Through the Valley of Blood
A sermon on Revelation 7:9-17 & Psalm 23 by Nathan Nettleton, 6 May 2001
© LaughingBird.net


Message:
Following Christ may take us into costly confrontation with the powers of the world, and we cannot be protected from the costs of that, but Christ will bring us through to the land of promise beyond.

Sermon.

The twenty third Psalm is often turned to for comforting images of God looking after us. Its images of tranquillity and blessing make it a favourite for people who are looking for promises that God will keep us safe and make sure nothing bad happens to us. The book of the Revelation to John is never going to be a favourite with such people. Although it offers the promise of eventual vindication and triumph for the God’s faithful people, it depicts them arriving at their day of glory drenched in blood after coming through the ultimate atrocity. Their number are described as including many martyrs because although they are now rejoicing in God, the faithful discipleship for which they are now rewarded first cost them their lives. So at first glance it may appear odd that the cycle of scripture readings asks us to read these passages together today.

It is true that the reading we heard from the Revelation is one of its most comforting. Indeed some of its later verses have quite a bit in common with the Psalm: God is the one who shelters us, who sees that we never go hungry or thirsty; who leads us like a shepherd, and who guides us to springs of cool clear water. But in the Revelation, that vision is introduced as belonging to those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. It’s easy for us to hear that as being the same as the common Christian description of “being washed clean by the blood of the Lamb”. But there is a difference between doing the washing and being washed. When we are washed clean by God, it is a gift, something that is done for us. The crowd in the Revelation are different. They have washed their own robes in the blood of the Lamb. That sounds much more like something they have actively done, a conscious and costly choice they have made to stick with Jesus even when the blood is being splattered all over the place.

The earlier description of the this white-robed crowd depicts them as gathering around the Lamb, waving palm branches and shouting about salvation. It is an image that calls to mind the crowd greeting Jesus as he entered Jerusalem for the last time. We are reminded of how easy it is to shout in praise of Jesus, but how hard it is to stick with him when the chips are down. As Jesus said on another occasion, “Not all who say ‘Lord, Lord’ will make it into the Kingdom.” Everyone wants to be alongside Jesus in the crowd waving palm branches when its exciting and fun. Not nearly so many want to be along side him when the crowd turns into a violent mob baying for his blood. When that happens, we are much more inclined to pull our heads in, deny we know him, and refrain from saying anything that might identify us with his agendas. Psalm 23 seems to offer a much more appealing shepherd to follow. Or does it?

The language is much gentler, but I’m not so sure that the message of Psalm 23 is any different. You see the shepherd is the one who decides where you are going to go. Sheep herders in Australia use dogs and motorbikes to push the sheep where they want them to go. Middle Eastern sheep will actually follow he shepherd around trustingly. But either way, it is still the shepherd who decides where they go, and those who follow the shepherd of Psalm 23 find themselves following into death’s dark valley. There is a promise that the shepherd will get us to the other side, but no suggestion that he’ll find us a way around it. The shepherd who gives us rest in places of beauty beside tranquil waters is the same shepherd who leads us into the valley of blood. You see, Christ’s mission is to bring new life and freedom to the whole world, and that means going head to head with the powers that are profiting from the present reign of death and oppression.

Nowhere, not even in Psalm 23, are we promised that our allegiance to Christ in that conflict won’t cost us our blood, just as it cost him his. Nowhere are we promised any kind of immunity from the violence and suffering that is tearing apart a world gone mad. What we are promised is that if we stick with him, he’ll stick with us, and that means that our road through the valley of blood will come up into the promised land of resurrection life; a place where the tears are wiped from our eyes and we are sheltered and richly nourished as we serve God as a holy priesthood forever.

It would be easy to get discouraged by images like the one in the Revelation, because it can sound like only those who walk unflinching into the valley, never wavering in their faithful commitment, have a chance of being in the triumphant crowd around the throne of the Lamb. We know we are not that strong or consistent. It is important to remember that this Lamb is also the shepherd who goes in search of the sheep who wander off track and get lost. It is important to remember that this Lamb is the risen Christ who forgave Simon Peter for denying him three times and commissioned him to take on the work of shepherding. It is important to hear that again in the dialogue at the end of our service; to hear that our fickleness too is redeemed as Christ asks us to reaffirm our love and then commissions us to join him in caring for others. But it is important too to hear the challenge of being asked to follow wherever the road of discipleship leads. Being willing to be here in worship would be no different to being in the crowd who welcome Jesus one day and bay for his blood the next, unless we back up our prayers in here tonight with faithful following of Jesus out there tomorrow. The good news is that you don’t have to do that without a shepherd to lead the way. Christ is with us always, even to the end of the age, and he continues to spread a rich banquet before us and offer himself, even at the cost of his own blood, to get us through to the refuge of heaven’s throne room and the joy and triumph of resurrection life.


Study Version

The 23rd Psalm is often turned to for comforting images of God looking after us. Its images of tranquillity and blessing make it a favourite for people who are looking for promises that God will keep us safe and make sure nothing bad happens to us. The book of the Revelation to John is never going to be a favourite with such people. Although it offers the promise of eventual vindication and triumph for the God’s faithful people, it depicts them arriving at their day of glory drenched in blood after coming through the ultimate atrocity. Their number are described as including many martyrs because although they are now rejoicing in God, the faithful discipleship for which they are now rewarded first cost them their lives. So at first glance it may appear odd that the cycle of scripture readings asks us to read these passages together this week. Obviously both of them contain images of shepherding, and they share that with the John 10:22-30 reading, but even with that common theme, they could appear to be at odds with one another.

It is true that this passage from the Revelation is one of its most comforting. Indeed some of its later verses have quite a bit in common with Psalm 23: God is the one who shelters us, who sees that we never go hungry or thirsty; who leads us like a shepherd, and who guides us to springs of cool clear water. But in the Revelation, that vision is introduced as belonging to those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. The image of washing robes white in blood is doubtless a deliberate clash of images. Revelation has lots of them: the lion who appears like a slaughtered lamb; the Lamb who becomes the shepherd.

This one — washing white in blood — is intentionally gruesome, and yet it tells us of a people made clean. Despite the implication of the cleansing power of the blood of the Lamb, we would probably be making a mistake if we equated what is happening here with the common Christian description of “being washed clean by the blood of the Lamb”. There is a difference between doing the washing and being washed. One is an active verb and the other is a passive verb, and it makes a big difference. When we are washed clean by God, it is a gift, something that is done for us. The crowd in the Revelation are different. They do the washing. They have washed their own robes in the blood of the Lamb. That sounds much more like something they have actively done: a conscious and costly choice they have made to stick with Jesus even when the blood is being splattered all over the place.

The earlier description of the this white-robed crowd depicts them as gathering around the Lamb, waving palm branches and shouting about salvation. It is an image that calls to mind the crowd greeting Jesus as he entered Jerusalem for the last time. That link is probably deliberate. It reminds us of how easy it is to shout in praise of Jesus, but how hard it is to stick with him when the chips are down. As Jesus said on another occasion, “Not all who say ‘Lord, Lord’ will make it into the Kingdom.” Everyone wants to be alongside Jesus in the crowd waving palm branches when its exciting and fun. Not nearly so many want to be along side him when the crowd turns into a violent mob baying for his blood. When that happens, we are much more inclined to pull our heads in, deny we know him, and refrain from saying anything that might identify us with his agendas. Psalm 23 seems to offer a much more appealing shepherd to follow. Or does it?

The language is much gentler, but is the message of Psalm 23 really any different. You see the shepherd is the one who decides where you are going to go. Sheep herders in Australia use dogs and motorbikes to push the sheep where they want them to go. Middle Eastern sheep are a different breed and will actually follow the shepherd around trustingly. But either way, it is still the shepherd who decides where they go, and those who follow the shepherd of Psalm 23 find themselves following him into death’s dark valley. There is a promise that, if we stick with him, the shepherd will get us to the other side, but no suggestion that he’ll find us a way around it. The shepherd who gives us rest in places of beauty beside tranquil waters is the same shepherd who leads us into the valley of blood. You see, Christ’s mission is to bring new life and freedom to the whole world, and that means going head to head with the powers that are profiting from the present reign of death and oppression.

Nowhere, not even in Psalm 23, are we promised that our allegiance to Christ in that conflict won’t cost us our blood, just as it cost him his. Nowhere are we promised any kind of immunity from the violence and suffering that is tearing apart a world gone mad. What we are promised is that if we stick with him, he’ll stick with us, and that means that our road through the valley of blood will come up into the promised land of resurrection life; a place where the tears are wiped from our eyes and we are sheltered and richly nourished as we serve God as a holy priesthood forever.

It would be easy to get discouraged by images like the one in the Revelation, because it can sound as though it will be only those who walk unflinching into the valley, never wavering in their faithful commitment, who will have a chance of being in the triumphant crowd around the throne of the Lamb. We know we are not that strong or consistent. Perhaps that’s where we need to read the various readings alongside one another.

It is important to remember that this Lamb is also the shepherd who goes in search of the sheep who wander off track and get lost. It is important to remember that this Lamb is the risen Christ who forgave Simon Peter for denying him three times and commissioned him to take on the work of shepherding. During this Paschal season we hear that again in the dialogue at the end of our service each week. We hear that our fickleness too is redeemed as Christ asks us to reaffirm our love and then commissions us to join him in caring for others. But it is important too to hear the challenge of being asked to follow wherever the road of discipleship leads. Being willing to join with others in a worship service would be no different to being in the crowd who welcome Jesus one day and bay for his blood the next, unless we back up our prayers with faithful following of Jesus out in the places where the rubber has to hit the road. The good news is that you don’t have to do that without a shepherd to lead the way. Christ is with us always, even to the end of the age, and he continues to spread a rich banquet before us and offer himself, even at the cost of his own blood, to get us through to the refuge of heaven’s throne room and the joy and triumph of resurrection life.

Questions for Discussion.

• What situations in your life have felt most like “death’s dark valley”, situations in which you felt most in need of support and help to get you through?

• Are you able to look back on some of those situations and see that God was with you in ways that you couldn’t perceive at the time? What was God doing for and in you?

• Are there ways in which your decisions to follow Christ have been particularly costly, or ways in which you are facing costly decisions to follow Christ now?

• How have your experiences of the “dark valley” times shaped your understanding of Christ or your relationship with Christ?