Karin Liebster, Associate Pastor
Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, 22, (1 John 3:1-3), Matthew 5:1-12
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The gorgeous days of fall in Houston with their bright sunshine and temperatures that actually let us enjoy the outdoors betray the feeling of this time which is for most of us hard because of the many unknowns: the Corona pandemic – will it get worse yet, when will it be over; the economic downturn – how will industries, businesses, our cultural venues survive, how will the landscape of our city change; the election – what will the outcome be, will we be able to speak with each other again assuming a common floor of decency on which we can rely and relate?
There are also many known factors which make our hearts heavy. Reading and praying the list of all the loved ones, friends and acquaintances that we, you mourned this last year, I was struck by the number of significant losses within a short span of twelve months. And, there are 230 thousand and 566 persons (as of Sunday morning) in the United States who died of COVID, the highest number of COVID deaths in any one country on the globe.
How are we ever going to be able to pay adequate tribute to them and console the myriads of family members and friends who miss them?
It is in these times, dear friends, that we wonder whether maybe the ancients were right about an end of time, – the apocalyptic images of the bible and the message contained therein make more sense. It is a message of confidence and stubborn hope, for the faithfulness of God does not fail and it does not break. No crisis or loss will make God’s faithfulness fail or break.
When we take a quick look at the image on the bulletin cover today, a mosaic from the 6th century in Ravenna, Italy, we see a lamb with a golden halo inside a wreath of palms or laurel, signs of a king; around the lamb four angels raising their arms as if lifting, holding up the lamb like an emperor on a throne, giving glory, singing praise and alleluias. “Salvation, victory, belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Rev 7:10)
In an election year this reminder from our distant ancestors who lived in high anxiety under the brutal reign of the unforgiving Roman empire, this reminder refreshes, resets our focus on the source of security and identity as Christians baptized into Christ’s death. The God whose kingdom reverses all worldly kingdoms and presidencies with meekness and a bloody death on the cross, is the one whom we worship, the one by whom we are named in baptism, and the one by whose cross we are sealed.
In more normal times the language and images of the apocalyptic literature remain strange to us, closed; we are not so motivated to decipher their message of hope and comfort, assurance of God’s faithfulness. We rather leave the apocalyptic territory to the biblical literalists who scare us with mistaken pronouncements of who is in and up and is out and left behind.
Far from it though. It is not just a few elected, privileged surrounding the throne of the Lamb with the angels and elders, but all the faithful of Israel, 144,000 simply meaning their totality, AND, second, the multitude that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages – all, ALL saints, all martyrs, all 230 thousand and 566 COVID dead (and those who will die in the coming days and weeks), and all our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, the loves of our lives, nieces, nephews, children, friends and colleagues we have lost this year and years before – all are there raising their arms, the community of the multitudes united in worship.
Wearing robes, white robes, washed white by their ordeals in the blood of the Lamb. That makes no sense, does it? Apocalyptic language, like poetry, like the parables of Jesus, brings things together in one sentence, in one image that just don’t go together. Robes washed white in Jesus’ blood?
It makes no sense, but- in our suffering, in our anxious waking hours in the middle of the night we need a vision, something that goes beyond what we are able to say because our own words just don’t say anything, they are feeble, expressionless, make no meaning.
The multitude of saints, come through their ordeals, surrounding the Lamb who is also the Shepherd guiding them to the springs of the water of life –: that is imagery that jolts us out of the darkness of our night, makes us leave behind hours spent in listless sadness and depression;
God wiping away every tear – here is an image of hope. Finally we realize that God is that power which is actually still and ever the only one true reality that counts in life and in death.
It is hardly possible in times of high stress to turn ourselves around by our own strength toward the transcendent real presence of our God who blesses us. The apocalyptic language comes in handy. It takes our troubles seriously by graphic illustration of evil and suffering, and then takes us out of our troubles so we see them in a new light, a new vision appearing through a crack in the darkness.
That phenomenon, dear ones, is hope. The indestructible, stubborn hope that is the source of life and faith which carries the baptized through the ordeals of our lives.
And guess what, we are not alone. We are a whole community of such people. Jesus’ blesses a whole congregation of the multitudes of normal, regular people who go through the ordeals of life and death.
Let us take the Lamb on the throne, and the Shepherd who leads to springs of water of life, and the bringer of a kingdom that is like no other all together now in a big synthesis, and let Jesus’ words bless us again:
Blessed are you, poor in spirit, you who rely not on your own robust ego or fake one; blessed are you whose only security and identity is in God. Yours is the kingdom led by the royal Lamb who defies all the kings of this world.
Blessed are you who mourn, who lament that the full fulfillment of that longed for kingdom is yet to come, – you will be comforted.
Blessed are you, meek, who like our Lamb-king reject violent methods of power–weapons, money, trust breaking, for you will receive the blessings of the new earth.
Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness, you who don’t give up, reminding us that God’s justice is still to come; your hope is not empty, it will be filled.
Blessed are you, merciful; of undivided, single-minded devotion to God; peacemakers; persecuted for Christ’s sake, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.We are blessed, brothers and sisters, dearly beloved children of God, as church, as community living, claiming, demanding, and anticipating God’s reign of peace and justice.
As a community, blessed and filled with hope, it is now us who give hope to a world filled with knowns and unknowns and lacking in peace. Our hope makes us strong and joyous, together with the company of saints of all times and places. And so even today we gladly follow Jesus’ command: Rejoice and be glad! (Matthew 5:12)