Sunday, November 2, 2008

After This I Looked, and Behold, a Great Multitude


All Saints’ Day
November 2, 2008
Text: Rev. 7:9-17
Theme: A Vision of the Triumphant Church

When my mother passed away I freely admitted that I would not want her to have to come back to this life - even though I missed her a lot. I’ve heard others say this as well. After watching someone suffer you’re relieved, in a sense, to know that the one we love doesn’t have to endure the pain anymore. Death is hard to face, but there’s the comfort knowing something better came out of it. No more struggle. No more agony. No more limitations. No more frustration. And for those who die believing in Jesus we have the added anticipation of all the good that awaits them beyond this “veil of tears.” We are allowed, for a moment, to start dreaming again. Dreaming about the heaven Jesus prepared for us. Dreaming about a place where there is no hunger, no thirst, no death, no sickness, no disease, no injury, no sadness.

All Saints’ Day is the day for the Church itself to dream too - dream in the midst of death. For most of the year we live through days filled with intermittent clouds. Clouds of dark reality that hang over our lives like a dreary Fall day. We know that death and suffering are always there, visiting one this day, and then another tomorrow. We can pretend it’s not there, but we know better.

But today is an exception. Today is different. Today we can behave as if the rules have changed.
The reading for All Saints Day from Revelation 7 is the dream of hope between the realities of suffering and hardship we witness in Revelation 6 and 8. In chapter 7 the curtain is pulled away for just a moment to let us see what awaits us, to let us dream again, and in that dream we find the comfort to make it through the suffering we must still endure in the days ahead.

And what do we see behind this curtain? In a way I envy John who saw this with his own eyes. Words can only paint so much of the picture; it‘s like the difference between a single photograph of one portion of the Grand Canyon and actually standing there on the edge of a rocky precipice peering into the endless expanses stretching before you as far as the eye can see . And in that we must be willing to stand back and try to see the immensity of what opens before us here. This vision is enormous and expansive like the Grand Canyon; way beyond many of the smaller images many have of heaven and the life to come.

It begins with an endless sea of humanity stretching beyond the horizon: “a great multitude,” John writes, “that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples and languages.” Sometimes the church can seem quite small. And if you are suffering under persecution like John on the little island of Patmos it seem smaller yet. The Church Militant on earth at the beginning of chapter 7 is described by a very large number - but it still seems limited. By verse 9 the entirety of the church from distant past to unseen future stretches out before us. We never imagined it this large. And if this is not too much we have all the angels of heaven gathered there as well. All of them, which we know number thousands of thousands, ten thousand upon ten thousand.

And as they gather before the divine throne and the Lamb they are full of life and overflowing with confidence. Their praises are anything but meek and half-hearted. They “cry out with a loud voice,” John says. The walls reverberate with the thunder of their song. We all know that it’s tough to get any church to really sing to their fullness on every Sunday. Depending on the hymn it sometimes sounds half it’s own size. And sometimes we hold back even when we know the tune, despite the fact that the song begs to be literally shouted. But not here. Not in this place. The hearts of the faithful are overflowing with the joy of their salvation, from the tone-deaf worshiper to the accomplished chorister. The victory of Good Friday and Easter is now complete. Suffering is past tense. Death is no more. The devil is defeated. His hoards of demons cast into the endless pit of hell’s everlasting fires.

Thus they wave palm branches - signs of victory and triumph - just like they did the day Jesus came into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Yes, the day Jesus was on His way to His own great suffering and death, they were cheering for victory. Victory on the way to death.

This contrast was brought to mind recently as I was listening to a book on tape by the name of GHOST SOLDIERS by Hampton Sides. Sides told in vivid detail about the notorious World War II Bataan Death March of 1942. 75,000 starving and diseased American and Filipino soldiers surrendered to the Japanese that year in the Philippines, and were subsequently forced to march 90 miles in their weakened state. Only 54,000 of the original 75,000 eventually made it to the prison camps. Along the way thousands dropped from exhaustion and were beaten and executed in horribly brutal ways. At one point Sides describes the march as it passed through a Filipino village. Villagers attempted to aid the soldiers with water and food. But then Sides also describes a curious event in the middle of this march to death. Villagers lining the road held up their fingers in the familiar “victory sign.” Did they see in these dying men their long awaited victors from their savage captors? How could they envision victory in the midst of so much death?
In a way we are also on a kind of “death march.” Today we will pause to remember four of our members who passed away over the last 12 months. Each year we say good-bye to a few more. More of us will pass away in the year to come. One day we too will die.

And yet in the middle of this ‘march of death’ the saints are holding up the victory sign. They are not mourning, they are cheering. There are no tears here, but shouts of triumph. That great multitude that no one could count is cheering us on. As the writer to the Hebrews once said: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

And there it is. There’s the real victory in the midst of the march to seeming defeat and death: Jesus the crucified. Jesus the risen. Jesus the ascended and glorified. That’s why the multitude shouted “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!”
Revelation fast-forwards us to the day when that march of death ends in heaven and allows us to see ourselves as we truly are in Christ. The soldiers the Filipino villagers encouraged were torn and tattered and emaciated shadows. I suspect, however, that they looked past this and saw more. They saw the whole of the U.S. Army come to save them. They saw what they hoped was the superior force.

Today we see ourselves as John describes as the “ones coming out of the great tribulation,” or great suffering. The tattered remains of our former lives are now exchanged for bright white robes - robes of Christ’s own holiness given us lovingly in our Baptisms where we were buried with Him in death and raised to newness of life. For these robes, we are told, were “washed…and…made…white in the blood of the Lamb.”

And beginning with today there is also a subtle change in our worship in the weeks to come as we near the end of the church‘s calendar year. Our eyes will be fixed more and more on the great final day to come and the treasures that await us in our heavenly home. A vision that will even spill into the first Sunday in Advent itself. For the church’s march of death ends in life and victory, and that is our dream, our vision, our confidence, our enduring faith.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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