Rev. 7: 9 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. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:“Salvation belongs to our God,who sits on the throne,and to the Lamb.”11 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, 12 saying:“Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever.Amen!”13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”14 I answered, “Sir, you know.”And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore,“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.16 ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst.The sun will not beat down on them,’ nor any scorching heat.17 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.’”
Its been a long, cold, snowy April. Time now for the family trip, let’s say, to Florida. Mom, Dad, the kids, the dog and all the luggage are loaded into the van. And just as the van is backing out of the driveway, some wag in the back invariably yells out…..(Help me, here, what does someone always asks….?) Right. “Are We There Yet?”
The first time, closest to home, it may be funny. But it doesn’t take long to wear on you. But it would be far, far worse if someone were to ask, “Are we there yet?” and the driver said, “Oh? Were we going somewhere? Gee, I’ve just been concentrating on obeying the speed limits, keeping the gas tank full, signaling my lane changes, stopping at the stop lights and the stop signs, obeying all the signs, including the one that says at the gas station, ‘Clean Restrooms.’ I’ve done four so far. And haven’t I been doing a good job of all that, at least?” If that were to happen, I can guarantee that it would get really, really quiet in the back seat of the car. Scary: We’re all packed up and rolling along with nowhere to go.
This morning I want to lead us in pondering the same question: Are we there yet? Which implies another question: Where are we going? And do we know? Going on a trip with no goal or direction could be asking for trouble. So it is with the church of Jesus Christ. Forget the end and goal that God has in mind, and a church becomes a monument, a museum to the past, or worse, a mausoleum for the spiritually dead, rather than a movement toward God’s intended future for planet Earth. Same for ourselves. Without God’s goals for ourselves in mind, our faith becomes just a hobby, an indulgence in nostalgia, or self-justification, with no power to transform us into the image of Jesus Christ.
This danger, of driving around with no goal in mind until we end up in trouble or run out of fuel, is not unique to our day and age. John’s Revelation begins with that very diagnosis of six of the seven churches to which this Revelation was addressed. To the church at Ephesus, the Spirit said through John, “You have lost your first love.” To the church at Laodicea, the Spirit said, “You are lukewarm; I’d rather you were hot or cold.”
I used to read John’s Revelation as though it were a complex, coded timetable of future events, as though we could cross-reference it with newspapers and calculators and figure out when everything in it was going to happen. But now I think of John’s Revelation as a picture gallery. Because suffering can sap our energy and cloud our vision, the Spirit of God has painted some powerful verbal pictures in John’s Revelation to remind us of the ultimate goal to which we are heading, some with broad brush strokes of joy and healing, reunion and reconciliation. These joyful, hopeful pictures are like destination signs, pointing us in the right direction.
But we can be just as forgetful and distractible whenever we are prosperous, comfortable and self-sufficient, so the Spirit has painted some pictures of warning in John’s Revelation. These pictures are like warning signs, telling us what to avoid. Supreme among the joyful, hopeful destination signs is the passage we just heard from Revelation 7: 9-17, of the throng around the throne of God, of the worship they are engaged in, of the unity with God and each other that they experience, and the rest, the refreshment, the consolation they experience, from the direct, eternal presence of God.
Such a picture is like a postcard of sunshine, warmth, beaches, palm trees and people in short-sleeved shirts that keeps us going through the long hours of travel through Iowa, Missouri and the length of Tennessee while the kids are asking, “Are we there yet?” Its meant to inspire and sustain us for the long, difficult journey ahead.
Another thing this picture does is that it tells us if we are on track, or not. For the closer we get to the destination, the more the places along the way should look like that destination. For that family on the way to Florida, with the kids asking, “Are we there yet?” the palm trees and the Spanish moss we’re seeing, the warmth we’re feeling, and all the Stuckey’s restaurants selling pecan candies, suggest that we’re on track and getting closer, because the way is starting to look like the destination.
As we ponder our own lives, I hope that John’s picture does both things for us: that it gives us perspective and inspiration for our personal journeys, and lets us know if we are on track, headed in the right direction. As for perspective and inspiration: after the store and restaurant next door burned down this week, I spoke with my friend, Moussa, who had been refurbishing the restaurant, hoping to open up a new, improved version on May 1. He put his loss into perspective by saying, “No one was hurt; me and my family are safe and healthy, thanks be to God.” But even when we can’t say that, about our safety nor our health, I hope that these words about us never thirsting nor hungering again, about the Shepherd leading us to streams of living water, and about God wiping every tear from our eyes, can inject some hope and strength into our perspective.
And as we ponder our church’s missional future, this landscape in Revelation 7 offers some helpful images of the end goal of all our loves and labors. From those images of our destination we can plot backwards and see how we get from here to there. For again, over time, the way should look increasingly like the destination.
One thing I see in the landscape of Revelation 7 is evangelism and mission. Its implied in the first verses of this portrait of the innumerable throng around the throne. This throng is made up of people of every tribe, tongue and nation, John says. Isn’t it amazing that John even foresaw such a thing, when the church was so new, so small, so powerless and persecuted? For all those languages to be sung around the throne, someone must have told all these different people groups about Jesus, probably in those very languages.
These very verses gave hope and energy to Kathy Peterson, for example, sweating and sweltering before her fan in the hot and humid months of March, April and May, among the Northern Senufo people in northwestern Burkina Faso. After four or five years there, she and her husband, Dan, were just figuring out how many tones the Northern Senufo language had, that’s how far away they were from translating the Bible into it. But in spite of the suffering and the setbacks, what kept her going, she said, was this very passage. “I know,” she said, “that there will be worshipers and followers of Jesus from the Northern Senufo people.” Nearly thirty years later, there are.
So are we there yet? When we share our faith, and testify to Christ, and invite people into our lives, especially when we do so across cultures, that tells us that we’re on the way, and getting closer, because the landscape along the road is starting to look like the destination. The same with if there should one day be a partner church meeting here in one of the 100 languages spoken in this very neighborhood. Or if Gebremichael and Tsehai should connect us in mission with people in East Africa. Last Sunday, as we closed our prayers together, I could hear the Lord’s Prayer being prayed simultaneously in three languages.Those are stations on the way, they look like the goal, but we’re not there yet.
Besides, there are a few other things in John’s portrait of the last stop on the way. Like what we might call justice-making, peacemaking or benevolent works. I see those in verses 16 and 17, in the words about people hungering no more, thirsting no more, and God wiping all tears from our eyes. I see that in the fact that all those different tribes, and nations are worshiping God together, rather than fighting.
Here at Emmanuel Mennonite Church, we are engaged in some labors toward a world without hunger, thirst and tears, such as the Relief Sale, Ten Thousand Villages, contributions to local food shelves, the deacons’ fund, advocacy for immigration reform and against land mines and cluster bombs. So, if we do those things, are we there yet? Well, they suggest that we’re on track, at least. But the fact that we need to keep doing them means that, No, we’re not there yet.
In the Spirit’s portrait of the goal and destination, we also see worship, a loud, lively, multi-cultural worship in all human languages. We worship too. And we’re working at deploying more of the gifts and talents of worshipers to the honor of God. So are we there yet? No, not until we can worship non-stop, day and night, when we can see the angels celebrating with us, along with all the dear-departed souls of the redeemed, and indeed, all of creation. We’ll be there when our attention to God is total, complete, and endless, when our souls are full of nothing else but the wonder and delight of all creatures in their creation and their Creator. For me to worship like that, I will probably have to have gone through dying and death. That seems to be how it works. But for now we work at our weekly dress rehearsals for the New Jerusalem, trying on white robes that are yet too big for us, learning to wave our palm branches in sync, every time we worship. Even if we’re not there yet, the way is looking like the destination.
Twenty-one centuries before GPS, Magellan and Garmin, John the Revelator gave us the name and the exact coordinates of our ultimate destination, in verse 15: “before the throne of God.” It is the place, and the moment, when we enter the direct, eternal, un-mediated presence of God beyond which there is nowhere more to go, and from which there is no going back, when God’s lordship is complete over all, our surrender and submission total, and our relationship with God and each other absolutely unimpeded by any shame, fear or guilt, nor by any desire for anything less than God. This place “before the throne of God” is the complete, exact opposite and undoing of Adam and Eve hiding from God in the garden, covering themselves with fig leaves.
Does this picture of our home not bear some familiar elements? When you read or hear about the shade of a beautiful tabernacle shielding us from the sun and heat, or of living water quenching our thirst, is there not a little shiver of deja vu, a catch in the throat of recognition, a tear in the eye from a sense of homecoming, as well as anticipation? From somewhere, some time, do we not remember the comfort of having our tears wiped from our faces? Here at the far other end of the Bible, is again the Eden that we remember from before we existed, the time before we ever knew shame, sin and suffering, the place we’ve never been to, yet for which we are homesick. This is where we’re going, we’ll get there, but No, we’re so not there yet.
Through the pictures in John’s Revelation, the Spirit of God is calling our distractible, forgetful selves to remembrance, as well as to anticipation. Our destiny is our identity. Remember where you are called to and where you are going; remember who you are, the Spirit is saying through this picture. Einstein’s theory of relativity suggests that there may be parallel universes, just a nano-second away from this one if we could find the wormhole in time or space from one universe to the other. To that John the Revelator might say, “You don’t know the half of it.” Before the throne of God is less than a heart-beat away. We’re not there yet, but part of us arrives whenever we sing and pray our praise to God in worship, whenever we testify to Christ, when we love and serve our neighbor. Do our spirits not then hear the faint and distant echoes of eternity, and the harmonies of heaven? Then we are standing on the threshold of the throne. Then, with the pilgrims of ancient Israel, we can say, as in Psalm 122, “Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem.”
If so, Are we there yet? No, but until we are, may we be even now a colony of that throng before the throne of God, a people of God in the presence of God who portray the peace of God, whose destiny is even now their identity. Until we are there, may we be a people who ever remember the end and goal of our labors, persons who live into our future, who experience hints and foretastes of that future even now as it breaks into the present, through worship, witness and works of justice and peacemaking. And once we arrive before the throne of God, may it be a familiar place, so that we are not “strangers in paradise.”