After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”Revelation 7:9-19
My sermon from the All Saints Sunday (November 5, 2023) on Revelation 7:9-17.
Revelation, the last book in our Bible, is a bit of an odd duck. It describes a divine vision given to a man named John while exiled on a small island off the coast of Turkey. The vision, though, wasn’t full of fluffy clouds, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, and puppy dogs wagging their tails. Instead, Revelation is filled with giant locusts shaped like tanks, the moon and a third of all stars falling from the sky, and four horsemen announcing the end of the world. The words Revelation used to paint pictures in our minds are often confusing, terrifying, weird, and beautiful all at the same time. For centuries, Christians have tried to decode what all the oddness in the book might mean. Folks often use it as a kind of checklist that reveals the date, time, and location when all of this might end. We take what we’re going through now and wonder if a certain ruler, war, famine, or new technology represents one of the strange images and metaphors described in Revelation itself. The problem, though, is that when someone claims they finally have it all figured out, the world continues and a new generation of Christians come into being. Revelation is a book that feels like it’s for someone else which is why we often choose to spend time with the bits of our Bible that feel like they make a bit more sense. But, in my opinion, Revelation’s strangeness is the reason why Revelation still matters because it shows, in the midst of everything going on in our world and in our lives, what being with Jesus is all about.
So one of the ways we sit with Revelation is by paying attention to its initial purpose. Most writings in the Christian half of our bible were written for a specific reason and then, later on, we’re called scripture. For example, the author of the gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles started their book off by explaining how they wanted to report an “orderly” account of Jesus’ life and the early church to a non-believer with some kind of political power. And Paul, in his many letters, was often responding to a specific crisis or situation within a specific faith community. Revelation, we assume, is all about the end of the world since its name, in its original Greek, is simply “Apocalypse.” Yet the reason why we use, in our culture, the word “apocalypse” to describe the end of the world is because we tend to only pay attention to that part of the book itself. An apocalypse is not simply a series of cataclysmic events leading up the end game for the world. An apocalypse is primarily an unveiling: pointing out something we can’t always see. And what Revelation wanted to reveal is actually described in its first few chapters. John initially wrote this book to seven churches in what is now modern day Turkey. These churches were probably pretty small but they had been noticed by the wider community. A series of conflicts, questions, and situations within these places had made them wonder where God was in the midst of it all. For the communities that were poor, sick, small, and under other kinds of pressures, when were God’s promises finally going to come true? For the communities that were large and wealthy – how was God pushing them out of their sense of entitlement and into a deep love for one another? Also where was God when certain cultural expressions of power, holiness, and a Roman version of patriotism – things some even called Christian – were really centered in the idols we’ve constructed about what power, strength, wealth, security, and comfort are supposed to be about? And in this messed up, broken, and sometimes beautiful world – how does Jesus matter when it doesn’t seem as if believing makes any difference at all? These questions are the kinds of questions that never grow old since we wonder the same thing in the midst of our own pain, suffering, loss, and grief. It would be awesome to say that we move past these questions the more we pray, read our Bible, and participate in the life of the church. But in my personal experience, these questions continue since living with faith is full of ups and downs and moments of certainty and endless doubt. The strangeness of Revelation not only addresses those faithful questions but it also reminds us how strange faith and life can be while following a Jesus who is fully divine but still wounded. And whenever the sense of dread, confusion, worry, and fear becomes too much – the vision recorded by John repeatedly shifts into a scene like the one we read today – when we’re suddenly in God’s throne room.
Now the Revelation’s strangeness does appear in God’s throne room but it’s meant to bring us a sense of hope rather than fear. The place God is – isn’t empty. It’s full of people from everywhere and every place. And these people, rather than appearing as soldiers, guards, or the secret service we’d expect hanging around a king, Queen, or emperor, are dressed in the white they put on in their baptism and are busy waving palm branches in the air. Among them are angels and the four living creatures who are described as some kind of divine beast familiar to those who read Ezekiel or are well versed in Roman mythology. And at the center of this very human and very divine gathering is a lamb – showing how vulnerability isn’t the weakness we assume it must be. This gathered community stretches beyond all time and space while wrapped up in the love, peace, and joy of God. And even those who swear they can’t sing – soon find that, in that place, they can’t do anything else.
We might imagine this vision of God’s throne room to be, like other bits of Revelation, focused on what comes next. Yet what makes this part of John’s vision different from the rest is how rooted it’s supposed to be in our present moment. What’s being revealed to the seven churches, to John, and to us is that there is more to our world than all of this. What we see and experience isn’t all there since we, like those robed in white, have our own place around God’s holy throne. It’s a promise that this moment isn’t the limit of who we are since we are already Jesus’ beloved and we get to sing even when our world and our lives make that singing hard. Now I’ll admit it’s easier to say this rather than to trust it since grief, worry, and fear often makes us wonder if these words from God are true at all. Yet God often chooses to reveal this present and holy reality through the various saints God brings into our lives. That does not mean these people are perfect but, rather, that they, in their own ways, made God’s throne room visible to us. They are the ones who, when we feel lost, show how we’ve already been found. When we hunger and thirst, they are the ones who made sure we had what we needed to thrive. They helped us, protected us, loved us, and knew this world couldn’t be what it’s supposed to be without us. And it’s through their generosity and care, when the tears we shed are embraced and then wiped away from our eyes. These saints might not be physically in our presence but they are always with us because God’s love never ends. Yet this day is more than a day to remember; it’s also a day to live out God’s throne room too. We, because of our baptism and faith, get to answer the call to be those same kinds of saints to the people around us and to every generation that comes next. Together, we’ll put that into practice, by revealing to Alice her place in God’s throne room. We will, along with her family, friends, and godparents, will promise to listen to her, to pray with her, and we will be there no matter what comes next. And in those moments when things seem a bit strange, weird, scary, and we wonder where God is – we’ll be there to hold her tears and wipe them away. We’ll do this, not because we’re perfect, but because being with Jesus invites us to do nothing less.