Sunday, November 6, 2016

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

All the angels were standing around the throne, the elders, and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before his throne, and worshiped God, saying, ‘Amen! Blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, and might, be to our God forever and ever! Amen.’

The book of Revelation has been widely interpreted, and misinterpreted, since John wrote it nearly two thousand years ago. Read a dozen commentaries and you’ll find a dozen different explanations for the symbolism of the images and the numbers. Today’s passage includes one of the most puzzling accounts of all. The number 144,000 has been described by some as a literal number, yet if we take that as true, even those who believe it can’t account for the many others who have been sealed by God’s grace.

In the verse following the list of tribes, John writes that there was a great multitude that no one could number. Some say that this refers back to the 144,000; others say that they are two different groups. I’ve always interpreted the 144,000 as twelve times twelve tribes times a thousand which was the largest number understood by man at the time, thus representing a great multitude and possibly the same group. However, the first group is made of Jews and the second of the nations, so we can interpret this to mean all people – Jew and Gentile.

Does it really matter? What is the point of John’s witness of this scene? What is happening there that we should try to understand?

The multitude cries out, “Salvation be to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” This is a moment of worship, of thanksgiving, of witness to the work of God in Jesus Christ. He is being praised for saving God’s people, bringing them through the tribulation and making them right so that they can stand before the throne. The angels see this praise and join in with the faithful, singing a doxology of praise. Whatever the numbers, every one of the faithful, both angelic and human, are part of the eternal worship that will glorify Christ forever. This is our eternal hope; this is the life the saints will live according to God’s promises. This is the hope that God has fulfilled through Jesus Christ, washing our righteousness with His blood so that we can stand before Him in praise and thanksgiving; it is the hope that we will never suffer again.

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.

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 to 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. They have learned to live as children of God from those experiences, and they have passed those lessons on to us.

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.

Sunday is All Saints Day, a day when we remember those who have been lost. And though we mourn, we are also called to rejoice. 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 praising God forever. Let us sing for joy, just as the psalmist, knowing that we too will join them one day. “Praise Yahweh! Sing to Yahweh a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints.”

The Christian message is viewed as foolishness in today’s world. We are called to submit to God, and yet the world claims there is no God. We are called to love our neighbor, and yet the world says that we should love our selves. The Gospel tells us that God in flesh died so that we might have life. What foolishness! Yet, God is wiser and more powerful than anything we can imagine, and we know that He loved His children so much that He did everything necessary to reconcile us to Him. He shed the blood of His own Son so we could wear gleaming white robes of righteousness.

The world reads today’s Gospel lesson and laughs at the foolishness. The beatitudes are eight beautiful attitudes that are lived by those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel is organized to establish Jesus as the foundation, as the One who accomplished the will and purpose of God in this world. His life was parallel to the people of Israel, but where Israel failed to keep the faith, Jesus did so and in doing so, Jesus made it possible for the rest of us to do so, too.

What does it meant to be blessed? According to the world, blessedness is visible to others; it is seen in our happiness, our wealth and our health. Even Christians talk about their good lives by saying, “I have been so blessed.” But we do not see the blessings when we are suffering from a terminal disease or we are unemployed and can’t pay our bills? Blessedness is often thought synonymous with happiness, but the sort of happiness that comes with faith is not necessarily giddy pleasure, but rather a deeper inner joy from God. Jesus knew that joy and lived it.

The word “bless” means “may God speak well of you.” God spoke well of Jesus because in the midst of His very human life, He remained faithful to His Father. Thanks to the work of Christ, we can remain faithful to God in the midst of our own very human life. The blessed are not those who deserve to be rewarded, but rather are those who see that which God has done and is doing in the world. The poor in spirit 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 comforts them. Those who are humiliated are raised and those who are hungry and thirsty are fed.

Jesus does not call us to overcome our troubles or wallow in them, but rather He encourages us to live in an attitude of trust and confidence that God is faithful to His promises. The beatitudes are the attitudes of God’s people living in faith. The students for today’s lesson were not the great crowds of people; Jesus was speaking to the disciples. This lesson is not give for those who are trying to earn their way to heaven, but is given to those who believe in the work of God. The lesson is given for us, the Christians who have been saved by the cross of Christ, saints who are anxious for the day when we will join the hosts in heaven singing God’s praise. We are comforted by the Word of God that tells us this life is only a momentary journey on our way to an eternity in heaven. We believe and we are blessed. We find comfort in the promise that our mourning will one day come to an end forever as God Himself wipes away our tears.

In our life of humble service we are given the greatest blessing which is that the kingdom of heaven is not just a future hope. It is hard for us to see the blessing in the Beatitudes. Where is the blessedness in poverty, mourning, meekness or hunger? In a world that seeks wealth, fame and power it is hard to understand mercy, purity of heart and peacemaking. These are not seen as strengths, but weaknesses. Finally, it is impossible to rejoice in persecution. Yet, Jesus says, “Blessed are they…” They are the blessed ones, the ones who are receiving the mercy and grace of God.

The hope of faith is framed in this passage by the assurance of God’s presence. In verse three, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In verse ten He says, “Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice that in these two verses, the gift is present: theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This is not a promise for just the future. The kingdom of heaven IS theirs.

John writes, “See how great a love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God! For this cause the world doesn’t know us, because it didn’t know him.” We are the saints, the children of God. It is the love of God that gives us this grand and glorious title; by His mercy we are adopted into His family and we will inherit His kingdom one day, just as those faithful ones we have loved and lost have already received their inheritance. We live in the hope of faith that one day we will join them to dwell forever in the presence of God. For now we have to deal with the reality that we are blessed though we are ravaged by the world. Sometimes the blessing is in the suffering, as with those martyrs of old whose roes were washed with their own real blood; they were blessed because though they passed through death into the bosom of God for eternity by the blood of Jesus Christ.

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 others to get ahead. 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. I've known the presence of God 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 still feel hunger and thirst. I will cry again before I pass into life eternal.

The closest we will come to experiencing the future kingdom of heaven in this life is at the at the communion table when we share the Lord’s Supper. In some forms of the liturgy we hear words like these: “Join our prayers with those of your servants of every time and every place and unite them with the ceaseless petitions of our great high priest until he comes as victorious Lord of all.” Our worship is timeless and the fellowship numbers in the multitudes. On All Saints Sunday, we are reminded that the veil between life in this world and the next is very thin. While there aren’t ghosts kneeling with us as we receive the body and blood of Christ, they are there amongst us, sharing in the same feast and worshipping the same Lord.

On Sunday we will remember those who have passed from this life to the next. We can’t help but mourn, because their lives meant something to us. Our parents, our family, our friends and our neighbors had an impact on the life we lived. They taught us, touched us, comforted us, fed us, showed us mercy and shined the light of Christ. They will be missed and it is good for us to take a moment to join together to remember them.

We stop on this All Saints Day to thank God for their witness. We were brought into the fellowship of believers by those we love who shared the Gospel with us. We are called to live as they lived, as witnesses so that those who are yet to come will have the opportunity to hear God’s Word and believe. We are saints and that means something. It means we are God’s children called to a life of worship and praise, of service and justice, of love and peace and joy. Though the life that awaits us after death is greater than anything we can experience in this world, we have work to do.

We have been saved from the greatest enemy: death. We have the promise of eternal life, of an inheritance beyond anything we can imagine. How much more should we praise God for His grace and mercy? We are called to live a daily life of thanksgiving and praise to God for everything. Jesus Christ has made it possible for us to dwell now in the Kingdom of Heaven even as we wait longingly to join those who are already singing the eternal doxology of praise at the foot of God’s throne in robes made whiter than we can even imagine.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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