[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]
The junior high years of my life were, in many ways, awful. At least they seemed that way to me at the time. If you can imagine it, I was a mouthy kid, one of the smallest in my class, and surely among the least physically coordinated. All of that taken together, especially my mouthiness, were like open invitations—even to otherwise good kids from really good homes—to insult me, taunt me, hit me, knock my books out from my arms, smash my lunch bags, pick fights, or, and this is the thing I think I hated the most, smack me on the back of the head---for you NCIS fans, Jethro Gibbs-style.
I hated going to school during those years. But walking home in the afternoon was often just as awful as the school day had been, as three or four guys would make my life miserable for three-quarters or more of the way home. Eventually on those walks home though, something wonderful would happen. I would get to my home street in the Westgate area and it was as though everything bad was lifted from my shoulders. When I was thirteen, walking down that street, coming home from school, I truly thought to myself, "This is the most perfect place in the world!" It was my shelter.
In this third installment of our sermon series on the book of Revelation, we come to a point in the book at which its first readers and hearers in churches from first-century western Turkey, may have needed soothing words promising them shelter against the uncontrollable storms of life.
In chapter 6, the part of the book that follows our lesson from last Sunday, those early Christians would have learned of how, in the vision given to John the Evangelist on the island of Patmos, Jesus, the Lamb of God, opened the first six of the seven seals mentioned in last week’s Bible lesson. To these churches, just then beginning to suffer sporadic persecution for their faith in Jesus Christ, John gave a message that can basically be boiled down to this: “Don’t worry. Things are going to get worse.”
That is the message from the seals on the scroll of the future broken open by the risen and ascended Jesus. With the breaking of the first four seals, the famed four horses and riders of the apocalypse are unleashed. (They didn’t play football for Notre Dame, by the way.) They represent all the violence and disasters we suffer in this fallen, imperfect world. When the fifth seal was broken, John says that he saw all those killed for their adherence to the Word of God and heard them cry out, “How long will it be, O Lord, before You avenge our blood?” With the opening of the sixth seal, a great earthquake came, the sun went black, the moon was like blood, the stars fell to the earth “as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale.” (This image of the fruit of the fig tree would have been especially interesting to the first recipients of Revelation, because the ancient rabbis always taught that the forbidden fruit eaten by Adam and Eve was a fig, not an apple.) Then the sky vanished. Mountains and islands were moved from their places. The powerful and wealthy, along with the rest of humanity, overwhelmed by the entire cosmos in its convulsive death throes, asked to be spared the impending wrath of the Lamb of God, Jesus.
As chapter 7 begins, God’s people—believers in Jesus—are gathered as if prepared for some final struggle, some terrible ordeal, some great suffering. As you read apocalyptic literature, as you consider things Jesus said, and as you pay attention to how Revelation unfolds, you realize that John isn’t just describing future events. War and hatred, violence and natural disasters are happening today. The killing of Christians for their faith is happening today. (In fact, during the twentieth century, more people were martyred for their faith in Jesus Christ than in the preceding nineteen centuries combined! That anti-Christian violence continues in this century.)
This world was plunged into sin and descended into its inevitable decline into death the moment that Adam and Eve bit into the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It has been dying ever since. Jesus came into this world to call all people to repentance and renewal so that we could have everlasting life with God beyond the inevitable death of this world, beyond our own inevitable deaths.
In the midst of these grim visions, before recounting how the Lamb of God broke the seventh seal and before going on to tell of other foreboding visions, John presents another picture, one filled with hope and joy. It constitutes our lesson from Revelation for this morning and takes place before the throne of God and of the Lamb, the Father and the Son, Who share a single throne. In his vision, John sees a multitude drawn from every nationality and race, people who have trusted in Jesus Christ as God, Savior, and Shepherd. They wear white robes of purity, made clean by the sacrificed blood of Jesus on the cross. They carry palm leaves, symbol of victory. (Interestingly, the Gospel of John is the only one of the New Testament Gospels who specifically mentions palm leaves being waved on the first Palm Sunday.) Then, the white-robed multitude sings praises to Jesus. They praise Jesus in seven different ways. "Blessing and glory and wisdom," they begin. In Jewish tradition, whenever lists like this were made, the middle item is the most important. And that holds true here as well. The multitude, above all, gives its thanksgiving to the Lamb Whose death on the cross opens up eternity to all who believe in Him!
Then, like a Socratic teacher seeking to help a student own the lesson being taught, one of the heavenly elders asks John, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” John says he doesn’t know. So, the elder tells him: “These are the ones coming out of the great affliction…” These are the ones who have endured all the challenges and tragedies seen with the breaking of those seals by Jesus the Lamb. These are the people who, in spite of everything, have continued to turn from their sin—to repent—and to trust in the God of grace we know in Jesus Christ.
Part of our mission as Saint Matthew Lutheran Church is to share the Good News with those not presently connected with Christ and His Church, telling them and showing them that God wants them to be part of that multitude of faithful believers in eternity who, by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, have turned their backs to sin and trusted in Jesus. That’s why your invitations to others to be with us for Friend Day next Sunday are so important. We want all of our friends to be with us when we stand before the Lamb of God!
Beyond that, here’s what I want to make sure to underscore in your minds and hearts this morning. Listen to what the elder says of this white-robed multitude: “they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.” The Lamb of God would shelter them and, as Isaiah had long ago written, He would also “be their shepherd, and…guide them to springs of the water of life, and [would] wipe away every tear from their eyes.” In eternity, God’s people will be sheltered for all eternity.
But the word translated as shelter in today’s lesson means more than protection and love. The word in the original Greek is skeinosei. Literally, it means tabernacled. It’s another form of a word that appears in John 1:14, where we’re told that the Word of God, Jesus, was made flesh and tabernacled—or dwelt or lived—among human beings on earth. These terms are related to a Hebrew word from the Old Testament: shekinah. Shekinah means home or dwelling place, but was most often used of the dwelling place of God. It denoted the very presence of God. God lived or tabernacled in the temple’s holy of holies.
The use of the word tabernacled by the elder who spoke to John the prophet must have been deliberate. Today, as the New Testament tells us, we walk by faith and not by sight; today, we see Christ only partially, but one day we will see Him face to face.
There are blessings in this life, of course! We live on a planet of majestic beauty, filled with intricate patterns and breathtaking wonder. We have family and friends with whom to share all of life's joys and challenges. We have talents, abilities, and passions that give our lives meaning and fulfillment. All of these blessings and many others are ways in which God extends His shelter to us even in this imperfect world.
And, those who belong to Christ know that our lives today are imbued with purpose and hope from God. It's in pursuit of our purpose as disciples of Jesus that our young people are going to serve our neighbors this summer, that we're all going to do the community food drive next month. It was from a sense of God's purpose for them that, decades ago, people from Saint Matthew had the vision to begin broadcasting our Sunday worship service. Today, this broadcast is the longest-running radio program in Ohio. We pursue our purpose as followers of Jesus is what also recently compelled us to join other Lutherans in helping the people in Haiti rebuild their lives following the earthquake of 102 days ago.
But as purposeful and wonderful as life with God is here today, one day, all who believe in Jesus Christ will, along with the white-robed multitude of John's vision, live in God’s perfect shelter, in what is truly the most perfect place. Every blessing you and I have ever experienced in this life, no matter how great, is but a small, whispering preview of what those who follow Jesus have to look forward to in eternity. All our tears and sorrows will be ended and all around us, we will see among the white-robed multitude people with whom we shared Jesus. Our hearts will soar when we hear our Lord tell us of our lives here, “Well done, good and faithful student!”
But even now God is with us. He shelters from sin and death all who dare to run from sin and run to Him. Even in the convulsions of a dying world, those who dare to turn to Christ are touched by the Lamb and sense eternity breaking into their lives. I’ve mentioned before Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who, on April 9, 1945, was executed for opposing the cruel insanity of Nazi Germany. On the brink of his final ordeal, as the executioner slipped a rope around his neck, Bonhoeffer considered the scene he was about to see and experience as a follower of Jesus. He had already known the shelter of love and grace God extended to him while he was imprisoned and tortured by the Nazis. Now he knew that he was going into the eternal shelter of the Lamb, where life would once more be the way God intended it for His children. Bonhoeffer said, “"This is the end - for me the beginning of life."
Life can sometimes bring great affliction. I don’t have to tell that to many of you. You know it better than I do. But even when we consider the end of this life, you and I can live in the knowledge that the God Who shields His children from all that would tempt us from trusting in Him, will, at the moment we draw our last breaths, greet us in eternity and let us live in His shelter forevermore.
“Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen!"