Your Tribulation

Revelation 7:9-17

For the first couple of weeks of our series, we’ve focused on scenes of glory and worship. This week’s text shows us some now-familiar heavenly imagery, but in the process we are reminded of what we experience in our time and place.

I suppose the key word for the day is “tribulation,” what is called “the great ordeal” in the NRSV. People hear that word in very different ways. A lot of American preachers talk about it as a time to come, a time of disaster to fall upon the earth after Christ’s followers have been removed in what is sometimes called the “rapture.”

Problem 1: That view is very hard to reconcile with Revelation and other biblical end-time imagery. The first audience for Revelation would have found the removal of the church from this ongoing suffering a strange notion, indeed. They were being persecuted, saw themselves in the midst of a great ordeal, and in this letter from John were receiving words of comfort that they would be rewarded for their resilient faith one day.

This whole idea of a raptured church was unheard of among Christians until the 19th century, when an Anglo-Irish theologian named John Nelson Darby proposed the idea. We still hear about his theory in the United States today because of preachers and writers who latched onto the idea. There also is the influence of the Scofield Reference Bible, which heavily promotes the notion in its footnotes.

The more standard, historical understanding of the “end times” is simple. We are in them. We have been since Christ ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit fell upon the church. Christ could return any moment, bringing this time to an end.

Certainly, suffering is depicted in powerful ways in some of the passages preceding what we explore today. Perhaps the most famous image is the four horsemen of the apocalypse, each rider on a mount with a color symbolizing what happens when earthly institutions deviate from God’s will. The white horse is power run amok; the red horse is war; the black horse is death. The pale horse symbolizes the lingering horrors that go along with death—famine, disease and decay. All of these political, military and economic abuses have been a constant somewhere in the world, and will be until Christ returns.

Problem 2: The view is very ethnocentric, popular in a privileged culture where suffering, particularly suffering for one’s faith, is quite limited. We have to remember that simultaneous to our relatively benign Christian experience, there are other Christians suffering terribly for what they believe. I wish they could somehow be raptured out of their persecution. One monitoring group, Voice of the Martyrs, has estimated there are more martyrs being made for Christ now than at any point in history. Pope Francis recently made a similar statement.

But enough about what our text doesn’t say. Again, that’s the problem with preaching Revelation. I have to spend too much time on what it doesn’t say.

Here’s what it does say:

Suffering may be widespread, but so is the impact of salvation. After having tried in an earlier passage to give us a count for millions of worshiping angels (however symbolic the number), John simply tells us that those who come through their trials and tribulations and hold onto their faith will be uncountable. It doesn’t matter your station in the world; it doesn’t matter your color, or your language. Salvation is available.

Our text makes clear it is glorious to receive that white robe and stand in the presence of God.  I’ve related the story before about the boy in confirmation class who told me he wasn’t sure he wanted to go to heaven. The language about constant, eternal worship frightened him, making him think it would be “like being stuck in church forever.”

But it’s clear from our scene in this text that the experience is something we never will want to leave. Heavenly worship is rich and complete, fulfilling every relationship we could ever want to have in this life. We are sustained in every way we could ever imagine. In this worship there is family, fun and deep, deep intimacy.

I wish I could somehow give you that experience every Sunday. We do the best we can, with the words and the music and the prayers. The best I can do is repeat what I’ve said before: Whatever good and wonderful things you can imagine about God’s promises, you are right, and yet you have not even come close to what we will experience when fully aware of God’s presence.

Here’s the best thing we can do with our text today. Let’s do what the early, persecuted church did. Let’s cling to the images. Let’s carry the hope into every situation we may face.

While we are, on average, a privileged people, I know many of you face your own suffering, your own personal tribulations. We all ultimately face dark days, and they frighten us. But we have this story and all the other loving promises of God, made possible through Christ.

We believe, and we persevere.

The featured image is “Four Horsemen,” Peter Von Cornelius, 1845.

Story’s End

Revelation 7:9-17

Every great story has a masterful ending. The magnificent story told in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation has the greatest ending of all.

Our main problem is teasing that ending out of Revelation, the most complicated book of the Bible to read. Before we get to that wonderful conclusion, a primer on how Revelation works is in order.

I should begin with what Revelation is not, as improper readings of this last book of the Bible have led to a lot of bad theology in recent years. It is not a type of literature otherwise familiar to us in Western culture—in fact, this type of literature existed among Jews and early Christians for just four centuries, from about 200 B.C. to about A.D. 200.

We now call this type of literature “apocalyptic,” and we know it does not follow what the Western world considers the normal structure of a story. For example, our stories tend to follow chronological order, with the exception of an occasional flashback to reveal details from the past, or some foreshadowing to hint at what is to come.

Time is not an important feature of apocalyptic literature. An event may be described once and then described from a different perspective later in the text.

Also, apocalyptic literature is highly figurative, where Western literature is by default quite literal, with forays into figurative language usually easy to detect. All of the resulting symbolism in apocalyptic literature functions in part like a code; for example, numbers and creatures usually point to something else, like the concept of completeness or a particular empire.

The people who wrote apocalyptic literature were heavily oppressed, and didn’t want others to understand immediately what they were saying. So, if you try to read Revelation chronologically and literally, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, errant conclusions the letter’s original audience would never have made.

But enough of the primer. With all of that in mind, let’s look at that glorious story’s end.

Scattered through Revelation are images of humanity and God in full reunion, thanks to Christ’s infinitely powerful work on the cross. They are like snapshots of what is to come.

These images resolve the problem that arises early in Genesis. There, we see God’s desire for a relationship with his creation, and we see that relationship broken by willful disobedience, the kind of sin we all have committed at one time or another.

The rest of the Old Testament can be seen broadly as God’s efforts to woo humans back to holiness and a full relationship with their maker. The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) in the New Testament reveal to us how God ultimately succeeded: He took on human form among us as Jesus Christ, becoming a sinless sacrifice to atone for our sins.

Christ’s resurrection is proof the plan worked. All we have to do is believe.

Those reunion images in Revelation are designed to give us great hope, reminding us that what is to come is so much better than what we experience now. One of those snapshots, found in the seventh chapter, beginning at verse 9, gives us a picture of eternal, ongoing worship, a glorious celebration of what has been accomplished by Christ, depicted as the Lamb.

The author of Revelation, known only as John, said that in one of his visions “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.” He went on to describe the praise and singing by both the redeemed humans and the creatures of heaven.

He also gave us a hint of what we should be doing now, as we exist in the part of the story where we now live, a time of tribulation and ordeals brought about by evil’s death throes. In a conversation with one of these heavenly beings, John is told that those clothed in white “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

In more literal language, they symbolize the people from around the world who follow Christ as Lord and Savior. Yes, salvation is freely available, but this washing of robes symbolizes our need to pursue this relationship, to grow in our faith and live as people who believe.

As the Apostle Paul writes in the second chapter of Philippians, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Every individual Christian story intersects with God’s great story, leading to the same glorious ending.