From Trouble to Triumph

“We Have Been Raised. . . .from Trouble to Triumph”

May 19, 2019

Pastor Lucas Bitter

Intown Lutheran Church (Atlanta, GA)

Revelation 7:9-17

9 After this 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 before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

11 All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elder sand the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying:

“Amen!
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
Amen!”

13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”

14 I answered, “Sir, you know.”

And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore,

“they are before the throne of God
    and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
    will shelter them with his presence.
16 ‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.
17 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.”

A marathon runner is tired.  His legs are aching; his lungs are burning; he’s been though so much already that he feels like he can’t possibly take another step.  But then he stumbles around the corner into the final straightaway, and ahead of him. . . .he can see the finish line.  Thousands of people are cheering.  Exciting music is playing.  Runners who have already finished the race are resting, and talking, and laughing, holding big bottles of ice-cold Gatorade.  And with that glimpse of the finish line, a minor miracle happens.  All of a sudden the runner’s legs don’t feel quite so tired.  All of a sudden his lungs aren’t burning half as bad.  He is motivated to press ahead and finish the race.  And in fact, not does he finish. . . . he actually surges forward in a powerful kick and sprints across the finish line.

It’s amazing how much how just a tiny glimpse of the finish line can motivate a person to finish the race.

The Apostle John was still struggling to finish his race.  A long, long time ago as a young man he had been one of Jesus’ closest disciples.  He had seen Jesus’ glory on the Mountain of Transfiguration; he had watched Jesus heal the sick and raise the dead; he was the only disciple to attend Jesus’ crucifixion; he saw the empty tomb of Jesus; and like the other disciples he got to see the risen Lord not once, not twice, but again and again.  And after Jesus finally ascended back into heaven, John had been instrumental in building the church and spreading the gospel far beyond Jerusalem.

But all that had happened a long time ago.  Now John was very old – probably in his mid-90’s – and in the latter years of his life he had seen some terrible things.   He had seen his homeland decimated by war, and its capital city destroyed by the Roman army.  He had seen his closest friends persecuted and murdered for their belief in Jesus. (In fact, out of the original 12 disciples, John was the only one who made it to old age.)  Instead of being killed, he was sent into exile on the island of Patmos, far from home.  Patmos was a prison camp.  It’s a matter of historical debate whether John was actually forced to work in those mines as a 90-year-old man, or whether the guards were merciful enough to give him his own quiet cell somewhere.  But really it doesn’t matter.  Being 90 years old is hard enough without being locked up in a prison camp on a desolate island.

John was struggling to finish his race.  He was old, and he was tired.  Sometimes he wondered if he even had the strength to go on.  But just then – like a runner catching a glimpse of the finish line – John was given a vision from Jesus where he caught a glimpse of heaven.  And suddenly he didn’t feel so old.  Suddenly he didn’t feel so tired.  In fact, he found himself surging ahead, and finishing his race with a powerful kick.  He wrote down the things he had seen in his vision and sent them to all the churches around the Mediterranean world, encouraging a younger generation of Christians not to lose their faith, no matter what.  Because he had seen a glimpse of the things that were to come and it was all going to be worth it.

Our sermon text today is probably the most comforting and beautiful chapter of John’s vision.  Revelation 7 is a glimpse into heaven; a glimpse of the finish line.  And we need it just as much as the younger Christians did in John’s day.

Sure, we’re not being martyred for our faith – burned at the stake – crucified – thrown to lions.  But that doesn’t mean we’re not tired.

  • Tired of living in a broken word which chews people up and spits them out.
  • Tired of reading news headlines where yet another horrible tragedy has happened to innocent people.
  • Tired of sickness and suffering and trouble and pain in our own life.
  • Tired of fighting the battle against our own sinful nature.
  • Tired of falling into those same old sins again, and again, and again, and again, and again.

Man, it is a long road to heaven.  Sometimes we all get tired.  Sometimes we wonder if we even have the strength to go on.  And I think that’s why God preserved for us the words of John’s vision.  Especially Revelation chapter 7.  The glimpse of the finish line.  So that we can be encouraged and motivated and comforted by the things that are coming.

With that introduction, let’s get into it!  John writes,

9 After this 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 before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”

White robes were a symbol of holiness, purity, perfection.  This crowd of people in heaven is not sinful – not anymore.

And palm branches were a symbol of victory.  Of having finished the race and won the prize.  In today’s terms this would be like having a medal placed around your neck.

John is just looking at this massive crowd of perfect, victorious people when he is approached by an “elder” in heaven.

13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”

14 I answered, “Sir, you know.”

And the elder said, basically, “These are the people running your same race who have made it to the finish line!”

“These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore,

“They are before the throne of God
    and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
    will shelter them with his presence.
16 ‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.
17 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.”

This is what it’s like at the finish line. . . . 

Every time the God describes heaven in the Bible, you can almost feel him struggling to find words that we can understand.  I mean, how do you describe perfection to a person who has lived their whole life in a broken, sin-filled world?  It’s like trying to describe the Taj Mahal to a person who has lived their whole life in a garbage dumpster.  Where would you even start?  “Well first off there’s no garbage. . . “ right?  And that’s kind of how God starts, actually.  Heaven is a place where there’s nothing bad.

16 ‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.

So let’s talk about this.  There will be no hunger in heaven.

This isn’t just talking about being hungry, working up a healthy appetite and sitting down at the dinner table and you just can’t wait for the prayer to be over because everything smells so good . No, this is talking about going hungry, something which many of us have thankfully never had to experience in our lives because we’ve been so blessed.   This is talking about children crying in their beds at night because their stomachs hurt so much from hunger that they can’t fall asleep.  This is talking about parents crying in their beds at night because they feel so ashamed and guilty that they can’t even feed their children.  According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, approximately 815 million people will go to bed hungry tonight. Did you know that? 815 million.  In heaven. . . that number will be 0.

There will be no hunger in heaven.  There will also be no thirst in heaven.  But this isn’t just talking about food and water, is it?

There will be no more hungering for friendship, or approval, or love that just never seems to happen. 

There will be no thirsting for success, or for meaning, or for things we want that we just can’t have.

In heaven all the desires of our hearts will be perfectly satisfied.  We will lack nothing.  We will be complete and content.  There will be no hunger or thirst in heaven.

This is what it’s like at the finish line. . . .

But there’s more.  “The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat.”  I think we understand this a little bit, living in the South.  But come on people – we’ve got air conditioning.  Back in Bible times, in the Middle East, people were dealing with the hot desert sun All. The. Time.  In a similar way to how (depending where you live in Atlanta) your whole day might be dictated by traffic, their whole day was dictated by the sun.  People had places to be; things to do; and yet those scorching rays burned so horribly that they wished they could just dig a hole in the sand and hide. 

There will be no sunburn or heat exhaustion in heaven.  There will be no physical problems whatsoever.  And there will be no emotional problems either. . .

Never again will we miss a key detail at work, and not notice it until it’s too late, and get screamed at by our boss in front of everybody else and we’re so embarrassed we don’t want to go in in the morning.

Never again will a husband and wife reach such an impasse in their marriage that they can’t even communicate with each other any more – they’re just looking at things so differently – and they have to hire a counselor just to talk to each other.

Never again will a mom become utterly exasperated with her toddler.

Never again will a teenager become utterly exasperated with his parents. 

Never again will we run into anything that makes us want to just dig a hole in the sand and hide.

There will be no heat exhaustion in heaven. . . . of any kind.

So that’s all the things that are NOT there in heaven.

What will be there?

This is the part that’s difficult to describe to people who have lived their whole lives in a sin-filled world.  But God says here’s what people are doing in heaven:

“They are before the throne of God
    and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
    will shelter them with his presence. . . .

In heaven, we get to serve God day and night in his temple.  That doesn’t just mean everlasting church services.  The Greek word for “serving God” can refer to all different parts of life.  “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”  So we can serve God in all kinds of ways besides going to church.  We serve God when we live with him as our #1 priority, no matter where we are or what we’re doing.  And so it is in heaven.  Everything we are doing will be an act of worship to God.  You know why we’ll be able to do that?  Because we’ll be perfect people.  Free from sin.  Remade in God’s image.  We are going to be very different people than we are now.  If we could look into the future and see what we will look like, free from all sin. . . . I wonder if we would even recognize ourselves. 

But the very best part of heaven is not that it’s full of people, each one of us finally perfected to the way we were meant to be.

The very best part of heaven is that God is there with us.

“The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,” it says.  “He will lead them to springs of living water.  And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”  This is where human language starts to break down because how do you describe something like this?  A face-to-face, personal relationship with God?  The Bible uses some earthly metaphors to help us understand.  It’s kind of like a crystal-clear pool of water, where we can drink and never be thirsty again.  It’s kind of like being a sheep with a loving shepherd who will protect us so we never have to be afraid again.  It’s kind of like – well, we’ll just have to find out when we get there. 

But there’s one detail that stands out to me above the rest. “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”  In heaven, there will not just be a complete lack of any problems that could ever make you cry in the future.  There will also be a God who holds you in his arms and wipes away all your sadness at things that have happened to you in the past.  Just think about that.  All your hurtful memories. . . all your baggage. . . all your scars. . . .Jesus will hold you in his arms until all of that fades away forever. 

This is what it’s like at the finish line.

It motivated John. It motivates us.  But it’s important to remember what that means.

A few moments ago we imagined an exhausted marathon runner who is motivated by a glimpse at the finish line.  He knows he’s so close to being done. . . and he is encouraged to work just a little bit harder, to dig just a little big deeper, so that by the strength of his arms and his legs and his heart and his lungs he can propel himself across that finish line and then celebrate his big accomplishment.   In other words, motivated as he may still be. . . .getting to the finish line is still up to him. 

But heaven is not like that.  It’s not up to us.  It’s up to Jesus.

As John looked at that great crowd from every nation, tribe, people and language, he might very well have asked, “How did all these people get here?”  But he didn’t have to ask, because the angel told him. “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  And they were singing a song in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

In other words.  . . . this massive, diverse crowd of people standing before God’s throne in heaven has made it from trouble to triumph, not because they lived especially good lives compared to everyone else.  Not because they did more for society than the people around them.  Not because they avoided temptations and perfectly walked the path that God had laid out for them.  They didn’t.  But they had a Savior who did.  They had the Lamb.

The Lamb who lived a perfect life in their place.

The Lamb who died on the cross as a sacrifice for their sins.

The Lamb who rose in victory on Easter to raise them from trouble to triumph.

And so they sang, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”  Our salvation does not belong to us.  It was planned and executed, from start to finish, by God. 

  • “He chose us in him, before the creation of the world, to be holy and blameless in his sight.”
  • He sent Jesus to die on the cross for us 2,000 years before we were born.
  • He sent his Holy Spirit to us on the day of our baptism, washing our robes and making them white in the blood of the Lamb, and adopting us as his forgiven children.
  • And as it says in Philippians 1, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

God doesn’t stand at the finish line and cheer “Come on, let’s go, you’ve got this!”  God stands right next to us, puts his arm around us, and walks with us.  And when life gets the hardest – he just straight-up carries us.

Derek Redmond was an Olympic sprinter from Great Britain, who competed in the 400-meter dash.  (This was the Barcelona Olympics, in 1992.)  Derek was having a great Olympics so far.  He had made it all the way to the quarterfinal heat, he had gotten off to a fast start, and as he turned into the home stretch – he was winning. 

But then he tore his hamstring.  He pulled up.  All the other runners passed him.  He had lost.

But surprisingly, Derek Redmond didn’t stop running.  He continued slowly hobbling towards the finish line.  And as he did the crowd began to cheer.  About 50 yards from the finish, a man burst through security and ran onto the track.  It was Derek’s dad.  He put his arm around us his son.  And slowly, not missing a step, they finished the race together.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, that’s what God is doing for us right now.  He’s not pointing to the finish line and saying “You can make it on you own!”  He is walking beside us, carefully supporting us, feeding our faith by feeding us his Word.   He will not quit until we make it all the way from trouble to triumph.  He will not quit until we make it to the finish line.

Amen.