Sermon delivered on All Saints Sunday A, November 2, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Revelation 7.9-17; Psalm 34.1-10, 22; 1 John 3.1-3; Matthew 5.1-12.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is All Saints Sunday, the day when we celebrate the communion of saints, both those Christians who have died in the Lord (the Church Triumphant) and those of us who are living and who labor in the Lord’s power as his faithful kingdom workers (the Church Militant). So why do we celebrate a day like today? This is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.
We can find a big part of our answer in John the Elder’s vision in our NT lesson from Revelation this morning. But what are we to make of this vision? The first thing we need to be clear about is that like many of the visions in Revelation, time is quite fluid, moving rapidly from present to future and back. This is what we are seeing in today’s lesson. The vision is of God’s heavenly throne room right now, not at the end of time, although we catch glimpses of that time in it as we shall see. We know the vision is about what is going on in heaven right now because the throne room represents the heavenly Temple of God that mirrored the earthly one in Jerusalem. But when the new creation comes, God’s direct presence will flood the new heavens and earth and not be restricted to the heavenly Temple as it is here (Revelation 21.1-5, 22-27).
Why is John sharing this vision with us and why should we care? John’s original audience was the seven churches in Asia but his letter remains as pertinent to us today as it did to those churches in the first century. John writes to warn us about the coming ordeals we all will face. Echoing Jesus’ warning in our gospel lesson, John is telling us to be ready because we are about to undergo a severe testing of our faith; indeed, some of us already are! And to help us be ready, John urges us to hang on for dear life to the vision he shares of God’s throne room because it reminds us that God and the Lamb have already secured the victory over the forces of evil and that suffering and death and sickness and sorrow are not our final destiny.
So who are these people in the throne room? John gives us the answer that we all desperately need to hear. These are the people who have come through the great suffering. Think, for example, of your loved ones who have died in the Lord and of the various sufferings they had to endure before their death. Or think about the apparent untimeliness of their death in some cases. Think too about the times of your own suffering and tribulation as well as the massive suffering of the persecuted church throughout the world, especially in the Middle East. Doing so will help us understand we are all represented by this countless multitude of people from every tribe, language, and nation. Here we see these saints awaking as from a bad dream and into a glorious new reality just like you and I will experience one day. And what is this glorious new reality into which they have awoken? These multitudes get to stand in the presence of the living God and of Jesus the Lamb in worship and praise for delivering them forever from their various tribulations. This is what John means by salvation and what a real and lively relationship with God looks like.
But there’s more. John goes on to tell us that these saints, symbolic of all the saints, including our own, are wearing white robes to signify purity. The reason they are wearing these robes does not necessarily mean that they lived totally pure or holy lives, but because of the blood of the Lamb shed for them on the cross. This is what has made them clean and pure. This is what has rescued them (and us) from slavery to sin and what makes them at once able to stand in the very presence of the living God. There is no need to wait for this privilege. There is no lengthy postmortem period of cleansing (i.e., purgatory). No, the death of Jesus and the suffering they endured have done all that is required. If you find yourself thinking at this point, “No way. This is too good to be true.” you are coming close to finding the breathtaking reality of God’s love for you in Jesus and the transformative power of the Gospel. This is why we desperately need to hear and appropriate John’s vision because we are catching a glimpse of God’s promise to heal and rescue his sin-corrupted world and its people.
But there is still more. John goes on to tell us that God not only welcomes this multitude but provides a shelter for them just like he provided his tabernacle to shelter his people Israel in their wilderness wanderings. In other words, all the blessings of being in God’s Temple will be theirs (and is ours right now). If you understand this, you will begin to understand what Jesus was talking about when he announced the beatitudes in today’s gospel lesson. The beatitudes are not moral imperatives for us to try hard to follow but rather Jesus’ announcement that in him the living God is doing a new thing to redeem his world and its people from the ravages of evil, sin, and death. In other words, in Jesus we see God’s kingdom already breaking in on earth as in heaven and that people who follow Jesus are blessed because we realize God is working through our circumstances in the power of the Spirit to sustain and transform us in our heartaches and sorrow, just like we see him doing in John’s vision of the throne room.
And then John shows us one of the most poignant scenes in all the Scriptures. The scene shifts forward in time a bit, anticipating the new Jerusalem about which he speaks in Revelation 21.1-22.21. John tells us that God will wipe away every tear from the eyes of the multitude in the throne room. This is such a poignant scene because it invites us to see the very heart of God, a heart filled with such a deep love for his people that it prompts God to come down off his throne and wipe away every tear from their eyes, and this after he has delivered them through the blood of the Lamb! I’m going to pause for a few moments and invite you to hold this vision in your mind. See God coming down off his throne to wipe away the tears from the eyes of your loved ones who have died in the Lord and who are with him now. And then picture God coming to you and doing the same. If you can do that rather than picture God as some uncaring heavenly landlord or cosmic bully who is determined to punish you the minute you do something wrong, you will begin to embrace the reality of God’s new day pictured here in John’s vision as well as in the midst of your own life’s sufferings. [pause for reflection]
These then are some of the lessons from the throne room. First, our beloved who have died in Christ are in his protective and healing presence in God’s heavenly throne room. They are there because of the blood of the Lamb shed for them and their suffering and sighing have ended forever. Second, they are conscious and enjoying a vital relationship with the living God, worshiping him and offering their thanks and praise to him for delivering them through the Lamb. Third, as John reminds us in our epistle lesson and implies in this throne room vision, they are awaiting their resurrection bodies that they will get when Jesus appears to usher in the new heavens and earth. Last, we who are still part of the Church Militant are given hope by this knowledge, not only for our loved ones who have died in Christ but also for ourselves because this too is our destiny. This future hope is what must sustain us as we endure our own trials and suffering. But we also remember our hope is not entirely future-based because Jesus is present with us here and now in the power of the Spirit to help us cope and to learn to live in ways that imitate him so that we can develop his character and learn to prepare ourselves to be where he is. We don’t do this to earn our way into the throne room and ultimately the new creation, but rather in grateful response to God’s great love made known to us when he rescued us in Jesus.
In a few moments we are going to read the Roll Call of the Victorious. As you hear your loved ones’ name(s) read, keep these lessons firmly in mind and then give thanks to God and the Lamb for loving you and your beloved, and for promising you strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, a hope that our beloved know to be a reality so that we, like them, know we have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.