The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C.
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. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for 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.”Revelation 7:9-17
In the summer of 2020, as I was returning home from walking the dog, my neighbor called out to me saying, “Hey father, you mind putting in a good word about putting a stop to all this?” Being trained for such moments, I immediately replied, “I’m in sales, not management”. She laughed and shot back, “Can you at least tell me which part of the apocalypse comes next?” All things considered, that was a reasonable question to ask, as that very week not only were we in the throws of the early pandemic which was turning the world upside down, the protests against police brutality were in full swing, there was nervousness about the upcoming election, and in our little neighborhood in Roanoke there had just been a flood the likes of which we had never seen. For many of us, you could say things felt pretty biblical. Now, generally I avoid pretending to have any gift of prophecy, but in this case, I knew three important facts: 1. That summer was the 17-year Cicada breeding cycle in our area. 2. A lunar eclipse was coming up in a few weeks. 3. That my neighbor doesn’t pay attention to the news as much as I do. To answer her question, I gleefully told her “Hoards of insects and darkness covering the land.”
“What!?” she said. “Got to go!” I replied.
A few weeks later, after all these things had come to pass, as I was returning home from walking the dog my neighbor called out to me and said, “Never tell me the odds again!”
In these past few years, and especially in these present days of uncertainty, I have often reflected on our passage from Revelation. The turn of phrase “the great ordeal” feels like an apt summary of the past few years and the present. Public life seems to have become a series of ordeals, one crisis after another, where it’s tempting to start marking time by biblical plague rather than months or years. “When did we take that trip? Oh yes, it was at the end of the third wave of pestilence and just before the war. We wanted to go earlier in the year, but the great fires made us postpone. Had a great time though!”
For all the troubles we are facing in our great ordeal, the most troubling is the sense of powerlessness many of us feel to do anything about it. What is there to be done when the powers of this world sit in their palaces and all the rest of us are shouldered with the burden of each new crisis?
Laugh, sing, and bear witness.
When things feel apocalyptic, it’s important to remember what an apocalypse is. An apocalypse is not the end of the world, as commonly understood, “apocalypse” simply means “uncovering”. Which is why making pasta is always an apocalyptic event; the lid is removed from the pot, uncovering the truth of the sauce, vanquishing hunger, and having a foretaste of the kingdom to come by the power of carbohydrates and cheese. Apocalypses are in a way the end of the world, but more of an end to the world as we understood it before the great ordeal. Apocalypses are not catastrophic events, but Truth being uncovered. Because the powers of the world are so resistant to change that might threaten them, it takes cataclysmic events to shake us awake and reveal Truth to us. Which is why in the apocalypse we laugh, sing, and bear witness. While the world trembles, we see the Truth, and in the ordeal when the Truth is being revealed, as Christians, we are called to proclaim the Truth.
This is the Truth that we bear witness to, proclaimed by the great cloud of witnesses in John’s vision: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” The world tells us that the economy is salvation. The world tells us that the kings in their palaces are seated on the throne. The world tells us that power belongs to the few and we the many are subject to their whims. But the great ordeal we have been living through has uncovered the Truth, the powers of the earth which we thought immutable, inevitable, and almighty are nothing more than mere idols. What’s more, the problems that these powers claim are inevitable or unsolvable, such as poverty and division, these are problems that they are unwilling to solve. Salvation belongs to God, who has provided for us, and to the Lamb, who calls all people to the waters of life.
This is why in the face of apocalypse we laugh, sing, and bear witness. We know the Truth, we have seen the vision of the multitude praising God. So while the powers of the world tremble at the Truth being revealed, we can face the ordeal with courage and help others see the Truth themselves.
Though we often think of laughter and comedy as light distraction or catharsis, at its core, comedy is about exposing absurdity in the lies of the world, and laughter is taking back power from the lies. Early in the pandemic, a comic went around the depicting a dinosaur watching the meteor coming down and shouting “Oh no! The economy!” In that silly little image about the absurdity of our priorities, the lie was uncovered. And in that brief moment of laughter, we took that power back by reflecting on what really matters in a time of crisis. When it felt like the world was coming down around us, there was joy in seeing the Truth.
Equally absurd as laughing in the apocalypse is singing in the apocalypse. Yet like laughter, singing in the face of danger testifies to the Truth, that we always have hope. While the powers of the earth throw up their hands in despair in the face of a challenge, as Christians “even at the grave we make our song, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia” [BCP 483]. Much like the multitude in John’s vision, knowing the Truth of God’s love and care for all of us, and no longer believing the lie that our problems are unsolvable, we sing to strengthen our hope and resolve. Though there are an uncountable multitude of songs, the words to the Gospel tune “This Joy” speaks to this Truth:
“This joy that I have, the world didn’t give it to me. The world didn’t give it, the world can’t take it away.”
Our laughter and our songs bear witness to the Truth, especially in the apocalypse. When we are faced with such an ordeal, our joy does not make light of the trouble, but instead gives us the courage to continue proclaiming the Gospel. We are witnesses, called and led by the lamb. Apocalypse is an uncovering of Truth, and each day more truth is being revealed. We who bear witness to the Truth will not be immune from suffering, if for no other reason than the lies that permeate the world will always persecute the Truth. But the most important truth that we bear witness to, which is our strength, hope, and comfort in the darkest of times, is the Gospel. We are the multitude laughing, singing, and praising God:
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; * for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”