Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost.
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.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him 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.”
When I was nine years old, my grandparents took the whole family on a spring break trip to Greece. As part of the trip we took a cruise of the Grecian islands, and one of the islands we stopped at was the island of Patmos, where, legend has it, the apostle John received the visions that he laid out in the Book of Revelation.
I don’t remember much about Patmos, if I’m honest, other than the sudden shift between the bright, whitewashed bricks of the building that later Catholics built around John’s cave, and the cave itself. They tried, bless their hearts, to brighten it up, with gold icons on the walls and candelabras in the corner. But a cave is a cave is a cave, and it was dark in there.
I think as a child I mostly wondered how John was able to write in such a dark space.
I don’t think I’d read much of Revelation when I visited Patmos as a child. It’s not one of the books of the Bible that makes it into the Sunday School curriculum very often. Once I did get around to reading this final chapter of our Holy Word, I no longer wondered that John was able to write in such a dark place. It made all the sense in the world that the strangest, surrealist, and in some ways most frightening book of our scripture would have emerged from someone isolated in the dark and damp.
Revelation is what scholars call apocalyptic literature. There are apocalyptic moments in our gospels—times when Jesus foretells the day of the Lord descending in darkness and fire—but Revelation is the only book that goes all in, with portents and omens and angels and dragons. It is a dreamscape of the final battle of good and evil, all laid bare at last.
Most years I can laugh a little at the book of Revelation. It all seems a little over the top, a little melodramatic. But not this year. This year apocalypse hits a little close to home.
As a genre, apocalyptic literature is written by suffering people, for suffering people. It is never going to be a beach read. The writer of Revelation had seen the persecution of Christian communities and the execution of evangelists and apostles. He’d seen the callous dominance of the Roman empire and the pain of those who cried out for freedom from it. He’d seen the quavering faith of churches who had watched diligently for Christ’s return, and found their waiting vain. And so he sat in that dark, dripping cave, and from his pen flew the battle of all the evil he had seen in the world with the God he knew and believed to be good.
The real proof of our cave-dweller’s faith, I think, is that he still managed to believe that the good would win.
The word apocalypse has come to mean something quite negative in the English language, the end of the world, mass destruction, but the Greek word it comes from doesn’t mean to destroy but to reveal. To reveal.
Apocalyptic literature uses fantastical images to reveal something very, very real. For the Book of Revelation, that’s the twin truths of this life: that our suffering may be very, very great, but that God’s power is even greater.
2020 has felt like an apocalyptic year, in both the new and old senses of the word. Every news article seems like an omen that this is really it for the old blue marble and it’s denizens. We’ve even come up with a new word for what used to be just reading the news: doomscrolling.
But on the other hand, this year has also felt like it has revealed much. It has revealed the massive cracks in our society that so many people teeter on the precipice of falling through, but it has also revealed the extent to which people are willing to care for each other. It has revealed how much of our faith was built on routine and convenience, but it has revealed the lengths we are willing to go to do keep worship as the center of our lives.
And, for me at least, it was revealed the bedrock goodness of God to see me through even the strangest times.
Apocalyptic literature was not meant to frighten, but to comfort. I learned that concept in seminary, but I understand it better now, in 2020.
Our scripture today is, against all odds, a scripture of comfort. From his gloomy cave, the author of Revelation imagines a throne room large enough to hold throngs of people from every race, culture, and tribe, the whole diverse human race come to worship its Creator, along with a whole chorus of angels.
The narrator wonders who they are, and his guide responds that these are the people “who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” In other words, these are the people who suffered, who knew pain and crisis and chaos, and kept faith after all.
Now, I am not going to sit here and pretend that we in this congregation know what it means to suffer in the way that so many people have throughout history, and do today. Even in this painful and challenging year, most of us live lives that some of our neighbors only dream about. It is an exercise in blindness to imagine that we are martyrs or oppressed. But I do think that in 2020 we have more sympathy, and perhaps even more empathy, for what it means to be afraid, and to feel helpless, and powerless. And while perhaps this is not a great ordeal, it is certainly an ordeal, and I hold tight to the promises that it will not last forever.
Scientists and doctors are warning us now about “pandemic fatigue.” We are tired. We are tired of being afraid and tired of being cautious. We are tired of changing our lives and tired of other people not changing theirs. We are tired of orienting our whole existence around viral particles so tiny we can’t even see them.
And I’ve been hearing lately, born of that fatigue, a few notes of despair. That this will never be over. That life will never be normal. That we will have lost too much, and that we’ll never get it back.
Friends, it’s not true. This is an ordeal, but it is not the first ordeal God’s people have persevered through, and it won’t be the last. This too shall pass. Not today. Not this year. Not nearly as soon as we like. But this too shall pass.
Today marks the close of our stewardship season, when we celebrate why this church is worth supporting with our money, our time, our energy, and our love. When you pledge, when you commit to donating money in the year to come, a year so full of unknowns still, you are proclaiming your faith: faith that God is still good, and that God’s goodness is still lived out at CSPC.
Revelation says that when all is said and done, and we worship before the throne of God,
the one who is seated on the throne will shelter [us].
[We] will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike [us],
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be [our] shepherd,
and he will guide [us] to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”
That is the promise of scripture. No longer will we have to break our back digging wells and drawing up living water where we can find it. No more searching for signs of God’s grace or lying awake at night hoping our ministry is worth it. No more struggle to follow the golden line of truth through a world wracked by lies and despair. Christ will shelter us, and quench our thrist from the springs of the water of life. Every tear will be wiped away, and it will all be so clear.
That is what I believe awaits us all—although whether will look like what John saw or not I cannot tell you. But for now, we settle for glimpses, glimpses of that kind of safety, that kind of goodness, that kind of rest. Now we settle for glimpses of heaven on earth, and we work so that others can see them too.
I give to CSPC because it is one of the places where I glimpse God’s goodness. It’s one of the places that sustains my faith in what is to come, because if a group of ordinary, sinful people living in an ordinary, sinful world can create a place with this much love, and this much kindness, this much grace, and this much dedication, this much beauty, and this much joy—than how can God not be drawing us all to something even more?
This year we are asking you to dig deep, so that we can continue to fund the church and sustain our ministries, to create a place of sanctuary and a community of support. It will not be easy.
But I believe that we will see, some clear, sunny, glorious day, that it will all be worth it.