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.”
Pastor Marc's sermon on the Fourth Sunday of Easter (April 17, 216) on Revelation 7:9-17. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
Now, I don’t know about you but when I’m asked a question by someone who already knows the answer, and they’re not a teacher, or a mentor,….I find that to be pretty annoying. Like, when we’re with a colleague, or a friend, or our spouse, and they experience something but instead of sharing what it is or what it’s about - they instead ask us a question about it. They’re taking a moment, an experience, and turning it into a test. I always feel like I’m being asked to admit that there’s something in this world I don’t know - so that the other person can, for a moment at least, feel like they’re better than me. It’s hard not to get mad when this happens. A friend of mine, when this kind of thing happens to her, immediately responds to such a question with “Don’t quiz me!” Because that’s what these type of questions are - they’re a pop-quiz, given to us when we’re not expecting a test. So, in our reading from Revelation today, when the elder addressed John, asking him about those who are robed in white - I give props to John for his answer. We know that this elder knows the answer. But John plays it cool. He doesn’t get mad or tell the elder not to quiz him. Instead, John waits. He let’s the elder paint a picture of what John is seeing. And that’s one thing that the book of Revelation does. Our author, John of Patmos, like some first century Bob Ross, speaks in image. John uses words to paint pictures, igniting our imagination with intense and vibrant images. We see more than just happy little clouds and trees. Instead, we get an image like today. We’re there, among this huge group of people, a group so large, it can’t be counted. The group is full of all kinds of people - people from every nation, every race, every ethnic group, and who speak every language. John is painting a picture where every kind of person that we know and see - and even those we don’t know and can’t see - they’re all here, gathered around God, and robed in white.
Our reading today is a continuation of what we heard last week. We saw an image of God’s throne room, filled with songs, and with Jesus standing in the middle, holding a scroll in his hand. Now, John’s vision describes this scroll as having 7 seals. No one else, but Jesus, can open it. The scroll is sealed tight - unbreakable - completely encrypted - and only Jesus has the key. So in the text that we don’t hear today, Jesus starts opening the scroll. The seals start breaking. And each time one is snapped off, something epic happens. And this is where Revelation gets the reputation that it does as a playbook for the end of the world. The first seal is broken - and one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse shows up. He’s riding a pale white horse, with a massive bow, ready to conquer all. The next three seals bring his friends. There’s one on a bright red horse, carrying a giant sword, and all peace between the nations on the earth ends. He’s followed by a rider on a black horse, who plunges the world in hunger and thirst. And they’re all followed by Death - the only horsemen in the bible to actually have a name. And he uses his powers to destroy one quarter of the world. One by one, as the seals break, calamity and violence come. This part of Revelation sounds, and reads, like something Michael Bay would try to film and put on the big screen. This is an end of the world that needs to be seen on an IMAX screen, in 3D, filled with epic scenery, amazing villains, incredible special effects, and as we sit there, munching our popcorn and drinking our oversized sodas, we’re left in awe. One by one, the seals fall. One by one, the violence escalates. Once the sixth seal is broken, we can’t wait to see what comes next.
But before the 7th seal is broken, we get our reading from today. The story almost stops. That blockbuster Hollywood climax is going to wait because John is taken back to God’s throne room, to see who all the servants of God - past, present, and future - are. And this is what John sees: “a great multitude that no one could count - from every nation, from all tribe and peoples and languages,... robed in white.” This immense group, countless beyond number, they are all gathered around Jesus, and all they can do is worship and sing.
Now, I’m no expert when it comes to doing laundry - but, from my experience, it’s usually not possible for robes to turn white after they’ve been through blood. The commercials for laundry detergent on tv show us how to get blood out of our clothes, not soak clothes in it. But those white robes aren’t as strange as they first seem. The churches John wrote Revelation to - they recognized those robes. They knew those robes. They knew how they felt, what they were made out of, and how bright they shimmered in candlelight. The people who first heard Revelation - knew these robes because each one of them, no matter where they came from or what language they spoke, each person wore one. In the early church, after someone was baptized, they were dressed in white robes. They had been washed - brought into Jesus’ family - not because they were perfect but because Jesus died for them. The robes were a gift from the community to the newly baptized, a symbol of the forgiveness, mercy, and love given to them by Jesus Christ. The poor and rich, the small and large, the young and old - each wore the same white robe - a reminder that in Christ Jesus, they were one. They showed that God’s family is a family so diverse - so huge - so unlimited that no one race, or gender, or language could limit what God’s family looks like. In the middle of describing what seems like the end of the world, John’s vision takes a step back to remind him - to remind those who first heard his words - and to remind us, 2000 years later, just who we are. We are God’s. And in our baptism, we belong to Christ - and there’s no person on earth that can change that.
Now, these multitudes are caught in the act of worship. And their worship, like our worship, involves song. So they sing these beautiful verses of chapter 7, 15 through 17. And they’re almost too beautiful to even describe. I’ll admit, as I tried to write this part of my sermon, I spent most of my time just hitting the delete key. My words can’t do justice to what this vision holds or what God’s promise means. God’s promise here isn’t telling John that the faithful will escape or be spared struggle. A life of faith means that we will have our ordeals. We’ll have our struggles. We’ll have our doubts. And we’ll have things happen to us - or things we do to others that will break our heart - and will break God’s heart too. A life of faith includes failures. A life of faith includes not knowing what to do next. A life of faith includes tears. But in the failure, in the heartbreak, and in the tears, God is still there because God’s love is big enough to hold all our tears.
That’s the image of God that John is trying to paint in the book of Revelation. This God who is stronger than any Empire, who is more powerful than any army, and who can unleash the end of the world, this God is the same God who sent Jesus to live a human life, to heal the sick, bring good news to the poor, to bring comfort to the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. This Jesus didn’t run away from tears. He shed them too. God sent Jesus to bring hope to a world where tears sometimes outnumber songs. And this hope isn’t a pop-quiz from God. We’re not being put on notice by someone who already knows the answer and is seeing if we’ll be able to get everything right. The book of Revelation is painting a picture - painting a picture of who God is - what God’s people look like - and that God knows all our tears. In our struggles, God is with us. In our challenges, Jesus is there. We have been robed in white. We are part of God’s vision for the world. The violence and pain and suffering in the world - suffering that we’ll experience and suffering that we’ll cause - none of that is part of God’s song. It’s not what the multitudes, gathered around Jesus, sing. Their song - their vision of God’s dream for the world - that’s our song too. A hope and a prayer that the world loves like Jesus loves, that we would spend less time causing tears and more time wiping them away. And a hope that we will sing like Jesus’ people sing - not running away from our ordeals but singing through them because we are with Christ - and that changes everything.
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