April 21, 2013
William G. Carter
After this I looked, and 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, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
In these days after Easter, we are working through some of the visions in the book of Revelation. What strikes me today is how big they are. Nothing small happens in the final book of the Bible. A scroll is opened and the whole universe is given a purpose and destiny. The door to heaven opens and all creatures are singing praises to God. All creatures, not merely a few. Jesus returns on a cloud and every eye shall see him. This is not a personal insight, but a universal vision. The book of Revelation is no small unveiling. This is not the small prediction of a fortune cookie or the personal advice of a horoscope. Everything is revealed.
So the prophet John reports on the people who stand before God’s throne in heaven. It’s so impressive how many souls there are. John says, “It was a great multitude. There are so many people that it is impossible to count them all.” That is what he sees. I don’t know how you deal with crowds.
We know it has to go this way. The Bible begins in a garden and concludes in a city. Genesis begins with the creation of the first human, Revelation ends with a well-populated heaven. And there are more people there than anybody can count.
This has led people to make a few jokes. You have heard them and told them. A man dies and goes to heaven. St. Peter meets him at the gate and offers to show him around. The eternal realm is just as Jesus described, a mansion with many rooms. They go into the choir room, and the Methodists and the Pentecostals are singing exuberant hymns. They go to the wine cellar (heaven has a wine cellar, you know), and the Catholics and the Episcopalians are selecting the vintages for that day’s great banquet. They pass by a conference room and the Presbyterians are having a committee meeting.
Then they come upon another room, no window in the door, locked from the inside. The man says, “Who’s in there?” Saint Peter says, “Those are the people from the Independent Baptist Church. They think they are the only ones here.”
It does amaze some people that God’s heaven is well-populated. More people than anybody can count! Some folks have reduced faith to a personal matter, just me and Jesus, and the prospect of a crowd is more than they can handle. Others have declared that heaven will be full of people just like them, thereby declaring that they are the gatekeepers, and not Jesus himself, who says, “I am the gate for the sheep.” They don’t know how to handle the deep, wide mercy of God.
Still others don’t like generalities. They want a number. “Give us a number!” And then, they find a number. It’s right there, a few lines immediately before our text: one-hundred-forty-four thousand. Aha, John gives us a number. One-hundred-forty-four thousand.
That brings to mind the strange story of Charles Taze Russell. Ever hear of him? Raised as a Presbyterian in Pittsburgh, he left the Presbyterians as a teenager. At that time, he was drawing chalk pictures on the sidewalk of people burning in hell, as a way of forcing others to convert. It didn’t work, so he went his own way.
Russell was an independent student of the Bible, defined as somebody who comes up with his own ideas. He made a fortune as the owner of some clothing stores, but in 1876, he sold his five stores for a sum equivalent to our 6.5 million dollars. He had become convinced that Christ would come and the world would end in April 1878, so he decided to devote his remaining days to gathering followers and spreading his message.
April 1878 came and went. This pushed him to recalculate his dates, and he started a magazine called “Zion’s Watch Tower,” which is now called “The Watchtower.” Maybe you’ve heard of that. Another one of his beliefs was that exactly 144,000 people would be raised in the final resurrection. That was quite an incentive for his movement, which came to be called the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Of course, when the membership roles of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reached 144,001, Russell’s people had to recalculate a few more figures. Either that, or find out who had sneaked in.
There’s been a lot of silliness about numbers and how they are utilized in the book of Revelation. You see, John is not always counting when he gives us a number. Rather he is saying something else. In ancient times, numbers had symbolic value. Four was considered a perfect number. So was seven, and also twelve. The number one-thousand was meant as a huge number, an amplification. When John says later in this book that Christ reigned for a thousand years, he means “a really long time.”
There are seven days in the week that God created. Seven is complete and perfect. If you have a six, it is unfinished and imperfect. And if you have three sixes – 666 - that symbolizes something that is really, really bad. Maybe you heard about the maintenance worker in Tennessee who got a W-2 tax form, saw the number “666” on it, so he quit his job. True story! And don’t tell him that my cell phone number has “666” in it; I knew the gadget was evil and now I have my evidence.
Well, what about 144,000? There were twelve tribes of Israel, so amplify each one by a factor of one thousand. Do the math: 12,000 times 12,000 equals 144,000. It points to God’s complete tribe, and the number signifies it was an enormous group of people. It is not be taken literally, any more than the 666 on the W-2.
When John writes down his visions in the book of Revelation, he wants to expand our imaginations, not specify the membership list. He is pointing to a number that no one can count. The crowd is bigger than anything we could ever count. No one in the ancient Roman Empire could imagine that. The colosseum in Rome seated about 50,000 people. The great theater in Ephesus, not far from the island where John wrote down his Revelation, could handle about 25,000 people. So for John, 144,000 is about the same size as the number that I used as a kid – a million zillion. We had no intentions of counting that high. It was a million zillion.
How many leaves on that big tree? A million zillion. How many chores did he have to do around the house? A million zillion. How many grains of sand on the beach? How many home runs did Willie Mays hit? A million zillion. In other words, a million zillion.
How many people gather around God’s heavenly throne? Not 144,000 or 144,001, but a million zillion. More than anybody could ever count, even though God knows every single one. God loves every single one. God saves every single one. And I think that means there is always room for one more.
It pushes the question: if you would like to end up in heaven, how well do you get along with others? Praise is a community activity. It’s not a little personal thing. Praise belongs to crowd. Even if we can’t always see a crowd, out there is a crowd, and it is God’s crowd. Authentic Christian faith is a communal faith. It belongs to a much larger gathering than we can imagine, manage, or sort out.
John says, “I see a multitude … from every tribe and every nation. They were people of every language.” There was no single language, as there was before the Tower of Babel. No, this is God’s Pentecost community, where speech is in every conceivable language, even the language that nobody knows.
I remember when my wife and I attended worship at the Back Free Church, near the city of Stornoway in the western Hebrides Islands of Scotland. I had heard they chanted the psalms in that church, line by line, and I wanted to experience that. So I dragged Jamie out there for a Sunday morning, ten miles from nowhere. The chanted the psalms, all right, in Gaelic. Then the preacher stood and preached passionately for fifty-two minutes in Gaelic. I did not understand a word he said, but from the passion in his voice, I knew he was talking about Jesus. The message mattered, the vocabulary did not. When he spoke, it felt like we were part of something so much bigger. Infinitely bigger.
From every tribe and nation – that’s what John sees. A peaceful, joyful mob, all gathered around God. All the pain and destruction from earth has not worn them down. They have persevered. They have kept going. Last Monday, Andy Howard, son of my friend Roger Howard, finished the Boston Marathon in about three hours. While he was resting in a nearby hotel with his sister, who also ran the race, the bombs went off. Andy told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the shock of going outside, seeing the euphoria of long-distance runners turn to fear.
But then one of his fellow racers added this: “I will be back every year that I can qualify for it. We distance runners don’t stop. We keep going. Our sport is all about perseverance. This sort of thing only instills more solidarity among us to bid together and continue doing what we do.” It’s all about perseverance – running the race all the way to the end. John says the saints gathered around God have gone through a great ordeal and kept going.
How many are there? More than anybody can count. Who are they? People of every tribe and nation. I checked to be sure, and that’s what it says: every tribe and nation.
A number of years ago, Ken Burns filmed a lot of jazz musicians for a series on PBS. There is one segment that still pierces my heart. Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck was talking about returning from World War 2. Brubeck put together a band that played its way through Europe during the war. The band featured a mixture of musicians from different races. It was called the Wolf Pack Band. Black and white musicians worked together, laughed together, played music together. When the war was over, however, they returned to the same, old America. Black musicians could not buy a hamburger at the same lunch counter as the whites.
As he struggled to make sense of American racism, Brubeck recalled an event from his childhood. His father was a cattle rancher in California. One day he took Dave out to meet one of the other ranchers, an African American, and said, “Take off your shirt and show Dave.” The man unbuttoned his shirt and showed the marks of where he had once been branded by a cattle iron. Dave’s father said, “These things can’t happen anymore.” As he retold the story for Ken Burns, Dave began to weep.
That scene still haunts me. It nearly immobilizes me. And that’s my problem. As for Dave Brubeck, do you know what he did with that experience? Dave Brubeck put together a world-famous quartet that featured white and black musicians. And if a bigoted concert promoter had a problem with that, Brubeck would simply cancel the gig, keep the non-refundable deposit, and go somewhere else.
You know how he could do that? Because he knew that God’s people was a crowd full of people who did not look only like him. He learned that it from his father. He also learned it in church, where his mother was a Presbyterian choir director who led the people to sing, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!” And she knew the choir was bigger than anybody could ever count.
Go ahead. Try and count them. How many are there? A million zillion. A million zillion saints that God has saved and gathered.
That is to say, when we look around the crowds that we know, there is always room for one more.
© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.