Based on Revelation 7:9-17, 1John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12
For hundreds of years both writers and Hollywood film makers have been fascinated with apocalyptic or end-of-time stories. You all have read or seen some or maybe all of them. Examples include: “War of the Worlds”, “Independence Day”, “2012”, “Zombieland” or “Dawn of the Dead” or “I Am Legend”, “Planet of the Apes”, “Mad Max”, “The Book of Eli”, and who could forget “Pandemic” (it was a real movie from 2016 – I’m serious!). All of these movies show a dystopian view of the future in which some fraction of the human population left alive after a devastating worldwide event. The remaining humans must overcome numerous hardships, and each other, as they try to rebuild the world from the wreckage. In some of the movies there is a return to communal life where folks work together, in others, just a bleak continuation of the struggle to stay alive. These movies and stories provoke fear and anxiety in us because they show what can happen when human greed or hubris, lust for power and control, and/or partisan indoctrination are left unbalanced and get taken to their ultimate and irrevocable limits.
You may find it interesting that this understanding of the word apocalypse did not occur until the 19th Century. Prior to that, the word “apocalypse” (as it appears in the biblical Greek) meant an unveiling or revealing of something that was until that time unseen or unknown. Thus, the last book of the New Testament would really have been titled, “The Apocalypse of John” or just “Apocalypse” – and it is no wonder then that the biblical Greek was translated into English as “Revelation”. The Book of Revelation is the last book in the Bible because it completes the self-revelation of God which began in the Garden of Eden and has continued throughout the 66 books (or 73 if you grew up in the Roman Catholic faith). Today’s scripture readings have much to reveal to us about how it is that God is calling us to live in harmony with God and each other. Before we go any further, let us go to God in prayer…
Jesus is just beginning his ministry in our Gospel reading for today. We have returned to the beginning in Matthew because Jesus starts his discipling with a teaching moment. We’re told that “great crowds” were following him because of his teaching and healing. Jesus climbed up a mountain with his disciples and for the first time taught them about the kingdom of heaven. Jesus reveals, as any good teacher does, what is most important for them to know about the kingdom of heaven. Jesus teaches that God’s kingdom is unlike any human kingdom they have ever known. In God’s kingdom the poor and marginalized are exalted and become the centerpiece. In God’s kingdom those that mourn are comforted instead of being told to just “get over it”. Those who are humble, meek, merciful and pure in heart are blessed, as are those who constantly fight for the rights of others and those who make peace. Most importantly, those who are persecuted for promoting God’s vision for the world will be rewarded by entering the kingdom of heaven.
The fulfillment of these last blessings is the vision that John beholds in our reading from Revelation. John has seen the revealing of heaven’s “Four Horsemen”, the marking of the 144,000 from the 12 Tribes of Israel, and now a great multitude is revealed. Countless numbers of people in white robes waving palm branches and worshipping God come into view. An “elder” asks John to tell him who are these robed persons. John does not know and the elder tells him that these are the believers “who have come out of the great ordeal” for Jesus and been washed clean in His blood. Jesus will take care of them because they have been persecuted for his name. No more will anything harm them, nor will they ever hunger or thirst again. It is revealed to John that all who follow the way of life that Jesus depicted in the Sermon on the Mount will not be forgotten.
The letter identified in the Bible as 1John is known as a pastoral letter. This means that it is written in a way that provides comfort, instruction and exhortation to the believers to whom it was read. The pastor who wrote the letter wanted to be sure, just like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, that everyone receiving the letter would be on the same page. Important truths such as “God is Light”, “Christ is our Advocate”, and a warning against antichrists and other false teachers are conveyed. Like all of the Epistles, this letter assumes that the second coming of Jesus is right around the corner, so believers need to make sure that they are abiding in Jesus. They should know for certain that through their baptisms they have been adopted by God and are thus God’s children. The writer notes that not everyone in the world yet knows about Jesus – but God’s children know about Jesus. Because of their position as God’s children they can await the coming revelation knowing that they will be part of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.
About 12 years ago I taught an adult Sunday school class on the Book of Revelation. The class members had always struggled with this book, and this was a class of believers in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. They told me that though they had studied it before they wanted to take another run at it to see if they could understand (A) why it had been included in the Bible in the first place and (B) what it might mean to them and their faith journey. Over the course of a couple of months we tried to grasp the dream language and imagery contained in this last book of the Bible. I’m not sure that much insight was revealed to any of us, but we all showed up and tried our best.
I think that the juxtaposition of the three scriptures in this week’s readings may reveal more than the two months of study provided. When we hear Jesus’ teaching about how God’s kingdom rewards those whom the world marginalizes or persecutes and that we as children now are continuing to become what we will be when Jesus comes again, a theme is revealed. What is revealed is that no one who believes in Jesus the Christ and seeks to do God’s work in the world will be denied entry into the kingdom. Those countless, white robed individuals who gave their lives for Jesus – those everyday saints who tried to live fully and used their God-given gifts to make their part of the world more righteous, peaceful, compassionate and faith-filled are remembered and rewarded. Note that their faith has not spared them from the ordeal – but their faith has been blessed by a God who is steadfastly loving and faithful to their witness.
Each year on this day we remember the everyday saints who have meant so much to our lives. In ways large and small they have all participated in the apocalypse – the revealing, of how it is that God continues to be at work in our world through God’s children. Let us resolve to continue what they have begun by using our gifts to further God’s work in the world. Let us not focus on the destructive aspects of apocalypse, but on the revelation that is promised. Take heart, beloved, “we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed”, but if we live fully into Jesus’ teachings we can trust that on that day we will be like Him and all the saints. Amen and amen!