Not Empty

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 12, 2019

Revelation 7:9-17

The Temple in Jerusalem stood for centuries. The first Temple, the Temple of Solomon, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Its successor, the second Temple, the one Jesus would have known, paled in comparison to the first, but it was still a magnificent building. They said that when the sun was shining, you had to shield your eyes from the light reflecting off its ornamentation. In a world of mud and thatch huts, the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was glorious to behold.

Over the course of time, though, the Temple was ransacked by a number of foreign armies. First it was the Babylonians, then it was the Greeks, then it was the Romans. Each stormed the city of Jerusalem, climbed the Temple mount, and broke into the sanctuary to carry away the gold, the silver, and all the furnishings of the Temple.

But most importantly, each of these armies planned to break in and destroy the gods that lived there. It’s a temple, so they must have gods in there, right? It’s a way of showing your superiority, to show that their gods can’t even protect themselves, much less the people who worshiped them. So those pagan soldiers marched into the Temple with swords and spears, but when they broke in, they found no gods. No idols. No statues. The foreign troops actually ridiculed the Jews for not having a god because there was nothing in the Temple. Those foreigners thought that the Temple was empty. 

Of course, following the commandment, the Jews did not make idols or images of the Almighty. Much to the confusion of the pagans, they did not worship a statue in the Temple but something more like a spirit, a power, a presence.

The same could be said of us. We have no statues, no idols to worship in the church. In seminary, as part of our general introduction to religion course, we had to visit a Hindu temple. There were gods everywhere. Compared to that temple, the church does look quite empty. I’m certain that if they walked into Holy Comforter, they would be just as confused as those pagan soldiers of old who thought that the Temple was without a god.

This passage from Revelation that we just read, well, it has answer to all those who would claim that our places of worship are empty. St. John the Divine has a vision of the heavenly throne room, the heavenly place of worship, and there he sees that the place is not empty at all, but actually quite crowded.  

To be fair, the heavenly courts are not crowded with gods but with souls. St. John sees a great multitude that no one could count. He sees them filling the temple, praising, and worshiping night and day. He hears them singing blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and power and might to God for ever and ever. St. John sees the Lamb who is the shepherd at the center of the throne. Indeed, heaven is not empty but is quite crowded.

Heaven is quite crowded, with a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. Hear again, heaven is quite crowded, with people that do not come from where we come from, with people that do not speak the language we speak, that do not have the same heritage that we claim. What is it that they have in common? They have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb. That’s what matters. It is baptism, it is identity in Christ, it is being one of the flock. That’s what matters. This is one of the reasons I have chosen a church that belongs to no country. Our church is a global one, because the people of God are not of any one nation or land. This vision from Revelation about the crowded heavenly courts is about identity – our true identity is not found in any human construct, but in the Good Shepherd who is at the center of the throne. 

Which is good news – the courts of God are actually quite crowded. Not crowded with statues and idols and gods, but crowded with the beautiful rainbow people that God has called to be God’s own. The courts of heaven are quite crowded.

But we also must take care, and I want to be precise here. Notice that the entire multitude that no one can count is facing the Shepherd at the center of the throne. Everyone is facing the Almighty. So often when I officiate funerals I hear all sorts of well-intentioned platitudes about the person who has died. They say that he is going home to see grandma or whoever. When people in my own family have died, others have sought to console me saying something like, “well, don’t worry, old so and so is hanging out with her friends now.” While I think that is true, that is not the gospel. The vision of the heavenly throne room is crowded yes, with all the saints that have gone before us, but that’s not the point. The point is that everyone is facing the throne and worshipping the Lamb. The gift of heavenly life is not that you become reunited with your loved ones, it’s that you become reunited with God. The vision from Revelation is not that you die and go off to Club Med in the sky to play golf and swing in a hammock and relax and see your family for ever and ever. No, the vision from Revelation is that you die and become one of God’s flock. The Good Shepherd wipes the tears from your eyes. No thirst, no hunger. The vision here is that you die and see Jesus. Who could ask for anything more?

And this, this is what they can ever steal from you. That’s what frustrated those foreign armies so much when they stormed into Jerusalem; they were frustrated that they couldn’t steal the god of the Jews. Same for us – no one can storm the gates of heaven and take this hope from you. No one can burn or destroy the Lamb who is the Shepherd on the throne. No one, no one, can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That love is unassailable.

Our world right now seems so fragile because we’re all afraid to lose something. We’re afraid the Babylonians will march in and steal away whatever we hold most dear. We fear for the flooding rains which have washed us away and might wash us away again. We fear the stress of our jobs that steals the joy from life. We fear for a tottering economy that could steal our security and prosperity. We fear the unknown that could march into our hearts and steal our hopes.

So take again this vision from Revelation – no one, no thing, no person, no idea, no pagan army, no credit card debt, no diagnosis, no lay off – can ever steal you away from the Lord Jesus who is the Good Shepherd of your soul. They can never steal the only thing that matters, which is the infinite love that the Almighty has for you.

Which means finally, finally, you can live in perfect freedom. Knowing that your soul and the souls of the great crowd which no one can count, are perfectly safe in God. My friends, you have nothing to lose, because what you have already belongs to God. Your soul, the souls of all those who have washed themselves in the blood of the Lamb are already safe under the throne of the Lamb. You can live with boldness for God, you can love your neighbors, you can live with an open heart because that heart is already safe with God.

My friends, stop living in such fear. If you take anything away from this this vision from Revelation, take a dose of courage. Stop giving into the fear that everyone is trying to sell you. You know that’s what they’re doing, right? They pump you up on fear so that you keep coming back from more, and because you’re afraid, you never actually learn how to live. You live in fear that something will be stolen from you, and that, in itself, is a form of disbelief. The vision, the vision for me and for you is that anybody can trying desecrating your temple or burning your gods or stealing your stuff. But they can never succeed, because your heart is safe with God. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

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