It's What's Happening Now

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: All Saints
November 1, 2020
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Some Christians look to Revelation as a roadmap to the future that only they understand, despite what our Lord has told us about the futility of guessing about the end of the world. But on All Saints Day, we recognize that Revelation is about the present. In this present and eternal now, God's saints are gathered around the throne, encouraging us, interceding for us and celebrating God's triumph with us, as we all strive for the prize by living according to the precepts of the Sermon on the Moun t.

Who's not interested in the future? Not many, and that's understandable. With any luck, lots of us are going to live there, next week, tomorrow and five minutes from now. So when it comes to a pension fund, for instance, or making sure that there are plenty of options for our children and grandchildren when it comes to going to college, it makes sense to focus on the future from time to time.

But sometimes it seems as if we're obsessed about the next episode of a favorite show or how the season will end for our favorite team. The internet is filled with speculation about matters like this. The thing is, no matter what happens, eventually we're going to find out.

Which brings us to the end of the world. We believe that God is in control of history, and despite appearances, at a time of God's own choosing, the will of God will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Our Lord Jesus also assured us of one other thing - no one knows when that will happen, except the Father in heaven.1

Nevertheless, there are plenty of so-called experts who are constantly predicting exactly when all this will happen, and a lot of these predictions are based on the Revelation of St. John the Divine. It seems as if every time we turn around, somebody else claims to have cracked the code and finally understands what it is that the last book of the Bible is supposedly trying to tell us.

The church has always believed that God is speaking to us through Revelation. But what God is telling us about is not the future but the present. In all ages, the church has experienced opposition and persecution, and in all ages, her martyrs were willing to witness in difficult circumstances to the truth of the Gospel. Revelation is written not only to encourage us to endure in times of persecution and trouble, but also to show us there is a deeper reality that is happening right now!

The Eternal right now

Part of that encouragement comes from knowing we're not alone in our troubles. John makes that clear right away. In the first chapter of Revelation we read these words: "I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus"2

What John is saying in not so many words is that he is a prisoner because of his faith, like many Christians of that era. The island of Patmos, off the coast of Asia Minor, was known for its tin mines. For the prisoners, many of whom were Christians persecuted for their faith, it was a hard fate to be sent there. Working in near darkness, in stifling conditions, breathing foul, poisonous air in collapsing tunnels that resulted in crushed limbs if not death, this cruel sentence was rightly known as the damnatio ad metalla ("condemnation to the mines").

It was in these horrifying conditions that the sky was rolled back for John and the heavens were revealed to him. And what he saw was the communion of saints. In vision, John saw his brothers and sisters, his Christian family, the ones who had been burned alive, or torn apart by wild beasts, or crucified, or martyred in whatever fashioned cruelty could devise, alive, well and praising God. All is well! Better than that. All is well forever!

As we look over John's shoulder into heaven, let's remember that neither he nor we are looking into the future. This is happening right now. God's people are vindicated right now. Our shining saints are glorifying God in joy right now. And we are victorious right now.

We all come home

Today's reading from Revelation is divided into two parts. In the first part, John sees 144,000 members of the dispersed tribes of Israel gathered together. There are some Christians who interpret this literally to mean these 144,000 have some special status not accorded to anyone else and that this limited number reigns in heaven. But we should look at the scripture in its original context. For us, thinking in Base 10 is a natural way to understand large numbers. We just add zeroes to a number to make it bigger and bigger. We can manipulate extraordinarily large numbers without having to learn any special mathematics.

But 2,000 years ago, the world of the Bible didn't have access to that wonderful zero. The zero made its way into Europe only 1,000 years ago or so. Without the zero, math was a lot more difficult. That meant a number like twelve, for instance, was a handy number if you were bartering for things in the marketplace. Twelve can be divided by two, three, four and six. Twelve twelves, a gross, is a very handy number because now you can barter larger amounts. And as for a thousand twelve twelves? That's huge! Rather than being a number that limits the membership in God's eternal church, 144,000 is a way of saying "billions and billions" when you don't have a zero to work with! Or, as John says in verse 9 of our reading, "a great multitude that no one could count."

What John sees are all the people who have been scattered like seeds around the world by war, deportation and trauma. Israel was scattered across the various empires after first the northern Hebrew kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria and later the southern Hebrew kingdom of Judea was conquered by Babylon, and many of those deported never came home. This was repeated for the early church when the saints in Jerusalem were scattered throughout the Roman Empire after Stephen's martyrdom. But scattered seeds lead to a great "crop," and what John sees is these saints who were once scattered now being brought back together, gathered before the heavenly throne.

Blessed are those ...

In the next section of the text, we see the saints in numbers so high they were beyond counting, robed in white. John knows these are the martyrs who had been drenched in the blood of their brave witness. They are beyond pain and suffering. They are in bliss now! And there is an important clue about how we can join them.

If we read just a couple of verses beyond today's reading, we see one of the elders praising the Lamb on the throne and saying of the gathered multitude, "They will hunger no more, and thirst no more ..."3 Hunger? Thirst? What do these words remind us of? "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."4

That's right! The Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew. The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness - John shows us they are finally at peace, at rest, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."5

Now you may wonder, how could these Beatitudes, outlined by our Lord in his Sermon on the Mount, get Christians in the kind of trouble that makes them candidates for martyrdom?

And just as important, what about these Beatitudes could get us into hot water today, making us worthy to stand with these saints?

The fact is, if we truly live according to these teachings we should not be surprised if the world hates us!

Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine Sister and a noted author and speaker, illustrated this in a 2019 speech.6 Focusing on the Beatitudes, she said that the Greek word translated as "Blessed," represents the word "Happy," in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. Sister Joan said that the Beatitudes teach us, "Happiness comes from developing eight basic attitudes toward life." But these Beatitudes, she said, require changes in our lives and a recognition of our responsibilities.

Regarding the first Beatitude, she said, "To be poor in spirit in this country today is to truly understand what others need but do not have, and what we have but do not need."

As for those who mourn, she said, "Happiness lies in being human enough to mourn for those who live inhuman lives."

She said that being meek means recognizing that "Each of us is a part of the other, trying to ... live in a way that my living does not destroy yours."

And she scolded her listeners because our nation has been less than merciful in recent years. "The world is not forgetting our fall from grace," she said.

As for John's assurance that the saints will no longer hunger and thirst, she said, "Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness shall be happy and justified." And, she added, "To be happy, to be really personally happy, we must be pure of heart."

And she said, to be peacemakers we must "see the human community as a family for whom we are responsible. You will be happy for standing with the powerless, for defending the oppressed, for supporting the causes of justice, for being true to the humanity of the entire human race."

She concluded, "You are I are responsible for bringing this to pass on the one-foot square of land we occupy. Will we do our part of that process or not? ... Time changes nothing. People do."

Is there anything particularly radical about any of this? The world seems to think so, but to those undergoing persecution, these words of Jesus are the words of life. And since we saw through Revelation that we are under divine protection, with the "angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth,"7 we who are on this side of time and the saints in heaven who are on the other side of time are part of an eternal communion. We, the living, along with the everlasting, look to the future with hope, regardless of what trials or tribulations may lie ahead, because we live in the present with love.