A sermon preached on All Saints’ Sunday, November 3, 2019 by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD. Lectionary readings for the Day: Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 149, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 6:20-26.
Revelation 7:9-10 “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Recently, Brooke and I were able to watch the outstanding documentary entitled They Shall Not Grow Old by Peter Jackson, of Lord of the Rings fame. The documentary focused mostly on British soldiers in the midst of WWI, but was compelling for how it told the story. In his review, Mark Gorman writes,
“Jackson brings us footage from the WW1 front line trenches in a way that you can’t even begin to imagine. First he restored hours of black and white footage to remove grain, scratches, burn marks etc. Then he graded it.Then he fixed all the film sprockets so they don’t jiggle about and blur. Then … he turned it all from a hotch-potch of 10/11/12/14/16 and 17 Frames per second into it all being 24 FPS. This is not insignificant. … How one does that I have no clue. Frankly, neither does Jackson, but he knows people who were up to…deliver on the challenge. So, as Jackson puts it, we don’t see Charlie Chaplinesque war footage. We see dignified film of soldiers in real time as our eye would compute it. This is important because it makes it so real. Then he, frame by frame, colourised the whole lot. Then he put a team of lip readers onto it to work out what the soldiers were saying when they spoke to [the] camera … . Then he recorded both battleground sound effects, by enlisting the NZ army, and the words these soldiers were saying, through actors, and lip synched and background-noised the whole thing.(IMDB.com review)
Reflecting on how this powerful documentary brought these old, clunky videos of WWI to life made me turn and then reflect on the fellowship that we celebrate today– the fellowship all of the saints who have gone before us. More particularly, I want to meditate on two things:
First, if we’re not careful, we can tend to treat those who have gone before us in Christ as if they and their world were not as real as ours. Perhaps they seem kind of distant, like those black and white WWI images we’re used to. But their struggles were just as real as ours and their world was just fallen as ours. We look at the climate of our culture today and perhaps we think that it’s never been worse. In many ways, that’s just simply not true. Ever heard Perpetua’s story? Ever heard Bishop Polycarp’s story? Or Jim Elliot? Or Corrie Ten Boom? Hearing from and loving real flesh and blood saints that have gone before us, finished their course well, and now cheer us on, helps us to remember that they faithfully walked the same earth and trusted the same Jesus that we do.
When is the last time that you took time to hear from a flesh and blood sinner-made-saint – to wonder and give thanks for the work of the Lamb in their life, just as you give thanks for his work in yours? This is why Christian biography is so important. We’re not just reading a good story, we’re reading the testimony of a far-off family member who, in the faithfulness of God, finished their course ahead of us, and now speak to us of that same faithfulness. It’s one way of directly being encouraged by that great cloud of witnesses that Hebrews 12 speaks to us of. We should help our kids do this, too. In our house, we buy Hero Tales. It’s a set of books that tell the stories of many Christians from ages past – everyone from Amy Carmichael to Eric Liddell to John Wesley.
In verse 14, John hears that this great multitude, “Are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Now my interpretation of this verse is that it does speak to a specific period of intense tribulation prior to Jesus’ return, but that it also speaks more broadly to the tribulation that all Christians encounter and suffer in life. Remember, back in chapter 1, John calls himself a “brother and partner in the tribulation.” (v.9) These here have finished their course well and have entered into the joy of their Master and fellowship with God and the Lamb around the throne. As Louis Brighton writes here, “For them the latter part of Paul’s words has come true, “I reckon that the sufferings of this present time cannot be compared to the glory that shall be revealed to us.” (Revelation, pg. 193)
And please note – their number is uncountable. What do we have here today? Forty or fifty people? Not really. Today, by faith, we are lifted into the life of heaven and surrounded by an immense multitude of real witnesses to the truth and power of Christ. We all need to hear from them and value God’s work in them for our own good.
And the second thing is this: we can tend to have an attitude of chronological snobbery towards those who have gone before us. Our “About This Service” bulletin note mentions this:
“All Saints Day therefore reminds us of the deep joy and hope that we confess the in Apostles’ Creed when we say, “I believe in…the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrections of the body, and the life everlasting.” At every moment we are united by Christ in communion with forgiven sinners with whom we share a common hope in the consummation of Christ’s kingdom by his second coming, the resurrection of our bodies, and the restoration of a physical new heaven and new earth, wherein we will enjoy eternal rest. This reality checks the hubris of our sinful nature which would elevate our wisdom and the wisdom of our present age above the faith once delivered to the saints and believers in every age of the church.”
The modern church in America can tend to be kind of ahistorical, meaning what we care about most is what’s current, what’s happening now! We can tend to think that we’ve got it all figured out, thank you very much. That’s why churches like ours are sometimes thought kind of strange. We keep the fire alive by worshiping in ways that are in line with ways Christians have been worshipping as long back as we can tell! As church historian Jaraslov Pelikan once put it, “traditionalism is the dead faith of living” while “tradition is the living faith of the dead.” We need to hear the faithful voices who have gone before us simply for the fact that they speak in the voice of another age and not just today’s.
The saints of God shall never grow old and by God’s grace, neither shall we. Our bond in every age is unbreakable, because our bond is Christ the Lamb.
And so we give all praise, honor, and glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit! Amen.