David A. Davis
May 12, 2019
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I wonder what the elder there in John’s vision from the 7th chapter of the Book of Revelation, I wonder what the elder didn’t tell John. I wonder what more he could have told John about that heavenly crowds no one could count. John tells of “a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples, and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb”. He sees the great multitude dressed in while and waving branches, shouting and singing praise, shouting and singing the faith, shouting and singing in a way even you and I would recognize. There are angels, elders, and four living creatures. Then John describes for the reader how one of the elders asked him about this great multitude and where they came from. But John replies he doesn’t know; how could he know? The elder would be the one who knows.
That’s when the elder tells him, “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.” The elder keeps going, the elder goes on to explain to John, the elder gives John a bit more of the picture. The elder expands on the vision. “for this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship God day and night within God’s 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.”
Last year around this time, I was with a group of pastors who visited the Cloisters up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan up above the Hudson River. We took along Professor Paul Rorem, professor of Medieval history over at Princeton Theological Seminary. Professor Rorem was our docent for the day as we explored that part of the Metropolitan Museum so full of religious art and artifacts. I’m not sure “docent” is a strong enough word to describe the expertise Dr. Rorem brings to a tour of the Cloisters. I have made the trip several times with him now and he always has to make some choices about what to show us, what to talk about. There is always free time to explore everything but only a limited amount of group time for explanation, for teaching, for expanding the vision of the untrained eye. I’m always struck when Professor Rorem directs your eye to something in a work of art before you; he uses his pinky finger; the smallest of means and the least intrusive to the painting. Last year when he was helping to see details in a particular sculpture of Christ on the Cross that was high up toward the ceiling, he got in a bit of trouble with security for using a pointer. But like the entire museum, when looking at one piece, the teacher looks to direct the eye to find meaning and learning and appreciation for the beauty.
I have read John’s vision from the 7th chapter of revelation and elder’s words to him more often than I could ever count. Mostly, I have read it in cemeteries and at memorial services. In that setting, my oral interpretation of the text, like a pinky on the hand, naturally points to the Lamb at the center of the throne, the Shepherd guiding them to springs of living water, and of course, most importantly, the promise that God will wipe away every tear from their eye.
But if the interpreter, the Teacher, the docent of John’s divine vision of that great multitude that no one could number is not the reader of the passage but the heavenly elder. The elder who addressed John with the question, “Who are these…” That elder who told John who they were and said, “for this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship God day and night….” The elder is the one direct John’s eye to find meaning and learning and appreciation for the kingdom of God, the throne of God’s grace, the beauty of the very heart of God. And I wonder what more the elder could have told him, could have pointed to with his pinky.
No one expects that these visions and how they are described, described by John or by the elder are exhaustive, complete, the final, only, last word on a vision of the kingdom of heaven. No one would suggest that the Apostle Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians is exhaustive or complete: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Think selflessness, honesty, persistence, hope, You will remember that the holy scripture is full of other details, visions, depictions of the kingdom of heaven, neither of them are exhaustive either. Rather, they are snippets to piece together, patches to be sewn in that come from the Hebrew prophets, from the teaching of Jesus, from elsewhere in the Apocalypse to John. “I saw a new heaven and a new earth….God will dwell with them as their God and they will be God’s peoples, … God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death shall be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21). “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another one eat, for like the days of the tree shall my people be…the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox, but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 65). Matthew 25: the hungry fed, the thirsty given something to drink, the stranger welcomed, the naked clothed, the sick and imprisoned visited. You know I could point to more, and so could that elder in Revelation. A lot more, much more in the beautiful vision that is the kingdom of heaven and that great multitude that no one could count.
Swords into plowshares. Learning war no more. A little child shall lead them. Justice that rolls down like waters, Righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Every valley lifted up. Everyone mountain made low. All the rough places plain. The powerful brought down from their thrones. The lowly lifted up. The hungry filled with good things. The rich sent away empty. The oppressed set free. Sight given to the blind. Good news brought to the poor. The poor in Spirit. Those who mourn. The meek. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The merciful. The pure in heart. The peacemakers. Those persecuted for the sake of righteousness. All of them being blessed.
The beautiful vision that is the kingdom of heaven in scripture and beyond. Death not having the last word. Light forever conquering the darkness. Love overcoming hate. Love that is stronger than death. Bodies. Minds, Souls restored. Little girls and little boys of every color, of every race, of every nation joining hands as siblings one with another. Schools. Mosques. Synagogues. Campuses. Homes. All safe from violence. No active shooter. No high school, no college hero giving a life to save others at the end of gun. No more guns. No raging floods, only living water. No more words like Stage IV or metastatic. No one unjustly convicted. No enemies, no threat level, no terror. No fear. Only lasting peace and unbridled joy and feasts and sonatas that last forever and glorious views of creation. Only beauty there in the heart of God. Think how much more the elder could have told John about the beautiful vision that is the kingdom of the heaven. How much more the elder could have said about that great multitude that no one could count.
My first experience in coaching one of our kids was T-ball: four, maybe five year old boys and girls on a little field out to have fun, put on a hat and t-shirt uniform, and maybe learn a few things about baseball. I remember watching kids swing the bat and barely dribble the ball off the tee and then they would run right to the pitcher’s mound, or to third base, once in a while even to first base. Fielders not paying one iota of attention when a ball might roll their direction. The hats, the gloves, they were all way too big for the kids. Of course, you had to go for ice cream after the game. That’s part of baseball. That and learning to spit. It did not take long that season of T-ball for those 4 and 5 year olds to figure out how to keep score, how to figure out who might be winning and who might be losing, This was in T-ball, where no one was allowed to keep score of runs. No run really ever crossed home plate. But if by chance, the ball went right to a fielder, and the fielder could run right to tag first base while the batter decided whether to run, well, it was an out. They had to learn about outs. Everybody in the lineup got to bat each inning, so it wasn’t about getting three outs. But the kids started keeping score, not with runs, but with outs. The figured out pretty quickly, without any coach’s help, that the team that got more outs was winning. It didn’t take long for the 4 and 5 year olds to keep count. It’s almost innate, the desire to keep score. And it never goes away, even in the church, even for the followers of Jesus, that human drive to always count.
What John sees is “a great multitude which no could count, from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples, and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” No one could count. No one. And yet, so many in the faith, so much of the Christian tradition, so many us, pretty much like 4 and 5 year old T-ball players can’t stop counting. Being charge. Deciding who is in and who is not. Making sure we always have more outs. More runs. More truth.
Think of what a different world it would be, what the church of Jesus Christ would be, what the communities where we live and work, what our lives would look like, what life for a follower of Jesus would like it, if we would all stop counting, stop counting and start serving, looking for, building, claiming, pointing to, living into and helping everyone else, everyone else see the beautiful vision that is the kingdom of heaven.