Reading the book of Revelation always takes me back to the years my family and I spent down south. In the mountains of east Tennessee, we were fed a steady apocalyptic diet just driving around town. Revelation showed up on homemade county highway signs warning, “Repent! Jesus is coming back! Get right…or get left!” complete with little hand-painted flames at the bottom. After nearly twenty years living up north, I miss those signs more than I ever knew I would. Maybe not the flames so much, but the announcement that there’s another reality out there—something beyond our culture, our country, something beyond ourselves. There’s something more to hope for, and God is responsible for it. And that something is so big, it belongs on a billboard in giant red letters.
Nowadays, I don’t see too many signs like that. When Revelation comes up at all, most of the time it comes up at funerals. Actually, two of the four readings assigned for Sunday are taken straight from the funeral liturgy: Revelation 7.9-17 and Psalm 23. These aren’t just words that belong on a billboard along a highway in a Tennessee valley–these are words to be read in the valley of the shadow of death.
So what are we to make of this connection between death and dying and praise and worship? What does it mean to hear echoes of a funeral in scriptures assigned for this Fourth Sunday of Easter? Asked another way, what does it mean to worship after shootings in San Diego and Charlotte? What does it mean to worship on the other side of killings in Sri Lanka? Or typhoons in Mozambique? Or more personally, what does it mean to worship after the loss of a loved one? What does it mean to worship in the face of death? Can we? Ought we? Dare we? Do we?
Our reading from Revelation answers that question in big old red letters. Although lacking a paintbrush and plywood on Patmos, John gives his answer in a vision instead: 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. 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 in verse thirteen, a clarifying question is asked, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” Who are these people? “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal.” These are not they who have enjoyed only peace; these are not they who have known only joy; these are not they who are powerful or perfect or prosperous. These worshipers are the ones who have come out of the “great ordeal.” Not only that, the text continues saying, “For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple.” The great ordeal becomes the occasion for their worship!
Back in the first century, the “great ordeal” referred to disempowerment, oppression, and hardship of all who, when in “Rome,” could not or would not do as Romans do. Thus, the vision was meant to give particular hope to a particular suffering people in a particular time and place. And this passage has been chosen for funerals because Christians throughout the centuries have rightly understood that the “great ordeal” named in Revelation can have many manifestations. Every journey—any journey—through “the valley of the shadow of death” can be a great ordeal.
When we are confronted with death—whether it is the senseless gun violence or the peaceful passing of one we love—we are often left longing for something to do; looking for a way to respond. That need to do something has led to many pints of blood donated, many scholarship funds set up, many children named after a beloved grandmother, many pieces of legislation named after beloved children. We do each of these, all of these, to try to make sure death doesn’t have the final word.
But what we hear in Revelation is that worship is the ultimate “doing something” so that death doesn’t have the final word. Singing “Alleluia,” claiming resurrection, turning our hearts away from fear and toward God, sitting alongside our sisters and brothers, praying even when we don’t feel like it, gathering around the table…in all this, worship does something big.
We’re not just talking garden-variety worship here, though. The character of worship that Revelation reveals is way more interesting and far more dangerous than three hymns, three scriptures, and a three-point sermon. In Revelation, worship isn’t just in response to reality; worship actually creates a whole new reality: one that includes not some people, but all people. Not a certain tribe, but every tribe. Not one language, but every last one spoken. This kind of worship sates hunger and slakes thirst. This kind of worship waters fields and dries eyes. As Oscar Romero–who knew all too well what it was to worship in the face of death–wrote, “Tell them things are desperate and tell them we are joyful!”
This year on Good Friday, I participated in an ecumenical service at the AME church here in our town, focused on the “seven last words” of Jesus from the cross. The mood was somber when we arrived. And before we began, the pastor explained her hopes for the evening. “Let’s dwell with these words. Let’s not rush from Friday straight to Sunday. We must face death to find life. So tonight’s going to be low-key and quiet. Got it?” We got it. With a silent processional, worship began.
But it couldn’t have been ten minutes in when the music started humming. We weren’t even to the “second word” before the drummer started playing. We hadn’t been there long at all before some folks started dancing. And by the middle of the third song we were all shouting “Alleluia!” On Good Friday no less. And as I danced I was changed. I thought, “If this is keeping it ‘low-key,’ on Friday then my Lord, how I wish I could be here on Sunday!” I decided right then and there that I was never going to give up “Alleluias” for Lent again. Because for one brief moment, in the face of all manner of death, with Jesus still in the tomb, we were all in that place, saying loud enough for the neighbors to hear, “Tell them things are desperate and tell them we are joyful!”
And so this week, you in your churches and me in mine–all of us facing our own“great ordeals,” each of us walking in our own “valley of the shadows”–we can remind our people of the extraordinary power of their presence and praise. We can work toward the kind of worship that includes not some people, but all people; the kind of glory given not in one language, but in all languages. And we can start this Sunday morning. Alongside all those other announcements we have to make about rummage sales and choir practice, let’s make the announcement that there’s another reality out there—something beyond our culture, our country, something beyond ourselves. There’s something more to hope for, and God is responsible for it.
And here’s the news. It’s going to take more than plywood and paintbrushes to get that word out. Let’s not build a billboard. Let’s be the billboard. Let’s not just respond to reality, let’s be a part of how God creates a new reality. Let’s stare down death and let it flinch first. Let’s live with such love that others start to notice. Let’s sing our Alleluias loud enough to wake the neighbors. Let’s tell them things are desperate and tell them we are joyful! And as we do, let’s borrow a verse from Revelation’s song: Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.