May 06, 2019
Author: Scott Hoezee
For the last 12 or so years, few names in the world have been more famous than that of Barack Obama. Not so long ago, however, that was not the case. Indeed, not so very long ago almost no one had ever heard of Obama. A scant four years before he managed to get nominated for—and then won the office of—President, Obama was still able to walk around Chicago freely with no security and with no one stopping him for an autograph or a selfie (if they had selfies in 2004!)
The rise to world-wide fame of this particular man was meteoric, as illustrated by a story from Newsweek a few years back that recounts something that happened in 2004:
On the eve of his keynote speech to the Democratic convention in 2004, the speech that effectively launched him as the party’s hope of the future, Obama took a walk down a street in Boston with his friend Marty Nesbitt. A growing crowd followed them. “Man, you’re like a rock star,” Nesbitt said to Obama. “He looked at me,” Nesbitt recalled in a story he liked to tell reporters, “and said, ‘Marty, you think it’s bad today, wait until tomorrow.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘My speech is pretty good’.”
Obama’s 2004 convention speech launched him into the strange world of celebritydom; he acquired the kind of aura that can transform a skinny, scholarly man with big ears into a sex symbol. Eureka Gilkey, one of Obama’s aides, recalled going with him when he made a speech to the Democratic National Committee shortly after he began his campaign. Obama was mobbed outside the bathroom. “These were DNC members; they’re supposed to be jaded by politicians,” recalled Gilkey. “Not trying to tear their shirts off. I remember going home that night, and my boyfriend saying, ‘What is that purple bruise on your back?’ I had bruises on my back from people pushing and shoving, trying to get to [Obama] … I remember grabbing women’s hands because they were trying to pull his shirt from his pants. I couldn’t believe it.”
And that’s what we expect in this world. We expect people to enjoy celebrity status, to work hard to achieve it and to then revel in it once it arrives. We expect the people who may become great leaders to herald that fact, to placard it on billboards and advertisements so as to have a chance to make a difference. Our expectation of this is so entrenched that we often don’t bat an eye when we hear politicians or sports heroes making comments about themselves that would strike us as the height of vanity and arrogance if we heard such things said by anyone from within our own families or with whom we work Monday-Friday.
But the famous in our society routinely get away with self-aggrandizing rhetoric because that’s just how things work in this world. Although we like and expect a measure of modesty and humility in politicians and other famous folks, we give them a bit of a wide berth given who they are and what they have achieved. (Jimmy Carter found out about this while serving as President: he thought it was entirely too much fuss and too haughty a display to have the song “Hail to the Chief” played every time he entered a room for an event and so he suggested they not do that anymore. But it turned out that people wanted and expected to hear that regal music played when the President arrives, and so Mr. Carter relented and let the tradition continue.)
Pope Francis is reportedly a humble and private man who has his whole vocation long eschewed the trappings of whatever office he was in. He took public transportation in Argentina, lived in a small-ish apartment where he did his own cooking. Since becoming Pope, he has struggled to find his way between who he has always been and the glittering trappings of his office. It’s hard to be the Vicar of Christ these days and actually live like Jesus.
After all, isn’t it curious to see that when the actual Son of God, the true Messiah of the world, arrived here and lived here, he was so loathe to trumpet his credentials and was so adverse to putting himself forward that people actually had to beg him to come clean as to whether he was The One or not? Apparently Jesus was content to let his actions speak for themselves, to allow himself to become a window through which those willing to look would be able to see no less than the one true God, the one Jesus called his Father. If you were interested in that Father, then it was probably because you were one of the chosen “sheep” to begin with. If you were willing to look through Jesus to see the Father with whom he was one, then the mere fact that you were interested and willing to believe indicated that something else was already stirring in your heart. But for those who were unwilling to believe, no amount of overt speech by Jesus would have made much difference anyway.
Years ago my wife and I saw a somewhat humorous portrayal about the differences between how men and women communicate. One part of that presentation showed a husband asking his (obviously distressed) wife “Honey, what’s wrong?” The wife replied, “If you have to ask, then I am not going to tell you!” It was a way of saying in essence, “You know full well what’s up and so your question is a dodge to make it look like you did nothing wrong! What’s more, if you really don’t know, then you’re past help anyway and so I am not going to tell you!”
If you have to ask . . .
It reminds me of the secret room at Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter stories. The Room of Requirement contained many secrets that could help someone in need. But its doorway was invisible and so you had to know where to go (and then be in need) for it to appear. The saying about finding this room was “If you already know, you need not ask. If you need to ask, you will never know.” (You gotta hand it to J.K. Rowling—that’s clever stuff!)
If you already know, you need not ask. If you need to ask, you will never know.
Similarly in John 10: if the people celebrating Hanukkah that year in Jerusalem had to ask Jesus if he would plainly fess up to being the Messiah, then Jesus was not going to answer. They either already knew Jesus was the Christ or they did not and if they did not, it was because they were refusing to make the logical connections between Jesus’ work and his unity with God the Father. So their query was one-part a trick question, one-part a prelude to exactly what does follow just beyond the fringe of this lection; namely, an attempt to kill Jesus for blasphemy.
So Jesus’ reply to their question really did amount to his saying, “If you have to ask, then I am not going to tell you!” They had no ear for a tune. They had no ability to hear the Good Shepherd’s voice. Jesus could make any claim for himself that he wanted but they were not going to believe him, listen to him, or most certainly follow him. Their ears were not attuned to hear his message, their eyes were not sharp enough to see the Father who stood behind Jesus every miracle.
And yet they had to ask their question—even if they asked it with cynicism and doubt abounding—because the truth is they were looking for a more typical world leader. They were looking for the dashing figure who was willing to put himself forward because they thought that was the only kind of Messiah who could stand a chance at routing Herod, Pilate, and finally the Caesar himself.
Jesus, however, came to point a different direction, telling us that the secret to life is the willingness to give life away, that sacrifice leads to new life, that dying leads to resurrection. Jesus came and provided so many signs that pointed to a different kind of kingdom. Those who wanted to be part of God’s new order of things followed where those signs pointed. Those who were still hung up on worldly definitions of authority, prestige, and success—and who wanted to amass some of that for themselves—saw Jesus as a loser and as a non-starter. Nothing Jesus could have said would have convinced them otherwise, not even had he said plainly that day while strolling through Solomon’s Colonnade, “Yes, I am the Christ.”
I wonder sometimes if we as preachers need a reminder of this, if in fact the whole Church sometimes needs a reminder of this. I mentioned Pope Francis above but you don’t need to be the Pontiff of the Catholic Church to feel the lure of fame or get tempted by the trappings of worldly power and success. The Church struggles with this. We pastors often like putting ourselves forward. We like getting quoted in articles in the newspaper or in a Christianity Today article if we could manage it. Congregations love it if they sense they have managed to become THEE ecclesiastical hot spot in a given city—the place to see and be seen in the church world.
John 10 challenges us to wonder if we always know what is what with Jesus and with being his disciple. It kind of looks like putting ourselves forward just maybe isn’t the first or best thing we could do . . .
This lection is fairly short and abruptly ends just before the Jews take up stones to do Jesus in for his alleged blasphemy in identifying himself with no less than Almighty God. One suspects, however, that perhaps a partial reason for not extending this reading a bit farther is that Jesus goes on to quote Psalm 82:5 in what ends up being a rather cryptic use of a verse that seems a little odd even in the context of Psalm 82 itself. In any event, Jesus’ use of that as an answer to the charge that he has committed blasphemy seems a little “off.” Just because there may be some wider sense in which all people can be called “gods” or “children/sons of God” hardly would get Jesus off the hook for saying that as THEE singular Son of God, he and God (the Father) are truly one and the same. But in the end, Jesus does not stick with that line of thought anyway but instead goes on to highlight the consonance of his own works with those of God (the Father) as the real evidence that should count in his favor as being God. As Nicodemus said as early in this gospel as the third chapter, the only person who could do the things Jesus did would have to be sent from God (and, by extension, would all-but have to BE God as well).
Some years ago at a conference at Emory University, I heard a speaker—who was an expert in all things related to Russia—mention something that happened to him in a Moscow Russian Orthodox cathedral one Sunday morning during the worship service. As was customary, the worshipers all stood for the entire service. As is also typical of the Orthodox tradition, this soaring cathedral’s ceiling and walls were covered almost 100% with icons, bright paintings depicting the apostles, John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, and of course the Lord Jesus Christ himself. At one point early in the service, the professor from Emory was staring up at some of the icons/paintings on the ceiling, admiring their beauty. Suddenly he felt someone whack him on the shoulder from behind. Turning around, he saw an older man who then said to him, “You are disturbing the worship: this is not a museum!” The Orthodox claim that they most certainly do not worship the icons nor do they merely admire them. Rather icons are windows on the divine: you worship God by seeing God through them. The professor merely staring at the icons was messing up everyone else’s worship.
Jesus’ miracles were like that, and Jesus makes this clear in John 10. People were supposed to see God through the miracles. They were not supposed to get hung up on the sign itself but follow to the place to which the sign pointed. Maybe that’s why in John 2 even something like turning water into wine was said by John to have been a great sign of Jesus “glory.” From the outside looking in, there does not seem to be much “glorious” about Jesus providing wine to already besotted wedding guests. But if you looked through the miracle to see the divine Father standing there, well, then there was glory enough to go around!
Author: Stan Mast
Reading Dr. Luke’s account of the growth of the early church is a bit like watching a frog hop from lily pad to lily pad—from Jerusalem to the Gaza Strip to Samaria to Damascus to Joppa, from Peter and John to Philip to Stephen to Paul and now back to Peter. OK, maybe the image of a frog hopping on lily pads is a bit insulting for such a magnificent movement of the Gospel. A better metaphor would be the title of F.F. Bruce’s famous summary of the rise and spread of Christianity, The Spreading Flame.
Here in Acts 9:36-43 we have a little spark of a story that was part of the spreading flame. It is short compared to the mighty stories of conversion that precede and follow it (The Ethiopian Eunuch, Saul/Paul, and Cornelius the Roman centurion). Those stories show major jumps in the Spirit fueled flame that was spreading to the ends of the earth. But small as it is, this story shows us an event that contributed mightily to the growth of the church and the coming of the new heavens and the new earth where there will be no more death, or mourning, or sighing.
This short story is packed with historical details, moral lessons, literary flourishes, and theological denseness. You will be challenged to decide where you will focus your sermon. It is marvelous to see how Luke weaves together many narrative strands in his account of the early church. In the previous chapter, we have watched Saul get converted and called to a world-wide mission. His preaching in Damascus and Jerusalem has been so powerful that the Jews wanted to kill him as they had killed Stephen and Jesus. His friends bundle him off to his home town of Tarsus for some R and R and preparation for his upcoming journeys to the end of the earth.
Now, suddenly, Peter is re-introduced, and he isn’t in Jerusalem where we first met him or in Samaria where we last saw him. He is in Lydda in the far west of Palestine, which is close to its twin city of Joppa. Biblical scholars will remember that Joppa was famous in the story of Jonah, who sent to the Gentiles in Nineveh, even as Peter will be sent to the Gentiles in Caesarea. But first Peter must be called from Lydda to Joppa to take care of another matter, the death of a female disciple named Tabitha or Dorcas (both meaning gazelle).
The story moves abruptly. With no fanfare, we are told that in Joppa there was a female disciple; the Greek word there is used only here in Acts and that makes it remarkable. This is the first time a woman is spoken of by name in a positive way in this history (apart from Mother Mary in the pre-Pentecost days). The story is nearly all about men, so the introduction of this woman is noteworthy.
That is even more the case because she is such an outstanding woman, “who was always doing good and helping the poor.” You might be tempted to make a big deal of that, as one preacher did: “Tabitha used her privilege—her wealth, just acts and gifts, and prophetic speech—for the benefit of the less privileged: the widows, the indigent, the hungry, the depressed, oppressed, marginalized, and penalized.” While that line has a wonderful homiletic ring to it and touches all the right social justice buttons, it stretches the facts of the story just a bit. My advice is to note the fact that she is a woman and a great one at that and to show that women have always been an important part of the spreading flame (cf. Acts 2:17,18). But don’t get so stuck there that you miss the real point of this story.
Similarly, some preachers will want to spend time on her works of justice and mercy, because that is definitely an important feature of this story. Here’s how one famous scholar put it. “The church spread through these ‘good works and acts of charity.’ Thus, the commendable example of Dorcas serves as the topic of today’s First Reading, reminding the church that mission often takes the form of responding to the needs of others.” Of course, it is true that the Gospel spread through acts of love, but I don’t think that is the main preaching point of this story.
Similarly, you might be tempted to dwell on the last little note about Peter staying at the home of Simon the tanner, because there is actually something there that is worthy of note in your sermon. A tanner took the hide of dead animals and turned it into leather boots and clothes and the like. As one who touched dead animals, Simon was ceremonially unclean in the Jewish faith. Peter’s residence in his home is both a sign of his Gospel openness to the marginalized and a foretaste of what will happen in the next chapter when God will dramatically call Peter to preach to the unclean Cornelius. Here is a seemingly unimportant footnote in the story that is actually a clue to a major development in the history of the church.
All of these things—a woman disciple, the importance of good works as witness, the acceptance of the unclean—are important aspects of the text, so you can legitimately accent them in your sermon. But it seems to me that the major point of the story is the resurrection of Dorcas/Tabitha. Here is a reversal as great as the conversion of Saul. “Once I was blind, but now I can see.” “Once I was dead, now I am alive.”
Some scholars think this story is important because it shows that Peter stands in the long line of prophets, like Elijah and Elisha who each raised the dead, and more importantly like Jesus who raised dead people three times in his earthly ministry. Peter is, thus, legitimately a major prophet in redemption history.
While that is surely true, I would summarize this story a bit differently. I think this happened and was recorded to say to the church that redemption history is still going on. Jesus has risen and ascended, but Jesus still raises the dead. What we have here is a real-life example of the great doctrines at the center of the Christian faith as summarized in the Apostles Creed: “I believe…the third day he rose from the dead” and “the resurrection of the dead.” Jesus conquered death not only for himself, but also for all those who follow him in faith. Here’s one little historical proof of those doctrines.
This emphasis will make some preachers and congregants uncomfortable, because, as one scholar puts it, “we live in an age that simply cannot accept a physical resurrection.” So, we must dance around the story as that scholar does, talking instead about the early church’s experience of Jesus ongoing presence, or about being witnesses of the new life Jesus gives, or about testifying to our own experience of dying and rising with Christ. All of that touches on Biblical themes, but it also avoids the real issue. Did Jesus rise? Did this miracle with Dorcas happen?
The story is told so simply. “Dorcas lived, Dorcas died, people wept, Peter prayed, Dorcas lived, and people rejoiced.” Indeed, says verse 42, “This became known all over Joppa and many people believed in the Lord.” One scholar, hesitant about preaching a real resurrection, says sarcastically, “Church rolls were never swelled because people sat up after being dead.” But they did.
In a day when church attendance and membership is on the decline nearly everywhere in the West, maybe this is the very thing the church and world need to hear. Maybe a real resurrection is not an obstacle to faith, but the heart of the faith. While it is clearly true that there is a cultural bias against the supernatural (unless it’s zombies, vampires and demons), maybe people are literally dying to hear the good news that sickness and death don’t get the last word. Jesus does!
A story like this sends a clear and comforting message to a dying world. This Christian gospel is not all talk. It is action, the actions of justice and mercy done by the likes of Dorcas, and also the action of resurrection. It may not happen all the time; indeed, it happens so seldom that it merits a special mention in the larger story of the church. But it will happen at some future time. Here is the proof that it can happen. To people who live entire lives in bondage to the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15), this story is precisely what people need to hear the most. By the power of God in Christ, one day we will all hear, “Tabitha (insert your own name), get up.”
As survivors of the awful fires in the American West know all too well, “it only takes a spark to get a fire going.” What a terrible thing a fire is, unless it is contained (in a fireplace), or controlled (in a fire started by firefighters to stop wildfires), or used to stop the spread of disease (in the sterilization of needles and the destruction of plague-ridden houses), or as a weapon against evil (as in the burning of enemy fortifications after a battle to ensure that they won’t be used again).
Or a fire, like the one started by those Spirit given flames and tongues on Pentecost, can be an instrument of creation, the new creation without sickness and death and sorrow. That’s what we’re following here in Acts, the spreading flame of the Kingdom that will result finally in that new heaven and earth we read about several weeks ago in Isaiah 65. Our story today is one spark that got a fire going in Joppa, and that will hopefully get a fire started in your church. Or maybe in you, and me.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Presidential funerals always draw a huge television audience. We saw that recently with the funeral services for George H.W. Bush. We have seen it for Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon. But when you watch such services, you need not have the funeral program in your hands to guess that probably at some point some pastor is going to read Psalm 23. It seems all-but required. It is one of the few passages of Scripture that—even in this day of ever-growing biblical illiteracy—many people still know pretty much by heart.
Can you even remember a time when you were not familiar with this ancient Hebrew poem? It is hands-down the most famous of the 150 psalms in the Psalter. In terms of recognizability, Psalm 23 is probably right up there with popular ditties like “Roses are red, violets are blue,” with Shakespearean sonnets like “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” and well-known song lyrics like “Happy birthday to you.” If you hear even just a snippet or two of such well-known poems and songs, your mind fills in the rest automatically.
It was 1969 in Mrs. Luyk’s Kindergarten room at Seymour Christian School that I first saw Psalm 23 written out on construction paper and tacked up above the blackboard. My first homework was to memorize those same words. Since then, I’ve seen these words chiseled onto headstones, set into stained glass windows, calligraphied onto greeting cards, embroidered onto numerous wall hangings, and set to many different tunes. In fact, most hymnals include multiple settings of Psalm 23.
That’s quite amazing given that the pastoral imagery of this poem is quite remote from our everyday life. We can understand why the song “Happy Birthday” is so well-known: we all have many occasions every year to sing it for someone. Similarly love songs and sonnets are things we can relate to because most of us know what it’s like to be in love–plus, Valentine’s Day, wedding anniversaries, and marriage ceremonies give us any number of chances to reach for famous romantic poems and songs.
But Psalm 23 is mostly all about a shepherd and sheep, and very few of us have ever even met a shepherd. Certainly we don’t have regular contact with sheep (wool sweaters notwithstanding). Speaking for myself, my primary contact with lambs comes when I’m tucking into a rack that is nicely crusted with a mustard-thyme coating of bread crumbs! In terms of imagery, Psalm 23 doesn’t seem to have any natural connection to us in the modern world. Most of us are far more familiar with lawyers, doctors, plumbers, and mechanics than we are with shepherds. We’ve had more experience with police officers directing traffic than we have had with sheep being directed along by a shepherd.
And yet the popularity of Psalm 23 persists. Why is that, I wonder? Psalm 23 has about it all the hallmarks of an echo from a bygone era. Our lack of contact with the pastoral world makes these words on our lips sound like some kind of anachronism. It’s like hearing a teenager saying he’s going to “dial” his friend’s phone number. That’s a funny, out-of-time expression seeing as very few people under the age of 20 have ever even seen a rotary phone with a dial on it. We don’t dial phones anymore, we punch the numbers in. Yet the old language hangs in there.
So here: by all rights Psalm 23 should fall on our ears like a foreign phrase. Yet it doesn’t. Why? Is it merely nostalgia? Or is there something more going on here? Because when you stop to think about it, by all rights Psalm 23 should have another strike against it, too: in this nation of rugged, self-made individuals where every person is encouraged to become his or her own ethical referee, taking life as it comes and making up the rules as he or she goes along: in a society like this one, why would we want to have much to do with an ancient psalm that talks about being led around by someone else? We live by the customer mentality in America. I want it my way right away (and while we’re at it, I will be the one to determine what my way is).
As thoughtful writers like Eugene Peterson and David Wells once noted, even the church has been affected by this wider cultural mentality. Church leaders are still referred to as “pastors,” which means “shepherd,” of course. But more and more seminaries are training pastors not so much to be shepherds but leaders, facilitators, vision-casters.
And yet Psalm 23 endures. Why? Because in the deep places of our souls, I suspect that we all sense that maybe everybody needs a shepherd. Way down deep in places we don’t talk about when we’re laughing it up at a party, we long for someone bigger, wiser, and stronger to take care of us. In these days when we think so much about Homeland Security, we all realize again how much we’d enjoy more security than we usually have any given day.
Psalm 23 evokes this for us and in us. Everybody needs a shepherd because no one gets off the planet alive. But if we need a shepherd in this ultimate sense, it seems only natural to want to start being led by this same shepherd as soon as possible. We need someone already now who can restore our often troubled souls.
Psalm 23 starts out with what looks to be an overly rosy picture. The images of green pastures, still waters, and righteous paths sound very nice but not necessarily like a description of an average day. Similarly the banquet imagery to which this psalm switches near the end doesn’t apply to every moment of our lives, does it? Sometimes our cups overflow and we have a table prepared in the presence of our enemies, but at other times our cups dry up and it seems like our enemies are feasting on us!
But the center of the psalm introduces that necessary element of realism, too. Psalm 23 does a good job covering the spectrum of our lives from good times to bad ones, from sunny seasons to death’s darker valleys. The constant in life needs to be the presence of that shepherd. The statement of faith contained in verse 1 does not deny that sometimes we experience hardship, fear, loss, and even death. The point of that opening verse is that in good times and bad, in times of great gain and great loss, if the Lord God Yahweh is our shepherd, we have what we need.
In fact, the Hebrew of verse 1 is intriguingly left open-ended. The verb “to lack” does not have any object. The new translation says, “I shall not be in want,” but the older version may have been closer to the Hebrew original: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . .” what? If someone says, “I think I am missing . . .” the logical thing to ask is, “You think you’re missing what.” So in Psalm 23:1: if the psalmist wants to say he is not lacking, you might wonder what specifically he’s talking about. But instead it’s left open-ended as if to say that if the Lord God is with us, whatever else in life we may wish we had, the bottom line is that we are still OK so long as we are under this shepherd’s care.
In Hebrew poetry lines don’t rhyme but use parallelisms. A first line is echoed by a very similar second line yet the second line usually deepens the meaning of the first. As Tom Long once pointed out, we do the same thing when we speak parallel lines such as, “My son is thirteen. He’s a teenager.” In a sense both lines mean the same thing but the freight gets loaded onto the word “teenager” in the second line, deepening the meaning behind the number “thirteen” in the first line. It’s the second line that let’s everyone know that you are conveying more than the chronological age of your child. He’s not just thirteen, he’s a teenager replete with all the adolescent Sturm und Drang and struggle that can go with that.
The opening verse here does the same thing. “The Lord is my shepherd” gets mirrored by the parallel line, “I will not lack.” This poet just said the same thing twice but the second line now fills in the meaning of the first line. What kind of a shepherd is our God? The one in whose presence we will never finally be lacking. In his presence and under his guidance, we’ll never be alone, never be abandoned, never travel down a path where he cannot follow in his goodness and love. So what is it you will not lack? You’ll never lack for a God who loves you, who cares for you, and who has prepared a place for you. That is who your shepherd is. And he abides with you even when you enter that place none of us can finally avoid: the valley of the shadow of death.
Is it any wonder that the Lord Jesus who entered death ahead of us in order to blaze a trail to eternal life picked up on this pastoral image to say, “I am the good shepherd and my sheep know my voice.” Jesus is the one who has revealed that if all along in this world death has been casting a kind of shadow, maybe it’s only because a brighter light has been shining behind death all along–that’s how you get a shadow after all: a light shines behind something. Jesus is the shepherd who knows the way through death to get at that light.
The world and our culture have changed much since that era when Psalm 23 was composed thousands of years ago. But we still like it. We like it because we need it. Everybody needs a shepherd. And the good news of the gospel is that we now follow that most remarkable of all shepherds: the one who is himself one of us, a Lamb–a Lamb that looks to have been slain at that. This Shepherd-Lamb walks with us, his shepherd’s crook now in the shape of a cross leading us on, prodding us, protecting us, and taking us home in the end. When we were in Kindergarten and the teacher had us memorize these words, our young voices sweetly intoned that line about a banquet “in the presence of mine enemies.” Truth is, back in Kindergarten we didn’t know what an enemy was and probably we didn’t have any real ones.
But we’re older now. Now we’ve got enemies and we are altogether too acquainted with that final enemy named death. Now more than ever we need a shepherd to guide us through death’s chill shadow in this dangerous world. Life is not easy. It’s not all still waters and green grass. We wish it were and we pine for the day when maybe that will describe our every waking moment. But until that day comes, we can know and celebrate again and again that the Lord is our shepherd. With this great and good shepherd of the sheep with us, we lack nothing because in his presence we already have everything.
I am told that unlike cattle who like to be driven from behind, sheep prefer to be led. Sheep apparently have an uncanny ability to form a trusting relationship with their shepherds. I read sometime back that a sleeping flock of sheep will not stir if their own shepherd steps gingerly through their midst. But let a stranger so much as set foot near the flock, and the sheep will startle awake as though a firecracker had gone off. In fact, in the Middle East to this day, you may see three or four Bedouin shepherds all arrive at a watering hole around sundown. Within minutes these different flocks of sheep mix in together to form one big amalgamated flock. But the various shepherds don’t worry about this mix-up because each shepherd knows that when it’s time to go, all he has to do is give his own distinctive whistle, call, or play his little shepherd’s flute in his own unique fashion, and all of his sheep will separate themselves from the mixed-up herd to follow the shepherd they’ve come to trust.
Author: Doug Bratt
“Is this heaven?” isn’t just a question an Iowa farmer poses in the movie, Field of Dreams. Readers, preachers and teachers of Revelation 7:9-17 might ask the same question of it. Does its John describe the heavenly realm as God currently configures it? Or is he describing the new earth and heaven that Jesus will inaugurate at the end of measured time? Or, perhaps, is John saying something about the affects of Jesus’ reign on earth on this as well as every Sunday?
Those who proclaim the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday want to be sensitive to perspectives on this issue. Revelation 7’s preachers and teachers likely have their own preferred answer to it. Yet a careful consideration of Revelation’s nature may prompt its preachers and teachers to look for ways to answer questions about its focus with an, “All three!” After all, the existent heavenly realm that will find its most complete iteration in the new creation affects creation and its creatures already today.
Revelation 7’s literary context is very important. It follows, after all, a Revelation 6 that the Spirit inspires John to fill with horrific images. Those reading or hearing Revelation 7 for the first time might, in fact, expect John to fill it with even more grim news. After all, Revelation 8 at least partly returns to vivid descriptions of suffering and misery.
Yet Revelation 7 actually contains what Barbara Rossing calls a “salvation interlude” that assures God’s beloved children that God is in charge. It answers 6:17’s “Who can stand the horrors already described?” with “Those whom God has chosen for and gathered to himself.” The Spirit uses this chapter to refresh God’s people on what is our sometimes-difficult way not just through life but also through Revelation with images of the current glory of the heavenly realm and the coming glory of the new creation.
Yet Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson stands in stark contrast with what at least some Christians experience right now. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” The Multiracial Congregations Project found that little has changed since King expressed that outrage, noting that only 8% of all Christian congregations “are racially mixed to a significant degree.”
Yet it isn’t just churches that remain stubbornly segregated. Experts tell us that American schools and neighbors remain both racially and socio-economically segregated. At least some of us who proclaim Revelation 7 don’t have many friendships or close relationships that cross racial and socio-economic lines.
That’s one reason why Revelation 7 offers such a radically counter-cultural and, this, needed vision. When, after all, God shows John what God is doing both in the heavenly and earthly realms, the witnesses to that work include a marvelously integrated “multitude” (9). The Message paraphrases verses 9 and following as “I saw a huge crowd, too huge to count. Everyone was there – all nations and tribes, all races and languages.”
Yet while it’s a startlingly diverse crowd, several things unite it. Its members all wear white robes and clutch palm branches in their hands. The whiteness of this multitude’s “uniform” appears to symbolize God’s gifts to God’s children of both victory and purity. Yet it also, as Walter Taylor points out, signifies its wearer’s status. When, after all, his father gave the prodigal son a new robe, it showed everyone his restored place in his family (Luke 15:22). The palm branches people hold and perhaps wave further emphasize the victory God has won in Christ on their behalf.
Other things, however, also unite members of this diverse “congregation.” God has brought each of them through immense suffering and into God’s eternal presence. The shockingly diverse people who stand in the heavenly realm have, by God’s grace, survived the worst sin, Satan and death could do to them and come out on the other side that is the heavenly realm.
On earth the integrated congregation of people that stands before God’s throne kept believing, hoping, praying and witnessing, even when it was incredibly difficult. Verses 16 and following at least suggest that they endured hunger, thirst, hardship and grief. We can imagine that some of them gave up everything, including their very lives, for their faith.
But now this shockingly diverse group of saints can finally and fully rest. Because they’re united more than anything by the Lamb who sits on the throne that’s right in front of them. Jesus that Lamb rescued them not first of all from their misery, but from their rebellion against God and God’s good purposes. This Lamb gave them their “salvation” (10).
Yet these diverse people don’t just celebrate what God has already done to rescue them from their sin and misery. They also eagerly anticipate what God will yet do (vv. 16ff.). God will, an elder promises John, take away all hunger and thirst. God will no longer let any part of the creation harm or even simply threaten God’s adopted sons and daughters. In fact, Revelation 7 ends with what perhaps the most majestic and stirring of all of its promises: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
It’s no wonder this integrated multitude bursts into two more boisterous songs. “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb,” they jubilantly sing in verse 10. Those who proclaim Revelation 7 might invite those who hear us to try imagine just what that song sounds like. Might it sound like the roar that bursts from an enormous crowd when its team scores a goal or basket?
Then, as if to echo the thunderous roar of the diverse multitude, all those elders, angels and animals that join it around the throne join in the celebration. “Amen!” they roar back in verse 12. “Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen.” It’s as if they sing about how, as N.T. Wright notes, everything that’s good, noble, powerful and wise comes from God himself.
Revelation 7:9-17 is among my favorite passages in all of the Scriptures. That’s partly because of the vision it gives God’s people of the kinds of things that are going on in the heavenly realm right now. This text the RCL appoints for this Sunday also gives us a grand vision of what God has planned for when Jesus the Lamb returns not only to judge the living and the dead, but also to establish the new earth and heaven.
However, I also love Revelation 7 because it helps shape the life of God’s adopted sons and daughters on this side of heaven’s curtain. Those who proclaim this text may want to look for examples of that shaping. We may even want to use personal examples, making sure, as always to avoid drawing the spotlight that belongs on the Lamb away from ourselves.
My friend Harold and I could hardly have been more different. While he stood no more than 5’6” tall, I hover somewhere around 6’ tall. Harold spent most of the painful last few years of his life bed-ridden after doctors had to amputate both of his legs.
Harold was a progressive Baptist. I am a member of the Christian Reformed Church. Harold lived in an urban home that was lovingly tended but old and run-down. I live in a beautiful suburban parsonage. Harold was African-American. I am Dutch-American. Our political perspectives differed.
But after Harold and I conducted a funeral together, he graciously invited me into his home and life. Several times a year we’d visit together, sharing a great deal about our faith, the people we love and ourselves. We even watched President Obama’s inauguration on television together, with Harold shouting, “Thank you, Jesus!” as the tears streamed down his cheeks.
Who on earth could have imagined or created such a friendship whose bonds only Harold’s untimely death could sever? Only the Spirit of Jesus the Lamb who allowed people to slay him in order that he might unite people from every nation, tribe, race and language in worshiping and serving him.
Revelation 7’s preachers and teachers will want to explore with and perhaps even invite our hearers to imagine with us how its stirring vision might impact our lives before God and each other here and now. If, for example, God will someday eliminate all hunger and thirst, how can God’s beloved people live in anticipation of that day? What does it mean to serve our neighbors whose tears God promises to some day wipe away?
Louise Penny is one of the 21st century’s writers most imaginative and descriptive authors. While she writes fiction, she communicates truths that many non-fiction authors would do well to emulate.
In her book, The Nature of the Beast, Penny says Clara, whose husband died very suddenly, “knew that grief took a terrible toll. It was paid at every birthday, every holiday, every Christmas. It was paid when glimpsing the familiar handwriting, or a hat, or a balled-up sock. Or hearing a creak that could have, should have been a footstep. Grief took its toll each morning, each evening, every noon hour as those who were left behind struggled forward.”
It is such grief that, by God’s amazing grace, Revelation 7 insists has no place now in the heavenly realm and will have no place soon in the new creation.