April 17, 2016 – 4th Sunday of Easter
Mark did a great job last Sunday setting up the context of the book of Revelation which will be our locus of preaching through Eastertide.
Here’s a brief review: Revelation is a collection of visions recorded by a follower of Jesus named John. John’s visions take place in the years that follow Emperor Nero’s brutal persecution of Christians and the devastating Jewish-Roman war which included the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Temple.
John’s visions are written in coded language to protect himself and those who share this material from the punishment of Rome if they were to confront the power of Rome directly. That coded language is similar to the coded language of spirituals that were sung by enslaved Africans in this country to gather people up for a meeting or to point the way to freedom’s land. For those who needed to know, the code was understood. For others who shouldn’t know, they heard the spirituals as songs people sang to pass the time.
Revelation is called apocalyptic literature, which these days we associate with disasters and destruction, but that’s not the real meaning of the biblical word. In the language of the New Testament, the word we translate as apocalypse, has as its root meaning to pull “back a curtain to expose something, showing the difference between illusion and reality.”[i] The illusion is Rome’s power. The reality is God’s provision.
The last thing I want to say by way of review is that John is writing about visions he has while he is caught up in the Spirit. This is mystical literature. It’s not a lawyerly discourse like Paul’s writings, line by line proving his argument. It’s the poetic, rapturous language of the mystics. And so, it’s not a book that can be fully comprehended with our intellectual faculties. We have to be able to let ourselves embrace some of that rapture, be moved by the poetry, and find inspiration from the Spirit-breathed visions. (Not the easiest thing for some Presbyterians but I invite you to be open to it.)
So, now, the reading. Revelation 7.9-17. (It has a lot of similarities to last week’s passage 5.11-14.) John begins in chapter 7 with a vision of angels and the tribes of Israel. [READ Revelation 7.9-17]
Now that sounds innocuous enough, doesn’t it? Just one big rapturous worship service and some promises for what God will do when everyone gets to heaven. But, take another look. In verse 9 we hear there is a multitude—too big to count—from every nation, all tribes, all people groups, all languages. And they are all worshiping and singing for—not the Roman emperor but the Lamb at the center of the throne of God. And they are singing that salvation—which also means peace, well-being wholeness, healing—what is needed for life to flourish—comes not from Rome but from God.
The multitude of people are wearing white robes—symbolizing they are in heaven or are worthy of heaven[ii]—and they are holding palm branches which are symbols of victory. That’s some heavy-duty political language there. In a time where the Roman ruler was considered established by God and a son of God, and expected to be worshiped by all whom Rome controlled, to picture an uncountable multitude from all the nations of the earth declaring victory belongs to Christ (who is the Lamb seated on the throne) is to say the emperor is not all that.
Have you ever thought about this great worship scene as what we do at the communion table in the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. The celebrant prays, “We join with all the company of heaven and earth who forever sing to the glory of your name” and then we sing, “Holy, holy, holy!” It’s like this multitude gathered together singing, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!”—not just in heaven but now!
More politics in verse 17: “The lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd.” We think of a shepherd as someone who takes care of sheep but anyone familiar with the Hebrew scriptures as the readers of the book of Revelation would have been, knows that shepherd is a stock term for king.[iii] Once again, there is bold political language for those who have ears to hear. Jesus is our king, not the emperor. But unlike the emperor, Jesus uses what one professor calls, “‘lamb power’…the power of nonviolent love to change the world.”[iv]
Brian Blount, in his commentary of the book of Revelation says at the end of the first century, “a Christian believer…might rightly ask: “Who is in control? God? Or the emperor and Rome?” (And, honestly, that’s a question we could ask today too.) “In John’s world…the truthful answer appeared to be: ‘The emperor and Rome.’…John’s truth, though, is an alternative to this one…the truth is that God is in control. And God is stronger than Rome.”[v]
So much of the Bible is written from the perspective of those on the underside, the marginalized, the powerless. Brian Blount, president of Union Seminary in Richmond, VA, juxtaposes the experience of enslaved Africans alongside the visions of Revelation. Blount sees John encouraging the early Christians to be “committed to the ethical activity of witnessing to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”[vi] This is not just a spiritual and pious commitment but also a highly social, economic and political one”[vii] as well.
“It is as though,” he writes, “a people occupied by the power and force of Rome can—even now in the present moment of worship when they heard John’s Revelation—sense the liberation that God’s triumph will bring. Just as a people devastated by slavery could, even as they worked the fields, tended the master’s home and children, or endured the master’s sexual and vindictive fury, be free in [their] imagination…at the very moment they were shackled.”[viii]
But it wasn’t about imagining a future heavenly reward with an attitude of “suffer in this world and then your suffering will be relieved in heaven.” Brian Blount says John with his visions and those who were enslaved were doing the same thing: “they were envisioning the future in the hope that their people would be emboldened by the vision they saw of the future to paint that very vision into their present history—to hope, to endure, and ultimately, to resist now, in the present…In other words, the visions do not just suggest a new future; they also create the future within the present.”[ix]
“Rome want[ed] the Christian…to be willing to compromise his or her beliefs and accommodate them to the belief structure offered by Rome.”[x] There was a powerful incentive from Rome: follow our way and survive. Resist and be destroyed. It was the same coercion slave owners used to convince those they enslaved that they were sub-human, and they enforced this with torture if they did not work hard enough or if they were caught trying to escape.
But when you know you belong to One who will provide shelter and food and drink; When you belong to One who guides you to the springs of the water of life, who wipes away every tear from your eyes; When you belong to One who has brought you through whatever ordeal it is you have faced; When you belong to One who is the good shepherd, who leads us to green pastures and beside still waters, then you know the truth that sets us free to sing, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
I invite you to engage this a little bit more.
Imagine an experience of suffering in your life—one you are in right now or one you have survived or one you worry about experiencing.
And now imagine Jesus the Good Shepherd being with you—giving you all that you need—whatever it is—the Good Shepherd gives you all that you need.
Now, in the quietness of your own heart, take a moment to bless God with words of gratitude.
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[i] Barbara Rossing, “End Game – Living Joyfully in an Apocalyptic Time, Christian Century, November 14, 2006, p25.
[ii] David Aune, Revelation, part 2, p468.
[iii] Ibid., p477.
[iv] Rossing, p23.
[v] Brian K. Blount, “The Witness of Active Resistance: The Ethics of Revelation in African American Perspective” in David Rhoades, ed., From Every People and Nation – The Book of Revelation in Intercultural Perspective, (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2005), p35.
[vi] Brian K. Blount, Can I Get a Witness? Reading Revelation through African American Culture, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005, pix.
[viii] Blount, “The Witness of Active Resistance,” p33.
[ix] Ibid., p32.
[x] Ibid., p36.