Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 25, 2010

2010.04.25 “The Shepherd Who Is The Lamb” Revelation 7: 9 – 17

Central United Methodist Church

 “The Shepherd Who Is The Lamb”

Revelation 7: 9 – 17

Pastor David L. Haley

April 25th, 2010

      “Then one of the twenty-four elders asked me, “Who are these who are clothed in white? Where do they come from?” And I said to him, “Sir, you are the one who knows.” Then he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white.  That is why they are standing in front of the throne of God, serving him day and night in his Temple. And he who sits on the throne will live among them and shelter them. They will never again be hungry or thirsty, and they will be fully protected from the scorching noontime heat. For the Lamb who stands in front of the throne will be their Shepherd. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water. And God will wipe away all their tears.” (Revelation 7: 13 – 17, New Living Translation)

     Having seen them, who can forget them? The Nazgul, the Black Riders, the Ringwraiths, evil Sauron’s nine terrible servants, who pursued Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring, seeking the ring of power, before it could be destroyed.  The Nazgul are so terrible they can give not just children but adults, bad dreams at night.  If you’re not a Lord of the Rings fan you probably have no idea what I’m talking about, but if you are, you will shudder.

      Truly it was a joy and a privilege for all of us Lord of the Ring fans to see Peter Jackson bring the characters of our imaginations to life in his epic film production of the Lord of the Rings. 

      I first read Lord of the Rings in the early 70’s, when I was in college.  I confess it led to a skipped class or two, because I couldn’t stop reading and just had to see what was going to happen in the next chapter, although I doubt most professors would buy that excuse.

      Perhaps most amazing is the fact that it ALL came forth from the fantastic imagination of J. R. R. Tolkien, the Oxford poet, linguist, university professor and writer.  Drawing upon his knowledge of linguistics and mythology, Tolkien not only invented the characters and story, he even invented the languages they speak. 

      So now, whether we read Lord of the Rings or watch Peter Jackson’s films, even as we laugh and cry and are inspired by the loyalty and bravery and nobility of the characters, it doesn’t matter at all that Frodo or the Fellowship of the Ring or Middle Earth or Mordor or Aragon son of Arathorn don’t exist, never existed.  It still speaks “truth” as we hear the story.

      In the same way, for twenty centuries now, the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation has both inspired and puzzled its readers. Like Lord of the Rings, it contains passages of great beauty and comfort, but also contains sections that are bizarre and bewildering, fantastic and frightening. 

      For example, long before there were Tolkien’s Nazgul, there were even more terrible horsemen who haunted the human imagination, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, introduced in Revelation, chapter 6. Perhaps the Fourth Rider is the most famous:

      “I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hell followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.”

      What’s that about?

      Well, as we have seen on previous Sundays, the book of Revelation was written by a Christian prophet name John, around the end of the first Christian century, himself in exile for his faith on the Greek island of Patmos. Using fantastic apocalyptic imagery, he wrote his letter to the Christians of Asia Minor, that during a time of persecution not only might they remain faithful, but be assured of God’s justice and victory.

      Like us in this post-Easter season, they may have wondered what it could possibly mean to proclaim God as sovereign, and Jesus as the risen and reigning Lord, when the world appeared to so obviously contradict it.

      So there are two purposes John has in mind as he begins chapter 6: to assure Christians – that though they may not be able to see it – the judgment of God on human arrogance and rebellion has begun, and that, for those who have lost their lives and who will yet lose their lives, God’s comfort and welcome are assured.

      First of all, John assures them that God’s judgment on human arrogance and rebellion is real, even though they may not be able to see it.

      To do so, John uses images both he and his hearers understood, the imagery of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. Of the 404 verses that comprise the 22 chapters of Revelation, 278 verses contain one or more allusions to an OT image.

      And, though John and his hearers understood these images, we may not, despite how much desperate readers in every generation have tried. For example, the Roman Empire is symbolized as a beast like a leopard with feet like a bear’s and a mouth like a lion.  Now, we use and understand such symbols of nations and groups: the British lion, the Russian bear, the American eagle, the Democratic donkey, or the Republican elephant.  But young children or new immigrants are not likely to understand.

      Bearing this in mind, the four horsemen of the apocalypse are made more comprehensible.  A rider on a white horse holding a bow would have been understood as the renowned Parthian warriors.  A rider on a red horse would have symbolized war and bloodshed. A rider on a black horse symbolized death. And the fourth horseman, a pale rider, would have also symbolized death, with hell following close behind.

      Throughout the centuries, including today, there have always been those who wanted to interpret these symbols literally, heading to the nearest mountaintop to await real apocalyptic horsemen to show up in the skies bringing with them the end of the world.

      But my guess is that most understood them symbolically as John intended it. Through the centuries, from the Empire of Rome until now, people in history repeatedly experienced the appalling aftermath of war: famine, pestilence, and devastation, in a way that our country, with the exception of the South during the Civil War, has never experienced.

      What John is saying is that these are the judgments of God being worked out in history.  Because this is what happens in the world whenever peoples or individuals oppose and resist the will of God; God allows us the freedom to make that choice, though not the freedom to escape the consequences of our actions.  Sadly, at the same time, the innocent also suffer through the consequences of others or our actions.

      This was what Julia Ward Howe was talking about, using similar imagery, in her 1861 hymn about the civil war, fought to remove from our country the curse of slavery:

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,

he is trampling out the vintage

where the grapes of wrath are stored;

he has loosed the fateful lighting

of his terrible swift sword; his truth is marching on.”

      After it was over, many parts of our country were devastated, and 620,000 Americans were killed.  This – John would say – is an example is the judgment of God worked out in history, as it still is today.

      For example, do the titans of Wall Street get it, as President Obama tried to explain to them last week, what they either don’t get or don’t care about, how the consequences of their greed led to great hardship for people on Main Street: losing jobs, losing savings, losing health insurance, losing homes? Yes, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse still ride, far worse in most other parts of the world than in our own.

      But the second thing John wants to do, and what the book of Revelation does perhaps better than any other book in the Bible, is to assure those who have lost their lives and who will yet lose their lives in the ordeals they face, that God’s comfort and welcome await.

      That’s where the passage we read today (7:9–17) comes in:

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. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 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, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

      Perhaps those Christians, suffering in John’s time, were asking the same thing we sometimes ask today:  How big is the church?

      How would the church have appeared to the eyes of the members of John’s churches?  Their congregations are small; on the margins of society; politically suspect; without impressive buildings, institutions, or respect from their neighbors.

      And the truth is, we may sometimes think of church in the same way: solely in terms of our congregation, our denomination, our “tribe.” But as John reminds us, we are also members of an international community, numbering hundreds of millions, with a venerable history that reaches back through the generations and the centuries.

        Likewise, when we do church “right”, church with a little “c” begins to look like the Church in heaven, with a capital “C”, people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.  What a gift it is for us here at Central, that we can see that right here, in our congregation, a reflection of the church in heaven.

      It gets better.  For those who have kept the faith and run the race and gained the prize, they get a front row seat, and join God and the Lamb at the very throne of heaven:

      “For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship God day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 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.”

      The Lion is the Lamb, and now the Lamb is the Shepherd, guiding God’s people to the springs of the water of life, and wiping away every tear from their eyes.  Is it any wonder that the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd (such as this one, from an early Christian catacomb in the 3rd century) is one of the very earliest images of early Christian art?

          So you see, the primary purpose of the book of Revelation is less about foretelling the future, than it is to use the language of faith – and especially the language of worship – to give hope and comfort to God’s people who struggle on earth. It’s what the English author William Howe was talking about in his great hymn, “For All The Saints:”  

“And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,

Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,

And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.

Alleluia, Alleluia!”

      Whether pursued by the Nazgul, or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, whether affected by the actions of others or the consequences of our own making: be comforted by this: The Lamb on the Throne is the Shepherd in our midst.  Amen.

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