Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Hopeful Visions

April 17th, 2016            “Hopeful Visions”    Rev. Heather Jepsen
Revelation 7:9-17 with Psalm 23
          This morning’s combination of readings finds us in very familiar territory and very foreign territory at the same time.  While we know and love the words of the 23rd Psalm, we often find readings from the book of Revelation to be strange and frightening.  The interesting thing about these readings is that even though they are very different, they both are striving to do the same thing.  Both of these texts aim to offer comfort and hope to the people of God.
          We will begin with the Psalm.  You all know these words and in all honesty there is very little I can add to your understanding of the text this morning.  I do want to point out one thing to you though, and that is the metaphorical quality of the Psalm.  This is one of those instances where we all know the author is using a metaphor and we are so comfortable with it that we take the metaphor for granted.
          When we read the Psalm, we find that the author is comparing the followers of God to sheep.  We know we are not sheep, but the comparison holds that we are prone to wander and in need of a shepherd.  We all are able to understand this metaphor and because of this we take great comfort in the imagery that is presented.  The idea of green pastures and still waters is very soothing.  The idea of a presence to lead us safely through dark places is very comforting.  The idea of always having enough food and drink, is one that offers us hope. 
          At its heart, the 23rd Psalm works for us, and for so many others, churched and unchurched alike, because we can really understand and relate to the imagery presented.  This Psalm speaks to us and we feel the comfort and hope in the presence of God that the author intended us to feel.  Even though we no longer spend time in the fields, the language and the use of metaphor are very effective at reaching a modern audience.
          The reason I am bringing this up, is because these same techniques of language and metaphor are at use in the reading from the book of Revelation.  The difference of course is our comfort level.  What is happening in the second reading seems to strange and foreign to us, and we get tripped up in the words of the text.  Then we are unable to get to the point of comfort and hope.  This text is intending to make us feel the same way the 23rd Psalm does, it just doesn’t work so well for 21st century Americans.
          This is a great opportunity for us to do some Bible Study together so I am going to ask you to open your Bibles with me to this reading.  (You’ll want to look towards the back of the book!)  First we examine the background of the text.  Students of the Bible will remember that John is having a vision and he has written that vision down, or dictated it to someone else.  While some interpret this as things to come (ala “Left Behind”) most scholars understand John to be speaking to the condition of the early Christian church under the Roman Empire.  Rather than being a scary story about the end of the world, the book of Revelation was meant to inspire people in comfort and hope.
          Beginning in verse 9 we see this vision.  John “looks” and there is a great multitude.  The idea is that it is more people than anyone could count or even imagine.  It is a huge amount of people and they come from every nation and they speak every language.  Basically, it’s everybody on the earth.  Imagine that . . .  everyone is there and they are wearing white and they are waving palm branches.  Can you see it in your mind’s eye? 
          All these people are standing before a throne.  Think about the use of that word.  John is probably not talking about a really big chair.  This is much more likely to be a metaphor for a place from which one rules.  The people are gathered before the center of the power of the universe.  And what is in that chair?  A lamb.  If you start to take this literally it gets confusing, just like the 23rd Psalm does if you imagine yourself eating grass.  We are not talking a literal lamb here, we are talking about Jesus, the Son of God, and the lamb is a metaphor.  We are connecting the imagery from the Passover, with the imagery of crucifixion, with the imagery of royal authority to get this idea of who Jesus is.  All these layers are blending together when we talk about a lamb on a throne.
          The people then cry out with a loud voice.  They shout, they yell.  Turn my mike off and I will try it and then I want you to try it.  (If anyone is sleeping now this ought to wake them up!)  “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”  Now you try it with me . . . “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”  How’s that feel?  A little weird to be yelling in church but you get the idea.  The multitudes are excited and the sound is loud.  Now we have an idea of what John was trying to convey.
          Then John describes angels standing around the throne, and the elders who are like the leaders of the faith, and the creatures which are like a combo of nature and otherworldliness.  Basically the angels are there with magical creatures and faith leaders and at the cry of all the people, when everyone yells, the angels are moved to worship.  They fall on their faces, which would look like this . . . (that’s some pretty serious worship) and then they sing which I will try but won’t make you do. 
“Amen!  Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!  Amen.”
          So digging around in this we are starting to get the idea.  The whole world and all things created and imagined are worshipping our God and Jesus Christ, the one who is crucified and risen.  And it is big and awe inspiring and awesome worship.  Not quite what we do here each week, but something that would take your breath away.  When we can really imagine it, than we can start to understand the sense of hope and wonder that John was trying to convey.  This big amazing God is so much more than the empires of the world that seem to be in control and that demand our worship.
          If we continue with the reading then we find an elder asking John who all the multitudes in white are.  And of course John is like, “you tell me”.  And the elder says, these are the people who have come out of the great ordeal.  These are the people who have suffered during their lives on earth.  And then again we get metaphor.  They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  Obviously, if you dip something in blood it is not white.  Again, we have the layering of the imagery of Passover, of crucifixion, or royalty, and now of salvation.  Those who are gathered are those who align themselves with the suffering death of Jesus Christ.  It is the followers of faith who, as our Baptist friends would say, are washed clean in the blood.
          If we continue on, then we really get into the sense of comfort and hope that is similar to the 23rd Psalm.  These are the people of earth who have suffered, these are people of faith who have waited for God to save them.  Now, in this holy place, they are free to worship God day and night.  Again, remember that at the time this was written, people were not free to worship the God of Jesus Christ.  Now they worship, and now they find shelter.  God has led them through the valley of the shadow of death. 
          This section is full of parallels to the 23rd Psalm.  The people hunger no more, and they thirst no more.  God has prepared a table for them and their cup overflows.  The sun will not strike them.  They will lie down in green pastures.  The Lamb will be their shepherd.  Metaphor of course because a Lamb can’t be a shepherd but Jesus can be both.  The shepherd guides them to springs of the water of life.  They are led beside still waters.  And God will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There is that comfort and presence.
          I know that readings from the book of Revelation can be daunting, I certainly don’t spend lots of time there, but I hope this Bible Study can help you not be so afraid of this text.  Just like the 23rd Psalm, the writer here seeks to give the people of God comfort and hope. 
          The message is that God is so much bigger than empire.  Whoever is in control of this world, be it politics or money or anything else, is not as great as God.  The scene of worship at the throne aims to give people perspective.  This is hope, although the world may tell a different story, our God is the one who is all powerful and in control.
          Those who are gathered at the throne are those who have been comforted.  Just like the sheep in the 23rd Psalm, these people who once suffered, suffer no more.  They are fed, they rest, they are safe, and they are comforted.  God will wipe every tear from their eyes.  It is a vision of comfort and hope.
          Just like the early Israelites who first heard the 23rd Psalm, just like the early Christians in the days of the Roman Empire, we are a people who suffer.  We are a people who live in a world where power is claimed with violence.  We too can be comforted by these hopeful visions.  Our God is the only source of true power.  Our God is one who knows suffering.  Our God is one who longs to care for us and comfort us.  And our God is one who will wipe away every tear.  Thanks be to God for these hopeful visions.  Amen.

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