St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
I’m not sure about you, but when I hear passages from the book of Revelation, I’m emotionally moved…sometimes to tears…at the beauty of his description of the vision he sees. And I’m usually comforted in some way. And yet, the supposedly intelligent part of me thinks, “This isn’t real. It’s a fantastical vision that can’t possibly be describing something real.”
The book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic literature is a genre of writing, like historical narrative or poetry or Law or a letter. It was popular in post-exilic Jewish culture and among early Christians. As a genre, apocalyptic literature details the author’s visions, usually delivered by an angel, and the vision is usually of some heavenly scene in what seems like an alternate universe. This isn’t a genre of literature that exists in 2019 in English, making it all the more difficult for us to interpret. Muddying the waters even more is the tendency amongst certain evangelicals to interpret John’s Revelation literally, resulting in book and movie series like Left Behind which portray events in John’s vision as predictions of events that will happen in the future. Apocalyptic literature is not 20th century journalism, nor is it meant to predict specific events that will happen in our world at some future date. Reading Revelation in one hand and the New York Times in the other, trying to find correlations between the two, is quite frankly dangerous and is missing the entire point.
But that doesn’t make the book of Revelation any less real.
At this point in his vision, John sees a great multitude of people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages robed in white worshipping the Lamb of God. Their clothing was made white by being washed in the blood of the Lamb. The white garments represent the purity and cleanliness that comes from our baptism, a symbol that persisted for centuries as new Christians were baptized in a simple, white alb like this one.
These white-robed worshippers had just come out of the “great ordeal”. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that it’s God’s job to keep us and our loved ones safe from all harm. On the contrary, John’s vision shows us that pain and suffering are inherently part of the Christian life. These worshippers not only underwent a great ordeal, they are in need of shelter. They have known hunger and thirst and scorching heat. They have tears in their eyes. In other words, they are not immune to human suffering.
And neither are we immune to suffering. Sometimes, we may think that our entire life is one “great ordeal,” to use John’s words. Whether it’s the burden of caring for a loved one who cannot care for themselves, or trying to pay all your bills on a shoestring budget, or dealing with a frightening medical diagnosis with a bleak outcome, you and I suffer in a multitude of ways each and every day.
During these great fifty days of Easter, the Church shouts from the rooftops that our Lord Jesus Christ has won the victory over suffering and evil and death by his resurrection from the dead. At Easter, the Passover Lamb was sacrificed for us, and at our baptism, our souls were marked like the doorposts of the Hebrew people at the first Passover. And while the Resurrection of Jesus doesn’t mean that our suffering ends right now, by the message of an angel, we are given a foretaste of that day when all our suffering will end:
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.
What hope! What balm for the soul when we suffer! And thanks be to God, this hope is made tangible to us today in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. St. John Paul II, speaking of this heavenly vision in Revelation, once said,
This luminous image of the heavenly glory is anticipated in the Liturgy of the Church. Those who celebrate it here, live already in some way, beyond the signs, in the heavenly liturgy, where the celebration is totally communion and feast. It is in this eternal liturgy that the Spirit and the Church make us participate, when we celebrate the mystery of salvation in the sacraments.
Friends, it is in the sacraments of the Church that we are given the sustenance we need to continue to faithfully follow our Lord in the midst of our suffering.
John’s vision is not meant to be taken literally, but that makes it no less real. In his bodily resurrection at Easter, Jesus Christ defeated suffering and evil and death once and for all. We will not fully see the culmination of this great victory on this side of the grave, but we are given a foretaste of that heavenly banquet in this bread and this cup. What hope! As you receive the pledge of your salvation at the altar rail today, know that one day, God will guide you to the springs of the water of life, and he will wipe every tear from your eyes. Amen.
 David Lyon Bartlett, and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. Kindle edition, location 14590 of 18450.
 Vs. 15-17.
 http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2014/12/the-book-of-revelation-guide-to.html#.XNcIVY5KjD4. He was actually speaking of a similar scene in Revelation 5 which is somewhat of a sister passage to this one, but I didn’t want to take the time in the actual sermon to explain that.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!