Sunday, November 3, 2013

All Saints Sunday
Revelation 7:(2-8) 9-17
Psalm 149
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

Praise ye Jehovah. Sing unto Jehovah a new song, And his praise in the assembly of the saints.

What is a saint?

From the Concise Encyclopedia: “[A saint is a] Holy person. In the New Testament, St. Paul used the term to mean a member of the Christian community, but the term more commonly refers to those noted for their holiness and venerated during their lifetimes or after death. In Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, saints are publicly recognized by the church and are considered intercessors with God for the living. They are honored on special feast days, and their remains and personal effects are venerated as relics. Often Christian saints perform miracles in their lifetime, or miracles occur in their names after their death. In Islam, wali (“friend of God”) is often translated as saint; in Buddhism, arhats and bodhisattvas are roughly equivalent to saints. Hindu sadhus are somewhat similar.”

Ask a person on the street, and their definition of a saint is likely to include death. As in the entry above, sainthood is considered after a person has died. Our worship on Sunday will include remembrances of those who have died during the past year. While the definition does include the idea that the saints are those who were extraordinarily faithful or pious during their lives, most Christians understand that this did not make them perfect. We know that a saint is not really someone who has an exceptional degree of holiness or virtue, but even amongst Christians sainthood is generally recognized after a person has died and gone to heaven.

Now, I don’t mean to diminish the celebration of their lives. All Saints Sunday is a time for us to remember the great cloud of witnesses that have come and gone before us. Without them, we might not even be Christian. It is good to join in the remembrance of those who have had an impact on our lives, who have shared God’s word with us in so many ways. It is good to look at the stories of the Saints, whose lives serve as an example of how to boldly live the Christian life in this world. Many of those who have been canonized by the Church died for their faith, they were martyred for being a Christian, and they deserve to be remembered. The people who died during the year made their own sacrifices, and they should be remembered for the impact they had on the world.

But I am troubled by the focus on death. All Saints Day comes after the dreaded Halloween, a night when darkness rules. Yes, it is all in good fun. Trick-or-Treating is harmless. The children are adorable in their costumes, pretending to be something which they are not. I love the princesses, the superheroes, the animals. Some families still create homemade costumes that show creativity, ingenuity and wit. Some families choose to give treats that focus on life and joy and light, with colorful decorations and brightly lit, happy jack-o-lanterns.

However, while Halloween can be fun, it has become a night of darkness, as can be seen around our neighborhood this week. One yard is littered with handmade tombstones. Some of the tombstones have jokes, but they still focus on death. Hanging above the tombstones in the trees are large, black, evil looking ghosts. One house I passed recently has a decoration with an evil face and a long, flowing, black robe that is nearly two stories high. What I’ve noticed is that even the decorations are dark. We used to hang a white sheet in the tree, and now the ghosts are made with black fabric and sinister heads.

Death has always been a part of the Halloween celebration, but it has become pervasive. Last year we had hundreds of children come to our house for treats, and some of the costumes were absolutely adorable. It was fun, but I was disturbed by the fact that more than half of them wore masks of death, particularly the older Trick-or-Treaters. Zombies and vampires run rampant on Halloween because they’ve become such a visible part of our culture throughout the year. Yes, the television, movies and books are entertainment, but it shows us how death and darkness and evil have become part of our every day existence. It is a joke, and even something to celebrate.

Now, I will tell you that I enjoy watching the ghost hunting shows, and I’ve thought about joining a ghost hunt at one of the local haunted sites. There are plenty of reports of haunting around San Antonio. I watch the shows because I’m interested in the science and the spiritual aspects of life after death. What are the physics behind the energy that appears to be spirit? What makes a memory reenact in a physical way? Can evil manifest itself in a way that it affects the humans in its path? Is there something that I, as a Christian, can do to help those spirits find peace?

The truth is: there is a spiritual world we do not completely understand, and that spiritual world includes evil as well as good. As Christians, it is important for us to recognize the reality of demons, to understand that there is a spiritual war that goes on around us all the time. We may never be directly or physically affected, but God is constantly waging war against evil. Why do we choose to make it an acceptable part of our culture?

Even when the celebration is about eternal life, we seem to focus on death. Many churches will have a moment when they will remember those who have died. It is a beautiful moment, with the lighting of candles and the tolling of a bell as the names are read aloud. It is wonderful to remember those we love, to thank God for their lives and to commend them to our Father, but the lessons for this day focus on salvation and life, not death.

The book of Revelation is often confusing and frightening to the reader. The text for today includes one of the most misused prophecies: the 144,000. There are those who believe that this is a literal number that have been saved. Yet, in the next breath, John writes, “After these things I saw, and behold, a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, arrayed in white robes, and palms in their hands; and they cry with a great voice, saying, Salvation unto our God who sitteth on the throne, and unto the Lamb.” John sees a multitude that is praising God and worshipping Him. The number 144,000 might sound like a lot, but in the course of human history, and even in the time of Christian history, that number is a fraction of what is the multitude.

These are not two different and separate groups of people. The number 144,000 represents the full measure of those whom God has saved and who stand ready for eternity to praise God. Instead of limiting eternal life to a few, God receives all who believe. He makes children out of all those who wash their robes in the blood of Christ.

Now, there’s an awkward image as we battle the cultural focus on death and darkness. How many young people will come to our doors wearing a ripped and dirty shirt covered in fake blood? It isn’t a pleasant sight. Anyone who has had to wash a garment that has been stained by blood knows that it is impossible to make it clean. How can blood make a robe white as snow? And yet, in faith our robes are made white by Christ’s blood. “These are they that come of the great tribulation, and they washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

These are the saints, but the text does not just refer to those who have died and gone to heaven. The apocalyptic text gives us a picture of what life will be when everything has been fulfilled. That multitude represents all those who have believed in Jesus throughout time and space. We stand somewhere in that multitude. We are part of those who have washed our robes in Christ’s blood and who will spend eternity worshipping God. We are the children of God. We are the saints.

Thanks to God’s grace we are blessed with this future, but that doesn’t mean that our present will be without pain. We will suffer. We will get sick. And yes, we will die. Pain and death have a purpose, but it isn’t meant to be for entertainment, as it has come to be in our culture today.

A few years ago I saw a story about a girl who had a rare disease. CIPA, congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis is a condition in which the person feels no pain. We might consider this a blessing because we don’t want our children to feel pain. However, pain helps us to know when something is wrong. We feel pain in our body when we are sick. We feel pain when we have hurt ourselves. We feel pain when harm is coming to our flesh.

When the little girl was only a few years old, she put her hands on a scalding hot surface and her hands were burned terribly. Most children realize the danger quickly and pull back their hands. They might end up with first degree burns which would require some care, but Ashley had no idea that she was suffering. Another person with CIPA had a case of appendicitis and did not realize it until it was too late. This victim did not even know she was sick.

The little girl’s parents discovered the ailment when she was just six months old. Her eye was red and the doctor discovered that she had a massive corneal abrasion. She should have been screaming in pain, but sat happy and carefree on her mother’s lap. When asked what they wanted for their daughter, her parents answered, “a normal life.” They even want her to feel pain because they know that she would be much safer if a cut or a bruise would cause tears.

When we think of blessedness, pain never enters our mind. To the human mind, blessed are those who are healthy, wealthy and popular. We equate blessedness with being comfortable, contentment with satisfaction. We would never consider the poor, hungry or sick to be blessed, for they are suffering in a world that God made good. However, the danger comes when we are too comfortable. We do not see that we need help; we do not look toward God for His grace.

Jesus had a way of turning our world upside down, and He certainly did so in today’s Gospel message. The Beatitudes go against everything we expect. We would much rather be comfortable and happy. We would much prefer a life of wealth, health and popularity. However, Jesus never promised us a rose garden. He promised Himself. We can find blessedness in poverty and in mourning, not because there is anything good about these things but because it is in suffering that we turn to grace. Physical blessedness is found in pain because the pain makes us look to the one who can heal us. Spiritual blessedness is found in suffering because it makes us look to God.

The saints are those who trust in God no matter their circumstances. When you read the stories of the Saints, you see horrific tales of beatings, torture, and murder. Many were burned to death or beheaded. They were thrown in prison and forgotten. They were ripped from the people they loved and forced to serve as slaves. Through it all they never wavered in their faith. They accepted the pain and suffering, and even sang God’s praises while their world fell apart. They were witnesses, even unto death, of the Gospel and God’s grace. Those whom we remember this Sunday as having passed from life into death have dealt with their own suffering and sacrifices. They have learned to live as children of God from those experiences, and they have passed those lessons on to us.

We study the scriptures for the next week during our Sunday School hour at church. Last week, on Reformation Sunday, we were looking at the text for All Saints Day. We use red paraments for Reformation Day. I’ve always wondered about this, after all the red represents the blood of the martyrs and Martin Luther died naturally after a long life. I brought this up in class: Why do we use red in remembrance of what he did?

The word martyr means “witness.” Though we use the term in reference to those who have been killed for their faith, the reality is that anyone who sacrifices something of themselves for the sake of the Gospel of Christ is a witness to His grace. They are martyrs, even if their blood is not spilled. This was most certainly true of Martin Luther. We joked about how Martin Luther should be canonized, but recognized that it will probably never happen. It doesn’t matter: Martin Luther does not need to be called a Saint because he is a saint according to God’s grace. He is among those whose robes are washed with the blood of Christ, and he spent his life helping others learn what it means to live that life.

Jesus saw the multitude that was following Him. He climbed the mountain and began to speak words that were difficult to hear. We don’t want to find blessedness in poverty or mourning or persecution. But the multitudes in Revelation were not there because they had an easy, careful life. They had washed their robes in the blood of Christ. He did it for us, and calls us to follow Him. That life of following Jesus is not a carefree journey. He doesn’t make it so that we’ll never suffer. Pain has a purpose. “Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets that were before you.” Even death has a purpose, because without death we’ll never enter into eternity with our Father.

The saints include all those in Christ in every time and every place, including us. The saints are those who have been blessed by God’s grace and who lived, do live or will live in the faith that is a gift from God. That blessedness is not accompanied by some sort of giddy happiness or a life of prosperity. Instead, Jesus calls those whose lives are ravaged by the world as “blessed.”

A story is told of a young boy and a trip to a cathedral with his grandmother. As they wandered the aisles of the church looking at the windows, the woman asked her young grandson, “Do you know who the saints are?” She was referring to the figures in the windows and their stories. The young boy answered, “They are the people who the light shines through.” He knew that there was more to their life than just their story. They were saints because God shines His light in their lives.

It is interesting to think about the light through stained glass. I love to walk through a church on a sunny day. It is wonderful for those who are on the inside because the light shines through and we can see the glass in all its beauty and study its message. But what happens when it is dark outside? The windows look lifeless and dark from inside. And yet, as the light shines on the inside, that is the very moment when people on the outside can see the story.

The light comes from inside us and it shines for the world to see. We can complain about the darkness, death and evil all around us, but it is when the light shines out to the world through our lives that we actually have an impact. When we focus on life rather than death and light rather than darkness, the world will see God and know He is real.

Isn’t it amazing how we laugh at the darkness and death of Halloween, but we mourn at the celebration of the saints? This All Saints Day, even as we remember those who have been lost, let’s do so with rejoicing. There is pain in the death of those we love because they will no longer be with us. But there is also joy because we know that they are now among the multitude who are praising God forever. Let us sing for joy, just as the psalmist, knowing that we too will join them one day. “Praise ye Jehovah. Sing unto Jehovah a new song, And his praise in the assembly of the saints.”

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