7 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. 2 Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: 3 “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” 4 Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.
9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
11 All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying:
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”
14 I answered, “Sir, you know.”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.15 Therefore,
“they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
16 ‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’[a]
nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’[b]
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’[c]”
-Revelation &: 1-4, 9-17
“STANDING WHERE JOHN STOOD”
Select-A-Sermon: Week V
Revelation 7: 1-4, 9-17
The Reverend Tasha Blackburn
May 17, 2015
I have stood where John stood. Years ago I was fortunate enough to leave the mainland of Greece and ferry over to the island of Patmos. I crouched down into the cave where it is said John received his vision. I have looked out over the horizon where all you could see was blue water in every direction. I have taken in how lonely, how exiled John must have felt, left on this island as punishment for his outspoken faith. Perhaps you have travelled there as well and taken in the surroundings. Perhaps you also have stood where John stood.
John lived in a place of Empire. Rome ruled the known world. It ruled over him, even on this outcast island. As Rome grabbed more and more land and power, it did not stop there. Rome wanted to take over every part of its people. In what was called the PaxRomana, the Empire named the Emperor as the source of people’s prosperity, health, safety. The Emperor was the one people should worship and obey. But John was not so sure. He wondered, Who is the source of my life? Is it the government who rules over me? Can they ensure what is important to me?
I have stood where John stood. Perhaps you have too.
God’s answer to John’s wondering resounds in verse 12 when we hear the angels singing, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and always. Amen.” The accolades the Emperor would have showered on himself, those praises belong to God alone. No worldly power will do.
John, living in his exile, also wonders about good and evil. From what he can see, the good keeps losing and the bad keeps winning. There had been terrible persecutions the generation before him and, while the Empire seems to have cut back, still the suffering was ongoing. There was a banishment here and a jailing there. The losses were very real and John wondered, “Do you remember us God? We only seem to lose. The forces against us only seem to win. Do you even notice or care?”
I have stood where John stood. Perhaps you have too.
God’s answer to John is that he remembers it all. God gathers before the throne what John describes as a “multitude that no one could number”. Even the gathered heavenly attendants seem surprised to see their number. One asks, “Who are these people wearing white robes, and where did they come from?” He has to be reminded that these are all the people who suffered for their faith while on earth. Now they stand before God and he shelters them. Even if it seems that no one else has noticed them, on earth or even in heaven, God has noticed.
And what about the suffering? Shouldn’t those who love God be immune to it? John, on his lonely island, wonders: Do Christians have to suffer? Shouldn’t our faith be a ticket out of pain? If not in this world, then certainly when this world ends? Will we be taken up and away from trouble? He wonders: Shouldn’t our faith give us some safety?
Indeed, I have stood where John stood. Perhaps you have too.
God’s answer to John is no. We meet the multitude in white who are crying out in praise in chapter 7. But, in chapter 6, we meet these same people and they are crying out in pain. Their faith does not get them out of suffering. In fact, John himself knows and sees the truth again in his vision: their faith may actually gain them greater pain. Suffering is part of life, and it is certainly part of the Christian life. God has never promised to take us out of it. God has promised to get us through it. Salvation comes, not because we escape trouble. Salvation comes because we are God’s own, sealed as his.
That’s the thing about standing where John stood: facing a trial, facing our fear, facing the unknown; the thing about standing in that place is that it is all an issue of trust. Not whether or not we can completely trust, but is God completely trustworthy. The book of Revelation gets a lot of press and much ink has been spilled trying to crack open its secrets so that we will know each step and timeline of the end. But there is really nothing to crack open. It is a question of God’s character, of who we meet on that throne in heaven.
John’s vision shows us God’s character. The seven seals opening, one after another on God’s command, show that he has a plan and it will not be thwarted. His work will be fulfilled. And what of that strange number, 144,000? Many have worried about that, how they could be included in a number so small? But 12 is the number of the tribes and also a number of perfection. And 1,000 is a shorthand number for a great multitude. While we don’t get to be in on the exact math God uses, he shows us here that the number of those sealed is very large and it is absolutely perfect. God does not forget or leave behind any who would make the number complete. Finally, we see who God is by seeing who stands with him. And standing by God on his throne is the Lamb. In John’s vision Jesus is referred to as the “Lamb” rather than “Jesus” 2 to 1. Why? Because the Lamb has been slaughtered; the Lamb knows suffering; the Lamb knows us. And the Lamb is at God’s side.
Our God does not let his plan be thwarted, our God’s heaven is vast and perfectly complete, our God represents himself through the wounded Lamb. So what is the character of our God and can we trust him?
Whatever happens in our trials, or in those unknown places, or even at the end of time, this vision was never meant to be a weapon to hurt or frighten those who love God. It was never meant to be that. It was meant to be a comfort. Its comfort does not come from a false promise that life will be easy, now or even at the end. This vision is full of difficult things as are our lives here and now. Its comfort comes because the God we meet on the throne is completely worthy of our trust. No matter what we face, because of the vision, we have stood where John stood; even just for a moment, we have stood before our Creator on his throne and we have been given a window into who he is. He is the one who gives his Son, the wounded Lamb, to become a Shepherd who will guide us—not out of what we might face—but through whatever we face.
Do not let anyone make you afraid: of what happens next, of what happens at the end. For no matter what might come, in this world or the next, you have stood, like John, before the One you know you can trust, before the One who stands for you. Amen.