Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

We have a reading today from the book of Revelation. Some would like to avoid this prophetic book because it has troubling images of the powers of evil afflicting the people of God. We remember the original setting for the book of Revelation: it was a time when the Christian Church comprised a small minority in the mighty Roman Empire. This mighty empire had its own gods and theology, and looked upon Christians with suspicion and there would be outbreaks of persecution. The tiny church needed encouragement to endure with faith and not surrender to fear. But how can that be when your faith made you a target for deprivation and even death?

Revelation addresses such concern, not only for the first century Christian church, but also for the church of the 21st century. Our reading today is a vision of heaven where there is the throne of God. Who is present but a great multitude of people, impossible to count. This multitude represents the world, faithful people from every nation, language, race and tribe. The people are dressed in white robes, and waving palm branches. White is the color of purity. The reading said these are those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Who is the Lamb, but Jesus, named in the gospel of John as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Blood is a reference to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. The writer of Revelation borrowed a great deal from the prophet Isaiah, and there he may have read, “Come, now, says the Lord, let us argue it out, though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow.”  That is an interesting phrase: ‘argue it out’. There may be some who think they are too sinful to be truly and radically forgiven. We cannot help but think of the mistakes, the errors of judgment, the outright sins of the past. If we think that way God wants to argue: trusting in Jesus, the Lamb of God, your sins are not only forgiven but remembered no more. Do not be stuck in guilt because grace, the gift of Jesus, sets you free. The forgiveness of Jesus does free us to forgive ourselves and make progress with our faith.

This vision of heaven has the redeemed, saved, and forgiven waving palm branches. We may think of Palm Sunday when we actually did that. Waving palms has a long history for the people of Israel. In one of their yearly festivals, the festival of booths, the people would construct simple structures and live in them as a remembrance of how God provided for the people, from their Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. Palm branches were part of the festival. Palm branches represent victory, the victory of God who liberated God’s people from slavery. The opposite of slavery is salvation. In this wonderful vision of heaven the people of God are before the throne saying with a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.” And then the redeemed bow down and start singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving.

In the gospel reading Jesus said “The Father and I are one”, one in the work of accomplishing our salvation. Every Sunday we celebrate the victory of God and the Lamb of God. This is the victory of the resurrection: the powers of evil and all their manifestations did not win the day. Ancient pictures of the resurrection show Jesus beating down the prison of death and hell, and raising people up with him. Is that not the ultimate picture of Jesus’ victory for us: death does not reduce us to a blessed memory. Jesus’ resurrection means our rescue. In the gospel lesson Jesus made this incredible promise: Jesus the shepherd says to his flock, those who follow him and hear his voice, ‘you have eternal life, and nothing cannot snatch you out of my hand.’ Jesus shepherds us in both life and death. Listen! Jesus is calling and are you listen to his voice of grace: “Come to me, and I will give you rest”; “Come to the cross and know just how powerfully God loves you”,  “Come, do not be afraid, for even though you die, yet shall you live. What meets you in death is not the grim reaper, but the grace-filled rescuer, with his hand of resurrection and life that will not let go.

How does one describe heaven? This cannot be done literally since no one has been there with a camera crew and returned. Revelation gives us a revelation with a vision that is to revive the soul: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal….for this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his 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.”

Life can seem more like hell on earth than heaven on earth. People may have to deal with a great ordeal. For the Christians of the first century this could mean treated as an enemy of the state: persecuted and imprisoned, deprived and denied. For Christians in parts of the world, their faith still means the possibility of persecution. For us the great ordeal could be the oppression of an addiction, the loss of loved ones, going to prison and feeling like no wants anything to do with you. For children it can mean the ordeal of bullying, or trying to deal, as the expression goes, the “new normal”, like a parent’s divorce. And here the power of heaven, the  presence of God, reaches us in the present. God will shelter them. In the very familiar words of the Psalm today, ‘even though I must walk through the dark valley of the shadow of death, meaning whatever the dark times of life on this earth, God, the Shepherd is with us to comfort us. What a promise is given us to believe, “I fear no evil”. We know evil is in the world, so how can we not help but be afraid. Here it is vital that you are a ‘sheep’ recognizing the shepherd’s voice. Do not allow other voices and advice shut down the voice of the Shepherd who says “Do not be afraid; I will guide you along right pathways; you are not alone for the shepherd’s goodness and mercy holds you firmly and faithfully. The Psalm said “I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever”; or the translation can be “I will keep returning to the House of the Lord.” We may think of God’s house as a church building, and that is fine, we come to church ultimately not to drink coffee and have fellowship. We come to quench a deeper thirst, for Jesus, the Shepherd to lead us to the water of life so faith does not perish. Baptism beautifully represents this life-giving water. For baptism flows pure and clean with the Word of God, the promise to be with Jesus and his love forever.

But the house of the Lord is more than a building of wood or stone. It is to be confident of the sheltering presence of God and the Lamb of God, Jesus, each day of the week. There was an incredible story in the New York Times last week. It was about a pastor who works in one of the most violent places on earth. Pastor Danny works in a city in Honduras, in Central America. Why do many want to leave Honduras and come to the U.S.? It has a great deal to do with gang violence and government corruption. Pastor Danny is an evangelical pastor and he has not church building. So he preaches on street corners and in homes. During the week he often is negotiating with MS-13, deadly gang which is known for seeking to take over neighborhoods with real threats of violence. But  this pastor negotiates with officers in gangs to prevent violence. The head of MS-13 in part of the city has the nickname of “Monster”, so it sounds like Pastor Danny is actually living in a book of Revelation kind of scene. This work is naturally dangerous and he says to gangs: “I’m not for one gang or another, I am for peace.” Sometimes he is able to arrange a shaky truce and the neighborhood knows peace. But it never lasts. Other gangs come in and seek to take over turf. Then he becomes despondent, and threatens to quit, and maybe join the caravans heading north. He is tired of gangs and their wars. He is tired of government inaction and corruption. But then something draws him back to the fray. Hope returns, and there Pastor Danny continues his dangerous work of gang-negotiating to help neighborhoods live in peace. How can he stand such an ordeal? How can he have hope in such a dark valley of  danger. Can it be that believes the promises of the Scriptures: Jesus is with him to comfort him, Jesus is with him to guard him, even in the presence of enemies. Jesus is with him no matter the  ordeal so he remain faithful, not just a casual faith in Jesus, but a courageous faith. We have such powerful promises in our scripture lessons today: “nothing can snatch us out of Jesus’ hands, as we listen to his voice and find our shelter in him.”Let us continue to listen to his voice and have a courageous faith.

And finally we heard the tender textg: “God will wipe away every tear”. What a wonderful description of heaven, God present to wipe away all the tears of earthbound sorrow. On this Mother’s day, we remember how our mothers have been present to comfort us in our sorrows, and certainly to wipe away tears. It is a very motherly image of God, don’t you think? A motherly image revealing the deep power of God’s compassion and love for us.