In January, a group of about 22 of us gathered together for 7 weeks, to venture into the murky waters of the book of Revelation. At one point, one person asked, “How come I’ve never heard a sermon on Revelation?” I couldn’t answer her, but I suspected it was because this is a book that frightens. It scares most of us and we don’t know what to say about it. So I vowed that the next time Revelation came up in the lectionary, I would preach on it. So here we are.
So, what are we reading in the book of Revelation? Well, first off, we should be clear, we are not reading a book. We are reading a letter. We are reaching our hands back into the mailbox of history and lifting out a letter that was not written to us. It was a letter written to seven different churches in Asia by a man named John. John is writing from the island of Patmos, where he was sent into exile because the Roman Empire didn’t like what he was preaching. He was a threat to their power, so they kicked him out.
You see, back in the day, being a Christian wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. To be a Christian often meant living a life of persecution and suffering. Daily fears of violence and attack. That is the world that John, the author, is living in, and the world his audience is living in. He is not writing to 21st Century United States. He is writing it to 1st Century Christians who face constant threats of suffering and injustice due to the overwhelming imperialistic power of Rome. So the fear and insecurity that was shaken within all of us on Monday afternoon as we learned about the bombings in Boston. That was an everyday reality for them. For us, we have the luxury of forgetfulness. I mean, that’s why it is still shocking to us. Because we forget about Newtown. We forget about Aurora, Colorado. We forget about 9/11 and Oklahoma City. But they could never forget. Because the threat of violence was constant.
And so John is writing to these churches pastorally. Knowing the struggles that they are going through as a community of faith under the Roman regime. But again, what is it that he is writing. Is it a prediction and a play-by-play of how the world is going to end? Is it hidden clues about when Jesus is going to come back so that we can all be ready for it? I think that’s how most of society has been taught to understand the letter of Revelation. But I think something else is going on here. I think John is trying to tell his people (and us) something, but I don’t think it is about how the world is going to end.
Sure, there are scary and confusing symbols in the letter of Revelation, including seven-headed beasts, horses of all different colors, dragons, lakes of fire, and seven frightening plagues. But if we can carve our way through some of the confusion and strange imagery, we will find a letter of eternal hope for those living in hopelessness.
This is a letter not about the end of the world but about the end of suffering. It is about the end of the powerful crushing the powerless. It is about the end of bullying, and a life of fear. It is about the end of hunger and the end of thirst. It’s about the end of tears. For all tears will, in the end, be wiped away. What good news. But perhaps most importantly, I think, it is about the end of the walls that we build between ourselves.
Did you hear the beginning of Revelation reading today? Today we parachute down into chapter 7, where John writes, “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.”
In the throne room of God, 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.
Numbers are very important to John and the letter of Revelation. Numbers are all over the place. John is a numbers guy. He is the one who counts everything. He’d make a good treasurer. Revelation is written to seven churches. In his vision of the risen Jesus, there are seven golden lampstands and seven stars. There were twenty-four elders in the throne room, beside four living creatures. The beast has seven heads. John even talks about 12,000 people from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. Numbers, numbers, numbers. They are all over the letter of Revelation.
But then…suddenly, John, the one who loves to count. The one who counts everything, enters the throne room of God, and the number of people who were there was so great that no one could ever count it. And it wasn’t just people. It was people of every nation, from all tribes and languages. This is a cross-cultural experience. People of all tribes and all nations. Which means the people who don’t speak the same language, who do not look the same will be standing side-by-side. If Revelation is about the end of something, it is about the end of the walls between us. That is God’s end game.
And then John is asked by one of the elders, “Who are these people and where have they come from?” I love that question. I mean, Heaven, just like the United States is going to have an immigration problem! I mean they don’t know who these people are or where they are coming from? We seem so concerned with keeping people out, whereas the throne room of God is about letting people in. Letting people in…especially, as the text say, the ones who have come out of the great ordeal. Meaning, the ones who have come out of great suffering. That is who fills the throne room of God. The broken and the outcast. The marginalized.
If I am reading this text in a helpful way, this is a text about inclusivity, rather than exclusivity. It seems to me that the way of Jesus and the way of God is to always make the circle bigger. Inviting more and more people into the fold.
So, now, even though the letter of Revelation was not written to us, I think it can still have meaning for us. It can still be the word of God to us. But we have to be willing to ask: in light of this text, how then am I going to live my life today?
If the throne room of God includes people of every nation, every tribe, of all languages. If the throne room of God tears down the walls that exists between humanity, than why should we wait any longer? If that is the hoped for future that John the prophet sees and shares with us, why should we wait until the end of days? Let’s begin tearing down the walls between us now. If that is God’s end game, let’s do it now. Let’s tear down the walls regarding races and people of different countries. Let’s tear down the walls regarding people of different religions. Let’s tear down the walls regarding people of different sexual orientation. Let’s bring about heaven here on earth.
Now this is a notoriously difficult and long struggle that demands courage, persistence, patience, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Because it seems to me that we are hardwired to build walls and exclude others.
I heard a story a couple of weeks ago that left me feeling very, very sad. My 5-year-old niece came home from kindergarten and told her mom that kids at school were making fun of Shawana. Why? Because she smells different. Because she comes from a culture where what smells good to them, does not smell good to us. And what amazes me, is that I think…I think…when all of us hear that, it sounds wrong, doesn’t it? 5-year olds shouldn’t be doing that to 5- year-olds. And yet it happens among those of us who are adults. I hear the same kind of comments coming from adults. I hear comments that say, “This person is different than me. They don’t look like me. They don’t speak like I speak. They don’t act like I act. Therefore, I am going to build a wall between myself and them.” Why doesn’t it break our hearts when it happens among adults? We ask our children to be inclusive and respectful of everyone but then us adults are some of the worst offenders.
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.
This is God’s end game that you and I get to participate in and promote. So let’s live like that now. It’s not like we don’t have the capacity for it. One of the most amazing things that happens after a terrible disaster like Boston, is stories start coming out about how people cared for one another in the midst of the disaster. Strangers opening up their apartments to other strangers. People bringing down food and drink for people in need. When disaster strikes, people no longer care what you look like, what language you speak, or how you smell. People were like little Christs to one another. That’s what Martin Luther thinks we are called to be – Little Christ’s in the world.
So what would it be like for you to be a little Christ to the world? What would it look like to shepherd people into inclusivity? What would happen if you gave up all desire to exclude people in your life?
At the coffee shop where I write many of my sermons, above the door way it says, ‘God be with you.” That is an inclusive blessing because it excludes no one. It doesn’t matter who walks through that door, the blessing is theirs. God be with you.
Make the circle of your life bigger. Let’s you and I try to offer that blessing – God be with you – to all the people we encounter this week. No matter what country they are from. What language they speak. No matter what we might assume about their life based on the way they act or the way they dress. Let’s just try it. Try to let more people into our life. To give up the desire to exclude anyone. Tearing down the walls we have built up, that shelter us from people on the outside. I am willing to bet that if we do, our life will be brighter and along the way, we will encounter the spirit of God.
William Sloan Coffin, a famous preacher, once wrote – we are all young and in need of growing up. I think he is right. Because so often, I think we are still a group of kindergarteners who are excluding each other. When will it stop? We learn in Revelation that it stops at heaven’s gate. But why wait until then? May we bring about heaven here on earth. And may God be with you. AMEN