Sunday 5 November 2017
All Saints Sunday
I got back home late last night from Willamette University in Salem. We had a reunion concert with people who had sung in the Willamette Chamber Choir over the last 35 years. And we also had reunion groups of the jazz choir, Willamette Singers, broken up into decades. I was in the 1998-2007 group.
It was a bit surreal to be back on campus for two days, moving back and forth between the same rooms and buildings, practicing music with the same people I did nearly twenty years ago. Part of what made it so strange was that there wasn’t really much down time. We had a lot of music to learn and rehearse. And it wasn’t easy music, either. Here we were practicing our parts, making notes in our music, rehearsing at a pace much faster than we ever did as students. But since there was so much work to do, there wasn’t much time to reminisce. Instead, we had to slip right back in to the working relationships that we had had years ago.
And in some sense it was as if no time had past at all. It seemed very familiar, very natural. And of course, in another sense, it was as if eons had past, as if we were visiting a faint shadow in distant memory, a completely different world, long forgotten. It was disorienting, with details that did not seem to match with each other.
One of the harder songs we sang is called John the Revelator. It wasn’t one of the songs we did when I was at Willamette. I remember, when I was in high school, though, going to the choir concert at Willamette and hearing it. It’s a spiritual, and it’s about the Book of Revelation, about the book that we read from this morning.
Revelation, we know, is written by a man named John. Sometimes it is said that the Gospel of John, the three Letters of John, and the Revelation of John are all written by the same person: the apostle John, one of the twelve from Jesus’s inner circle. But we don’t know that, and there are many reasons to think that there might be several different Johns who did or wrote those things.
And so, to keep them all straight, we give them nicknames. John the Apostle is the one who was one of the twelve. An apostle is someone who is sent, as Jesus sent his apostles out to share the good news. Then there is John the Evangelist, the one who wrote the Gospel of John. Evangelist here doesn’t mean someone who converts people, it means someone who brings good news, someone who brings Gospel. John the Evangelist literally means John the Gospel-Writer.
And then finally we have John the Revelator. You probably won’t find the word revelator in your dictionary, but it means someone who receives a revelation, someone who has something hidden revealed to them, someone who is able to peak behind the curtain and see what the rest of us can’t see.
And the revelation that John sees is very strange. It’s hard to know what to make of it. Is it talking about the future, the present or the past? Is it describing real things that happen, or is it just metaphorical, poetic language that is more about feelings than is it about events?
It is so strange, in fact, that it almost didn’t make it into the bible. Of all of the books that we have in the New Testament, Revelation was the closest to getting excluded. Many early Christians found it to be disturbing or misleading. It doesn’t appear on some of the early lists of New Testament writings, but in the end it just barely squeaked through to make it into the canon of the bible.
And it’s had a checkered history in the church ever since. Martin Luther tried to cut it out of the bible in the 16th century, but he was unsuccessful. In his preface to his German translation of Revelation, Luther writes:
“About this book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own opinions. I would not have anyone bound to my opinion or judgment. I say what I feel. I miss more than one thing in this book, and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic.
“First and foremost, the apostles do not deal with visions, but prophesy in clear and plain words, as do Peter and Paul, and Christ in the gospel. For it befits the apostolic office to speak clearly of Christ and his deeds, without images and visions. Moreover there is no prophet in the Old Testament, to say nothing of the New, who deals so exclusively with visions and images…. I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it…. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it.”
Luther doesn’t like John’s use of images. And he’s not wrong. There are all kinds of crazy details in Revelation. Seven churches, along with their seven angels and seven stars and seven lamp stands. A man made of fire and metal with a sword coming out of his mouth. Elders and angels and creatures surrounding the throne of God, an ox, a lion, a man, and an eagle, each with six wings and with eyes covering every part of their bodies. Scrolls with seals to be broken, trumpets to be played, bowls of wrath to be poured out. Four horsemen, riding four horses, one white, one like fire, one black, and one the pale green of rotting flesh. A pregnant woman clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, wearing a crown made of stars. A fiery dragon with seven heads, ten horns and seven crowns. A beast like a leopard with seven heads, ten horns, and ten crowns. Another beast, like a lamb, that speaks like a dragon. A tree that grows twelve different kinds of fruit, one in each month, with leaves that have healing properties.
And on and on and on… John uses all of these images, and it’s hard to tell what he is trying to say. What on earth is going on?
The song we sang last night at Willamette asked several questions trying to figure that out. “O, tell me, who is that writing? John the Revelator. Who is that writing? John the Revelator, writing in the book of the seven seals.” That part is easy enough. Then the song asks, “What is he writing?” There’s a glib answer to it. “About the Revelation.” But then the song tries to dig in and unpack the details. “When John looked over Calvary’s hill, he heard a rumbling chariot wheel. Tell us John, what do you see? I saw a beast a rising from the sea! Talk to us John! What’s the good news? The crippled can walk; the dumb are singing the blues. John in the graveyard, what do you see? The dead are dancing all a round me.”
The dead are dancing all around me. Just before the passage for today, John sees the 144,000, the great crowd from each of the tribes of Israel. And then at the beginning of our passage today, John sees even more: a massive crowd that no one can number. And they aren’t just from the twelve tribes of Israel. They are as completely diverse as John has the ability to describe: they come from every εθνος, every ethnic group; from every φυλη, every tribe; from every λαος, every people; and from every γλωσσα, every language. They are from every type of people imaginable, the full spectrum of humanity. They wear plain white robes, and they waive palms of celebration, palms of victory.
And once the giant mass of all of humanity is gathered together, then they join together with the others there—all of the angels, and the elders, and the strange creatures with wings and eyes—they all form a circle around God’s throne and they lay down flat, with their faces to the ground in a pose of worship and submission, and they all join together to sing a hymn.
And in the hymn they list off all of the things that are due to God, all of the things that are owed to God. Ευλογια, as in eulogy, that is good words, blessings. Blessings be to God. Δοξα, as in doxology, that is glory, worship, praise. Glory be to God. Σοφια, as in philosophy, that is wisdom, knowledge, the creative spark of the universe. Wisdom be to God. Ευχαριστια, as in eucharist, that is thanksgiving, gratitude. Thanksgiving be to God. Τιμη, that is honor, respect, recognition, value. Honor be unto God. Δυναμις, as in dynamite, that is power, strength, ability. Power be unto God. Ισχυς, that is strength, might. Strength be unto God. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and respect and power and strength be to God, for eons of eons, Amen. This is what the full assemblage of humanity, along with all of the angels and heavenly beings sing to God. Everything be to you, O God. Everything to you.
And as they do, one of the elders, John’s guide, turns to him and asks, “Who are these people?” Yes, I would like to know the answer to that. “Who are these people wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”
John has sense enough not to try to answer. Instead, he turns the question around. “Surely you are the one who knows.” And the elder obliges, saying, “They have come through great oppression. They have washed their robes white in the blood of the lamb. That’s why they are in front of God’s throne, serving God both day and night… They won’t be hurt again… because the lamb will shepherd them.”
Strange words. A lamb who is also a shepherd. Blood that can make white robes clean. The dead dancing all around me. It is disorienting, with details that don’t seem to match with each other.
And that is due to the fact that we have a disorienting God, a disorienting Christ, a disorienting Spirit. We have a God of words who chooses a man with a speech impediment to be God’s spokesperson. We have a God of power who takes the side of the powerless, the poor and the weak. We have a God of wisdom who keeps it from scholars and gives it to children. We have a Christ, only Son of God, who was born in an animal shed. We have a Christ the King whose only crown is a crown of thorns, whose only throne is a cross. We have a Christ Savior who brings life by dying. We have a Spirit who throws the Messiah out into the desert to face Satan. We have a Spirit who breathes new life into dry bones. We have a Spirit who brings people together by addressing them in different languages.
So of course God would choose a lamb to shepherd the people instead of a person to shepherd the lambs. Of course the blood of hardship and loss would cleanse rather than stain. Of course the ones who are the most alive, worshiping in the very presence of God, would be the dead who have passed through tribulation.
There they are together, drawn from different places and different times, forming one great choir as if they have been singing together all along. While some are unfamiliar, some have seen each other before, heard each other’s voices before, blended harmonies together before. They sing together now as if no time has past at all, everything very familiar, very natural. And yet it is as if eons have past, as if they are visiting a faint shadow in distant memory, a completely different world, long forgotten.
Who are these people? Where do they come from? They are all of the saints of God, each of whom have faced their own trials in their own times, and yet they are mystically joined and rejoined together, singing the same song, with such authenticity, it is as if each one had written it themselves. And while they represent the full diversity of humanity, they are dressed in simple white robes, each one the same. Though they had faced adversity in the world, they now rest together in God’s protection and compassion. No more hunger, no more thirst, every tear is wiped away. And all voices are raised together to sing, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength be to our God, for eons of eons. Everything to you, O God. Everything to you. Amen.”
And today with lift up our voices to join in the song. We join our voices with angels and archangels, with saints and martyrs, with prophets and workers for justice. We blend ourselves with the harmonies of the heavenly choir, remembering what has gone before us, giving thanks for what is yet to come, and giving praise to the one who sits upon the throne and to the lamb. Until we are all united together in that celestial choir, where it will feel as if no time has past at all, everything familiar, natural. And yet also as if eons have past, as if we are visiting a faint shadow in distant memory, a completely different world. Thanks be to God.