Sunday, November 02, 2014

Sermon; All Saints' Sunday A; Revelation 7:9-17

The adult formation class that meets between services is currently exploring Revelation.  The first five chapters were rather mundane, but they got us going and laid some groundwork about the time-frame John was writing and the current events that may have affected the book.  And then last week we hit Chapter 6 and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  So much for mundane.

Normally I would avoid preaching on Revelation; but since it was our first lesson today and we are studying it in the adult formation class, I thought this would be a good time preach on this interesting piece of literature.  There are two reasons for this.  First, I thought it might get more of you interested in attending the adult formation class; and second, it's important that we not cede the interpretation of Revelation to “biblical literalists” who want to use it as a road map for the Second Coming.

The lesson today comes from the second half of Chapter 7.  This chapter is, generally speaking, a lull or dramatic pause between the opening of seals six and seven.  Chapter 6 is full of war, famine, death, martyrs, earthquakes and falling stars.  And then there's a break, and that is Chapter 7.  It is in the first half of this chapter that John hears the number of the elect as 144,000.

Our reading today begins immediately after John hears that number.  That number, though, is not the limited number of those elected for heaven.  That number represents the limited number of God's people arrayed for battle against the principalities and powers that would destroy earth.  They are, in essence, the Church Militant.

After John hears of the 144,000, he sees an uncountable multitude of people from every nation, tribe and language gathered around the throne of God, and they are all carrying palm branches.  This brings to mind the events of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem and our own celebration of Palm Sunday.  The limited number of people on Palm Sunday is eventually matched with this unnumbered multitude.  This is the Advent tension of what is and what will be; and what will be is the Church Triumphant.

This Advent-tension of the already and the not yet, of what is and what will be, is the warp and woof of Revelation.  John's vision of wars, earthquakes, famines and death are a reflection of what he saw in his world every day.  It is also a reflection of what we see in our world every day.  But that vision is also a vision of the end time.  It's a vision of the culmination of history and of the time when all people are restored to unity with God and each other.

Besides there being a strong already/not yet, what is/what will be background to Revelation, there is also a strong sense of continuity, connection and unity.  On Palm Sunday the people shouted, “Hosanna!” which literally means, “Save us!”  On Palm Sunday, we sing, “to thee Redeemer King.”

In our reading today, John sees an uncountable multitude waving palm branches proclaiming, “Salvation belongs to our God.”  What was begun in Jerusalem continues to the end.  Those few people then are connected to all people who will be.  And we are unified with the few and the many every year when we process around the church with our own palm branches.

This continuity, connection and unity is not only experienced and expressed on Palm Sunday, it is experienced and expressed every time we participate in the Holy Eucharist.  In that service, in this service, we participate and partake of a heavenly banquet.  We are connected to, and in unity with, all those who have gone before, who live today and who will come after.

This continuity, connection and unity not only signifies that we are part of that great cloud of witnesses, but it also reinforces that God was with those who have gone before, God is with us today, and God will be with those in the future.  And not only was God, is God and will be God, but God is with all.  God, in every sense, is always and ever present.  After all, God identified as, “I am.”

This is important to remember, especially for the adult class as we work our way through Revelation, and as we hear and reflect on today's reading from Revelation.

As I said, earlier in Chapter 7 John writes that he heard the number of those sealed by God as 144,000.  In this vision, those 144,000 are not, as some mistakenly interpret, an elect 144,000 chosen for heaven.  They are, instead, the 144,000 identified and sealed by God who will live through a great earthly cataclysm.  They are the limited number of the Church Militant who are fighting the good fight.

This limited number has been identified and sealed by God.  Note that they have been identified by God as those who will live through an earthly cataclysm (or, if you prefer, a tribulation); they have not been identified as those who will be whisked away in order to avoid the coming tribulation and ordeal.  This is important to remember because of what came before and what comes after.

What came before was God identifying as, “I am.”  What came before was Emmanuel, “God is with us.”  What comes after is, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  What comes after is, “God will wipe away every tear.”  God never promises to whisk us away from the world.  God never promises to rapture us out of here.  But God does promise to be with us.

We are faced with trials, tribulations and ordeals throughout our lives.  Some times are worse than others.  Some places are worse than others.  Christian persecution in parts of the world is a very real thing.  It has happened, it is happening, it will happen.  There are wars and rumors of wars.  There are droughts and famines.  People we know, people we love and people we've never even heard of die.  Through it all, God is with us; and God will wipe away every tear.

This, to me, is the heart of All Saints' Day.  Yes, this is the day we honor great men and women of the Church.  But this is the day we also honor the great multitude of saints whose names are known only to God.  We honor not only Francis, Agnes, James, Gregory, Elizabeth, Justin and Monnica, but we also honor Ben, Ted, Gordon, Lorna and Bob.

This is the day we honor those in every age that was, is and is to come who have been washed in baptism and have died in the hope of the resurrection.  Not only do we honor them, but we recognize that the very small numbers of people belonging to the Church Militant are part of the uncountable multitude of the Church Triumphant.  And with this recognition comes the realization that in all times, in all places, in all ages, and in all conditions, God is with us.

This All Saints' Sunday, may you remember that you are never alone.



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