Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 12; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
Let’s talk for a few minutes about two things we rarely discuss: death and the book of Revelation. I’m going to start with death. Our culture, by which I mean- modern, western society, does not like death. We have lost our cultural markers for those who are grieving- the wearing of black clothes or armbands, the special stationery and door wreaths, the waiting for a year or years before resuming some activities, if needed.
This week, I ran into a woman whose husband died four years ago. She told me that one of the hardest things is that no one will mention him any more. She longs for stories of his life and to laugh about things he did, but she doesn’t find the space to do that often. People don’t mention Tom, she said, because they worry that they will make her sad. “I know he’s dead!” she stated emphatically to me. “I want to be reminded that he lived!”
This tension around death becomes more pronounced when a person dies under unfortunate circumstances, whether by their own design, by accident, or very suddenly. The grief of friends and family, then, is compounded by the additional circumstance. What do you say to the parents of a child who died from suicide? How do you comfort the family of someone who never went to church or resoundly rejected God, especially if you believe differently than they do? What are the words for a child whose parent dies in prison? We aren’t sure what to say or do and we want to do something, but we hesitate. Then the moment seems lost and then we worry too much time has passed… And so it goes.
The grief sits on the surface for a while and then it seeps in to the bones. The ache becomes familiar and then, like the other aches that come with age and living, on some days it hurts more than others. We need the words to deal with this ache and the words to console and comfort those around us who are experiencing it as well. Even if someone dies a “good death”- in his or her sleep, at a very advanced age, in mostly good relationship with all around- there is still grief at the loss of what was and what wasn’t.
Now how is the book of Revelation (and it’s just one revelation) like death? We don’t want to talk about it either. It’s there, but we avoid it for as long as possible. It’s a little scary, a little confusing, and it stirs up so many mixed emotions that we’d just rather not. Ironically, Revelation- as a book and as a piece of writing- is meant to be comforting. The entirety of the vision is supposed to be a consolation to those who are living the life of faith and may be persecuted for it. It draws the community of believers back into worship and service together. Furthermore, Revelation points again and again to the expansive nature of God’s grace.
The part of Revelation that directly precedes today’s reading is the part about the 144,000. Within the vision to the author, this reveals God’s continued welcome of the faithful of the 12 tribes of Israel. The numbers in this part are symbolic and meaningful, underscoring God’s enduring relationship- maintained by God’s own faithfulness to the covenant. Many of you may have heard of that number before.
However, our narrator goes on. He looks again. There are more than the 144K, there are multitudes, more people than can be counted, more people than can be seen, more people than are accounted for, except to God. These are people of all colors, all races, all nations, and all tribes. They are gathered around the throne. Who are these people? Are they the people who got theological formulae correct throughout history? Are they the people who spoke Jesus’ name at the right moment and were whisked away? Does this include the people who led good, moral lives, without regard to faith or trust in God?
There’s a real problem with those categories and it is the problem that Revelation seeks to solve. It is also a problem that we need to wrestle with so that we can recognize death for what it is and respond in faith and care. Each of those groups- people who believed “rightly”, people who said the “right words”, people who did the “right things”- puts them around the throne of God based on their actions alone. Often when we come to All Saints’ Day, we think of the lives of the people we’ve loved and lost and we console ourselves with an image of them in God’s perpetual light by thinking of what they did right.
These lights, these candles, these lives- symbolized here and held in our hearts- are not shining lights of their own good works. They are shining lights of God’s good work, of God’s salvation, of God’s grace through Jesus Christ, of God’s hope and enduring promise. The joy, the happiness, the blessing of the saints is not that they achieved the title through their own skill. That’s cheap grace. They are saints because through them we have seen the Lord. They are saints because through them we have glimpsed the true cost of grace. They are saints because we are able to see in their lives and in their deaths, regardless of the cause, how the Spirit shepherds the lambs of God’s flock, the sheep of God’s fold, the sinners of God’s redeeming love.
A multitude gathered around the throne, singing praises, with no more questions, healed and whole, at peace, consoled, in prayer for those still running the race, in clean robes washed in Christ’s blood, with all their questions answered, in reunion and communion with one another and Jesus the Christ, and- in somehow, in someway- with us. People tell me with trepidation that they still speak to their dead loved ones, that they want to talk about them, that they haven’t fully said good-bye, that they’re not done grieving. They wait to see if I think they’re crazy. Then I tell them that I find consolation in Revelation and we know then that there are two crazy people in the room.
We don’t know what we don’t know, but we can have faith in what is still unknown. I don’t believe in heaven and resurrection and the life everlasting because of people who “come back” with reports or because I think God rewards good lives or because Jesus died and that made everything okay because he was a good chap.
I believe in the forgiveness of sins, the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come because I trust that God is that BIG, that grace is that amazing, that the revelation of God’s wiping away all tears has merit and truth based in God’s character, covenant keeping, and dedication to life in creation. I believe in these things because they have been revealed to me, through the power of the Spirit, not just through scripture, but also in the lives of the saints. The saints who have died too soon, who died in unfortunate ways, who died after long lives, who died at peace and who died in pain. Their lights shine on, but not through their own merit. Their lives, then and now, reflect the glory of God- creator, redeemer, and sanctifier- who does (as we learn later in Revelation) make all things new. That gives me the courage to talk about death, to remember the dead, and to walk forward accompanied by Jesus, the firstborn of the dead and the Word of a Living God.