All Saints' Day
Revelation 7:(2-8) 9-17
1 John 3:1-3
Let the saints rejoice in honor. Let them sing for joy on their beds.
Who are the saints? Though the word is not used in today’s passage from Revelation, the saints are those who are robbed in white, whose robes were cleansed by the blood of Jesus. They are the great multitude that stands around the throne of God and the Lamb worshipping for eternity. The word multitude is interesting here because it is a number beyond our ability to count, a myriad. It also seems to indicate a sort of anonymity. These saints are part of the crowd.
One of the elders asked John who they are and John did not know. The elder answered, “These are those who came out of the great suffering. They washed their robes, and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. Therefore they are before the throne of God, they serve him day and night in his temple. He who sits on the throne will spread his tabernacle over them. They will never be hungry or thirsty any more. The sun won’t beat on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the middle of the throne shepherds them and leads them to springs of life-giving waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
They have survived life in this world and have entered into eternity with their Lord. They no longer have to struggle with the troubles they faced. There is no dis-ease. There is no violence. There is no reason to cry. There is only joy, and peace, and love. They will worship God day and night, praising Him forever and ever.
While it might seem that any one of this multitude would get lost in the crowd, God knows every one. He knows every hair on their head. He knows the struggles they faced and He was with them through them all. He knows each one by name.
Names matter. A mistyped name on a legal document can make that paper null and void. My middle initial was added to my name on all our mortgage paperwork, so I had to include it in my signature on every page (if you ever bought a house, you know it is a lot of paperwork.) My given name is Margaret, but my nickname is Peggy. No one really knows how Peggy became a nickname for Margaret, but it is fairly common. It does cause confusion, though. I’ve had to deal with it at the bank, in school, job and even at home.
Even though names matter, it is so easy to get our names changed. I once read a story about a girl in New Zealand who had her name changed. Her parents had named her “Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii. A judge made her a ward of the state so that she could legally change her name. The name her parents had given her had caused her undue social hardship. Unusual names have become a social trend, not only in New Zealand, but around the world. “Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii” might be memorable, but the child with that name could suffer from embarrassment and harassment from peers and others. In his ruling about the girl, the judge wrote, “The court is profoundly concerned about the very poor judgment which this child's parents have shown in choosing this name. It makes a fool of the child and sets her up with a social disability and handicap, unnecessarily.” Some judges have refused to allow some of these unusual names, turning down requests for names like “Yeah Detroit”; “Stallion”; “Twisty Poi”; “Keenan Got Lucy”; “Sex Fruit”; “Fat Boy”; “Cinderella Beauty Blossom”; “Fish” and “Chips” (twins).
Names matter, but something else matters even more. A wise woman once told me, “Know your calling better than your own name. Your Mama and Daddy gave you the name Peggy, but your calling is what God has named you. It is written on your heart and is the name that matters.” We are called to be children of God. And He knows each of our names.
The epistle lesson for All Saints Sunday is about remembering that we are children of God and that some day we will join those who have come before us to dwell in God’s presence forever. We celebrate our future at the table, feasting forever on God’s grace without the muck of life in our earthly flesh. We remember the great cloud of witness that have passed before us into that great multitude, but All Saints is about even more.
We also look forward to the day when we will be with them again. We receive the bread and wine of communion, knowing that it is only a foretaste of the feast which our loved ones already enjoy. There, in eternal life, our earthly names don’t really matter, because God has named us His, and that’s what will guarantee our life to come. We look forward to that day, but being a saint begins with our lives in this world. Our faith will guarantee a place in heaven, a great reward according to Jesus, but that life begins in the here and now. That’s why Jesus taught His disciples, and every Christian since, how to live in this world.
Jesus had a way of turning the world upside down; He makes us look at the world in a whole new way. We think of blessedness as being successful, being a winner. But in today’s Gospel reading Jesus defines blessedness in ways we would never expect. The blessed are not those who deserve to be rewarded, but rather those who see that which God has done and is doing in the world. The poor in spirit do not appear blessed because they seem to have no hope, but they are blessed because God has given them the kingdom of heaven. Those who mourn have no joy, but they are blessed because God will give them comfort. Those who are humiliated will be raised and those who are hungry and thirsty will be fed. They are blessed because God has promised to save those who trust in Him. Blessedness is an attitude that looks to God for its fulfillment.
John Stott wrote of the Beatitudes, “These characteristics do not describe eight separate and distinct groups of disciples. There are not some who are meek, while others are merciful, yet others called upon to endure persecution. These are eight qualities of the same group who at one and the same time are meek and merciful, poor in spirit and pure in heart, mourning and hungry, peacemakers and persecuted. They are the characteristics of the common, everyday Christians.”
The Beatitudes emphasize who we are rather than what we do. The Kingdom is not of this world. The beautiful attitudes and the blessings of the Kingdom are not economic but spiritual. Some may be called to lives of poverty, but the beatitudes refer to spiritual states. The eight blessings are given to every Christian. God favors the humble, those who trust in Him rather than their own strength. These humble people are those who yearn for God above all else. They become wholly dependent on God. Martin Luther wrote, “These eight beatitudes are nothing else than a teaching about the fruits and good works of a Christian, which must be preceeded by faith, as the tree and main body or sum of his righteousness and blessedness, without any work or merit, out of which these beatitudes must all grow and follow.”
The qualities Jesus expected of His followers were counter-cultural and difficult. Who would choose to be meek and merciful, poor in spirit and pure in heart, mournful and hungry, peacemakers and persecuted. Those are the characteristics of the common, everyday Christians, but they aren’t easy. They aren’t easy, but they lead to the reward of dwelling in God’s eternal presence, worshipping Him forever and ever.
Living in the promises of God is never easy. There will always be those who oppose Him and seek to destroy His people. Persecution is always a possibility when we follow in Jesus’ footsteps. He was spot-free Lamb, sinless and innocent. Yet He suffered the cruelest torture and death imaginable. We are baptized into His life and His death, called to persevere through this life until we see the fulfillment of His promises.
John’s description of the saints gives us hope to live our faith in Jesus Christ in this world today sure of the knowledge that one day we will live in a place with no hunger, thirst or pain. Someday we will live in the very presence of God for eternity, with nothing to separate us from the fullness of His glory. The difference between us and the world is that we know this is not ours by our works, but by God’s grace. This leads us to a life of worship.
William Temple was the Archbishop of Canterbury as Europe was facing World War II. He was known by his admirers as “a philosopher, theologian, social teacher, educational reformer, and the leader of the ecumenical movement of his generation.” He was an excellent moderator; he was able to put forth both sides of an issue so convincingly that both sides often agreed with one another. During the war, Bishop Temple was opposed to the demands of unconditional surrender that the Allied leadership was demanding and supported a process of negotiation to bring about peace in Europe. He worked to help free the Jewish prisoners held by the Nazis. He was a leader in social reform in England, and as a leader in the movement to form the World Council of Churches he helped make great strides in the areas of ecumenism. Not everyone agreed with his policies, either political or religious, however he will be remembered for the impact he had on the world.
William Temple is quoted as saying, “The world can be saved by one thing and that is worship. For to worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.” While this might seem to work well in the life of a Christian who puts God ahead of all else in one’s life how can our worship save the world? Most people do not even believe that they need a Savior, even fewer believe in Jesus as Lord.
However, have you ever been in a situation that seemed hopeless, where people were arguing about the most insignificant things? The whole atmosphere changes when one person begins to pray or praise God. Others join in the praise. Though there may be non-believers in the group, they become quiet either out of respect or because no one is left to argue. Words of praise to God will quiet an enemy.
I do not have any answers to the troubles we face in the world today. I do not think 24-hour worship services would have stopped World War II, and I do not know whether it would solve today’s problems. Sadly, in some places, worship as a congregation has been deemed unsafe and many Christians are gathering from a distance. This year has been particularly strange because of this distancing. Normally when tragedy strikes, church attendance rises. We seek something outside of ourselves for comfort, peace and hope. We gather together to pray. We can certainly pray at home, and we can worship anywhere, but there’s something missing for many these days, something very important.
Worship includes giving fully of ourselves to the will of God, giving our soul to the holiness of God, our mind to the truth of God, our imagination to the beauty of God, our heart to the love of God. Worship begins with praise to God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, thanksgiving for His incredible goodness, rejoicing in His presence. When we worship Him completely, things change.
We have to trust that God has blessed our leaders with the wisdom to use their gifts and knowledge to make just and appropriate decisions. However, those of us who are not the president or generals, those of us who are not leaders in the political, social or religious arenas, can devote ourselves to praising God. As He is glorified, He will bring about His justice and perhaps change the hearts of those who reject His Word and His Way.
We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, people throughout the ages that have lived and died for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. Through their testimony we see the love and mercy of God as they pass the things He taught and did from generation to generation. They stood before us; they focused their hearts and minds on Jesus Christ, and we remember them on All Saints’ Day for the faith they passed on to us.
The word saint refers to several different groups of people. A saint is one who has been set aside for special recognition for their lives of faith by the church. Yet, it also refers to all those who have died in the faith. The biblical witness gives a third definition, using the word saint to refer to all those who believe. Each Sunday we confess together our belief in the communion of saints, the fellowship of all believers throughout time and space. We gather together around the table of our Lord Jesus Christ and receive His body and blood with all those who believe from the beginning until the end. Even future generations who do not yet know the Lord are with us in the liturgy, sacraments and the word because God’s promises are timeless.
We remember those who died before us, especially those who died in the past year, but All Saints Day is not really a day for mourning. It is a day to celebrate the promises of God. For a Christian, death is just a passing into new life in Christ, when we receive the blessings promised by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We weep over the loss of those we love, for they will never again join us in the laughter and pain of this world. Even Jesus wept, for in death we see the reality of sin and the grave. It is separation from those we love, an end to the blessings of life in this world. When someone we love dies, we mourn because we feel the loss, but we know that there is hope beyond the grave. Jesus made it possible.
Those who believe in Jesus will receive blessing from the Lord, salvation from our Savior. We will see the day when mourning is turned to joy. We will feast at the victory table. Jesus overcomes even time and space by drawing all the saints - past, present and future - into one body. All Saints Day is sad as we remember those whose lives have slipped from our grasp, but it is also a joyous event as we remember that they are still with us as part of Christ's body. Jesus is the resurrection; He is our hope and life. He has overcome death and the grave and in Him alone is our hope for salvation. We will receive a blessing from the Lord, those who seek after Him and believe in His name.
Death does not only come to us when the physical body fails. We go through all sorts of deaths in our lives. We suffer the grief of unfulfilled dreams, the pain of loss when friends move, the sting of sin that touches all our lives. We live in a transient world, especially those who have jobs with mobility. It is not only true of military families, but many people find themselves moving regularly. This is true also of clergy. How many churches have suffered the loss of a favorite leader because it was time for him or her to move on? Congregations go through a mourning process, especially difficult when the move was related to conflict or hurt feelings. Even within the walls of the church we face the difficulties of this life.
People die. Injustice exists. All too many people have no problem stepping on anyone to get ahead in this world. We will suffer. We would like to think that the promises found in the beatitudes will be fulfilled in this life; they sometimes are. I have found great comfort in the love of my family and friends. I have experienced mercy. Though I have not seen the face of God, I've known His presence and seen His face in the faces of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I've shared in the waters of life and God has indeed wiped away my tears. Yet, I know that I will hunger, thirst and cry again before I pass into life eternal.
One of my favorite exhibits at our local zoo is a pond with flamingos. I have spent hours watching, photographing and even videotaping the few dozen of these bright pink birds. They actually have hundreds of flamingos around the zoo and an incredible breeding program. The birds usually just stand around preening and sleeping, but some days I’m lucky to arrive when they are doing their mating dance. The first time I saw it was surprising. They were abnormally active, running back and forth, to and fro in a frenzy. After a few minutes, I noticed one of the birds was turning his head from side to side, over and over again, almost as if he were watching a tennis match. He was not watching the crowd run back and forth because he was facing away from them. I don’t know why, but it seemed as though he was about to talk, and sure enough he made a loud screeching noise. This noise set off the whole crowd, which stopped running back and forth and started screeching along with him. The noise got louder and louder until it hit a crescendo and some of the birds began flapping their wings. These beautiful pink birds have the darkest black feathers underneath and it was an amazing sight. As quickly as it began, the noise and the dancing stopped, and within a heartbeat the birds were running back and forth again.
It didn’t take long before I noticed the one bird doing the head thing again. This time several others had joined in the dance, moving their heads from side to side. I jokingly reached up as if I were an orchestra conductor and moved my hand. At that very moment, they started their song again. I laughed hysterically at the perfect timing. I spent a few hours at the zoo watching other animals, but ended the day with another visit to the flamingos, which were still doing their dance. I didn’t learn until much later what they were doing, but it was great to see such joy, even if I didn’t understand.
As Christians, we have a joy that manifests itself in praise and worship, as we see in the first few verses of today’s psalm. What does that look like to those who do not believe or understand? Do people see us as we saw the flamingos? Do they wonder about what we are doing or why we are doing it? Do they think we are silly or do they laugh at us? It doesn’t matter, really. We know what we are doing. We know a joy that can’t be explained. Like the flamingos, we have to dance and sing, and perhaps someone will laugh with us and see God’s grace in the midst of it.
The psalmist says that a two-edged sword will execute vengeance upon the nations, punish the people, bind the kings and capture the nobles with fetters of iron. The psalmist sings that it up to the saints and it is their honor to cast judgment on the beasts which have risen out of the sea or the earth. But is that really what God intends? The double-edged sword is not necessarily steel, it is not any sort of earthly revenge. There is a sword even greater: the Word of God. What greater vengeance could we meet out to our enemies then to give them the Word of God so that they might believe and become our brother? It is much better to wield a sword that will save a life than one that will take it.
In the scene from Revelation we are assured that God is faithful. He is worthy of our praise and we are called join with all the heavenly host in worship even today while we still wait to join the multitude.
“Amen! Blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, and might, be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” This sevenfold blessing is a doxology, praising God in every way. It begins with the word “Amen,” which we usually use to end a prayer, but here it calls us to listen. John uses the word “amen” often throughout his writings, particularly in his Gospel, to indicate that Jesus is about to say something very important. “Amen, amen lego humin” is Greek for “Truly, truly, I say to you.” When John writes that Jesus said “Amen, amen” we should listen. So, too, both the “amens” in this passage call us to hear the words of the angels that define God’s character and establish the reason for our praise. We praise God because His is the blessing, His is the glory, His is the wisdom, and He deserves the thanksgiving because His is the honor, His is the power and His is the might.
What is a saint? A saint is one in whom God takes pleasure, the ones who are humble before Him, believing His Word, and receiving His salvation like a crown. Let us thank God for all those who have loved and served Him throughout time so that we would know His mercy and grace today. Let us also thank God that He has named us as His own, that we will one day join in the multitude and spent eternity praising Him for the great and many blessings of life in His Kingdom.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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