Revelation 7:9-17 Rev. Julie Yarborough
Psalm 23 5.12.19 (Mother’s Day)
Metaphor and Meaning in Tough Times
The final book in the New Testament, the Revelation of John is a strange, apocalyptical text – one of many that were written during that time. A lot of people wonder how it ever ended up in the Biblical canon. Never intended to be taken literally, the Book of Revelation is the recounting of a vision – a dream – that is highly symbolic. Actually, much of the Bible is meant to be read metaphorically – but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, or real. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Even though a lot of things in the Bible didn’t really happen, they’re still true.”
There’ s a wonderful scene toward the end of the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series, when Harry meets Dumbledore in a dream-like place that looks like King’s Cross Station; it’s a liminal space between life and death. They talk for a long time, and much is revealed. At the end of their conversation, Harry must make a choice to go back to his life – a place where there would pain and more loss – or to stay in the place of light and warmth and peace. Although Harry clearly doesn’t want to leave, he knows that he needs to go back. Just before leaving Harry turns to Dumbledore and implores, “Tell me one last thing. Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?” Dumbledore replies, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
Do you ever wake up in the morning and think, “Man that was a weird dream!?” From time to time, I have strange dreams that I certainly hope will never come true. But there are truths to be had from dreams and when you know how to interpret those dreams, there is much wisdom to be gained about your ego and your psyche, your yearnings, desires, anxieties and hopes.
Everything in the Book of Revelation – from the numbers, to the creatures, to the colors that are mentioned – they’re all metaphors that don’t make a whole lot of sense to us today, but they would’ve been understood in their historical and political context.
According to Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman (who is, incidentally, a friend of Chuck’s) the revelation of John was penned initially during the reign of Roman Emperor Nero, in the early 60’s and completed during the reign of Domitian, around 90 AD. This was during a time of severe persecution of Christians. Nero was particularly brutal and cruel. He was known for arresting Christians and having them burned alive, thrown to wild animals and crucified.
It is within this context that John (not the beloved disciple, but a different John), wrote to churches – to people who were experiencing great loss of their family members and friends. This apocalyptic vision was meant to bring great solace to those who were going through such trauma. It was a promise that their suffering would not last forever, that love would win out over evil in the end, that Christ, who suffered and died on the cross knew what they were going through, that death was not the final word.
As I read through Revelation 7:9-17, thinking about whether or not I wanted to preach on it, a passage jumped out at me: “Who are these dressed in white, and where have they come from?… These are they who have come out of the great ordeal… for this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night in the temple.”
At that moment, my mind flashed to some film footage that I saw on CNN in the immediate aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010. (This clip is blurry, but it’s the best I could find.)
When I first saw this, it moved me to tears. A crowd of mostly women, many of them mothers, who had just gone through a great ordeal, losing their homes and all that they owned, experiencing the death of loved ones, yet singing praises to God in the streets.
And the song that they were singing? Mambo Sawa Sawa – “things already better, things already better, things already better, when the lord is on the throne”
“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal…for this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night in the temple.”
Christians are often wont to believe that God will protect the faithful from all evil. Yet, nothing can be further from the truth. There are plenty of faithful people who have experienced great trauma and suffering. In fact, as the Revelation of John shows us, pain and suffering is part of living the Christian life. Suffering has always been central to the Christian story, with the crucifixion of Jesus. This misguided belief that it is God’s job to protect us and our loved ones, is one of the greatest reasons people lose their faith. When bad things happen to good people, and those people can no longer make sense of their image of God, they often give up on their faith. Yet, God never promised to protect us from suffering. As James Finley has said, “God protects us from nothing, but sustains us in everything.”
I visited Kelly Angelo in the hospital this week. She’s a church member who had back surgery on Tuesday and is in Overlook Hospital, and I asked her permission to tell you about our conversation. But first, a little back story – Kelly is the mother of triplets – Kohl, Brandon and Austin. In November of 2011, Kohl was diagnosed with a glio blastoma – a brain tumor. After a valiant fight, he died in July 2012. He was only 12 years old. It was a parent’s worst nightmare. And in the years since Kohl’s death, Kelly has gone through one thing after another – she had a car accident, her father and mother were both deathly ill at the same time, and she was caring for them and for her special needs sister long-distance. She’s been living with excruciating pain in her back for quite a while and the surgery she had on Tuesday left her unable to move her left leg, so she had to undergo a second surgery on Friday. When I visited with her (between the two surgeries) we joked about how her life was like Job’s. After we prayed, I held her hand and with tears streaming down both of our faces, I asked her how she does it. “How do you keep your faith when you’ve been through so much?” And do you know what she said to me? “God has been so good to me. I am so blessed.”
We have much to learn from people like Kelly. Those who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death and have come out on the other side with their faith intact – with their faith even stronger – are those who know the sustaining presence of God in their lives. They are grateful beyond imagining. They possess a joy that doesn’t make sense by any rational standards. They sing in the streets after great calamity. They are like those clothed in white at the throne of God, worshiping both night and day.
Where do we find that kind of faith? Faith like that comes from letting go, from realizing that we can’t go it alone, that we need to rely on something greater than ourselves. It’s almost like the sensation of floating in water. Do you remember the first time you tried to float on your back? It takes a while to let go and trust the process. At first, the natural tendency is to make your body rigid – to hold yourself up – but it’s only when you give up that control, when you relax into the sensation, that your body is able to stay afloat. Some of the most faithful people I know have endured great suffering and it has taught them to let go of control. From great suffering can come great faith.
There is no shortage of pain and suffering in this world. Just scroll through your newsfeed. Gun violence is out of control and almost every week we hear of another school shooting. Families are still being separated at the border. White supremacy and racism is real – black and brown bodies are not valued in our society as much as white bodies are. Our very democracy is at stake and millions of species on our earth are at risk of extinction.
Please don’t get me wrong – I am not advocating passive acceptance of hatred, injustice and persecution. Deep faith in a God who sustains us can empower us to resist the forces of evil and to work for justice, peace and mercy. Deep abiding faith in a God who is faithful to us, provides us with strength to do the work of building God’s kindom on earth for all people. We persist, knowing that whatever happens, death is not the final answer; love will have the last word.
In her upcoming book, Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints, Daneen Akers writes about that scene I mentioned earlier from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Here’s what she says,
… like Harry, we are on a journey to learn the true
power of love in a world where violence and greed
usually seem far more powerful.
Like Harry, we will have to trust in a bigger plan, a
larger purpose, but it won’t always seem real in the
way that a lab experiment can prove or disprove
something. Faith and love will require us to trust
in things unseen, but that doesn’t mean that they
The apocalyptic vision at the heart of the Book of Revelation isn’t meant to be taken literally, but the message it contains is real: Our suffering will not last forever, and death does not have the final say.
“For the lamb at the center of the throne will be our shepherd, and he will guide us to the springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.” May it be so.