Who Can Stand?

Nov 01, 2020

Sermon 11-1-2020
All Saints’ Day
Text: Revelation 7:9-17
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
     It’s All Saints’ Day – November 1 – a significant day to me because if my Mother was living, today would be her 100th birthday. Once All Saints’ Day arrives, I feel as if the journey to the church year’s end, as well as the calendar year’s conclusion, is in accelerated motion. This year we may be glad that is the case, glad to put 2020 behind us.
     Some people think of All Saints’ Day as the Christian Memorial Day; a day for remembering our brothers and sisters in this church family who have entered the church triumphant since our last All Saints’ Day observance, but also a day to remember and give thanks for all the Saints. Who exactly is that?
     One of the many things our buddy Martin Luther discovered in his Biblical quest back in 1517 (or so) was that in the New Testament, the word saint is used to refer only to ALL Christians; in the Bible, it is never used to refer to the best, most virtuous, or most faithful Christians – like St. Mary or St. Peter. So, writes commentator Rolf Jacobson, a saint is not a super Christian. Rather, according to the New Testament, a saint is one who has been “sanctified” by baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
     He writes, “So, what is a saint? A saint is a Christian, and a Christian is a saint – one who has been made holy by Christ. All Christians are saints, and all saints are Christians. At least that is what the New Testament usage of the term implies. Every Christian is a saint. (1)
     Therefore, welcome, all you saints!
     Today’s scripture, assigned for All Saints’ Day, offers two pictures. One is from Jesus’ earthly life, from Matthew 5, in which Jesus teachers his new followers what being a saint will imply, with the challenging words of the Sermon on the Mount. His sermon begins with the “Beatitudes,” which we just heard, a listing of those unexpected saints – including the grieving, the meek, the merciful, and the persecuted – whom God is blessing.
     But then, we turn to a picture of Jesus’ heavenly reign from Revelation 7, on which I want to focus. It is important to remember that the book of Revelation, with its startling imagery, was written to Christians in Asia Minor. Who, at the end of the first century, suffered due to Roman brutality toward the faithful. The text is intended to describe the intensity of their struggle, using symbolic language and images. In other words, it is not meant to be taken literally; but is like a Sci-fi novel with a message to uncover.
     And, writes Dr. Walter Taylor, if we read today’s passage as an isolated unit, much of its meaning is lost. So, we need to go back to Chapter 6, in which the destruction of the faithful reaches such a pitch that all the people hide. The question is posed, facing such wrath, who is able to stand? Then, it is as if there’s a pause so that question can be addressed.
     John, the recorder of this vision, lifts the eyes of God’s people from the difficulties of the present to the glories of the future. He gives a preview of the way things will be. What he sees is a vast international, multi-racial, multi-lingual throng of people so great that no one could count it. (vs. 9)
     I want to stray from the text for a moment to note that in the “Multiethnic Conversations” group, that is occurring in-person and on-line here at Faith, the overarching theme of our discussion is that if we pursue multiethnic interaction in the church, in our community and in our lives, we will be better able to make a positive difference in the world, and particularly overcome the sin of racism and heal the divisions in has created. And here, in this picture of God’s eternal reign, that is the reality…which tells me we are on the right track.
     This is the view of the final future, initiated by Jesus’ return. This great, diverse multitude stands before God’s throne and worships God. God, in turn, will shelter them.  Which means that God will dwell with them. God’s presence will surround them. Quoting the text, “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”
     The beautiful stained-glass window above the organ depicts the Book of Revelation, and in the center is the Lamb, representing Jesus, present here among us. (Once you see it, the image will be there whenever you look up.) Remember that those who first heard these words lived in a world where food was sparse and water sparser, the sun and heat could be life-threatening, so these promises speak volumes. It is the Lamb, Jesus, who is also the Shepherd – he is all in all - who leads, cares for, and comforts them.
     With these words in mind, let’s go back to the question in Chapter 6 as the destruction of the faithful abounds; who is able to stand? The answer? Those whom the Lamb has washed – the early Christians, and us too, because we know, as Dr. Taylor notes, where God is taking us. (2)
     That is the promise for God’s saints – US! With that inspiring picture in mind, let’s go back to our status as saints in the here and now; perhaps you are asking, “How can that be? I recently read that what makes us saints of God is not our ability to be saintly but rather God’s ability to work through sinners.
     Often controversial, but also inspirational, ELCA pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote a book titled Accidental Saints a few years ago; I know I mentioned it previously. In its opening chapter, she reflects on the concept of “spiritual practice” (a regular routine of prayers, devotions, worship) and how it helps us on our saintly journey. Her comments may surprise you. I’ll quote her: “I recently was asked by an earnest young seminarian during a Q&A, ‘Pastor Nadia, what do you do personally be get closer to God?’ Before I even realized what I was saying it, I replied, ‘What? Nothing. Sounds like a horrible idea to me, trying to get closer to God.’ Half the time, I wish God would leave me alone. Getting closer to God might mean getting told to love someone I don’t even like, or to give away even more of my money. It might mean letting some idea or dream that is dear to me get ripped away.”
     Obviously, she’s being sarcastic because she goes on to say that her spirituality (or saintliness) is most active when God has gotten something beautiful done through her, despite herself; or she is confronted by the mercy of the Gospel so much that she can’t hate her enemies; or she ends up being changed by someone she didn’t choose out of a catalog but whom God sent her way to teach her about God’s love. (3)
     That’s the path of sainthood, my friends, God working in us. I’ve decided that being a saint is for the here and now; this is the world in which we live out our being saints. I believe it happens most fully as we worship God, grow in faith and offer hope together. That’s why it is so important that we all again gather as a Christian family. Once it’s safe to do so – in-person … everyone – as diverse as FLC can be in terms of age, race, and cultural background. All Christians are saints, and we need each other to be who we are until that great and glorious day when we’ll stand with that diverse, saintly multitude worshipping God. I look forward to seeing you there!  AMEN
(1) “A Family Reunion of Saints” by Rolf Jacobson, October 25, 2020, www.workingpreacher.org
(2) “Commentary on Revelation 7:9-17” by Walter F. Taylor, Jr., www.workingpreacher.org
(3) “Accidental Saints” by Nadia Bolz-Weber, 2015, Convergent Books, pgs. 8-9