Summit Presbyterian Church
November 5, 2017
Revelation 7: 9-17
Standing Before the Throne
Karen Lebacqz, in her book “Word, Worship, World and Wonder,” tells the story of a four year old girl she brought to church who had never been to church before. “When we walked in the door, she beheld for the first time in her life the stained-glass windows, the rich, dark wood of the pews, the white flowers decorating the altar, the gold cross, the red carpet, the high beamed ceiling, the sheer size and beauty of it all. She stopped dead in her tracks, her little mouth formed a perfect circle, and she whispered, “Wow.” (Abington Press, 1997, p. 15)
That was the beginning, we may hope, of a lifetime of worship for the little girl. Those of us who have been at it a while may remember our own “wow” moments, moments that were especially joyful or full of wonder. Chelsea Badeau wrote about such a moment in the stewardship letter that you all received - and if you haven’t yet read it, do so, you’re in for a treat. She describes the 300th Anniversary Celebration Worship of the Philadelphia Presbytery that was held in early October: “It was AWESOME! The word “awesome” is often overused and applied to trivial items. But at its essence, awesome means ‘extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear.’ I felt all of those things as I worshipped amid hundreds of other Presbyterians that morning.” I, too, felt those things as we sang “The Church’s One Foundation,” and as the Word was brought to us by preachers filled with the Spirit. My “wow” moment came when the clerks of Session from every congregation of the Presbytery processed up the aisle with a sign of their church - Kathy Shaifer carried Summit’s banner. Thye gathered at the front and turned to face us, each holding up the name of their church. I felt the great multitude surrounding me, not only those in the sanctuary, but the saints in all those churches, past, present and future, a small Presbyterian corner of the one holy, catholic, universal church that is the body of Christ.
Our “wow” moments may also come at quiet, ordinary times. I remember the morning Shirley gave thanks during our congregational prayers for the hymn, “God of Compassion, in Mercy Befriend Us,” — the words had touched her in a new way that morning. You may have had such a moment at a Baptism, during a choir anthem, when we laid hands on new elders and deacons, when someone reached out to you during the passing of the peace, or you may have such a moment every year when the bells start ringing just before we break into “Joy to the World” at the Christmas Eve service. Because of those joyful, sacred moments we can hear as good news John’s vision in Revelation: eternal life before the throne of God, singing praise day and night, surrounded by the multitudes from every nation, tribe, people and language. Worshipping the lamb, who will guide us to springs of the water of life. Seeing Christ face to face, hungry and thirsty no more, singing of God’s salvation, blessing, wisdom, glory and might.
Now, we must confess that our worship here on earth is not quite like that. An hour and fifteen minutes seems to be our limit. We’re distracted by many things. The sanctuary’s too cold; the sanctuary’s too hot. The microphone isn’t working, here comes another unsingable hymn. Where are the tenors this morning? There Cheryl goes again, more boring biblical background, I wonder who has coffee hour, let me look in the bulletin — OMG it’s me! — well, so much for worship! And those are only the small distractions that keep us from praising God. Hunger and thirst get in the way. Grief and pain and guilt can be an obstacle. When we’re struggling with faith, worship can feel empty if not frightening. At those times Eternal Life as eternal worship may seem more like a threat then a promise. And if we read the scripture closely, we must admit John’s vision has its disturbing notes, with the bloody lamb, the many-eyed creatures, those angels flat on their faces. Waving palm branches 24/7 sounds exhausting, even in those resurrected bodies that never tire.
But of course even the most inspired biblical vision can’t fully capture the beauty, the joy, the majesty and the peace we’ll know when we join our loved ones in that heavenly choir. John’s Revelation is only a glimpse of the throne room, filtered through his eyes, rooted in his time and place. Our Presbyterian hymns are only a faint imitation of the praises we’ll sing in the world to come. As we say in our liturgy, communion is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. But even a foretaste, even a faint imitation of heavenly worship, is enough for now. For in it there’s great joy. In it we find that we are filled, our thirst quenched, our tears dried, at least for a time. We encounter the God who guides us to the waters of life.
There are things we can do to prepare for that encounter. Things we can do to turn our hearts and minds and souls to God. Preparing the sanctuary and planning is one, so we aren’t distracted by disorganization. Rehearsal is another, so we know what we’re doing, kind of. Prayer before worship is the most important thing. It helps us to center, as we ask for the Spirit of the living God to fall afresh on us. It helps us to let go of worries about how worship is going and to stop thinking of it as a performance. Prayer helps us to lay down burdens of anxiety, grief and loneliness and turn them over to the Lord. The choir prays in the hallway; you may pray in the pews in that quiet time before the service begins, or even at home.
And then we’re ready to sing. Joining our voices with choirs of angels, with prophets, apostles, and martyrs, with all the faithful of every time and place. We pray, and preach, and listen and look: at the stained glass windows, the rich, dark wood of the pews, the white flowers decorating the altar, the gold cross, the red carpet, the high beamed ceiling, the sheer size and beauty of it all. And we say, “wow.” Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.