Easter 4 • Revelation 7:9–17 • April 21, 2013
By Robert Rosin
Behold the Host
Apocalyptic literature is not confined to Christianity, of course. So with a text from the Apocalypse or Revelation of St. John it is important to understand its place at the end of the New Testament, and in Christian thought. In popular parlance, apocalyptic literature is seen today as a revelation of some impending end God wills for the world and time itself. Civilization will cease through a catastrophe while some higher, esoteric knowledge will reveal the roadmap for survivors to arrive at a higher understanding and existence. No small industry has grown up around the rapture racket with various formulae peddled in promise of overcoming the terror of history. We don’t like journeys through the unknown, even if a clear end exists.
Unfortunately for those wanting to decode daily events, St. John’s vision was penned not to decipher our surroundings but to help Christians in his day as they struggled in difficult times and culture. From Rome on down, life was hard with ungodly values hawked by society. Take heart, John says, for this, too, shall pass, and God will hold his own in his hand. The genre understandably displays a mix of pessimism (there will be crisis and persecution) with optimism (but look beyond . . .) as we emerge in a better day.
Apocalypticism is living with a shadow but also with a hope of Christ’s return at hand. Look at Revelation 7. Amid the frightful picture of seven seals being opened, two images of hope are inserted for a kind of “breather.” Though trials come, 144,000 (a mathematical play off Israel’s tribes and Christ’s apostles pointing to all that God will hold fast—a perfect number) come through in verses 1–8. Then today’s text shifts our gaze heavenward where John’s language struggles to capture a scene too glorious for words. Both images cheer us now until Christ comes again.
Palm branches and shouts of acclamation cannot help but hearken back a few weeks to Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. Hailed as a king (true!), he was nevertheless abandoned, first by the fickle crowds and more seriously by his Father when crucified.No abandonment issues here. Just wave upon wave of praise. Here, as in the previous image, numbers are not literal figures for bean counters but are meant to overwhelm us, endless throngs brought together at Christ’s doing, not their own. Elsewhere in the Scriptures people fall on their faces in part out of fear. Here it is from respect and honor, done in love and joy for love shown them. Someone prostrate is completely vulnerable, open to the one in ascendency and power. But there is no fear here, only comfort and trust.
In verse 14, an elder speaks of white robes that were washed clean in the blood of the Lamb, but being washed white in blood seems incongruous. One might use cold water quickly to get blood out and the stain might not set, but to washing to whiten in blood? And that is hardly the start of incongruities in Christ’s story. From annunciation to birth, to suffering and death and resurrection, does any of this make sense as we figure things? Fortunately God does the figuring and also the doing. What do we do? Exactly what the text describes: say thank you loud and long for all eternity. The text’s image of where we are heading is clear. We look forward to it. And we also look around, understanding that there are others to add to the number. The text shows the culmination, but it’s also a mission imperative as through us God seeks others to wash white in baptism and set on the path to Revelation 7.
“Serve” in verse 15 is “worship.” This is no grudging work to be done but rather doxology to be sung (literally on Sunday) and lived, carrying on with what God sends in life, remembering the Lamb who keeps us his. He needs none of what we do but yet invites us to live and work in his behalf, and he is pleased at what comes.
Easter is a few weeks past for this year, but the Revelation text makes plain that the reality of new life is ever-present, now and until his promised return and eternal reign.