“The Great Tribulation, the Slaughtered Lamb, and the Communion of Saints”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
All Saints Day
November 2, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
I’ve been thinking about this heaven scene from Revelation and I hate to go old-school Baptist preacher on you, but I want to make three points about this passage. Not points, really. More like observations. I want to make observations, and it just so happens, there are three of them.
Observation #1: This lovely vision of John’s depicts the end of suffering. God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more hunger, no more thirst. The sun and the scorching heat will no longer strike them; the Lamb will lead them to springs of the water of life. It is a beautiful picture of hope, but for who?
The text itself asks the who question, “Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’” We are told they are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal, or as some translations call it, the great tribulation. Now forget for a moment all the baggage of the phrase and anything you learned from Kirk Cameron and Left Behind and just listen to the phrase all by itself, no preconceived notion of what it means. “They who have come out of the great ordeal.” These folks robed in white and singing to the Lamb are people who have suffered, and John proclaims, they will suffer no more.
John is writing to a people who are discouraged and afraid, and like most Apocalyptic writers, he imagines a world where things get worse before they get better, and yet, the hope is clear and real. Even those who endure much, even those who face untimely death, even they will one day be comforted. “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted,” Jesus had promised, and John demonstrates this, first with a vivid description of terror and death via the four horsemen in chapter six, and then he presents this image of glory and restoration and deliverance in chapter seven.
Let’s sidestep for a second and simply talk interpretation, because let’s face it, just opening the book of Revelation is an act of bravery, what with someone new trying to convince us every decade that the world is ending and that the antichrist has been identified for real this time and we know so because there is more war and more famine and more debauchery now than has ever been before . . .
While a little reality check from world history can quickly dispel all of that, we are still left in a quandary about how actually to interpret this odd little book. Apocalyptic literature isn’t exactly common to us 21st century folk, and its unfamiliar imagery and language often tempt us to give up, and the task of interpretation gets left in the hands of the fear-mongers and the amateur, excitable code-crackers. Interpretation becomes more of a hobby for wannabe cryptographers, like doing crossword puzzles from the newspaper for a mental challenge, rather than interpretation being a spiritual discipline for the people of God who are trying to discern how to become like Christ. The interpretations we hear passed around can be so bizarre and so disconnected from our daily lives that we want nothing to do with them, and yet, we don’t always know how to counter them.
One of the best places to begin interpretation is to read what is actually there. Simple advice, but profound. This really isn’t a crossword puzzle or a fill-in-the-blank. You don’t have to supply missing material so much as ponder what is there. One student who was assigned to read the whole book of Revelation responded, “After reading the book of Revelation all the way through, I wondered where the rest of the information was located. From what I have heard in and around church, I expected more or maybe just different text.”
So let’s take what is there. These are the ones who have endured a great ordeal. Can you relate to the word ordeal? Have you been through one or known someone who has? Let’s imagine you make it through or the one you know who suffers much makes it through and at the end of it all, God is there to wipe any lingering tears from your eyes. This is your Christian hope. Imagine: imagine that the black folks who were used as slaves or the young girls in our world today who are sold for sex against their will, imagine the children forced to be soldiers, imagine the impoverished starving for bread and imagine the mentally-ill and the terminally ill and the chronically-pained—imagine all of them making it through ordeal and there being an end to the pain, the hunger, the thirst, and the beatings. Imagine that, and you have a picture of the end God desires, the end God has in mind, the end God will grant.
John of Patmos is writing to a troubled people who are afraid and discouraged and weary. First off, he is writing to them, these first century Christians in the middle of their own woes. He is not writing to some very specific group who will be decoding the “End Times” some thousands of years from the time of his original writing. He is writing first and foremost to the people he knows, most specifically to the seven churches named in chapters two and three, and he is using a type of literature with which we are not that well acquainted, a type of literature that paints the coming day of the Lord in dramatic scenes beyond what we ever imagined. In fact, this book is not unlike the popular dystopian novels of today (think Hunger Games or Divergent) where the world as we know it comes to an end, but the point of the story is not so much that the world we know comes to an end, but that even amidst the breakdown of so much we know, even then, good eventually triumphs over evil.
See, John is writing to comfort not to alarm. He is writing to first century Christians who assumed they were nearing the end to say to them even if it gets as bad as all this, even still, God is with you. Since John himself is writing to comfort, let us say clearly that any interpretation of Revelation that elicits panic, fear, or anxiety is a misguided use of the book. John was telling a victory story, reporting a vision that ultimately ends in hope; he wasn’t making some insanely hard to follow prediction of actual events that would take place long after his readers were dead. His message was relevant to them in the moment of their current suffering by stating in huge imaginative ways, God will triumph.
When you see the phrase “great tribulation” it does not mean something strange and unknown that will last for a set amount of years at the end of time. (Do you see that definition anywhere in this passage?) It means exactly what the words “great” and “tribulation” have always meant; that there are people who suffer, and sometimes the suffering is great. And the hope is the same hope that we have read throughout all of Scripture, that God will redeem all of it. The difference here is that in the book of Revelation this hope is told in a way we haven’t heard before—through fantastic imagery and larger-than-life visions and dreams—but even still, it is the same Gospel, the same Good News as always. Our God is a God who can and will redeem evil.
At the end of the book of Revelation, the image of the “New Jerusalem” is very much the same as what we see here, with John reporting, “The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples,?and God himself will be with them; He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:3-5).
This picture of the end is the ultimate message of the book of Revelation. Whatever else you find in here, be sure you take away this vision of a Christian end, for this is what the whole book points to, in fact, this is what all stories in the Bible point to—God’s redemption of the world. It is a message consistent with the rest of Scripture, and it is a message quite relevant to our daily toils as we attempt, sometimes desperately, to keep hoping. Here is promise that through our greatest ordeals, God will not abandon us. Even when world events are so appalling it doesn’t seem possible, the deeper unseen truth is that we are still moving in the direction of redemption.
Observation #2: In this passage, the saved ones sing, “Salvation belongs to the Lamb!” The Lamb is mentioned four times in this one vision; in fact, “Lamb” is the most prominent Christological title in Revelation. The word appears 28 times a metaphor for Jesus. But did you know that apart from the book of Revelation, the imagery of Jesus as a lamb is found in only four other places in the New Testament? Essentially our understanding of Jesus as the Lamb comes from the book of Revelation.
If you back up a little to chapter five, I think we see something really cool. Let me explain. The vision we are talking about today takes places in the middle of the opening of the seven seals of this scroll whose contents are mysterious. Six seals have already been opened, and then there’s a long pause before the seventh seal is opened, and it is inside that pause that John has the vision we read today. Chapter five is where this mysterious scroll first appears, and it has seven seals, meaning it is a very important scroll and hard to open. An angel cries out, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” (Revelation 5:2) And there is no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth who is able to open the scroll or look into it, and John is so disappointed that no one was found worthy that he begins to weep. But just as he begins to despair, he is told, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (Revelation 5:5). The only person worthy is the Lion of Judah, who has conquered. The Lion of Judah. But when John turns to see the approaching “Lion,” what he sees is a Lamb, “standing as if it had been slaughtered.” The Lion is a Lamb. God is Jesus, and Jesus is a Lamb.
This stuff about the Lamb is very helpful in interpreting the rest of the book, because it says some very clear things about John’s understanding of God. If you take individual snippets from Revelation on their own, you might get the sense that God is militaristic, vengeful, bloody, or violent, but the image of God in Revelation, while indeed bloody, is the image of a bloody Lamb. Not a warrior, but a Lamb. The way God conquers is through self-sacrifice.
It is worth saying this Lamb is no helpless victim. He has seven eyes and seven horns, which is a strange but imaginative way to say, this Lamb is complete, this Lamb is strong, this Lamb sees things and knows things and conquers things. We aren’t talking about a God who was defeated. We are talking about a God who chose death, and then, of course, found life on the other side. This is an unconventional Lamb, who wins, not by warring, but by dying, not by force and coercion, but by love. The slaughtered Lamb consistently shows up as John’s vision of what a conquering hero looks like, and this is the Lamb to whom the delivered ones sing their praises.
Observation #3: The people in white robes in John’s vision come from everywhere. Everywhere. John reports a multitude that no one could count, from every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages. All are represented here; no type is left out. The elders seem surprised, “Who are these, robed in white?” as if they hadn’t expected heaven to be quite this large and quite this inclusive. “Where have they come from?” they question, as if they hadn’t expected quite so many unfamiliar faces and foreign guests.
This perhaps is the biggest miracle of all—not merely that good triumphs, but that so many are included in the great mercy. This is where the story becomes not just a word of comfort, but a word of challenge. Have we begun living into the vastness of God’s kingdom, or do we hold eternity at bay by attempting to keep heaven small, reserving salvation for those who think and talk and sound like us?
I believe there is a deep sense of loneliness pervading our world from relationships we have not repaired or made right. There are remarkable friendships awaiting the ones who will let down their armor and unite under the banner of love.
I was always taught as a kid that sin is what separates me from God but if I may be so bold, in my experience, no sin of mine has ever kept me from God, unless I chose to stay away. As Paul put it, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.” What has been more painful and real for me is that sin keeps us from each other. Abuse, violence, greed, selfishness, dishonesty, spite, gossip, judgment, revenge—these things separate and divide and wound.
This perpetual cycle of violence and the ripping apart of the fabric of true relationship is as old and ancient as Cain and Abel, and it is a thing God cannot bear. Legend has it God once tried to wipe out the pain with a flood, but that didn’t work for God to sit far above and send a deluge on behalf of justice. So instead God tried this radical, absurd, unheard of thing in which God became the suffering. God bled beside us. God did not stand above but entered the fray. God had sent water, and that did not remove the bloodstain. It seemed nearly as soon as the Ark landed, people were back to the business of defiling one another. So this time, God washed bloodshed with bloodshed, that is, with God’s own blood. This was markedly different from anything a god had tried before. The gods of the Ancient Near East were always demanding sacrifices, not becoming one, looking for retribution, not doling out forgiveness, claiming their power, not sidling up with the victims and seeing how things looked from the fatal end of noose, a whip, a pistol, a cross.
And what would you know but blood on blood washed things white. This is the Paschal Mystery—that divine solidarity with the suffering was what began the process of wiping away tears and restoring our sanity.
We must be always looking forward to the radical nature of future kingdom of God, otherwise we misplace the content of our hope. Christian hope is not merely that my suffering will end, but that so will theirs, particularly as we stop creating suffering for one another.
It seems to me the pathway back to God is the quickest one, for while we may have objections and cynicisms and reservations, God does not, and from God’s end the way is clear and lined lavishly with mercy. It is the pathway back to restored relationships with others that is taking us so forever long to figure out and to achieve. Just look at the bloodshed, the oppression, the abuse, and the hatred that still exist in the world. We have not found our way back to each other. But even then, the way is not hopeless. This is what John’s vision reveals: someday there will be a reunion, with everyone waving palm branches, symbolizing victory at last.
On All Saints Day, we look back at all the saints who have impacted our lives and our faith. But we also look forward to the saints we will someday know and love as Christ expands our hearts to a larger embrace. When we take communion together, though it is an act grounded in the past, it is also a forward-looking practice. It does not only symbolize what has happened in Christ, but what will happen in Christ at the redemption of all things when all will share one bread, the body of the Lamb who was slain. “The Lamb of God who takes the away the sins of the world,” as John the Baptist once said, which I take to mean, not just the forgiveness of sins but the eradication of them, so that we might be set free to love our neighbor at last. Sin being not so much the thing that soils me but the thing that separates us from one another with its destructive powers of hatred and fear and greed, with its divisive and corrosive tendencies of comparison and insecurity. We can barely stand to look at each other, for we’ve got each other’s blood on our hands, but then the innocent, sacrificial, freely-given blood of this Lamb came washing through, making our humanity visible to one another yet again.
On this day, may we join all the saints, those who have come before and those who will come after, those who look and smell like us, and those who are shockingly different, and may we enact a little bit of heaven on earth by embracing all God’s children, making forgiveness a reality and hatred obsolete. Amen.
 Quote from Revelation: Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary by Mitchell Reddish (Smyth and Helwys, GA: 2001), 154.