Revelation 7:9-17 4th Easter – Good Shepherd
Elizabeth M. Deibert 17 April 2016
I am not naturally drawn to the Book of the Revelation to John. I like the Gospels with all the marvelous stories of Jesus and his teachings and his disciples. I like the letters to the churches, the epistles, mostly good instruction on living the faithful Christian life. I like many of the Old Testament narratives, and you will hear many of those this summer, if you keep coming to Peace, good narratives about the loyalty of God to the Hebrew people, no matter how much they strayed like lost sheep. I even like the Old Testament prophets who call us back to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. But Revelation is an entirely “other” book. About three years ago when Richard proposed that he’d like to teach a class on it, I said, “Really? Why that book? Nobody really wants to read that book, not even me.” I wanted to preach this week on Psalm 23, a favorite, probably one of the best known pieces of scripture, often used in memorial services.
But sometimes it is good to take the less-traveled path, as Robert Frost and Scott Peck would tell us. Even Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life…(Mat 7:14 NRS) So I took the less traveled path this week and studied Revelation, and after doing so, I am glad to tell you to join me in turning on your imagination. You have the power to hold visions of God’s glory that overwhelm the powers of this world. Before I read the Revelation, let me read C.S. Lewis’ last paragraph in the last book of the Chronicles of Narnia, the Last Battle: The things that begin to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
With a C.S. Lewis, Narnian spirit, let us hear the Revelation to John at Patmos.
9 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. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
11 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, 12 singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
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 the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 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. 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.”
This particular vision of John’s sees the innumerable masses of people who will in the end recognize salvation coming from God. God first made a covenant, promising to Abraham and Sarah long ago that their descendants would be more than the grains of sand or the stars in the sky. In other words, beyond your counting. Then Jesus came to open the covenant to everyone. He says in the Great Commission, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” All nations.
Peter struggles with the other-ness of all nations, but he has a vision recorded in the Book of Acts, and he says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
Paul says to the Philippians, “Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Likewise we read in Revelation that there will be a number we cannot count from every nation, every tribe, every language, praising God and the Lamb, whom we know to be Jesus, the Cosmic Christ. It is interesting that Christ is called both Lamb and Shepherd in this passage. Servant leadership. Sacrificial love. Power in weakness. This paradox is in conflict with the power structures of John’s day and of our day. John is trying to give them courage to withstand the pressure to cave in to the Roman culture. We have that same temptation to cave in to cultural pressures to be complicit in the structural injustices that harm the dignity of human beings. We John invites us to an eternal perspective which puts Christian life and witness first and puts that many of the competing values in a lessor place.
The assembled multitude belts out its praise of God. The angels join in, giving their Amen to it. Blessing, glory, wisdom, honor, thanksgiving, power, and might – everything belongs to God forever.
The conversation had between John and an elder reminds that no matter what you are going through, no matter what ordeal – a death in the family, a job loss, a big transition like moving or retiring, a child in trouble or estranged from you, an illness, a conflict with others – you will get through the ordeal. There are always many prayer concerns listed in the bulletin, but then there are all the concerns not listed – many, many more, and some of them heavy concerns. Unspoken fears, unknown diagnoses or treatment plans, battles with depression or other mental illness, relationship problems that perhaps only one or two people know. Internal struggles you might only share with a therapist or pastor or Stephen Minister or trusted friend or family member. By walking the lonesome valley of the shadow of death with Jesus, holding onto your faith, trusting that with Jesus, the end of the story will be better than the middle, you are washing your robes in the blood of the lamb. You are participating in the sacrificial love. You are claiming your salvation as a gift from God and working out your salvation with fear and trembling.
This symbolic language “washed in the blood” can sound strange to modern ears, though there are many Gospel hymns that speak of it. If you’ve ever tried to wash blood out of a garment, you know it does not come out easily. It does not turn to white, quite the opposite, even when clean, it often looks a little dingier. The stain is obvious. Same with our sin, with our distance from God, the pain/the stain is often obvious. We need to hear of stains becoming totally washed, clean.
To understand this passage, we must appreciate that “washed in the blood” means “clothed, immersed, washed in Christ’s sacrificial love.” It carries all the weight of first century thinking about sacrifices. Bringing an offering a sacrificial lamb was common for people in Jesus’s day. They lived closer to the earth, to the blood, to the death, and we insulate ourselves from it and pretend it’s not there. Yet we give our blood to others. Some of you will do so today. And every week, we come to this table to receive Christ’s body and blood in a mysterious yet meaningful way. Blood is the fluid of life. Calling Jesus both the Lamb and the Shepherd is not so strange to first century ears as it is to ours. We cannot imagine killing animals on an altar as a means of pleasing God. Yet we make other types of sacrifices as symbols of our commitment, and with the hope and prayer that the sacrifice we make of time, talent, and treasure will bless someone while also pleasing God. And we all know someone who has given their life for the sake of another, for the freedom of another.
But the heart of this passage from Revelation is the reassurance that God saves not the few, but the many. The many includes people different from us – different nations, different cultures, different languages. And all will be forever in eternity praising God and living for God. Living wholeheartedly for God, as Christ did, is a dangerous thing to do. It is totally worth the danger, but make no mistake that it flies in the face of culture. The testimony of weak becoming strong, of non-violence, of welcoming all is a threat to the powers of this world. The good news is that, if you can keep the eternal perspective, then it makes all the difference in the midst of your struggle to know that one day you will hunger nor thirst any more. You will never be without shelter and protection. You will be taken to the still waters, and God will wipe away every tear.
Apart from this hope, life would be unbearable. There would be no purpose for our struggles to live like Christ. Christ gives us the example and the power to live courageously through them, bearing witness to God’s love, no matter what people do to you. John’s community was engaged in a cultural battle with the Roman Empire. It would have been easy for them to sell their souls to Rome, just as it is easy for us to sell our souls to the powerful voices in our culture and nation-state, which are arrogant, rude, and self-serving in countless ways. But this text of full-throttle worship of God and the Lamb helps us to see clearly that neither Rome nor Washington, DC, is the source of our security or peace. No, it is God, who came as our guide/shepherd and as the lamb to be sacrificed, who brings us security and peace. And not just for now, but for eternity.
He challenges us to do as He did. Live for the eternal values now. Live on earth as it is in heaven, where praising God and loving like Jesus did are 24-7 activities. Live on earth with Eternal Easter Eyes, seeing life, giving life, believing in life everlasting for yourself and for the innumerable multitude who are different from you and me. When I was a teenager, I was strongly influenced by reading books by Joni (Jonny) Eareckson Tada who had a diving accident in her youth, leaving her quadriplegic. She struggled for years to accept her paralysis, but ultimately turned it into a beautiful witness for Christ. She writes in Heaven: Your Real Home.
When Christians realize their citizenship is in heaven, they begins acting as responsible citizens of earth. They invest wisely in relationships because they know they’re eternal. Their conversations, goals and motives become pure and honest because they realize these will have a bearing on the everlasting. They give generously of time, money, and talent because they are laying up treasure for eternity. They spread the good news of Christ because they long to [share heaven’s joy] with friends and neighbors. All this serves the pilgrim well not only in heaven, but on earth; for it serves everyone around him. (adapted)