I can sniff, I can see
And I can count up pretty high
But these faculties aren't getting me
Any close to the sky
But my heart of faith keeps pounding
So I know I'm doin' fine
But sometimes finding you
Is just like trying to smell the color 9
Smell the color 9
-- Chris Rice
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
There are not one, but three non-sequiteurs in this passage. First, one of the Elders speaks to John as he is having his vision of the throne room of Heaven. The Elder asks John a question. Either John already knows the answer or he is basically saying, "I haven't got a clue... can you tell me?" (non-sequiteur #1) Of course, his answer isn't very satisfying. One would think that people who had just been through a war (the great tribulation) would be in tattered clothes and certainly would be filthy. You can't live through a war without picking up some of the dirt. But these who are standing before the throne of God are wearing white robes -- gleaming white. (non-sequiteur #2) Finally we learn how the robes got that way: (non-sequiteur #3) They were washed in blood.
Oh, of course. That makes total sense. Here is a group of people who just went through muck and came back to tell about it. Their robes were filthy, but they got cleaned up by taking a blood bath! Sure. Makes total sense.
Very often I think that the way most of us who call ourselves Christians have lived our faith has been to avoid getting mucked-up. As a child I couldn't stand getting dirty. It freaked me out! I pity my poor mother when I think about the times she tried to take us to the beach. Somehow I equated sand with dirt. If I had sand on me -- even in the smallest measure -- that meant I was dirty. I would cry and throw a fit until I was safely back in the car and on the way home. As you can imagine, this aversion went double for mud. When it comes to picking up mud from the world, I think we Christians are just like I was as a child.
The world is full of muck and mud. Life is full of messy, dirty things and messy, dirty people with messy, dirty lives. Those are just the facts. And one of the first verses I ever memorized as a young Christian was under the title, "Separate from the World," as if somehow I could remain unstained. We can't. Not just because we love to sin when we have the chance. That's the muck we throw on ourselves like children playing with their food. But if we will live authentically the life of the Christ who lives in our hearts we will eat with tax collectors and sinners. We will hold the hand of a prostitute and call her beloved of God because that is the name he has given her (Hosea 1). We will reach out, even though it means that at times we end up messing up rather than reaching out. It is okay. God is right there by our side and holding our hand -- for we are all prostitutes before him. All who own the name of Christ are messy, dirty whores in desperate need of cleansing.
I heard about a church today from an old man who lives in Portland, Oregon. He told me this "new" church had gone out and ministered to the drug-addicted and the prostitutes who hung out at a 1960 vintage welfare motel downtown. This church started inviting these hard-luck cases in. Finally, as some of them began to find Christ, the church did something radical: They bought the welfare motel and turned it into a worship center. Last spring, the motel burned to the ground. You would think that would have been a great blow to the church that met there. It hasn't been. They are now over 300 strong and growing.
The old man's German Lutheran Church has fallen on hard times too. They're down to 35 people, most of whom are over 70. But they love and want to honor the Christ who saved them and their fathers and mothers. So they've decided to do something radical. They have offered to turn over their building (worth over $5,000,000), and lose their 110 year old church heritage, and merge with that "new" church with the burned-out motel.
And somehow Jesus is in the business of washing old German Lutherans and young drug-addicts and whores in blood so that they come out white enough to stand before the very throne of God -- clean. And somehow if Jesus is going to do that work he has to give them a bloodbath together! It simply won't do for the German Lutherans to be saved and come before the Lord with the dirt of 110 years of struggles and infighting and losing and denying that they were losing and finally to close the doors of the old church and give up. Oh, they'd be saved alright. But they would arrive at the Throne of Grace with dirt on. And the prostitutes and drug-addicts could be saved and have their celebration in the same old motel where they had once paid and been paid for. And they would also arrive at the Throne with dirt on. The reason is that Jesus always mixes us together before he brings us home. And it is in the mixing that the greater part of his grace is experienced. The Lutherans and the refugees from the motel will just have to learn how to live together so they can be washed together so they can stand at the last day together.
What a privilege it was to talk to that man on the phone today. What a profound joy it would be to buy a plane ticket and spend money I really can't afford (like the woman pouring expensive ointment on Jesus' feet and wiping them with her hair), so that I could be present at the merger celebration. I want live to see Old German Lutherans hugging prostitutes and drug-addicts. But it wouldn't be my place to be at that celebration. I'd be enjoying the fun without doing any of the work. Jesus won't be satisfied in me until I am safely in the embrace of someone so, so different from me who needs to be safely in the embrace of someone so, so different from them.