In recent years, flash mobs have appeared in shopping malls, and surprised people by singing the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah. These eruptions of song appear to be spontaneous -- they are surprising and inspiring, bringing worship into the middle of typically secular spaces.
The book of Revelation is full of surprises.
A pastor named John was the author of this book. As a leader of the first-century church, he had special concern for "the seven churches that are in Asia" (Revelation 1:4), and at the time that he wrote, he was living in exile "on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus" (1:9). Chances are, he was sent there by the Romans because he insisted on saying that his Lord was Jesus, rather than the Roman emperor.
So there he is, minding his own business on a Sunday (the book of Revelation says that it is "the Lord's day," 1:10), when suddenly he is summoned to "come up" to heaven (4:1).
In his Sunday worship, he's transported to heaven.
A big surprise! One that most of us would welcome, especially in the middle of a routine worship service.
So what does he see there?
Sitting on a throne is Almighty God, looking like the gemstones jasper and carnelian. God is enclosed by an emerald-like rainbow, and his throne is surrounded by four living creatures with many watchful eyes. The four creatures are surrounded by 24 white-clothed elders and their thrones.
And what are they doing? Worshiping God together.
These members of the heavenly court throw themselves completely into worship. The four creatures unceasingly sing "holy, holy, holy" to praise "the Lord God the Almighty" (4:8). In sync with them, the 24 elders fall down before the throne, saying in unison that God is worthy "to receive glory and honor and power" because God created all things (4:10-11).
What we have here, to express it in contemporary terms, is a flash mob of worshipers. John sees the Lord God Almighty, reigning over heaven and Earth, and a flash mob of beings worshiping.
From Revelation chapter 5, it seems that worship in heaven is quite spontaneous and impromptu so why in some liturgical circles free worship as found what will be in heaven is deemed bad?
African descent interpretation of Flash-Mob Messiah.
What is accepted in this passage was diluted in the history of early slaves who had to worship clandestinely, what has come to be known as the "invisible institution." In these secret places, they took great risks to express their faith in traditional African ways. Can John identify with African American slaves, was he not secluded on the isle of Patmos and took a great risk in writing in the midst of Roman domination that self expression in worship will be spontaneous like a flash mob? Do the secret places of the invisible institution, known also as "hush harbors" in deep gullies, ravines or in slave cabins have a psychological affect on those who are in African descent to relate in the flash mob found in this passage? Is the association of our spontaneity in worship over compensation to what was taken away from us in the invisible institution?
I would say that what John is saying to all, including African descent persons, is that worship is not a spectator sport. In the African religious tradition naturally no one was to be separated as an onlooker or observer, stranger or spectator. Just like in the flash mob, the purpose of worship is for all to be brought into the worship experience as participants. The participative and relational character of African-American worship can be reflected to ask the names of those sitting next to them, to shake hands with people around them, or to turn to their neighbors and say "God bless you." Or they might be instructed to leave their seats for a brief period of time and go around the sanctuary to hug and greet as many people as they can. Strength for the individual is found in what strengthens the community. Worship for African-Americans is not an entering into oneself; instead it is an encounter between God, the worshiper and the worshiping community and family. That's what to me the word liturgeoia is defined as the communal work of the people.
John's vision of the heavenly court gives us important clues about how to worship God. Like the 24 elders who represent the people of God, we are to fall before God with humility, and praise God with joyful thanks for the creation of "all things" (4:10, 11). Like them, we are also to fall before Christ and praise him with a new song, in thanks for his redemption of the world (5:8, 9).
We can also identify with the living creatures of heaven and earth that are exuberant in their praise of God and Christ (5:13). In every time and place, praise-filled worship is a proper offering to our God and to the Lamb, the ones who have created, redeemed, and renewed us.
This vision of heavenly worship sums up what God and Christ are doing in the world. It prepares us to face the many struggles of life, including a variety of temptations and hardships, by inviting us to carve out time for worship in the course of our daily lives.
As we offer songs of praise, the Holy Spirit will open our eyes to the beauty of the world, the wonder of life and the mystery of love. As we bow in humility, we will become more confident in God's care and control, and more trusting in Christ our Savior. As we make space for worship, we will discover that God and Christ are continuing the work of creation, redemption, and renewal. We will find that they are always worthy of our honor and blessing, and deserving of our praise:
King of kings, forever and ever.
And Lord of lords.
Follow Reverend William E. Flippin, Jr. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pastorbilljr