A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Easter 4 ~ Revelation 7:9-17
It’s weird, but I think it’s wonderful! I really like this Book of Revelation, even as I struggle with wading through the language and the imagery. It’s really worth the effort because the message is really apropos for today. That’s why I have us spending this whole month looking at it. Last week we dove into the really complex imagery of Jesus as the Lamb, and we wrestled with all that blood imagery and sacrificial language. I offered a couple of lenses to help us navigate that. Maybe as you pondered it over the week some questions or thoughts arose. Cool! I’d love to hear about that at coffee time or whenever.
I told you last week that my own personal lens for approaching the Book of Revelation is to see it as a masterful, one-person tour-de-force Broadway show. Imagine the narrator standing on stage, spinning this crazy sci-fi, fantasy tale, dazzling and mesmerizing the audience.
Revelation is not a letter to teach a ‘theology of the end times’ to the broader church. Like most scripture it’s written to a particular audience of people who were experiencing a specific set of circumstances. Revelation is a wild, sci-fi movie of a letter written to encourage the churches in a certain region because they’re experiencing tough times.
That is certainly applicable today! (even if the dragons and plagues are a little much!)
In Greek, the word ‘revelation’ is apocalypsis – an apocalypse. It literally means an uncovering, a revealing, hence “revelation”. It’s not about destruction, per se. While destruction happens in the telling of the vision, the point of the vision is not destruction, rather it’s to reveal the promise of the Presence of God.
Primarily, the book is an encouragement to those still in the “great ordeal”.
It’s meant to be a present help in hard times! We’ll talk more about that in a few minutes.
The writer of Revelation is writing to a group of seven churches in his charge. He’s like a bishop, and he’s writing a pastoral letter of encouragement – except instead of writing like a pastor he writes like Stephen King! (He’s a horror novel writer.)
Revelation is dripping in numerical imagery – there’s 7 churches, and a scroll with 7 seals, and 7 angels with 7 trumpets, and on and on it goes. And there’s all manner of wild creatures too – including (“living creatures”) 4 faced cherubim with 6 wings, and dragons, and horsemen, and beasts.
It truly boggles the mind that anyone could ever think any of this might be taken literally.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have really important things to say – it does – but to take this stuff literally, as if it actually happened (or will happen) this way, is absolute madness and a complete betrayal of the text.
So I encourage you to embrace the wildness of it, let it freak you out, and see what it’s really trying to tell us.
Today we’re in chapter 7. It’s a lovely, pastoral kind of reading.
But you should know that it comes as a breather in the midst of a huge cataclysm.
To understand that I have to tell you about chapter 6.
God produces a scroll with 7 seals.
The first 4 seals let loose the infamous four horsemen of the apocalypse.
The fifth seal reveals the martyrs who cry for vengeance – although a better translation would be justice, as in they cry for justice being served (which could look a whole lot like vengeance).
The sixth seal brings earthquakes, and eclipse, and the “powers that be” (the human kings and rulers and power-holders) go running for the hills because they fear the coming wrath.
And here we see the real target of this destructive fury.
Revelation is not about punishing individuals who are not Christians, or who are lapsed Christians.
It isn’t damning nice Christian folks who have strayed from the path, or committed sin, or have fallen short.
They aren’t the ones all this mayhem is aimed at.
No, it’s the powerful – it’s Caesar, it’s the Roman oppressors, it’s Empire that breeds injustice.
Then chapter 7 comes and we learn who is sealed and protected against such wrath, and the answer is the faithful.
We are sealed (marked) by our baptism and our following the Way of Jesus.
It says we’re sealed as we’re “washed in the blood of the Lamb.”
Again, we looked hard at that last week – and I suggested that, for me, a helpful way to look at that is to understand Jesus as the fulfillment of the sacrificial system they knew, and that his followers looked back at his life (after-the-fact) and came to understand that he could be seen as the ultimate completion of that system, and that his blood (as he told us in the Last Supper story) is really his life-blood, his passion, his spirit, and ultimately his love!
So, “washed in the blood” doesn’t have to be a “substitutionary atonement” thing where Jesus’ death appeases an angry God.
I told you I reject that (but if that’s where you are theologically then I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong – I may think it, but I wouldn’t tell you!).
Another lens offers that just like taking communion, the blood here is a metaphor and symbol for experiencing Jesus viscerally and deeply in a spiritual way.
Who is sealed and protected from this onslaught?
Those who have been sealed in baptism and communion – metaphorically “washed in his blood”.
(In other words, one way to interpret that is to say Washed=baptism — Blood=communion)
Remember, the purpose of the book is to encourage the church and help them to be faithful, even in hard times.
And then, after the worship-filled promises of relief and protection and blessing in chapter 7, we get the final 7th seal opened – with 7 angels and 7 trumpets and the judgement is unleashed. (Then there will be battles, and dragons, and beasts, and all that stuff still to come. But we just don’t have time to dive into it.)
Why does this all have to happen?
Because in order for something new to emerge (a new heaven and a new earth) something old has to be let go. In order for the new way, God’s way, to flourish, the current way, the way of Caesar, the way of oppression, the way of Empire, has to be crushed.
In order for the new thing to live, the former thing has to die.
New beginnings grow out of endings.
Empire is the enemy, and must be defeated – and then God’s perfect kingdom can flourish on earth (that’s what we’ll talk about in the next two sermons).
In a way, Revelation is about the death and resurrection of the world.
It’s an epic, cosmological Easter text.
The text speaks of the people coming though (and still immersed in) a “great ordeal” or tribulation.
To put it militaristically, they are the foot soldiers in the cosmic battle between the Lamb and the Emperor.
Simply put, Jesus people will be in conflict with Rome, with Caesar, with Empire. If you follow Jesus you can’t adhere to certain Roman requirements, which would result in punishments.
For example, it was expected that citizens would affirm that Caesar is Lord – but Christians instead claim Jesus is Lord, and if they refused to give allegiance to Rome they were punished.
If the requirement is to participate in Empire, but your faith demands that you conscientiously object and refuse to participate, then there will be negative consequences. The Empire will exert its power and authority, and you’ll suffer.
The threat of the Church not being strong enough to stand up to Empire was (and is) real!
There was significant worry that they might be swallowed up – that they’d conform to Roman ways – so John in Revelation encourages strength in the “ordeal”, and paints a vivid picture of the Empire being crushed!
And here’s where we can see this ancient text speaking directly into our current context.
The Roman Empire is long gone, but the concept of Empire, and the vice-grip hold that Empire has on the world is still very powerful and oppressive.
Still today, there is great injustice in many, many places, and it’s usually caused by those with power and economic clout wielding it, oppressing and hurting those without power, for their own benefit.
Looking around today’s Canada it may not seem like we’re in the midst of a hostile Empire, but I think you could make strong arguments that we are.
And here’s the really awkward, challenging, and painful part.
Most of us sitting here are complicit.
We’ve been swallowed up just like John worried about!
Even without realizing it we are participating in all sorts of aspects of Empire – oppressing all sorts of people, and it never even blips on our radar.
That requires some serious pondering!
And then on a personal level we may find ourselves immersed in our own great ordeal.
As individuals we may be oppressed in some ways.
We may be struggling mightily with any number of challenges – health, economic, vocational, relationships, maybe even our faith.
Perhaps you’ve heard the quote: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle!”
It’s absolutely true!
We all have our own version of the “great ordeal”.
And in the face of that reality Revelation 6:17 asks this profound question: “Who is able to stand?”
The rest of this book gives the answer.
Who is able to stand? Those who keep the faith! Those who are faithful witnesses.
The encouragement is to risk it all for the sake of the faith – just like Jesus did.
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”
14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of (and continue in) the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (through their baptism and faithfulness).
15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship God day and night within God’s temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
That word “shelter” actually means to “tabernacle” them – to cover them as with a holy tent, the sense of God’s radiant presence dwelling as a canopy over us, a worshipful protection – it’s a very spiritual form of sheltering – for those who keep faith in the great ordeal.
And what is the benefit for such faithfulness?
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;
17 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.”
We often use that last bit as a funeral text, and it’s really lovely imagery for the end of life.
But remember, the Book of Revelation isn’t necessarily about the end of all; it’s about encouragement for those still in the battle, the great ordeal, whatever it may be.
This might be the most important thing I say today.
Please hear this, because a common interpretation of Revelation that says it’s about the end, like a funeral, misses the point.
The point is to answer the question: Who is able to stand? (Not, “What happens when you die?” but “Who is able to stand?”)
And, for me, the great lesson of this, the point of this sermon, is this:
We are not sealed/baptized “from” the challenges of life but “for” the challenges of life.
We are not sealed/baptized “from” the challenges of life but “for” the challenges of life.
People who hold faith are not immune from hardship or woe, but they do have holy strength, and holy power, and holy love to draw on to help see them through those woes.
I say this all the time: a life of faith is no magic wand; it’s an embracing of God’s promise that we are not alone.
None of that will make your great ordeal disappear.
It didn’t for John’s audience way back then either. The Empire remained.
Who is able to stand?
The faithful who are marked and sealed through baptism and spiritual nurture.
The faithful who are blessed to experience worship of God alongside the angels, and the elders, and the cherubim, and the multitudes upon multitudes of other faithful folk.
The faithful who are open and receptive to God’s promise of relief –
16-17 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.”
I wish it could be a literal relief.
I wish that faithfulness could literally take away all the hunger and thirst and hardship.
I wish I could snap my fingers and alleviate your great ordeal – but I can’t.
It doesn’t work that way.
So I turn to the more compelling part of that verse, the ending – that the faithful will be guided to springs of the water of life!
And there, we can drink deeply!
Such a source of refreshment, encouragement, support, nourishment, and renewal is not to be taken lightly.
This is how we’re empowered to face our own great ordeals – and to stand in the face of Empire, and speak our truth.
You are known and loved by God.
You are marked and sealed for the challenges of life.
Take a deep breath and savour this sweet, spiritual relief.
And then, formed, filled and fueled, return to the fray.