Nov. 1, 2016
Rev 7: 2-4, 9-12
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.
“Salvation comes from our God!” (Rev 7: 4).
Have you ever listened to Orson Welles’s famous 1938 Halloween scare, the War of the Worlds, broadcast on the radio as if it were a live news report? If you’ve heard it, or if you’ve read the original novel, you know that in the story the survival of the human race is threatened by an alien race of Martian invaders. These invaders spread death everywhere and crush all opposition as they sweep mightily across the countryside. But they are at last done in, not by the sort of armed resistance that Hollywood likes to put forward, but by an unlikely source of deliverance—some bacterium thriving in the very rot and death they’ve caused. Humanity, having developed an immunity over thousands of years, is saved by its own germs, against which the aliens are powerless.
The Book of Revelation, that mysterious last book of the Bible, is a little like the War of the Worlds. It belongs to a biblical literary form called apocalyptic, which has been called biblical science fiction.
When John the Seer wrote down in Revelation the visions he’d seen, the Church was under severe attack from an alien force, the ungodly persecution of the Roman emperor Domitian in the last decade of the 1st century. The persecution had spread havoc among believers everywhere and left them wondering whether they could survive, wondering whether God could or would do anything for them.
Yes! From the East—the biblical writers see God’s power, God’s salvation, as coming from the East, from the rising sun, from the source of light—out of the East comes God’s angel with a seal. This seal marks all the faithful, marks all the redeemed, as God’s people, makes them immune to the final destruction that is about to come upon God’s alien foes. Salvation is about to come from our God.
|The Heavenly Court of Revelation|
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Nayarit, Mexico
The number so sealed is 144,000. This is a biblical symbolic number meaning that the new Israel, the Church, is to be absolutely perfect and complete—none of the redeemed, none of those sealed by God, will be missing. The new Israel is a great, numberless multitude from every nation of the earth wearing the white robes of innocence, waving the palms of victory, and praising God for his salvation. (If we wish to take the 144,000 literally, by the way, we run into 2 problems: the next verse says the multitude is numberless, and a God with power to save only so few of all the billions who have ever lived is not very powerful at all.)
Have no fear, O Christians, John assures his readers, have no fear of the wretched power of Rome or any other persecutors. You are immune to any real harm. You are assured of victory. You are sealed as God’s new Israel. Even though you should be killed for your faith, as the Lamb was on Calvary, you will triumph in the end, as he did.
Every saint, every true believer, has needed such encouragement in his or her life. The Church is always under assault—sometimes openly, as in the Middle East, China, and some other places today; sometimes less directly and more subtly, from the alien culture, the alien society in which she lives; a culture that glorifies comfort, permissiveness, the dollar, sex, violence, Dow-Jones, the here and now, getting the other guy before he gets you, the latest fad, Madison Avenue, big time sports, big time entertainment. Every saint marked with God’s seal needs encouragement and assurance. This is part of the timelessness of John’s apocalyptic visions. God always has the power to save.
You are God’s chosen ones, his new Israel, part of that absolutely perfect, complete, numberless multitude. You were sealed with his stamp of ownership in Baptism and Confirmation. Today is, in a sense, your feast day too. It’s the feast not just of the famous saints like Peter and Paul, Francis, the Little Flower, and Mother Teresa—but of the ordinary and unsung Christian heroes, the husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, monks and nuns and little children. Today the example of millions of Christians who have preceded us is an encouragement to you and me to resist the alien culture about us and trust in God’s power to save. Salvation comes from our God. We may be powerless—that's exactly what “poor in spirit” (Matt 5:2) means—but our God is not. He can be depended upon. The battle isn't the Church against Domitian or us against today’s pagan society; it's always God against the Evil One. The saints, the poor in spirit, have never been those who stood by themselves and trusted in their own power to resist and win. They’ve always been the poor in spirit who've trusted in God, in the God from whom salvation comes.
Take courage, then. It’s no easier to be a Christian now than in the 1st century. You’re still in combat against the realm of evil, death, and selfishness. But the battle, the power, the victory isn't yours; it’s God’s. If you wear his seal, if you’re allied with him, if you belong to him, you can't lose, O holy people of the Lamb.