The passage that we’ve just heard from book of Revelation is a vision about the fate of the human soul after we die. As is true with any vision, this vision is meant to communicate something that is true but categorically different from what we know, and so it must rely on metaphor and symbol.
This vision is of what awaits on the other side of death’s door, a door toward which we are all walking. A door which most hope is far in the distance, on the far side of a life full of joy. But death is a door toward which we are all walking without ceasing for even a moment. We walk toward it in our sleep and we walk toward it when we make love, we walk toward it when we fall ill and we walk toward it when we are healthy, we are ceaselessly marching toward it with a heartbeat cadence. And what awaits us when we walk through that door, it is categorically different from anything that we have known. And so it has to be told in a vision. We are given a vision in which we walk through death’s door and enter into the throne room of God.
And it is as if all the world had passed through that door as well, because in the throne room there is being settled not the fate of but one soul, but of all the world’s souls. All the world’s souls are before God, and God is claiming what belongs to God. There is a taking of inventory going on, there is a divvying up presents on Christmas morning going on, there is a handing out people’s orders from the takeout place going on, there is a claiming by God of what belongs to God going on.
The first to be claimed by God are the people of Israel. It says 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes are claimed. IF you forgive me a bit of mystical Hebrew numerology here, 12 is the biggest number that there is, it is complete, it can’t be added to, after 12 it just goes back to zero. And so twelve times twelve thousand of the people of Israel means all of the people of Israel—soooooooo many. God claims God’s own, and the people of Israel are the first to be drawn close and touched and claimed by God and sealed. Those who claim the name of Christ, we are not first or most pre-eminent among those claimed by God, that falls to the people of Israel. It is for no better reason than that God promised it would be so, and it is for no less certain of a reason than that God promised it would be so.
In the throne room of God beyond death’s door, God claims next those who needed to be redeemed in life. It says God claims those who passed through great ordeal, whose lives were checkered, who had been abandoned as hopeless by everyone including themselves, who had needed God to save them from the flames of damnation while they were yet alive.
God claims them on the far side of death because God had already claimed them in life. Those who are lost and wandering are most highly prized by God. And when one single lost soul returns to God to seek a new life, there is rejoicing in heaven greater than for the righteous deeds of a hundred righteous people. And so immediately after God claims the people of Israel, God claims those who but for the grace would have been lost. God claims this one who had lived for years on the street addicted to drugs. God next claims one who is imprisoned for terrible deeds, outrages that led their own parents to disown them to avoid the moral taint of association. God claims next this one who had suffered under an partner and had been tricked out of believing in their own worth.
You can see them walking into the embrace of God. They are wearing spotless robes, garments spun from every fiber of their days. Their robes which once had been soiled and torn like something caught in the very teeth of hell, they are spotless now because Jesus too entered into glory having been but a moment before caught up in the teeth of hell. The people of Israel are claimed, and those who are claimed next are not the fortunate and the faithful, but those for whom no power on earth was great enough to save them, but who needed God’s redemption. It is for no better reason than that God desires most of all to save those who are lost, and it is for no less glorious a reason than that God desires most of all to save those who are lost.
In the throne room of God beyond death’s door, the vision becomes too enormous to be held in the mind’s eye. Because the next to be claimed by God is a great multitude, so vast as to make mock of numbers and counting. There are people who lived a century’s span and people who were ever only a babe, held in arms that did not wish to let them go. People who loved each other are there, people who hated each other are there, whole nations and peoples and tribes and tongues are there. Among them are those from pre-history, the misty-millenia when there was not yet the written word or the spoken word, those who like Adam and Eve walked upon a wild earth that had never before known human life.
What binds them together is that all of them, each had known the ache and rumble of hunger, each had known the hoarse shouting of thirst, each had known the sun’s blazing heat. God claims now the mortals, those who know the sweetness of life and bitter fear of death. God claims them because God too had known hunger and thirst and cruelty, God had known what it is to live, and God had known what it is to die. God has redeemed death itself because that which God takes into God’s own nature, is thereby redeemed. And the one who was like a lamb led to slaughter became for us the shepherd. The one who would lead the flock out of the valley of the shadow of death. Christ the shepherd leads us mortals, to drink from the spring of the water of life.
The book of Revelation is a vision, it is meant to communicate something that is true, but categorically different from what we know, so it must rely on metaphor and symbol. It is meant to point us toward something like this:
Your beloved dead, the ones whose loss and absence defines for you what death really means. Think of their faces, hold your beloved dead in your mind. This is what we see revealed in the throne room of God. Your beloved dead, they will feel pain no more, they will hunger no more, thirst no more, God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. And you. When your walk in this life is over. When death’s door has opened before you, you will enter not into an abyss of nothingness, or a torment of fire, but a place filled with singing, singing that is like the sun shining full force, a song that you will catch up you own voice into singing. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen.