Wipe Away Every Tear
© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder
Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 25, 2010
Here we are, in the middle of that strange and wonderful book of the Bible, the Revelation of John, with its strange and wonderful and baffling imagery providing scriptural foundation for our service. What are we to make of all the numbers, the hundred and forty-four thousand sealed, followed by an even greater number that could not be counted? If we wanted to look backward, we’d find John’s words about the “slain Lamb” in Revelation 5, which came as a surprising image of a Messiah to a people more accustomed to the image of the Lion of Judah as the symbol of their Messianic hope. In today’s reading we find other references to the Lamb and its strangely cleansing blood. And there is the familiar image of living water, which we will recognize as a connection to the fourth chapter of John’s gospel, where Jesus offered living water to the woman at the well. It is followed by the promise of the gospel – almost tossed off here as though it were of much less significance than it truly is – that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Are you aware of anything that can readily bring tears to your eyes? The answer is likely to differ greatly from person to person. There are so many human reasons for tears. And when John promised that there would come a time when God will “wipe away every tear from their eyes,” it was a pretty big promise. There have been so many tears shed since the beginning of time, and so many reasons for shedding them.
There are the tears of a little child when the new toy breaks. Small potatoes to adults – we are accustomed to shedding tears over much bigger issues than a child’s small tragedies. But in the imaginal world of a child, a broken toy can mean a broken fantasy, a broken dream. Even strong men cry over broken dreams if they are dreams that were dearly cherished. The magnitude of any tragedy depends in no small part on the perspective of the person who experiences it.
Humanity is continually provided with opportunities to feast on tears, if the word feast can be used for such things. Anonymous killers make airplanes explode and fall from the sky, shattering dreams of thousands in an instant; famine, infant mortality claims thousands every single day of the world.
The Bible knows about tears. The Psalmist groaned in the 6th Psalm, “I am weary ... I water my couch with my tears.” The unnamed woman with the unspecified grief in the 7th chapter of Luke’s gospel washed Jesus’ feet with her very own tears.
Tears are part of the human landscape, inescapably. They have been, and they will continue to be. And our responses to the tears of others, as well as to our own tears, can vary tremendously.
One general response to human tears could be simply to shrug one’s shoulders and say, “What more can you expect from life in a world where we are born so that one day we will die?” Many have advocated the adoption of a Stoic attitude toward human misery and pain, acknowledging that complaining will not ease the pain, and will only give tormentors the pleasure of knowing their work is having its intended effect.
But John was writing his words to the seven churches of Asia minor, not as a philosopher – pondering in the luxury of a detached life the problem of human misery – but as a general rapping out marching orders to an army of Christian gospel-soldiers, many of whom he knew, if they followed his direction, would be signing themselves up for intense suffering, even death.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer – German theologian executed by the Nazis for crimes arising from his faithfulness to the gospel – once wrote, “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.” While that is theologically true, Bonhoeffer also knew it is not the whole story. John’s vision in Revelation was the engine that powered his exhortation to the Christians of Asia Minor: that they stand firm in the face of the persecution which he knew was certain to overtake them.
As he told them to stand firm in the faith even in the face of persecution by the mightiest empire the world had ever known, someone was bound to ask why, to demand to know what could possibly be worth the suffering they would voluntarily endure.
John recognized that the gospel we preach does not deny that tears are in store for those who believe. However, something of great significance lies beyond those tears, something to which it is well worth giving our very lives. Jesus may, in calling us, bid us come and die, but not senselessly, like sheep led to the slaughter. A profound aspect of John’s vision is that there is a purpose to be found in human suffering. It is a purpose spoken in our reading for today in poetic and metaphorical terms, for that is how the profoundest truths are often expressed.
John’s vision was of a multitude – uncountable – like the innumerable descendants God promised to Abraham; people from every nation, every tribe, every tongue. Not a single person in this great thronging fellowship of the saved was to be ruled out of this picture of what is to be because of color, nationality, language, or custom. Paul, writing to the Hebrews, put it a bit differently. He said, “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” A witness is someone who watches, among other things. Inasmuch as we are amid a great cloud of witnesses, we are watched-over. To be watched over means no one is overlooked, no one left out of the lineup because they are too short, too tall, can’t play shortstop or hit a basket from the free throw line. In heaven, at the center of the life of God, “we are watched and watched over forever, but never overlooked.”
A friend of mine, preaching on this passage, once invited listeners to ask an obvious question of a reading that speaks of an uncountable multitude of people standing before the throne in heaven. Who are these people? He invited us to consider another – related – question. “Which of the following names should appear in the membership directory of a Presbyterian church? Abdul, Dubois, Goldberg, Gronowski, Johnson, Juarez, Sun Yung Kim, McDowell, Konomoto, Monteverdi, Martinez, Nielsen, Kouvalong, Phoumy, Phan Hoa Quoc, Rashad, Schmidt, Thorensen, Ying, Yellowbird.”
A heavenly party the size of which John envisioned, has to include many people beyond the limited vision of the church that we may have had. To those who pray for the coming of God’s kingdom so that the evil of others may be avenged, God seems to answer, saying, “Wait a while longer; you may be surprised to discover who else belongs to me.”
What a marvelous way of saying that you belong here. The good news of the gospel is for you... and you, and you, and for me. No one is excluded. If we’ve lived a life of being left out, left over, left alone, we can reach into John’s vision and see that God’s kingdom is the place where that is no longer the case. You belong. We belong – all of us.
This whole company of the elect were standing, in John’s vision, in white robes –which is what triumphant Roman generals wore when celebrating their victories. Imagine how such a vision would strike a runaway slave waiting to be executed for his faith. Beyond all the suffering lies the tremendous victory such as all the generals of all the armies that ever marched have never known.
In John’s vision, the whole company was singing. We may never have thought of the singing of hymns as such a revolutionary activity. But imagine the power of such a vision of triumphant singing for a church that had to post a guard at the door of every meeting to be certain they were not discovered. The vision of a singing throng would have sounded like – well, like heaven itself. Expression of praise, free and full. It should make us ashamed for any pale and lifeless singing that takes place in God’s house.
The multitude of John’s vision were beyond tears at last, were enjoying the ultimate glory, having doggedly persisted and outlasted their tears. William Barclay says that for many, this final verse is the passage for which the whole of the Revelation of John exists: “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” There are no tears in our world which God does not see; no sorrowing hearts to which his compassion does not reach out. What John promised here for those who could persevere through the great persecutions of his time, is the final fulfillment of the hunger and thirst of the human soul.
It is often not popular to speak much of eternity as a reason motivating our actions in this life. If we mention it we are bound to be told that such future promises minimize the extent of worldly suffering in the present. But the opposite is true for John. His vision of a blessed eternity takes most seriously the suffering of this world in a way that is impossible for those who have no hope of eternity. We need the illumination of eternity if we are to have faith for living life in a land of many tears. The vision of a tearless land is both hope for the future and the beginning of the end of our present tear-filled landscape – a tearless future means we can no longer be satisfied with the world as it is. Seeing the secure reign of God makes temporary all our sorrow and puts it in the perspective of a Time greater than the little time we can know. Just as a child’s tears, put in the perspective of an adult’s view of time, are wiped away.
This is God’s profound promise to us. That what we must suffer in this life – if suffer we must – is one day to be seen in a whole new way; that the purpose of this life will become increasingly clear to us, and God will wipe away our tears to set us free for praise.
Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved