John August Swanson painted the image that is on your bulletins this morning and on the screen.
I was directed to it while I was preparing for this sermon, and I immediately fell in love.
I spent some time meditating on it, and it is so full of imagery, that it’s almost too much to take in.
The first thing we notice is the great multitude of people in a collective act of candlelit devotion.
And the candles are so important.
A single candle illumines, but a multitude of these candles create a common luminary that is much greater than the single flame.
But as the multitudes gather — and we can see them coming from all corners — they sort of blend into the horizon in the rolling hills,
and, of course, the horizon is a collection of light itself:
the stars of heaven.
The lights below, the lights above into one collective universal glow:
Human meets Divine, Divine meets Human.
Even the animals and trees and flowers seem to join together in this magnificent glow.
The Book of Revelation in our New Testament is sort of like the eccentric and volatile relative in our otherwise normal family.
We tend to not delve into it too much, and it makes us a bit uncomfortable.
Maybe that’s why it’s tucked way at the end of the New Testament…
I adore this passage though, as it gives us a wonderful image not only of worship in the presence of Christ, but it shows us something else that’s critical:
It shows WHO will be in worship one day in Heaven.
The writer, John of Patmos — not John of the Gospels — says in verse 9 that they are people from “every nation, tribe, people, and language.”
Who are they?
All people — everyone. No differentiation among them.
So when we look at Swanson’s painting, we don’t notice their diversity, do we?
They look all basically the same.
Think about it for a minute:
In the dark, it’s impossible to see faces.
But have you noticed, like at a candlelight vigil or even here on Christmas Eve candlelight service, that our faces are all just aglow,
and we don’t notice the differences — both literally and figuratively.
God’s people in all their diversity, when they are illuminated, are exactly that: God’s people.
All of them.
John tells us they held palms and dressed in white.
We know Revelation is chock-filled with symbology and imagery, and the meaning of white is the color of victory.
We see that throughout the Old Testament, specifically first and second Maccabees, if you care to glance back).
And they’re holding palm branches, too.
What do they signify?
Also victory — but victory after war, specifically.
Like after a great battle.
So now we know there was a great battle, and God’s children — all of them — are victorious.
In fact, John adds a victory prayer, just in case we missed it.
“Victory belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.”
What victory are they celebrating?
I’m glad you asked…
Well, John tells us:
Verse 13: One of the elders said to me (John), “Who are these people wearing white robes and where did they come from?”
John answers, “Sir, you know.”
The elder answered:
“These people have come out of great hardship.
“They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood.”
We’ll get back to the hardship in a moment.
The robes washed in the Lamb’s blood?
Well, that is Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1.29)
We are forgiven of our sins, our brokenness through Christ’s sacrifice.
Then the elder then says:
“This is the reason they are before God’s throne. They worship him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them.”
The image here of being sheltered is a very Jewish notion:
The Jews celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles, or better known as the Festival of Booths (Oct. 13-20).
Festival of Booths recalls how God called the Israelites — Hebrews at the time — out of Egyptian slavery.
And for those 40 years, they lived in booths — tents, or huts…
The tents were a shelter.
The connotation that they are victorious, wearing white and waving palms in the shelter of God’s wings, symbolizes God’s hand — God’s providence — upon them.
Then the elder says:
“They won’t hunger or thirst anymore. No sun or scorching heat will beat down on them…”
Can we see the parallels here?
But then verse 17:
“…because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them.
“He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
It’s not just an exodus story — the being freed from Egyptian bondage;
but that image does serve as a metaphor for some other kind of hardships they were facing.
And one over which they have been made victorious.
What were the hardships?
Well, John of Patmos is called of Patmos because he was most likely exiled there.
It’s also possible he was just preaching the Good News there, but if we look at the time this was written, it was during the reign of Emperor Domitian, around the end of the first century.
Domitian was cruel, and he was the first emperor of Rome who made persecution of Christians a universal practice.
Christians were being persecuted, and they were beginning to be martyred.
So John of Patmos probably was exiled to this speck of an island about 200 miles east of Athens…
It was out there…
Persecuted for spreading the Good News.
His writing is an attack of the practices and policies — the sins of the Roman Empire, and, specifically, the emperor.
Therefore, in his vision, he sees this picture of the heavenly realm and the presence of eternal worship.
Those who are worshiping are all of those who suffered for Christ’s name.
And they are eternally saved for Christ’s name.
“Who are these people,” the elder asks.
“They worship him day and night.”
Ah, the saints of light…
Just like in the picture.
Are they dressed in white?
No, they are wearing an array of colors.
It’s actually a fact that Swanson used an amazing 46 different colors in this painting!
Why all the colors when they’re supposed to be all in white?
Because it’s not just their physical appearance that makes them “white” — remember, meaning victorious.
It’s the LIGHT that makes them white.
The Light of the World.
The Lamb of God.
What it means for us
Again, what I love about this picture is that this great multitude continuously arrives.
Far beyond the horizon.
(and there are animals, too!)
They come alone.
They come together.
From all four corners of the world.
The vast diversity!
But are we among the martyred?
Gosh, I certainly hope not.
Are we among the persecuted?
You know, we live in an age where there is war, there is abuse, there is pain and suffering
— and that’s sometimes at our own hands when we’re passive against the oppression in this world.
So does that mean we don’t get to join the ranks of the Saints of Light?
Not at all.
Jesus’s blood is not just for those who suffer in his name;
it’s for all of us.
Because we all need a savior, each and every one of us.
And Jesus’s blood covers all sins, just for the asking.
Even today, there are people dying for Christ’s name.
There is rampant persecution in foreign countries.
There is persecution here in our own country.
All those innocent souls will be at the front of the line.
But all those guilty sinners will be among them too
— IF they seek God’s abundant forgiveness.
That’s what the resurrection is about: The transformation.
Jesus rises to show us that we will rise, too.
Death has no victory over any of us.
Sin has no hold on us.
Not when we’re washed by the blood of Christ.
What response does this stir within us?
We are assured a place in that painting.
Standing among all of our brothers and sisters
— all who claim Jesus is Lord —
with candles lit, illuminating us,
and making us white as snow.
Victorious, sheltered, held, celebrating, loved eternally…
How do we respond to this?
Well, for those suffering here today, with no matter what it is,
know that yours is a place among the Great Multitude.
For those who need to seek forgiveness,
know that just for the asking, yours is a place among the Great Multitude.
So when do we become the Great Multitude?
When we die?
Yes, but what about now?
Are you a member of the Great Multitude now?
Yes, you are.
We all are when we are washed by the blood of the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.
We have and enjoy that right now.
Today and tomorrow.
Because those sins already have been paid for.
The blood is here to wash us clean.
And if we truly are Saints of Light, The Great Multitude,
we can look at ourselves and one another and see not our differences, but what we look like in the bright and pure light of God.
We can certainly celebrate our diversity — “Look where I’ve come from!” we might say.
But together? Together we are part of this wonderful Great Multitude,
living in the pure freedom and the splendid light of God,
and welcomed into the arms of Christ eternally.
And this is how we are called to live in the world today.
Let that light shine.
When you feel lost or lonely, down and out, broken and damaged or alone.
When you’ve lost your hope and maybe your faith is shaken,
let’s remember this painting.
The joyous and reverent faces lit up with brilliant light.
With all of creation
for one reason:
to praise God and to worship the Lamb.