Do you have hope for the future of this world? For the future of our country? After a year of threats of nuclear war, devastating wildfires in the West, 4 “once in a century” hurricanes, ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people, and a rapidly warming planet, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people saw that today’s text was from Revelation and thought, “a sermon on the End Times? That seems about right.” I have to confess; this year has been particularly hard on me. I sometimes feel like Frodo Baggins at the end of Two Towers in the Lord of the Rings, with a destitute look on his face as he looks at his faithful traveling partner and says, “What are we holding onto Sam?”
What are you holding on to? What hope do you have for a world that feels broken beyond repair? Are these the end times Revelation was foretelling 2,000 years ago? It should come as no surprise to you that we are not the first people to be asking these questions. The world has seemed near its very end, time and time again throughout the centuries. The book of Revelation was written to 7 churches in Asia Minor, most likely during the second century. They were facing intense persecution for their faith by Roman Empire, widespread famine, and crushing inflation. They were the heirs of the faith passed on by the disciples; the ones to whom Jesus said he would soon be returning. And yet, decades later, the disciples had passed away and people were wondering, is Christ going to return?
In the midst of intense persecution and a world that seems on the brink of collapse, the early Christians must have been wondering, is there hope? What they received was the book of Revelation. If you’re anything like me, the book of Revelation is a part of the Bible that you tend to ignore as long as you possibly can. It’s a book filled with strange, even violent, imagery and it’s been used in some confusing and destructive ways. John receives a vision of the risen Jesus Christ and is shown an apocalyptic vision of beasts and dragons, cosmic battles, scrolls and trumpets, and ultimately, a new Heaven and new Earth. The question for us, then, remains: when does this all happen? Is this a vision of what is literally going to happen on Earth? Is this vision something that has already happened? And how does this vision fit with the rest of who scripture reveals God to be?
Today’s scripture reading comes from Revelation 7:9-17. It comes after the 6 of the 7 seals have been opened on the scroll. Just before this, there were 144,000 thousand people of the tribes of Israel who were sealed by God. And there begins our scripture reading.
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.”
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
What is the largest group of people you’ve ever been in? A concert at Madison Square Garden? A Seahawks game? A parade? For me, it was the Women’s March on Washington. I was part of a massive crowd of over 500,000 people, filling the streets of Washington D.C. to protest for women’s rights, for human dignity, and against all forms of injustice. Every person had a unique story for what brought them out to the streets on a freezing Saturday in January. It was a powerful day and the energy in the air was palpable. I had never been a part of something so big or historic before. There were women and men of different races, of different abilities, of different nationalities. It was as a great multitude as I can imagine on this earth. But it does not even come close to this great multitude that John sees in Heaven.
A multitude so large that no one can count it. This, from a God who promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and grains of sand on the earth. Friends, we serve a God who keeps their promises. This mass of people are not just ones who agree on something or who are direct descendants of Abraham. It’s people from every nation, every tribe, every language. This is a theological claim about the wholeness of the people of God. No one is excluded because of who they are and where they come from. In fact, it’s the diversity of this multitude that makes it significant. It is not whole if not all are welcome. They praise God saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
What does this mean, “Salvation belongs to our God”? To the Churches in Asia Minor, it was a political statement that clearly cemented their position against the Empire. The Greek word for salvation also means deliverance. Revelation 7 is a vision of well-being and peace for humanity. The official source of such a total well-being, peace, and salvation was supposed to be the Roman emperor. However, in this vision, those who stand before the throne acknowledge God and the Lamb as the ultimate source of all well-being and salvation. To sing the song of the great multitude is to affirm not only that all power belongs to God, but also that all blessings and benefits ultimately derive from God. To attribute salvation to God is to recognize that God is the legitimate source of all power and blessing.
This great multitude has gone through a great ordeal and the path to this joyous celebration has not been easy. As the elder said, “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” To be washed in the blood of the lamb is no easy thing. Perhaps you feel as though you are in the midst of a great ordeal. Maybe it is state of our country and a world that feels overwhelming to the point of despair. Many of us are mourning the human-made tragedies besieging our world. Or maybe you are in the midst of a personal tragedy that it is all-consuming. You have no room in your broken heart for more tragedy and pain. You feel as though there cannot be hope, for a loved one is gone, a dream has died, or the hole you are in feels too deep to ever climb out of. Is there hope in this life, or all we all just waiting for some never-ending church service in the sky?
This may be a vision of a day yet to come, but it is also hope for today, for this life. Author Barbara Lundblad says, “We live in a double exposed photograph in which the last day and the present day are part of the same picture.” We call it the Already and the Not Yet. This grand reunion with God on the Throne is hope for the future and hope for today. For the Lamb of God that we see in Revelation is the same Risen Christ that Mary wept with in the garden, the same Risen Christ that the disciples walked with on the road to Emmaus, the same Risen Christ that transformed Saul’s life, and the same Risen Christ that is present in our midst today. We already live in the Kingdom of God and we proclaim its truth into a world desperately in need of hope. We can have hope for this life because we know that the spirit of the Lord in this place.
In this life, we have hope because we have the opportunity to embody make manifest this great multitude in Heaven. We embody it each time we worship with those who are different than we are. The most powerful experiences of the Divine in my life have been when I have worshipped, listened to, and learned alongside people of other backgrounds, ethnicities, and languages. I experience God in new ways when I see God through the eyes of another. Diversity isn’t a token word to throw around to be politically correct, it’s an embodiment of the Kingdom of God. We don’t seek diverse learning, worshipping, and living communities because we want to look good, but because those spaces are where we experience a foretaste of Heaven on Earth. Diversity is not an obligation, it’s a gift! The diversity of the Church is a witness of the hope that is already here and a glimpse of the Great Multitude yet to come.
Revelation 7 is a vision of hope for the already and the not yet. One day, there will be a great multitude, larger than you can see or count, and you will be right in the middle of it. You will not be hungry for food that never keeps you full, never thirsty for water that does not satisfy, never scorched by the heat. God will be your shelter and will wipe every tear from your eyes. I love that last line- “God will wipe every tear from your eyes.” This Heaven is not without reason for tears. We so often think of perfection as only happiness, only joy, a life without pain. But that is not the vision we receive. Perhaps perfection is having a reason for tears and a God who is right there to wipe away the tears and shelter you in God’s love. We hope and we trust in the promises of a God who is present in our midst, ready to welcome us into God’s temple and guides us to the springs of the water of life. Until that day, together we shall sing,
“Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”