All Saints, Morton—Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17
Several years ago, I announced I was going to lead an adult Bible study on the Book of Revelation. We had nearly thirty people sign up, and there were both morning and evening sessions of the class, meeting weekly over a two-and-a-half month period. The following year, when I offered a class on the Epistle to the Philippians, total signups were less than half that number, and the same pattern held steady in subsequent years for Genesis, Acts, the Parables of Jesus, and Ephesians. There’s obviously something about Revelation that excites curiosity and interest. It is mysterious and difficult material, hard to understand. It seems cryptic and full of codes. The Revelation to St John the Divine—or the Apocalypse, at it is alternatively known—Revelation is also subject to widespread misuse and misunderstanding today, particularly from those who see it as primarily a codebook, and when those codes are successfully broken, a vast amount of information about coming events that will bring the end of the world as we know it suddenly becomes available. A small fortune has been made, I’m sure, producing books and movies that purport to dramatize how all this is going to play out.
I’m not going to go down the road of pontificating about who’s right and who’s wrong when it comes to such predictive prophecy as the Book of Revelation may contain. We have a magnificent reading from Revelation today, as we celebrate All Saints’ Day, and I’d like us to get beyond the “codebook” mentality, and begin to consider how this material spoke to the lives of its original readers, the ones St John had in mind as he sat in his lonely cave, in exile on the Isle of Patmos in the Aegean Sea.
In these two excerpts from chapter seven that have been pieced together in our lectionary, we get a glimpse of the splendor of Heavenly worship. The first thing that strikes me—perhaps this reflects my professional prejudice!—the first thing that strikes me is that it’s a huge congregation. St John tells us that it is “a great multitude which no man could number.” Just before that, in a slightly different context, he mentions the number 144,000. In Jewish symbolism, this is a significant number—12 times 12,000—the twelve tribes of Israel each represented in great quantity; it’s a sign of wholeness and completeness and inclusiveness. So it’s not just lots of people, it’s lots of different kinds of people. Indeed, John spells it out: people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues.”
The worship of Heaven is also distinguished by lots of enthusiastic singing! Several times—not only in today’s passage, but in other places—John’s vision tells us of the congregation of millions of worshippers being united in songs of praise to God—the “one seated on the throne”—and to Christ—referred to as “the Lamb.” And the people are not only united in song, they are further united by their shared experience of bearing witness to Christ in the world, outside of formal worship, and under extraordinarily difficult conditions, including torture and death. This is what entitles them to be called “martyrs,” which in the Greek language of the New Testament, means “witness.”
But what most gets my attention in this scene of heavenly liturgy is the sheer glory of it all. There’s a throne, there are angels, there are multitudes vested in white robes and carrying palm branches, and lots of incense! And there is an orderly division of duties, each performing his or her proper role, each exercising a significant ministry—angels, elders, the four “living creatures, “the Lamb,” and the “One seated on the throne.” What a magnificent scene!
Now, none of us were alive in the first and second centuries to observe the Eucharistic worship of the early Church, but there is considerable plausible evidence that the scene St John describes in Revelation—in Chapter Seven and in other places—there is considerable plausible evidence that this material is an amped-up, turbo-charged version of what early Christian liturgy actually looked like, that John was incorporating not only his mysterious vision but some of his actual experience into what he wrote down. What an intriguing thought. I wish I could travel back in time to check it out. The altar, the throne, the elders arrayed on either side of the throne, the incense, and the singing—all these elements are documented features of ancient Christian worship.
Of course, they are all also features of our worship today, of contemporary Christian liturgy. Yet, we cannot help but also be aware of a certain paltriness in our earthly worship, by comparison. For most of our services, there are lots of empty pews, so we don’t often experience what it’s like to worship with a multitude too great to number. Most of the time, we are also pretty homogenous as we gather at the altar, particularly Episcopalians in central Illinois; ethnic diversity is not what we’re known for! We are Americans, and by the standards of the rest of the world, we tend to be pretty affluent Americans at that. And we tend to be better-educated and more socially privileged and politically influential than the general population. And one could hardly say that we are united in song. Such quarrels as we have from time to time are frequently related to the songs we sing, or don’t sing, and some of us just plain … well … don’t sing. And, so often, our liturgy here on earth seems tedious and dull—not too often in Tazewell County Parish, though, I hope!—and even when we seem to get it right, it is but a pale reflection of what we read about in Revelation.
So, what speaks to my heart on this All Saints Day as we celebrate the Eucharist is that the liturgy of the Eucharist itself, no matter what style it’s celebrated in, transports us beyond time and beyond space and into the worship of the whole communion of saints gathered around the heavenly throne. Eucharistic worship takes us out of ourselves, out of the limitations of place and time that so constrict our vision, and raises us to the very courts of Heaven. What a marvelous gift and privilege it is to be able to come here Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day, holy day after holy day, and join our voices to the songs of the saints and angels falling prostrate before the heavenly throne. The very word “eucharist” means “thanksgiving,” and how appropriate—we give thanks through it and we give thanks for it. And we give thanks in spite of the obvious paltriness of what we are able to offer in our liturgy.
Christian faith, we know, is rooted in grace—God’s grace, to be specific. And the thing about grace is that it’s not about us, it’s about God; it’s not about what we do, but about what God does. So corporate worship—our gathering at the Lord’s own table on the Lord’s own day—is not about what we “feel” when we walk out the church door. It’s not about what we “get out of” the sermon, or the music, or the prayers. Sure, it may be easier to “feel” God present in a packed church with rousing singing in a solemn high Mass. But God is no less present at a weekday celebration with half a dozen people who are barely awake, because it’s not about us, it’s about Him. As we come to this altar, my brothers and sisters, we are actually gathering—being gathered would be a more accurate way of putting it—we are actually being gathered around the heavenly altar that we read in the Revelation to St John. We are part of that vast multitude, gathered with the apostles, patriarchs, prophets, and martyrs; with Mary the Mother of our Lord, and John her surrogate son, with all who have confessed the name of Jesus in this world and have been signed with his cross throughout the last 2,000 years, with all the saints—we are being gathered to worship the One seated on the throne and Christ the Lamb who was slain. To God be the glory, unto ages of ages. Amen.