Not Just About the Future (Revelation 7:9-17)
By Eric D. Barreto
The presidential race has invited all kinds of rash predictions. "If that candidate gets elected, it will be a disaster." "If that candidate is president, I will move to Canada." In each case, the prediction of a future disaster is supposed to convince us to act differently in the present. "The election of a certain candidate would be so awful, that we must stop it. Or I'll move to Canada." Key parts of our political discourse are predictions of a dire future if a certain candidate is elected.
The presidential race has also invited all kinds of demonization and blame. "We have problems, and there is someone clearly to blame!" "'Those people' are to blame!" "Immigrants are to blame!" "Liberals are to blame!" "Conservatives are to blame!" So too, a key part of our political discourse are facile condemnations of whichever slice of America.
Both of these features of American political discourse are clearly harmful. They tear us apart. They calcify political divides. They dehumanize others and trade on fear and hopelessness. Where else might we turn for a better vision in this divisive political season?
Oddly, we can turn to the Book of Revelation, that bizarre book at the end of the New Testament. This book has so often been the playground of the most "imaginative" readers: readers who see Revelation as a guidebook to the end of the world as we know it, as a confirmation that we are the righteous and everyone else will be judged harshly by God. How in the world can Revelation provide a different, more life-giving vision to us? The way so many have read Revelation sounds much like the political discourses we lament but can't seem to escape.
But let's take another look.
This week, we find an ultimate vision in Revelation 7:9-17. In these verses, we see Jesus, the Lamb of God, victorious and welcoming those who have survived the travails of many kinds. Before this Jesus, we see what Revelation calls "a great multitude that no one could count" (italics added). Elsewhere, the author of Revelation is quite adept at counting, even counting up to huge numbers: seven churches (1:4), 24 thrones and 24 elders (4:4), 144,000 individuals from the tribe of the people of Israel which is 12,000 from each of 12 tribes (7:5-8).
The author of Revelation can count and count well. But when he is faced with this mass of worshippers praising Jesus, his ability is suddenly insufficient. No one can count this crowd. Indeed, even the tribes and peoples and languages seem beyond count. They are all there. We are all there. No matter where we are from or what language we speak, no one is precluded from this moment. No one is excluded. There is no wall, no boundary dividing these worshippers.
This vision is one of profligate difference and abundant life. It is a vision of life overflowing with difference and grace and joy and love. Hunger has ceased as has thirst. The heat of the day no longer beats down on our shoulders as we work. Grief and pain and hopelessness and despair are vanquished as easily as we wipe a tear from a child's eyes. Death has been defeated and so also the many ways we have invented to divide ourselves.
This is a vision of hope and abundance, which makes such a vision so much harder to believe in a world threatened by environmental, economic, political, and personal crises. More and more, we live in a world where scarcity is the order of the day, where what we lack looms over us.
What good is this vision when the oceans are rising, promising to engulf the poorest among us? What good is this vision when so many are squeezed out of an economy that demands more and more but pays workers less and less? What good is this vision when political conflicts devolve into warfare at the slightest provocation? What good is this vision when our lives are in shambles? What good is this vision when the world has ceased to make sense?
Maybe it could do a great deal of good.
In these middle days of a seemingly interminable election season, a vision of what could be, what will be, may be precisely what we need.
There are two important things to remember about Revelation. First, the book is not about establishing a timeline for the end of days. It is not a tourist's handbook to all the sights and sounds of the end of the world as we know it. Neither is it an invitation for us to become eschatological prognosticators of the exact time and specific people who will shepherd the demise of the world.
Revelation is about God in the end. Revelation points us to a holy God who keeps promises, a God who ensures justice for the downtrodden and judgment against their oppressors. Revelation is about a God who creates the world and then sets it right again. Revelation is not about the destruction of the world but the way God will set it right again. In short, this book is not about us or what the future will hold as much as it is about a God in whom we can trust on our worst days as much we can on our best days.
Second, therefore, Revelation is not really about the future. It's not really about tomorrow. It's a book about today. Revelation is about the here and now. Revelation is about us, all of us, in this way.
When we imagine a world so transformed by God that an innumerable crowd of different people from different places speaking different languages gather together as one, we ought to be inspired to action, especially when that vision is so discordant with what we see in our everyday lives. But we ought to be moved not to will ourselves to become better people but to trust that God is already drawing us together, that God's promises are already made true even in a world that has stopped making sense. On the ground of God's promises, we cannot help but act and hope for something better.
So, what might Revelation's vision look like for us today? It's hard to picture Republicans and Democrats holding hands and singing with the same voice about much of anything. It's hard to imagine that racial strife and international conflicts will simply cease.
Yet, I'm sure you have seen the way God heals us in seemingly small but significant ways. I'm sure you have seen people holding hands when they were previously clenching their fists. I'm sure you have seen the miracle of reconciliation and reparation in families, among former friends, in communities, even in and among nations.
I'm sure you have seen this. What Revelation calls us to do is to expect to see these moments of grace again and again. And when we expect them, we will surely live as if they were the ordinary work of God in our midst.
Bible Study Questions:
1. Has Revelation been an important part of your faith? Why or why not?
2. What are your greatest hopes for the future? What are your greatest fears? How does your faith shape both?
3. Share a story about a time when you have experienced a relationship transformed. How can that moment of transformation help you expect or experience another transformation?
For Further Reading:
Eric D. Barreto, Revelation, Book of Faith Bible Study Series (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2012)
"How Do I Read the Book of Revelation?" by Craig Koester
Kelly J. Murphy and Justin Jeffcoat Schedtler, Apocalypses in Context: Apocalyptic Currents through History (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016).
Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (New York: Basic Books, 2004).
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