Sermon for Sunday, May 8, 2022  Fourth Sunday of Easter and Mother’s Day “Therefore with Angels and Archangels and All the Host of Heaven”

Rev. Dr. Rolf Svanoe – Good Shepherd Lutheran Church    Decorah, Iowa

Revelation 7:9-17 

A few months ago, when Pastor Amy asked me if I would fill in for her during her sabbatical, I  agreed, and we began to plan worship. I knew that this year in the Easter Season we had the  largest presence of the book of Revelation in the three-year lectionary. So, I asked if the congregation would be open to a series on Revelation. I’m guessing that many of you have never heard a sermon on Revelation before. The text we have before us today is often read at funerals. It is a wonderful vision of the host of heaven gathered before the throne singing praises to God and the Lamb. We hear these wonderful promises of comfort God will give the saints, “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 the eyes.” Who doesn’t love these images? Who doesn’t feel comforted by these promises? I love the symbol of the Lamb becoming the Shepherd. Again, these images speak powerfully to us, but they aren’t  meant to be read literally.  

But in order to understand this scene in heaven that John gives us, we need to know the  con- text. This heavenly worship interrupts the opening of the seven seals in chapter six. In the first four of those seals, we are introduced to four riders on four horses. These are often referred to as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They represent the loss of all the things that give stability to our lives due to War, Anarchy, Economic Devastation, Disease and Death. There is no- thing unusual about these things. They happen every time there is war. Just ask the people of Ukraine if they haven’t felt the reality described by these four symbols. (It’s  interesting that today we have with us the Luther College Norskkor. They sing in four voices: Tenor 1 and 2, Bass 1 and 2. Perhaps this morning, we should call them the Four Norsemen of  the Apocalypse?) Just before we get to our scene of heavenly worship, six of the seven seals are opened and the earth is reeling from the devastation. It’s as if John is telling his hearers that if they were depending on Rome to guarantee their safety and well-being, all those things can be taken away. Rome isn’t God. Rome can’t protect you.  

What do you rely on to protect you and your loved ones: pension funds or investments, Social  Security, insurance, job income, government? John would remind us that all these things can be  taken away, gone in an instant. Just ask the five million Ukrainian refugees. Remember just a  few months ago when we lost power in Decorah? We realized how dependent we are on  electricity to power much of our lives. The prophet John would remind us that all these things can be taken from us and that we should look to God, the ultimate source of life’s blessings. 

And at the end of chapter six, after the six seals have been opened with their devastations, we  hear someone ask the question: Who is able to stand? Have you ever heard people say, “I can  deal with one bad thing, two is stretching it, but three will overwhelm me.” Why is it that  sometimes in life bad things seem to pile up – war, refugees, economic collapse, poverty, starvation, disease and pandemic, global climate change? It’s not uncommon for one bad thing to follow another: an accident, a death, a diagnosis of cancer. These produce stress and can often lead to other problems. So, the question is: How do we survive, how do we stand? 

To answer that question, the prophet John takes us back up to heaven in chapter seven, and he  shows us a great multitude of people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white.” He explains that  “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.”

Do you know about that great ordeal? Have you ever experienced it? For me the first time was  when my father died. For four months we watched as dad fought leukemia and withered away.  That was a great ordeal. Things like that produce great stress in life which can impact our health. What have your ordeals been? 

Life itself can be an ordeal. And John’s answer to that is to invite us up to heaven for a worship  service. There in heaven we gather with a great host of people from all over the world. We  gather around the throne singing praise to the Lamb. In worship, we get our focus off of  our- selves and our problems, and we focus on God. We focus on the Lamb who has won for us a  great victory. We focus on the Lamb who becomes our Shepherd, who leads us to the water of  life and wipes the tears from our eyes. God does not promise that we will be spared from our  ordeals. There is no “Rapture” in the book of Revelation that spares the church from going  through tribulation. God promises to be with us in our ordeals, and God promises that we will  eventually come out of them and every tear wiped away.  

There have been many times in my ministry when people have come up to me after worship  and said, “You know, Pastor, I was thinking about not coming to church today. I was so tired,  but I came anyway. And I’m so glad I did. This was just what I needed.” John knew that too, and  that is why we have this vision of worship in heaven. It gives us the strength we need to carry  on in the struggle for justice and peace in our world today. And when that struggle gets to be  too much, we need to be reminded of God’s promises to us. That happens when we worship. 

There are some interesting images here. John tells us that the robes of those who have come  through the great ordeal have been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. Have you ever tried  to wash blood stains out of clothing? It’s not easy. And yet here we have the symbol that Lamb’s blood makes clean. Lamb’s blood frees and makes whole again. Lamb’s blood brings comfort and hope. The saints aren’t standing before the throne because they are good or deserve a place in heaven. They are there by grace, washed clean in the waters of baptism, marked and sealed with the sign of the cross on their foreheads. No wonder the hosts of heaven stand before the throne singing praise to the Lamb, the one who guides them to the water of life and wipes every tear from their eyes.  

Our hymn of the day is a beloved one, ELW 425 in the Red Hymnal, Behold the Host Arrayed in  White. It’s a paraphrase of Revelation chapter seven. The words were written by a Danish  Pastor, and the music was written by the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. That hymn was  sung at his funeral and has been sung at the funerals of countless people ever since. Whenever  I hear it, I can’t help but think of the many people I’ve known over the years, family and friends,  who are now before the throne, part of the great host of heaven. In my mind, I can look over  that crowd and see their faces. On this Mother’s Day, I especially think of my mother and grandmothers. In your imagination, I want you to look over that crowd. Whose faces do you see there? I’m guessing you see the faces of those who have loved you, those who have encourag- ed you, those who have had a great influence on your life. Let those faces remind you that God is with you, that Jesus has won a great victory, and that no matter what you are facing, Jesus  will see you through it and wipe every tear from your eyes.