Grace Presbyterian Church
May 8, 2022, Easter 4C
Shepherd and Lamb
A couple of weeks ago, in starting this series of texts selected from the book of Revelation, I suggested that in doing so we were skipping ahead to “the end of the book,” so to speak, to make sure all comes out alright in the end. It seems that John, the elder credited with writing this apocalyptic visionary text, had the same idea in mind; today’s reading represents John doing something similar with his account, “skipping ahead” to this scene of joy and redemption in the midst of a dark passage in his apocalyptic vision.
Chapter 6 contains an account of the breaking open of seven seals on a scroll, which released upon the world what some call “apocalyptic devastation.” To give some sample of what happens as a result, the breaking of the first four of those seals on the scroll is the source of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” motif one hears about incessantly in some renderings of the End Times. Read from the perspective of those who suffer oppression in the world, those seven seals come across as the powerful and oppressive rulers of the world finally getting their “just desserts,” facing the consequences of their oppression of the world at long last. After the sixth such release, which sets the kings and rulers of the earth running and hiding, that account is interrupted by the vision of chapter 7, in which we are taken back (or forward, technically) to visions of heavenly praise and glorification, one of which begins in verse 9.
The vision unfolds here of a “great multitude no one could count.” John specifically points out that this great multitude is not limited to one kind or race or nation; “all tribes and peoples and languages” are represented in this number. They stand robed in which and carrying palm branches (the echo of Palm Sunday is probably not a coincidence), and shout aloud “Victory to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” The Lamb in question first appears in chapter 5; in a bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand, that Lamb is first introduced as “the Lion from the tribe of Judah, the shoot growing from David’s stock” who is worthy to break those seals on the scroll. If that sounds like a reference to Jesus, especially that talk about the tribe of Judah and David’s line, you’re catching on. However, even though he is proclaimed as a Lion, the one who appears is this Lamb. This isn’t the last bit of identity-shifting we’ll see in regard to this Lamb.
After the praise of the great multitude, the host of heavenly beings introduced earlier in the book let loose their exclamation in song, echoing the praises heard in chapter 5, touched upon briefly two weeks ago. The elder who has been serving as John’s guide through this vision engages John with almost a taunting question, asking John what he very well knows John does not know; when John wisely demurs, the elder launches into the description that makes up the rest of the chapter.
At this point we need to remind ourselves of two things about Revelation; one is that, as with the epistles of Paul and others that make up much of the New Testament, we are reading somebody else’s mail. The second is that, due to the circumstances of exile in which John writes, it’s a coded message. Remembering this is how we begin to make sense of this passage, especially verse 14.
The “great ordeal” of verse 14 does not need to be tied to any specific event; the persecution John and others are now facing, and which John is sure is coming for those to whom he writes, is a clear enough reference here. The reference in this case can be expanded for those who face persecution for their faith in all ages. Revelation scholar Brian Blount (1) points out that the Greek of verse 14 is structured in such a way that each clause about this multitude is not narrating a sequence of events but offering clarification of one event. He offers as a modern phrasing “These are the ones who went through the great tribulation, which is to say, they washed their robes; that is, they made them dazzling in the blood of the Lamb.”
And what was it that those of this multitude did? What do these phrases mean? The very thing that John was encouraging his readers to do in the seven letters of chapters 2-3; they bore witness, not just in word but especially in deed. They did not accommodate to Roman lordship or pay religious homage to the emperor. They did not seek to cling to the economic or social or political benefits of imperial power. Their allegiance, their worship, lay only with God and with the Lamb. For that, they suffered great trial but continued to bear witness, remaining loyal to God and to the Lamb despite whatever Empire or Commerce or even Social Harmony demanded of them. There were sacrifices, even martyrdom, that happened because of that witness, yes; but John’s message from this vision is not “be martyrs”; it is “bear witness, whatever happens.”
It is for this faithfulness of witness that the great multitude is called to stand in the presence of God without end, worshiping both day and night, and protected in the presence of God. It is this faithfulness of witness that means no more hunger or thirst or scorching of the sun or any such trouble.
Here comes that other identity shift, in verse 17;
…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.
This is the promise for those who keep on bearing faithful witness, whatever happens.
Even Psalm 23, with all of its “the Lord is my shepherd,” doesn’t contemplate a shepherd who is also a Lamb. Psalm 23 has become an almost universal text of comfort and reassurance, but it seems that Revelation’s Lamb as shepherd/shepherd as Lamb image is harder for folks to bear.
Quite a few self-proclaimed Christians, over the centuries and very emphatically today, don’t seem willing to be led by one so humble as a Lamb. They prefer the trappings of empire, the power of unchallenged rule. They lay claim to the governing apparatus of their time – monarchies or parliaments – and our time – legislatures and courts – to enforce their will upon others, stripping away the essential human dignity of every person – every child of God – to enforce dogmas without scriptural foundation and strictures of their own fancying. Far from being the ones who go through the great trial, they become the persecutors; in banning or restricting the work of others based on their own religious dogma, for example, they engage in religious oppression.
John would be aghast at such behavior, and to say that this is not behavior that puts one at the throne of God and of the Lamb, worshiping continuously day and night in God’s protective presence and led by the Lamb who shepherds them. If anything, that kind of oppressiveness seems a good way to wind up on the business end of those six seals that were released back in chapter 6.
There are those who continue to bear witness. The news came this week of a PC(USA) missionary in the Philippines, Rev. Cathy Chang, who was “red-tagged” by the regime in power there. In the Philippines, “red-tagging” is a form of blacklisting, reserved for those who are deemed insufficiently supportive of that regime. Rev. Chang’s “crime” was apparently to meet with a person who was seeking office there in a political party deemed insufficiently supportive of that regime. A “red-tagged” person can be arrested without charge and gunned down for “resisting arrest” whether they actually resist or not. Some have been gunned down in the street without any pretense of arrest, with no legal repercussions against those who commit the murder. Some have been forced to leave the country. Rev. Chang was scheduled to be part of General Assembly in Louisville this summer; if she does return to the US to participate, she will almost certainly not be permitted to return to her work in the Philippines.
There are those who continue to bear witness, whatever happens. Let us seek to be among them, and not among the oppressors.
For those who bear witness, whatever happens, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal); #327, From All That Dwell Below the Skies; #274, You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd; #295, Go to the World!
(1) See Brian Blount, Revelation: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 149ff. Actually just check out the whole commentary.