On the Sunday after Halloween….it got spooky at St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church…..because we ventured into…..the book of Revelation!
All Saints Sunday – November 2, 2014 – Revelation 7:9-17
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
“The Best Book of the Bible” – Pastor Evan Davis
Did you know that the festival of All Saints, or All Souls, or Dia de los Muertos, or All Hallows, is the reason why Halloween exists? Halloween is “All Hallow’s Eve,” the night before All Saints Day. Because on All Saints we celebrate those loved ones who’ve gone before us, this Halloween tradition of reveling in all things dead and spooky came to be.
What’s so scary about All Hallows and All Hallows’ Eve? First, of all, we clearly think death is supposed to be scary. And for often us, it is. But I think the book of the Bible that is appointed for us to read on All Saints Sunday is also pretty terrifying for most – Revelation! Or as many people call it, “revelations.” I can hear someone saying, “you want a church Halloween special?!? Read Revelations!” We think Revelation is scary. But that’s because most of us don’t know anything about it.
I was with some friends this week and one of them mentioned Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel, The Old Man and the Sea. You remember that book? Any of you remember racking your brains in high school English class trying to figure it out? Well, here’s the key – pretty much everything in the whole book stands for something else…at least according to my teacher. Every person, every object, every detail points to some deeper meaning…some hidden story behind the story. Here’s a hint: the old fisherman is Jesus, ok!!
This final book of the Bible makes us shake in our bones because it’s like so many novels…it’s written in code. Most of the vivid imagery and details are symbols for something else. Now, like a novel not everything in Revelation stands exactly and precisely for one other thing, but most of the language is symbolic, metaphorical. For example, the numbers 7, 6, 12, multiples, white, the Lamb (passover).
It helps to know also that the word, “revelation,” apocalypsis in Greek, which is where we get “apocalypse,” just means “unveiling.” It refers to lifting the veil off of something that was hidden. It’s peering behind the curtain to see the truth, the true reality behind all the symbols, behind everything we can actually see plainly with our eyes. The writer of Revelation is trying to tell us something, but in code.
What could the early Christian church see with their eyes? They saw a world ruled by Caesar…a world in which a corrupt, power-hungry human being, the emperor, was worshiped as a god. A world ruled by the sword, where the most violent people got what they wanted. A world corrupted by power, sex, money, status…a world where the Roman peace, the pax romana, was achieved through the slaughter of the innocent. And that world didn’t take too kindly to a growing religious movement that refused to worship the emperor, that denied the power of Caesar, that spoke of a God somehow connected to a poor Jewish teacher whom the Romans crucified for calling himself a “king.” What did the early Christians see? They saw a hellish world that increasingly made their lives hellish. They saw friends put on crosses for confessing their faith that Christ was alive and Lord of the whole creation.
And so we get hellish language: “’Fallen, fallen, is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul bird…For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from power of her luxury…” (18:2-3).
But in this scene from Revelation, we have a “great multitude” of people, robed in white…from every nation, all tribes, peoples, and languages, all together singing praises to God. It’s a great scene. We hear these are the ones who have “come out of the great ordeal.” Now the biggest mistake in reading Revelation is to think John is talking about some future “great ordeal” that will fit into some precise timeline that God is for some reason going to construct. But I don’t think the seven churches to whom this revelation was sent as a letter by John could have cared too much about some future “great ordeal” because their present lives were a “great ordeal!” They were living it! Revelation is about their real lives. It’s about Rome, and every other human power that usurps the authority of God, doing great evil in the process – call them all Babylon! It’s about the suffering church. And it’s about us and our neighbors near and far who suffer even now. Some many peoples’ lives, and sometimes our own, are also a “great ordeal.”
Do you want to know the truth hidden behind their real lives and ours? The truth that is plain right here in Revelation for those with eyes to see? Here it is: God wins. Evil loses. That’s it! Or I could put it another way – Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. Or how about this? For the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign. Al-le-lu-u-ia! Alleluia! God wins! Not through might and killing and money and corruption and power….but through the Lamb who was slain. Through Christ who gives his life but never takes it. He is the Lamb whom we slaughtered like the lamb for the passover meal, who now is our feast here on the communion table.
God’s victory is hidden in death. The Lamb is also the Shepherd. His red blood washes robes a sparkling white. Don’t worry if you don’t get all these images in one sermon, but the point is that the one who was killed is alive and is truly Lord of all. The point is that God has triumphed! The truth reality is hidden behind what we see every day, and is communicated through fantastic imagery. What Revelation tells us is that Jesus Christ is the Alpha and Omega. that the ones being persecuted now will, as Jesus says, inherit the earth. The ones being killed now – whether the church back then, or our sisters and brothers dying of Ebola in West Africa, or our fellow human beings in Iraq and Syria, or our own loved ones whom we remember here today – they will all be gathered before the throne of God, wearing their white robes, made clean by the blood of the Lamb and they will worship him day and night!
This is the best book of the Bible! Because it proclaims the final and total victory of God! Listen to chapter 21, which proclaims “then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth (which were corrupted by sin and death) had passed away…and I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (21:1-4). Have you heard more beautiful words in all of scripture? See our hymn writers knew how great this book is…“This is the Feast,” 78 hymns in the LBW and 91 in the ELW come straight from Revelation.1
So now you know the secret. Now you know that all of you robed in white…and you all are….washed white in baptism by water and the Word, joined to the power of the blood of the Lamb, will all be around the throne of God. To God, you are holy. And there’s a word for holy people…we call them “saints.” But like Revelation and its truths, all you saints are hidden in the world. Sometimes it’s really easy to tell you’re saints. Like when you’re forgiven here every Sunday morning. When you are out caring for each other, picking up the phone to check on each other, feeding the poor, loving the unlovable, just living out your vocations every day. But when you’re doing something for which you need to be forgiven, when you hurt each other, when your faith seems to falter….you might look a little more like sinners and less like saints.
One of the great errors of the church has been to separate humanity into good and evil, saint and sinner. But the truth about us is that we are sinners according to both our outward actions and our inward thoughts and feelings, but we are also at the very same time saints according to the mercy of God and the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. So that’s you – all God’s baptized sinner-saints. Maybe we should call this All Sinner-Saints Sunday. Doesn’t have the same ring to it, eh?
But not just us. Our scene today speaks of a great multitude, so many saints that “no one could count.” It’s St. Heinrich Ehrmentraudt and St. Jacob Spader and St. Peter Muhlenberg. It’s St. Peter and St. Paul, St. Martin Luther and St. Martin Luther King. St. Oscar Romero and St. Dietrich Bonhoeffer….all washed in the blood of the Lamb.
Can you see them all? Can you hear their praises? Can you feel their presence?
Can you see the Lamb at the center? At our center….here (table)….in the middle of us. Today we sing his praises, because when we feast upon the body and blood of the Lamb…we are together not only with the saints here, but with all the saints around every altar in every church on earth and in heaven, and together we trust that
“we will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike us, nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be our shepherd,
and he will guide us all to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.” Amen.
1Karoline Lewis, “When Tears are Wiped Away,” https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3411 (accessed October 30, 2014).