Today is Mother’s Day and for some that evokes a deep joy and love for the one who raised you and nurtured you. For other’s the day might hold resentment for a mother who was not so great and maybe even terrible. For still others it is a day of grief for a mother no longer with you or for unfulfilled expectations.
Mother’s day is a day that can hold many, very valid emotions. My feeling for today is one of extreme gratitude to God for your Mothers. It is because of them that you are here today and I think that is definitely something worth celebrating. So Happy Mother’s day! Now, mothers throughout the ages have had a lot of wisdom to share. Some of this wisdom is pretty practical – such as always wear clean underwear in case you get in an accident. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Don’t run with scissors. Other wisdom seems a little more ominous such as – you better stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about. Running away? I’ll help you pack. Or how about, you’ll eat it, and you’ll like it! or I brought you into this world and I can take you right back out. Or the logical – do you think your socks are going to pick themselves up? And of course the most logical of all – because I said so, that’s why. Then there are the mom sayings that conjure up vivid and strange images in our imagination like, “do you think I’m made of money?” or “don’t eat raw cookie dough or you’ll get worms!” “If you stick your tongue out again it will fall off.” (Can you think of other momisms?)
My mom had a favorite saying that always confused me a little. When I would do something she didn’t like she would say, “I’m going to beat you up with my egg beater!” Immediately an image would pop into my head of me in a mixing bowl looking like an egg, with her furiously whisking me around. Of course, she didn’t really do that, but that crazy image would always crack us both up and I would “get the message” that I should stop whatever I was doing or do whatever I wasn’t doing. And what was the real message underlying – I love you and I care about you.
In a much more complex way, Revelation gives us some things that conjure up vivid and strange images in our imagination. For example, last week we read how John turned to see the Lion of Judah, which turned out to be the Lamb that was slaughtered. Which really meant, Jesus. There are many other perplexing imageries that occur throughout Revelation – the description of the locusts that look like a cross between a human and a lion, for example. Through the years, many theologians have focused on interpreting these sorts of things, seeking to discern their meanings while completely ignoring the underlying powerful message of Revelation – which is God’s great message that God’s love wins and the powers of hate lose. Despite how things may appear at times, the future is secure. In this knowledge, we can find strength and purpose for the here and now.
This week is our second look at Revelation and certainly our passage this week is filled with a reminder of God’s power to awe and inspire. Yet, it also, contains a very tender reminder of God’s love and care for us through Jesus who in verse 17 is described as the Lamb at the center of the throne who is paradoxically now, the shepherd. Those who have endured can now rest and be cared for by the shepherd.
Last week in chapter 5, we read that the Lamb who was slain (Jesus) was the only one worthy to open the scroll with the seven seals. Chapter 6, (which you may want to go back and read) describes the opening of seals one through 6. Then just before the seventh seal is opened there is an interlude, a pause for worship. That brings us to Chapter 7 (where we are today). Verses 1-8 chronicle the sealing by God of the 144,000 (many of you have heard of this). This is another of those images that invites all kinds of questions and interpretations. The 144,000 are described as 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel that are sealed by God. The number, 144,000 is considered a perfect number as it is 12 x 12 x 1000, it signifies a vast number. Then, beginning in verse 9, we read of the diversity and huge number of those who are gathered before throne to worship. It is more than anyone could count, from all nations, peoples, and languages. I think mostly, we tend to envision heavenly people looking a lot like ourselves, this passage says that is not the case, that all different sorts of people will be there. It kind of reminds me of this poem by Rod Hemphill: I was shocked, confused, bewildered as I entered Heaven’s door, Not by the beauty of it all, nor the lights or its decor. But it was the folks in Heaven who made me sputter and gasp– The thieves, the liars, the sinners, and the trash. There stood the kid from seventh grade who swiped my lunch money twice. Next to him was my old neighbor who never said anything nice…I nudged Jesus, ‘What’s the deal? I would love to hear your take. How’d all these sinners get up here? God must’ve made a mistake. ‘And why’s everyone so quiet, so somber – give me a clue.’ ‘Hush, child,’ He said, ‘they’re all in shock. No one thought they’d be seeing you.’
So here is this great multitude, they are robed in white, a symbol of victory and waving palm fronds, also a symbol of victory. (These make us think of Palm Sunday) They gather to worship God and the Lamb. The angels, and elders, and creatures are all there worshiping God and singing. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might…
It is a vision of a joyous worship party beyond our wildest imaginings. The Christian community that first received this writing from John needed this vision, as trials had been a significant part of their history. The Rev. Dr. Ted Wardlaw, who is president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, says that in writing this John pulls back the curtain or lifts the veil in order to show a glimpse of something of heaven itself and lo, there is a party going on in heaven among people who, like themselves have endured “the great ordeal” – have borne the cross of faithful living in a difficult time and who now, vindicated by God, are in heaven praising and glorifying God’s holy name.” They are joyously worshiping God. The early Christians can take courage from this assurance of the triumph of God. Wouldn’t you say that we need this glimpse of heaven, too? For trials and challenges are a part of our history as well. They can keep us bogged down and even cause us to lose our focus.
Wardlaw goes on to describe St Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry, England that features one whole wall made of glass. And etched into the glass are huge figures of saints and angels. “They are having a party,” he says, “blowing trumpets and making merry, and dancing across that massive wall of glass.” “You might conclude that there is something irrelevant and irreverent about such fun going on in the heights of heaven while there are a host of us suffering here on earth – where there are such things as AIDS, and starvation, and hate groups, and abuse, where children go hungry, and a huge gap exists between the haves and have nots. You might look at that glass wall,” Wardlaw says, “and wonder what sort of God would have the nerve to throw a party like that in times like these.” Yet, if you know anything about Coventry, where this cathedral is located, you know that this city suffered the longest air raid endured in any one night by any city in England during WW II. It was an air raid which killed and destroyed and reduced the whole city to ruins including its cathedral. When the cathedral was rebuilt, they chose as their purpose the theme of “resurrection through sacrifice.” Sometimes we must grasp hold of the promise from beyond time that all is gathered into God’s holy and redemptive purposes.
Have you ever heard the expression “thin places” used to describe those places where it seems as though the distance between heaven and earth shrinks? Thin places are those where the veil between the two worlds seems so thin you can actually perceive something of heaven itself. St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry is one of those places, places on the coasts of Scotland and Ireland are often called thin places, our own Cedarkirk, I believe is one of those thin places. The Isle of Patmos where John saw his visions and recorded them, must have been a thin place. And worship, I believe is often one of those thin places, as well. For here, we at times experience the veil pulled back and we get a glimpse. Here we try out some most incredibly holy things when we raise our voices in praise and momentarily let go of ourselves to truly worship, when we sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy”, when we feast at the communion table, when we come before God in awe. And then, too, the veil becomes thin when we serve one another, when we join hands with those who are different from us, when we feed the hungry, and comfort the grieving. For interestingly enough the word used for worship in verse 15 also means serve. Verse 15 says, “they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple.” You can interchange the words “worship” – “serve”. This is not worship that ends in the throne room, but extends outward. Does this mean that our worship extends beyond the sanctuary, and extends outward into the streets, into our homes and into service to one another? I believe it does. All that we do, when done in the name of God’s love, can be a form of worship.
Then, we can’t miss the final reassuring words of this chapter. “The one 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 the springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (7:17) Love wins! Hate loses! That is something to hold onto and lean into. Take courage – love wins! Hallelujah, come Lord, Jesus! Amen.
Go in that glorious love of Jesus Christ, go knowing that God wins and hate loses, repeat it to yourself as many times this week as you need. And may that love surround you, fill you, and flow through you. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.