The Rev. Frank Logue
The Pause Before the Storm
Today is All Saints Day and our reading for today is the same as it was more than 100 years ago for All Saints. We read the seventh chapter of the Revelation of St. John, which gives us a glimpse of a great multitude of saints standing before the lamb on the throne. There are more saints than can be counted from every tribe, people, and language. This is the essential All Saints reading for we see the great cloud of witnesses before our Lord. To really understand this reading, I will have to go where angels fear to tread and give you a little background to understand this book of Revelation.
If you are the sort of person who likes to read the last chapter of a mystery first to see how it all turns out in the end, then Revelation is your book. The last of the 66 books of the Bible, it is, for many, the most perplexing. Revelation was the book that kept me up at night as a preteen as I felt I had to understand the end time prophecies found there to get a better grip on what was happening then in the 1970s. What I read in Revelation read more like a nightmare of a vision than a road map for the future and I was left dazed and confused.
Let me stop and assure you that I have not broken the code. I have no secret key to unlock the Apocalypse and explain every word in detail relating it to people and events today. Bless those who have the gift for divining end times events from Revelation, Daniel and Ezekiel, I would not want to say a word against their ministries. There are a long line of folks who see Revelation unfolding before their eyes.
In the mid to late 60s, by which I mean the year 62 A.D. to 70 A.D. Most everyone was convinced that the code number 666 referred to Nero Caesar. At the turn of the first millennium, from the year 999 to the year 1,000, there was a general fear that crept through the church, which made anything Y2K served up look tame. Everyone was convinced that the thousand year mark was sure to bring Armageddon. Then in the 1500s, reformers including Martin Luther and John Calvin came to think the Pope was the antichrist. How could Christians living in Europe during the 1930s not see the rise of Hitler as being the beast of Revelation coming in to power. And on it goes.
There are many examples of how Revelation has been conformed to world events and interpreted as giving the date, time, and place of Jesus return in glory. The only thing I can say with certainty about the time of Jesus return is that I donít know when it will happen, for scripture tells us that no one knows the hour or the day and our Lord will return like a thief in the night. I donít know, because I am not supposed to know. So why not chuck this problematic last book of the Bible entirely? If not by ripping out the pages from our Bible, then by ignoring it and concentrating our concerns elsewhere. I think there are two reasons to hold on to Revelation: 1) Revelation 1:3 offers an unusual promise, the only one like it in scripture. That verse promises a blessing for anyone who reads aloud this prophecy and further blessing on those who hear and keep it. Thatís one good reason to continue to read Revelation aloud. 2) God has told us that all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. So, I will struggle to get the blessing God has for me in this book, even as I continue to puzzle over it.
But, there are things we can gain from Revelation without unlocking any secret to interpretation. After all, this book was important to the early church and to Christians over time even when they have not read their own time as being the time described by the apocalypse. I believe that scripture can be fulfilled more than once as it works its way toward ultimate fulfillment. As Revelation is a true depiction of the way the world works, then we should expect other world leaders to rise and fall before we get to the Beast of Johnís vision. Other world events are bound to closely parallel these ultimate events. And so, whether our days are, in fact, the last few days before Jesusí return or not, we can still benefit from this vision.
What has happened in the six chapters of the book before our reading is this. John wrote to seven churches in Asia with specific messages. I believe that these were written to seven real congregations described in the letter and I also believe that many other congregations have fit these descriptions over time and will do so till the end of time. There are churches like the church in Ephesus who was enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of Christ, yet they had also fallen away from the fever of their first love for God. And so on through the other six churches, all of whom continue to be represented today.
After three chapters of these messages, John then describes worship in heaven with bold picture language and Technicolor clarity. In chapter six, John begins to describe the Lamb breaking open seven seals. With each of the first four seals, come the four horsemen of the apocalypseóthe white horse with a crown riding to conquer, the bright red horse come to take peace from the earth, the black horse with scales in its hand followed by the pale green horse of death, with Hades following after. As the vision unfolds we donít look forward to the seals being opened. The fifth seal then reveals the souls of those killed for their faith and they cry out wanting to know how long they must wait. The sixth seal is opened and there is an earthquake, the sun goes black and the moon turns to blood. The kings of the earth and powerful generals go hide, rich and powerful seek out caves trying to hide from the wrath of the Lamb. They cry aloud, ďWho is able to stand?Ē
Then we come to our reading for today. Do you see how everything has built up to this point. We are now ready for the seventh seal to be broken and who knows what evil will now befall the whole earth. Then four angels appear and say, ďDo not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads.Ē
Then 144,000 are sealed from the tribes of Israel. Personally I believe this to be a symbolic number showing how many will be sealed from Israel, not a limiting number. I donít think that the rest of scripture fits with the concept of number 144,000 and one in line being out of luck. Instead I think this number is symbolic the way the angels at four corners of the earth is symbolic. The angels at the corners were to signify God sending angels over the whole earth to mark his own people. The 144,000 shows a great number from Israel.
I am prepared to be wrong about the exactness of that number, but in any case, those are added to with more people than can be counted from all the earth. Each of them has been persecuted for their faith and come through to wash their garments white in the blood of the Lamb. These are not even the sum total of faithful Christians, they are the countless number who have stood up to being persecuted for their faith.
We like to think that this group is no longer growing in number, but that is simply not true. More people were put to death for faith is Jesus between 1900 and the year 2000 than all of the 19 previous centuries of Christianity. There in front of the throne are the Christians from house churches in China, standing shoulder to shoulder with Dinka Christians from the Sudan, and a Muslim killed for converting to Christianity in Pakistan and on and on. These are they who stand before the throne worshipping their God who guides them to springs of water where he longs to wipe away every tear from their eyes.
The next chapter will begin with the seventh seal being opened and all heaven falling silent for half an hour. Next great destruction will be described, but first, we get the pause before the storm. This is a great image for our own lives. Though the first six seals have not been opened, we live in that great pause before the storm nonetheless. All Christian history from the writing of this apocalypse until now has been a time of Christ calling Christians to the faithfulness we see in these innumerable martyrs before the throne.
We live in America where being Christian is a nice safe option. It is easy to be Christian here. Too easy. We come to take the Word of God for granted. Yet, we live in a world where Communist Nationalism, Muslim Fundamentalism and Capitalist greed have created conditions in which more and more people are being put to death for daring to proclaim the truth of God as revealed in his son Jesus.
We were never called to a nice, safe Christianity. Jesus called his followers to take up their cross and follow him. That is an image of humility and obedience to death. And yet, we take up our personal agendas and follow him as we can. That is simply not good enough.
Anson Dodge did not come and build the first chapel here to preach about an easy faith. His wife had already died on his honeymoon and his boy had died tragically at the age of three. Anson Dodge had no room left for easy words of comfort. Instead, he gave his 39 short years of life to spreading the truth of the Gospel along the coast from St. Marys to Darien wherever folks would listen. He preached because he could not hold the Gospel in and he called others to that same kind of commitment.
I want to end with a story that shares the sort of faith Revelation calls us to. Years ago a farmer owned land along the Atlantic seacoast. He constantly advertised for hired hands. Most people were reluctant to work on farms along the Atlantic. They dreaded the awful storms that raged across the Atlantic, wreaking havoc on the buildings and crops.
As the farmer interviewed applicants for the job, he received a steady stream of refusals. Finally, a short, thin man, well past middle age, approached the farmer. "Are you a good farmhand?" the farmer asked him."
"Well, I can sleep when the wind blows," answered the little man.
Although puzzled by this answer, the farmer, desperate for help, hired him. The little man worked well around the farm, busy from dawn to dusk, and the farmer felt satisfied with the man's work.
Then one night the wind howled loudly in from offshore. Jumping out of bed, the farmer grabbed a lantern and rushed next door to the hired hand's sleeping quarters. He shook the little man and yelled, "Get up! A storm is coming! Tie things down before they blow away!"
The little man rolled over in bed and said firmly, "No sir. I told you, I can sleep when the wind blows."
Enraged by the old man's response, the farmer was tempted to fire him on the spot. Instead, he hurried outside to prepare for the storm.
To his amazement, he discovered that all of the haystacks had been covered with tarpaulins. The cows were in the barn, the chickens were in the coops, and the doors were barred. The shutters were tightly secured. Everything was tied down. Nothing could blow away. The farmer then understood what his hired hand meant, so he returned to his bed to also sleep while the wind blew.
The hired hand in the story was able to sleep because he had secured the farm against the storm. We, as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, secure ourselves against the storms of life by grounding ourselves firmly in the Word of God. Knowing to take care of things now so that you will be ready when the storm hits is the real gift of Johnís Revelation.
You donít have to unlock any secret to understand when the end of time will come, for the end of your time may come on the drive home or at some other time when you are not prepared. The gift of the apocalypse is that it calls on all Christians to be prepared at any time. Jesus is always ready to except you in to the fold as a lamb of his own flock, a sinner of his own redeeming, if you will but confess your sins and give your life to him.
For all of us who have already given our lives to God, we can read in this seventh chapter of Revelation, the comfort that God has already sealed us as his own and nothing that history holds for the future will be able to rob us of our salvation. We are then called in this pause before the storm to live out the Gospel in our lives so that others may see Christ working in us. We are called to live like the saints God has called us to be.
Give up on nice, safe Christianity and try living out the Gospel day to day. It is not easy, but you will not have to go it alone. The Lamb at the center of the throne is with you. Live out your faith. Boldly proclaim your love for God and you will know that your future is safe with him. For no matter what else Revelation teaches us about the times in which we live, it teaches most surely that our times and our lives and in Godís hands. The Lamb is your Shepherd and he is guiding you to springs of the water of life, if you will but follow.
King of Peace Episcopal Church + P.O. Box 2526 + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526