All Saints Sunday, November 5, 2017
Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, 22, 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Revelation is quite possibly the most misunderstood book of the Bible. It was the last book of the Bible to be written, and it was written during the time of the worst persecution of Christians. And when I say persecution, I don’t mean the kind of thing a lot of modern American Christians think is persecution, being asked to say “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas” or things like that. The persecution of the early church was of quite a different nature. People were killed for being Christian, if they happened to be in the wrong time or place. If they were really unlucky, they might get tortured to death, or thrown into arenas filled with wild animals for the entertainment of their pagan neighbors. And in this time of trial, when everything was as bad as it could possibly be, a mystic named John of Patmos wrote the book of Revelation as a comfort for his people who were suffering and in grave danger.
Yes, comfort. The book is violent, weird, gory, and pretty freaky, but it’s also a book dedicated to reminding all who read that God will win in the end. Revelation does not sugar-coat anything. It doesn’t try and sweep evil under the rug or downplay it or ignore it. Revelation confronts evil head-on and shows it for what it is, but Revelation also insists that evil is only part of reality. No matter how bad things get, no matter how much evil there is in the world, no matter how much it looks like the devil is winning, we know how the story ends. And it ends with the devil being cast down, the resurrection of the dead and the judgment of all people, and heaven coming down to earth as all things are made new. It ends with the water of life, and the healing of the nations. It ends with peace, and joy, and love. And yes, our world can be violent, gory, and freaky, and there is evil here even in our own hearts, but we know how everything ends. God wins. Love wins. Evil is destroyed forever. That’s the end of the story.
The other thing that gets misunderstood about the book is that it’s not a road map. It’s not a history of the future. It is a vision, a dream, full of symbolism that doesn’t correspond to nice, neat, timeline that we can pin down and understand logically. It’s kind of like an impressionist painting, which shows the emotion and essence of a scene but would be absolutely useless for identifying the people in it. God didn’t give John of Patmos this vision to share as a textbook or map applying to only one series of events, but as a comfort in all times of trial, big and small.
Our first reading, today, is not from the end of the story, where the final victory and healing is. It’s from the middle. Specifically, it’s from the middle of the seals, a period full of earthquakes, pestilence, and death on a pale horse. But before the seventh seal is opened and more earthquakes and blood and fire spring forth, God takes time to show us where the great multitude from every nation are, the faithful good people of every time and place, the ones who have died in the Lord. And the thing is, even in the midst of all this violence and war and pestilence, they are safe. They are with God. Everything is literally going to hell around them, and yet they are with God. Nothing can hurt them now, and nothing can grieve them, because God supplies everything they need and protects them from all the evil around them. They are not safe because of any particular merit or strength on their own, but because God has claimed and sealed them as his own.
It’s kind of like the Beatitudes, in our Gospel reading. Because the people Jesus says are blessed—they aren’t really the sort of people we tend to think are blessed. Jesus has just been healing and teaching the most wretched people in that part of the world, the sick and injured and lame and poor and sinners and outcasts. And now he’s telling his disciples that they are blessed. The poor in spirit, the ones whose faith is small and who are plagued by doubt and pain and grief and depression? God’s going to give them God’s kingdom. The people who mourn, who have lost so much? God will comfort them. The meek, the ones who get pushed around and abused and trampled on and society doesn’t even notice they’re hurting? They’re going to inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who see all the hypocrisy and self-serving callousness and all the evil in the world that we just take for granted as normal and ache for a day when things will change? They’ll get the justice and mercy and righteousness they so desperately crave. And on, and on.
Jesus keeps picking out people who the world sees as unfortunate, and saying that they are blessed. It’s not hyperbole. It’s not a metaphor. It’s not just a case of “well, if you look hard enough, you’ll see a silver lining.” The word translated here as “blessed” could also mean “highly honored.” It doesn’t mean material wealth, as we so often reduce it to, or reward, or something nice happening to you. It means that you are honored, that you are seen and valued. Specifically, that you are seen and valued by God.
And these people—these people that the world does not see, or that the world sees but disregards—these people are seen by God. And loved by God. And God is present with them, no matter what. Even in the midst of death and pain and grief, God is present. God brings healing, and consolation, and justice, and mercy, and hope.
Do you remember a few weeks ago, in my sermon series on the Reformation, when I talked about a theology of the cross, which basically means that God chooses to show up in unlikely places? God chooses to show up in the middle of pain, and loss, and darkness, so that those who suffer are never alone. So we should be looking for God’s presence in places where people are suffering, places where people are poor in spirit, places where people hunger and thirst for righteousness because there is nothing but selfishness and injustice to be had. God shows up there. God blesses people trapped in those places. Not because they are better than anyone else, or deserve it more, but because they need it more.
Most people have times in their lives where they are poor in spirit. Most people have times in their lives when they grieve, and grieve deeply, the loss of someone they loved. And if you don’t hunger and thirst for righteousness right now, well, you probably haven’t been paying much attention in the last year or so to national and international news. There are people who have it worse, true, but suffering is not a competition. And when you are in pain, when you are grieving, when everything around you is falling apart, the good news of God is twofold:
First, God sees you. The God who formed you in your mother’s womb sees you and knows you and loves you and will never let you know. You are not alone. No matter what happens, even if the very worst anyone can imagine happens to you—even if things are worse than you could have imagined before—you are not alone. And God is working in you to bring healing and strength and hope, and God is working in those around you to bring you a supportive community. But even when those around you fail or fall short. God will not.
And second, this is not the end of the story. There is grief, and pain, and injustice, and evil, in the world today. There are horrifying things in the world today. But they will not win in the end. We know what happens. They will be destroyed, and all things on heaven and earth will be made new, and the dead will be raised, and all people will be judged, and God will wipe away every tear from every eye. And there, when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, there will only be peace, and joy, and love, and faithfulness.
Those who have died in the faith, all those centuries of Christians from the earliest days after Jesus to those who died just this last week, they are safe in God’s arms. And someday we will join them. And the day will come when we will all awaken, when we will be resurrected and made new, and judged, and healed, and join the great cloud of witnesses around God’s throne. Thanks be to God.