Before the Throne

Scripture:  Revelation 7:9-17

The story goes is that once there was a border patrol agent who had worked his way up through the system, and he got assigned to be the head of a crossing along the U.S./Canadian border.  While not exactly remote, this was a less busy crossing point.  It was the kind of place where the people who crossed regularly for various reason began to be recognizable.  One spring day something a little unusual happened.  A man came to the border crossing on a blue bicycle.  This stuck out because most people do not cross the border on a bicycle, but everything seemed in order so he went through.   Then a few days later the same man, from the same direction, approached the border once again on a blue bicycle.  Again, this seemed odd but again everything was in order.   A few days later the same thing happened.   At this point, the head agent who had been assigned to this crossing got involved and personally questioned the man, but again everything seemed to be in order.   This kept happening, every few days the same man riding a blue bicycle would approach the border from the same direction.   The head agent knew something fishy was going on.  He knew this man had to be smuggling something.  He had him searched- nothing was found.  He brought specially trained dogs to see if they could smell anything illicit-nothing.   The agent once confiscated a bike, had the whole thing taken apart and every piece thoroughly searched-nothing out of the ordinary.   As this continued on, the head agent went a step further and had a bike sent to a lab for a detailed analysis and as far as the lab could determine nothing was out of the ordinary.  It was nothing more than a blue bicycle.

This continued from the spring through the summer and into the fall.  Once it got cold, the man on the bicycle stopped coming through.  Yet when spring rolled around, he showed up again on a blue bicycle, and he kept coming back every few days.  Sometimes there would be through interrogations or searches.  Other times with a shrug of the shoulders they would waive him through.  This drove the head agent crazy.  He just knew this man had to be smuggling something across the border and the fact that they could not find anything kept him up at night.  This continued on for several years.  Every spring through fall the same man would ride a blue bicycle to the border every few days.   This wore on the head agent so much that once he qualified for early retirement he took it.  It just so happened that on his last day on the job, the man on the bicycle approached the border.  The head agent went down to talk to him personally and said, “Look, today is my last day on the job.  I know you have been smuggling something across the border.  I promise there will not be any repercussions, but for my peace of mind will you please tell me.”

After getting more assurances that there would be not action taken, the man on the bicycle admitted, that yes all of these years he had been smuggling.  Feeling vindicated, the agent asked, “well what was it? What have you been smuggling across the border?”   The man leaned closer to the agent and whispered to him “Blue bicycles.”

I tell this story because it illustrates that sometimes the most obvious answer is staring us right in the face, and we completely miss it.  Like the agent in the story, sometimes we get so distracted focusing on the wrong thing, that we miss what is right in front of us.  We can have this experience when we read scripture, and this morning’s scripture is a great example of this.  For a lot of people the main focus on this morning’s scripture is found in verse 14 where the phrase the “great tribulation” is found.   Seriously, people have made entire belief systems based off this phrase.  People have written entire books arguing their case about the great tribulation.  They lay out these elaborate timelines of how they believe some future events are going to happen.  It seems every time in the 20th century and 21st century that violence breaks out around Israel, there are people who rush to claim that this is the tipping point that is going to be what kicks off the start of the great tribulation.

But here is the thing, in the entirety of the bible the phrase great tribulation only occurs one other time in the gospel of Matthew, and this morning’s scripture is not even about a great tribulation.  It is mostly mentioned in passing, yet this phrase has capture the imagination of people for generations.  Like the border agent in the story we focus on one thing so much that we miss is right in front of us.  This morning’s scripture is not one of troubles and tribulations, it is one of hope, and it is one that begins to give us an idea of what it will be like before the throne of God.

Revelation is a tricky book of the bible, because there are a multiple way to read and understand it.  What makes it harder is it seems most people are convinced there way of understanding the book is the only correct way.  There are some people who are convinced that Revelation is a roadmap for future events, others believe it is a coded description events that impacted the Christians of the late first century, and then others read the book as one that is more allegorical and uses fantastic imagery to relay deeper, universal truth.  Despite different understandings, I think we can find common ground where scriptures like this morning can speak to us all.   The author of Revelation claims the name John, and starting in chapter four Revelation records a vision of being before God’s throne in the heavenly realm.   There is a cyclical nature to this vision.  There will be these fantastic and sometimes frightful that can be threatening before returning to gatherings before the throne of God that are full of awe and hope.   This morning’s scripture is part of that pattern.

In this morning’s scripture, if we look past the mention of a great tribulation, we see a beautiful description of heavenly worship.   There are several elements worth lifting up in this morning’s scripture.  First the scene before the throne of God describes a great multitude, more than anyone can count from every nation, and every people found around the world.  In a loud, united voice this multitude praises God.  They praise God for their salvation and for the Lamb of God, Jesus, which makes that salvation possible.  This glimpse of heavenly worship can have an impact on our outlook today in two ways.

First, this morning’s scripture states there is a multitude, the number of people who are part of God’s forever family are beyond what anyone can count.  God’s heavenly kingdom is not going to be sparsely populated by people who were lucky enough to pick the one expression of Christianity that got it right.  The kingdom of heaven is going to be populated by all who have found salvation in Christ, and there is more than one way to follow Jesus.   This morning’s scripture indicated that heaven is not going to be full of people who just look and act like us.  The multitude that is before the throne of God is going to be far more diverse and far more inclusive than just about all of the churches on earth are.   This scripture is a reminder that kingdom of heaven is a lot messier than we might like. This scripture is yet another reminder in the bible that the kingdom God is marked by unity, not uniformity.

The second way this can impact our current outlook is that it reminds us that we are all on the same team.  There can be some benefit in running a church like a business, but at the end of the day churches are not businesses.   Businesses are in competition with one another, and churches should not be trying to complete.  To view our siblings in Christ as competition is foolishness, because we will all be part of the great multitude worshiping before the very throne of God.  We are free to disagree with some of the non-core beliefs and practices of other Christian communities, but in the end of the day they profess the same saving grace that we do.  There are plenty of people who do not know Jesus, so churches competing with each other makes no sense.  Spending time and energy to criticize and tear down other denominations is a waste of time at best and actively harmful to the body of Christ at worst.   We are all on the same team. This scripture reminds us when it comes to interacting with other Christians we should lead with grace, because when we all get to heaven we will do so with a multitude of people.

Another element we see in this morning’s scripture about the scene found before the heavenly throne is found in verses 16-18.  In those verses we get a description about what eternal life will be like in God’s heavenly kingdom: “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst; the Sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat.  For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, he will lead them to springs of living water.  And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

I cannot speak for you, but I know many people who seek to follow Jesus have had experiences where they in some way felt the presence of God.  We have had experiences where we have had an assurance in the core of our being that God has provided for us, protected us, and been there for us when we needed God the most.   For many, the memory of those experiences becomes a core part of what drives someone to continue on in faith.   That feeling of God’s abiding presence and God’s provisional care is what is described in this morning’s scripture.   Before the throne of God, that feeling will be the new normal for us for all eternity.  This morning’s scripture specifically states that this is what those who came out of the great tribulation will experience, but the description here is also incredibly similar to the description of the new heaven and new earth found at the end of Revelation.   An eternity in God’s presence is the reality that await all people who find their hope in Christ.  By tying that reality to a great tribulation, whatever that might be, the author of Revelation intentionally sets forth to remind us of the hope we have.

In our own lives we may not feel like our troubles ever reach the level of a great tribulation, but every single one of us has trying times.  We all have times where we wonder “Where is God” or “Why God?”   In our dark nights of the soul we might also have times where we wonder why we ever bother with faith at all.   We have times when our suffering, our troubles, our pain feel like they are going to drown us.   We all have times when it feels like darkness is closing in and the light will not come again.   This morning’s scripture reminds us that in those times, we still have a reason for hope.  This scripture reminds us that the darkness does not win, because the Lamb is at the center of the throne.  This morning’s scripture reminds us that there will be a day of no more suffering, no more crying, and that God will be the one who wipes away every tear.   There will be a day where God’s presence is with us for ever and ever in a world without end.  Friends, no matter what our tribulations are, no matter what our sorrows are, I believe this is a hope that does not fail.  This is a hope that we can cling to.

On this day we remember those who have gone before us, we remember those who have joined the great multitude.   We remember those who even at this moment are before the throne of God.  Someday we will all join them, and when we all get to heaven what a day of rejoicing that will be.   Until that day though, may we hold on to the hope we have in Christ.   In our darkest day, and our most troubled nights may that hope be what sustains us and comforts us.  Not only may we look to our hope in Christ during our times of tribulation, but may our lives be a testament to others.  May we seek to join with all of our fellow Christians and be united in the hope we have.   May our collective testimony to the world around us be one of worship as we also loudly proclaim: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.  Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”

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