All saints Sunday: November 6, 2005.
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Revelation is a theological Rorschach test for any interpreter or preacher. We know that it has been read in many and various ways and that whatever is said may say more about the speaker than the text.
With this said, we approach the text carefully. These are the vision(s) of John. Because of their dreamlike quality the clock time or calendar time is difficult to establish. Many have seen these as predictions of the far-off future, but are they? John begins by saying that these visions are about "what must soon take place." The messages to the seven churches are surely to be read as directed to the contemporary churches and so are relevant in John's time. Time is allowed for the churches to make correction.
The location of the visions needs to be noted. Chapter 4 begins by noting "there in heaven a door stood open!" So we are in John's time, but in a remote place (heaven) or, in our language, perhaps another dimension. The problems of the churches are not earthly problems alone, they create a stir in heaven. Although Christ (the Lamb) has conquered, the calamities of the earth remain. What heaven can do is noted by the angel's cry, "Do not damage the earth or the sea, or the trees, until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads" (7:3).
John's vision continues with the sight of the "great multitude that no one could count" worshiping God. John creates the scene as a teaching moment. The elder asks the dreamer, "Who are these ...?" John does not know, so the elder explains, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal...." What happens to those who are faithful? Even now they are in heaven before the throne of God where hunger, thirst, sunstroke, and tears are no more.
The door to the present reality of heaven has swung open, and the victory of Christ is made manifest in the worship of the saints. Are these visions really so different from the Old Testament? In 1 Kings 19, after Elijah's victory at Carmel, he flees to Horeb, afraid that he is the last true worshiper of God (19:14). God gives Elijah a mission and tells him that seven thousand have "not bowed to Baal." You are not alone. Although the times are tough, the faithful may look to their reward.
The same message is picked up in 1 John 3:1-3: "Beloved [agapetoi], we are God's children [tekna] now...." Love and its various forms are part of the favorite language of John. The KJV translates tekna as "sons," but here the NRSV is to be preferred with its more accurate "children." Also it should be noted that there is no article before tekna, which emphasizes kind or quality. This idea is continued through the verse, "when he is revealed, we will be like him." It is not only that others note us as "God's children" but that we are really so in what counts, our behavior.
Rhetorically John is using accumulatio, a technique that Arthur Quinn "suggests to me a writhing mass of intertwined eels" (Figures of Speech [Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith, 1982], 65). Each sentence reads like a restatement of the sentence before without a feeling of making progress. These verses are plopped in the middle of a section on deception and falling into sin and are meant to slow us down so that we might momentarily reflect on the message. The issue is not right or wrong but being "God's children" or sinning. These are not opposites but choices of lifestyle.
John summarizes his message at 5:13: "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life." Others will present all kinds of attractive alternatives, but hold on to the love of God that is yours now and in the future.
Are we looking for a Delphic Oracle in the Scriptures, especially in Revelation? We should be careful, because the Delphic Oracle used cryptic answers that often left the inquisitor more confused than helped. Even Christians look for a magical key to understanding the future, hence the popularity of such items as The Bible Code. Why is it so difficult "to put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the water"? Why do we pull away from trusting that God owns the future?
"Baby Born Talking Describes Heaven" is one headline from the Sun, May 21, 1985. "'Life in heaven is grand,' a baby told an astounded obstetrical team seconds after birth. Tiny Naomi Montefusco literally came into the world singing the praises of God's firmament. The miracle so shocked the delivery room team, one nurse ran screaming down the hall" (quoted in Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language [New York: William Morrow, 1994], 262).
So many times the Scriptures do not present a clear answer to our questions. We hold the Bible with its spine on the table, let it fall open, and point out a verse with our finger and expect an answer to our question. We want clear answers. Yet that is not what the Scriptures provide. Once I was asked about onions in heaven. I suppose once you hear "In heaven there is no beer, that's why we drink it here" you cannot help but go through your whole grocery list checking on the heavenly supermarket. The Bible invites us to view the world through eyes other than our own. We are invited to hear other questions than our own and so other answers as well.
The point of the Revelation text is that now in heaven the victory of Christ is being celebrated with people like you and me, who persevered in the midst of trouble. These saints are unknown to us. They may have been people we knew or just passed in the street or lived a thousand miles away.
These are the unknown saints commemorated on the original All Saints Day. November 1. November 2 was All Souls Day. We have collapsed the two days into one celebration. Drawing a contrast between holy heroes and ordinary believers was in some ways detrimental to the church. What was and is important is to be godly.
The typical American Protestant approach is to make every Tom, Dick, and Harry Saint Tom, Saint Dick, and Saint Harry through the act of baptism. This is all very democratic and in its way helpful. John in Revelation wanted all to know that they could be a part of that team no matter who they were now. Yet, John also wanted to challenge them beyond their receiving a rite to living a life reflective of the gospel. Remember John's challenge to the churches at the very beginning of the book.
Is there a place in American Protestantism, with all of its inherent difficulties, to pick up the old meaning of saint as an exemplar of the faith? Is there a place for the distinction between a saint and an "ordinary" believer? Do we still need role models? Or is Christ enough? GH
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|Title Annotation:||Preaching Helps|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2005|
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