A sermon on Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3 & Matthew 5:1-12 by Nathan Nettleton
All Saints Day
The characteristics that make some people seem so Christlike that we call them saints are things which seem extremely weird and odd and strange to us, and yet at the same time they are inexplicably familiar, as though they strike chords within us at some level we are not usually aware of, some level deep within our truest selves. It is a bit like going to Uluru.
The American travel writer, Bill Bryson, wrote my favourite ever description of the experience of approaching Uluru for the first time. It’s my favourite because he captured just what I felt when I went there. He speaks of how you have seen pictures of it so many times, that you feel a bit fatigued, like you are almost over it before you even get there, and you don’t expect that it could still have much impact on you. But, he says:
I have discussed this since with many other people, nearly all of whom agreed that they approached Uluru with a kind of fatigue, and were left agog in a way that they could not adequately explain. It’s not that Uluru is … in any way different from the impression you had created in your mind, but the very opposite. It is exactly what you expected it to be. You know this rock. You know it in a way that has nothing to do with calendars and the covers of souvenir books. Your knowledge of this rock is grounded in something much more elemental. In some odd way that you don’t understand and can’t begin to articulate you feel an acquaintance with it — a familiarity on an unfamiliar level, somewhere in the deep sediment of your being. … You cannot stop looking at it; you don’t want to stop looking at it. … You realise that you could spend quite a lot of time — possibly a worryingly large amount of time; possibly a sell-your-house-and-move-here-to-live-in-a-tent amount of time — just looking at the rock, gazing at it from many angles, never tiring of it.
(Bill Bryson, Down Under, Chap 16)
The encounter with true saintliness is, I suggest, a lot like that. We think we’ve seen it all before and know what it is, and yet whenever we encounter it anew, we are left agog in a way that we cannot adequately explain, both because of its genuine familiarity, and because of its radical unfamiliarity, its extraordinariness. My congregation regularly prays a prayer that speaks of our hearts being “made restless by echoes of a song we have never heard and memories of a place we have never seen.” I think that expresses something of the same thing. This deep primal recognition is a recognition of something we have not yet experienced, but which is written into every fibre of our being as the destiny to which we are being drawn.
You could hear this in our second reading (1 John 3:1-3) this evening. The Apostle John said, “what we will be has not yet been revealed, but what we do know is this: when Jesus the Christ is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” The grammar of that line is deliberately quirky: “what we will be has not yet been revealed, but when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” It sounds a lot like some of the resurrection stories, where the disciples recognise Jesus, but at the same time they are not quite sure. He seems both the same and different. The same Jesus, but somehow even more so, even more himself than he ever was. Even more full of life, full of love, and full of mercy. And yet strangely familiar at this deep level where we recognise all we could possibly be, all we were destined to be, all that we will be that has not yet been revealed, but which will be so like him.
Our first reading from the Revelation to John gives us a picture of what will happen when all is revealed in fullness, and suddenly what we only vaguely know at some unknown level will be fully revealed and startlingly clear. Then an uncountable multitude of saints from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, will be bursting into praise before the throne and before the Lamb, shouting or singing, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb! Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen!” For we will be seeing him as he is, and we will have become like him, and we will know, deep in our being, just how extraordinary and wonderful that is.
The thing that is most extraordinary and most revealing about this picture of the crowd of saints worshiping the Lamb is how familiar and yet how bizarre it is at the same time. It is the juxtapositions of the two that really reveal the truth of what is going on. On the one hand, this scene looks like things we have seen many times in the world we know. Powerful leaders sitting loftily in the place of honour, with crowds of subjects bowing down and cheering in whatever is the prescribed way. Or perhaps it is a ticker tape parade with the cheering multitude waving flags in the street as the revered leader’s motorcade passes by. Or perhaps even just the grand final heroes holding the cup aloft on the dais as the crowd roars in adulation. Familiar stuff. Super familiar. Great and powerful heroes are much the same, the world over. But there is something startlingly wrong with the picture in John’s Revelation. The one to whom the multitude are roaring their praises does not look like the kind of powerful victorious hero we expect. Not at all. Instead they are offering their worship to one who looks like those we normally want to turn our faces away from. One who has clearly been killed. Slaughtered. Crucified. Defeated in the most horrific way. One who looks like thousands of nameless victims of the worlds most barbaric power games. One who could have been pulled from a mass grave. One who has clearly been tortured, crushed, humiliated, destroyed. One who nobody wants to be like, and from whom the world’s multitudes turn away their faces and try to erase from their nauseated memories.
Who then are these, this white robed multitude, who worship as a God one who has been as utterly defeated as any vanquished victim could ever be? These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb. Those who have come through the great ordeal. Those who have followed the lamb, and who also have suffered at the hands of the power crazed and victory obsessed culture of this world. Those who have seen their hopes and dreams crucified, and yet have pressed on in the footsteps of their apparently defeated Lord. Those who have embraced a new culture, an upside down culture, in which the crushed victims are not consumed by bitterness and fantasies of vengeance, but rise up in love with their robes washed white in the blood of mercy, to stand in solidarity with all the risen victims and worship the humbled one.
And they will hunger no more and thirst no more. Where else did we hear that phrase? That’s right. In our gospel reading, from the sermon on the mount, from the beatitudes. From that classic expression of the values of the kind of saints who would worship the slaughtered lamb. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness, for they will be filled. They will hunger no more and thirst no more, for the Lamb will be on the throne and the oppressors will no longer be on thrones, and the whole world will be turned upside down. These beatitudes, though they terrify us if we think too hard about what it would mean to live them, are immensely popular for that same reason again. They are strangely familiar at some level that we can’t quite remember. They resonate with something that we yearn for deep in the fibre of our being. We know them to be somehow true, deeply and ultimately true, even though they seemingly make no sense at all in the world as we usually experience it. We do our best to explain them away as not being prescriptive for anything that is expected of anyone in the here and now, but merely aspirational dreams of the world to come, those echoes of a song we have never heard and a place we have never seen.
And yet from time to time, those echoes disconcertingly take shape in the here and now life of someone who annoyingly and alluringly gives the lie to that dismissal of the beatitudes into a heavenly future. From time to time we recognise someone who has embraced the culture of God so fully, that they live out these upside down values as though it was the most natural thing in the world. Which, of course, in one way it is. That’s why it feels so strangely familiar whenever we encounter it. And yet it also seems utterly odd, bizarre, weird, and unimaginable. As our epistle reading again said, the world does not know this way of life, this culture. The world does not know us who are being gripped and transformed by this culture because it did not know him, and when it did see him, it slaughtered him like a lamb, and turned away its faces. The world does not know what to do with the odd-balls whose culture and values are described in the beatitudes.
But we recognise these odd-balls, because we recognise in them the likeness of the Lord we have followed. And like the rock at the heart of our land, that likeness, that image, is so unexpectedly familiar; so much just what we thought it would be and at the same time so much much more than we could ever have imagined. And in the shock of recognition, we realise that we are indeed seeing in them, in him, the image of ourselves that is yet to be revealed; the image of ourselves raised to all that we were created to be, all that we were destined to be, all that we are growing into. The image of ourselves that is, in fact, longing to be lived to the full even now. The image of ourselves as we truly are, the saints of God who sing, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen!”