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 The End to Suffering

Sermon - 4/14/13
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Revelation 7:9-17

We began last week a mini-series on the book of Revelation.  For the benefit of those who missed it, let me briefly summarize my main points.  I consider these to reflect bedrock, mainstream, contemporary scholarship, so I am not breaking any new ground here.

  • Contrary to the popular image of the last book of the Bible, Revelation is not a book of predictions concerning the end of the world.  It was written first and foremost by the elder John for the people at the end of the first century to encourage them to hold on to their faith, hence it begins by stating “the time is near” and “what must soon take place”.  The immediate future of those Christians living at the end of the first century is the subject of its vision, not events of the distant future.

  • The so-called “beast” of the apocalypse is the imperial power of Rome and the anti-Christ is Caesar.  Though Nero is the most likely candidate for the number 666, we should understand that John saw Nero as simply representing the royal throne which stands in opposition to the rule of God and thus it is not the individual Caesar, but the office of Caesar which he sees as opposing Christ.

  • The central figure of Revelation is the Lamb who was slain, referring to Christ, and whose only weapon to oppose the Roman beast is the sword of his mouth, in other words, the Word of God.  I didn’t go into this last week, but it helps to know a little Greek when reading Revelation.  And all I know is a little, so I get some help from scholarly friends.  The verb, to conquer in Greek is very familiar to you, though you may also know it in its noun form, usually translated as “victory”.


    Anyone know what that word is?  (Nike.)  The Goddess of Victory, an image you will find throughout the Roman empire such as this one in Ephesus, is the Goddess Nike.



Half of the uses of “nike” as a verb or noun in the NT are found in Revelation.  It appears that John is intentionally contrasting the image of Christ as the slaughtered lamb with Nike, the Roman goddess of victory.  This is what NT scholar Ward Ewing calls “lamb power”, Christ’s self-sacrificial love, which is the antithesis to the way Rome exercised its power as symbolized by Nike.  Thus one of the messages of Revelation is:  Jesus, not Nike, is the victorious one; Christ, not Caesar, is Lord of all.

  • Lastly, while I do not believe Revelation describes the future, it does describe the present.  That it is to say, we live in a time very much like that described by Revelation in that the way of the Lamb and the way of the beast are very much at odds with each other. 

Now that we are all up to speed, let’s move on.  Our text this morning comes from chapter 7 which opens with another scene in front of the heavenly throne after describing a period of great tribulation.  In the first half of the chapter, 144,000 from the tribes of Israel are identified as servants of God who are to be saved.  The number is purely symbolic like most else in Revelation and should not be taken literally.  Then we come to the text for this morning in which there is a multitude too large to count who have come through the great ordeal.

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. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ 
11And 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 worshipped God, 12singing,
‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ 14I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that 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 centre 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.’

Two historical events are important to keep in mind when reading Revelation which help to understand what is going on here.  First, the persecution of Christians by Nero.  You may recall that Nero blamed Christians for the burning of Rome and had Christians burned at the stake and fed to lions.  Thereafter Christians became the favorite minority to blame for the next century. Though such persecution may have been limited to Rome initially, Christians throughout the empire felt the impact of the brutality and many went into seclusion. 

Second, the Jerusalem war and destruction of the temple in 70 CE.  This was most devastating of course for Jews, but the impact on Christians, many of which were Jewish, was considerable.  The mother church was in Jerusalem and many Christians were killed in the fighting or forced to flee the city.

Those two events alone are sufficient to explain the nature of Revelation, but if Revelation was written at the end of the first century, as most scholars believe, then add to that list the persecution of Christians under Caesar Domitian, wider and more severe than under Nero.  The last half of the first century was not an easy time to be a Christian.

In the midst of all that pain and suffering, where was God?  What was God doing to bring it to an end?  Revelation is John’s answer to that question, giving a vision of God that transcends time, and by so doing provided the early church with the means to sustain their faith in time of trials and tribulations. 

So where did John get the idea of a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil of which the followers of Christ were but pawns?  First, there is the Jewish literary precedent on which John heavily borrows.  Revelation is simply a Christian version of a long tradition known as apocalyptic literature.  The very first word of Revelation is “apocalypse” which means literally “to unveil” or to reveal.  Apocalyptic literature is a particular style of writing which appears specifically in times of great duress to provide believers with the assurance that God is still in charge and would ultimately triumph over the evils of the present age. 

One of the main characteristics of such literature is the use of visions to reveal the plan of God.  These visions depict a struggle between God and the forces of evil in which the faithful are caught in the crossfire.  Those who remain true are rewarded in the end when God finally overthrows the evil powers. 

Through these fantastic stories of spiritual beings battling for the soul of the world, the crises of faith experienced by the faithful in difficult times, is put into proper perspective by the revelation of the world which is still under God’s jurisdiction, despite any appearance to the contrary. 

Thus the second key to understanding Revelation besides the historical context is read it in light of its literary context in which it is quite at home in a world of terrible beasts, winged creatures and supernatural beings.  It is, as I suggested last Sunday, in essence an ancient comic book pitting the super hero against the super villain as a way to portray the perennial struggle between good and evil.

The second factor and more important that allowed John to affirm his conviction that Christ, not Caesar, was Lord of all was the vision given to him by God.  That vision of Jesus as the slaughtered lamb, rather than the slaughtering lion, is John’s model for self-sacrificial love to be emulated by all believers. 

In the text for this morning, the multitude of the faithful wear robes made white by the blood of Christ.  It is of course, an oxymoron.  How does blood make anything white?  This is another one of those Christian koans, like the sound of one hand clapping, it is intended to make you stop and say, “huh”.  It is another one of those clues that say, don’t take this literally.

Last week I shared the story of my short address to the national assembly of the Church of Scotland in response to the 1998 shooting at Thurston High School.  While Judy and I were there we of course visited many of the old cathedrals scattered throughout Scotland, grandiose buildings but in various states of disrepair.

 On the agenda for this particular assembly was a proposal to accept an offer from the Scottish lottery commission of $500 million to repair these national treasures.  Well, talk about controversy.  Same-sex marriage would have been easier to settle than this dilemma.  To hear many speak before the thousand or so delegates, you’d have thought the money had come from the devil himself.  But you don’t walk away from $500 million that easily.  As Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, “if being rich is a curse, Lord, smite me now!” 

Well the debate dragged on and on, passions flaring, voices rising.  It was obvious that the hall was evenly divided.  Finally, one old Scottish gentleman came to the mic and in a heavy brogue quoted the founder of Salvation Army, General William Booth, who said “I’ll take the money of the devil and wash it in the blood of the lamb.”  Shortly thereafter the vote was taken and by just 10 votes that day the Church of Scotland accepted the $500 million and washed it in the blood of the lamb.  I hope some day to return to Scotland just to see what the money of the devil did for them.  And when I return, I expect I’ll too say, “Lord, smite us now!”

I confess, that I don’t particularly care for blood imagery.  I mean, being washed in the blood of the lamb just doesn’t have a lot of appeal to me. It is just too gruesome. Thus those old gospel songs, “there’s power in the blood,” don’t do a whole lot for me except maybe make me want to be a vegetarian.  So without dwelling too much on it, please take note on who does the washing and in whose blood.  The multitude dressed in white does the washing and the blood is all the lamb’s, no one else’s.  There are no Christian soldiers here, marching as to war.  There are only martyrs, those joined with Christ, in a death like his. 

Now I am not a big fan of martyrdom either.  The whole point of Christ’s sacrifice is that it was to be the last, the lamb slain for the salvation of all.  But what I find striking in John’s vision is this multitude, from all corners of the earth, all nations, races, languages and traditions, are all dressed in the white robes washed in the blood of the lamb. 

It is not that John is telling us that there will be masses of martyrs, but that in the face of threat, danger or tribulation, when we stand together in Christ, we will be victorious.  Suffering will come to an end because God wills it. But how?

Allan Boesak, a black pastor in South Africa, writes about Revelation from his experience of apartheid:

The song of the 24 elders is the same age-old song of Israel, and it vibrates with the same power and certainty…. This is the kind of song oppressed people sing with zest and an almost unspeakable joy… “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”

On a Sunday afternoon young black Christians pick up this ancient song and make of it a new song as they dance around a police vehicle just after a student has been arrested at our church service… The police, somewhat confused, somewhat bewildered, somewhat scared, release our friend.  Others join us as we march, singing and dancing, back into the church.  This is a new song, a freedom song, and the power of it, the sheer joy of it, the amazing truth in it captivate and inspire thousands upon thousands through South Africa.[i]

 

That story of the oppressed claiming  victory says more about how to read Revelation than all of Timothy LaHaye’s Left Behind books combined.  If there is going to be an end to suffering, it is because we, the people of God, have taken up the yoke of Christ to share one another’s burdens.  “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”  She’s my sister. 

If there is going to be an end to oppression and war, it is because we, people of God, believed enough in God’s vision of such a world to make it so.  If there is going to be an end to hunger and thirst, it is because we,  followers of Jesus, took him at his word when he said, “I was hungry and you feed me.  I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink.”

Revelation unveils the bankruptcy of imperial power and domination systems.  Governments, corporations, banks, the military—all those things we believe to be so powerful in the end are shown to be powerless. “Worth is the lamb who was slain,” the powerless one, all glory and power and wisdom and might and honor and blessing is his. It is the people who are willing to follow the way of Jesus, those willing to make sacrifices for others, the church, called to be the servant instead of the master, these are the great multitude in white found victorious in the end.  The lamb slaughtered by the unholy alliance of religious and political authorities is the one who reigns in the end.

To follow this lamb beside the throne is not only to reject the unholy alliance that crucifies the vulnerable of the world, it is to sing and dance the Lord’s song of victory with confidence.  The hope of John’s vision, that we will hunger and thirst no more and God will wipe every tear from our eyes, is not a prediction of our future, it is the promise of God’s love for those who choose the way of the lamb.  To choose that way, the way of lamb power, instead of the world’s way, is to wash our robes white in the blood of the lamb slain for us to end all suffering, misery and hunger.  There is indeed power in that blood, the blood of life, the power of God’s love to change the world.  May that blood, that power, that life be in us.

 


[i] Quoted here from Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed:  The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation.  Westview Press, 2004.  pp. 100f.

 


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