Who are they, these Saints of God?
Pentecost +22, Common Lectionary year A
Revelation 7: 9-17
©2020 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones
By now you know the reading is from the
most tricky book in the Bible: Revelation.
Today is not the day to unpick the tangled knitting
of apocalyptic confusion that surrounds the book,
(particularly in this corner of the globe
where millennialism has skewed our
assumptions about it).
Other than to say that
this particular passage or vision
is a brief interruption (of hope and joy)
in a book-long catalogue,
not of end times (though they feel like them),
but of hard times.
Times that are always a mixture
of great ordeal and tribulation,
intermingled with ordinary
daily human, spiritual, political,
trouble, grind and grief.
What I want to do today
is see how this text, this visionary interruption,
comes to sit beside us today,
this particular day,
this All Saints Day, in the pandemic year 2020.
Today, when we’re not even able
(because of the pandemic lockdown)
to gather our bodies together in one space
as we have done in years past,
to remember those we have loved and lost.
Today, when our political/historical context
is uncannily similar to the context out of which
John, the Mystic of Patmos, drew this vision;
then as now, oppressive regimes
that isolate and segregate,
that divide and conquer,
that flourish on and even refuel
the toxic fall-out of fear.
Today when the tribes and nations of our planet
are yelling at each other, not singing together.
Today, this year, when loss is so ubiquitous
Loss of life in unheard of proportions,
a global tribulation if ever there was one!
Loss of livelihood,
and with it the loss of security of shelter, food.
Loss of communities of purpose,
Loss of independence, even of simple interdependence.
Loss of love;
– the withering of civility in the private
and the public sphere.
What will this text do, sitting beside us today?
I hope it will do for us
what it did for his original hearers and readers.
It is a vision of resolution interrupting dissolution.
It is a vision of hope and joy interrupting despair.
As the mystic pans his spiritual camera
around a scene
of humanity and heavenly beings
all thronged around the source
of all light and life and joy and salvation,
around God, and around this Christ-figure,
at once an enthroned Resurrected One,
and yet also a sacrificial Lamb;
a symbol of both defeat and victory.
And as the surround-sound fills our ears
with these songs of jubilation, praise,
it is an audible interruption
like any good ballad,
of our collective, cumulative acedia, grief and loss.
Now, while it interrupts, it doesn’t deny
the ‘hard tribulations’, not at all.
In fact I think that’s the point
of the rhetorical question which
the “elder” poses to our Mystic Seer,
just after he’s painted the opening scene
of this singing polyglot, multitude.
We too ask with the Elder
“Who are they?”
And just as the Seer invited
the Elder to answer for themselves,
we’re invited to answer too.
We’re invited to notice that
the ones who are now singing for joy,
and who are wearing the white robe of freedom,
are precisely those who have
‘come through’ not avoided, not escaped,
the times of great trial and tribulation.
On this weekend of All Saints/All Souls,
that’s a message of audacious hope and comfort
to those of us who mourn loved ones,
and their often complicated, difficult deaths.
When we read it today,
and often when it’s read at funerals,
it’s easy to assume
that this vision is about the dead,
now raised by the saving grace of God in Christ.
A vision of our lost loved ones at peace,
sheltered, safe, and joyous, keeping company
with a cloud of heavenly witnesses,
and with God’s own sheltering self.
But, or is that And?
It is more than just a glimpse
of the sweet by and by.
The Mystic’s vision is earthy,
particular in its details;
a crowd without number,
of every nation, every tribe,
people of every colour ,and gender, *
speaking every language ever uttered
by the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.
There is no-one who is not there.
Gathered and sheltered by God
and the Saving Lamb of God,
no one who is not clothed in white,
or as this image
portrays it, clothed in the regalia
of full freedom of expression,
every beloved, flawed, failed battered, bruised, blessed, child of God.
This is a visual and audible message of resilience
hope of God’s ultimate victory
over life’s living ordeals, as well as over death.
And what is said to this crowd,
this cloud of witnesses,
this throng of haves and have nots, ins and outs,
of lasts and leasts and firsts,
of ancient enemies and newfound friends,
of the living and the dead?
All who are gathered and sheltered by the
Lamb who is Shepherd,
who throng in this everlasting instant?
This is what is declared:
“They, you, we,
will hunger no more, neither thirst any more;
the sun will not strike you by day,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb, standing in front of the throne
will be their, your, our shepherd,
who will guide all to springs of the water of life.
And God will, wipe away every tear
from our eyes.”