Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 17, 2016
Revelation 7:9-17 Commentary
Depending on your church tradition, you may or may not be familiar with a glorious traditional hymn titled “By the Sea of Crystal.” I grew up singing the hymn quite often, including at a good many of the funerals I have attended. It is often sung near the end of funerals and has been known to choke up even those who managed to have made it that far into the service without yet shedding a tear. The lyrics are derived straight out of Revelation 7 and its soaring songs to God as sung by the white robed chorus of martyrs who hold palm branches of victory in their hands. If you want to end a funeral service on notes of hope, few hymn choices could accomplish it better than this one.
But then, few Bible passages are as radiant with hope as Revelation 7 itself. Having begun the chapter with a curious gathering of 144,000 people representing 12,000 from each of the original tribes of Israel, John then tells us he sees a far vaster multitude—beyond the counting of it in fact—that fulfills what God promised to Abram way back in Genesis 12: through Abram’s offspring (Israel), ALL nations would be saved. And indeed, John sees before him every ethnicity ever known. People of every shape and color, of every language and nationality form one gargantuan choir. Diverse though the choir is, their purpose is singular and unified: they are there to sing praises to the one true God and to the Lamb of God seated on the throne (and who John first spied in chapter 5). The accolades are heaped up higher and higher and on a constant basis.
Next up we discover just who these people are. They are the faithful of God who have passed through all the sufferings of life and all the persecutions the world could dish out. They have known hunger and want, pain and suffering, fear and death. History has seen the mighty river formed by their tears.
But no more! They will not know such things again, John is assured, because God has wiped every tear from every eye and those former things are over and done with, once and for all.
Of course, most all of us are comforted at the prospect of having every tear dried from every eye. Mostly, though, we have no idea how daunting a task that is. Who among us mere mortals could ever even begin to fathom how much suffering there is out there at any given moment, much less the sum total of history’s griefs and sorrows? What handkerchief would ever be sufficient to mop up the oceans of tears that get shed every day across the span of history? These are sorrows that go far beyond the gentle “There, there” we may proffer to the one person in front of us who may be crying some day.
In fact, many of us have a hard enough time figuring out how to console even a single hurting person we may run across at work or in our family circle. All things being equal, we’d just as soon avoid people like that because honestly, most of the time we just don’t know what to say and are more than a little afraid of saying the wrong thing. We often lack the words to make things “all better” or even to make things just a little bit better. This is why so many people say the silliest, the most unhelpful things in funeral homes. We think we have to say SOMEthing but since we cannot come up with anything that will ultimately actually help, we say things calculated to make it seem like the tragedy in question is not so bad after all. “You wouldn’t want him back the way he was, would you? He’s in a better place and we should be glad for him. God doesn’t make mistakes, you know—we had best just accept this.”
We cannot imagine wiping away every tear because most of the time we have no clue how to wipe away even one single tear.
What would it take to encounter history’s vast sum of sorrows and tears and actually be able to wipe it all away for good? The Bible’s answer is the Lamb upon the throne that looks like—according to John’s earlier descriptions in Revelation—it has gotten the snot kicked out of it. It’s the Lamb that looks like it’s been slaughtered and hung out to dry. It’s the Lamb of God onto whom every iniquity, sin, sorrow, and tear descended in one fatal fell swoop on a cross one dark Friday afternoon outside Jerusalem. The sheer weight of all that sorrow crushed the Lamb, killed him in every sense of the word “kill.” How could it not? The suffering of humanity due to its own fall into sin hurt God as much all along as it ever hurt us. THIS was not the world God intended when he first said “Let there be light!”
Only God could absorb every tear of history and it killed even God! It is easy for us to read the promise of Revelation 7 and apply it only to ourselves or to those closest to us. And that’s fine, that’s natural. But the true power of this chapter is so much bigger than that and, just so, that much more glorious than just my happiness in the end or your happiness. It is the shalom of the whole created order that is at stake. It is the relief of sufferings many of us will never come anywhere near knowing (thanks be to God) but that have been as searing and intense as any human being has ever experienced.
We just cannot overstate the promise of a chapter like Revelation 7.
To preach on this a few weeks after Easter as the Year C Lectionary has us do gives us a chance to reach out to those who perhaps felt a bit out of sync with things on Easter Sunday. As I noted in my sermon commentary for the John 20 Lectionary passage for Easter morning, some people can find the average Easter service a little hard to take. There is so much exuberance, so many people trying so hard to be happy, so much brass and white lights and . . . well, it’s all fitting and necessary perhaps but if you yourself happen to be passing through a dark season of life just then, it is a little harder to get into the party spirit of it all. There are just too many tears on a daily basis, too much weeping, too much sorrow.
Of course, just pointing to Revelation 7 won’t make things instantly better for such people, either. But it does perhaps let them see themselves in the picture a bit more, knowing that hunger and sorrow and crying are things God in Christ cares deeply, deeply about. God knows about these things. It is why Jesus came in the first place. God knows about such things and God has a plan for such things, too. In fact, he has already won the victory over all these sorrows and even if that helps us only a bit when we are in the midst of suffering, it is a far sight better to know that than to have no hope.
It doesn’t matter who you are, either. Remember: the multitude beyond counting that John saw included everybody from every place and everywhere. All are welcome and all will receive the eternal consolation that was won for us by the Lamb and by his sacrifice for us.
More than once I have sung the final verse of “By the Sea of Crystal” from a larynx thickened with emotion and with tears forming in the corners of my eyes. It is a sorrow but a joyful sorrow we feel at funerals at such moments; it reflects our pain in grief but yet as those who do not grieve as though they have no hope. We will see our loved ones again. This veil of tears will end. So how can we keep from singing the glorious hymn’s final stanza:
Unto God Almighty, sitting on the throne
And the Lamb victorious, be the praise alone.
God has wrought salvation, he did wondrous things.
Who shall not extol, Thee, holy King of kings?!
In one of the iterations of the Superman movie franchise, the movie Man of Steel, there is a scene that I think is supposed to evoke something of a divine perspective on the world—maybe it is even supposed to mimic how Christ Jesus perceives the world. At one point in the film Superman flies through the skies and clear out into space. He hovers just beyond earth’s atmosphere and as he floats there, we can hear what he hears with his super hearing: multitudes of cries, shouts of terror, people weeping, children sobbing. It is the sound of a hurting planet.
At one point Superman says to someone—Lois Lane I think—that whereas any one of us may occasionally hear a tiny fractional sliver of the suffering that goes on in this world at any given moment, “I hear everything.” For most of us, the prospect of “hearing everything” that goes on around us—particularly the sorrows and the sufferings—would be unbearable. Ignorance allows us to survive most of the time.
Indeed, who but God alone is big enough, strong enough, loving enough to hear everything without also being unmade by it?
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