This strange and beautiful apocalyptic vision in Revelation 7 is a word of hope, a word of comfort that inspires the faithful to take courage. “God will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” God will feed our hunger, quench our thirst, and bring life where there is only death and hopelessness and despair. We all entered the doors of this sacred place to day needing God to breathe life into our weary souls, needing God to soothe our wounds. We have come as anxious people who have the life drained out of us because we are worried about our finances, our health, the health and well-being of our family members and friends. We have come as grieving people who are still figuring out how to live day to day after the death of our most beloved ones. We come as numb people who are overwhelmed by the violent acts and tragedies of our time. We are all trying to come through the great ordeal of life as faithful people, and like the original readers of this text, we too, are in need of a captivating vision of the life-giving hope of God.
That’s what this passage has to offer us – a captivating vision of the life-giving hope of God. John’s words in Revelation are not what the movies or the fundamentalists make them out to be. Revelation is not a decipherable blueprint for how the world is going to end. It does not give us a crystal ball view of the last hours. This strange text is apocalyptic literature that is intended to stimulate our imagination, to inspire hope for a better world, to give courage to the faithful that all will be well if they hold on to Jesus, and to remind the church that the day is surely coming when hunger and thirst will be no more, when every tear will be wiped away. This book’s original audience was struggling with the reality of political oppression and martyrdom. The writer is responding to a crisis, protesting things as they are, and providing an alternative way of viewing the world.
The audience John wrote to found themselves trying to be faithful in a culture steeped in the cult of emperor worship. Emperors were offered divine honors, including sacrifices to emperors both living and dead. John saw emperor worship in direct conflict with worshipping God. He worried that if the church adapted cultural values and assimilated into the culture, the church would lose its distinctiveness and identity. He believed that living under the values and norms of the Roman empire to be directly antithetical to the Christian faith. During the first century there was no systematic persecution of Christians or any prolonged governmental persecution of the first-century church, but there began to be some local, horrible persecutions of Christians. The first persecution was the persecution of Nero, and the persecutions were beginning to increase. John could see the writing on the wall; he knew something far worse was on the horizon. Christians were being persecuted for failing to honor the emperor; John himself has been exiled to Patmos because of his own testimony about Jesus. John was sounding the alarm to the churches in Asia Minor as he worried that Christians were facing impending imprisonment and possibly martyrdom.
It’s clear from the vision in this passage that John is proclaiming a different kind of worship to a different king of king. The belief in the Pax Romana or the peace of Rome was pervasive. People believed that the Roman emperor would provide peace throughout the land by providing prosperity, health, and security. They worshiped the Roman emperor who sat on the Roman throne. Who is on the throne in John’s vision? God. Who provides salvation in John’s vision? God and God alone, not the emperor. And how does God provide salvation? Not through military might but through the sacrifice of the Lamb. John’s vision is a reminder to Christians that salvation belongs to God, that blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might belong to God, and not the emperor. John reminds the early Christians that only one god can be on the throne, and they must choose their God even if it mean’s following the Lamb into the fate of death. These saints who have made it through the great ordeal are the ones who have confessed Jesus despite the pressure to assimilate into the ways of the empire, the ones who have resisted the pressure to conform to Babylon. The palm branches that they wave are a reminder of what kind of conquering they have done. They have conquered in the same way that Jesus who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey conquered – by giving up their very lives.
About two hundred years after John wrote these words, encouraging Christians to persist through the great ordeal, to worship God alone, and not the emperor, a faithful deacon named Saint Lawrence made the decision to be loyal to God and not the emperor during a widespread persecution. Emperor Valerian, the fortieth emperor of Rome who reigned from 253 to 260 AD, demanded that Christian clergy perform sacrifices to Roman gods or face banishment. Soon after this proclamation, he decided to execute all Christian leaders and demanded that their money be confiscated by the royal treasury. After Pope St. Sixtus II was captured while celebrating the liturgy and executed, St. Lawrence, a deacon in charge of the treasury and the distribution of alms, was ordered to turn over the riches of the church. St. Lawrence asked for three days to gather to the wealth, and during those three days, he worked quickly to distribute all the wealth of the church to the poor. After three days, he submitted himself to the Roman authorities and when asked to hand over the wealth, he presented the poor, the blind, the crippled, and the suffering and declared that they were the true riches of the church. He said to the government authorities, “The Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor.” This act got St. Lawrence killed. He came through the great ordeal by declaring that God, not the emperor, was the one on the throne. It is fitting that today, on All Saints Day, when the church sets aside time to celebrate the martyrs, the faithful Christians who were killed by the Roman Empire because they refuse to deny the Lordship of Jesus Christ, that we remember the story of St. Lawrence.
Another saint that’s been on lots of people’s minds this past week is Martin Luther. Five hundred years ago this past week, on Halloween, Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Church at Wittenburg. One of the main reasons Luther did this is that he was furious about the sale of indulgences. The reason he was furious was because the sale of indulgences was a way of exploiting the poor, of making them think that giving all their money to the church would reduce their punishment for sins. In the 1500’s this abuse of indulgences was used to fund a building campaign for St. Peter’s Basilica. It seems like a pretty brilliant way to make a building campaign successful! Johann Tetzel, a preacher known for promoting this cause, was known to say: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” Martin Luther was trying to call out the church for its exploitation of the poor, but by this time in history, as you know, the pope and the emperor were working together, loyalty to God was being equated with loyalty to the emperor. Luther was condemned as an outlaw by the emperor and excommunicated by the pope.
These stories of St. Lawrence and Martin Luther call us to ask ourselves if the words of John’s vision are made true by the way we live our lives. Are our loyalties clear? Does our salvation belong to God and God alone? Do we believe that all blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might belongs to God and God alone? Do we cling to the hope that one day we will be guided to springs of the water of life and that God will wipe every tear from our eyes? Does this hope help us not to conform to the values and demands of our world? Does this hope help shape us into saints who worship God and God alone? Does this hope propel us to treat all of God’s children, particularly the poor and the marginalized, as God would treat them?
Every All Saints Day we hold up these well-known saints whose examples we have a hard time thinking we can live up to, but John’s vision offers us something else: it offers us a vision where a great multitude, a vast, diverse, and nameless group of people gather to worship God because they have remained faithful and come out of the great ordeal. They are not extraordinary or well-known. Martin Luther was famous for saying we are all simultaneously righteous and a sinner. He said, “All the saints are sinners and remain sinners. But they are holy because God in [God’s] grace neither sees nor counts these sins, but forgets, forgives, and covers them. There is thus no distinction between the saints and the non-saints. They are sinners alike and all sin daily, only that the sins of the holy are not counted but covered; and the sins of the unholy are not covered but counted. One would have a healing dressing on and is bandaged; the other wound is open and undressed.”[i] We don’t have to be extraordinary or well-known, but when we choose to center our lives on worshipping God and on following in God’s ways, God can make a sinner into a saint.
Malcolm Guite in his poem called, “A last beatitude” lifts up the nameless saints who don’t get recognized. He says:
“And blessed are the ones we overlook;
The faithful servers on the coffee rota
The ones who hold no candle, bell, or book
But keep the books and tally up the quota,
The gentle souls who come to ‘do the flowers’,
The quiet ones who organize the fete,
Church sitters who give up their weekday hours,
Doorkeepers who may open heaven’s gate.
God knows the depths that often go unspoken
Amongst the shy, the quiet, and the kind,
Or the slow healing of a heart long broken,
Placing each flower so for a year’s mind.
Invisible on earth, without a voice,
In heaven their angels glory and rejoice.”
In what ways have the ordinary saints who’ve both come before us and are among us shown that they are loyal to God and God alone? There are ordinary saints among us who though they can barely stand up, they show up week after week to worship God. Even though it is difficult, they still have great reverence for the worship hour; they show they are loyal to God and God alone because all other comforts and competing allegiances take a backseat. We have ordinary saints among us who’ve though they’ve spent their careers being underpaid, they are some of the most generous givers of the church. We have ordinary saints among us who give their excess money to our budget, the money the world entices them to spend on leisure, to hold on to for their own families; it’s because of this sacrificial giving that we are able to sustain the mission of our church, to remind people of the springs of water of life that Jesus offers, to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our community. We have ordinary saints among us who, though they themselves are stretched for resources, though they themselves are deep in depression and grief, though they themselves are stretched thin by the pressures of the world, they show up to be with the marginalized in our midst.
The witness of the ordinary saints among us puts a question before us: are we captivated by the vision of the life-giving hope of God? Are we captivated by it so much that we are willing to worship God and God alone with our lives? Are we captivated by it so much that we will only bow to God and not emperor? Are we captivated by it so much that we will not conform to the values of this world but live to honor our God? As we come to the communion table this morning, we come with joy to meet our Lord – forgiven, loved, and free. We come in awe and wonder of Jesus who laid down his life for us, who came through the great ordeal, and with his life showed loyalty to God and God alone. As we eat his body and drink his blood this morning, we are changed from sinners to saints, and we are invited to be among the faithful multitude, who cry out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” We are invited to be saints who have the courage to come through the great ordeal of life in this world that entices us to be loyal to things other than God. We are invited to be saints who cling to the blood of the Lamb, to the water of life, to God who will one day wipe every tear from our eyes. Amen.