Who Can Stand? - Reflections 5-5-2022

Texts for Sunday May 8, 2022
4th Sunday of Easter

Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

The Revelation texts that are appointed in the lectionary for the Sundays of Easter season skip through Revelation like a stone across the surface of a lake. We miss some significant moments and events of the big story as we skip from one week to the next.

A great example is that last week we skipped over the appearance of a scroll with seven seals that would need to be broken before one could read it. After a little drama over who could open such a critical scroll, the verses of last week described the worship of the one worthy enough to open it.

To get from last Sunday’s Revelation text of worship before God’s throne to this week’s text of worship before God’s throne, the reader must witness tense moments as a lot of defeat, death, and destruction appear. Six seals open; catastrophic violence is unleashed (including the infamous 4 horsemen of the apocalypse: conquest, war, famine, death). When the sixth seal is opened, the cosmos convulses, rattling the very foundations of creation. The people hide and call out in fear of the day of wrath, ending their cry with “who is able to stand?”

Apocalyptic literature is written to encourage those who are reading it (wonder what discouraging would look like!). It is written for those in the present; it is not a vision of future suffering. Revelation’s audience was facing the marginalization and punishment – social, economic, religious – of people who reject the imperial Roman system. This book is written from the perspective of “heaven” not “earth”. From “heaven” (or, better, “from around the throne”) you see how all the pieces fall together. The “Lion” is actually the Lamb that was slain…. which changes everything. This literature gives meaning to current suffering by putting it into the context of the Big Picture. The period of suffering is but a moment in the grand scheme of things. Chaos is being abolished and a new creation is being born.

Along with those who were/are slaughtered for the word of God (seal 5) however, we cry out “How long?”. God’s people have asked that question for centuries (read the psalms). The people from John’s congregation are asking “how long?”; we continue to ask “how long?”. The Ukrainian conflict is a recent illustration for me. How long, O Lord will powerful men use their power to abuse thousands with violence? The videos of those trapped in the steel factory in Mariupol bring those souls under the altar to mind (6:9). How long?

So, just before we arrive at the point of today’s text, we have just experienced the opening of six seals ... lots of violence. The people call out “who is able to stand?” The fingernail is under the seventh seal…. the day of wrath is at hand…. drum roll… and…... someone calls a time-out. The four angels are told to hold back the winds of destruction. Biblical scholar Barbara Rossing describes it as a hope-filled salvation interlude.

It's a pause to receive God’s reassurance that God’s people are still God’s beloved people. Who can stand? They can stand. As such, the other-side of all this chaos belongs to them.

Just before the verses appointed for this Sunday, the delay in destruction allows time for 144,000 faithful servants of God from every tribe of Israel to be marked with God’s seal on their forehead. God has not forgotten God’s people. By their seal they are comforted and assured they are and always will be God’s people and dearly loved. Their answer is " with God, we can stand".

Ok, now we are at the text for this Sunday which really doesn’t make much sense without the early paragraphs of context. A multitude that no one can count, from every nation and peoples, dressed in white, waving palms, stand around the throne worshipping. The seals have unleashed horrible things, but a multitude of people – “from all tribes and peoples and languages” – all people stand before the throne with our friends the angels, the elders, and the 4 living creatures. One of the elders asks, then answers, “who are these people dressed in white?” 

They are the people who have/who are/who will, conquered/conquering/will conquer through death just like the Lamb. 

The final verses assure them of God’s sheltering care (vs. 15-17). The Lamb becomes a shepherd. And will care for them, will guide them to the water of life. And, God will wipe away every tear from their eye. They were and are and will be ready to stand as God's people.

Imagine being in John’s congregation experiencing harassment and persecution because of their resistance to the imperial empire in which they live. It is probably a very small group. Imagine hearing that more people than you can count have made it through tribulation and suffering; the persecuted stand before God’s throne singing praises. John’s small group receives assurance that they are but a tiny part of a very large group that exists across all time and all places. People of all nations, tribes, and languages. That includes John's congregation. 

That includes us. With God, we can stand.

Assured that God cares for us and guides us to springs of living water, we can be ready to face what comes and stand as God’s people in the world.

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Written by Pam Larabee-Zierath


Gathered by Grace, Scattered for Service
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