Faith In Real Life Blog
“Sing a New Song of Creation”
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
February 9, 2023
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 who 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.”
There are some basics we have to cover to put this passage in context. I highly recommend you spend 10-12 minutes looking at this video: Overview: Revelation 1-11 (there is a second video covering the rest of the book if you wish).
Apocalypse literally means an unveiling—a revealing of God’s presence in the world. The powers of force and economic exploitation that were in place during the Roman persecutions at the time were but the most recent of many in human history. And in the subsequent 2,000 years, there have been more. Revelation was written to sustain and give hope in a desperate time. Traditionally, the book is attributed to John the Apostle (though this is by no means certain) during his exile to the island of Patmos. He is given in a vision told to write a book about what was revealed to him— “Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches…. Early in the book, John has a vision of God in his throne room. In God’s hand is a scroll closed with seven seals. The scroll represents how God’s kingdom is and will be present in the earth— but no one can open it. The “Lion of Judah ” and “The Root of David” representing the expectation of a warrior Messiah King are unable to open the scroll but then, the slain lamb can. This is an important contrast. The slain lamb, the crucified Christ is the new revelation of the Messiah. The messiah is not what was expected or desired. The one who brings God into the world is not a force, it is a vulnerable lamb. It is a lamb who is killed and ultimately is victorious. This is the beginning of the revelation of God’s essence— in sharp contrast to human expectations and imagining.
The lamb opened the first four seals, the infamous four horsemen of the revealing (apocalypse), conquest, war, famine and death. Human history has no trouble confirming the chronic existence of these horsemen in the fabric of our lives. No generation has not had humans seeking dominance and using war to accomplish those ends. No generation has not had famine and death. Then it gets worse, “When he broke the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; 10 they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” The harsh truth is that the vulnerable are often killed. And the cries—” How long must we endure? How long before your judgment vindicates us?” —are the cries of all of us in the midst of suffering and tribulation. The very unsatisfying answer is we must wait. We must wait in our suffering and in the knowledge that more suffering is to come. These are not the words a suffering people wants to hear.
None of us face the physical threats the first century Christians faced but every generation has had some global threat that seemed insoluble. The revealing of how harsh the world can be comes in many forms. It could be the Nazis, the threat of nuclear war, climate change or, depending upon your politics, the Warren Court or the Roberts Court. And on a more personal level, no one escapes aging, debilitation, and death. Medical disasters, broken families, unemployment and a host of other threats can close in on any of us—and we cry: ” How long must we endure? How can we trust a crucified Messiah when the revelation so far is that there is great suffering and more to come? This is the existential question the first century Christians had to ask—and it is the same question we ask when we face our own hardships.
The sixth seal reveals the “Day of the Lord”, the great day of judgment and wrath has come. Referencing Malachi 3 “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like washers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver…” We have finally reached the passage for the day.
Chapter 7 is an interlude and reveals the means by which the lamb will prevail. Once again what John hears is different from what John sees. What he hears is the military expectation of drafting an army to provide relief—”4 And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel…” but what he saw was quite different. “9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count…” The revelation to John lay in his vision, not historical expectation. The new vision was the multinational and multiethnic multitude who were bound together by their dedication to the way of the Lamb. They will be protected. To them comes the promise: “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.”
I love the theology and the promise but living it in real life is a different story. Accepting such a promise requires us to give up our understanding and our expectations of what life itself means. For every one of us, at birth—and sometimes the rest of our lives—we are self-centered and self-preserving. A baby does not think of her mother when she is hungry. She doesn’t care if mom is exhausted and self-deprived. She wants her needs met. Slowly, if we are lucky, we start to become aware that our needs belong to an equation of other needs. We are not the center of the universe. Until that shift occurs, we are bound to be demanding, competitive and adversarial. We want what we want. We act entitled and use words like ‘deserve’ as if they had meaning.
The four horsemen ride, the faithful suffer, the lamb bleeds. We belong to a life that belongs to all of us—not a life designed just for us. Only when we see this new world can we conquer. It is not the conquest we expect but it is the victory that brings life no matter what is happening in our lives. It is the conquest that allows a bedridden grandmother to continue to call on other people from her bed. It is the conquest that allows a deeply grieving mother who has lost her children to rejoice at healings that did not come to her own children. Our lives are not biologically measured. That is a guaranteed downhill slope. Our lives gain meaning and add life when we are mindful, when we can honestly give of ourselves, when we refuse to offer evil for evil. It’s about caring for one another as the lamb cared for us.
Our physical circumstances do not keep us from such love. But our expectations about what ‘should’ be will. The revealing of Jesus in Revelation turns what we would want upside down and calls us to a life that gives life. We are called into loving in a harsh world—but we are called, nonetheless. We do so in the faith that love will prevail. That is a huge faith claim—especially when we feel threatened. In real life it is hard to hold onto faith when we are losing what we thought we could not live without. That could be our spouse, our child or our very breath. But, we can love faced with the most extreme threat—that is the faith that every bit of love matters. This was the challenge and the hope for the persecuted Christians of the first century. We are faced with the same choice. Follow the lamb and be part of a life that transcends our physical life or fall into a self-serving life that can only end in death.
One last note. In real life we often do not learn what is most important until we lose what we thought we could not live without. Tribulation strips us. It challenges our idea that what we hold dearest is the most important thing is in our lives. Only then can we see the vision John saw. Life is not about getting our way. Life is not about force or exploitation—the tools of empires across the ages. It is about sacrificial giving (I did not say self-styled martyrdom) in which we choose to balance our needs with the needs of the people around us. Many people have transformed terrible loss into service for others. That does not mean their pain was any less. It means they gained a vision of life that was markedly different from the one they expected. In the words of Paul: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This a song to sing.
Our faith claim is that love matters, and love will prevail. Choose the life that gives life.
Let it be so.