Monday, January 20, 2014

SERMON: "The City of the Faithful"

The City of the Faithful
Revelations 21:9-11, 22-27

I don't think I'd shock too many of you if I started this sermon/reflection on a portion of the book of Revelation with the observation that many regard it as a very strange book. It's content is way different than anything we have in any other book of the New Testament. Some also consider it difficult to understand.

Now, it’s had its share of admirers through the years. There have been some who have thrived on its mysteriousness and come up with elaborate theories/ideas about what it means – who it is about. I like to think of it this way: It has at times been a playground for religious eccentrics.

Some, the great reformer Martin Luther among them, have suggested that it ought to be thrown out of the New Testament! Many bible scholars today believe that much of the misuse and interpretative abuse of the book and questions about its content could be eliminated if we would spend our time obtaining knowledge/information about what was going on in the church at the time the book was written. Their position/argument is that we should quit trying to make its mysterious nature speak to world issues/conflict/government entities of our era.

So, a little review seems in order. By the time in history when the book of Revelations was written two models of ministry had developed in the church. One model was that of the local religious leader – elders, deacons, teachers – persons who settled into one church and one community.

The other group was made up of prophets – a group of persons who committed their lives to listening to God and speaking for God. They sort of wandered around sharing what they perceived God to be saying. John, the credited author of the book referred to himself as a prophet.

Now, John lived among the people in the seven churches around Asia Minor and it was to them that he wrote. He was probably a Palestinian Jew who had come to Asia Minor late in his life. His writings suggest that he wrote in Greek but thought in Hebrew. He knew his Old Testament intimately. He was a student of the contemporary Jewish writings called the Apocalyptic books. He had no “official” position in the church. He was not a self-proclaimed apostle like Paul. His authority rested solely on his visions – his prophecy. He wrote around 90 A.D.

The situation that had developed was this: it had been decreed that Caesar had to be called God by everyone. Not to do so was to invite being put to death.

Christians faced a real dilemma. They had no influence, no power, and no prestige. They faced having to make an absolute choice of loyalty – Christ or Caesar – and of their destiny – life or death. John wrote to encourage the people in the midst of their struggle. He did not shut his eyes to the mounting time of terror. He saw the dreadful things that lay ahead for he and his fellow followers in his day. But, he also saw beyond the days of strife, turmoil, and/or difficulty to a day of glory for those who would remain faithful.

And so, to his friends in the seven churches, John wrote about his visions – the awarenesses – that came to him in his contemplations. He wrote about heaven – about hell - about eternity – the afterlife – the New Jerusalem – the City of the Faithful – the home for saints. His purpose was to encourage them – the believers – instill in them hope – provide them comfort. His intention was not to scare people into becoming believers as some in more recent days have tried to do with his work, but provide believers with hope.

In the portion of the chapter which we are considering today John was trying to paint a picture of what eternal life in Christ would be like. The central image he used was that of a city – the New Jerusalem – as beautiful as a bride adorned for her husband. Its glory he likened to a precious stone – a jasper stone. The imagery he went on to use some commentators believe means a city that is open to all kinds of people. In the New Jerusalem there will be no male or female, no rich or poor, no background check, no talent test, no denominational loyalty litmus test – only a home for all people who have named the name of Jesus as their savior.

Again, John said that this New Jerusalem is a holy city. By that, he is not referring to piety or moral correctness, but to a lifestyle oriented toward the doing of the will of God as we can best understand it. The holiness that God expects of us as Christians is more than a list of pious acts or proper behaviors. Holiness is more than simply adhering to a set of rights and wrongs or to a specific moral and ethical code. It means being different, taking risks in faith, and not being bound by what is popular or expedient. It means living out the law of love as Jesus taught, struggling with the moral, ethical, and spiritual dilemmas of life, and entering into the pain and suffering of other people, even those we see as residing outside the walls of God’s holy city. It is in those struggles of the heart and empathizing with other people that we experience the unfolding of God’s kingdom even in our day.

One time I reflected on this text, the city of the faithful imagery, near Halloween and All-Saints Day. The two holidays are really halves of the same historical festival/celebration occasion. Now, there are some well meaning Christians who have come to believe that Christians ought not to celebrate Halloween because it is devil worship. They believe the holiday represents all that is wrong with our culture – with our schools – with our children – even with humanity itself. They identify the celebration as another example of something they fear taking over our society. Their paranoia translates Halloween into a sort of “celebration” of witches, goblins, devils, vampires and ghosts.

While I would not want to deny that there are some terribly misguided – even sick – individuals in our world who are espousing a satanic religion – a worshipping of the devil – my sense of Halloween is not their holiday.  Halloween is simply a holiday that happens on the eve before our holy day and in fact existed prior to our holy day and helped birth All-Saints Day.

The truth of the matter is that this is another one of those occasions when well-meaning ancestors of the faith saw something going on in society – adopted it as an opportunity to express something about the faith – and then attacked society for inappropriately celebrating it. Another short history lesson might be in order here.

History informs us that the Druids celebrated the beginning of their new year, November 1st, by offering a variety of bonfires with animal and vegetable sacrifices. They also shared prayers for those who had died during the previous year. The event was called the Festival of Samhain. They believed that the souls of their departed friends and relatives spent New Year’s Eve (October 31) being judged as to what form they should take for the next year. They believed that good souls entered another human body at birth and bad souls entered animal bodies. November 1st was the traveling day – the day when souls went to their new homes.

Christian missionaries saw in this festival an opportunity to teach some things about the Christian faith.  They began to infuse it with Christian meanings and understandings.  This pagan celebration became “All-Saints Day” or “All-Hallows’ Day.”  Church members – the saints of the church – who had died during the previous year were recognized like we are going to do in a few moments.

But, as we’ve learned from other of our attempts at such takeovers, it’s hard to keep good pagan traditions down. There finally came a time when the pagan celebration – its meaning and symbols newly enriched by these layers of Christian theology – simply shifted the time the rite of passage of the soul took place and All-Hallow Eve was born - Halloween. The events that used to transpire on New Year’s Day, November 1st, now took place on New Year’s Eve – All-Hallows Eve, October 31st.

Halloween is a time for us to let out all of our dormant fears – the fears we spend the rest of the year trying to suppress – the fears about death – the fears about those things that go bump in the night – the fears of the unknown lurking around in the darkness. Halloween is a time for us to acknowledge in fact that we have fears. It is a time for us to admit to ourselves the fears we have about the world. It is especially a time to confess our fears about God and our understanding of God’s anger at us for our sins. In some ways it is a holiday to remind us of the wrath we have earned for our sins.

On Halloween – on All-Hallows Eve – on the evening before All-Saints Day – we remind ourselves of what we deserve. We do so by some rather strange carryings on that we perhaps don’t even recognize our reasons for doing – disguising ourselves in costumes, welcoming strangers to our doors with “treats,” keeping special Jack-O-Lantern vigil lights, hiding behind masks at parties.  On Halloween we remind ourselves of what we deserve. But, on the next day – on All-Saints Day - we celebrate our receiving not what we deserve but God’s gift of eternal life. We celebrate the victory we have over death and the deathlike fears life sends our way. We remind ourselves of what we believe is on the other side of death – the New Jerusalem – the City of the Faithful – and we specifically celebrate the joy we know is our loved ones who have gone on before us.

Just a few more reflections about All-Saints Day. It is a holiday when we remember those who are paving the way for us – who are already a part of the heavenly kingdom – who have already received their reward for their faithful living. All-Saints Day is when we express our joy for the relationship we have to the eternal city – the City of the Faithful – because of the cloud of witnesses who surround us with the memories of their faithful living. All-Saints Day is when we celebrate the life our friends in the faith – the saints – lived among us and now enjoy in heaven.

In many churches All-Saints Day is when the list is read of those who have died in the past year. In those moments, we feel a sense of loss. But, the biblical faith teaches us that as the church’s numbers are growing so is the strength we have to draw upon. As each name is called out, we remember that the “cloud of witnesses” which surrounds us is growing - that there are more people preparing the way for us and cheering us on as we continue our journeys through this life.

The ancient Celtic festival of the Druids referred to earlier supposedly included a tradition that still speaks to us about the power a cloud of witnesses may project into our lives. According to legend, as each family went to the communal bonfire on the eve of Samhain, they brought with them the final coal from each of their own hearths. Combining these coals, they would start a huge warming watch-fire. At the conclusion of the night, after spending the evening telling stories about the ones who had passed away during the previous year, the participants would allow the bonfire to slowly die down.

Finally, all that would be left were a few glowing coals. Each family would gather one of those embers and carefully nurture its warmth until they once again reached their home hearth. There, that single coal from the community bonfire would be used to restart the family peat fire as the new year slowly dawned. It was a new day, a new winter, but it would be warmed by the memories of loved ones long past.

So it is with All-Saints Day – Hallows’ Eve is once again defeated. On All-Saints Day we warm our lives with the memories of the saints who have gone before us and shown us the way.

(I reach the end of the rewriting of this sermon aware that there are no footnotes for anything above. I'm fairly sure much of the ancient Halloween information contained is not personal knowledge of mine! If you're adventurous, have fun researching for yourself.)

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