The Hope of Heaven (a Sermon on Revelation 7:9-17)

After these things I saw, and behold, a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes and peoples and tongues, stand­ing before the throne and before the Lamb, arrayed in white robes, and palms in their hands; and they cry with a great voice, saying, Salvation unto our God who sitteth on the throne, and unto the Lamb. And all the angels were stand­ing round about the throne, and about the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God.”

It’s an image of the coming Kingdom – Heaven, the Kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem. Call it what you will, it is an image of the final dawning of the new age – the climaxing of human history, and, strangely, it seems quite appropriate to be talking about it today.

The end of the world is becoming an increasingly popular topic of discussion amongst people who email me from around the world. I was struck by one mate who signed off on his email to me this week with, “truly we are in the last days”. It struck me because we’d been dialoguing about software protocols!

It wasn’t long ago that people who went around saying, “the end is nigh” were seen as eccentric, if not downright stupid. Nowadays it doesn’t seem so stupid to say that, though I do accept that it’s American foreign policy, rather than prayer and Bible study, that has been responsible for this change in perception.

Some of you will remember me sharing some time ago about when I was in Israel, for it seemed to be sort of taken for granted over there that there was going to be an explosive conclusion to the tensions in that region sooner or later, and most people seemed to be thinking in terms of ‘sooner’.

‘Armageddon’ once taxi driver said to me – ‘You’ve heard of it, yes?’ And he added, ‘It’s in the Bible’, as if to imply that this therefore made it something to look forward to!

Of course, I was in Israel to meet up with my mate, ‘nuclear missile blower’, Morde Vanunu, as he emerged from prison, and so I got used to talking about nuclear weapons with lots of people. Even so, I remember being especially shocked by the casual attitude of one young journalist there who said,. “They’re just there as our last resort. We’ll probably never have to use them. They’re only there in case we get completely overrun or something like that.” “So if you get completely overrun”, I asked, “then you use them?” “Yes”, he said, “then we kill everybody, but only as a last resort.”

It’s interesting, that if you speak about the Kingdom of God in modern Israel, you’ll find that people there today, like the people of first century Israel, seem to think about it entirely in terms of victory over their enemies, where­as In our culture, conversely, when we speak of Heaven and of the spiritual world, we tend to think almost exclusively in terms of our hopes for our own personal immortality!

This is not just amongst religious person’s any more either. Immortality has become a hot concept in our culture over the last few years, with some of TV’s most popular shows being showcased by young and attractive witches and warlocks, who not only live forever but who remain pretty forever too!

Some commentators have suggested that there is indeed an obsession with immortality amongst today’s generation X’s and Y’s that is really just a form of cultural narcissism. We believe in ourselves so much that we think ‘we are such a wonderful generation; it is not possible that persons such as us could die’, which helps explain why so many in this generation fell apart when faced with the death of that archetypal icon of youthful immortality – Princess Di.

I’m not going to pursue this analysis any further at a sociological level. My interest is in whether this contemporary quest for immortality has anything to do with the depiction of the Kingdom of God, given in today’s Bible reading.

After these things I saw, and behold, a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes and peoples and tongues, stand­ing before the throne and before the Lamb, arrayed in white robes, and palms in their hands; and they cry with a great voice, saying, Salvation unto our God who sitteth on the throne, and unto the Lamb. And all the angels were stand­ing round about the throne, and about the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honor, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever.

What do we see when we look at this image? VictoryImmortality? I see first and foremost community.

I see an enormous community, drawn together from every nation – a great multitude that is extraordinarily comprehensive both in terms of its size and its variety. Everybody is represented there – an incredible variety of tribes and peoples and languages. ‘Red and yellow, black and white – all are precious in His sight’, and they’re all there, and they’re all one, in true unity with each other, and in true fellowship with their creator. Indeed, they are in worship. They stand around the throne, singing, Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb!”

This is a Biblical image of the world to come, and it stands there alongside other great visions of the future drawn from the Scriptures:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together …They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11)

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more(Micah 4)

  • The time is surely coming, says the LORD,
    when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps,
    and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed;
    the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
    and all the hills shall flow with it.
     (Amos 9)

And here the same note is struck again in Revelation Chapter 7:

  • They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
    the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;
    for the Lamb at the center 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.”
     (Revelation 7)

I believe that every society since the beginning of time has dreamt of a world that is full of love and where people live in genuine harmony with one another and with the rest of the created order. We dream of it, but the longer we live and the more we see, the less likely it appears that the world we live in is ever going to naturally evolve towards that end.

I remember Morde writing to me after many years in solitary, “prison is not a place that makes a man more religious”. And I remember thinking then that I should write back to him and say, “ministering in Dulwich Hill doesn’t make a man more religious either!”

And I don’t just mean that it’s hard work and discouraging at times. Rather, it’s hard work because, alongside the occasional success story that buoys you up, the constant experience of fighting with evil wears you down!

And by ‘fighting with evil‘, I don’t mean just dealing with obviously wicked people that you can negotiate with and deal with, but with subtle layers of evil, such that when you feel you’ve peeled back an evil, you find that all you’ve done is just reveal another layer!

I know that it’s not considered good form for any pastor to talk too much about his latest trip to the Holy Land, but another memory from that time that does stick with me was my involvement in the Patronal festival at St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem.

Yes, it was St George’s Day, and I certainly learnt more about St George (of ‘St George and the dragon’ fame) than I had ever known before, the most interesting fact being that the original St George was a Palestinian (though less is known about the ethnicity of the dragon)!

Another thing I learnt from the Dean of the Cathedral there was that in one of the earliest icons of the church depicting George, he is pictured fighting the dragon at the entrance to a cave, and in the picture she is a female dragon, and at the mouth of the cave you can see the baby dragons behind her. This depiction by the artist reflects the recognition of the early church that, even when a great evil has been defeated, yet there is always more evil behind it!

This is the world we live in – a world that is tragically and deeply perverted by some evil beast, to use the image given to us in this book of Revelation.

Of course, I thought I’d seen it all from the front lines here in Dulwich Hill, but no, when I travelled overseas, I found the same beast waiting for me there too, carrying on its wicked work in even more blatantly sinister ways!

Indeed, we never have to look far beneath the headlines of our daily news to see that ancient beast at work – spreading corruption and wickedness throughout governments and corporations, systematically wearing down the integrity of individuals and committees who make decisions that then generate ever-greater wells of human misery, where nobody in particular is to blame but where everybody suffers, and increasingly putting pressure on those who would oppose the beast, and forcing them into compromise, complacency and confusion.

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “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. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center 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.””

This passage in Revelation 7 came to light at a time when the church was dealing with a lot of pain and death through persecution, and when indeed every victory that they did win over evil only ever seemed to reveal another layer of evil behind it. And so God gave His people this image of the heavenly community, where those who were violated are now clean again – dressed in white, and joining together in joyful chorus, and they drink ‘from the springs of the water of life’ and ‘every tear is wiped away’

Is there a hope of personal immortality in this image? Sure! We’re all built in to that great Heavenly scene. Here as elsewhere there is a recognition of the fact that God is more powerful than death, just as He is more powerful than all the forces of evil. As St Paul wrote,

“I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8 )

Is there a sense of triumphing over one’s enemies in this image? Sure! So long as we recognize that the enemies of God are ultimately not to be identified with any one ethnic or cultural group, any more than the people of God can be so narrowly defined. The enemy that is defeated in this picture is that great beast who rages against the people of God in every age.

What do we see in this image? I guess we can see all sorts of things, but the most central elements in this image surely are community, worship and healing – where the old wounds are bound up and the tears are wiped away, where we don’t study war no more because the earth is as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Sisters and brothers, I am tired. And while today’s sermon may be a bit short, I’m conscious of the fact that passages such as this are given to use less for the purpose of education than they are for edification – not so much to pass on information as to give inspiration.

So rather than give any further logical analysis of today’s passage, let me conclude by simply read it to you once again:

And there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,

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

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “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. For this reason they are before the throne of God,

  • and worship him day and night within his temple,
    and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
    the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;

for the Lamb at the center 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.”

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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