I must have hit a nerve last week. It has been a while since that many people reached out to me about a sermon. I always get a few, but there were a lot of pent up questions about Revelation. I know I did not use the same sermon illustrations in the message last week. As I have shared with those who wanted to talk more about what they heard I preached, there is a sense of community around sermons that cannot be replicated in writing. I can teach the same teachings, I can name the same hurts and pains, but the intimacy is not the same. So, when I set down to put to paper what I preached, different words sometimes come out, even if the overall message is the same. This may well be another example of that difference between what I speak and what I write. Today, we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday. Of the three Gospel readings that we use during the lectionary cycle for Easter IV, John’s account is my least favorite assigned reading. There is, of course, nothing wrong with the reading. If there is anything wrong, it is likely my preference for other readings for this day. There is in the passage the verb “shelter,” which out to bring to mind the idea of tabernacling--as in, God pitching His tent among us. Fortunately for me, though, you all made it clear that I have needed to spend more time in Revelations, so that is where we will look again today.
Let me say initially that our passage for this week really is cut off from its surrounding text. When I was in seminary, I had a cruel professor of Greek--technically, Ann was not cruel, she was just very good at making us learn Greek. She was an expert in those passages in the New Testament which seminarians do not know. Part of her difficulty in evaluating our abilities was figuring out whether we already knew the passage. If, for example, she gave you a test on the beginning of the Gospel of John, several of you would get partial credit, even though none of you know much Greek. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Our passage today is so out of context, she discovered, that know one has it memorized. To translate it, one has to know the vocabulary and the conjugations of verbs and the declensions of nouns. But even if one studies Revelations in a class, the lack of context does not allow for accidentally translating the passage correct.
What is out of place, you might be wondering? In the book, we have just finished watching the opening of the sixth seal through John’s eyes. Even those of you who do not read the Bible probably know there are seven seals in the Book of Revelations. We have progressed from the first seal to the sixth seal in order. One would rightly expect the vision to move on to the seventh seal. But there is a bit of an interlude. Just as the reader is likely to expect the final, utter destruction of this world, the angels are commanded to stand at the corners of the earth and hold back the destructive winds. Why? So that God’s people can be sealed and saved.
Last week, I mentioned how prophesy is difficult to read for those of us living in this age. Simply put, there does not seem to be a lot of prophesy being written, so it can be a challenge for us to read and to interpret. I pointed out last week our fascination with figuring out the mind of God. Even though Jesus tells us plainly in the Gospels that He does not know the date of His return (It is known by the Father), lots and lots of Christians spend lots of energy trying to figure out the “when” of texts like Revelations or Daniel. I also mentioned how prophesy can have several senses of fulfillment. Said differently, the same prophesy can come true on multiple occasions. That is certainly true of this week’s readings.
The one granted the vision, John, would certainly agree with us. John has, unfortunately, just experienced the Roman-Jewish War. The Roman-Jewish War was no more brutal than any other war that Rome fought. We might like to think that Rome was particularly vicious when it fought the Jews. The truth is, though, Rome always fought to win. Rome was not big on bluffing, and Rome did not tolerate those who did not make their payments of tribute or taxes. They were experts soldiers, both in physical and psychological terms. And, boy, did they ever put down the Jewish revolt. They were thorough enough to raze the Temple entirely; and the people were scattered across the Mediterranean and throughout Asia Minor. Imagine growing up in such a time. Your place of worship has been destroyed--an act which signifies to you living in the ANE that your God has been conquered by the Roman gods in the celestial spheres above. In reality, another exile was imposed on the Jews.
John was called to minister to people in that situation. Imagine the difficulty. The messiah has come! Jesus has been raised from the dead! Victory, certainly, is at hand. That all seems reasonable, does it not? And how many people thought that Jesus’ return was imminent? Some of Jesus’ closest friends and disciples thought He would return before long. Wouldn’t this have been the perfect time? Just when it looks like God has been defeated, Jesus returns leading an army of angels to rout the invading legion. That’s the stuff of legends! Instead, God allows the Church to be spread, with their Jewish cousins, to lands far and wide.
In addition to the military style conquering, and the additional state decreed persecutions, there is the difficulty of assimilation. Most Christians refused to pinch incense at the altar of Caesar. Though it seems a simply act in our ears, pinching the incense at the altar was to recognize Caesar as a god. Like the Jews, Christians could not do that act without violating the first and greatest commandment. Failure to pinch the incense at the altar was tantamount to declaring that one was a traitor in the eyes of those in power. In most communities, those who refused to recognize Caesar as a god could not get a job, would have a hard time finding a place to live, would not be allowed to take advantage of various social services, and the like. They would become outcasts by choice. Put in modern terms, think of how you feel about immigrants who would not pledge allegiance to the flag nor want to learn English. Now pretend we thought our ruler was a god. . . that would be a similar social stigma.
It is in that mess that John is given the vision we read about today. Just as we expect a bad ending to occur, John’s people had to wonder what was next. They had been thrown out of the homeland, they had been forbidden to worship, they were not allowed to worship according to their conscience, they had to wonder what was next. In the midst of the destruction of the world, God pauses the action to seal His people. John tells us that a multitude that no one could count from all nations and tribes and peoples and languages are gathered around the throne of God. And look at the imagery. Their robes are washed in the blood of the Lamb (Isaiah 1:16-18). They wave palm branches and cry out in a loud voice that salvation belongs to God and to the Lamb. And, as the elder explains to John, God Himself will shelter, feed, comfort, lead, and protect them. In the midst of the destruction, God pauses to pull His people out and to tend them like a shepherd, before finishing that which He has purposed.
We can imagine the comfort of such a vision to the early Church. Armies have swept in, diseases and plagues were a common experience, storms ad earthquakes plagued the world, and death was a constant companion. Like us, they were no doubt convinced that they lived at the end times. John, called he Beloved, though this vision was able to remind those given into his care that the Lord will gather His people from the great tribulation of the world. Who is able to stand? God’s people, by His grace and His strength. Even if our suffering leads to that great tribulation, death, still we know by the testimony of the Empty Tomb that even death cannot keep us from our Lord. He will, one day, overcome our own death. It is an amazing comfort to know that, as He is executing His judgment of destruction, God is also attentive to the needs of those judged as His people of the Lamb!
And just as this has been fulfilled in one sense in history, our existence is proof that some survived these tribulations, and it will be fulfilled in eschatological terms (end of this world and the beginning of the recreation), still it is fulfilled in other senses. You and I live in a world that, in many respects, has changed very little. Those who believe in Hegel’s and Schleiermacher’s upward spiral of progress for human existence are often left speechless during weeks like this. If things are getting so much better, what drives a couple boys to blow the limbs off of thirty people either running or watching others run a marathon? Why can’t we predict earthquakes or floods better and save lives? Why are leaders in North Korea driven to try and develop a nuclear weapon when their people are starving? Why can’t there be peace in the Middle East? Why do so many people feel the need to own guns to protect themselves? Why can we not agree on how to keep them out of the hands of the mentally ill or criminals? Why does slavery still exist? Why are not law enforcement officials in this and other towns across the country and around the world seeking to end slavery in their midst. The “big picture” list could go on and on.
And locally, the picture is just as depressing. A couple of our parishioners have experienced the ultimate benefit of employee loyalty in the last few weeks in their terminations. Neither were fired for performance issues, yet now they face questions of provision and marginalization. Health issues ravage us. And, like the world out there, we are subject to the competence of those whom we call doctor. A glaring example would be the prospect that one of our own now faces the loss of a foot! Due to, from my perspective, gross failure on the part of doctors and others in our healthcare system, one of our elderly women faces the likely prospect of amputation. Doctors and others will blame the superbug, MRSA, but had they taken her complaints seriously some six or eight weeks earlier, would the outcome, perhaps, have been different? Some of you, I know from our discussions or discussions you have had with members of our Vestry, worry about the continued existence of a worshipping community at this physical location. The worry is that are getting older. Soon, there will be nobody to pick up the responsibilities being laid down by others. If that happens, what then? At least we all have perfect relationships with all our loved ones, right?
You can probably think of even more personal examples, examples which sometimes give you pause as to whether God can truly redeem you. That’s ok. It is normal. Jesus never condemned Thomas for his doubts, and He gave us the accounts of witnesses to remind us that He is a God who does not fail to keep every promise. Our passage in Revelation looks, in part, to the Judgement Day of the Lord. At some point in the future, His patience will have run out; He will choose to finish the recreation initiated that first Easter Sunday. Certainly, for those alive it will be terrifying. Earthquakes, famines, plagues, and the like will torment those on the earth. Yet in the midst of that destruction, God will, Himself, gather His people to Him, and shepherd them for all eternity. That same promise extends to those tribulations that you and I experience in our daily lives and work. As most of us now know, adoption into God’s family is not a panacea as preached by prosperity gospellers and hucksters. If anything, I would say those vicissitudes increase as His Enemy seeks to lead us astray while our roots are shallow--but that is another sermon. But just as God loves you and has enough power to see to your salvation on that Day of Judgement when He recreates the world, so, too, does He have the power and love to see you through your daily, weekly, and monthly crosses.
In the days ahead, as the pressures and worries of life increase and you find yourself worrying when it will end, remember this passage. In the midst of whatever you are suffering, it is the Lord who will see you safely through and gathered to Him one day. That is a promise you can count on and a vision in which you can share.