when you woke up this morning and decided to go to church, you weren’t thinking that you were about to do something daring, something powerfully subversive. I’m guessing it didn’t occur to you that by singing hymns today, by praying shoulder to shoulder with your brothers and sisters, by hearing God’s Word proclaimed, you are standing in opposition to the many powers that strive to rule our hearts and minds, every day, everywhere: consumerism, nationalism, racism, militarism, religious extremism, the destructive divisiveness in our political system. But you are.
And I never would have thought that one of the most traditional, most lofty, most Presbyterian of all the hymns in our hymnal – even though it was written by an Anglican – is in fact one of the most alternative, and even rebellious, but it is.
Holy, holy, holy! Only thou art holy. There is none beside thee! Who wert, and art, and ever more shall be! Amen, and amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2012.
 Barbara R. Rossing, Journeys Through Revelation: Apocalyptic Hope for Today (Louisville, KY: Horizons, Presbyterian Women, Inc., PCUSA, 2010), p. 3.
 J. Nelson Kraybill, “Revelation Through the Centuries/Can I Get a Witness?” in The Christian Century, October 3, 2006, http://www.christiancentury.org/reviews/2006-10/revelation-through-centuriescan-i-get-witness.
 Rossing, ibid.
 Rossing, p. 23.
 If you’re not familiar with Mavericks, the annual surfing competition at Half Moon Bay, CA, you can grasp a sense of the awesome power of the waves in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CcioR3ElH60.
 Martha Greene, “Whitewash,” in The Christian Century, October 9-22, 2002, p. 19.
 Pablo Richard, Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, English translation, 1993), p. 68.
 Rossing, p. 27.