The Revelation to John is a difficult book to understand and a tricky book to preach from. We come at it from so many directions. Some people believe that it’s a literal description of the future. Others understand it as a road map to what is going to happen, but written in a code that we have to puzzle out. Still others read it as a dream-like experience entirely rooted in the events of John’s time and described in terms and images that were common throughout the ancient Eastern world.
The Revelation has even had a sketchy past in terms of being accepted as Scripture. Questions about whether it was written by the Apostle John or not began to surface in the 3rd century, and its status as Scripture was disputed in the Eastern part of the church for the next hundred years. Martin Luther said that he considered it to be “neither apostolic nor prophetic.” A friend in a Sunday School class I was once part of agreed. As we began a study of Revelation, she announced that, as far as she was concerned, “we ought to just rip this book right out of our Bibles!” As far as I know, although John Wesley didn’t question its authenticity, he only preached one sermon on it.
But, regardless of how you understand it or whether or not you like it, I think we can all agree on this: Revelation does contain words that can help us both envision the life to come and to better know how to live our lives now.
We all wonder what heaven will be like. One of my favorite songs is “I Can Only Imagine” by the Christian band MercyMe, and in it they sing, “Surrounded by your glory, what will my heart feel? Will I dance for you, Jesus, or in awe of you be still? Will I stand in your presence, or to my knees will I fall? Will I sing hallelujah? Will I be able to speak at all? I can only imagine. I can only imagine.”
Our passage today helps us imagine what heaven will be like. Here’s what John saw: “There was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” John’s heaven is a place which welcomes all kinds of people, regardless of race or color, ethnicity or nationality. Heaven is not a private country club or a gated community with only a limited number of lots available. No, heaven’s gates are wide open, admitting uncountable numbers of people who look different from each other, speak differently from each other, and who hail from all over the world.
But, for all this diversity, they are united in their purpose, and that purpose is to praise God. Clothed in white and waving the palm branches of victory, they are crying out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” In fact, John’s Greek word suggests that they are yelling this so loudly that their voices grow hoarse.
But, it’s not all a cacophony of loud voices praising God in the din of many languages. There’s also music. Around the throne of God are angels and elders and creatures worshiping and singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” In the words of the MercyMe song, I can only imagine what that would look and sound like.
John’s vision had to do with the future. But I don’t think there’s any reason not to imagine heaven that way right now. I think we can imagine our loved ones, and all those who have gone before us in faith, among just such a multitude, praising God for all they’re worth, waving and swaying with the song they hear over the crowd’s uproar. Why wouldn’t they? According to the elder who addressed John, these joyful, white-robed saints before the throne of God have no other task but to worship God 24/7 in the shelter of God’s presence.
The earthly afflictions they suffered no longer touch them. “The one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
There are no empty cupboards or poisoned water flowing from lead-lined pipes. There’s no fear of rising sea levels and increasingly fierce wildfire, more intense hurricanes and more frequent droughts. There are no wheelchairs in this crowd, or crutches, or canes, or hearing aids. No hearts aching with loneliness and grief. All needs are satisfied. All pain, and disability, and grief, and hardship are erased. All fears relieved. All questions answered. Nothing but joy and praise before God’s throne. What a beautiful way to picture what it will be like, then.
But what about now? What can this passage tell us about how we are to live now so that we will experience the joy of heaven then?
The elder of John’s vision asks John if he knows how the white-robed worshipers came to be in that throng before God’s throne. John knows that it’s a rhetorical question; the elder knows the answer and explains it to John. The worshipers are there because “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
This is an interesting choice of words. Usually, we speak of Jesus washing away our sins. We are washed by him. The water of our baptism is a sign of his cleansing. But here it isn’t Jesus who does the washing. The elder says that the saints themselves “washed their robes and made them white.”
Before we go any further with this, let’s be clear about one thing. We do not save ourselves by what we do. We don’t receive forgiveness and the eternal life it makes possible because we earn it. Salvation is pure gift. But we do participate in it. As Paul says to the Philippians, “Carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.”
God offers the gift of Christ’s healing and cleansing blood, but we have to be willing to jump into the fountain. Jesus stands there holding a fire hose of grace, but we have to be willing to run through its spray. The laundry doesn’t get done if we have a wash tub full of sudsy water, but all we do is stand in front of it. We have to do some washing ourselves.
We don’t know what “the ordeal” was that the elder spoke of, through which the saints had passed. If we think about what was going on in the world at the time, it may have been the persecution that the Emperor Domitian was carrying out against Christians. It may simply have been the ordeal of death.
Or it may be the ordeal of just trying to live faithfully every day in a society that makes that difficult. The ordeal of resisting the hatred and prejudice we see all around us and loving our neighbors instead. The ordeal of preserving generous hearts when the world encourages greed and self-centeredness. The ordeal of maintaining a spirit of humility and gratitude when pride and arrogance are taking center stage. Or, maybe the ordeal is simply that of holding on to your trust in God while putting food on the table when money is scarce, enduring the pain of illness and loss, and making a way where there seems to be no way. Ordeals come in many forms, but when we live as God’s beloved, with faith and hope and trust in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are washing our robes in the blood of the Lamb.
We can only imagine what heaven will be like when that day comes. We can only imagine what our loved ones are experiencing in this very moment. But, as the author of 1 John assures us, “We are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” Until then, we follow in the way of Jesus now, sustained by the hope we have in him. We wash our robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young