Today is All Saints’ Sunday, a day on which we remember and give thanks to God
for the members of our congregation who have died in the past year.
We remember and give thanks today for all those family members and friends
who have gone before us, who have run their race and now rest from their labors.
They have passed through that strange door of death to what lies beyond –
beyond our understanding, beyond our imagination, beyond any earthly explanation.
Our text for today comes from the fourth chapter of Revelation,
which offers a portion of John’s vision of what lies beyond.
Before we read today’s text, it may be helpful to address John’s circumstances
as he received this vision, as well as some of his signs and symbols.
John was exiled, late in the first century, on the island of Patmos in the Mediterranean.
He had been jailed by a Roman court due to his Christian belief and witness.
At the time of his visions, we can imagine John being held prisoner in a dark and dank cave,
with very little in the way of physical comforts. He was likely cold and hungry,
and in constant danger of persecution. And he may have been very much alone.
It is often in such circumstances that human thoughts are lifted to what lies beyond,
beyond the strange door of death. There were likely many days in John’s imprisonment
on which he yearned to move beyond that door,
yearned for the trials and tribulations of this life to cease.
Seeing little hope left in this life, human thoughts often turn to the life that is yet to come.
In the midst of distress, John was given a gift, a gift that would later be shared with the Church.
His gift was this vision – a vision of a glorious scene in heaven beyond the open door.
John’s vision was glorious, recalling the vision of Isaiah in the temple,
when Isaiah saw the hem of the Lord’s robe fill the entire sanctuary, and he cried out:
“Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.”
And then, after purification, Isaiah cries out: “Here I am! Send me!” (Isaiah 6)
John’s vision also recalls Ezekiel 10, a strange vision of heaven during the time of exile.
Ezekiel’s vision includes four living creatures whose faces are described once again
in this 4th chapter of Revelation.
These elements of John’s vision are worth some reflection,
though we dare not become so caught up in the details of the vision that we miss its glory and splendor.
Far too many have spent hours parsing the signs and translating the symbols
without participating in the worship that is intended.
The central aspect of the vision is worship of the One seated on the throne – the Lord God Almighty –
described by John with a vague reference to precious jewels,
because there is no description that would do justice to what John experienced.
The rainbow around God’s throne is viewed as a sign of promise and hope for human beings.
The 24 elders in white robes who cast their golden crowns before God
likely hearken back to I Chronicles 24, when David divides the tribe of Levi into 24 divisions,
ensuring that there will be available priests for the all the people of the nation of Israel.
The flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, coming from the throne,
most likely represent the powerful judgment of God.
As a mighty storm will bring humility to the most prideful of human beings,
so the powerful presence of Almighty God immediately humbles those who stand in God’s presence.
The 7 lamps of fire burning before the throne represent the 7 spirits of God.
The exact meaning is of the number 7 is uncertain,
but likely refers to the perfection of God’s spirit as well as the attributes attributed to the Spirit’s work.
The four living creatures in John’s vision have all-seeing eyes
and the creatures continually sing hymns of praise to God.
They sing “Holy, holy, holy!” and offer God glory, honor, and thanks.
Their faces represent the lion of strength, the ox of service, the man of intelligence,
and the eagle of high spiritual flight. (Julian Price Love, The Revelation to John, p. 64)
Notice that the text begins, “After this I looked…”
After this, which was the seven letters which were read to the seven churches,
letters which proclaim both commendation and harsh judgment to the Church,
letters which make it clear that salvation is from God alone. Then a voice beckons to John:
Come up here and I will show you what must take place after this…
Hear the Word of God from Revelation 4:1-11
After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.
Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”
And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,
“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
In reading Revelation, the Church has always had a bit of a challenge with its interpretation.
Fundamentalists, in particular, have had quite a bit of a challenge with Revelation,
especially when they happen upon specific numbers,
like the three times that the number 144,000 is mentioned.
A Fundamentalist is someone who believes in a very rigid and literal view of Holy Scripture.
For a Jewish person, familiar with symbol, 12 x 1000 x 12 equals 144,000 –
a very full and very complete number, symbolic of the breadth and length of God’s grace,
and recalling the 12 tribes of Israel.
But for a Fundamentalist, specific numbers like 144,000 will represent not symbol but precision,
a precise limit on how many God will save,
or how many God will appoint to some special service in heaven.
Such literalism requires unnecessary limits upon God’s mercy,
particularly when there are some 7.4 billion people who live on earth today.
You may have heard the now dated joke about three Christians who approach the pearly gates.
One of them is a Presbyterian, the other a Methodist, and the third a Lutheran.
As they are welcomed by St Peter and enter the glorious realm, they are surrounded by an angelic host,
and they stand in awe and wonder, amazed by what they see.
But, on their right, they notice a large wall over which no one can see.
There is a loud noise emanating from behind the wall, as if there are many souls rejoicing.
So they ask St Peter, what’s the deal with the wall? Who’s back there?
St Peter replies: Oh, that’s the Southern Baptists; they don’t think anyone else is up here.
Human beings tend to joke about things that can make us uncomfortable.
Perhaps that is why we sometimes joke about St Peter and the pearly gates.
Perhaps that why Halloween decorations for children include deathly creatures and gravestones.
The door of death is strange, mysterious, and powerful.
Holy Scripture calls death the “great and final enemy” of humanity.
On most days, we do not want to think about the door of death.
Many will refuse even to look at it, much less to talk about it.
But we all have to go through that door at some point.
We all must face our own mortality.
Though the manner in which we will pass through that door is of some interest to us,
what ultimately matters most is what lies beyond the door of death.
What we believe about death forms the basis of what we do. How we live flows from our theology.
Paul, in his letter to the church in Philippi, writes from his prison cell,
“For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain!
If I am to live in the flesh,” Paul writes, “that means fruitful labor for me;
but I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two:
my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better;
but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” (Philippians 1)
What we believe about what lies beyond the door of death has everything to do with how we live today.
Paul believed that beyond that door was the joy and blessing of dwelling with Jesus Christ,
and he longed for the day when he would receive that blessing.
His confidence in what was yet to come gave him great courage in his earthly life,
and enabled him to endure beatings, imprisonments and great anxiety about fledgling churches.
In John’s vision, what he sees in his ecstatic view, in the midst of his distress, beyond the door is worship!
What would take place after the many trials and tribulations of his imprisonment would be worship!
This is not worship as in some overly long sermon from a preacher in a black robe
talking too much about strange biblical symbols.
This view of worship is a spectacular, music-filled audience before the throne of God!
This God is awesome and glorious, worthy of praise;
all in God’s presence cannot help but cry out “Holy! Holy! Holy!”
“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
Though our worship from week to week may not carry the same sense of awe and wonder,
when we gather to sing praise to God, we can experience at least a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom.
When we worship God, our attention is turned to the One who created all things,
and we can begin to view our current life a little differently.
When we hear heavenly strains from the choir and the organ,
we may begin to see this current day through the lens of life eternal.
When our attention is upon God, we learn to judge our current circumstances, no matter how difficult,
not as the definition of who we are or of our potential,
but as that which we can endure, even with joy, because our hope is based not in the present,
but on where we are going, and to whom we are going.
In I Corinthians 15:19, Paul writes:
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
My grandfather died some years before my grandmother.
Pop was a very attentive person and he took great care of his wife, my grandmother.
His workshop in his old garage was enthralling to me as a young boy.
The smell of sawdust, the presence of sharp and dangerous tools,
the variety of pieces of wood, some smoothed to perfection by rough sandpaper.
Pop could fix most anything and enjoyed building simple furniture.
He was, in many respects, very earthly bound.
He loved the smell of cut grass, and the feel of garden dirt in his hands,
and especially the laughter evoked by a unexpected prank.
But Pop was also a man of deep faith. Mostly self-educated, he read and studied Holy Scripture.
He was a faithful Presbyterian elder, a regular worshipper, an advisor and teacher of the young.
Pop died of heart disease in his early 70’s, just a few years before bypass surgery became standard.
Nearly twenty years later, in her early 90’s, Grandma contracted cancer, and her time had come.
On her death bed, Grandma Speed was offered a vision.
She envisioned her beloved husband coming to her bedside, and beckoning to her.
“Mary,” he said, “this house is condemned; it is now time for you to go, to leave this house behind.”
The house of her body was no longer fit for earthly living, and it was time for her to leave.
Within hours, my grandmother passed through the open door into the life we cannot yet see or imagine.
It was almost as if my grandfather had said to my grandmother,
“Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”
The open door is a powerful image.
It is our trust and hope that the door of heaven will always be open to us.
It is our trust and hope that as we hold open the doors of this church to the world,
that all may come to know the joy and confidence of divine worship,
that all may be enabled to view this life and its challenges through the lens of life eternal.
By the grace of God, as we worship together, may we all become “visionaries”.
May we all become those who not only see the present, but also have insight into the “not yet”.
May we all hear the Spirit, who is still speaking to the Church today.
Though what we hear or see may be very different from the strange images and symbols in Revelation,
nevertheless God’s word of hope, based in the story of Jesus, is still being offered to us.
May God bless our reading, and our hearing, of God’s Holy Word.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
November 5, 2017