(a sermon for November 1, 2020, the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost and All Saint’s Day, based on Revelation 7:9-17)
The story goes that on one particular Sunday morning the pastor was talking about matters of life, death and afterlife during the children’s sermon in worship. He’d actually spent a great deal of time talking with these kids about what God has promised to those who believe, and when he’d finished with his talk, he said to them, “Now… don’t you want to go to heaven?” And most of the kids joined in a chorus of affirmation, all except one little boy who responded quickly and rather loudly, “No way, not me!”
Of course, this was most decidedly not what the pastor was expecting to hear, so he looked at the little boy and asked, “You mean you don’t want to go to heaven when you die?”
“Oh,” answered the boy. “When I die? Oh, sure! I thought you were getting a group together to go right now!”
It’s true, you know; even for us adults who would name ourselves as believers, as the saying goes, when life is sweet heaven can wait! By that I mean that when life’s blessings are pouring down in abundance, relationships are solid and faith is easy, on such occasions, to quote Edmund Steimle, “questions about the afterlife aren’t too pressing.” We simply and purposefully move through our days bolstered by our confident (if somewhat vaguely understood) assurance that when the time comes, heaven will be there waiting for us.
On the other hand, however, we all know that life does not always consist of what we might perceive as an endless outpouring of blessing; there are going to be times when things are difficult and faith can be a real tough thing to hold on to. The catalyst might be illness or grief or one of any number of life’s many challenges; hey, 2020 alone has offered up plenty of reasons to despair! The point is that these are the times and situations when a concern for heaven’s promise and its reality becomes very central to our thoughts and prayers… these are the moments when a sure and certain hope is what we long for the most!
Back in seminary I did a paper on the theology contained within the African-American Spirituals that are such an indelible part of our Christian hymnody as well as the musical landscape of this nation. I was sort of approaching the subject from a musical perspective, but what I discovered in my research is that this music was not created out of any real desire for art – though that’s certainly what it is – but rather as an expression of great and redeeming hope; both in this life (where these songs often served as a rallying cry for freedom via the Underground Railroad), as well as in the life to come. So, for instance, when the slaves sang of heaven being a place where all God’s children had shoes – “when I get to heaven I’m going to wear my shoes” – they sang those words as an affirmation that however hopeless their situation was now, someday they would be living the life that God had intended for them; until at the last, if not on earth then in heaven, they would finally be who they really were.
And while it is true that in our comfort and privilege most of us cannot begin to wholly appreciate the meaning and cultural impact of these song, nonetheless there’s a powerful promise there for each of us who find ourselves in times of trouble… that there will be one, final decisive victory over all that which would seek to destroy us; that in the end God in Christ shall have his way with the world that he created and loves beyond measure; and that those who suffer and who find themselves in the grip of death will find their salvation, because nothing in life or death or all creation separates us from the love of God. No matter what befalls us in life, our enduring blessing is that God is with us; actively seeking, searching and inviting us into his love and care. As C. S. Lewis has put it, “God is relentless in seeking what is his.”
And this is the vision that we’re given in our text for this morning from the book of Revelation. Now, Revelation is, to say the very least, one of the more difficult books of the Bible to wrap our minds around: it’s a prophetic work, it’s overflowing with rich, diverse and oftentimes dense and confusing symbolism, and the tendency for many people studying this portion of scripture is to try to match up whatever’s happening in the world with what’s found there, as if to crack some kind of apocalyptic biblical code. I’m not going to argue that theology here, but I will say that we need to be careful with that kind of thinking because it risks diminishing the powerful message that’s contained in this final book of the New Testament.
Historically speaking, you see, the book of Revelation is a vision given to a CHhristian named John at the end of the 1st century; and by the way, most biblical scholars understand that this was not the John who wrote the fourth gospel, but rather a member of the early church who had been, because of his faith, banished to the small island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. William Willimon, in his commentary on this text, puts it very bluntly: here was a man who was a “member of a tiny movement on the fringe of a great empire, [part of a] fragile church hanging on by its fingernails for life.” What we know as the Book of Revelation was an epistle to encourage Christians in the seven churches of Asia Minor to remain faithful to Christ even as they were facing persecution, if not annihilation, at the hands of the Roman authorities.
It was a bleak time for the new church; so, imagine John’s astonishment to be given such a stunning vision as what we’ve shared here this morning. A throne room, filled with a multitude of people from every nation and replete with all the trappings of royalty, and it’s the Lamb of God – the same Lamb who knows what it is to suffer, to be condemned to death, to be slain and humiliated; the Lamb once crucified, pushed aside by the ways of a cruel world – who now sits on the throne and rules all creation from the very center of heaven.
And what an incredible vision! Hundreds of years ago, St. Augustine described these scenes as being ineffable, beyond words; and time has still not given us an adequate means of conveying the deep meaning of this vision. This revelation, you see, is our ending and our answer to all the questions we pose about what life and this world is all about. It sets forth the final victory of God in Christ over a hurting, rebellious world, the victory that most certainly will come to pass in the fulfillment of God’s own vision of time.
It is a sure and certain promise of God, and it is good news indeed; but here’s the thing: it’s not the end of the vision.
In the midst of all of this, you see, is this great multitude of white robed worshipers “standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” The question is asked, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from,” and the answer is given: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
These were the faithful who have endured to the end; these are the believers who suffered contempt and loneliness and abuse because they would not deny their Lord. Some of them are truly the saints of God, martyrs who died dramatic and glorious deaths for the sake of their faith; but also there are those who might be referred to as “ordinary saints,” the ones who played their part in the great drama of salvation by showing unswerving loyalty to Christ in whatever their circumstances happened to be. And here they all are, each one standing before the throne of God in heaven: believers who had once known suffering yet now “hunger no more, and thirst no more;” the faithful who have been sheltered by God’s presence, shepherded by Christ and refreshed by the waters of eternal life.
What we have here is a vision of the church, that even in the midst of its greatest tribulation, is able to sing a song of victory because whatever struggles it faces in the present time it will prevail; it will prevail because the power of death has already been vanquished forever in the cross of Christ!
And the best part is that though this was a vision given to believers at the beginning of the first millennia, it remains a revelation for our lives here at the start of the third! This is our divine assurance that though we struggle through the dark and rough patches of our lives, we will find the strength and hope we need for the way because we know that “at the end of the day” God in Jesus Christ is victorious over death and will lead us on the pathway home.
And what that means for us is that though there are so many uncertainties and even more injustices in this life, we can walk forward with confidence and enduring hope because whether we live or whether we die we belong to God; and when we belong to God, rest assured are loved and supported in a way that will carry from the darkness to the dawn of a brand-new day.
You know, lately I’ve found myself thinking that amongst the worst feelings we can have is to not have any sense of how things are going to turn out; to be in the midst of a situation and really have no indication of how the story will end. Take right now, for instance: we don’t know how the election is going to turn out and what that means for us as a nation no matter who wins; we’re still incredibly uncertain as to what’s going to happen with the Coronavirus in the coming months and what kind of winter we’re going to have; at this point we’re not even sure what we’ll be able to do for Thanksgiving and Christmas, much less who we’ll cope throughout the coming winter! The fact is, we just don’t know yet, and it’s hard in these present days not knowing how the world will turn.
But I do know this: God is in charge.
I love what Jim Somerville says to this: “I picture it like you would see it acted out on a stage, all that carnage and bloodshed there on the stage, all those battles being fought, all that smoke going up. The story is at its worst in that moment and you wonder how it can ever have a happy ending… [but] when God gets good and ready… he’s going the clear the stage of all that bloodshed and carnage. He’s going to mop up the awful mess we’ve made of things. He’s going to make a new heaven and new earth… in the end God will make an end of death itself and the last word will be the word of life.”
It will be the fulfillment of the highest and the best, the triumph of God’s love and that place where God dwells… and it will give us the hope and strength for the living of these days, whatever those days might bring.
Let us embrace that sure and certain promise, and may the Lord lead each of us to live on earth as it is in heaven… and may our thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN!
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.