(Rev. 7:9) 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 elders and 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.
When Becky and I lived in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, we would take visitors to the Bar J Chuckwagon, for typical cowboy food and a show of cowboy music and humor. One running joke they had was, Whose hometown is the smallest?
One singer would say to another, “Your hometown is so small the municipal power plant is a Sears Diehard Battery.”
Another would say, “Oh yeah? Well, when you took me to visit your hometown, I noticed that the Welcome to Town sign and the one that said ‘You are now leaving….’ were on the same post.”
“Well, in your town,” another guy said, “I noticed that nobody ever uses their turn signals, cuz there ain’t hardly anywhere worth turnin’ into, and anybody what sees ya already knows ya, and knows where you’re goin’.”
I’d like us to hold onto that last one in our minds for a moment, the connection between our identification and our destination. Make that, between our destiny and our identity. Not only is it true that if people in a small town know who you are, they know where you’re going. In all of life, who we believe we are has everything to do with where we are headed. As for where we are going, the Bible says “we seek the city to come, whose founder and builder is God,” and today’s passage from Revelation 7 gives us a glimpse of that city to which we are headed. As for who we are, that destiny makes our identity one of citizens of that city, sojourners, pilgrims and exiles in this world. Our destiny determines our identity.
oods, delights and entertainments. The gods of the market would automatically give everybody all we need, and so much more, and a god-like global media would tie the world together into one interlocking web so that we’d all have so much culture, entertainment and instant communication in common. If someone tweeted something in Mongolia, instantly, everyone from Oklahoma to Okinawa could read it, retweet it and add their own. If that is our common destiny, then our common identity is, simply put, clients, customers, and consumers of the global market and global media.
But the breaking and quaking sounds we’ve been hearing from all over the world for more than a few years now, tell me that people are having second thoughts about the commercially packaged, mass marketed, centrally-ordained identity and destiny coming from officials in Washington or Brussels, or from mass media and marketing experts in Madison Avenue or Hollywood.
I’ve never not had second thoughts about them. But I’m just as distressed today at the fact that the revolt against these mass-marketed destinies and identities includes a resurgence of old gods and idols of tribe, of culture, clan, kin and even color. Just when we were told that we were burying these gods of tribalism, racism and nationalism under a rising mountain of progress, prosperity, education and globalization, they are reasserting themselves with a vengeance, and again demanding human sacrifice, like ISIS trying to reestablish the old Arab Muslim empire of Muhammed. Or the white nationalists and Neo-Nazis, dreaming of a return to white supremacy and segregation.
It’s good to feel good about one’s heritage, one’s ancestors, one’s culture and one’s identity, whoever we are. But this resurgence of tribalism is idolizing and idealizing people’s histories and identities, and so making gods and idols of them. That’s a set-up for endless conflict.
John the Revelator saw and described a vision of a different destiny and identity in the passage we just heard. This vision does not negate our ethnic or national identities, for we hear of people gathered around the Throne of the Lamb from every tribe, tongue and nation. If anything, John’s vision honors our heritages and identities, whatever they are, whose ever they are. When he says, “I saw people of every tribe, tongue and nation,” I take it that when Christ returns and the New Jerusalem reunites heaven and earth, we will still be able to identify and recognize Cheyenne Indians and Finnish Laplanders and Vietnamese mountain people as Cheyenne Indians and Finnish Laplanders and Vietnamese mountain people.
But while those identities are affirmed by John’s vision, they are also dethroned. In John’s vision, there is a throne among the throng of worshipers from every tribe, tongue and nation, but none of their tribal, ethnic or racial gods and idols are on it. Instead, there’s a Lamb on this throne: Jesus, the Lamb of God. So all these tribal, racial, and cultural identities in this throng around the throne are honored and important, and equally so. But they take third place to the Lamb, and second place to the destiny and identity that the Lamb of God gives them, as his worshipers. More important than the color of our skin or the languages and customs of ourselves and our ancestors are our identity and our destiny as worshipers. Before we are anything else, we are worshipers. And long after history’s final chapter has been written and time itself is no more, we shall be worshipers.
A destiny and identity as worshipers should not surprise us. To be human is to be incurably religious. We all look for something or someone in which to put our trust, our ultimate allegiance, some cause, some idea, some thing or someone to trust and praise as being our be-all and end-all. When people make gods of their own tribe, race or nation, they can be as dedicated, sacrificial, expressive and evangelistic about them as Christians can be about God and the gospel.
But in John’s vision, our identity and our destiny is not only as worshipers, but worshipers of the Lamb, or of God as revealed in the Lamb, Jesus Christ. By contrast, the tribalistic gods of race, clan and color tend to be like brutal, bloodthirsty beasts, requiring human sacrifice in the form of political prisoners, of soldiers, and of enemies. Exhibit A would be Russian nationalists, who are trying to rehabilitate Stalin, and the white supremacists, who are trying to rehabilitate Hitler. Those tribal gods are beasts.
But in John’s vision, people from every tribe, tongue and nation are worshiping a Lamb who did not go forth to kill his enemies, nor did he send his subjects forth to die for himself, as do the beastly, bloodthirsty tribal gods. The Lamb himself went forth to die, and for us all, friend and foe alike.
It is all the more surprising that John was given to see this vision of a throng so vast and varied worshiping the Lamb; when he recorded it, from exile and imprisonment on the little island of Patmos, the church was so tiny, so fragile and so easily crushed and overlooked, that no sane betting man would have gambled on the survival of the church and the gospel, let alone its spread across the globe as we see today. And the growth continues.
Christian mission then is the ingathering of the Lamb’s worshipers from every tribe, tongue and nation into that eternal, innumerable throng of worshipers which John saw around the throne of the Lamb. As Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well, “The Father is seeking worshipers who will worship him in Spirit and in Truth.”
A missionary couple sent to India came back after their first term to visit supporters in the United States. When someone asked, “Have you started a church yet?” they replied, “Yes, as soon as we got into our apartment, put down our luggage, and knelt to pray and worship God. That’s the church we have planted. Now we’re looking, working and praying for God to add worshipers from the tribe among whom we live, whose language we are learning.”
Now, if we claim to be worshipers of the Lamb, then anything we do to share and to spread the worship of the Lamb must also reflect the qualities and the character, the life and the love of the Lamb. Like the Bridging Cultures Thanksgiving meal did, last night. The worship of the Lamb must spread by the means, the qualities and the character of the Lamb, his qualities and character of sacrificial, nonviolent love. But that, we have all too often forgotten, I confess. That’s why many Christians are embarrassed about Christian missions and missionaries.
A few years ago, at a regional church-related gathering, a speaker rolled her eyes and said, “Well, we all know what missionaries are like.” After I calmed myself down, and after the meeting was over, I went up to ask her just what she thought about missions and missionaries, and why. She ticked off words like, insensitive, arrogant, imperious, insufferable, clueless, disruptive know-it-alls who do more harm than good wherever they go, building their own personal religious colonies and kingdoms by dividing and separating people from their culture, their families, their traditions and their religions. They are agents of European and American colonialism in religious guise, she said.
That was hard to take, all the more so because there have been some mission works and missionaries like what she described. Two hundred years ago, there was even a so-called “Missionary War” in colonial Nigeria. British gunboats sailed up the Niger River and bombarded native villages into accepting missionaries. That was most definitely not a case of sharing and spreading the worship of the Lamb, by the nonviolent ways and means, and the gentle, tender, self-sacrificial qualities and character of the Lamb.
I acknowledged to that woman that there have indeed been examples of what she said. But I added that when Becky and I were missionaries in Burkina Faso, we were there at the invitation of the Mennonite Church, they had a role in defining our jobs, we were answerable to national church leaders, and worked only to strengthen their ministries, and not to build our own personal little religious kingdoms and colonies, nor to impose our culture along with the simple gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Well, then,” She said, “you were probably the good kind of missionaries.”
I’m glad to be able to say that Mennonites, their missions and their ministries, have engaged in many Lamb-like ways of doing mission worldwide. It helped that Mennonites came late to the modern mission movement, at a time when we could see mistakes of other agencies and denominations, and avoid them. We’ve made some new errors of our own. As Martin Luther said, “God rides lame horses and whittles rotten wood.”
But the contributions of Mennonite mission work to the worldwide church come from some very Lamb-like values in our history and theology, like peace-making, nonviolence and the indiscriminate love of friend and foe. The centrality of Jesus Christ and of the kingdom of God warn us against confusing God’s kingdom with the white race, or with Western colonialism, culture and commerce. Our stress on discipleship does not permit us to separate testifying to Jesus in our words from following Jesus in our conduct. So we can’t pit saving human souls against helping to resolve conflict and heal trauma, or feeding, clothing and sheltering human bodies, like we heard about earlier this morning, with Habitat for Humanity. At our best, Mennonite mission work has tended to be: 1) holistic, by ministering to the whole person, body, soul and eternal spirit; and 2) Mennonite mission work has tended to be Christ-centered and kingdom-of-God-focused, as opposed to focusing on building up our own kingdoms, culture and numbers.
As an example of the first: Mennonite mission work being holistic, valuing and ministering to the whole person, consider the case of the growing Mennonite contact with people in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Now it’s true that Christian missions and ministries cannot just waltz their way into that militant Shiite Muslim theocracy by declaring that we’re here to evangelize and start Christian churches. But still a door cracked open just a little bit thirteen years ago, after a terrible earthquake struck Iran, and up to 30,000 people died. Our Mennonite Central Committee contacted the Iranian Red Crescent society, their version of the Red Cross, and said, “We have rice, corn and tons of canned beef ready to ship to you, if you need them.” They accepted and welcomed the aid. Some of us here may have helped MCC can the meat that went to Iran.
Now if all that happened was that MCC rice and canned beef kept people from starving, I’d still be mentioning it this morning as an example of Lamb-like love to the world. But there’s more to this story that demonstrates the holistic nature of our witness to Christ the Lamb. For on every sack of rice, and on every can of tinned beef that MCC ships anywhere are the words, “In the Name of Christ.” It’s been MCC’s policy to never hide or downplay the fact that we do what we do “in the Name of Christ.”
But in 2003, they briefly wondered about that policy. It could complicate getting food to starving people in Iran. But Iranian Red Crescent officials said, “We need the food now, so don’t waste any time peeling labels. What’s more, we know who you are, and in whose name you serve. If that were a problem, we wouldn’t accept your help to begin with.” So thousands of at-risk lives were saved from hunger by MCC food. And since many Iranians study English in school, they were also reading a wonderful tribute to Jesus the Lamb.
That’s still not the end of the story. Shiite Muslim Iranians feel themselves to be under siege by other the worldwide majority of Sunni Muslims. Some of what’s happening in Syria and Yemen today is the latest chapter in a long-running blood feud between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. After sending the food, MCC found the Iranians interested in a relationship with Mennonites, grateful to have found some friendly people somewhere. Mennonite scholars, missionaries and pastors from Canada and the US have been invited to visit and lecture at places like the Shiite seminary in Qom, Iran, and Shiite clerics and professors have made visits and spoken at Mennonite institutions. Friendships have formed. I got to know two Iranian Shiite clerics taking classes at Eastern Mennonite University, who told me with tears in their eyes that some Sunni Muslim clerics had issued decrees—fatwas—saying that to kill a Shiite Muslim is no worse than killing a dog. They were so impressed, by contrast, with the tender-heartedness of the Christians they were meeting. In the tenderness and the friendship they experienced with American and Canadian Christians, not only were they hearing and reading a witness to the Lamb, they were catching a glimpse of him. Such things happen when our witness to the Lamb is like the Lamb, loving and caring for whole person, body, soul, and eternal spirit.
The other feature of Mennonite mission work that I want to mention is that it tends to be Christ-centered and kingdom-of-God-focused. That frees us from loading the gospel up with our culture, our control, our honor or our name. It keeps us from needing to make the results look like ourselves. One example of that is the way in which Mennonite Bible teachers have been on loan to African Initiated, home-grown Churches in countries like Nigeria, Botswana and South Africa, to teach Bible and theology to church leaders, without those churches having to be or become Mennonite. By strengthening them, we are strengthening their evangelistic and missionary power, not only in Africa, but worldwide. That particular mission work is not growing the Mennonite church numerically. But it is growing the Kingdom of God and the worship of the Lamb.
Another example is when Mennonite missionaries focus on developing leaders in the places they work, and then hand the work and leadership over to them. They know how important it is for the new local church to rely directly on the Lamb and His Spirit, rather than on foreigners. For the Spirit has no racial, cultural favorites. He is just as available to them as to any foreign worker. For example, Canadian, American and French missionary linguists in Burkina Faso have now almost completely turned the work of Bible translation over to the Burkinabe Christians themselves, as the new church enters its second generation. Missionary linguists still remain in contact, in a supportive, prayerful and technical relationship, sometimes by presence, sometimes by phone, text, email or Skype. One of them, Ann Garber Kampaore, started out 40 years ago as a missionary and Bible translator among the Senufo people. The Senufo Christians are now themselves completing the Bible translation, and Ann is a linguistic consultant who travels all over Africa to consult with African Bible translators. She has also taken African Christians to Israel so they could learn Hebrew from Hebrew speakers, to help them better translate the Old Testament. Here’s a short video of a Canadian Mennonite linguist, Lillian Haas, working with a native Christian, Solo Traore, translating a passage from Exodus in to his native language of Siamou. They’re working in both French and Siamou, which they both speak:
That also gives you a picture of how Pastor Fabé and his team of native language speakers work at Bible translation. A good Bible translation involves a slow, careful and painstaking process, and a partnership of mutual respect, interdependence and a shared faith.
That’s what a Lamb-like way of sharing the Worship of the Lamb looks like. From the Lamb upon the throne, and from the throng around the throne of every tribe, tongue and nation, may we also draw inspiration and instruction for sharing and showing the worship of the Lamb. From John’s vision of the throng around the Throne, we know where we are going, and that tells us who we are, how to be and what to do. That being our destiny, let it also be our identity, even now, more than any passing identity given by our country, our culture, our class, our color, the markets or the media.
Where are we going? Who are we? Worshipers of who?