God Imagines…All Are Welcome

Rev. Catherine E. Williams – Jan 15, 2017 – Revelation 7: 9-17

“God imagines…” signals a divine reality – a reality that exists already as far as God is concerned, although not quite yet as far as humans are concerned. “God imagines” is an invitation to enter a divine space called the Kingdom or the Reign of God, a place that holds the substance of the things we humans hope for, and dream of.

Things like peace on earth, a welcoming, inclusive community, an egalitarian society, and the total harmony of all creation – these already exist in God’s vision. They are the future that people of God lean into as we go about daily living, but we lean in because we have been inspired by the divine imagination and touched by the divine Spirit in some compelling way. Ever so often we get weary and frustrated, as Jana reminded us last week. Something happens in the home, in the community, in the country or around the world that takes the wind out of our sails. We throw up our hands and throw in the towel – why bother? And then God, for whom this peace, and inclusiveness, this equality and harmony already exists, touches our hearts again through some divine encounter, and we are inspired once more to live and lean into that vision; we become convinced in some uncanny way that this is real after all, and worth pursuing. Such is the power of God’s imagination; such is the work of God’s Spirit in the world. Such was the work of the biblical prophets like John who wrote the Revelation, this book from which our lesson was read this morning.

If you want to see imagination on steroids, you’re welcome to read the whole book of Revelation. Oh it starts off pragmatic enough with letters to seven churches, commending or chastising them based on their faithfulness to God’s ways. And then we get to chapter four and all imagination breaks loose: thrones, heavenly beings, beasts and horses, and dragons. Imagery and metaphor converge upon one another with lightning speed and thundering volume – it’s all so compelling and awesome that books, movies, songs, doctrines, and forecasts of human destiny have all emerged out of this book. But the fantastic tone of the book of Revelation is nothing strange if you understand apocalyptic writings; they envision a just and rightful end to injustice and human wrongs.

When we read the various books of the Bible it helps to think of reading through a newspaper; we interpret what we read according the nature of the writing. So the advertisements, the sports pages, the advice columns, and the comic strips all belong in the newspaper, but we don’t evaluate the information in the advice column the way we evaluate the information in the comic strip. In the same way the psalms, the law, the wisdom literature, prophets, the gospels, letters, and apocalyptic writings all belong in the Bible, but we understand the poetry in a much different way than we understand the prophetic oracles. Apocalyptic writings like Revelation tend to be filled with graphic images of all kinds: from violence and wrathful judgment to peaceful restoration and harmonious resolution to earthly wrongs. It’s a desperate yearning for right to prevail and for wrong to be punished. I just needed to put that perspective in place before I get to today’s vision, which thankfully is one of the more alluring ones.

In Revelation 7 John entered into God’s imagination when he looked and saw “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. 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) In these verses, John skips to the end of the cosmic book, so to speak, to give us a glimpse of a community shaped by God’s vision of inclusiveness. Let’s remember that this was God’s vision from the very beginning when he called Abraham. In Genesis, the book of beginnings, God promised Abraham that in him all the families of the earth will be blessed, and that his progeny of the faithful would be more in number than the stars of the heaven or the sand of the sea. I think we’re looking at them here in Revelation. This is what New Testament scholar Brian Blount scholar calls the “innumerable, international multitude” – people from every nation, every tribe, every ethnic group, every language.

The earthly ministry of Jesus also demonstrated this vision of inclusiveness. You may recall the repeated derogatory comments made by Jesus’ detractors regarding the kind of company he kept. His roadies were fishermen and tax collectors.  His groupies came from the palace and from the pub. He was playful with the kids and gentle with the mothers-in-law. Jesus told so many stories about this innumerable international multitude we see in Revelation. His version of “once upon a time,” was,the kingdom of heaven is like” These stories illustrated a reality that God imagines where the first shall be last and the least shall be greatest, and where everyone is invited to the great victory banquet – everyone!

This inclusiveness is part of the DNA of God we receive at our baptism and when we come to faith in Jesus Christ. The Spirit of God who grafts us into the church and who leads us to maturity works within each of us to develop this disposition of inclusiveness. And doesn’t our own congregational mission statement call us into this vision of God? We are a diverse community, joyfully responding to God’s love and growing as disciples of Christ by nurturing, teaching, reaching, and serving all people. It says right there on the front of your bulletin that all are welcome here: whatever your ethnicity, culture, nationality, faith tradition, age, gender, hair type, skin tone, educational background, profession or trade, sexual orientation, degree of physical ability, state of physical or mental health, whatever your political affiliation – ALL ARE WELCOME.

One of the Scriptures that was originally going to be read today was Matthew 1:1-16. The point of referring to this passage was really the inclusion of five women who are part of that genealogy. Typically biblical genealogies follow the patriarchal pattern of naming the men in the family tree. But this one in Matthew mentions five women, each of whom has some shady aspect to her character. Not to say that the men mentioned are all upstanding, but the very inclusion of these women in the lineage of Jesus says something to me about God’s vision of inclusivity.

Here we have Tamar who produced twin boys through a purposeful and incestuous encounter with her father in law. Then we have Rahab whose common moniker is “the prostitute.” Following her is Ruth, whose marriage to Boaz came about by double-eyebrow-raising intrigue (too much to explain right now; ask the Monday morning ladies if you’re really curious.) Next we have the wife of Uriah, Bathsheba, whose son Solomon, was conceived through a sexually aggressive encounter followed by a murderous cover-up. And finally we have Mary, known to us as the Virgin Mary, but to her village contemporaries as that teenage girl who got pregnant before she and Joseph were married. My apologies if any of this seems too sordid to be proclaimed from this sacred desk, but I think this is all in support of a point that deserves to be made. I don’t know exactly why Matthew chose to include these mothers and not others. I just think it is not coincidental to the life of Jesus that people whom some of his followers would just as easily erase from his family history are included. There they are – active contributors to the world-changing event that is the birth, life, death, and resurrection of the King of kings and the Lord of lords– his motley family line is a powerful indicator of the radical inclusiveness of God’s innumerable international community.

If this is so then, that God exists in this reality of inclusiveness and is not frustrated by our human efforts at sabotage, if it is so that God’s Reign has at its core the value and dignity of every human being, if this innumerable, international, and inclusive multitude is an end towards which we as God’s people are heading, then how do we live into this unavoidable reality? How do we become part of the answer to our prayer, thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven? There are many wonderful responses to this question. I have enough time left to focus properly on just one response that admittedly takes me out of my preaching comfort zone. But I believe it’s a timely response, one embedded in the song of that multitude in Revelation 7:10 – “salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.” You see, Jesus talked about and alluded to another kingdom that is in opposition to the kingdom of God. There is another way of being in the world that runs counter to the values of God’s reign. This is as much a political as it is a spiritual issue.

Rome was the ruling empire at the time John wrote Revelation. He was writing to urge Christians who were settling into the complacency of adapting to the values of the Roman Empire, for different reasons – to avoid being persecuted, to gain social status, to just have an easy, peaceful life as closet Christians, to be in enough favor with Rome so that if worst came to worst Rome would save them. John called them out on this compromise. No! he said. Neither Rome nor the emperor is your source of security or prosperity. Salvation – a word which embraces notions of peace, health, success, prosperity, deliverance, and general well-being – belongs to God and to the Lamb, Jesus.

Make no mistake this morning, whatever Empire we live under has its own imagination, and proclaims its own messages about its own values. Increasingly we are hearing a national rhetoric that promises prosperity, safety, and security by way of values that are directly opposed to those of the Reign of God. Dr. Brian Blount makes the following observations about that song of the multitude; in his comments when you hear Rome, you can easily substitute the name of any world power today, but especially the USA. Blount says, “When John makes that claim exclusively for God…he is not only making a positive statement about God and the Lamb; he is also making a pejorative one about Rome. He is claiming that Rome cannot live up to its own hype. It does not hold the power of salvation that it alleges. John wants his hearers and readers to recognize Rome for the false pretender that it is…so they will be less likely to accommodate to Roman social and religious practices in hopes of gaining the social, religious, and economic security that Rome claims to offer. They will seek such security, such salvation, from God and the Lamb instead. John’s message of salvation is therefore every bit as political as it is spiritual. Though it is a vision about the end time, it maintains an ethical message commending politically active, non-accommodating behavior in the present moment of the churches.”

Friends, it doesn’t matter which emperor-figure or which empire models and recommends an attitude that demonstrates hatred of neighbor, suspicion of neighbor, bullying or oppression of neighbor, stigmatizing or dehumanizing of neighbor, our first allegiance belongs to the Reign of God with its radically alternative values of peace, justice, and inclusiveness. We pledge allegiance to God and to the Lamb, without apology, because when the imperial dust settles it is the peaceful, just, and inclusive reign of God that will stand forever and ever! And if your allegiance is to God as a Kingdom citizen this morning let me hear an Amen. Let us pray…

God help us all today to enter into your reality, your imagination of inclusiveness. Let us hear the Spirit and the bride say Come, and let everyone who hears say come, and let everyone who is thirsty come and drink freely of the water of life. Holy Spirit, empower and energize us to be your people in the world. May our attitudes reflect your Reign so that on that day when we find ourselves part of that innumerable, international multitude around your throne, it will feel as though we are home at last! Amen.