This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Fourth Sunday of Easter. I’m preaching a sermon series on the book of Revelation; today’s text was Revelation 7:9-17.
Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, a fifty-day season when we focus on Jesus’ resurrection, and what that means for us. Today we continue our journey through Easter, with Crazy Uncle Revelation as our companion. As I’ve discussed for the past few weeks, the books of the Bible were written to be companions for the faithful, almost like a group of friends or extended family to help us along, and walk with us. The books of the Bible are not an owner’s manual for life, or a book of codes to solve, and they were never meant to be. And that’s good, because if that’s what they were, they would be filled with contradictions and things that just don’t make sense. For instance, what is heaven like?
The Bible is about as clear as mud on what the afterlife is like. But there are a few hints and images here and there. Crazy Uncle Revelation gives us a few hints throughout his book, and we just heard one of them. Heaven looks something like this:
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, shouting and singing praises to God. What does that look like? What does that sound like?
I have a confession to make. When I envision that scene, I usually picture people like me, people with white skin, singing their praises in English. I’m not proud of this, but it’s true. Despite the fact that Crazy Uncle Revelation clearly tells us, “from all every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” I wonder how many of us tend to think of the afterlife as being filled with people just like us.
Reminds me of an old joke.
A man arrives at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, “Religion?”
The man says, “Methodist.”
St. Peter looks down his list and says, “Go to Room 24, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”
Another man arrives at the gates of heaven. “Religion?”
“Go to Room 18, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”
A third man arrives at the gates. “Religion?”
“Go to Room 11, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”
The man says, “I can understand there being different rooms for different denominations, but why must I be quiet when I pass Room 8?”
St. Peter tells him, “Well, the Baptists are in Room 8, and they think they’re the only ones here.”
Ah yes, the Baptists. They’ve been the butt of Christian jokes since the time of Martin Luther. But I wonder if the joke applies to us as well, to all of us. I wonder if it might be more accurate to tell the joke like this:
Three men arrive at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, “Religion?”
One says, “Jewish.” The second says, “Muslim.” The third says, “Buddhist.”
St. Peter looks down his list and tells them which rooms to go to, and adds, “But be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”
The men ask why, and St. Peter tells them, “Well, all the Christians are in Room 8, and they think they’re the only ones here.”
We think that sometimes, don’t we? And we claim the authority of scripture behind it. But as I said before, scripture can be contradictory, but the movement of scripture is always toward more openness and more welcome. Spend time with all our scriptural companions, and you’ll see a slow and steady movement toward more and more openness, welcome and love for more and more people. It’s almost like the whole of scripture is one big story about how God’s people change and grow over time, how their understanding of God’s love grows bigger and bigger. And by the time Crazy Uncle Revelation arrives, that understanding has grown to the point where every nation, every tribe and people and language are included.
Let that sink in. Every nation, every tribe, every people and language.
But these people do have one thing in common. Revelation tells us that “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal.” Who are all these people, dressed in white, surrounding God’s throne? These are people who have suffered.
Crazy Uncle Revelation proclaims hope to those who are suffering now, hope that their suffering is not in vain. Hope that God will wipe their tears away. Hope that their hunger and thirst will be quenched. Hope that the Lamb, who is Jesus, has become their shepherd.
And that means you. I know that you have known suffering in your life. Maybe not the same as someone else’s. Maybe not “as bad” as someone else’s, but there’s no need to compare suffering. You have known suffering, and that means that you will stand before that throne. You will. And it’s not because you’re a good Christian, whatever that might mean. It’s not because you come to church. Not because you’re a kind and decent person. You will be raised up, and stand before the throne dressed in white for one reason only: because Christ the good shepherd will lead all his suffering children there. That is the promise that Crazy Uncle Revelation makes to us here. You will be there because you have suffered, and because God loves you.
I know. It sounds crazy. We’re supposed to do something to earn our way. Or at the very least, make sure we believe the right thing. It can’t really be free, can it? That would be crazy. It can’t be free, because then all the hard work we put into being the church would be for nothing. But it’s not.
We also get something amazing right now by being part of the church. By being the church, we get a foretaste of what’s coming. We get to experience it, if only just a little, here and now. Revelation says that we will hunger and thirst no more. Well, we get a foretaste of that every time we share the body and blood of Christ. Revelation says that the Lamb will guide us to springs of the water of life. We each got a foretaste of that the day when we were guided to the baptismal font. Revelation says that we will gather around the throne singing praises. We get a foretaste of that every Sunday morning, singing praises in here together. So let us continue to sing together here, along with one another, along with all of our biblical companions, along with our Crazy Uncle. And let us continue to strive to include more and more people, so that our foretaste here grows ever closer to the real thing.
Let us together follow our shepherd where he leads, trusting that he will one day lead us all to the throne.
Featured image: The Four and Twenty Elders by William Blake (public domain).