Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Revelation 7 -- The Lives of Saints

Grace and Peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come,
       All Saints’ Day gives us a chance to do something a bit unusual – we dip into the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, which wraps up a story that began in Genesis. You’ll remember that in the 3rd chapter of Genesis, Adam and Eve fell from grace and were cast out of the Garden of Eden. Not only that, they passed on the guilt of their sin to every succeeding generation, so that even God’s chosen people had their share of bad moments as well as good ones. Christ came to earth centuries after the Fall and gave his life as a payment for sin. He rescued all believes from the clutches of the serpent and from bondage to sin. The Book of Revelation foretells the final outcome of Jesus’ work. A multitude of people from all over the earth will sing God’s praises in heaven. Although evil is powerful, God is even more powerful, and Revelation looks ahead to his triumph over everything bad and hurtful and worrisome, including death itself. The last book of the Bible has quite a few dramatic moments, but its main point is the victory of God. So the Bible has a happy ending. It begins with Creation and the Fall and ends with rejoicing in heaven, through the grace of God in Christ.
       This victory will take place through the church. This morning’s reading from Revelation shows the church in two phases – the church on earth and the church in heaven. The earthly church exists in the middle of the trouble and turmoil of the world; the church in heaven will praise God in endless rejoicing. God protects the earthly church so that there will be a loud and joyful chorus in the heavenly church. As John the evangelist wrote, in heaven there will be no hunger or thirst or penetrating heat. Jesus will lead his people to springs of living water; he will wipe away every tear. All evils will pass away.
       Now, in order to appreciate the happy ending that God is preparing, we celebrate All Saints’ Day once a year, and also take a moment to define the word “saint”. When people speak of “saint” in every day conversation, they sometimes do so in a mocking way. According to popular definition, a saint is a superior person who lives a rigorous life and performs wonderful deeds for God day after day, someone who hardly ever commits a sin. But the Lord has another understanding of sainthood. A saint is a person who is aware of his or her capacity for sin, who accepts God’s pardon through the death of Christ, and welcomes his guidance. A saint is a person whom God is gradually changing so as to become more and more like Christ – in virtue and godliness of life. A saint holds onto the Lord by faith no matter what trials he or she may be passing through. In other words, you and I are saints, even though the word might embarrass us because of the uses to which it’s put in daily life; we are saints because of our faith in Christ. The Lord sees us as saints; he looks on us as his chosen people; he sees us as brothers and sisters of Christ. All because of our trust in our Lord. He includes us in the long line of saints that has existed since biblical times. He has a high opinion of us. We are his constant delight. As someone once said to me, we are twinkles in the eye of eternity.
       Now, the Lord wants to keep it that way, and so he brings us and all his other saints into his church on earth where he can protect us and feed us and watch out for us.
You probably know that John wrote Revelation during a time when the church suffered heavy persecutions. Many Christians feared that they would crumble under the pressure the Roman government placed on them. John reassures his readers that God protects his church. He keeps faith alive in the hearts of his people. He puts a seal on their foreheads – a brand, a special mark – that only he can see. This invisible seal identifies them in God’s eyes as one of his chosen people. What a terrific reassurance. Even on bad days when nothing went right and they felt like closing in on themselves, the Lord still saw the early Christians as his saints.
       Nothing can prevent him from completing the work of bringing saints into his kingdom – not wars or plagues or the forces of nature can keep him from drawing saints into his church and keeping us there. To take a present-day example, we know there has been a resurgence of faith in areas where the former Soviet communists held sway. I came upon these words of a 21 year old Russian: “I believe in God now. Lenin and Marx said there wasn’t a God...but I thought, that can’t be. It’s too primitive to look at humans as pieces of fat and molecules. A person can’t live if he or she doesn’t have a soul.” What a powerful witness! It’s happening all over the world. God draws people to him out of the cesspool of materialism and makes them saints. We should pray that people now turning to God stay in the faith and treasure their place in the Lord’s kingdom.
       Closer to home, we don’t have to look far to find the ills of materialism at work in our own society. We sometimes hear it said that our neighbors are hungry for God, that folks want the guidance and consolation of his Word. That may be so, but the loudest voices they hear urge them to seek comforts and pleasure, to live for status and achievement. Government and the schools, business and the media – all ignore God. Everything is tolerated, it seems, except the good news of salvation in Christ. Society overlooks the golden rule and the Sermon on the Mount, not to speak of the good news of forgiveness and new life in Christ. Outside Christian circles, we don’t hear the message that a day of judgment is coming. And people who don’t hear about sin and wrath never see their need for a Savior.
Even with a spiritual climate like ours, however, the Lord calls people to him and raises up saints, like you and me, who don’t think of ourselves as anything special. He equips us to witness to others about their needs and God’s mercy and love. He calls us to work with his help against the trends of the day. He encourages us to speak the truth in love, even words of reproach, and to reach out to the spiritually hungry with his offer of love and friendship; he urges us to ease aching hearts with the message of the gospel; he invites us to comfort the fearful with his offer of hope.
       In other words, we do Jesus’ work while we have the chance. We point others to the kingdom – whether children or neighbors or people who have fallen away – so that they, too, may live as God’s blessed saints.
       Our lives now are a curious mixture of ups and downs. We have great joys and deep sorrows. Things we look forward to are rarely as fulfilling as we had hoped. We enjoy beautiful things, but moments of beauty never last very long. We turn away after the sunset or when a favorite song is finished only to find that we must go back to our familiar routine. Worse things than that happen to us. What are we to make of this strange mixture, earthly life?
       We bring our concerns to God. His Word tells us that life has a purpose that will be revealed to us in heaven. Meanwhile, painful moments refine us and bring us closer to Jesus in faith. We learn to see the best moments of earthly life, which for Christians are likely to occur at church during worship, as a foretaste of what is to come.
       Ups and downs will end. We will join the multitude of saints in heaven, where there will be no grief or hunger or tears or war. We’ll emerge from our present tribulations, whatever they may be, and we’ll stand before the Lord in white robes of righteousness. If you like conversations, there’ll be plenty to talk about. If you like singing, there will be plenty of music. If you like sports, there will be physical activity. Most of all we’ll be in the presence of Christ. As John wrote, he will feed us and lead us to fountains of living water and he’ll wipe away every tear.
       So – you and I will be included in the happy ending that concludes the Book of Revelation. The ups and downs won’t get the best of us, because God has put his mark on us. He knows exactly where to find us, and in his own good time, he’ll deliver us from every evil. Our task now is to give him thanks and praise as we will do when we reach the church in heaven. In Jesus name. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.

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