Text: Revelation 21:1-6a
The first day of November is called All Saints Day… for the most part it’s not a day that we celebrate all that much. We celebrate the night before quite well… for those of you who are parents or grandparents, the real challenge is to make sure our children don’t make themselves sick from eating too much candy. Yet before Halloween, there was All Saints Day… a day that the church celebrated all those often unknown and un-named people who had so cheerfully and passionately built up the body of Christ in their lifetimes. There were those saints who had specific dates devoted to them… St. Valentines in February, St. Patrick in March, St. John the Baptist in June… but for every well-known “official” saint there are thousands of unsung faithful people. All Saints Day became a way to include all of them… and has now been celebrated for 1400 years… although these days we tend to pay more attention to the night before!
Usually we try to celebrate All Saints on the Sunday following the first Sunday in November, but for us in Canada, many of those Sundays overlap with Remembrance Day celebrations. All Saints is overshadowed, but I think for good reason. As such, we really only get to mark All Saints all by itself every few years… this is the first time since 2014 that we’ve been able to celebrate on its own, and will be able to do so next year, and in 2020 when November 1st is a Sunday.
Today is often seen as a day to honour those who have died in the faith. As much as All Saints is this ancient celebration that tradition has established “way up there” this is one that we can personally connect to… because All Saints is much more than that. Here at St. Matthew’s, we we’ve just marked the lives of two people who have been a part of the life of this congregation. Bob Burk through his gift of the bells, and Myrle Duncan through her deep involvement in almost all facets of St. Matthew’s life. We have memorials around us that acknowledge those who have been a part of life her in the past. All of us know someone who has died, who was faithful in life, and were very much a saint to the people around them. We know them, because we loved them, and we still grieve for them. You may find it meaningful perhaps to light a candle sometime today in memory of them. Maybe it gives us comfort, but it also helps us to remain connected with how they shaped our lives. For myself, today I may light a candle today for my grandmother, who has been dead for almost three years.
All Saints is very much a personal kind of day in the Christian Calendar. There are some very powerful readings including one from the seldom-read and often-misunderstood Book of Revelation. You know the one, that strange work in the back of the Bible which fire-and-brimstone preachers often monopolize, generating much more heat than light. Yet Revelation’s reminds us that the “Saints” are the faithful of every time, place and generation, living or dead… we encounter them in Revelation, gathered together a majestic scene in worship.
As much as we tend to ignore it in mainline churches, more than 20% of the hymns in our own Voices United draw inspiration from the images from Revelation, rivalling all four Gospels and the Psalms in terms of its influence. Perhaps one of the most famous pieces of all time, Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus is based directly on the worship passages from the Book of Revelation.
The scene from Revelation is this wondrous vision of a “new heaven and a new earth” and a new Jerusalem descending from the heavens. It comes at the end of a titanic struggle, where the saints –the people of faith—have suffered and struggled against the powers of darkness, but then God has set them free. When John of Patmos wrote Revelation, the early Christian communities were fearing a repeat of Nero’s persecutions in Rome. Emperor Domitian’s rule became increasingly totalitarian and the threat of persecution was very real.
Yet after all that imagery, John of Patmos uses some very powerful images to show that all of that fear and uncertainty will come to an end. The images of a New Heaven and New Earth express a hope that the chaos and uncertainty under Roman rule will come to an end. When John writes that the sea is no more, the sea is the symbol of chaos and doom… it goes from being subdued earlier in the book to being eliminated altogether.
But the most profound image is this celebration of the new Jerusalem… of God being amongst the people… to grant them comfort, and give assurance that the suffering that we might experience in life is ultimately short-lived… it will come to an end.
When I preached my first year here on All Saints, it was as a reminder that when we gather together in this place, God is the audience to our worship. My role and the choir’s role is to help lead you in that worship… that message hasn’t changed. God is the audience when we come and worship together… this year the focus shifts a little bit but the message remains the same. The images from Revelation are ones of comfort, spoken to people in the midst of their grief and anxiety of the world around them. It is a message of hope, speaking ultimately God is in control.
Many of us come very weary, bearing heavy burdens… seeking God’s guidance, and something we can take home with us. Yes, that’s entirely true… but in the act of lifting our hearts to God, no matter what state they might be in, we may well find the answer we seek when we join with the saints in worship. When we gather in this place, it is to bring our praise to God, to deepen our relationship with God by offering our hearts to God…
But for some of us it’s hard to think of it that way. We may be experiencing tough times in our lives, and we come wanting to be nurtured ourselves… to be given something that we can take home with us. Some of us come having lost someone very dear to us, and we miss them terribly. We are looking for comfort in our sorrow, that wiping away every tear that John speaks about in Revelation. We don’t really want to raise our voice in worship because we’re just not there personally. But our worship of God this is not some sort of happy-clappy empty-headed praise that ignores the very real pain and suffering we may experience in life. The worship that we offer is deeply profound, to the one who created us, experienced what it is to be human, AND continues to be with us in our own lives.
When we participate in worship, our role is not a passive receiving of some rules for living or points of sentimentality to make us feel better about ourselves. Our worship is where we come into the presence of the living God, in the company of the saints around the throne. With God as the audience to our worship, God is there to hear everything that we have to offer, including the burdens, trials, and sorrows that we bear. In some sense, when we raise our voices together in worship, we become part of that celestial gathering of the saints around the throne. In that way, we are also singing alongside those who have died… and the empty pew beside us for a brief moment is no longer empty, for we are joining with them in this act of heavenly worship. The burdens that we carry, become lighter, because we find ourselves sharing that load with others. It is a reminder that in our worship, God is here with us to share in all our joys, in all our sorrow, in all our yesterdays, all our tomorrows… and most of all with us here today in this very moment. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last.” –It is never more real when we gather in worship with the saints.