THE GREAT MULTITUDE
Last week John saw the scroll that was by the throne of God in heaven. The scroll was sealed with seven seals. It was completely sealed. No one could see what was written on the scroll. John wept because he wanted to know what the scroll contained.
But then one of the elders announced that the Lion had arrived, the Lion of Judah. He could break the seals and open the scroll. John was delighted and turned to see the Lion. But what he saw was not the Lion but a Lamb. The Lion had become the Lamb that was slain and, by his blood, all creation was purchased for God. This, of course, was Jesus who is both Lion and Lamb. The Lion represents power but the Lamb represents sacrificial love.
It is not power that breaks the seals and opens the scroll. It is love, the kind of sacrificial love that took Jesus to the cross, the kind of love we are called to have for one another. It is only through the sacrificial love of the Lamb that the Lion has his power.
In today’s reading from Revelation 7, six of the seven seals on the scroll have already been opened. The seventh seal will have to wait because after the sixth seal is broken, a great multitude dressed in white robes appears. This is how John describes the scene in Revelation 7:9-10 (NIV):
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
This great multitude appears. And like all the creatures from last week’s reading, this multitude praises God. And as they praise God, our old friends from last week, the angels, once again lift their voices in praise in Revelation 7:11-12 (NIV):
All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 1aying:
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”
John’s story continues in Revelation 7:13 (NIV): “Then one of the elders asked me, ‘These in white robes – who are they, and where did they come from?’”
John defers the question back to the elder by answering, “Sir, you know.” And then in Revelation 7:14 (NIV) the elder answers his own question:
“These are those who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
Who are they? They are the 144,000. They appeared first in Revelation 6 which we did not read but I’m pretty sure that most of you heard of them. Like almost all numbers in Revelation, however, this number too is symbolic. It has deeper meaning. Literally it represents 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. But they are not the twelve tribes of Israel, at least not in a literal sense. They are, rather, the Church of Jesus Christ. There are many faithful in the Church, there is very large number, far greater than 144,000, a number that no one can count.
John now knows who they are but he also knows from where they have come. They have come from every nation, tribe, people and language. That is a reminder of what God said to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 (NIV):
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.
We are told that, through Abraham, all peoples of the earth will be blessed. Note that this refers to all people. All will be offered a blessing equally but not all will accept it. This is an echo of the 144,000 in that we realize that ethnic origin and place of birth are no longer parameters for receiving the seal of God. The ethnic Israel of the Old Testament is transformed into a New Israel that is centred on faith and a relationship with the Lamb. Those of the Jewish tradition are still able to enter God’s kingdom but they have to do it through the Lamb – just like everyone else. No one, no nation, no peoples have a special status in God’s eyes. People of every nation, every tribe and every language have equal access to God’s holy kingdom.
VICTORY & JOY
Two things are apparent about those who make up this multitude. First, they are victorious. They have overcome despite the oppression and suffering that the world has thrown against them. The white robes symbolize martyrdom. They also symbolize victory. But it is not a victory that they have won on their own. It is the victory of the Lamb, the same Lamb before whom they stand at the throne of God. He is the victorious Lion who became a Lamb so that by his sacrifice, sin is defeated. The Lamb has already won. By this victory, evil someday will be vanquished completely. It will happen when Jesus returns in glory.
Note that evil must be defeated. It is not benign and cannot be minimized or ignored. It is part of the reality for the people who first hear Revelation being read because they are about to go through their own persecution at the hands of Rome. It is still part of our reality and we have to deal with it head on. Getting sentimental about evil is not life-giving. Nowhere in the Bible is there any attempt to answer the question, “Why does a good God permit evil?” Evil is a fact. Until Jesus returns, it will be part of our world. We need to stop blaming God for all of our problems and take responsibility for what we do.
The Bible does, however, define the parameters in which evil is allowed to operate. It operates on the battlefield that has already been cleansed by Christ. The Lamb’s blood has washed it clean. He is victorious. Satan may claim victory but even he knows that he has already lost.
Not only is the battlefield cleansed by Christ. So are the faithful one who are sealed. Their robes are white, washed in the blood of the Lamb. It is because of this washing that they are pure white. But how is it possible that the robes are still dazzling white? Would the blood of the Lamb not stain them? What gives? To understand this requires an unveiling, an apocalypse. The truth is that the robes were already stained. They were stained by the sin of humanity. The blood of the Lamb lifts the stain of sin and, in lifting the stain from the robes, it also lifted those who wear them.
In this too, there is victory. Sin and death ultimately have no power over these martyrs because they are washed in the blood of the Lamb. Because of that, they share in the Lamb’s victory.
The great multitude is victorious. That’s the first thing we notice. The second thing is that they are also joyful. That’s the meaning of the palm branches. Do you remember how joyful the people were when Jesus, as his earthly life was drawing to a close, entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday? People are waving palm branches as a sign of the joy they are experiencing as they stand before the throne and the Lamb.
But why are they so joyful? After all, they have come out of the great tribulation. Note that they have experienced tribulation. They did not avoid it. There was no rapture. They are joyful precisely because they have come out of tribulation. They have overcome and remained faithful even to the point of death. As they stand before the throne and the Lamb, they realize that all of their faithful commitment to the Lamb was worth it. How can they not be joyful? They are receiving the reward of their faith. This is a sign of what God has in store for those who overcome and do not compromise.
Chapter 7 ends with a word of affirmation in Revelation 7:15-17 (NIV):
“They are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”
This is often read at funerals. Why? Because these verses are meant as words of comfort for those experiencing times of tribulation. They describe symbolically the ultimate reward for those who overcome. They will never again be hungry or thirsty. They will never again have to endure the discomfort of the elements. The Lamb will lead them to springs of living water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Fear not! There is no need to cower. There is no need to worship at Caesar’s altar. They are sealed by the seal of God and nothing will ever snatch them out of God’s hand. Victory is theirs, victory in Jesus. Through Jesus, the Lamb of God, they are victorious.
But what does all of this mean for us today? It means a lot and I want to share with you why it means so much. When I think of the 144,000, the multitude dressed in white, the image of the people of Ukraine comes to mind of me. These are people who are going through tribulation. These are people whose homes have been destroyed, whose families have been destroyed, whose lives have been destroyed. When I see the pictures of the flattened cities, the burned-out apartment blocks, the bodies in the streets, I think these people know something about what the Christians experienced at the hands of their Roman oppressors 2,000 years ago.
I see the people of Ukraine and I see people who, though still going through a war, are already victorious. They have already shown their resiliency. They have already stood firm in the face of overwhelming odds. They have not bowed the knee to Putin. Whatever happens in this war in the short term, they have earned the respect of the world for they have sacrificed more than we could ever imagine.
The great multitude that stood before the throne of God in their white robes was victorious. They were also joyful. This is where the imagery of Revelation 7 breaks down for us. The people of Ukraine may be victorious. They may be determined and resourceful but I don’t think they are joyful – at least not yet. I hope that they are joyful someday after they have defeated the forces of evil that threaten to overwhelm them. But they are not joyful yet.
That’s where we come it. We have been given an opportunity to offer some joy to those going through tribulation. We can’t do that for the entire country but we can do that for two families. And right now I want to tell you how that is possible.
Gary Taveirne called me about ten days ago with a proposition. Would Cottam United Church be willing to partner with him and some local organizers to build a house for two Ukrainian refugee families? Gary is a local developer who is building the Woodridge Estates subdivision east of Belle River Road.
He has done a lot of work on this project. Gary owns the land and is donating the lot which, all on its own, is significant. He’s working with the town of Kingsville to see if the costs of the building permits and inspections can be waived; that’s looking good. Gary knows lots of contractors and tradesmen who have expressed their willingness to volunteer their time and they know lots of suppliers who are willing to donate the materials. He hopes that he can build the building for a reasonable sum.
He also has been talking with local restaurants and food stores about food donations and that is coming along well. Chris Lewis, our MP in Ottawa is on board and will speak about this project in the House of Commons where he hopes to secure some federal funding for the project. All of this means that financially and logistically, Gary’s pretty sure that he’s getting everything covered.
So, what does he want from us? What Gary needs is a sponsor for the refugee families. In order for this project to work, he needs a registered charity to take on the sponsorship. Without going into too much detail, the government funding has to be given to a charity. And then the money is used by the charity to pay the bills such as utilities, property taxes, repairs and maintenance, transportation, etc. He wants us to do that bit. Those of us who met with Gary on Wednesday evening think we can get that done.
But we’re hoping to do something else. We’re hoping to bring the community into this project because it will take a great deal of time and commitment. Could we do it all on our own? Maybe. But would it be better to make it a community project? Absolutely.
For the past three or four years, we’ve been working on the hub model of ministry, where the church becomes a hub in the community, a gathering place where people can join not just for religious purposes but as a safe and supportive place for everyone. It seems that people are starting to take us seriously. Not only do we see ourselves as that kind of place, it appears that the community is beginning to think of us that way as well. And that is exactly what we want. We want to help our community to grow and to gather together. And we believe that this project, of supporting Ukrainian refugees, is an ideal way to make that happen in real and practical ways.
But someone asked the obvious question: what’s in it for Gary? There is no gain for Gary other than the fact that he saw something that needed to be done and he is putting his skills to work to make it happen. It’s the right thing to do and he wants us to be part of it. He wants to invite people who have lived through tribulation to come to Cottam and get on their feet in a community and church that is willing to support them as they transition from tribulation to joy, the joy that the early Christians experienced when they passed through the tribulation and stood before the throne of God.
Next Sunday will be a busy day. Orville James will be our guest speaker at our anniversary worship. After worship, you are invited to stay for the congregational meeting where Gary will share more details of what he has in mind. And then we hope to vote on this project, on whether or not we want to become involved as Cottam United Church. As we’ve seen over the past few weeks, the book of Revelation offers choices. And so next week we will be called to make another choice. I pray that we will choose wisely.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Holy God, we come before your throne with hearts full of praise for all of your great deeds and wonders. Thank you that we can come to you, that through Jesus Christ we are your adopted children and inheritors of your eternal promise. We thank you for the beauty of creation as it unfolds around us. Thank you for budding trees and warm spring days. Thank you for colours, breezes and new life.
We give thanks on this Mothers Day for our mothers, our birth mothers, adopted mothers, grandmothers, surrogate mothers, even those women who became mother like figures for us when we had not mothers. We give thanks for the women who sacrifices themselves to raise us to be the people we are today.
We are so grateful that we are valuable in your sight. You have called us and made us for specific purposes. You have chosen us and set your purpose within each of us. Enable us to comprehend, understand, and fulfill that purpose, knowing that if we accomplish anything it is only through your Wonderful Spirit. Because you live, we also live!
We pray for your healing presence in a world of pain and suffering. We remember those who are dealing with flooding in many areas during the spring. We pray also for the people of Ukraine as they seek to throw off the yoke of Russian oppression.
We lift up in prayer the sick of our congregation and community. We remember, Carol, Mark, Ron, Charles, Jack and Hazel. We would pray that your Healing Spirit will descend upon them and all others who need your touch, offering hope and light both for now and forever.
Heavenly Father, it is our greatest desire to exemplify your love and character, not only in what we say, but in everything that we do. We want our lives to be so much more than just talk. We would be bold to ask that you would enable us to be constant and consistent examples of your healing and self-sacrificing love.
We raise these prayers in the Holy Name of Jesus. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
May 8, 2022 / Easter 4
Psalm 23; John 10:22-30; Acts 9:36-43; Revelation 7:9-17
CALL TO WORSHIP
God is our Shepherd;
God is our Saviour;
Let us lift our voices to the Lord;
We will praise the One who was and is and is to come.
Hear our prayers, O Gracious God, as we come into this house of worship. The murmurings of our souls cry out to you for you are the One who gives us hope, both for now and into the future. Speak to our hearts. Touch our lives with deepest blessings. Enliven our spirits to experience your Word, that we may be transformed into images of your love. Come, Lord Jesus, come and flow over us with the sweet waters of life. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
We confess, O God, that we are not perfect. Our motives are seldom pure. Our vision is often clouded. We place our hope in the transitory things of life and dream of fleeting fame. Forgive us, Merciful One, when we do not keep our minds focuses on you and the things of your Holy Kingdom. Turn us around, once more, that we may walk in your way.Amen.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
When we stray, there is one who calls us home. Jesus is our Shepherd. He is the One who laid down his life for his sheep. We are his sheep and we can have complete confidence that when we confess our sins, we are truly forgiven.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
Receive our offerings, Generous God, in the same spirit in which they are given. We could never match your generosity but we give what we can, when we can. We thank you for all of your great goodness. Amen.
The time has come to leave this place and venture out into the world beyond these four walls. Always remember that no matter where we go, God is there. The hand of God is upon us. The love of God is within us.