In many ways, we have been conditioned by our religious culture to ask “when” questions or “what” questions as we read the Apocalypse of John. When will these events take place, or have they already? What do these images mean and what do these portents look like in our day (another when question)? I would suggest that these are precisely the wrong questions to ask of the text. Revelation is timeless. It is perpetually “soon” as this book is, “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.” (Rev. 1:1, NRSV).
The orienting question we should be asking as we approach the vision of St. John, is the question of “who.” The question of “who” permeates the first chapter. “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.” (Rev. 1:4, NRSV) It is Jesus, the Son of Man, who commands John to write down letters to the churches. As the door to heaven stands open, the question is, whose voice beacons John to peek in? Who is the Lamb seated on the throne who receives the worship of angels and opens the seals? Whose is the voice at the beginning of chapter seven that calls upon the angel to seal those from the tribes of Israel?
Walter Brueggemann contends that apocalyptic literature carries, “the extreme conviction that God will make all things new.” On this fourth Sunday of Easter we continue to celebrate the Risen Christ who continues to make all things new. Chapter seven of the Apocalypse invites us to look with John into the restoring and renewing work of the Lamb that was slain.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9-10, NRSV)
After seeing the sealed Israelites who could be numbered, John now turns his gaze to a Gentile multitude beyond counting. Indeed, the same God who sealed the Israelites, shepherds those Gentile believers who have been grafted in. All kinds of people, from all kinds of places, speaking in all sorts of tongues stand before the throne and Lamb. Clothed in the brightest of white robes they wave their palm branches, the sign of victory and worship. Wesley writes, “The heavenly ceremonial has its fixed order and measure.” It is this diverse throng of saints that initiates the heavenly antiphon, reminding us with resounding voices to whom salvation belongs, who it is who is seated on the throne and who it is who made their presence in that beautiful place possible through his sacrifice.
The angels and the elders and the living creatures, offer their sacred response. In heaven the laity lead out in praise and those closer around the throne carry these praises forward, falling on their faces in worship to the one who sits on the throne. The last cry out first, and the first bow down last in agreement calling, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Rev. 7:12, NRSV)
As the liturgy unfolds, one of the elders asks John another who question, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” In humility, John defers to the wisdom of the elder. The elder reveals that these people are those who came through the “great ordeal”. Lest we become too consumed with the “what” question of the “great ordeal”, let’s remember that the events that unfolded in chapter six as the seals were opened were quite the ordeal for humanity. Rather than staining their robes red, we learn that the blood of the Lamb has washed them clean and white.
We learn from the elder that these tried but victorious saints are there to worship the one who sits on the throne and shelters them. The tenth century Bishop of Trikka, Oecumenius, writes in his commentary on the Apocalypse that, “…this dwelling of God is the never-ending remembrance of God that remains in the souls of the saints.”
The same God who shelters them, feeds them until there is no more hunger or thirst. Nourished and full, they will never be worn down again by the sun or the heat that drains and destroys. Fed, watered, sheltered and renewed, these faithful saints look to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world to be their shepherd. Like the sheep in his flock, Jesus is fully human; incarnate, a lamb. He is also fully God, the good shepherd that guides to springs of water that make things new and bring life. Not only does Jesus bring new life, he wipes away the last remnants of death and pain, the tears in the eyes of the saints.
So how do navigate and preach the apocalypse within the context of the Easter season? First, we must become humble onlookers with John who surrender to the beautiful mystery that unfolds. We must allow ourselves to become consumed with the question of “who”. Who is the Lamb who was slain for the sins of the world, who now sits at the throne in heaven and is worthy of all praise? If Jesus the risen, living and eternal Christ is not the center of our gaze, then we miss, we miss the point of the apocalypse, the point of Easter, and the point of our own spiritual formation which should be nothing less than complete conformity to him.
To be onlookers who are truly humble, we must surrender our categories and characterizations of the multitude. Nation, tribe, people and language, all categories applied during the great ordeal are washed away. In Jesus the multitude become a people who are robed in white, worship day and night, receive life, comfort, nourishment, protection and guidance from God.
If we are to imitate the liturgy of heaven we must let those who have walked through great ordeal offer the first words of praise and salvation. We need to let the people of great ordeal teach us about who it is who brings true salvation. In responding to the call of those of every nation, tribe, people and language, we as pastors must imitate the angels, the elders and living creatures. Our response to their call should be to fall on our faces before the living God in worship. With John we must acknowledge that we do not really know who they are. We must sing our solidarity with the suffering by joining in their litany. With the angels we cry “Amen” and offer up our sevenfold blessing, to the God who raised Jesus from the dead and raises us with him.  Walter Brueggemann. Old Testament Theology: An Introduction. Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN. 2008. Pg. 364.  John Wesley. Wesley’s Notes On The Bible. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/notes.i.xxviii.viii.html.  William C. Weinrich, trans & Thomas Oden ed. Ancient Christian Texts: Greek Commentaries on Revelation. InterVarsity Press. Downers Grove, Illinois. 2011. Pg. 36.