Search

The Overflow of Life -- Revelation 7:9-17 (4th Sunday of Easter)



This morning we enter into the world of Revelation. It’s not a path we often tread. It’s not a book of the Bible we often visit. Someone has said that all of the books of the New Testament signal “something of world-shaking significance bursting over the horizon of human experience.”[1] All of them speak of Resurrection – each in its own way. The Gospels tell the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – and invite us to experience that life in our life. The Epistles of Paul (and of others) are letters – a community in conversation about the meaning of the Cross and Resurrection – how they transform the life we live today and our hope for tomorrow.

The book of Revelation offers a vision and speaks in imagery that is extravagant and bewildering.[2] It is an “apocalypse” – that’s actually the Greek word for Revelation. Revelation is Apocalypse – an unveiling. Apocalyptic works often describe a cataclysmic unveiling – the end of one era – and the opening up another. In Revelation, we see what appears to be an all-out battle between the powers of good and evil – there is a dragon descending on a birthing mother, a beast from the deep, a lamb on the throne, a lake of fire, and a new city descending from the sky – nothing less than a new heaven and a new earth.[3] Revelation invites us to enter into its imaginative world and experience for ourselves the new thing bursting forth.[4]

But with all of these wild images swirling around, it can be disorienting – as an apocalypse often is. We need some place to ground ourselves – some steady place to stand and make meaning of what we see. I’m going to suggest that we stand with the communities for whom Revelation was first written, and make meaning from there. They are a hurting people. Revelation speaks to them in over-the-top imagery, because they are people who have experienced over-the-top suffering. They need to know that there is a power bigger than all the powers that do them harm.

Now, we don’t know the specifics of who they were. Revelation names seven communities and hints at their struggles. But from the broad sweep of Revelation, we can tell that these are communities experiencing persecution and misery. They live in an imperial world, and they are not the Empire. The Roman Empire would have worked to exploit and extract from their communities all the wealth it could – leaving them impoverished and downtrodden. What’s more – the Roman Empire required its subjects to worship the Emperor as God. But these communities worshipped a different God – the God of Israel made known in the Risen Christ. In their worship, they resisted Empire. One writer describes this community as “poor, marginalized folks trying to survive, resist, and refuse assimilating into the Roman Empire,” all at the peril of their lives.[5]

If we need an image of what that might look like, Brian Blount suggests that we might think of enslaved African-Americans resisting the institution of slavery, even as they suffered under its body-crushing power.[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer invoked Revelation as a call to Christians to resist the death-dealing apparatus of the Holocaust.[7] We might think of the people of Ukraine – with an Empire bearing down on them, whose sadistic strategy is destruction of everything in its path – resisting with their bodies and their lives.

The people are experiencing larger-than-life suffering. Revelation answers that with larger-than-life hope. In Revelation, a new power is birthed into the world. The power of Resurrection engages the power of empire, as the multitude perseveres through empire’s onslaught – with “visions of God’s power and grandeur”[8] and ultimate vindication.

In the midst of all that, this morning’s Scripture opens up into this expansive vision of a multitude gathered together worshipping God. In the midst of this pitched battle, a spacious calm. Notice what we see. Notice the expansiveness and inclusiveness of the multitude: “There was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” This community standing against empire is multinational, multiethnic, multilingual.

Notice there is no separation. Empire sorts and separates – always an us and a them. Empire sets up its systems of power using the tool of separation to benefit some by harming so many others. But here, in this vision, this multitude is “formed, not by antagonism, but by freedom.”[9]

Notice that, at the center, there is a lamb on the throne – not the Emperor, but the Risen Christ – surrounded by this multitude who have come through great suffering. They sing and wave palm branches. They reverence God, and not Caesar. They resist. They persist.

Notice that they are robed in white – notice that strange comment that they have washed their garments in the blood “to a sparkling sheen.”[10] That doesn’t make sense – that which is washed in blood doesn’t come out with a sparkling sheen. But notice – here – the blood of their suffering is transformed into life.

And then, notice how the vision – like a kaleidoscope falling into place – resolves:


15For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship God day and night within the temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17for 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.

Stand with the suffering community for whom this vision was written – listen and see and feel those words: Those who travel through suffering -- God will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more. The sun will not strike them, nor scorching heat. God will bring them to springs of the water of life – and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

In the middle of this pitched battle, in this moment of calm and wonder, God reaches out – and wipes away every tear from their eyes. The first working title of this sermon was “A World Beyond Tears” – but that fell to the wayside – because that’s not really what this moment is about. This is a vision of God in the midst of our tears – in the midst of our suffering – the power of Resurrection coming to life there.

Revelation sets out a vision of a power bigger than every power that does us harm – the power of Resurrection. Enlivened and empowered by Resurrection, we experience the Risen Christ in fierce resistance and in tender mercy. Such intimacy. God reaches out and touches our humanity – a new humanity – defined not by the violence of Empire – but embodied in the wiping away of every tear.

Our tears are uniquely human. There is a part of our tears that is biological.[11] Tears moisten our eyes so that they can function. They protect our eyes – washing away dust and debris. And, there is part of our tears connected to our emotions – to our experience of life. They are an outward sign of what is going in our inmost parts.

Researchers tell us that this aspect of our tears may have started as a way that we could show our distress – a way we could express to each other our need for help – as part of our basic survival.[12] Tears have come to be one of the ways that our emotions show up – not just fear and pain – but sorrow, and anguish, and anger, and frustration, and joy, and melancholy, and love.

Tears also have become a part of how we connect. We are moved by the tears of another. Tears and crying are part of how babies bond with their mothers. And that continues on through adulthood. Our tears flow out from our experience – others see and experience those tears – something resonates deep within – and we’re more likely to reach out and respond.[13]

In my chaplain training at UCSF, we were instructed to resist the instinct to immediately offer a Kleenex to someone who is crying – but instead to consider that offering that Kleenex might really about our own discomfort -- and to consider that the more generous action might be to just sit – to sit for a while with someone in the midst of their tears.

Tears and our responses to tears open up occasions for us to be human with each other – to be present in the midst of another’s suffering – to extend compassion – sympathy – empathy – to suffer together – to form relationship and community – and to love – and to stand with each other against everything that does us harm.

I don’t think I’ve told you this before, but in college I served as the academic tutor for the women’s basketball team. The men’s football and basketball teams – they were a bit better off – the individual athletes had individual tutors. Title IX hadn’t quite lived unto its fullness back then. The women’s teams – the women’s basketball and tennis teams – well they had me. We’d gather several days a week in the athletic study hall – and work through homework assignments – study for tests – we spent a good bit of time together.

One Friday as we were winding up, I asked them, “Do you have big plans for the weekend?” They responded, “Oh, tonight’s pizza night – every Friday, we get together, order a pizza, put on some sad songs, and sit around and cry.” I said, “Oh, that sounds awful!” And they just laughed, “Naw, Scott, don’t worry. We’re just getting real. And it’s good to know you’re not alone.


Our tears connect us – they give us a tangible place where we can see and touch and feel our shared humanity

· the heart-rending sobs of sudden trauma and loss;

· the quiet cry of memory;

· tears of frustration, or sympathy, or joy.


This week, I’ve come to think of tears as the overflow of life – when the experience of life is just too big for our body to hold. As Peter Marty writes, “[Tears] put us in touch with essential things that we know to be dear or wrong. And those things have a way of taking up residence in our hearts, often drawing us inadvertently closer [to each other] and to God.”[14]

In Revelation, in the midst of the wild whirl of the world, God reaches out and wipes away every tear.

On this Mothering Day, I think of the child who falls down and skins her knee or the child who experiences for the first time the meanness of the world – and how the mother holds them while they cry, and wipes away their tears.

I think of mothers and fathers – the parents of Ukraine – who weep for their own loss and fear, even as they try, in the midst of tribulation, to create space for their child full of love and life and hope.

I think of Jesus standing at the tomb of Lazarus – as Martha and Mary and the community wail in lament – and Jesus weeps – and then calls Lazarus forth from the grave.

I think of Mary Magdalene standing at another tomb – weeping in the deep dawn of Easter morning – as the Risen Christ comes near, asks her why she is weeping, and speaks her name, calling her into the new life of Resurrection.

I wonder what visions are coming into view for you.

In the midst of the world’s tears and our own, these visions of Resurrection – alive in us – invite us to embody our humanity in a world that comes to look like this: As we stand together against everything that does us harm, those who travel through suffering -- God will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more. The sun will not strike them, nor scorching heat. God will bring them to springs of the water of life – and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.


© 2022 Scott Clark

[1] See Christopher C. Rowland, “The Book of Revelation,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. xii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), pp. .568 [2] For background on Revelation and this text, see id.; Brian Blount, “Revelation,” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008) 523-37; Mitzi Smith and Yung Suk Kim, “Revelation,” Toward Decentering the New Testament: A Reintroduction (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018); C. Wess Daniels, Commentary on Working Preacher at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-3/commentary-on-revelation-79-17-9 [3] See Blount, pp.523-25 [4] See Rowland, p.505. [5] See Daniels at Working Preacher. [6] See Blount, pp. 525-26. [7] See Rowland, p.508 [8] See Blount, p.523 [9] See, Daniels at Working Preacher. [10] Brian Blount’s translation of that phrase. [11] See Leo Newhouse, “Is Crying Good for You?” at https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/is-crying-good-for-you-2021030122020 [12] For thorough background on tears and their connection to our emotional life, see J. J. M. Vingerhoets and Lauren M. Bylsma, “The Riddle of Human Emotional Crying: A Challenge for Emotion Researchers,” Emot Rev. 2016 Jul; 8(3): 207–217; manuscript available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6402489/ . [13] See id. [14] Peter W. Marty, “The gift of tears,” Christian Century, April 10, 2022, p.3.



Photo Credit: James Qualtrough, used with permission via Unsplash.

16 views0 comments