I know its been a long time since I posted. I thought I'd post a sermon I am preaching tomorrow. Maybe it will give someone comfort.
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 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 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."
This has been a tough week for Americans. On Monday, we witnessed the horror and images of the explosions and mayhem at the Boston marathon. Then, as the week progressed, more news came about an explosion that rocked the small town of West, Texas. Finally, as the week drew to a close, more news about shootouts, manhunts, and finally the discovery, capture and arrest of the perpetrators of the horrific crime in Boston. Whether at a large international sporting event at Boston, or at a small, sleepy rural town, Americans had their world shaken this week, a week unlike few others since 9/11. Now, with our 24/7 news cycle and the constant updates and wash of opinions through Twitter and Facebook, all of us can share in the trauma, anxiety and fear. Even though only a few of us are directly impacted by these events, many more are experiencing these events through connections and social networks. So, collectively, we experience shock and trauma, as we are reminded of the loss and brokenness that many of us and our families have known in the past.
This week, through Scripture, we are given the imagery of sheep and shepherds. Israel was a herding nation. Living in the Judean hill country, sheep herding, and the growing of olives and grapes, were some of the main ways folks could make a living. The hill country was rugged terrain, unsuitable for large scale farming of grains that one might find in Northern Israel or in the Transjordan. So the people of Israel knew sheep and idolized the herding culture. At least since David, the image of the shepherd had become associated with leadership. The shepherd symbols of leadership persist today. Bishops carry a shepherd’s staff, with the straight end designed to prod sheep along and the hooked end designed to pull them back from danger. Being a shepherd was hard and dirty work, and often dangerous, alone in the country, sometimes at night, protecting sheep from wild animals or poachers. A shepherd often had to rely on his wits and cunning to keep his flock safe, fed, and watered. On the other hand, a shepherd often had large amounts of time alone with his sheep (and maybe his dog), time to reflect, whittle, sing, or practice his pipe or lute.
So for Israel, the image of the shepherd is one of a leader, and as we see reflected in Psalm 23, one of comforter and protector, an image associated with Israel’s God. God provides us fresh water in still streams and provides us green pastures upon which to feed and sleep, leads us through dangerous valleys, and feeds us. God’s guiding rod and staff protect. In our Gospel reading, we see Jesus applying the image of the shepherd to himself. Those of us who are Jesus’ sheep know his voice and we follow him. No robber or evil shepherd can snatch us away from Jesus the shepherd, for we are safe under Christ’s watch.
You see the dynamics of herding is an amazing thing to watch from afar. My wife is from Slovakia, another mountainous region, where the sheep herding culture is not only part of the mythic imagination, it is something you can witness in everyday life. Sometimes in the summer, when we are visiting the mountain villages surrounding my wife’s home town, one can look up at the hills and see shepherds slowly moving their flock through the pastures. I imagine, up close, to my untrained eye, it would seem like chaos and confusion, with shouting and mewing, sheep bells ringing, and sheep going this direction and that. But it is an amazing thing to watch from the distance, because although there may be dozens and dozens of sheep, from a distance it appears that they are moving as one, like one flexing and stretching organism along the hills.
These images of sheep and shepherds are compelling in a week when it seems like we are a flock that has been scattered and set astray, where each sheep is going in its own direction in terror and fear, ducking and covering from real and metaphorical explosions. In a week like this, I wonder whether our experience isn’t more akin to that of the original audience of the seer’s Revelation. You see the audience of the apocalypse had this experience that they were living in the end of times. Many of the churches in Asia Minor listed at the beginning of the book had undergone recent persecution at the end of the first century. These were folks who knew what it was to live in terror, to live in fear that their neighbors might turn them in for believing in this new-fangled religion that worshipped only one God and proclaimed a crucified criminal to be God’s resurrected King. These were folks who had seen fellow believers arrested, even martyred. Others were confronted regularly with the temptations of wealth and luxury, still others were surrounded by pagan idols and false gods whom friends and family members still worshipped. These believers in Asia Minor were composed likely of small house churches in major urban centers, and their makeup was largely of slaves and other low status people. If ever there was a people who felt like scattered sheep and who needed a word of comfort, it was the audience John of Patmos was writing to. And the vivid imagery of Revelation does not disappoint. Its mix of symbol and imagery enlivens the imagination and senses. It is designed chiefly to provide comfort to a people whose senses have been overloaded.
This is where we find ourselves in Revelation 7:9-17. We join the seer as he looks around and sees a great multitude, countless people from all the nations, standing around the throne of the lamb. Now this is a powerful image; and I guess the image that comes most readily to mind is that of the Boston Marathon. According to the Boston Athletic Association, this marathon provided the widest spectrum of humanity now possible, with over 23,000 people to run, you had people running from age 18 on up, with almost 50 runners in their late seventies and eighties, over 50 people in wheel chairs, and about 80 people with visual or mobility impairments. Runners came from 54 US states and territories, and representatives from over 80 nations! Get that picture in your mind and I think you have something similar to John’s vision. Except in John’s visions, instead of running, all of these peoples from all over the world are praising and worshipping the lamb who is sitting on his throne.
What do we learn about these people? The seer learns that they have gone through a terrible ordeal, and “they have washed their robes white in the blood of the lamb.” This is a profound and ironic image. It is one we can relate to especially in a week like this one. Many bystanders at the Boston bombing commented on the blood in the street, that so many had lost legs and limbs from the bombs, that the bombs were intentionally build to cause injury and harm through the inclusion of nails and bb-s as shrapnel. I can’t even imagine the horror. Yet John’s vision here functions in a completely opposite manner. Of course robes washed in blood would be expected to be stained in red. Yet through the blood of this lamb, the robes are made white. Here the author is using ironic symbolism. The blood of the lamb represents Christ’s sacrificial death. The image here is of temple sacrifice, in which the blood represents the covenant that is sealed between humans and God. Ironically, this blood does not stain the robes of the worshippers. It does quite the opposite. It cleanses and purifies them. It makes them white. The same ironic symbolism us being used at the end of the chapter, when the lamb at the center of the throne becomes the shepherd who will lead this international mass of people to living waters. Here we see a complete transposition of roles. The baby sheep, the vulnerable lamb, becomes the powerful guiding shepherd.
At the heart of these symbols, the blood of the lamb that washes the robes white, the vulnerable baby sheep that becomes the shepherd of all people on earth, is the irony of the cross. And you see, this is where we find the good news of this text for our fearful and hectic lives. In Christ, we recognize that God’s power functions through powerlessness. We believe in a God that has the power to take nothingness and make something out of it, to take the bitter shameful defeat of the cross and make out of it a cosmic victory for life over death. You see, the message of the cross is that our God exists in the very human weakness, frailty, and powerlessness that we experience in our lives and bodies every day. And that is the overwhelming Good News of the Gospel. A parent may be helpless as he or she watches a dying child in a hospital bed, a person with a grave illness or disability may feel utterly broken and helpless, we may cry to the heavens when we lose a spouse, or child, parent, or sibling. Yet the good news of the Gospel is that Christ is risen from the dead, the first-fruits of the resurrection. God has achieved the ultimate victory over death and the forces of evil that try to strike terror in our lives. Folks, like the saints in John’s end-time vision, we too can go through great ordeals and still wash our robes to see them gleaming white in Christ’s blood. When we experience the ordeals, the terror, the loss, we know that Christ has already achieved the ultimate victory and that soon, any time now, we will join in singing heavenly praises to the lamb. As Paul says, Christ’s power is perfected through weakness. Yes, and that means that the weak and frail lamb is an all-powerful comforting shepherd. There is nothing in our bodies too frail, there is no one in our community too weak, nothing in our lives so broken that Christ through the cross and resurrection can transform it into newness, eternity, and life. Whatever your fears, whatever your brokenness, whatever trials or ordeals you are going through, I invite you today to wash them in this little lambs blood. Saints, you will experience cleansing. Brothers and sisters, we will experience life together in God’s beloved community. When we are feeling lost and scattered. When we are feeling confused and bewildered, heavenly multitude from all over the earth, we will find our shepherd. And that shepherd is ready to lead. My brother and sister sheep, are we ready to follow that shepherd? Are we ready to drink from the waters of life? Are we ready to hunger and thirst no more? Are we ready to have every tear wiped away from our eyes?
If you are, all you have to do is follow that shepherd. Be scattered no more, for we know his voice and he knows us as his sheep.