One of the most unsatisfying (at least, to me) sermons I have ever preached was delivered during one of the highest points of my life. I was preaching at a church in Mbale, Uganda.
If it was a weak sermon, it wasn’t because I hadn’t worked hard in its preparation. I knew it would be an opportunity to preach to brothers and sisters I’d probably never get to share the word with again. It was a blessed and humbling experience. I was a rich, spoiled American, and they did me the honor of listening, though I felt sure that most of those simple, poor people had far more to teach me about life and faith than I could ever teach them.
When the time came, I preached, and they listened. But I was terribly aware of how my words and style, and even my Texas flavor of English, all stood between me and much effectiveness. I was used to preaching to people like me.
Later, I was discussing this with my younger brother who’d had a similar experience. His analysis was that we both in our speaking and preaching like to play on words and dance with English in a way that is harder to translate and effectively communicate than is “plain” teaching with little word play. I think he was right. I felt like I was trudging knee-deep through snow.
Ah, but the most important things happened. We weren’t a particularly large congregation that day, but we were bowing before the same King the Apostle John describes in the Book of Revelation. He pictures the throne room of heaven. A great multitude from every tribe and nation and language, all worshiping the King and “the Lamb who was slain.”
He describes the assembled throng all holding palm branches in their hands and wearing white robes. The palms and white robes were symbols of victory. Both would be involved in celebrating, for example, the victory of a Roman general who’d won battles and subjugated peoples by the power of his army and the iron-strong authority of Rome.
But in Christianity the tables are always turned upside down. “Your great men and those in authority lord it over those under their authority,” Jesus told his disciples, “but it shall not be so among you.” When God’s Son enters this world, he comes as the Servant of all. He washes feet. He loves the poor and downtrodden. The world bows and scrapes to those who are rich and powerful and proud. But the church knows its greatest treasures are the weak, the poor, the sick, the aged. What this world worships as success, God says is garbage compared to the worth of knowing Christ. In God’s kingdom, everyone who knows him is rich and valued. And the more the church adopts the world’s values of success and size and power, the more it bows before the wisdom of this world, the more it looks like any other business but its product just happens to be religion, the less it looks like the church, and the less it knows of real victory.
Who are these people, this multitude, holding palm branches and wearing white robes? The Apostle John tells us that they are “those have conquered.” And how did they win the victory and come through the great tribulation, the great time of suffering and persecution, victorious over all the power and might and wisdom of the world?
The answer is jarring. They died. They testified to the truth of their faith and their absolute hope in the Lord, by the shedding of their own blood. Their robes have been washed white by the blood of the Lamb who conquered Satan and evil by triumphing on the cross. And now, following their crucified but victorious Lord, these multitudes who followed their Lord in death were truly undefeated by all the powers of evil. The Apostle John says that they are the ones who are victorious.
That sermon and that preacher on that day in Uganda were pretty limited, but I consider the opportunity to bow together with those faith-filled confessors of Christ a fine foretaste of a time when we’ll join an amazing multitude of every “tribe and tongue and language” in the most magnificent worship and praise.
In beautiful ways, that blessing is ours whenever we bow together in any place and are united by “the blood of the Lamb.”
Copyright 2023 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.