Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day, the day in the church calendar during which we honor the Saints who have gone before us, like the many dearly loved people on our own prayer list this morning. All Saints’ Day also reminds us that we are part of that collective body of Saints that belongs not just to this world, but to another, spiritual realm, as well. We are people of two worlds and torn loyalty. Those Saints who have gone before us are now fully in that other world, but we are left here, both longing for and dreading the transition to the next world. We wonder what that world will be like? Will we be reunited with our friends? Will we remember any of our history? Will we still be ourselves?
I went through a period of my life-way back in my mid to late twenties-where I liked to read television spoilers on the Internet. Spoilers are little tidbits about future episodes of television shows that are dug up by entertainment reporters. I began hunting for spoilers when I was watching a lot of J.J. Abrams’ shows like Alias and Lost. His shows can be very tense and scary and I just could not wait a week to find out if my favorite character would escape the cliffhanger ending of the last episode. Spoilers don’t tell you everything about the future plot of your show-they just give you the teensiest glimpse of the future.
On this All Saints’ Day, we too are invited to catch just a glimpse of what our future may hold, through the “spoiler” of the book of Revelation.
One of our readings today comes from the book of Revelation. I think it is fair to argue that no book of the Bible is more confusing and difficult to understand than Revelation. There are as many ways to interpret Revelation as there are biblical scholars. You can read it as a lens to a particular time in history. You can read Revelation as a prediction of what the end of time will be like. You can read Revelation as a metaphor for the spiritual realm. As I was preparing for this sermon, I had to chuckle when the New Interpreters Bible informed me that the Church of England would not even include all of Revelation in the Daily Office. Leave it to us Anglicans to just wash our hands of the really weird stuff!
Even though it is confusing, Revelation is still worth our effort. There are no clear descriptions of heaven in the Bible, but the snippet of Revelation we have in today’s reading comes close. And this vision of life with God is glorious.
As one might expect, God is at the center of this vision, in the person of the Lamb, which is an image often used to describe Jesus. In addition to being worshiped by angels, the Lamb is being worshiped by people of every tribe and language. This is the first really beautiful and hopeful image of the passage. In this world of John’s vision, the Saints are no longer divided by their external differences. In our normal state, humans love to divide ourselves into little subgroups, and religious people are the worst at this! When talking about a particularly self-righteous person, my mother used to say, “Well, I think HE’LL be surprised by who is next to him in heaven!” The image of people from every people-group worshipping God reminds us that God’s love transcends every boundary we put up between us.
These people are all in robes of white, symbolizing their cleansed souls, who have been redeemed by God. Wonderfully, the angel explains to John, that this Lamb is shepherding and sheltering these people-making sure they do not go hungry or thirsty or even get too hot! And most beautiful of all, the angel promises that God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Life with God will be peaceful, and relational and joyful. We don’t know much else.
This passage from Revelation does not tell us everything about the next world-we are just teased with enough spoilers to keep us encouraged. After all, if we knew the whole story, where would the fun be?
Eventually, I stopped reading spoilers for television shows online, because I found I was no longer excited by the shows I was watching. Knowing what happened ruined the fun of being fully present with the characters and the drama of their lives.
Saints are saints not because they spend all their time daydreaming about what the afterlife with God will be like. Saints are saints because they-and we-are focused on loving and serving God right in the here and now. If we knew too much about what heaven was going to be like, we might be tempted to spend our lives just waiting to get there, rather than being fully engaged in our present.
But we are welcomed to be encouraged by the good news of an afterlife with God and our loved ones who have gone before us. Following God is not easy. Following God requires discipline and personal sacrifice. If you are feeling discouraged, it’s perfectly all right to take a sneak peek at the back of the book and remind yourself that in the end, God wins, we are redeemed by Christ and go on to spend eternity with him in joy.