Multitude + 1
Our passage today is from the last (lost) book of the Bible: The Revelation to John. It is a mysterious book often misinterpreted and misused. As literature it is a beautiful book with powerful images that from start to finish tell a story of our entry in the New Jerusalem – the Kingdom of God.
It is hard to understand. Indeed it is nearly impossible to understand without understanding the world of St. John. We really don’t know who wrote it. But it was written during the horrid persecution of Christians during the reign of Nero.
The text tells us it is John who is the narrator. We don’t know which John but he is usually identified as the disciple John. He is exiled on the island of Patmos and therefore isolated from his Christian community. He writes this book to give them hope through the tribulations of their persecution.
His book is an extended metaphor, written in a code that Jewish Christians would understand, but the Romans would not. He feared that if the Romans found a copy of the book and understood what it said (which included the overthrow of Nero), they would ratchet up the persecutions.
So we have to work our way through the symbols, the signs, and references to the Old Testament. For example there are a lot of numbers in Revelation – some are well known like the 144,000 who Jesus calls out for salvation. Other numbers are hidden. For example the number of events such as 6 events followed by an intermission followed a 7th final event gives us the understanding the 6 is the number of incompleteness and 7 the number of completeness. No number in Revelation is mathematical. They are all codes. And it is Revelation that gives us the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the Beast that represents Rome and Nero. Understanding all of this is a long bible study …
But we will skip most of this and focus on our passage and what it is telling us. In our passage an infinitely large multitude has gathered before the throne of God. First let’s step back to the verses preceding our passage. In them God “sealed” 144,000 of the Jewish Christians. This number represents all of the Jewish Christians. It is a reenactment of what happened during the Passover when Lamb’s blood was painted on the seal of every Jewish home in Egypt. God did seal the persecuted Christians with the Lamb’s blood, because like the earlier Jews, the Jews and Gentiles alike who converted to Christianity were facing horrid persecution.
But now in our passage, John sees an even greater number that are the Gentile Christians whose numbers are growing. Their white robes are signs that they are purified, i.e. they have let go of the secular world’s expectations and demands and now follow Jesus. The palm branches that they wave represent Jesus’ victory over the powers and principalities. The Lamb in Revelation is Jesus. It is the Lamb that was slain but now lives. The Revelation’s unfolding of our entry to the New Jerusalem stands upon this Triumph of the Lamb… and true Christians have joined in that victory and triumph.
But we learn in the next verses that the victory was no cake walk. The passage says that the people of the multitude wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb and thereby their robes become white. Their washing their robes in the Lamb’s blood is a symbol that they have accepted God’s way and rejected the world’s idolatries.
But even so the people will suffer tribulations. There is no promise that they will not experience suffering. Rather the life of the Christian is a life of not being consumed by suffering, but being able to pass through it to a better life. And so since these Christians have accepted God’s protection to get them through the tribulations they realize that the greatest threat to them is not physical death, but in denying God and giving their loyalty to the idols of this age, and thereby spiritually dying. It is this rearranging of their view of themselves and the world around them that brings them out of the despair of living in a turbulent age and seeing the light of hope beyond – not a phony hope to get you through the day, but a real hope and real certainty of a better age.
This Revelation is not just a story of the early Christians. It’s the story of all people who live in an age of tribulation and anxiety.
There was a father, an ordinary man, who needed to be in control. He felt he needed to be on top of everything and have certainty of his and his family’s future. But in this day and age, he found that uncertainty was all around him and he wasn’t able to keep control of his budget, his job, or his family. His employer had downsized the company. His anxiety went through the ceiling worrying whether he had a job. He survived the downsizing, but with reduced hours and therefore income. Obviously his budget took a hit. Then his employer had to re-negotiate their health insurance and his premiums and co-pays increased. Again his budget was stretched.
He had no control over these changes. He thought of looking for a better job and started to do so … only to find out that it was a fool’s errand. His job turned out to be his best bet. But now his family’s budget was so tight he was having trouble paying their mortgage.
He had a son in high school. He was a free spirit and like many teenagers rebellious and over confident in his immortality. He was dating and the father was not so happy about that… every time he went out he lost control over him … not that the father had any at home. And now he has taken up with a girl who speaks with an accent and comes from a strange culture. With all of his budget and job problems, the father has no patience dealing with this. He demands that his son break it off with the young woman. Of course the son is defiant and disobeys.
He continued to pressure his son, ignoring his wife’s advice to let it ride and just wait for their son to get tired of the girl. One night the son didn’t come home and still hadn’t come home during the day. This event nearly tipped the father over into madness. He called the police and they began their search. He wanted to search for his son, but had no idea where to look. He wanted to confront the girl’s parents, but he had no idea where they lived and whether they even spoke English.
He was frantic. He started searching randomly. At last he came to a church. In frustration he went in even though he hadn’t been in church since his childhood. He sat quietly. In time he realized he was praying after so many years. “O God, send back my son to me safe and sound. Help me reconcile with him.” He stopped. He realized he had prayed aloud.
A woman came over to him. She spoke with a thick accent. “I pray to God too. My daughter is loss.” And they spoke together and soon realized that their children had run away together. Instead of being angry at her for not “controlling” her daughter, he realized that she too was afraid and feeling out of control. It also dawned on him that the young woman was raised in a good – and Christian – home. They exchanged phone numbers and promised to keep each other informed of any news of their children.
But the waiting for the father and the mother was excruciating. Everyway they tried to find their son came up as a dead end. The police were having no better luck. There was nothing more they can do but wait … and hope.
But the long hours of not knowing drove them in despair. Their lives were turned upside down. But one day, the father remembered his encountered in the church and said to his wife, “It’s in God’s hands.” And somehow that gave them hope.
A week later they received a call from the young woman’s mother. The children were found in the church early this morning by a deacon. They had slept at the church the previous night. They headed for the church…
And as the subsequent weeks unfolded, the people of the church noticed that the young man’s father and mother were faithful attendees on Sunday morning. The father and mother had joined the great multitude praising God.
We all must face the tribulations of the world around us and how those impact our personal and family lives. So many people today are “go it on their own” and rely on their own resources or maybe the resources of some secular group. But there is nothing to compare with the Community of God. Our own resources are limited. The resources of a secular group … as much as it helps us through … are also limited. When we do not live the Community of God we leave the most critical resource. In the end the only resource that we can completely rely on is God’s love and intervention in our lives.
The father found a church not be some Internet search or some developing desire, but in the moment of intractable fear and hopelessness. God made sure that his search for his son would pass him by a church. The Holy Spirit took him into the church and there his life began a “purification” from always needing to be in control … which is nothing less than trying to be god … to leaning on the intangible God who is above us, below us, beside us, and within us. And in so being he (along with his wife) stood, cloaked in white, before the throne of the Lamb and thanking and praising God for the blessings of his life.
He may have not hung on a literal cross, but for a week’s time his life was a horrid week of waiting in suffering. Now he was “resurrected” into a new vision of how to live his life.
And so it can be for us. Our secular age as in all ages is imperfect, broken in many ways, and constantly anxious. We cannot separate from the tribulations of the world. We, as a people from all ethnics, languages, genders, and beliefs are in this world and can never truly be out of this world in this life. So we all are the sufferers as well as the tormenters of this age.
But God in this very moment invites us to enter into the New Jerusalem – the Kingdom of God – in this age, in this world and in this moment. Then our tormenting will cease and our suffering will be embraced by God carrying us though this age to real hope.
Think about it …
God’s grace and love be with you …