Monday, April 18, 2016

Sermon on Revelation 7:9-17, for the 4th Sunday of Easter, "The Lamb will be their Shepherd"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In the past two sermons, we’ve introduced the book of Revelation and how the Risen Lord Jesus stands at the center of the book, and of all history, for that matter—and saints and angels in heaven surround the throne of God and of the Lamb, in holy praise and worship. Today, we again see a vision at the throne of God in heaven. In the bigger picture of the book, this scene is sort of an “intermission” or “interlude”, during a series of seven unfolding visions. A series of “seven seals” are opened one by one, with different judgments on earth unfolding at each seal. Our reading takes place during an “interlude” between the 6th and 7th seals. Similar interludes show up later in Revelation, between the 6th and 7th stages of later visions. So this is part of a larger pattern found in the book. It’s also a very bright scene that is surrounded before and after by dreadful scenes of judgment upon the earth—so we need to remember that context.
But while the “action” has paused, and scenes of judgment on earth are momentarily suspended—the camera returns to heaven, to show us this scene of a multitude around the throne of heaven. A multitude that is too great to count or number, and who are standing in victory and celebration, with white robes and palm branches, and singing a victory song: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Seeing this great crowd, the question is, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” The answer given is, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
This is where the crowd fits into the big picture—they are the saints that have been delivered to heaven, that have already passed through the great tribulation, or suffering on earth. They are what we call the “church triumphant” or the believers who have gone on to their victory and heavenly rest with Jesus. The fact that they have “come out of the great tribulation” points back toward us, and toward the other saints still on earth—those who are still in the great tribulation, the struggle, the persecution, and difficulty of being a disciple of Jesus.
The believers who still are in the world, but not of it, are what we call the “church militant”, or believers who are still in the spiritual warfare on earth. There is one church of Christ, but some believers are still living on earth, while others have died and gone on to glory. The church militant, or those on earth, show up in the first half of Revelation chapter 7. They are the 144,000 saints who are sealed on earth, and bear the name of the Father and of the Lamb on their foreheads. They still have to endure through the tribulation. Without getting too deeply into the numbers, just note that the 144,000 is a round number, made up of multiples of 12 X 12 X 1,000. As such it is a symbolic number to reflect the whole group of believers on church, as they are organized and lead by Jesus Christ. Organized like an army, “fully equipped and ready to do God’s work” (Brighton, 190). It’s not, as some have misunderstood, a literal number of the total count of people who will get into heaven, as the very first verse of our reading today shows that the multitude in heaven is, “without number.”
This Sunday, many churches across America are taking a special occasion to remember and to stand with the persecuted church—remembering that we are part of this same formation of believers. Remembering that the devil is prowling like a roaring lion, and that we are to “Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:9). We must not forget them or their sufferings. The scale of persecution is difficult for us to even comprehend, and it is majorly underreported by our media and our government. Just recently, our U.S. State Department officially went on record that there is an ongoing genocide taking place against Christians—the attempt for a wholesale extermination of Christian believers from certain countries and regions. Several million Christians have fled their homes in Syria, Iraq, and the Middle East. In some places there is no Christian community left, or it has been forced into hiding. Terror attacks aimed at Christians have been celebrated by the Taliban in Pakistan, and numerous terrorist groups in Africa, targeting schools, villages, and churches to eliminate Christians.
It is a fearful time for our Christian brotherhood around the world, and numerous Christian ministries to the persecuted church are calling for our prayers, our attention to the suffering and needs of brothers and sisters in Christ in more than 60 countries around the world facing active persecution, and our support for those persecuted and displaced from their homes. It is into this great tribulation, that the scene in Revelation unfolds. Out of the bloody and fearful mess on earth, our eyes are lifted with the Apostle John into heaven, to see the saints who have been rescued from the strife, and are at peace with God. Our eyes are lifted to see that there is an end to the struggle, and there is justice and rest for God’s people. And there is victory because of the Lamb who has conquered. There is courage and hope to overcome fear, and to be confident in tribulation, because Jesus holds the victory.
The way that these saints in glory, clothed in white robes, have made it through the great tribulation is because “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”. This echoes a beautiful verse, Isaiah 1:18, where God tells His people,  “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” What an interesting paradox! Our sins are like scarlet or crimson stains, but it is the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, that washes those sins out, and makes them white as snow or wool. Jesus’ blood is the most powerful cleansing agent on earth! It washes us clean of the foulest sin and the deepest shame, so that we can be presented pure and holy again, before God. Did you notice in our first reading, from Acts 20:28, that it refers to the “church of God, which He obtained with His own blood”? Did you get that? God’s own blood was the redemption price of the church! Jesus is God, and by His Godly blood shed for us, He has obtained the church—purchased it as His own, washed it from sin and every stain, and delivers it through the great tribulation. Such a glorious and amazing outcome for a body of believers who are besieged on every side by the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh, waging war against God’s kingdom. But the victory is clear and certain, and it is our victory because Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!
Then in a beautiful description of heaven, that folds together a beautiful mix of promises from God, we hear this: Revelation 7:15–17, “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 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 tear from their eyes.” At the center of their worship is Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. But now the Risen Lamb, who leads the sheep, as their shepherd.
The tender image reminds us of Psalm 23, where the Lord, our Shepherd, leads us through the valley of the shadow of death, and leads us to water and safe pasture. In heaven, all dangers, threats, and alarms have ceased. The Lord’s presence is our shelter from everything that once threatened us, and the sheep are permanently safe and at home. God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. The tears are a reminder of this sin-filled and broken life. The hurts that we inflicted on others, the hurts we inflicted on ourselves, and those that others inflicted on us. Sin taught us jealousy, greed, selfishness, pride, hate and all other sources of trouble and misery. But Jesus teaches us humility, service, generosity, kindness, love, and forgiveness. Even now He leads us in the path of righteousness, and away from those things that would hurt or destroy us by sin. Even now He turns our actions towards peace-making, towards reconciliation, and towards love. And by the time we reach heaven, God will be wiping every tear from our eyes, causing us to forget the heartache, the trouble, the pain of the former things, but living instead in the blessedness where there is no more distress or sadness.
It is with Jesus as our Lamb and our Shepherd, that this blessed hope is ours. We cannot ignore that the world is everywhere filled to overflowing with suffering, but we have a reason not to fall into despair or hopelessness. The church that is persecuted today mirrors the description in the book of Revelation, but the darkest moments of that vision are contrasted by the brilliant glory of the Lamb and His redeemed saints, dressed in white, standing around Him in victory. We have reason for courage and confidence, to know that Satan and his plans cannot and will not win in the end, but that Jesus has secured the victory by His blood and by His resurrection from the dead. These scenes encourage us to stand and be counted with the 144,000, to proudly stand as Jesus’ disciples still on earth, bearing His Name, and living in His royal service. They encourage us to bear the cross bravely, and to rejoice in our sufferings, for the blessing we are promised in Jesus are guaranteed by Jesus’ resurrection. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed, Alleluia! Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Read Revelation 7:1-8; 14:1-5, and note the 144,000 people who are “sealed.” This well-known number has met with a variety of interpretations in modern Christian churches. The Lutheran interpretation is that the 144,000 are a symbolic number representing the totality of believers on earth—what is sometimes referred to as the “church militant”, still engaged in spiritual struggle. The “multitude that no one can number” in Revelation 7:9, refers to the “church triumphant”, or the saints already at rest with God in heaven. Among which group are we numbered at present?
  2. What is the symbolism of the “white robes” that the saints are wearing? 7:9, 14; Isaiah 1:18; Galatians 3:28. What is the significance of them waving palm branches? John 12:12-13.
  3. In Revelation 5:3-5, and 7:13-14, something happens that is unique in all the book of Revelation. In just these two places, it is an elder, i.e., one of the human saints in glory, that communicates part of the vision to John. In both cases, the elder points John to Jesus and His victory for our human salvation. Why may it have been particularly meaningful for a human to communication this part of the vision to John, instead of an angel, as in other places? What would the elder also have been through?
  4. What is the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood? Revelation 7:14; Isaiah 1:18; Acts 20:28.
  5. In heaven, what troubles and sufferings will no longer afflict us? Revelation 7:15-17; Isaiah 49:8-10; Psalm 121:6; Isaiah 25:8. Instead of these, what is the positive picture of heaven look like?
  6. Jesus is again portrayed as “the Lamb”, but in a double metaphor, He is simultaneously “the Shepherd.” How does Jesus act as our Shepherd? John 10; Psalm 23. How does He protect and love His sheep? Where does He lead them, and what does He provide them?

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