Win… By Losing | 4th of Easter

Revelation 7:9-17

9 After this I looked, and there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They wore white robes and held palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out with a loud voice:

“Victory belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

11 All the angels stood in a circle around the throne, and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell facedown before the throne and worshipped God, 12 saying,

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and always. Amen.”

13 Then one of the elders said to me, “Who are these people wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”

14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.”

Then he said to me, “These people have come out of great hardship. They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. 15 This is the reason they are before God’s throne. They worship him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They won’t hunger or thirst anymore. No sun or scorching heat will beat down on them, 17 because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (CEB)

Win… By Losing

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a parishioner tell me that the Book of Revelation scares them. I’ve heard those words in every church I’ve served as a pastor. And, I understand why Revelation is a scary book. The first reason is probably that the style of writing is unfamiliar to us. It’s part of a genre of literature called apocalyptic, which includes Daniel 7-12 and many, many other writings. In fact, I have a book on my office shelves that contains more than twenty other writings in the apocalyptic genre.

Another reason Revelation scares us is because there are a lot of wacky interpretations out there, like the Left Behind series of books and movies. While this stuff is popular, it’s just plain wrong. It’s actually bad Biblical interpretation. And these incorrect interpretations scares some people because we don’t want to get left behind when the rapture happens and have to live through the tribulation with the antichrist in charge of the world. I mean, life is tough enough. We face enough difficulty as it is every day. So, we want out of here before even more difficult times come! We don’t want to live through suffering.

Yet, suffering is and has always been a part of the Christian story. If there is one serious misconception of the Christian Faith that John the Seer highlights in this text of Revelation, I’d say it’s the misconception that one of God’s main responsibilities—the thing that God owes to us—is to keep us and those we love safe from harm. And, if or when God “fails” to keep us or our loved ones safe from harm, then our faith can start to fall apart. We can question and accuse God for not doing the job God was supposed to do, for not meeting our most basic expectations. We ask ourselves questions, like, if God is all-powerful, then why wouldn’t God heal my uncle’s cancer? Was my uncle not good enough? Were his wife and children not good enough? Why did they all have to suffer through his illness and death?

Those are questions that grief asks, and I think they’re okay to ask them. I even think it’s okay for us to be angry at God at times, because I also believe that God takes our anger and grief and lives in it with us. Maybe God even asks those same questions of God’s self as we’re wrapped in God’s love and held tight.

Yet, questions remains for us to consider: why would we who follow a tortured and crucified savior expect that God should keep us from harm when Christ, himself, didn’t escape it?

Why should we expect to be kept from harm when all of the apostles but John was killed for confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord?

Paul was beheaded in Rome.

Uncounted Christians were martyred: Stephen, James, Ignatius, Perpetua, Felicity, Polycarp, Blandina – they were all killed because of their faith in Jesus Christ.

Christians have experienced hardship in every chapter of the church’s existence. What part about the Christian Faith makes us think that we should be immune to suffering: that God’s job is to prevent suffering in our lives?

John’s vision in Revelation 7 is of a multitude that no one can count, and they’ve all come out of great hardship. They’re in need of shelter. They have experienced hunger. They have experienced thirst. They have experienced scorching heat. And they have tears in their eyes. This gathered throng of people is not made up of people who are feeling all right, who’ve never been touched by hardship or harm. They have suffered.

Suffering is expected as a part of the Christian experience. That’s why Peter wrote, “Dear friends, don’t be surprised about the fiery trials that have come among you to test you. These are not strange happenings. Instead, rejoice as you share Christ’s suffering. You share his suffering now so that you may also have overwhelming joy when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13 CEB).

“These are not strange happenings,” yet, it seems that even in Peter’s day Christian people were raising objections to their suffering. We do the same thing, which tells us that it’s a normal part of the human experience to reject suffering as something that we—or anyone—deserves.

But that’s true, too, isn’t it? We don’t deserve to suffer. No one deserves to suffer. It’s wrong when human beings or human institutions cause other human beings to suffer. So, we reject the very idea that suffering is an acceptable lot for anyone—but especially us. I mean, we might not be able to personally vouch for those others—those refugees fleeing violence their homelands for instance, but we know that we’re good people. What we know for certain is that undeserved suffering is unjust, and I think (I hope!) that all of us would say that any suffering is unjust.

But, because of sin and how it gets a hold of each person and each institution we build, the world is not a fair place in which to live. Suffering is a part of the Christian experience because it’s part of the human experience of sin.

But thank God suffering not the only part of the Christian experience. While we should expect to experience suffering, God’s promise is to be with us through our trouble: to be present with us right in the midst of it—and to save us by raising us up to new life. And in that new life, God will care for us in all the ways we might need. In that new life, we’ll no longer live under the rule of sin, so all suffering will be a thing of the past.

This is only one part of what John’s vision teaches us. Revelation is one of my favorite books. As wild as some of the imagery and symbolism is, it’s really not scary. Let me highlight some parts of John’s vision in chapter 7. I’m going to include the first eight verses, too, because they’re part of this section as a whole.

The beginning of chapter 7 is where we’re introduced to the 144,000 who are sealed: 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel (except for Dan, if you’ve never noticed). In apocalyptic writings, numbers are symbolic. This number, 144,000, is a multiple of 12x12x10x10x10. The number 12 symbolizes fullness or completeness with obvious overtones of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. The number 10 symbolizes the completion of a cycle of perfect order. So, the 144,000 is symbolic of the whole, complete number of God’s people: all of God’s people who are gathered together and who have finished their course.

John hears the number of those who are sealed as God’s servants (c.f. Rev. 7:4). But, when John looks in verse 9, he sees, “a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Revelation 7:9 CEB). The image begins with the tribes of Israel, but what John sees clarifies that this group of worshippers includes all kinds of people, from all kinds of places, who speak all kinds of languages, and there are so many of them that they can’t possibly be numbered.

This uncountable throng of people from every nation, every tribe, every people, and every language should remind us that God’s dominion is more inclusive than our little tribes tend to be, and it should challenge us to strive to love and serve those whom we and our dominant culture would undoubtedly consider the other.

This uncountable, multi-cultural multitude are dressed in white. Colors have symbolic meaning in apocalyptic literature, too, and white means victory. In Revelation, white does not mean purity, as it often does in our cultural context. These people are dressed as victors. And, they have palm branches in their hands. The date palm was a symbol of the Judean kings, which was why the people waved palm branches when Jesus rode into Jerusalem. They were welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem as their king and Messiah (and probably making the Roman soldiers nervous about the possibility of an uprising).

The multitude of people in Revelation 7 cry out in a loud voice, “Victory belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:10 CEB). But the word translated as victory here is σωτηρία (soteria), and it means salvation. This is actually a cry that runs counter to the official claims of the Roman Empire that salvation—in the sense of prosperity, peace, safety, and security—comes from the Emperor and the Roman State. One of the titles of the Roman Caesars was Soter, which is Savior.

So, this act of worship by those in white robes who hold palm branches is sedition against the Roman State. But that’s the thing we might not realize about worship. Worship is dangerous. Worship is a declaration of loyalty. When we worship God, we are making a statement that no other claimant for our loyalty has it. If you’ve read the Book of Revelation, you might recall that the beast also received worship. When we worship here, we are declaring that God alone has our loyalty over and above every other government, institution, party, and individual.

Worship is quite a statement, don’t you think?

Then, in a conversation between John and one of the elders, we find out that the gathered worshippers have come out of the great ordeal and washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb. When John first heard of this Lamb, he was described as “The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Rev. 5:5 CEB). But, when John sees the Lion of the tribe of Judah, what he sees is, “a Lamb, standing as if it had been slain” (Rev. 5:6 CEB). That says something about the power dynamics at play in God’s dominion. The mighty, powerful lion appears as a slaughtered lamb, and it’s the Lamb that has emerged victorious.

The robes of the worshippers are washed in the blood of the Lamb and made white. It’s a powerful image and a powerful statement. Remember that, in apocalyptic literature, white means victory. The blood of Jesus that was spilled in his sacrificial death for us is what has won the victory for us.

And it’s important for us to note that every robe needs washing.

The Lamb at the center of God’s throne will shepherd the people. The Lamb will care for those who have come out of suffering and hardship. The Lamb will guide them to fresh water that pours from the springs of the water of life. And God will wipe every tear from their eyes.

This is beautiful, not scary.

John the Seer of Revelation reminds us that, if we are God’s people—as we claim to be by our very act of worship—then we can and should proclaim with boldness that salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb. Our witness on behalf of the crucified and risen Savior can and often does bring us into direct conflict with the powers of this world. Yet, no other allegiance matters because victory only comes from the blood of Jesus. New life only comes by dying. Victory is only won… by losing.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Home | All Saints’ Sunday

Revelation 21:1-6a

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5 Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

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The book of Revelation can unnerve even the most mature of Christians. The wild and frightful imagery has inspired much doom and gloom among some interpreters of its words. Many have approached Revelation as a roadmap of the future, a foretelling of horrors to come, especially for those who are “left behind” in the rapture and are subjected to the scheming of the antichrist.

So let me clarify a few misguided assumptions and misinterpretations about Revelation.

There is no antichrist in this book.

There is no rapture in this book.

These are things that certain sects of Christianity, including Darbyism, Dispensationalism, and Christian Fundamentalism, have wrongly imported into Revelation through bad Biblical interpretation.

They are not in Revelation.

Antichrist is only found five times in the Bible, and they’re all in First and Second John (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 1:7). And antichrist is not just one person who is coming, but many persons who have already come (c.f. 1 John 2:18). And what John means by antichrist is clearly defined in three ways: Firstly, as someone who denies that Jesus is the Christ; Secondly, as someone who denies the Father and the Son; or Thirdly, as someone who denies that Jesus came in human flesh.

Rapture is a whole other kind of misinterpretation of something Paul mentions in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. It is definitely NOT rapture as the sects I mentioned describe it.

The powerful imagery of Revelation is actually a common feature the genre of apocalyptic literature. All apocalyptic works contain strange and wild imagery and symbolic numbers and colors. But when we understand how to properly interpret apocalyptic literature, it’s really not so scary. In fact, Revelation was written as a book of consolation to Christians who were under persecution by the Roman state. Revelation is meant to console and reassure us, not cause us to be afraid or worried. It’s meant to strengthen our faith in the present so we can live into God’s future, not to make us afraid of our faith nor afraid of the future.

When Emperor Diocletian tried to enforce worship of the state cult, it was a matter of state control over the populace. John the Seer wrote Revelation to remind his flock that, what was at stake for Christians was their inmost identity. He encouraged Christian not to bow to the Roman state, despite the brutality that state inflicted upon its own people for control of their loyalties: even their souls. Revelation reminded persecuted Christians who and whose they are: where they came from and where they would finally end up whether they died a natural death or were killed in the persecution.

Yet, Revelation has been coopted and misused by some so-called “Christians” to support their hatred of Jews and Catholics, among other groups (as have many other Scripture texts). This misuse of Scripture to support hate is nothing new to Christianity. In light of recent events, including the mass-murder at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I think it’s important that we pay attention to these undercurrents in in our national culture, within the broader church, and do some self-examination within ourselves.

Hateful thoughts lead to hateful speech, which leads to hateful action. Jesus taught, “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell” (Matthew 5:21-22 CEB). Why would Jesus say something that sounds so harsh for mere spoken words? Because angry thoughts lead to angry speech, and angry speech quickly leads to angry action. Another wise sage once said, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering” (Yoda, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace).

When we’re told in Revelation that God will wipe every tear from our eyes, that death will be no more. That mourning and crying and pain will be no more, we need to decide what values we want to live into: those of God’s dominion or those of our culture? We need to decide what we’ll allow our thoughts, our speech, and our actions to be. Will we think, speak, and act in ways that cause tears, or will we think, speak, and act in ways that dry them? Will we think, speak, and act in ways that cause death and mourning and pain, or will we think, speak, and act in ways that show our love—Christ’s love; God’s love—for the whole of humanity, and our hope for a future that includes everyone?

Because God’s Dominion will include everyone. Revelation describes this more than once by saying, “by your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation” (5:9 CEB) and “there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (7:9 CEB). The gathered host of God’s saints includes people that our culture—and even our government leadership—tells us to fear enough to hate.

Today is All Saints’ Day. In one sense, this is our day of remembrance: our Memorial Day. On this day we remember God’s holy people who have gone before us: those whose names we know and those whose names are known only to God. We remember the saints—the holy ones—because of their noble deeds, their faithful witness, and their martyrdom. These people, fellow members of the body of Christ, have influenced us in many ways whether we know it or not.

It has been said that if we forget the past we’re doomed to repeat it. We know that our world is full of painful and terrible atrocities that we desperately need to remember so that we don’t repeat them. We need to remember them so that we can permanently change our hearts and minds, which is the definition of repentance.

When Joy and I lived in Terre Haute, there was a Holocaust museum called CANDLES. It’s an acronym that stands for Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors. The museum was dedicated to remembering what happened to the children at Auschwitz who were tortured in the experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele. In December of 2003, arsonists burned the museum in an attempt to destroy the memory of the Nazi atrocities that the museum existed to preserve, and to silence the stories of both those who were murdered and those who survived Auschwitz.

The burning of the museum outraged many people in Terre Haute, me included. A protest rally was formed, and we marched in silence, holding lighted candles, from the local synagogue to the burned-out museum where we all prayed for an end to violence and hatred.

I remember that, on the way, a little boy ran out of the front door of his house and asked what we were doing. A Jewish man I was walking behind stopped to say, “We are marching because some people have decided to act out in hatred toward others, and all of these marchers are here to say that those who hate and use violence against others will not win. We will not let them win. We are marching because we love peace.” His words stuck with me because he articulated the reason for our silent march so well.

I remember the boy’s reaction, too. He sat down quietly on his porch in the cold December air and watched us walk by. He took it all in, and, though I can’t be sure, I think watching those hundreds of protesters walk silently by his house is something that he’ll always remember: hundreds of people who were marching for peace.

It’s also significant, in light of the Tree of Life Synagogue murders, that November 9th and 10th is the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. It’s important for us to remember. And it’s important for us to recognize that God’s dominion is one of love. Fear of others and hatred for others will not be tolerated in the future that awaits us. Anti-Semitism cannot exist in the minds or hearts of people who follow a Jewish savior. Hatred for any peoples cannot exist in the minds or hearts of those who follow a Savior who will bring together people from every nation, tribe, language, and people.

As much as All Saints’ Sunday is about remembrance, it’s also about looking forward to where we’re going. “In my beginning is my end,” T.S. Elliot wrote (East Coker in Four Quartets). God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Just as we came from God, God is our final destination. The book of Revelation is eschatology. It’s about the end, but not an end that’s necessarily restricted to chronological or temporal finality. It’s also about the end in the sense of our purpose and goal as people who belong to God.

In that future are a new heaven and a new earth: perhaps pointing to a resurrected heaven and earth since the former heaven and earth will pass away. The sea, which represents the chaos from which evil comes, will be no more. And in John’s vision he saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. In early Jewish apocalyptic literature, a heavenly Jerusalem was thought to preexist the earthly Jerusalem (c.f. 4 Ezra 7:26; 8:52, 2 Baruch 4:2-6). Here, John sees New Jerusalem coming down from a restored heaven to a restored earth, where God will dwell among us.

The name of this very Jewish city means city of peace. As a people whose beginning is our end, I encourage us to consider whether peace is truly guiding our hearts. The words of Revelation are trustworthy and true. If we are, indeed, saints—if we are God’s holy ones—then the way we live our everyday lives must be rooted in God’s love and compassion for every human life, not the majority, nor the power-brokers, but every human life: even the most vulnerable and marginalized. Our future home is God’s dominion, and God’s dominion is perfectly cosmopolitan. How we think about other people, how we talk about other people, how we act toward other people: these things matter a great deal. To choose fear, anger, and hatred is to risk finding ourselves on the outside looking in when God’s new reality comes.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay