Sunday, November 27, 2022

Sermon: “When Words Aren’t Enough: A Biblical Song of Hope”, Revelation 15 (November 27, 2022)


Revelation may seem like a strange text for the first Sunday in Advent, but in many ways, it’s actually a perfect fit. As we stand here on the cusp of a new liturgical year, we exist in a sacred liminal space. This is where the fulfillment of centuries-old prophecies becomes imminent, where the ancient wisdom meets the new creation. We anticipate the coming of our long-awaited Messiah at the same time we acknowledge the fact that the wait isn’t quite over; we celebrate the redemption that we already know is ours while we wait for the one who’s given it to us to be born. And more than any other part of scripture, Revelation represents the “in-between-ness” that characterizes this time of year.

The book of Revelation was written towards the end of the first century CE, at a time when the still-young Christian community was experiencing serious growing pains. Their greatest hopes had been realized – the Messiah had finally come! – and the Good News was spreading…but something still wasn’t quite right. If God’s reign had come, then why was the Roman Empire still in power? Why were those who followed the way of Christ being persecuted? Why hadn’t Christ returned for good? What was going to happen? Revelation is an attempt, in the midst of the “already-but-not-yet” of God’s kindom, to offer hope to people living in a confusing time.

While the more infamous parts of Revelation describe the inevitable conflict that’ll arise between those who embrace God’s reign and those who reject it (theologians differ on who, exactly, John’s vision places into each of those categories), this particular passage offers a glimpse of what the advent of God’s kindom will look like. There’s a lot going on here, but there’s one part that I want to focus on for the purposes of our Advent theme: according to Revelation 15, the arrival of God’s kindom will be marked by song.

If you listened closely to the reading, you may have realized that there are actually TWO songs being sung in this chapter, although the text of only one is included. In order for us to understand their significance, we have to understand the content of both of these songs. The “song of Moses” mentioned here is probably the Song of the Sea from Exodus, about God’s specific provision for the Hebrew people in parting the Red Sea. This is the oldest of all the songs recorded in the Bible. Moses sings about the event after the fact, so the song is largely in the past tense. The song of the Lamb, in contrast, seems to be focused more on the future. And, unlike the “Song of Moses’” emphasis on God’s chosen people, the Song of the Lamb is about God’s relationship with ALL nations.

In spite of these differences, they’re clearly about the same God: both songs have sections describing God’s holiness, justice, and power in the PRESENT tense. Both note the fear that God’s greatness inspires in those who correctly recognize God’s sovereignty in the face of their own sinfulness. Both praise God’s just and awe-inspiring acts on behalf of humanity. This God is so great, so timeless, so awesome, that those in the kindom can’t adequately worship the divine using just words. Their praise overflows in not one, but TWO songs – one ancient and one brand new - to encompass all of God’s deeds throughout time (past, present, and future), to do justice to God’s might, and to herald the arrival of God’s kindom for all.

Taken together, these songs represent God’s complete sovereignty throughout all of time and creation – an appropriate offering of worship in God’s holy kindom. But songs are not just conveyances of information; they’re also, fundamentally, expressions of human emotion. And one could argue that the most prominent emotion in both of these songs is hope. When the song of Moses was first sung, the Hebrew people still had a long, hard road ahead of them; when the song of the Lamb is sung in Revelation, the world still has yet to endure the final plagues before God’s kindom finally breaks through completely (think less “divine punishment” and more “inevitable trials that accompany any dramatic change”). Both songs celebrate ways that God has already helped humanity – but they also celebrate confidence that, in spite of the difficulties to come, God’s justice and goodness will ultimately prevail. Faithful hope is and has been a characteristic of those who follow God from the beginning of time clear through its end.

We may be surprised that hope is the primary emotion of those experiencing God’s kindom in its fullest expression. But Revelation isn’t meant to be a report about the things to come. It’s not secret knowledge of the “end times” given to a select few. It was written to remind the whole community of God’s promises and their heritage of hope, so that they might find the strength to endure the challenges that they were facing in that moment. We still read it today because it has that same value for all of humanity: those who existed in the past, those living right now, and those yet to be born.

The songs recounted in Revelation 15 are a reminder that for those who love the Lord, there is ALWAYS hope, in every time, in every place, in every circumstance. There may be times that it’s difficult to find, or that it’s hard to hold on to, or even that it seems like it’s the ONLY thing you have. But if you listen, God will always provide someone to sing you a song of Hope to keep you going. The voice singing may be hard to hear at times, but the song itself is undeniable. Maybe that’s why poet Emily Dickinson describes hope as a stubborn songbird:

Hope is the thing with feathers –/That perches in the soul –/And sings the tune without the words –/And never stops – at all –//And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –/And sore must be the storm –/That could abash the little Bird/That kept so many warm –//I’ve heard it in the chillest land –/And on the strangest Sea –/Yet – never – in Extremity,/It asked a crumb – of me.[1]

This song is not passed along by the loudest or strongest voices. Those singing in Revelation 15 aren’t mighty warriors who’ve earned hope through exceptional power or righteousness. They’ve “gained victory over the beast, its image, and the number of its name” with patience, endurance, and steadfast hope. They’ve persisted to the end of time not by their own strength, but by paying attention to hope’s song and faithfully trusting in the future that God has promised. And now, they are singing that same song of hope for us.

Like Emily’s songbird and those singing on the shore of God’s heavenly kindom, those of us who recognize and embrace the hope that we’ve found in God have a responsibility to sing its song for others. There will be times that our voices will shake; there will be times that we don’t remember all the words, but those are the times when our voices most need to be heard. It’s a reminder that hope isn’t only found in times of great joy, it isn’t just for those with the strongest faith, it isn’t something that has to be earned. Hope is an ever-present gift from God to all of humanity. Its song is already within us. All we have to do is let it take hold of our hearts until we can’t help BUT sing about it, even when it seems foolish, even when it seems unlikely to make a difference, even when we feel like the only one singing.

As we enter this season of Advent, we are sharing in “the hopes and fears of ALL the years”, as the carol goes. We’re waiting with all of humanity for God’s greatest promise to be fulfilled, even as we face down the trials that still lie ahead of us. In this in-between time, when we hold our blessings and our yearnings in tension, when we dwell especially in the “already-and-not-yet”, hope connects us to God and unites us all. We are neither standing at the edge of the Red Sea nor the gates of God’s kindom. But we are each in a liminal space of our own. And whatever threshold you’re preparing to cross – whether simply the changing of the seasons or something more – know that hope stands with you now, hope will go with you, and hope lies on the other side. Let us sing the song of hope for one another today, tomorrow, and always. Amen.


[1] In case you’re interested in Emily Dickinson’s faith context, I found this short article fascinating:,denomination%20of%20early%20New%20England.

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