For me, the highlight of the Olympic opening ceremonies last week was the Parade of Nations.The images of athletes from all around the world gathering together in celebration always reminds me of that lovely passage in Revelation 7 that speaks of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation gathering together so that God can wipe every tear from their eyes. I wrote about this passage in Chapter 10 ofEvolving in Monkey Town, and with the images from the Parade of Nations so fresh in our minds, thought I’d share it again here:
Sometimes I think that John the Revelator might have been a crazy old man whose creative writing assignment for the Patmos Learning Annex accidentally made it into the Bible. There’s a lot of strange stuff in the book of Revelation, stuff about dragons and “creatures full of eyes” and whores of Babylon and Middle Earth-style battles—the stuff people like to use to sell books about the end of the world and to launch Web sites about how Barack Obama is the Antichrist.
While I suspect that much of John’s letter served as a coded allusion to the church’s tumultuous relationship with the Roman Empire during the reign of Domitian, there’s one apocalyptic vision that I really hope he got right.
I bumped into it late one night after Dan had gone to sleep and I’d been awake for hours, worrying about what had happened to the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children caught in the Boxing Day tsunami. I couldn’t force from my mind the haunting images of beautiful brown-skinned widows crying in agony as they clung to framed photos of their husbands and children, or the video footage of village after village lying in ruins from the unstoppable floods.
Why would God allow something like that to happen? Didn’t he promise never to flood the earth again? Had, [as some pastors claimed], the population of hell just swelled to include the poor fishermen whose boats had overturned, the pregnant women who couldn’t run fast enough to reach higher ground, the elderly who couldn’t swim?
So, as I often do when I need to read but don’t want to wake Dan, I grabbed my Bible from the nightstand, stumbled in the dark toward the bathroom, turned on the light, and sat on the toilet to await God’s illumination of the text. Normally, I wouldn’t choose the book of Revelation as 2:00 a.m. reading material, but all night long I’d been chasing the broken pieces of a prophecy around my head—something about tribes and tongues and nations, verses I knew but couldn’t quite remember, like a poem with missing syllables or a song with forgotten words.
After scanning John’s messages to the churches at Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea, I finally found what I was looking for in Revelation 7, where the author describes a world without a cosmic lottery, a kingdom in which the suffering are not forgotten:
I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’...He who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again shall they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. – Revelation 7:9-10, 15-17
...As I sat staring at the mustard-yellow tiles around our shower, I wondered exactly what John saw and heard to convince him that the kingdom of God includes people from every nation, tribe, people, and language, people from the north and the south and the east and the west. I imagined that he must have seen women wearing glorious red, green, and gold saris beneath their white robes. He must have seen voluminous African headdresses of every shape and color. He must have seen the turquoise jewelry of the Navajo, the rich wool of the Peruvians, the prayer shawls of the Jews. He must have seen faces of every shade and eyes of every shape. He must have seen orange freckles and coal-colored hair and moonlike complexions and the lovely flash of brilliant white teeth against black skin. He must have heard instruments of all kinds—bagpipes and lutes and dulcimers and banjos and gongs. He must have heard languages of every sound and cadence, melodies of every strain, and rhythms of every tempo. He must have heard shouts of praise to Elohim, Allah, and Papa God, shouts in Farsi and Hindi, Tagalog and Cantonese, Gaelic and Swahili, and in tongues long forgotten by history. And he must have seen the tears of every sadness—hunger and loneliness, sickness and loss, injustice and fear, tsunami and drought, rape and war—acknowledged and cherished and wiped away. In one loud and colorful moment, he must have witness all that makes us different and all that makes us the same.
Every now and then, we get lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the world as God sees it, a little revelation that gives us hope to look beyond the confines of our current environment, be it exile or the bathroom. The fact is, while the Bible certainly speaks of God punishing the wicked, no single passage on judgment can compete with the scope and size of John’s description of redemption.
With this in mind, I returned to John’s vision often, sometimes daily. Even on days when I wasn’t sure that God exists, when I wasn’t sure I loved him or even liked him much, I knew that I cherished this image of him. I don’t know anyone, believer or skeptic, who doesn’t long for a day when God wipes every tear from every eye, when “there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning or crying, or pain” (Rev. 21:4). Even the faintest inkling that this might be true can keep you going for one more day.
Funny how after twenty years of sophisticated Christian education and apologetics training, I put my last best hope in the prophetic ramblings of an apocalyptic preacher....
....from Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions, by Rachel Held Evans (Zondervan, 2010), p. 121-125.