Read the text here: Revelation 7:9-17
Who are These…?
It is as if fear had settled like a cloud over the whole world. People who had been so used to living carefree lives now were wracked by fear of a host of terrifying threats. Perhaps the most prevalent of these threats was pervasive the threat of violence. The nation as a whole was now threatened from the outside by violence. There was a fear of being overrun by violent outsiders and this fear was now terrifying the population. In response the government had itself become much more heavy handed, utilizing violence itself more readily in order to respond to any and every perceived threat, no matter how small. So pervasive was the fear that even individuals had started to respond to the slightest provocation with violence. This led to more vigilante violence and consequently simply heightened and intensified the fear that hung over the whole population. It is not too surprising that in such an environment crime and criminal gangs would flourish. The net result was that now all strangers became suspect, all ideas that were out of the ordinary became suspect, any “religion” or interpretation of religious ideals that offered new ideas were suspect and condemned. But this wasn’t all, economically things were difficult, there were fewer jobs and people were buying less. Poverty and hunger were more rampant. Infighting, special interests and weak and ineffectual leaders paralyzed the political leadership. And if that weren’t enough the threat of sickness and disease was an ever-present danger. Is it any wonder that fear had taken hold of the people and was driving them forward?
2014 America? Nope, the paragraph above describes the beginning of the 2nd century in the slowly disintegrating Roman Empire, especially as it was experienced in the Mediterranean basin where a new faith had taken hold and was challenging the old ways of doing things. This new faith was centered on a Jewish Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, who had been executed by the Romans in Palestine as a political troublemaker. This new faith, which had emerged out of Judaism, proclaimed things that many found very threatening. God loves everyone! God’s forgiveness is for everyone! God doesn’t play favorites, except that God is most intensely present with those who are in need. And when the darkness seems to overwhelm, God enters into that darkness to provide light. God was incarnate in Jesus – entered into human experience through the painful process of being born to poor peasants in less than ideal circumstances. And Jesus was 100% human and 100% divine! (This would prompt some major fighting – and I mean physical violence - in the years to come). But perhaps most insidious was the fact that these Christians met for worship in the early mornings and shared bread and wine, they also bathed new adherents in a bath of water and then they spent their daily lives finding ways of helping others – providing food and clothing for the poor, caring for the homeless, visiting the sick and generally loving others. These were dangerous people.
There is a pervasive myth that these early Christians were systematically persecuted by the Roman state. This may have occurred a couple of brief times, but the Roman state had many more important things to concern itself with (like barbarian hoards massing troops and weapons on their borders for example, not to mention power struggles and political infighting in Rome). No, the problems for Christians were centered in their own communities, and came from their neighbors. Their suspicious behavior was a threat and a challenge to many local leaders. And so the persecution suffered by early Christians was much more localized and also harder to bear. These were one’s friends and neighbors who were going to the authorities to complain; these were families that grew up together and who shared a lot of past experiences who were now shunning you. And it was to these Christians to whom John of Patmos wrote the book of Revelation, as a word of encouragement in the face of a society racked with fear, in the face of being rejected by friends and neighbors and threatened with the loss of livelihoods and even lives.
There are too many who want to interpret the book of Revelation as some kind of secretly coded blueprint of the future and there are too many whose own wild imaginations have created fantastic scenarios that not only have little or nothing to do with this letter of encouragement, but (more importantly) completely contradicts the Gospel. Bottom line – The Gospel of Jesus, the proclamation of Jesus crucified and risen FOR US trumps everything, even our clever and creative scenarios for the end times. If an interpretation does not have God’s unconditional love and grace in the center – then it is not consistent with the Gospel. Period.
So, who then are these multitudes? These are those who have come through the Great Ordeal! What great ordeal? Well the ordeal I have been talking about, and if at first you thought that perhaps I was talking about our own times then you are right – because we too are also experiencing the great ordeal. An ordeal of contending with fear, which too often leads to violence and then in turn leads to hopelessness. A fear which causes us to turn inward and look to ourselves and our own and to disregard the needs of others; a fear which separates us from the neighbor, the others whom we are to love. This text is for us and it reminds us that our experiences are the same experiences that have been shared by Christians of every generation in one way or another and that then, as now, God is present, God’s grace is still unconditional and available and that God’s love and still abundant and is for us – for you!
But that is not all, there is a calling embedded in all of this for those of us who are called to be Saints and who have received the gifts of God which enable us to step past our fears and open ourselves up in order to give back to God in the forms of finding ways of reflecting God’s love and grace in the way we relate to others and the way we treat and accept others. Did you notice that in the Gospel Jesus proclaims that those who are poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering for justice, merciful, pure in heart and those who are shunned and rejected because they choose to act in love – rather than in fear – are themselves blessed NOW. Not in the future, not in the afterlife – NOW! And this Sermon on the Mount has a not so subtle message to us that this is our calling NOW. That is: to work in the vineyard, which is the Kingdom of God; to love our neighbors as ourselves, to allow God’s love and grace to flow through us to all whom we encounter and to give of ourselves in every way to the work of the Gospel.