the Scripture text is Revelation 7:9-17
A tribe of nomads marks a place where God was made known to them. They gather large stones and stack them carefully on top of each other—a painstaking process that results in a kind of tower—a mound. A mark. Every time they pass by it, for generations, they retell the story—they sing and chant and tell of the times when God has spoken to them, when God has delivered them, when God has made promises to them. The stones remind them—they belong to God. God takes care of them.
A band of former slaves pool together their resources. They use the best wood and the best metal in their possession to build a shrine—a home for the presence of God. God delivered them out of slavery. They are survivors. And with this shrine—this ark of the covenant—they ensure that worship is at the forefront of everything they do—ahead of every step they take. They have a portable worship space—set up the tents, place the ark, and pull out the tambourines for dancing and singing. God is our strength and salvation! We will not fear!
When they are settled in a new land, and have kings ruling over them, the ark gets placed in a permanent building. Huge stones stacked high, pillars holding up a massive roof. A temple higher than the tallest trees. They express their dependence and loyalty to God with gifts. Animal that are butchered on the spot, blood drained out by priests wearing linen aprons—the best cuts laid out on a stone slab dedicated to the God who is the source of all living things. Worship expressed through the sacrifice of the best animals, the first grains, the food of the land. It lasts so long, people only remember the tent—the portable ark—through stories recited at festivals.
But, it doesn’t last forever. After wars and invasions, a displaced nation asks the question, how will we sing to our God in a strange land? How will they worship without the temple? How will they offer sacrifices, if they are captives who do not own their own animals? How will they express gratitude when it feels like everything has been taken away? So, they weep. They sing songs of lament, and they begin to write down the stories they’ve been told over the generations. Stories of God delivering the people from slavery in a strange land and leading them home. They worship as an act of remembrance and an act of hope.
Generations later, exiles of a different kind gather in homes and caverns to worship in secret. They are exiles in their own countries, because they are choosing a different way. Choosing to believe that a man named Jesus rose from the dead. Choosing to direct their worship toward him, believing that he is one with God. Choosing to welcome Greek-speakers, people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds; learning from them. They blend Jewish traditions with language from the Roman practice of worshiping the emperor, and they end up with a radical, jarring act of worship that threatens the powers around them. Worship is an act of defiance, an act of trust. They continue to worship in secret, even as they are hunted down and killed for it.
Those defiant, illegal Christians would have had a hard time imagining that just a few centuries later a whole continent would consider itself Christian—that every city and every village would have a stone building dedicated to worship of Jesus. That priests and monks would be some of the most powerful leaders. That every citizen would come to be baptized, would line up for confessions, would mill through the buildings gazing at stained-glass depictions of Jesus’ life and death before they lined up to receive bread and wine from the priest.
When the printing press made books available to the masses, it changed the way people worshiped, too. Instead of wandering through large spaces, focusing their attention on artwork and actions, people began to sit in rows, holding Bibles and hymn books. They began to question traditions and seek truth for themselves. They read the Bible and tried to understand it through reason and not tradition. They took popular drinking songs and used those tunes to write new hymns. Some churches refused to use instruments in worship, and instead composed stunning four-part harmony settings of the psalms. Other churches installed organs and used music by innovative new composers like Bach and Handel.
We are in the middle of a series of Sundays in which we are exploring the Great Ends of the Church. The reasons the church exists, and today’s reason is “The Maintenance of Divine Worship,” which invites at least two questions. The first question is, since worship of God has taken so many diverse forms just over our own Western Judeo-Christian history—not even taking into account other faiths, or forms of worship found in Christian communities in Africa, Asia and South America—what exactly is it that we are called to maintain? If worship can look and feel so different from what we’ve known in our churches, then what is constant—what are the threads of continuity that have been preserved for millennia, and how are we called to maintain them?
The second question—one that I think is particularly stark in light of this week’s events—is, Why? What is so important about worship? Why is the church called to worship and to make sure that worship of God continues into the future? Surely in a world where people are bombed at a marathon, and a dozen volunteer firefighters die evacuating people from an explosion at a fertilizer plant, and communities are devastated by earthquakes and warfare—surely there are better things for the church to be doing than gathering to sing songs, right? Why is worship so important?
Well, I think our Revelation text can help us answer both of these questions—both the what and the why, so let’s look back at it for a moment.
Despite its reputation for fire and brimstone, the book of Revelation actually offers some incredibly comforting and inspiring images of God’s kingdom, or God’s reign—of that time, or maybe that plane of reality in which we have full access to God and union with one another.
That’s one of the things we see in this passage—union. John—the one having the vision and speaking in the first-person—sees a vast multitude of people who represent every tribe and nation and language—they represent the full diversity of humanity—all those difference that we so often use to divide and cast judgment upon one another are still visible, but they no longer divide. No, all these different people are unified in their actions, words, and attitudes. They are united in worship.
They are also identified as people who have been through a great ordeal. They have experienced suffering, but the suffering is over, and they know they are on the road to a place of safety, belonging and comfort. They know that God is the one who brought them out of suffering, and God is the one who will lead into peace and wipe every tear from their eyes.
And what are they doing? What constitutes worship for this multitude? Well, they stand before God’s throne, waving palm branches, and crying out “Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne.”
Does that sound familiar to anyone else? Palm branches and thrones, or the expectation of enthronement have come up before, haven’t they? So, what do we know about what waving palm branches meant to John and his contemporaries?
For us, palm-branch-waving really only happens in church, but in the first century, it was a political gesture—not unlike waving a national flag. It was a way of welcoming and honoring the person you considered the king—the leader of the nation—the one in charge.
What we see in this vision of John’s is this diverse cross-section of humanity all unified in their pledge of allegiance to God—all saying “You are our leader—you are the one in charge—you are the one to whom we pledge our lives. We’ve experienced suffering, but you have brought us out of that, and we know that we are safe with you. We know that there is peace with you. We know that you will care for us.”
So what is worship? Worship is an act of remembrance and an act of hope—we remember how God has brought salvation to people in the past, and we look forward to those green pastures to which God will surely lead us. Worship is an act of defiance that threatens earthly powers, because we pledge allegiance to God first—before our loyalty to any nation or institution on earth. Worship is lament—space in which we can weep for the ways we still suffer and long for change. Worship is union—space in which we can learn to trust and find common ground with those who are completely different from us.
And that is why it matters. Because in the face of the tragedy of our world, we need places where we can feel safe enough to weep; we need places where we can learn to listen to and trust people who are different; we need places in which we can remember who God is and look to the future with hope; we need places where we can commit again to following Jesus, to loving and serving God first. Worship is how we remember who God is, and who we are.