For the first couple of weeks of our series, we’ve focused on scenes of glory and worship. This week’s text shows us some now-familiar heavenly imagery, but in the process we are reminded of what we experience in our time and place.
I suppose the key word for the day is “tribulation,” what is called “the great ordeal” in the NRSV. People hear that word in very different ways. A lot of American preachers talk about it as a time to come, a time of disaster to fall upon the earth after Christ’s followers have been removed in what is sometimes called the “rapture.”
Problem 1: That view is very hard to reconcile with Revelation and other biblical end-time imagery. The first audience for Revelation would have found the removal of the church from this ongoing suffering a strange notion, indeed. They were being persecuted, saw themselves in the midst of a great ordeal, and in this letter from John were receiving words of comfort that they would be rewarded for their resilient faith one day.
This whole idea of a raptured church was unheard of among Christians until the 19th century, when an Anglo-Irish theologian named John Nelson Darby proposed the idea. We still hear about his theory in the United States today because of preachers and writers who latched onto the idea. There also is the influence of the Scofield Reference Bible, which heavily promotes the notion in its footnotes.
The more standard, historical understanding of the “end times” is simple. We are in them. We have been since Christ ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit fell upon the church. Christ could return any moment, bringing this time to an end.
Certainly, suffering is depicted in powerful ways in some of the passages preceding what we explore today. Perhaps the most famous image is the four horsemen of the apocalypse, each rider on a mount with a color symbolizing what happens when earthly institutions deviate from God’s will. The white horse is power run amok; the red horse is war; the black horse is death. The pale horse symbolizes the lingering horrors that go along with death—famine, disease and decay. All of these political, military and economic abuses have been a constant somewhere in the world, and will be until Christ returns.
Problem 2: The view is very ethnocentric, popular in a privileged culture where suffering, particularly suffering for one’s faith, is quite limited. We have to remember that simultaneous to our relatively benign Christian experience, there are other Christians suffering terribly for what they believe. I wish they could somehow be raptured out of their persecution. One monitoring group, Voice of the Martyrs, has estimated there are more martyrs being made for Christ now than at any point in history. Pope Francis recently made a similar statement.
But enough about what our text doesn’t say. Again, that’s the problem with preaching Revelation. I have to spend too much time on what it doesn’t say.
Here’s what it does say:
Suffering may be widespread, but so is the impact of salvation. After having tried in an earlier passage to give us a count for millions of worshiping angels (however symbolic the number), John simply tells us that those who come through their trials and tribulations and hold onto their faith will be uncountable. It doesn’t matter your station in the world; it doesn’t matter your color, or your language. Salvation is available.
Our text makes clear it is glorious to receive that white robe and stand in the presence of God. I’ve related the story before about the boy in confirmation class who told me he wasn’t sure he wanted to go to heaven. The language about constant, eternal worship frightened him, making him think it would be “like being stuck in church forever.”
But it’s clear from our scene in this text that the experience is something we never will want to leave. Heavenly worship is rich and complete, fulfilling every relationship we could ever want to have in this life. We are sustained in every way we could ever imagine. In this worship there is family, fun and deep, deep intimacy.
I wish I could somehow give you that experience every Sunday. We do the best we can, with the words and the music and the prayers. The best I can do is repeat what I’ve said before: Whatever good and wonderful things you can imagine about God’s promises, you are right, and yet you have not even come close to what we will experience when fully aware of God’s presence.
Here’s the best thing we can do with our text today. Let’s do what the early, persecuted church did. Let’s cling to the images. Let’s carry the hope into every situation we may face.
While we are, on average, a privileged people, I know many of you face your own suffering, your own personal tribulations. We all ultimately face dark days, and they frighten us. But we have this story and all the other loving promises of God, made possible through Christ.
We believe, and we persevere.
The featured image is “Four Horsemen,” Peter Von Cornelius, 1845.