We’re in the middle of a global pandemic. So of course we’re going to read something from Revelation.  

When everything in the world seems scary and uncertain, why not turn to the book of the Bible that nearly everyone thinks is scary and is pretty uncertain what to make of it.

But I kinda like it.

The book of Revelation is attributed to John of Patmos. We don’t really know who he was. But he’s writing a letter to seven churches that he is in some sort of relationship with. And in the letter he has a vision. It’s a vision filled with big and violent imagery. But I love it.

I love it’s poetry. It’s action packed filled cosmic battles and beasts and harlots and all kinds of other words you aren’t supposed to say in church. Sure, Revelation can be a bit confusing and unsettling at times. But that’s kind of by design.

It’s written to unsettle us. Revelation is supposed to afflict the comfortable. It was written to communities of faith that were at ease and complacent. It was written to communities that were ambivalent, that wondered if this Jesus stuff really mattered  It was written to communities that put their trust in the empire, in the economy, in themselves, instead of Jesus.

But it’s also written to comfort the afflicted. It was written to communities that were being persecuted because of their faith. It was written for communities of the oppressed and the marginalized. It was written for people who needed to believe that Jesus was still for them.

Tonight’s reading comes from chapter seven, where the author paints a beautiful picture of the heavenly throne room. There’s a great multitude, so many people that it’s impossible to count them all, and they are robed in white standing before the throne of God and the lamb. In Revelation the Lamb is always Jesus.

So you have this sea of people from all over every tribe and race and language, and they have palm branches and their singing.

Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.

They’re singing a hymn of praise. A royal hymn of praise. It’s a hymn that we often sing as a part of our liturgy, if the words sounded familiar to you.

But who are they? And why are they singing?

One of the characters, the elders who hang out around God’s throne room asks John, the author of Revelation, who are all these people?

To which John says, look guy, I’m just visiting here, you tell me.

So the Elder says, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

There’s a lot of stuff there, but I want to fasten our attention on the first part of what he says. These are they who have come out of the great ordeal…

The great ordeal…

In the previous chapter, chapter six, John introduces his readers to four horsemen. In pop culture these are commonly referred to as the four horsemen of the apocalypse. There’s a white one, a red one, a black one and sickly, green one.  

And as each one appears on the scene something of what humanity has constructed is crushed, and defeated.

First the white horse destroys the strength of nations. Then the red horse chips away at the great societies the inhabitants of the earth have built. Then the black horse comes riding out with scales in hand and destroys the great economy of the empire. Then finally comes the pale green horse with death as it’s rider.  

Quick aside. 

On the last record he worked on before he died, Johnny Cash recorded a beautiful and haunting song, called “The Man Comes Around.” The song concludes with Cash speaking Verse 8 of Chapter 6 in his deep and gravely voice, and it’s enough to give you the willies.

I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hell followed with him…

This is the ordeal. This is the truth. Nothing lasts. Nations crumble.  Violence reigns. Wealth and prosperity are tenuous at best, economic greatness is an illusion. All of chest thumping, bravado and claims to greatness fade before the shadow of death.

Who is able to stand?

In the last days and weeks I’ve seen the fragility of the American Empire. I’ve seen the enmity that people have for one another as they fight over rolls of toilet paper in the grocery store. I’ve seen the economic tumble. I’ve seen the photos of faces of weary health care workers who have to make unimaginable choices about who lives and who dies because of the power of this virus.

In many ways it feels like these four horsemen are loose and the great ordeal is now only just beginning. 

So who is able to stand?

We can and we will. That is witness of Revelation. Through the self-giving love of the lamb of God, through Jesus who gives his life on the cross so that you and I can live, we will stand in the face of all that seeks to lay claim on our lives.

We have been washed in the blood of the lamb, we stand with the multitudes of faithful that have endured, are enduring and will endure the great ordeals that are life in this world. We will stand in the face of it all and lift our voices in praise of God because in Jesus we will stand.

Beloved of Christ I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I don’t know what pain and suffering this virus may yet bring. I don’t know if and when things will get back to normal, or what our new normal will look like.

But I know that this is not the end.

You and I have an eternal share in the life of God. We belong to a God is still creating newness out of nothing. We belong to a God who promises that a day will come when all of God’s people…

will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
   the sun will not strike them,
   nor any scorching heat; 
for the Lamb at the centre 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.’

In the meantime. We live shaped by that love. We reach out to one another. We call and FaceTime and connect. We relish in moments of rest and sabbath in the midst of this uncertainty. We continue to be surprised by grace.

This morning I received an email from one of you. It was a good one.  Essentially it said thank you for being you. For being honest and vulnerable and for inspiring us to love each other. I didn’t know how much I needed that until I was given that gift.

There is much to be afraid of right now. Feel those feelings. But there is much to celebrate too.  

You are one of God’s great multitude of beloved children. God will carry you through this and every ordeal, no matter how great or small.  

It may feel like there are horsemen running about in this world right now, but you’ve been clothed in the love of God. So I give thanks and praise to God this night and always. Amen.