Tuesday, May 24, 2016

One Tribe

One Tribe
Revelation 7:9-17[1]
We who live in the “United States of America” often find ourselves wondering these days how “United” we really are. We see news reports of events happening in other parts of the nation, and we shake our heads in disbelief and wonder how our fellow citizens can be so different from each other. One author thinks the reason for this is that we are actually eleven different nations, the origins of which can to some extent be traced back in part to the original colonies.[2] Each of these nations represents a group of people with a unique outlook, lifestyle, and culture. From a different perspective, the Jefferson Institute has mapped out every county in the US based on the kind of community it represents.[3] They found twelve basic community types based on a wide variety of economic, cultural, educational, climate, and religious data. When you look at this kind of information, it’s no wonder that we feel more like the “Divided States of America!”
Unfortunately, for most of us, the ways of thinking and living, making and spending money, entertaining ourselves and raising our children, are so ingrained in us that we may not even notice them. We notice when others are different from us. But it’s incredibly easy to simply assume that “our way” is the right way, and those who differ from us have gone astray somehow. So it is that even in the church, we fight over ways of being Christian in this society, over our response to changes in the culture around us, and over what really defines us as Christians today. Unfortunately, most Christian denominations in the US are as divided as the rest of the country.
As we’ve been introduced to the Book of Revelation, we’ve seen how it focuses on what God is doing in this world. And we’ve witnessed the worship of God and of the Lamb who was slain by all creation. In our lesson for today, we get to look in on another worship scene. But this one comes after some seriously troubling visions. In the previous chapter, the Lamb begins to open the seals that initiate God’s judgment. The first four seals unleash the fabled “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” They in turn inflict conquest, warfare, famine, and death upon the earth. The sixth of the seven seals on the scroll initiates cosmic catastrophes: the sun is darkened, the moon turned to blood, the stars fall from the heavens and the mountains topple. These are traditional images in the Bible depicting the end of all things.[4]
After all of that, we would expect to see the end of all things. That would be the logical conclusion of what has transpired in chapter six. But instead of the witnessing the end, we see another scene of worship.[5] In this case, however, the focus is not on the object of worship, but rather on those who are gathered around the throne, worshiping God and the Lamb. As before, the group is described as a vast throng: it is a “great multitude that no one could count,” and it is made up of those “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”[6]  It seems to me that this vision of those who worship around the throne of God is very similar to St. Paul’s vision that “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, …, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11).
I think it is significant that although this multitude that cannot be counted who are worshiping God and the Lamb around the throne are said to have come from different nations, tribes, peoples, and languages, in this vision of worship they are called the “servants of God” (Rev. 7:3).[7] Despite any differences in their ethnic origins, their culture, their race, they are all described as martyrs who have faithfully borne witness to Jesus even to the point of death (Rev. 7:14). And there is no division or disagreement or disunity among them. They are united in their ascription of praise to God and to the Lamb: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:10).
In Revelation, as in the Gospel of John, the ultimate goal of God’s saving work among the human family is that we would all become one tribe: the servants of God.[8] We see this reflected in the description of those worshiping around the throne earlier in Revelation: “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them” (Rev. 5:13). While those who worship God may come from all different races and people groups, from different classes and walks of life, in God’s sight we are intended to make up one tribe: the people of God. And it is significant that it is in worship that all the ways humanity has of distinguishing one group from one another are essentially erased. At the end of all things, there is only the vast multitude of humankind united in their worship of God and the Lamb.
I don’t think that all differences are a bad thing. In fact, I think diversity can make us stronger if we don’t let it tear us apart. But the vision of worship around the throne of God in our lesson from Revelation for today is much bigger than any one people or nation. This vision assures us that regardless of the color of our skin, regardless of our family origins, regardless of our language or nationality, we will all one day unite around the throne of God. We will all one day confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father. That is the ultimate goal of God’s saving work in Jesus, the Lamb who was slain: to unite the divided human family as one people who worship God, one clan who are the servants of God, one tribe who are faithful in bearing witness to Jesus.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/17/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Reid Wilson, “Which of the 11 American nations do you live in?” The Washington Post, November 8, 2013 accessed at https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2013/11/08/which-of-the-11-american-nations-do-you-live-in/ .
[3] Cf. The Jefferson Institute’s website: http://www.patchworknation.org/regions-page.
[4] Cf. Jürgen Roloff, A Continental Commentary: The Revelation of John, 92, where he cites passages from Joel, Amos, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. Cf. also David E. Aune, Revelation 6–16, 424: “the events accompanying the breaking of each seal (with the exception of the fifth) belong to traditional Jewish and early Christian conceptions of the tribulations that will introduce the end …, though the scenario stops just short of the great day of wrath itself.”
[5] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, 127: “They looked for the End and what came was the church, not as a substitute for the act of God but itself a dimension of God’s saving activity.” Cf. also Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 79-80, where he says, “the victory of the Lamb’s followers through martyrdom” … “intervenes between the sixth and the seventh judgements of the first series of seven judgements: the seal-openings.” At this point, it would appear that “The judgment has been delayed only so that they can escape it through martyrdom.” But Bauckham insists that thus far the real secret of God’s purpose for the role of the church in the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth has not been revealed.” That “secret” is that the repentance of humankind is effected not by judgment but by the faithful witness of the church.
[6] In fact, the chapter seems to describe two different groups, the 144,000 from the tribes of Israel and the “great multitude.” However, as Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, 76, points out, in Revelation there is a contrast between what John hears and what he sees. He says, “The 144,000 from the twelve tribes of Israel (7:4-8) contrast with the innumerable multitude from all nations (7:9). But the two images depict the same reality.”  Cf. similarly, Craig R. Koester, Revelation, 419, 424; cf. also ibid., 424: “God’s promise to preserve and restore the tribes of Israel is kept  y redeeming people from every tribe and nation through the death of Jesus.” Cf. also Roloff, Revelation of John, 98. On the other hand, Christopher C. Rowland, “The Book of Revelation,” New Interpreters Bible XII:620-21, where he asserts that the first group is a Jewish remnant, while the second consists of those who are identified with Christ. Cf. also Aune, Revelation 6–16, 440-60, where he argues extensively for the view that the 144,000 represent a Jewish remnant.
[7] Cf. Koester, Revelation, 416-17, where he points out that the marking of slaves on the face was an act of punishment. He insist that this does not fit the context here. Cf. also ibid., 211, where he summarizes the idea of Christians as “servants” of God in Revelation. He says, “God’s people address him as Lord and Master and are to obey (4:8, 11; 6:10; 12:17; 14:12), but the paradox is that God’s servants are truly free, since Christ freed them from subjection to other powers (1:5, cf. Rom 6:18-23; 1 Cor 9:19; Gal 5:13).”
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—the Beginning: The Life of Hope, 150, where he speaks of “the restoration of all things” and “universal reconciliation” as “an expression of hope and of trust in God’s goodness.” Cf. also  Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 256, where he extends this reconciliation and restoration beyond the human family to include all God’s creatures.

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