Sermon preached April 17, 2016
Texts: Revelation 7:9-17
Diana Ross, “Reach Out and Touch” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=629_vLbgv7g
This is really a nice song, and the Scripture Steve read is a rather strange Scripture. My task in the next few minutes it to link them together, not for the sake of the song but for our own sake. I think the song illumines the Scripture and both speak to our lives and our life together as a church.
Anytime we greet the Book of Revelation I would imagine that we feel a little bit of discomfort. It is a book filled with strange images. It is a text some have used in quite threatening ways – “The Lord is Coming, and he is angry” – “Jesus is coming, are you ready?” One writer has called it a “sick text” (Will Self, Revelations, 381)
We will be reading from Revelation again next week, too, so here are a couple of helpful comments about the book. Adam Hamilton, in Making Sense of the Bible writes this: The visions John is about to convey were not meant to tell twenty-first century Christians about the end times but to encourage and challenge first-century Christians living in what is now Turkey to stop conforming to the culture around them and to avoid anything that smacked of the worship of Rome, its emperor, and its gods…. To convey his message, John adopts a form of writing well known among Jews and Christians of his time – we call it apocalyptic. This kind of writing communicates through visions and images that are powerful and evocative. (283)
Marcus Borg, in his chronological version of The New Testament, The Evolution of the Word, also writes about trying to understand Revelation. The heart of the message of Revelation, according to Borg is: That accommodation to imperial ways is wrong. That the struggle between the lordship of Christ and the lordship of Caesar is the great conflict. That it is important to persevere even when it looks like the beast is winning. That, appearances to the contrary, the beast does not have the final word and is not the final Word. (369) Borg goes on speak of the hope represented in Revelation. Its language expresses the human yearning for a different kind of world, one lived in the presence of God, in which the sufferings of this world are no more. (370)
We need to see the verses read this morning in this broader context. The writer is communicating through visions and images. This particular vision seems one intended to encourage the hearers to hold on, to continue to choose the way and values of Jesus as contrasted with the way and values of the Roman Empire. To be sure, some of the images are a bit difficult, particularly the image of robes “made white in the blood of the Lamb.” Two things here. Jesus death was unexpected and traumatic for the disciples. How could someone who had done such good and brought God so close be killed in such a shameful way? After the resurrection, the followers of Jesus had to make sense of that death. Something good seemed to come from it, and one set of images for understanding that was the sacrificial imagery from the Jewish Temple rituals, the blood of lambs.
We might also want to consider that the writer of Revelation seems to have been a Palestinian Jewish Christian who likely would have seen tremendous suffering as Rome put down the Jewish rebellion in 68-70 A.D., destroying the Temple in the process. Faithful people may experience traumatic ordeals.
Even though there are background images reflecting violence, the primary imagery here is joyous. It is a vision that speaks about what the Jesus community should be, and what the world will be when the values of the Jesus community prevail.
We have a vision of a multi-ethnic multitude – a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. The church, the Jesus community which sings the songs of God, is meant to be an inclusive community. That the church has in its history justified slavery and segregation, that it has limited the participation of groups of persons runs directly counter to this vision. The church, the Jesus community reaches out to all people.
We have in this text a strong sense that the values of the Jesus community are different from the values of the empire. The language used in the songs – “salvation,” “blessing,” “honor,” “glory,” “wisdom,” “honor,” and “power” were terms used to extol the Emperor and the Roman Empire. They were common in Roman propaganda. Here we are reminded that it is God from whom comes salvation and wisdom. God is the one to whom glory and honor belong. God’s power, the power of love, is what is most powerful, not the oppressive power of Rome. The Jesus community is a community oriented toward growing in love of God and neighbor.
The vision in this text culminates with an expansive vision of a new world where there is shelter for all. In this new world there will be no hunger or thirst. God will guide, and bring us to the springs of the water of life. God will wipe away every tear. This is God’s dream for the world, and we are invited to work toward such healing even in the midst of difficult circumstances.
The church, the Jesus community is about a three-step dance of reaching out to all people, of growing in love of God and neighbor, and of healing a broken world. The denomination of which we are a part, The United Methodist Church, has said that the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Contained in that statement is the three-step dance of reaching out to others inviting them to join the way of Jesus, of helping people on the journey of being disciples – growing in love of God and neighbor, and of working with each other and the Spirit toward transforming the world toward healing.
The Minnesota Conference of The United Methodist Church, the more local affiliation of The United Methodist Church with which we are affiliated has made its core work the nurturing and encouraging of vital congregations that reach out to others, that help people be spiritually vital by helping them grow in love of God and neighbor, and of working together and with the Spirit to heal a broken world.
Our church’s mission statement is that we are a place that welcomes all people – reaching out; that is guided by the teaching and unconditional love of Jesus – which means helping each other grow in love of God and neighbor and working to heal a broken world; and that inspires us to live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ – which means helping each other grow in love of God and neighbor and working to heal a broken world.
The church is about reaching out, welcoming a multitude from every place, from every language. The church is about growing in love of God and neighbor. The church is about working to heal a broken world. Let’s continue to ask ourselves how we invite and welcome people here. Let’s continue to ask ourselves how we want people to be different because they are part of First UMC. Let’s continue to ask how we want our community and world to be different because we are here. When I have thought about such questions over the years, some of the things I dream about for us is that we help people be disciples of Jesus Christ who are thoughtful, passionate, and compassionate. Together we help each other be people who are joyful, genuine, gentle generous, and concerned for justice.
Churches as they exist are not perfect, sometimes sadly and tragically falling short of being places of inclusivity, welcome, growth in love and healing. I have shared with you one of my own experiences of being the object of an insensitive practical joke at a church youth group, having my apple cider spiked at a youth group event. The church has at times been cruel and exclusive, and too conformed to the values of the surrounding culture which contradict the love of God.
Yet at its best, or at its better, the church surrounds us with a community of love and forgiveness. It gives us a sense of place, a sense of home. My family and I have experienced the church as that kind of place – celebrating with us, and grieving with us. This church has been with us when we have lost loved ones and when we have celebrated the good gifts of life. My children know the church to be an extended family of a kind.
I know that I have grown immeasurably because of the church, grown in love of God and neighbor. As I see different people on their own growth journey, as I have the opportunity to speak with people whose experience is different from my own, as I listen to different ideas, I grow.
Because of the church, and the faith we are nurturing here, I continue to find the courage and stamina to work on healing a broken world. Sometimes the brokenness of the world seems so overwhelming – the beast sometimes seems to be winning. It would be tempting to withdraw, but because of the church I continue to work to confront the challenges of poverty, racism, environmental degradation, historical and personal trauma. Because we are together, and because the Spirit is with us in a special way because we are together, we can continue to reach out and touch somebody’s hand and make the world a better place.
So let’s dance on – reach, grow, heal – reach, grow heal. Let’s be that wonderfully welcoming place where multitudes can find a home in the love of God in Jesus. Let’s nurture a thoughtful, passionate and compassionate Christian faith that nourishes in us joy, genuineness, gentleness, generosity and concern for justice. Dance on. Reach out and touch, somebody’s hand, and make this a better world in Jesus name. Amen.