By Elizabeth Baumann
Reading from Revelation, 14:1-7, 13
1 Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion! And with him were one hundred and forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. 2And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, 3and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the one hundred forty-four thousand who have been redeemed from the earth. 4It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins; these follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb, 5and in their mouth no lie was found; they are blameless.
6 Then I saw another angel flying in mid-heaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth — to every nation and tribe and language and people. 7He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgement has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
13 And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.”
I hope I’m not the only one who read this lesson and thought of the story from the book of Judges, about the time when the men of Jephthah used the password “Shibboleth” because their enemies, the Ephraimites, couldn’t pronounce it. Likewise the 144,000 saints who sing before God sing a song no one else can learn. It’s a funny line, actually, once you remember that “144,000″ is Jewish numerology for “a countless multitude”; because it reads, “no one could learn the song except a tremendous number of people.” Like pronouncing “Shibboleth” — almost everyone can learn.
But how many will learn? That’s the question. Long before Revelation, both the psalmist and the prophet Isaiah enjoin us to “Sing a new song to the Lord!” How do we learn the song? A few people can sight read: they can pick up a Bible in the absence of all else and teach themselves the tune of praise. But most people need to hear it — and more than once. Even when you’re learning on your own, you repeat and repeat and repeat until it sticks, forming the habits, until muscle memory — or something like it — starts carrying you from one note to the next. Determination is more needful here than method; humility more requisite than talent.
I’m reminded of an adaptation of Pilgrim’s Progress I enjoyed as a child: bad things always happen to those who try short cuts. Faithfully following the road to heaven is what teaches us the song to sing when we get there.
Elizabeth Baumann is a seminary graduate, a priest’s wife, and the mother of two small daughters. A transplant from the West Coast, she now lives in “the middle of nowhere” in the Midwest with too many cats.
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