Sunday, July 28, 2019

What a World at Worship Would Wear: Sermon on Revelation 7

When wrath comes, there is chaos in the land. All are frightened when the Judge draws near. Everything is in tumult; all things fall apart and crash. As the world shakes, people scatter and flee and hide – but there is no hiding. Long ago, the psalmist wondered, “At your rebuke, O God of Jacob, both rider and horse lay stunned. But you, you are to be feared! Who can stand before you when once your anger is roused?” (Psalm 76:6-7). So those caught in the judgment – saying, as Hosea predicted, “to the mountains, 'Cover us,' and to the hills, 'Fall on us'” (Hosea 10:8) – have the same question: “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the One seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath can come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 6:16-17). In the day of wrath, who can stand? That's the question of the world, when all things fall apart: Who can stand? John hits the pause button. Then rewind. He's got to search for an answer, if there's an answer. Is there an answer to their question? Can he find anyone who can stand? John scans for an answer.

He lands on a scene with a quartet of angels – “four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree” (Revelation 7:1). Well, John isn't surprised if these angels could stand – but he's not sure if it really answers the question as it was meant. But John'll keep watching. These four angels are restraining the forces of chaos. “Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, 'Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we have sealed the servants of God on their foreheads'” (Revelation 7:2-3).

Now this is more promising. But who are the servants of God? John hears them counted off – 144,000 of them, from the twelve tribes of Israel, equal contingents from the tribes, Judah through Benjamin (Revelation 7:4-8). What symbol is this? John will catch them again in another vision, standing on Mount Zion and singing a song (Revelation 14:1). There, these 144,000 are described as male “virgins” who tell no lies, “for they are blameless” (Revelation 14:4-5). What does it mean? The key is in the first chapter of Numbers, where we hear the same kinds of phrases, counting off by tribes. The angel is taking a census. A military census. John hears the counting off of the Army of Israel, being kept pure for a holy war. Some Jewish groups expected that, in the end, Israel's army would again be organized by all twelve tribes, and that they'd sing war hymns, and that they'd have to keep pure, and that they'd win. What John hears tracks with those expectations so far. And this Israelite army he hears about is to receive a seal on their foreheads, just like the high priest bore the name of God on his forehead. It's going to mark them as belonging to God and no one else, and it's also going to yield a form of protection as they march out, allowing this army of avenging Israelite warrior-priests to stand in the judgment.

When we hear about the 144,000, we're prone to get nervous. We know about groups like Jehovah's Witnesses who badly abuse this passage and claim that it's a literal numerical limit for a special 'anointed class' with a heavenly hope, as opposed to those who'll live in a restored earth. We know of others who wonder if this is a figure for all who can be saved. And the figure does sound awfully limiting, even as an end-time army.

But whatever we think we've heard, we're in for a surprise. We don't yet know what we're hearing about. John sometimes hears about something, but once he sees it, he gets a whole new perspective. Earlier, John heard that there was a Lion of Judah – a Jewish warrior-messiah, the traditional expectation. But as soon as he looked, he saw a Lamb who'd been sacrificed. The Lion he heard about is the Lamb he sees, because Jesus the Messiah gains his victory through giving himself away at the cross. John's vision cracks open what he hears about and reveals a deeper truth. Just the same way, here John hears about an Israelite army of 144,000 (again, something of a traditional expectation), but then he looks, he sees, “and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9). Instead of just Israel's tribes, it's all human tribes; instead of just a large number, it's a crowd beyond the reach of mortal math. And they're standing near the Lamb. It's the same group, but now he sees and his expectations are blown away. Turns out the army was the church!

So what does that mean about us? Both what John first hears, and then what John sees, teach us about what and who we are, as a church. John hears about the twelve tribes, and we learn that the church is heir to Israel's long-awaited hopes and is the fulfillment of the prophets' dreams about Israel's future. It's just like Paul taught: the church is Israel, just with branches from all nations grafted onto the trunk growing from Abraham's roots (cf. Romans 11:17). So when we read in the Old Testament about the promises made to Israel, we shouldn't think of them being fulfilled by a nation in the Middle East – that's not what they're about. They're for us, the church.

We also have a new vision for the church. The church is the end-time army of God. Which means the church is supposed to fight. Things are not supposed to be an easy vacation for the church on earth. The church is an army. To be baptized into Christ, as we all have been, is to enlist. But like Paul says, “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). We have “weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left” (2 Corinthians 6:7). We take up “the shield of faith” and “the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:16-17). And we go forth to conquer, for “everyone who has been born of God conquers the world, and this is the victory that has conquered the world: our faith” (1 John 5:4). The Lamb conquered by sacrificing his life, and the end-time army – the church – conquers by our fearless and faithful witness 'til death. As the army of the true Israel, we are not called to do violence but to suffer it; we imitate Jesus. And as we do, we must remain pure and truthful. It's on account of us, being sealed by the Holy Spirit as we're saved, that final wrath is held back from the earth.

So much for what John heard, but what about what John saw? The “144,000” aren't a special privileged part of the church – it's a symbolic number for the church, as a whole. In switching from hearing to seeing, John's just hit the fast-forward button and gotten a new heavenly perspective on the church. The end-time army has turned out not to be an elite few, but a very large crowd. There are times we think, with Elijah, that we're all alone – that in the corruption of our day, we've been whittled down to the smallest remnant. There are times we look around at a sanctuary with pews that decades ago had bodies in them but today go unused, and we get discouraged. But we here are only part of a crowd bigger than math, no matter how small or marginalized we may feel in any time or any place or any congregation. We may feel small, but we belong to a bigger crowd. We may feel like we're sidelined in country and culture, but we are part of something that outlasts White House and Wall Street and Washington Monument – we belong to the church. And the church goes to the heart of everything.

When John looks at the church triumphant, he sees “a great multitude that no one could number,” but they did not just come from the twelve tribes of Israel, like he briefly thought. The mantle of that heritage has been now stretched across all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9). The church is beyond classification. It isn't just Jews. It isn't just Greeks or Romans. It isn't just American citizens. Most of the crowd he sees had no US passports, though some did. Most of the crowd he sees never saw or saluted a star-spangled banner. And they're quite fine with that. The faces he sees don't all have the same amount of melanin – some are pretty pale, others very much not. The church is not ultimately divided on racial lines, even though ethnic self-segregation is a hurdle we struggle to overcome in American church life still today. And the voices John hears are not all speaking English. Only a small fraction do (and that with a plethora of dialects). He hears also Hebrew and Spanish and Farsi and Xhosa and Arabic and French and so much more, but the Spirit blesses with pentecostal understanding. Where here we're tempted to scornfully say, “This is America, speak English,” John might well say, “This is the church, speak everything!” Because what John sees is so much bigger than our little corner of it. And if we make our limited experience the measuring stick of what church should always and forever be, then we're missing the bigger picture.

When John looks at the church, all their focus is on Jesus. In fact, when the church considers Jesus, they think of him as “the Lamb in the midst of the throne” (Revelation 7:17). To the church, Jesus is no outlier. Jesus is not at the fringes. Jesus is not shunted off to one side, a mere portion of God's plan. No, Jesus is at the heart of who God is. When we think about God, we have to think of Jesus. The church can never worship a generic god – we worship God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus the Son reveals God his Father and pours out the Spirit – they eternally live and reign, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” So Jesus can never be demoted – not in the church's estimation, or else the church is less than church. The church worships Jesus because we see him in the midst of the throne, not to the exclusion of his Father and his Spirit, but with them. All we assume about God must be tested in light of Jesus, of whom scripture speaks from Genesis to Revelation.

As John sees the church, the church has been cleansed and purified – but not by their own moral compass, not by their own accomplishments, not by their own efforts. As he looks, John sees them all “clothed in white robes” (Revelation 7:9), and he's told that “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). As John will later see the end-time army with the Lamb on Mount Zion, “these have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb” (Revelation 14:4). “Jesus paid it all; all to him [we] owe. Sin had left a crimson stain, but he washed it white as snow.” So “lay aside the garments that are stained with sin and be washed in the blood of the Lamb! There's a fountain flowing for the soul unclean – oh, be washed in the blood of the Lamb!” There is “no other fount [we] know” that can make the garments of our lives “white as snow.” The church will always be defined by what Jesus did for us, not what we did for ourselves. It is not moral advice we preach, but Jesus Christ and him crucified and risen (in whom alone do we have out-of-this-world wisdom to offer)!

When John sees the church, he sees us as a countless crowd “standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9). He does not see them as isolated individuals in rows of apartments, each minding their own business. He sees them together, in communion, in fellowship. Nor does he see them occupied in busy work, out roaming the streets. Private prayer is good – but it doesn't define the church. Social work is good – but it doesn't define the church. What does define the church is gathering collectively in the presence of God and of the Lamb. What we are doing right now, if God is here as we believe – that is being churchly, at heart. There are other things the church must do, but this is who the church must be: a gathering presented to God and Lamb. Which is why gathering together isn't optional, and why a spiritual life is a life lived together in the presence of Jesus. Worship is at the heart of who we are, and we must worship together.

But we also know that Jesus doesn't stand still. He's at work in the world, moving in the world. And as he does throughout our weeks, we have to keep on track with him. So in John's other vision, he describes the end-time army, the 144,000 who are the countless church, as those “who follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Revelation 14:4). The church, at heart, is a roving band of Lamb-followers and Lamb-imitators. You have no guarantee that the Lamb will go out to eat at a nice restaurant and then to your house on Sunday afternoon. If he's headed elsewhere, we'd best go with him. If he's headed to the streets to confront violence, the church needs to follow. If he's headed to the hospitals, the church needs to follow. If he's headed to the hearts of the hurting, the church needs to be there too. Again and again, the church must follow Christ to the crosses of the world – even if that puts nails in our hands and feet. So the church is on mission in the world – that's what we do because of who we are, as we follow the Lamb. It isn't our initiative. We don't need to decide where to go and what to do. We just need to pray to see the Lamb on the move, then go that way.

As John sees the church, he understands that the church triumphant has a painful past as the church militant. He is told that the church he sees consists of “the ones coming out of the great tribulation” (Revelation 7:14). John knows that this life is not easy. When he speaks of 'the great tribulation,' he doesn't only mean the challenges of some era in the future. He means the hard trials and tribulations we face now, which were to become worse in the last days – (and we've been living in the 'last days' for a couple thousand years now). “In the world, you will have tribulation” (John 16:33) – Jesus promised that to his first disciples, and he says it to each of us in his church: You will have tribulation. Life will be hard. Life will seem unfair. Life will be taxing and tiring. The church John sees has lived through that. They have, they really have. Each white-robed saint in John's crowd has a backstory of bad days. We must endure tribulation, but it does have an expiration date. There is an exodus from tribulation, even from the great tribulation.

And on the other side, the church celebrates an exodus victory. Just as ancient Israel celebrated their exodus out of Egypt by holding the Feast of Tabernacles and waving palm branches around as they camped with God (cf. Leviticus 23:40-43), so the church in glory celebrates their exodus out of tribulation by holding an eternal Feast of Tabernacles around God's throne (cf. Zechariah 14:16). So it's no wonder we find the church “clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9). People reading Revelation hot off the presses would've got this. Romans knew that military victors, people celebrating a triumph, might “run around with a palm branch” (Suetonius, Caligula §32). Jews remembered that, when they kicked invaders out of Jerusalem, they'd “entered it with praise and palm branches..., because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel” (1 Maccabees 13:51). Waving palm branches is for the winners. And from John's heavenly perspective, he sees that the whole church is full of winners in God's sight – those who fought the good fight and kept the faith (cf. 2 Timothy 4:7). On the other side of tribulation, the church camps with God and enjoys the victory.

The church is the end-time army, but they don't see the victory as 'theirs,' as if the church has accomplished it for themselves. It isn't a victory they achieved by bearing up under the struggle, though they did have to endure. It is victory from God. Because that victory, that deliverance, that exodus first from sin and then from suffering, they call 'salvation.' And they shout, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:10). The church takes no credit! The church is not pulled up by its own bootstraps, and neither is any Christian. Salvation is the work of God – he gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” and for that we thank God and the Lamb (1 Corinthians 15:57). This is the major theme of everything the church has to say, and if the world hears too much else from the church, then maybe we've gotten off-script. Our key theme is that we get no credit, but God sent Jesus to be our Lamb, to die for us, to rise again having accomplished an eternal salvation, and through Jesus God gives us victory as a gift. Everything else we do is response to victory already won for us before we stepped onto the field of life. We were already rescued, already delivered, already saved – and now we're just waiting for the other side of that, the completion of our exodus.

That is the church's major theme, the message we should be singing and saying and shouting. So that's what the church in glory does. (You may have noticed, but in Revelation nobody whispers or mumbles – all the voices are loud voices! Maybe church as we practice it here is too tame, too quiet, too muted?) The church shouts in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!” But then what does John see next? “All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying, 'Amen! The blessing and the glory and the wisdom and the thanksgiving and the honor and the power and the might be to our God forever and ever! Amen!'” (Revelation 7:11-12). Two chapters ago, when we looked at heavenly worship at the ascension of Jesus, our picture was worship initiated by the four living creatures, affirmed by the twenty-four elders, then joined by the mega-millions of angels, and finally echoed by all creation before bouncing back. The angels set the tone and led the worship. But in John's new picture of the church in glory, that's changed. The church takes the lead in worship, and the angels take their cues from us. We write the song, and they say the amen. We lead heavenly worship, and the angels follow our leadership.

What we find is that John's picture of the church in glory is one where we become heavenly priests. The whole church will be a priestly band in the heavenly temple beneath God's protective presence. The redeemed church “are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will tabernacle them with his presence” (Revelation 7:15). Now we understand the robes washed in the blood of the Lamb. When Israel gathered long ago under Mount Sinai, Moses told them they could be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:5-6), and to become that, he told them they needed to “wash their garments and be ready” to enter God's presence (Exodus 19:11). Later, when the levitical priests were consecrated, Moses took sacrificial blood from the altar and “sprinkled it on Aaron and his garments, and also on his sons and his sons' garments; so he consecrated Aaron and his garments, and his sons and his sons' garments with him” (Leviticus 8:30). A priest had to have his garments washed and sprinkled with blood. John says that the entire church has washed their robes white in the blood of Jesus the sacrificial Lamb, so the entire church is ultimately ordained as a common priesthood to serve God in his heavenly temple, sheltered by the canopy of his presence (Revelation 7:15).

And the promises given to the church in glory are so abundantly beautiful. They're the inheritance of Israel. In the prophecies of Isaiah, we hear that when Israel was to be restored, “they shall feed along the ways; on all bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them” (Isaiah 49:9-10) – and when death is defeated, then “the Lord Yahweh will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth” (Isaiah 25:8). John sees the church inheriting those promises forever: “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their Shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every teardrop from their eyes” (Revelation 7:16-17).

Isn't that everything we could ever want? The presence of God and of the Lamb. The restoration of all that's here been lost. The perfect comfort for every tear we're ever cried and every sorrow we've ever felt. No more scorching wind or sunstroke, no more hunger or thirst. No more lack, no more suffering. The leadership of Jesus himself, a Lamb for our Shepherd, one who knows just what we've been through and what we need (cf. Hebrews 4:15). And by his guidance, we'll drink the water of life and find perfect refreshment and satisfaction.

This is John's picture of the church. We are a community, a communion spanning space and time, who have been given salvation through the sacrificial death of Jesus. We are defined not by what we must do, but by what he has already done. He has given us a purity and holiness that we are charged with keeping. We see him as the heart of who God is, and we worship and praise him. We give all thanks to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We are a band of priest-led priests appointed to ministry in the world, and we are an army called to fight the good fight of faith and to endure through the tribulations of this world. We are the heirs of Israel's promises and prophecies, and we know that amidst the tribulations we face, we are sealed, marked as God's, and protected in our inmost beings. We are those who gather together in the presence of God and the Lamb – that's just who we are as the church. But what we do, from that gathering, is follow the Lamb out into the world, and live as he's shown us how – not with lies but with truth, not with coercion but with compassion, not with doing violence but with accepting violence and remaining faithful all the same. We know that the boundary markers of this world – nationality, ethnicity, language, sex, class, and all the rest – are glorified and transcended in the church. We are drawn from all categories, carrying our distinctives into the richness of the great crowd. We know that, however small or weak we may feel, we stand in the heavenly majority, and will one day see the truth of that.

For one glad morning, when this fight is over, we will see our exodus having been completed. We will behold God and the Lamb face-to-face. We'll shine with the victory of our pure faith that's conquered the world, and we will give all glory to God and to the Lamb for our salvation. We will serve God forever as priests in his presence, will enjoy fully the refreshing gifts of Jesus that we now taste in part, will be freed from the threats and discomforts of this world, and will be personally pastored by Jesus forever. We will lead angels and all the creatures of heaven and earth in worship, and will forever be with the Lord our God. We will be perfectly loved and perfectly protected, and there will be no doubt about it, because we will be the priesthood of heaven and the celebrants of the festival of eternal joy, and we will forever sing and shout the victory. We will stand.

The psalmist asked who could stand when God judges. The judged ask who can stand in the great day of God's wrath (Revelation 6:17). And the answer is, we can. We can, when we've been saved by the blood of Jesus – when we've been given purity – when we've been constituted as the population of a new world that's to come. We can, when we've been identified as his and have been sealed by his Spirit for our protection and preservation and are granted the grace to endure.  We can, as the end-time army and as the great gathering of worship. Who can stand? We can stand. Have no doubt about it. The church, the true church, can stand, clad in white robes and carrying palm branches – what a world at worship would wear, the righteousness and resurrection-triumph of Christ.

Through what John heard and what John saw, we've caught a glimpse in a God-given mirror. This is who and what we fundamentally are, and what and where we hope to be. The question before us today is, how much do we live like it? Do we live now like the army of the Lamb, devoted to wage a holy war with the weapons of righteousness and to conquer the world by our faith (and our faith alone, which works by love)? Is that how we really see ourselves? Do we live now like a vast multiethnic multitude? Do we live like we're gathered before the throne of God and the Lamb, like we've had our robes washed white, like we've been given a victory and have such beauteous promises waiting for us? Do we live like it now, and do we 'do church' like it now? What would it be like if we really thought of this chapter as a mirror? What would it change about the way this church looks? What would it change about how you see yourself and each other? Our task through the week is to really think about that, reflect on that, use that to see ourselves and each other and this church anew, and then come back together again with what God has taught us through that this week. For know this: “Salvation belongs to God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” We can stand! We can stand! “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever, amen!” (Revelation 7:10, 12).

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