God in New Faces (Revelation 7:9-17)
April 28, 2014
I remember the moment. It was my third year of seminary. Along with friends in my class, I was thinking and praying about life after graduation. We were training to be pastors, chaplains, missionaries. Where would we end up?
A good friend of mine constantly talked about God’s call on him to urban ministry. When I heard “urban ministry,” I immediately thought, ‘inner city;’ ‘gangs;’ ‘crime;’ ‘crowds;’ ‘traffic jams.’ I couldn’t imagine what my buddy was thinking. He would say, “Urban Ministry,” and I would incredulously respond, “Why?”
I was sheltered, a suburban kid who grew up watching MTV and going to hang out at the Mall. Every movie you’ve seen of the 80’s depicts my era. For me, going down town meant driving to the Roanoke Civic Center to see Ric Flair in a professional wrestling match.
But in seminary sheltered, play-it-safe me collided with God. In God’s word I saw my own limitations. By my third year, I knew God wanted me to preach every week and to lead a church. I was in my 20’s, with limited experience. Only a small church would call me as pastor, but that was fine as long as it was not in the backwoods or the inner city.
I sat in the class room for that morning’s lecture. I happened to be early, so looked at the open Bible on my desk. Students were moving to their seats. It was quiet. Revelation 7:9: the words burrowed into me.
“There was a great multitude that no one could count from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Every tribe and people and language; it hit me. Fall 1995, I don’t have any friends who are not exactly like me – white, American, middle class, suburban. That’s it. That is my entire world.
It blew me away. Here John saw in heaven people from every language, tribe, and nation – all in Heaven praising Jesus. I only knew one small subset of one tribe speaking one language in one nation. My knowledge of the people of God was pathetically small. That meant my knowledge of God was woefully impoverished. How could I be a pastor and lead a church, knowing so little? How could I even follow Jesus?
I had to do something, but what? In those days, this was my life: (1) pass my classes; (2) give myself fully to the church where I was a youth pastor; and (3) mail my resume around in hopes that a church would consider calling me to be their pastor. In those things, how would I develop real relationships with people who had different backgrounds than my own? I could know God as I needed to until I knew more of God’s people. So what could I do?
There was just one answer. I had to go to a church where there were more than just white people. I needed diversity. Where are there churches like that? In the city. With one reading of Revelation 7:9-10, I knew I had to go to an urban environment. That is where I had to pastor.
God knew it all along and I landed at Greenbrier Baptist in Arlington, Virginia, a very urban place. I lived three miles from the Pentagon, and within a few minutes could ride the metro into downtown DC.
I had been at that church about 1 month, when the Promise Keepers rally came to the Washington DC mall. Five hundred thousand gathered to worship Jesus. From our church we took a couple of guys who were refugees from Sudan. They had been persecuted and forced from their country because they were Christians. Like me, they had only been in DC about a month. And we had about 10 guys from the Spanish congregation. Two Africans, ten Latinos and two whites guys – my Dad and me.
I was a pastor in Arlington for 9 years. A congregation of Christian gypsies met in our building until a bomb threat ended that relationship. There was no actual bomb, but the threat was enough. It came by way of a phone call from other Gypsies who opposed the Christians in that community. It came on the opening night of our Vacation Bible School. The Gypsies weren’t scared of the threat, but our people were. So the Gypsies had to go.
Another year, again the night of opening ceremonies for Vacation Bible School, a man addicted to drugs came into the building threatening to end his own life. I quickly told the VBS leaders to carry on without me and I spent over an hour convincing him to allow me to drive him to the emergency room.
Another year, again the week of VBS, the house across the street from the church parking lot was raided by the police. They bashed in the front door and tore the place up. They were looking for the third son in the family, a muscular, high school wrestler. He had gotten into a gang fight – two rival Hispanic gangs. I didn’t even know the kid was in a gang. He was active in our church. But I learned that when he was not at church, he was with his gang. Two places never saw him – school and home. He ended up spending two years in prison before being deported to El Salvador, a place he had last lived at age 4.
By the way, he is doing well now – has a beautiful daughter and is carving out a good life for himself. Some of our Greenbrier friends have visited him in El Salvador.
I remember long conversations with a homeless Muslim who was originally from the African nation of Mauritania, and was one of the most delightfully happy men I have met.
I learned not to judge others from a Pakistani man who led a congregation of Pakistani Christians that began meeting in our building in my final year at Greenbrier. I received a copy of the Quran from a different Pakistani man who was visiting his children in America. He spoke no English but would walk with me and wish my God’s blessings. I do not believe it is the word of God, but I cherish the Quram he gave because it matter so much to him. He wanted to share with me the very best gift he thought he could give.
In my search for God, by searching for people in different cultures, I met people of deep faith and people who would punch your lights out and sometimes they were the same person.
I was invited to do the ordination prayer at a service of the Charismatic Baptists of Ghana who had a congregation in Alexandria, VA. They invited all the pastors of our association, more than 100 churches. I was the only one to show up and was treated as an honored guest.
All those experiences came after I sat in my seminary classroom and happened to have a few minutes before class, and in those few minutes instead of arguing about basketball with a buddy like I normally would, I read Revelation 7:9. Every tribe and people and language. God told me to seek out those from tribes different than mine.
To is April 28, 2013. My wife’s vision is as wide-open as my own. God brought into our lives three children who come from other places and we have this colorful family. God has joined us with an amazing church full of people who deeply desire to take the gospel to the world even as the world comes to our church.
Just with people her today, we could translate this sermon into Spanish, Portuguese, Karen, Chinese, and maybe French.
Why does it matter? From Revelation 7 (and also chapters 1, 5, 14, and 21), we see the expanse of the people of God. This is the fullness of the image of God. We need each other because it is through one another that God speaks to us. We need this body to be multicultural so we can see and hear God.
It means we are all included. In verse 14 the elder talking to John testifies that all whom he sees are there because they have washed in the blood of the Lamb, which means they have put their faith in Jesus and given their lives to Him. When you and I acknowledge him as Lord, we are among that countless multitude.
For that reason, we realize we don’t need to generally fear people. Maybe because of the Boston Marathon story, one develops a prejudice against and fear of Chechens or against Muslims of central Asia. The feared people group of the day! But in Revelation we see Chechens. There they are dressed in white robes, waving palm branches, singing praise to God.
The white Southerner of 1800, a slave-owner and church goer, goes to Heaven where he meets the darkest skinned people he’s ever seen. They are his brothers in Christ. The slave who was kidnapped from his Central African home, survived the Hellish middle passage, and lived out his days as the property of cruel whites: he sees those who owned him, but they don’t own him anymore. Once a slave, he is now a child of God. He doesn’t need to fear. He can forgive the evil. The white man, freed of his own hatred, can receive the forgiveness he needs, and can truly live as God intended in brotherhood with all.
The vision of Revelation 7 frees us to let go of all past prejudices and fears and to see every new person we come across as one Jesus died for. We are included. We have no fear. All people who follow Jesus are with us, part of our family. Those who do not follow Him are put in our path that we might love them in His name and with love, share the Gospel invite them to consider Him.
We are included.
No more fear.
All in Christ are a part of us.
A few years ago, a Men’s Bible study group here at HillSong, which no longer meets, had committed to helping a refugee family. They came with only the clothes on their backs. We delivered furniture to their apartment. We drove them for doctor’s appointments and job interviews. Leonard did a of the work because he had time and God inspired Him to give his free time to help others.
It was challenge. He did not speak Karen. But, God finds ways past that challenge.
Leonard was going to drop something off and trying to think about how he could explain. He had not called because what good would it do? So he just showed up and went to knock on the door. There were more than a dozen people there. From inside, he could hear a familiar tune which he immediately recognized as the doxology. Only the words were in Karen. They worshiped to the same music he knew for worship. And he knew God was in that place.
There is no better thing to know. God is in this place.
Where and in whom will you see God this week? He is the one who shares the water of life. We need more and more of Him and we get more and more of Him as we seek him out in different faces. Seek God this week in someone whom you previously would not have. Meet God in a person that seems foreign to you. Your knowledge of Him will grow, your worship songs will become richer, and you will learn love in new ways.