St Michael’s 6th August 2017
Reading: Revelation 7
Were any of you at Home Park last season when Argyle won promotion? What was the atmosphere like?
This morning, whether you support Argyle or not, I want you to imagine you are in the crowd at a match where your favourite team are winning. You are there shoulder with shoulder with your fellow supporters, cheering as the goals go in, and counting down to the final whistle. Very soon the referee will blow up and the celebrations will begin.
Naturally your attention is on the pitch – but just take a moment to glance at the fans around you. Most of them have been supporting the team for a long time, so what are they likely to be wearing? That’s right, football shirts with the names of their favourite players. And what are they likely to be holding in their hands above their heads? To them, nothing is more important in that moment than the fact they are members of the Green Army, and they want to be identified as such. That’s why they are wearing the shirt and waving their scarves in their hands. And why are they on their feet and singing? Of course – they want to praise their team and celebrate their achievements. The last home game of the season I even saw a few fans bowing down to the players as they did their victory lap.
However, yesterday the new season opened. No-one knows where Argyle will be in the league next May. Maybe the last game of the coming season there will be a glum silence around the ground, or even a chorus of boos. Maybe a few fans – politely, of course – will be asking the manager to reconsider his position or the chairman to quit.
In our world, as we know all too well, winners can easily become losers. A successful team one year can sometimes go down the following year. But in heaven the situation is very different. The people there will be celebrating a victory that is permanent and forever. No-one will be facing the prospect of going down to the other place – and I don’t mean League Two.
And there won’t be just one small group of people packed into one small stadium, be it Home Park or Wembley or even the largest ground in the world, the MCG. There will be how many people there? Well, it will be impossible to count. To people who say there will be only 144,000 there, I hope you realise by now that the numbers in Revelation are not meant to be taken literally, and it will be more than the tribes of Israel who will be included. No, there will be as verse 9 puts it: 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. That’s going to be a lot of people, all gathered together, all praising the victory that Jesus, the Lamb, has won for us, and giving glory to God.
But we do know what the crowd will be wearing – no, not football shirts with Jesus Number One on their backs, or scarves saying Christians United, but, as verse 9 tells us, white robes.
Now, to us the meaning of these white robes may not be immediately obvious, but again I think we can get a clue when we consider the world of football. This week once again a number of players have been transferred from one club to another for silly amounts of money. The first time a fan knows the transfer is more than just a rumour and has actually gone through is when the player appears at the press conference wearing the kit of the new club. So, for example, when Wayne Rooney was unveiled on his return to Goodison Park he was no longer in the red of Manchester United but in the blue of Everton.
I would put it to you that when someone comes to faith in Jesus it’s also rather like a transfer has taken place. Jesus transfers us out of a life without hope, without joy, without peace, to life with a future, where we know God as our Heavenly Father, where we know the reality of sins forgiven. It’s why the apostle Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that: if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! We are from that point on members of God’s kingdom, with a new identity and a new purpose, with the very Spirit of God living within us.
But how is this transfer possible? Very simply, because Jesus has quite literally paid the transfer fee for us. He shed His blood for us on the cross so that every wrong action, every bad word, every unworthy thought could be forgiven. He took the punishment that we deserved so that our Heavenly Father could forgive us and we could enjoy new life with Him forever.
It’s important to understand all this because otherwise we can easily get the wrong idea about who heaven is for. Heaven is not for people who are kind to animals or help folk across the road or even consider themselves good Christians. Heaven is for people who have recognised their need of Jesus and believed and trusted in Him. They have trusted that Jesus’ death on the cross has covered their every sin, and that He has enabled them to be transferred into the kingdom of God. And, according to our reading from Revelation, the sign the transfer has gone through is that in heaven they are wearing a white robe, to indicate that Jesus has purified them and made them clean.
So here is this vast crowd in heaven from every nation, tribe, race and language. They are wearing white robes. And what are they are holding in their hands? That’s right – they are holding palm branches. Now when we think of palm branches we usually think of Palm Sunday. This was an occasion when the crowds who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem cut leaves down from the trees and waved them as he came through the gates. To us, the whole idea of waving palm branches may seem a little strange, but in the ancient world that’s how you greeted a king. You shouted your praise and you shook your fronds to show you wanted this person to rule over you.
Now in heaven Jesus is king and there His reign has no end. His victory over sin and death and evil is complete. That’s why the heavenly crowds are waving palm branches, to celebrate this victory that is permanent and is real. And in case you are wondering this triumph means for the saints gathered there, the beautiful words of verses 16 and 17 spell it out: Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre 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.” I don’t know about you, but to me, that is a most beautiful and most wonderful vision of life with King Jesus – a life where there is no more pain, no more hunger, no more sorrow, where we are safe for ever with our God, where the misery of this world is gone forever.
No wonder the crowds in heaven are on their feet. They want to applaud, cheer, praise and worship God with all they have. And so with one voice they stand before His throne singing: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” Now we don’t know exactly what language they will be using, but in heaven it won’t matter. The people who are worshipping God will all be as one. Which language they spoke on earth, where they came from, even which football team they supported, won’t matter. There will Arabs and Jews together, people from the richest city in the world and the poorest shanty town, even Plymouth Argyle and Exeter City supporters side by side.
You see, the only thing that will truly count in heaven is that you have been saved by the precious blood of Jesus. The one song on your lips will be a hymn of praise to God as you stand in reverence and awe before the one who has made all things new. And great will be the rejoicing on that day in ways that I cannot even possibly imagine. We will finally all be united as God’s children, free from sorrow, sin and sickness not just for a day or a week or a season, but forever. And if that doesn’t lead you to praise and worship, then I am not sure what will.
But please don’t make the mistake of thinking this vision of heaven is only for the distant future, or for other people. You see, the moment we believe and trust in Jesus we already become citizens of heaven. That’s what Paul means when he says: if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! We already have a new identity as children of our Heavenly Father. We already have eternal life with Jesus as our King.
And this is why John’s vision of heaven is so important for us here today. Because our worship here at St Barnacles should in some small way be a foretaste of what life with Jesus will one day be like forever. Or to put it another way, whenever an outsider walks into this building, they should see not a club for folk who are all the same, but a gathering of all sorts from many different nations, tribes, people and languages, all united in praise of Jesus. They should encounter worship which is full of joy and wonder at the great salvation He has won for us on the cross. They should be able to understand that Jesus is our king, not just not when we meet on Sundays, but over every part of our lives, every day of the week. And they should through us experience something of the hope and peace and forgiveness only God can give through Jesus Christ.
All this leads to a most important point – that our calling as a church is to be an outpost of heaven. That is why today I would invite you to pray that our life together will point more and more point people to the reality of Jesus, and that through our praise and worship many, many more will come to bow down in awe and reverence before Him. And let us not only talk about the reality of heaven, but also live as citizens of heaven, confident of our identity in Christ, so that indeed His kingdom comes and His will is done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.