How many of you follow the daily totals for COVID-19 cases and deaths right now as closely as you did back in March or April? Now, maybe some of you haven’t really followed those numbers from the start so, for you, nothing has changed. But I know that my “analysis,” if you will, has changed quite a bit over the past 6 months. When the pandemic first hit the news, I watched the numbers on a daily basis. I tuned in through Facebook to every daily news conference that Governor Reynolds gave and listened as she reported the Iowa totals. When the first phone app was developed to collate the various data sources and give an overall total of cases and deaths, I was among the earliest to download it. I reacted with skepticism when Dr. Fauci predicted 100K to 200K deaths in the United States and so I watched daily to see how wrong he would be. Of course, the joke’s on me (though no one is laughing) since we have passed the date of 200K deaths; but I couldn’t tell you when. You see, I stopped following the daily numbers a few months ago. Maybe you did, too.
When tragedies become commonplace, it just isn’t humanly possible for us who are at a distance from them to experience the same level of emotional distress as those who are close at hand. And our lessened reaction has nothing to do with not caring or a lack of empathy. It’s that we have a survival function that causes us to become protective of our emotional energy. We cannot continue to dump it out day after day on extreme events and have any left for daily living.
And so a kind of numbness creeps in, and to some degree, it needs to. It’s a defense mechanism that keeps us from reaching our personal tilt point.
That said, such numbness also gives us a jaded view of life, a pervasive pessimism that whispers to us that the cards really are stacked against us, and that no matter how much we think we’ve organized our lives, the forces of chaos and destruction will ultimately prevail.
We hear some of those whispers almost every time we do breakdown and check the numbers. Or after any report of the other chaotic events that the nightly news offers. Mask mandates, mandatory shutdowns, lack of Congressional assistance, as well as racial equality and the riots occurring with those demands; each event has commentators saying this or that incident should reignite the debate on the issue, but those of us who’ve been around awhile find ourselves thinking something such as, “Yeah, this latest tragedy might cause some debate, but even if some changes are made, it won’t make the kind of difference we need. People who are determined to flaunt mandates will and those who want to incite violence will always find a way to do so.” But do you hear in that an admission of deep pessimism — that nothing could have prevented it, or something like it? In the case of COVID — that mask or no mask, it’s gonna getcha. And, in the case of riots – that neither arming everybody nor disarming everybody would make much difference.
That’s a fatalism we don’t wish to surrender to, but it nibbles at the edge of our minds when we contemplate awful things. Fully developed, it can cause us to doubt God’s existence, or at least His goodness.
Toward the end of March, comic actor John Krasinski began a weekly webcast called Some Good News. As the titled states, Mr. Krasinski’s intent was to counteract the, seemingly, unrelenting bad news with some good news. The show was a tremendous hit. People confirmed the need for some good news to the tune of 18 million plus views, 2.5 million subscribers and calls for John Krasinski to be everything from Time’s Man of the Year to the winner of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. The show was always meant to be short term (8 episodes), but people are still discovering this gem and many re-watch episode because we are still desperately in need of good news.
It is, however, a little bit telling that, in amongst the calls for Mr. Krasinski’s sainthood, are comments like: “I love this show. I just wish the world were really like this.” Again, do you hear the pessimism? “I know you’re taking good news stories from the real world, but we all know those are the anomalies. More often than not, the world isn’t that way.”
Against all that, we have the Scriptures from John of Patmos. Now, while we often turn to Scripture for comfort, it’s hard to find Revelation comforting at first glance. It is hard to get a nice coffee-mug verse out of the Revelation of John, and I have a hard time imagining a Precious Moments Bible with the cover depicting the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.
But Revelation’s primary intent is to comfort the saints on this side of God’s “big reveal.” It’s to give a word of hope to those whose worlds have come apart. The Book of Revelation affirms that God is awesomely majestic and sovereign in all our troubles. It lets us know that, regardless of who things appear in the short term, sin does not go unpunished, God is not dependent on what the world values as power, and His will is always done on the end. Revelation is not a map to the end; it’s a new promise to those who feel as if they are already at the end, that a new beginning awaits.
In this morning’s passage, John describes a glorious moment where a countless number of faithful people – those who have lived through the “great ordeal” and have died and are now with Christ – are seen robed in white and singing praises to God. Imagine the endless sea of white robes, Christians who were bruised and beaten in life, who spent their days in fear of persecution, now singing at the top of their lungs.
Their robes have been cleansed with the blood of the Lamb. Blood is not the best choice for detergent, but what a powerful image! The suffering, the stains of our brokenness and fear and worry, are washed clean, not by our own doing, but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ suffering redeems our suffering. And His suffering brings us the gift of salvation. Sometimes believers on earth appear to take their salvation for granted. This isn’t true for all the saints who have gone before. They recognize that God is the source of salvation, and no one else. Salvation isn’t something we earn, it is something God gives.
In the context of John’s time, the “great ordeal” likely referred to the bitter experiences — the bad news — that befell the followers of Jesus at the onset of the Jerusalem war in A.D. 66. But we can read it in our own context and apply it to the bad-news ordeals of our own time. In contrast to the pessimism that first-century ordeal might have engendered, however, this Revelation passage sees the brightness, the good news, on the other side. These people, who have come through that great ordeal faithfully, “will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 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 …. ” (vv. 16-17). They are the ones who were numbed by the battering of bad news in their day, but in the realm to come, they are “un-numbed.” In fact, they have no need for defensive numbing, because “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (v. 17).
But what about us? If this passage is to fit into our existence somewhere, it has to be read as belonging to some future that we cannot see and can only, like John, envision. And then we can only hold on to that vision with the most slender of threads, those of promise and hope, and perhaps even wish.
If we’re honest, we don’t know what to do with death in our culture. That, among other reasons, is why we stop looking at the mounting death tolls; we don’t know what to do with death. When someone we know loses a loved one, we don’t know what to say. When we lose someone precious to us, we don’t know how to ask the living for what we need. Revelation is a reminder that for the early Christians (and for many of our sisters and brothers around the world today), death was a constant reality. And not just death, but martyrdom, as they were persecuted for their belief in Jesus Christ.
As we live on this side of eternity, what we need to know is that God is still here in this life, that He hasn’t left us, that He is our shepherd, too. And the faith of all the saints who have gone before can give us a glimpse of the divine perspective.
Whenever a faithful member of the church died, the living would gather in the place they had died, or in the catacombs near where they lay buried, to remember their faith. The early Christians knew that their faith didn’t come out of nowhere; it was their inheritance passed on to them by those who had come before. Perhaps the reason we have such a hard time with death in our culture is that we are so quick to forget those who came before us.
So, on today of all days, may we give thanks for those who have stepped into that unseen horizon of grace – who have shaped us into the people we are, who have loved us and failed us and everything in between, and who call us now to a life of hope, to a life of daring to believe death and pain do not have the final word. Good is stronger than evil, and there is something — something — that cannot be taken from us because God has given it to us. Furthermore, we together know that nothing — nothing — can separate us from the love of God. This means we see what the world cannot see, that God has revealed a truth too precious to tell, that we are a family, all God’s children, and that one day we will sit together at a great feast, robed together in a white not made by bleach but by blood.