The Good News About Death – Saints Can’t Keep From Singing

Steve Lindsley
(Revelation 7:9-17)

This Sunday marks the beginning of a new sermon series that will take us through Christ The King Sunday, the Sunday before Advent.  The title of this series, I imagine, will catch your attention: we’re calling it The Good News About Death.  We don’t do a very good job in our culture of talking about death, we hide it out of public view as much as we can, we try to protect our children and even ourselves from its full impact.

This, despite the fact that at the core of our Christian faith lies a good word about death – that death does not have the final word, that death is not and never will be the most powerful thing in the world.  As followers of Christ, we hold fast to the belief that death is not an ending of life, but a point of transition to a new life beyond death.  That doesn’t make it any easier for us, of course.  But it does give us hope.

So for the next four Sundays, beginning appropriately on this All Saints Day, Grace and I will consider the good news of death for us – and we start with these words from the book of Revelation, chapter 7, verses 9-17.  Listen, friends, to the word of God:

(Revelation 7: 9-17)

PRAYER

Lord God, come to us in the midst of our frazzled lives, come to us in this moment of worship and speak a word to us.  A word we have never heard before; as well as a word we’ve heard countless times and need to keep hearing.  Come to us now, Lord God, and sit with us for a spell.  In Jesus’ name we pray, AMEN.

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I’ve learned over the years of doing this preaching thing that anytime I preach on the book of Revelation, I need to begin with a disclaimer of sorts.  Or maybe more a contextualization.

Because the church, and I’d dare say society in general, has this collective understanding of Revelation that is vastly different from what it actually is.  When we think of Revelation, we think of end times.   We think of the rapture.  We think of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and death and destruction and 666.  And this understanding has tremendous sway over us. 

I’ll never forget the first tank of gas I bought as a brand new driver – the total came to $6.66.  And when I went in to pay, the lady behind the counter was so horrified by what my total rang up to, that she reached into her own purse and pulled out a quarter and practically begged me to go put another 25 cents in the tank.

This is what we think Revelation is about – primarily because it is one of the more confusing books in the Bible.  All this symbolism and imagery that’s foreign to us.  So, as we do with most things we don’t understand, we’re afraid of it.

That’s why I like the way one scholar puts it:

Revelation is ”the product of a visionary’s imagination that demands of its readers….. a readiness to engage it at an imaginative level.  The book is a classic example of art that stimulates rather than prescribes.”[1]

I just like the idea of Revelation as art.  We can’t read Revelation like we read the gospels or Exodus or something like that.  This is not narrative as much as it’s Picasso.  Art that stimulates rather than prescribes.

Along that same line, Revelation is not a book of doom and gloom, as commonly thought – it is, in fact, the exact opposite.  It is a book of hope; hope that God, contrary to the way things appear to be, is active and involved in the world, is in the midst, as we talked about last week, of “doing a new thing.”  “Revelation,” another writer says, “is not a map to the end; it’s a promise to those who feel as if they are already at the end; a promise that a new beginning awaits.”[2]

In our scripture today, that new beginning takes place in not as much a “where” as a “who.”  We have this vivid picture painted for us, art that stimulates.  A vivid picture of a “great multitude, so many that no one could count.”  You can imagine a sea of people extending out from you, extending so far that you cannot see where that sea of people ends.

And it’s not just the numbers that impress us – it’s the fact that every nation is represented.  Every tribe, every language, every color, every orientation.  It is as if the restrictions and constructs we humans so willingly place on ourselves have been flung aside.  This is a massive, diverse group of folks we’re talking about here.

And we are told two things about this massive group.  We are first told that they have suffered at some point in their past.  The NRSV says they have “come out of the great ordeal” – that Greek word, thlipsis, can also mean “tribulation,” “pressure,” “trial,” “affliction.”  That we don’t know exactly what is being referred to in their past seems less important than what we hear they are doing now in response to it:

They are singing.

They worship God day and night in the temple, we are told – this mass of diverse people who have suffered greatly.  They used to hunger – but no more.  They used to thirst – no longer.  They used to suffer under scorching heat – not now.  They used to cry, but now, we are told, God has wiped away every tear from their eyes.

And so they are singing.

The song they sing begins with the word “amen.”  Remember back in the days of the red hymnal, we used to sing “Amen” at the end of every hymn?  Here, they start off with it:

Amen!
Blessing and glory
and wisdom and thanksgiving
and honor and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! 

And they throw in another “amen” at the end for good measure.

Talk about art: can you imagine the sound of all those people singing that?  That multitude, that gathering so large that the human eye could not see an end to it; all that diversity of voices, highs and lows and everything in between, Lord knows how many harmonies and even how many languages, all singing at the top of their lungs?

I read these verses and I cannot help but think of the old 19th century hymn written by Baptist preacher Robert Lowry that goes something like this:

My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentations
I hear the clear, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that Rock I’m clinging
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?  How indeed?  Those who have gone before us, those who know better than we do, the light and the love we only see in passing, in glimpses.  They are singing – not in spite of their great ordeal/tribulation/ affliction/trial, but because of it.  And it’s not just about singing because their suffering is passed.  This isn’t a song of relief; this isn’t, “Thank God’s that’s over!”  This is singing as celebration; singing as testimony to the God who has wiped away every tear from their eyes, who has seen them through their struggle and is with them still:  Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

The saints join in the song – as one commentator puts it – even in the midst of evil, war, social upheaval, famine, luxury and greed, saints cannot keep from singing!  Though sickness unto death, persecution, hurricane, tornado, earthquake, tsunami and state-sanctioned injustice may confront them, saints cannot keep from singing. And why?  Because they are singing the good news.  Living between the Alpha and Omega, the first and last, saints at the throne hear the raucously beautiful good news of God’s final word reaching back into history, back to where they live and breathe and have their being.  By singing, they pay it forward and proclaim it loudly.  They sing for courage to live in the present while always facing the future.  From creation to redemption and beyond, the crowd gathers around the throne in numbers too large to count.  Saints from every nation sing, and God keeps hope alive in our world.[3] 

Did you know in the early church, whenever a member died, those who were living gathered in that place where they had died, or they gathered where they had been laid to rest.  And there, they collectively remembered that person’s faith and the faith.  They did this because they intuitively knew that the faith of the deceased did not come out of nowhere.  It was given to them by those who came before them, and now that faith was being passed on.  It was their greatest inheritance.[4]

Which is exactly what we give thanks for today, on this All Saints Day.  In a minute Grace and I will read the names of Trinity members and family who, in the course of this past year, have died.  It is sad because we do not have their voice among us anymore.  But if Revelation tells us anything, if the gospel of Jesus Christ tells us anything, it is that their voice doesn’t stop when they die.  It’s still here.  And so we lift up their names as the unique and beautiful voice that they were, and that they still are, singing now with the diverse multitudes.  The saints keep singing.

And so do we.  Three hymns every worship service, sometimes more.  Doxology and Gloria Patri and others.  It’s not just us singing them!  They’re singing with us too, those we have loved and still love, those now among the diverse multitudes, those still very much among us.  Never think that when a loved one dies, their voice is gone forever.  No! They sing on, and we join them in the singing.  In fact, we long to sing with the saints, because their song is gorgeous.  Because praise to our death-conquering God always is.  Art that stimulates, wiping away every tear from our eyes.

May we never cease to hear the beautiful song they are singing.  And may we forever long to join them in it.

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] Feasting On The Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 218.
[2] A Preacher’s Guide To Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years, A, B and C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 75.
[3] Feasting On The Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 220.
[4] A Preacher’s Guide To Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years, A, B and C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 76.