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April 15, 1865. The day after President Lincoln’s assassination, a crowd gathered on the streets of New York City. The news had inflamed emotions, and anger toward the President’s critics flared. Cries for vengeance began to sound.
As the throng threatened to become a mob, suddenly a man stepped forward, ramrod posture, a Union Army general. His voice rang out, commanding attention, “Fellow citizens! Clouds and darkness are around about him. His pavilion is dark waters and thick clouds of the skies. Justice and judgment are the establishment of his throne. Mercy and truth shall go before his face. Fellow citizens! God reigns, and the government at Washington still lives!”
The words immediately calmed the crowd. The speaker was General James A. Garfield, Ohio congressman, Christian Church preacher and future president of the United States.
In the midst of crisis, Garfield knew what people needed to hear: God is still on his throne.
The apostle John knew this, too.
In the book of Revelation, John writes to believers in Asia Minor undergoing persecution. They are losing jobs, facing ridicule, under threat of imprisonment and even execution. Their lives have been turned upside down, and they are wondering how they will ever endure. They need encouragement, and they need it now. So in Revelation 4, John invites them into worship, into the very throne room of heaven.
Throne is the key word in Revelation 4, used 14 times. It might be the key word to the entire book, appearing 46 times. After all, the bedrock of Christian theology is the sovereignty of God, and John wants his readers to know: God is in control of the universe. Our God reigns, and in worship, God’s supremacy is once again impressed upon our minds.
That’s what happens in the greatest worship service in the Bible. When you enter heaven’s royal court in Revelation 4, you suck in your breath, shield your eyes from the dazzling light and drop to your knees in fear and wonder. Incense fills your nostrils. An angelic warhost so vast you have to count it by the ten thousands shakes the very foundations of the sky with their praise. The countless, thundering voices rumble in your chest. The noise is so loud you can’t hear yourself think.
Every being in heaven is focused on the throne. At the center of that throne is a majestic God—so holy that he cannot be named, so glorious that the only way John can paint him is by dipping his brush in thunder, lightning, rainbows and jewels.
We could try to take apart the imagery of this scene. We could say the clear jasper and smoldering carnelian hint at God’s pure, blazing holiness. We could say the rainbow—God’s promise to withhold flood-judgment—pictures his faithful mercies. We could say the crashing thunder, splitting lightning and conquered sea all signify God’s majestic power.
But mostly, we are meant to say nothing at all. We are meant to be left speechless.
We are also meant to be left fearless.
This vision of God on the throne is meant to recalibrate our imagination. John’s readers thought the world was controlled by the evil Roman Emperor Domitian, and in the midst of hardship, we, too, can think our world is controlled by our crisis. Worries invade your mind like a hostile army, doubts and dangers assail you, and fear looms so large it blots out the blue sky of heaven.
But in worship, we see the throne, and these earthly fears assume their proper size. In light of God’s power, they are frail and finite. Our entire outlook on the world changes.
Now we can see clearly, and this worship scene in Revelation 4 declares, “Be encouraged, small, persecuted church. Be warned, haughty Roman empire. Tremble with fear, Satan and your host of darkness. God is on the throne and he is in control of all things!”
At Ozark Christian College, we are preparing the next generation of worship leaders for the church, and our Music Department has recently undergone a number of changes. A few to mention:
We want our worship majors to serve the church well. Under the teaching of folks like Dr. Tom Lawson, Matthew Holt, Tammy Nelson, Rob Pommert and Andrea Huckabay, our students dig into the Bible’s teaching about worship, learn worship history, study musical theory and gain vocal and instrumental skills. They learn how to lead volunteers, form worship teams, and plan an effective worship service.
But most importantly, we want our worship majors to take people before the throne.
Our graduates will serve in churches where, like the apostle John’s readers, people’s lives will be in crisis. We want our graduates equipped to lead others into a deeper awareness of God’s presence, to use the arts to paint a vivid reminder that God is in control. We want them to inspire the church to greater awe of God.
The greatest worship service I’ve ever witnessed happened in my living room. In January of 2013, my wife Katie began experiencing health difficulties, and soon the diagnosis came back: cancer.
The word was a punch in the gut, and our lives were instantly turned upside down. More tests, more doctors, more hospitals, more surgery. Our heads were spinning, and our hearts were hurting. I remember praying, “Lord, I need her, our six kids need her. Please don’t take her yet.”
Katie was so weak and her immune system so compromised that she could not leave the house, and she missed worshipping with our church for over three months.
But OCC alum (and dear friend) Paul Burton brought church to her. The worship leader at our congregation, Paul showed up at our house one day and gathered the whole Proctor clan in the living room. Katie sat in the chair she’d been in for weeks, my son Luke sat at the piano, and Paul sat on the couch with his guitar and led us in worship.
"Amazing Grace," "Ten Thousand Reasons," "How Great Is Our God"—our living room was transformed into the throne room. With eyes closed, hands raised, tears streaming down our cheeks, we sang together:
Troubles surround me, chaos abounding
My soul will rest in You.
I will not fear the war, I will not fear the storm
My help is on the way, my help is on the way
Oh, my God, He will not delay
My refuge and strength always
I will not fear, His promise is true
My God will come through always, always
Paul kept coming back, and over those dreadful weeks, he sang hope back into our hearts and strength back into our souls.
Today, if you are in crisis, facing trials, engulfed in doubt and fear, you may not feel like singing. But when we feel like worshipping the least is when we need to worship the most. It is then we see most clearly: God is still on the throne.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of our college magazine, The Ambassador. Read this and other issues at occ.edu/ambassador.