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Sunday Worship 5 November | All Saints Day

Updated: Jan 12

Revelation 7:9-17 (NIV)
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!” Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 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. ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them,’ nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

We've thrown ourselves headlong into Revelation, so let's start by stepping back and taking a wider view. At its simplest, Revelation is the record of a vision of the end times given to John while he was in exile on Patmos. There have been centuries of debate over whether the vision should be read literally or metaphorically, and it has led to all sorts of attempts to predict when the events will occur, or to map them onto events that have already occurred. I am not an expert in this by any means, but I err towards a metaphorical reading, the central message of the text being that creation will be transformed and evil will be overcome, giving way to an eternity of peace and joy in the presence of God. The fact that in John's vision it happens by way of lambs and trumpets and dragons and lakes of fire is consistent with, if not identical to, symbolic imagery and allegorical language used in apocalyptic literature found elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures and early Christian writing.

So that's a very broad take, but now let's look more closely at the six chapters leading up to our reading. John sees Christ in all his glory, holding seven stars in his right hand, and in one of my favourite images in all of scripture, Christ reaches out with that same hand that holds the stars and places it on John to reassure him. Christ then tasks John with writing down the letters he will dictate to the angels of the seven churches, letters which offer both challenge and encouragement. It makes me wonder what Christ would write in a letter to our church. You may remember that in 2020, three separate guest preachers brought us the parable of the mustard tree, which grows from the smallest of seeds until birds can find safety in its branches. I said at the time that I did not think it was a coincidence, but was a message from God to challenge us to nurture the seeds we have been given, and an encouragement that we will flourish into a place of sanctuary.

But I digress. After the letters have been dictated, John sees a door open in heaven, and the throne of God surrounded by strange creatures singing praise. The figure on the throne holds a scroll in his right hand, and a lamb that looks like it has been slain appears to break open the seven seals on the scroll. The breaking of the first four seals heralds the arrival of what have come to be known as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who set out to devastate the earth with plague and war and famine. With the opening of the fifth seal, the martyrs are told they must wait a little longer before they are avenged, and with the opening of the sixth seal, there is a massive earthquake and the stars fall and kings and princes cower in caves asking who can stand in the day of wrath.

Things are getting pretty dramatic, but before the seventh seal can be opened, there is a pause. Four angels hold back the winds of the earth and a loud voice declares that no harm shall come to pass until the servants of God are sealed. Twelve thousand from each of the twelve tribes of Israel are sealed, and then we see the "great multitude that no one could count...standing before the throne and before the Lamb". It is significant that the multitude is described as being from "every nation, tribe, people and language", especially following the sealing of the tribes of Israel. The place of Gentiles within God's salvation was debated within Judaism and was controversial within early Christianity, but this passage is clear that Jews and Gentiles alike are included. Over time the balance has shifted so that many would now restrict salvation to Christians alone, and other forms of exclusion have created new controversies within Christianity. I have said before that I am a hopeful universalist, trusting that God's heart is for the redemption of all people, but even if we stop short of that, I do think we need to take seriously the expansive vision of eternity that we are offered in this passage.

The multitude is described in the version we heard as those who have come out of the great tribulation, but the Greek is more rightly translated as those who are coming out of the great tribulation. They are singing even as they still experience trials. In a perverse way it is comforting to know that the faithful are not immune from suffering, because it means that suffering is not an inherent sign of faithlessness, and yet we have to be very careful that we do not then make suffering an inherent part of faith. Professor of theology Micah D Kiel points out that “Nowhere does John advocate that one seek out suffering. He never suggests that suffering is a necessary prerequisite of joining the multitude. What this text does testify to, however, is God’s response to the human predicament. Humans are not abandoned.” God does not demand or create our suffering, but is with us in it so that we might praise even in the midst of tribulation. Going further, Marvin Ellison suggests that “[We] need a theological response to imposed suffering that calls for resistance and change, not merely for endurance and patience.” Suffering will be redeemed but that does not mean that it is itself redemptive, and so we must do what is in our power to prevent or ease suffering as we are able.

Coming back to the particulars of the passage we heard this morning, I think it is interesting that the multitude are said to "have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb". They have not been washed, but rather they have washed. There is a sense of active choice and participation here, suggesting that the multitude are not those who are chosen but those who choose. It is also worth noting that there are many echoes of prophetic salvation in these verses. The palm branches the people are waving recall the crowds on Palm Sunday, while the scene as a whole seems to fulfil the promise of Ezekiel 37:27, which says “My dwelling will be with them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” And verses sixteen and seventeen clearly draw on Isaiah 49:10, which says “They won't hunger or thirst, the burning heat and sun won't strike them, because one who has compassion for them will lead them and will guide them by springs of water”, as well as Isaiah 25:8, which says "The Lord God will wipe tears from every face.” This is the future God has always been leading us towards, joy and peace shared with all the saints in light.

That image is of course why this is one of the passages chosen for All Saints Day. When we first think of saints, we may think of halos and icons and dramatic stories of miracles and martyrdoms, but in a tradition that emphasises the priesthood of all believers, I believe it makes sense to also think of the sainthood of all believers. We gave thanks for the saints in our prayers earlier, but I want to end by giving us another moment or two to think particularly about the saints of our own lives, those who have inspired and nurtured us in our own faith, taking a moment to call them to mind and give thanks for them. May we look to the saints for inspiration and may we be the saints that inspire others, until we are all a part of that great multitude praising God. Amen.

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