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Coram Deo

November 3, 2002

Revelation 7:9-17

by Tony Grant


Degrees of Separation

There is a game called the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon." It was devised by a trio of Pennsylvania college boys with far too much time on their hands. From this humble beginning, a Web site was created, a book was published, and a nationwide fad was born. Kevin Bacon, an actor with impressive screen credits, has been appearing on commercials for debit cards, trying to prove his identity to store clerks through a complex web of relationships. The goal of the game is to connect the actor Kevin Bacon to any other performer in the entertainment industry, linking them together in six degrees or less. For example, Kevin Bacon connects to Kevin Costner in one link—they were both in the movie JFK. [Lundy, Ronnie. "Six degrees of Kevin Bacon: ATL Edition." Louisville Magazine, March 1997. bacon.htm.]

We get a kick out this game, because we have all had small-world experiences, discovering that we are linked to complete strangers by surprisingly small networks of relationships. Back in the 1960s, sociologist Stanley Milgram was intrigued by this small-world phenomenon, so he aimed to prove that one individual could reach anyone else in the country, maybe anyone on the planet, through a chain averaging just a few people. Using the postal system, he devised an experiment that involved mailing folders from individuals in rural areas to targeted strangers in cities, and he claimed that it took only five people in six jumps to get the folder from the starter to the targeted stranger.

Now actually Milgram’s experiment did not work. Few of his folders reached their targets. In his first, unpublished study, only three of 60 letters - 5 percent - made it. Even in Milgram's published studies, less than 30 percent of the folders got through. Perhaps people did not bother sending the letters on. That was Milgram's explanation. But that seems unlikely. The folder was not a simple chain letter, but an official-looking document with heavy blue binding and a gold logo. If the subjects knew how to reach the targets, they probably would have. [see Judith Kleinfeld, "Six degrees of separation: Urban myth?" Psychology Today, March-April 2002, 74.]

So there is not much actual proof for Milgram's startling conclusion that we are separated from other people by only six degrees. Nevertheless Milgram’s thesis has become sort of an urban legend, and you hear it frequently. It is one of those things we want to be true. We want to think that it is a small-world because that gives us a sense of security, and supports our deeply held desire for the world to be an orderly and accessible place. We want to be connected to others, so that we will not feel lost in a complex, confusing, and cold world.

More recently, the legend of degrees of separation has been formalized into a genuine scientific theory concerning networks of small worlds. In the December 1998 issue of Nature magazine, Duncan Watts of Columbia University and Steven Strogatz of Cornell theorized that everyone in the world could, in fact, be separated from one another by an average of just over four degrees.

Humans, like the neural network of a nematode worm, or even the human brain itself, tend to order themselves in a particular pattern - a combination of close-knit networks with a small number of random connections thrown in. It is the random connections that shrink the world. We may know someone who is a missionary to Pakistan and that puts us a few degrees from her pals in small villages in Pakistan. Or we may have another friend who has just been to Italy, and that puts us two links from an Italian cop in Napoli.

That's no surprise. Still, it's odd how patterns of human behavior resemble connections between brain cells. It makes us wonder if we are not actually constructing some larger global trans-human "network." [ see Joab Jackson, "Our ganglia," Baltimore City Paper, December 1-December 7, 1999,]

Coram Deo

But regardless of the degrees of our separation from strangers, there is one link in our life that can always be shortened and strengthened: our relationship with God--no kidding, no legend, no degree of separation.

In this search for a shorter link to the Lord, the saints of God can show us the way. In Revelation, John has a vision of heaven. He sees a great multitude from every nation standing before the throne and before the Lamb of God, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cry out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" (7:9-10).

These saints are standing in the presence of God, proclaiming that salvation belongs only to God and to the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. There is an ancient Latin phrase for their particular position, Coram Deo, which means "before the face of God." To stand Coram Deo is to be aware of God's presence, and to be sensitive to the involvement of God in human life. To live Coram Deo is to realize that God is working to forgive, heal, strengthen and save us; it is to believe that salvation belongs only to God and to the Lamb!

The Great Multitude

Few books of the Bible are more difficult to interpret than the last one, the Revelation to John, sometimes called the Apocalypse. The book of Revelation is presented as a series of visions that are so cryptic that they defy simple interpretation. Much mischief has been done in the church because some commentators seized on Revelation's symbolic language and tried to make it apply to specific historical circumstances.

Today's passage, 7:9-17, is the seer's vision of the universal acclamation of the universal God who rules over all nations. It reminds us of Isaiah’s vision in the temple in Isaiah 6. It is not accidental that the vision of the multinational assembly beginning in RV7:9 follows immediately on the vision of the 144,000 sealed from the tribes of Israel (7:1-8). This shows us that the point of the chapter is not just God’s rule over Israel but God’s rule over all people.

The great multitude of v9 is described as being of a size "no one could count," an expression found nowhere else in the Bible. Following immediately on the number 144,000, (7:4), the expression is meant to indicate an even vaster number of people than the already vast number of Israelites saved from destruction. The description of the multitude as being "from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages" (v. 9) is likely an example of poetic explanation. That is to say, the word "nation" is explained by the poet to include tribes, peoples, and languages. It seems likely that John, having experienced the social upheavals and dislocations resulting from the military conflicts in which the Roman empire was engaged, meant to indicate that national boundaries, often arbitrarily imposed by military overlords, were of no significance in the cosmic drama being played out before him.

The Lamb

V9 also has the image of the lamb, which may remind us of the Passover lamb (e.g., Exodus 12:3, 4, 5, 8, 21, etc.), slaughtered in commemoration of the passing over of the angel of death during the exodus from Egypt. But as scholars have noted, there is no indication that the lamb of Revelation is about sacrifice or dying, and John may have had in mind the another image. Jewish apocalyptic literature contains the image of the conquering lamb who takes away the sin of the world by overcoming evil (see, e.g., the Testament of Joseph 19:8; 1 Enoch 90:38).

This view of the Lamb would be consistent with its appearances elsewhere in the book of Revelation, i.e., in 6:16, which refers to the "wrath of the Lamb," and in 17:14, where the Lamb is said to conquer his enemies. (See also 5:6; 6:16; 14:1; 21:22; 22:1-3; for a discussion, see J. Massyngberde Ford, "Revelation" [Anchor Bible 38; Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975], 30-31.) Further, this understanding of the lamb as "agnus victor" is supported by the image of the palm branches held by the multitude, which were traditionally associated with victory (e.g., 1 Maccabees 13:51; John 12:13).


The Great Tribulation

In v13, in the answer to a rhetorical question, one of the elders identifies the multitude as those "who have come out of the great ordeal" (v. 14). The ordeal or tribulation is mentioned earlier, at 3:10. Much speculation has failed to determine what exactly the ordeal was that the faithful survived. The persecutions of Christians in Rome under Nero in 64 and in Asia Minor during the reign of Domitian (81-96) have both been proposed as possible historical backdrops against which Revelation was written, but it is impossible to decide definitively what ordeal John is talking about. He may, for example, simply mean the ordeal of living and dying that all of us face. If this last is true, then it makes the passage more meaningful for us, for it opens up the possibility that one day we might be with that "great multitude which no man can number."

The closing words of the chapter (vv. 16-17) echo the prophecy of the end time in Isaiah 49:10, when hunger, thirst and all other human miseries will be eliminated as the suffering creation is restored to its origins. It is striking how close parts of Revelation are to Isaiah. Both see a return to the beginning. The kind of relationship that Adam and Eve had in the Garden of Eden is the kind of relationship we have with God in the end.

Practicing the Presence

That should cause us to want to stand in the presence of God, and proclaim that salvation belongs only to the Lamb of God. We stand Coram Deo--"before the face of God." We are aware of God's presence, sensitive to the involvement of God in our lives. Coram Deo is, quite simply, no degree of separation.

Problem is, we face a dazzling daily array of distractions and temptations and interruptions, levels of real-life complexity that threaten to insert dozens of degrees of separation into the space between ourselves and God. Bombarded as we are by deadlines and projects and meetings and invitations and proposals, it is difficult to remain standing Coram Deo.

About the best we can do is practice it. Brother Lawrence, a Christian mystic, suggests that the practice of the presence of God involves the realization that we're constantly under God's gaze. It includes a daily determination to be sensitized to God all around us, to be aware of God’s sovereignty, to be submitted to God’s authority. It involves the realization that God loves us, delights in us, and desires a close, personal relationship with us. It is a life Coram Deo, in the presence of God, one in which we are constantly aware of God's saving actions on our behalf, and one in which our day-to-day actions become nothing less than acts of service to God. Through this growing awareness and activity, we move ever closer to enjoying no degree of separation.

The saints of God are those who are standing before the throne and before the Lamb, in this life and in the life to come. They are ordinary people--past, present and future--who have an extraordinarily close relationship with God. They are not perfectly sinless people, nor are they especially powerful people, but they are profoundly connected people: men and women who are linked directly to God and to the Lamb, Jesus Christ. This makes them stand out in a world that talks about six or 60 or 600 degrees of separation. We can be with them. We can be in God’s presence everyday.

Lesbia Lesley Locket

Lesbia Lesley Locket was born in Willesden, England in 1898, and educated at Raven's Croft School in Sussex. She married John Mortimer Scott, a naval officer, who later became an Anglican priest and served a parish near Dartmoor. She died in 1986 at Pershore.

Lesbia Scott wrote hymns for her three children. Never intended for publication, many were written in response to the children's own requests. They would ask, "Mum, make a hymn for a picnic," or "Mum, make a hymn for a foggy day." Mrs. Scott's hymns were first published in England in Everyday Hymns for Little Children, 1929.

In her hymn, "I Sing a Song of the Saints of God," She wrote, "They loved their Lord so dear, so dear, and God's love made them strong." She makes it clear that saints are those who have a close, personal relationship with our ever-loving Lord. Scott includes doctors and queens and shepherdesses and soldiers and priests in her charming list of the saints of this world, as well as one who "was slain by a fierce wild beast" - and she insists that "there's not any reason, no, not the least, why I shouldn't be one, too." [ see William Reynolds, Retrieved July 2, 2002.]

She is right. There's no reason why she shouldn't be one. No, not the least. And there's no reason you shouldn't be a saint, either.

As I mentioned, the elders asks John, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" John shrugs his shoulders, and so the elder answers his own question. They are not necessarily the best and the brightest, the most sophisticated or the most successful, but instead they are the ones "who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (vv. 13-14).

Out of the great ordeal they have come, out of a life of trials and temptations, distractions and interruptions. Although being pushed, pulled and sometimes pulverized by earthly events - job loss, marital problems, conflict with neighbors - they have done their best to remain close to God through prayer, praise, Scripture study, and acts of simple service. They have been bloodied by life, but then washed clean by their faith in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.

Life of Brian

Monty Python's Life of Brian is a movie set in Judaea. A boy is born around the same time as Jesus. This boy's name is Brian. Some years later we seen Brian and his mother listening to Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount. We witness some people listening intently; others are conversing with their companions or looking away in other directions, paying no attention. Jesus says, "Blessed are the sorrowful, they shall find consolation." The camera pans down the hill where Brian and his mother are. They and the crowd around them are having trouble hearing Jesus.

Listen to what they hear:

"Blessed are the cheese makers." "What's so special about the cheese makers?" a woman asks. "It's not meant to be taken literally. I think it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products," a man replies.

"Blessed are the Greek," one hears. "The Greek?" one wonders. "Apparently they are going to inherit the earth." "Oh the meek, blessed are the meek, oh I'm glad they are getting something, they have such a hard time" ... .

[Dawn A. Victor, "Ordinary people," Sermon from the Alice S. Millar Chapel at Northwestern University, November 7, 1999,]

Our first impression may be that Monty Python is making fun of Jesus, but not so. He is right. When Monty Python says, "Blessed are the cheese makers" he is right. Cheesemakers, Greeks, and all the rest can be blessed along with all the other children of God. God’s people, God’s saints, are just ordinary folks who are trying to live for Christ as best they can in the ordeal of life. Are you one of them? Are you one of the saints of God who will stand with that great multitude? Amen.



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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