Open the Gates of Glory

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: All Saints
November 1, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Psalm 24 invites us to join the processional through God's holy gates into the living temple. The call and response of the psalm invites us not only to witness, but to take part in the glory of the Lord. We don't need to pack a suitcase.

We all know the saying, "You can't take it with you." Well, there's an old story about an extremely rich man who was a believer in Jesus Christ and loved the Lord, but lamented that when he died he'd be leaving the fruits of his labors behind. But then, one night while he slept, he dreamed the heavens opened, a light filled the dark room, and a voice spoke, saying, "My son, you have served me well and faithfully. I am making an exception in your case. When it is time for you to climb that holy hill, you may bring one suitcase with you."

When the man awoke, he rejoiced. He filled a suitcase with gold bricks and left it beside his bed. One night, as he slept, he let go of the bonds of this earth, rose and found himself at the foot of a great mountain, surrounded by pilgrims, singing hymns and climbing towards the summit. At his side was his suitcase. With two hands he tugged. He discovered it was no joke to drag a suitcase full of gold bricks uphill. He had no breath for hymns, no energy for joy, nothing but his determination to drag that suitcase up to heaven. It seemed to take an age for him to climb, but at last, he made it. At the pearly gates he was greeted by the angel Gabriel, who looked a little surprised, and asked, "What've you got there?"

"A voice from heaven told me I could bring a suitcase with me when I died."

Gabriel shrugged. It was a new one on him. "Well, that's a first. Open it up. I'm curious to see what you brought."

His hands trembling from exhaustion, the man struggled with the suitcase, which then broke apart. Gold bricks fell in all directions. The Angel Gabriel looked just a little puzzled. "Why would anybody want to bring pavement?" he asked.

Not what. Who?

I guess we'll assume it's true that you can't take it with you, but today, on All Saints Day, we're more interested not in what you can take, but who is going with you, to the heavenly city. We'll look for a few hints about that in Psalm 24.

I don't think chapters of the Bible get inferiority complexes or compare themselves to others, but if any did it might well be Psalm 24. It follows two very impressive psalms: Psalm 22, the staggering psalm quoted by Jesus from the cross with its opening cry, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"1 and the ever-popular Psalm 23, with its declaration, "The LORD is my Shepherd."2 Nonetheless, psalm 24 holds up pretty well on its own.

Within the 10 verses of the whole psalm are three major themes: God's victory as creator, our pilgrimage to God's holy mountain and the celebration of God as king. Identified as "A psalm of David," it settles a major question right at start. God not only reigns over the earth; God controls the universe. The psalmist takes the names of two ancient gods, Yam and Nakhim - translated as "seas" and "rivers" in several English translations, as well as similar words like "oceans," "floods," "waters," etc. in others - and makes it clear that these two lowering gods of chaos, always threatening order in the other ancient religions, are under control. This is God's universe. When we are in God's house, God's universe, we are in a secure place where God reigns. This is what we strive to do here in this place where we worship - create a sanctuary of safety, where we are secure against the chaos of the idols of our age: the 24-hour news cycle, the torrent of advertising, the demands to conform to the age rather than to God's vision of the world.

The second part of this psalm, verses 3-6, may have been recited by pilgrims who were traveling to Jerusalem, who after their long journey could see in the distance Mount Zion, crowned by the temple. It's a call and response, with the leader calling:

Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in his holy place?

So this question is asked - and we can imagine not only how it might have been received over 2,500 years ago, but how it is now and forever, as pilgrim saints ascend God's holy hill and see for themselves what we can only imagine, those gates that lead to God's eternal kingdom.

And how will these pilgrims respond to the questions asked of them? No doubt as they did all those centuries ago:

Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
and do not swear deceitfully.

Perhaps some will object that this response sounds like the worshipers are offering their behavior as proof of their faith, but in the biblical way of thinking, saying and doing are connected. We cannot say we have faith in Jesus Christ without acting in a manner consistent with our statement of belief.

The original Hebrew of this passage is always richer than our English translations. The word translated as "souls" is related to the Hebrew word nefesh , which means our identity, who we are at our core. The Hebrew means literally "I have not carried my being in a lie." In other words, we are not professing one thing outwardly and living another life inwardly. Those we celebrate on All Saints Day are truly the people of God. And what are they carrying with them at the end of the pilgrim journey? Not the gold bricks we laughed about in today's opening story. No, they carry, as the Hebrew says, "blessing from the LORD."

And who are we? Those referred in verse 6 as "the company of those who seek him," are actually "the generation." This is in stark contrast to the generation of grumblers who witnessed miracles and wonders in Egypt and in the wilderness, but who in the end never saw the promised land. We are part of the eternal generation of those who seek the Lord.

Over 50 years ago Bob Dylan wrote a little song called "I Shall Be Free No. 10" in which he sings:

Well, I don't know, but I been told
The streets of heaven are lined with gold
I ask you how things could get much worse
If the Russians should happen to get there first.
Wowee. Pretty scary.

But this generation of the redeemed includes, as we are assured in Revelation, people of every nation, language, tribe and tongue.3 It is not a chummy, private club of select family and friends. Enemies are reconciled, strangers are introduced and we recognize those who have had a part in our lives who we never knew, people who prayed for us without knowing us and whose actions half a world away helped turn our lives around.

That's reflected in the use of the name "Jacob" in this psalm, the one who wrestled with God.4 It reminds us we have a shared history, one with twists and turns, mistakes, outright sins, but ultimately, having wrestled with God and the Word of God, we have come through wounded, but still traveling toward the goal.

Open the gates

And now, finally, with the redeemed, we reach the gates we have only dreamed about. The King of Glory has come, at the head of armies, celestial and terrestrial: stars arranged across the heavens, angels beyond number and the redeemed - myriads upon myriads. The gates themselves are addressed, as the king approaches, and once more there is call and response. Twice we hear: "Who is the King of glory?" and twice comes the answer: "The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle."

So mighty is this King that when confronted with the massed armies of those who oppose heaven at Megiddo, sometimes called Armageddon, a voice says one word in Greek: ginomai, which means, "It is done,"5 and it is done. God triumphs.

What we must not forget is that when God triumphs, we are present. We participate with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords in this great processional, this display of God's glorious will. The call and response reminds us we have something to say and something to do. We are a part of it all.

This latter part of the psalm may well have been recited as God's people brought God's throne, the Ark of the Covenant, into the temple upon its return from battle. However, this psalm continued to be recited long after both the first and second temples were no more because it was recognized that God's eternal kingdom is all around us, and also yet to be.

Streets of gold

Now literally, we don't know what exactly awaits us - whether we climb a hill as our hearts are lifted, approaching what we've dreamed of, or if we're simply and suddenly there. But the image of a climb up a holy hill is appealing because for some of us, that is what our life is like - a struggle, an effort, with setbacks and little victories along the way, but always upward, always striving towards the goal. In Dante's immortal poem, the Divine Comedy, he talks about climbing the mountain of purgatory. At first, every step is difficult, but as he sets aside his worldly desires, and focuses his heart and soul upon God, he finds at last that he no longer has to climb. He rises into the air into the heavens.

As we close, let us remember that the Hebrew word translated as glory, khavod, also means weight and substance. This is not some light and airy heaven with a fanciful, insubstantial-as-clouds abode. This is the true reality, something with more depth and substance than we have ever experienced. This psalm of call and response grants us only a glimpse of the reality that is going on all around us. Rather than speak of our saints, on All Saints Day, as having fallen asleep, we should recognize we are the sleepers, we are the dreamers. We abide in this tissue-thin life, convincing ourselves this is what reality is like, whereas there is the true place, the holy place, where, when everything else passes away, we will abide in the love of God, forever.


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