Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for All Saints’ Sunday.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.
They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”
I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.”
Then he said to me, “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. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
My Greek professor from seminary tells a story about a student in one of his summer classes. I’ll call her Lexie. Lexie wasn’t the best student in his course, nor the most enthusiastic. She came in, sat at her desk, kept her head down. My professor is a very high-energy person, but Lexie never engaged.
Until. Until one day, they were translating this very passage, Revelation 7, and they got to that last verse. The class was working doggedly through the passage, participles and gerunds and subjunctives, and they were almost done with their translation when suddenly Lexie’s head whipped up, and she stared at my professor for a long time.
“I have a question,” she announced.
My professor was thrilled. Lexie was finally getting into the rhythm.
“Here in this verse,” she continued, slowly, “where it says God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, does that mean just the tears they’re crying then, or will God go back in time and wipe away all the tears they’ve ever cried?
“Wouldn’t that really be every tear?”
My professor was shocked for a second. “I don’t know,” he said at last. “The Greek doesn’t tell us that.”
Lexie nodded, as if that was answer enough, and put her head back down. But after class my professor caught her again. He’d tried to check in with her before, but this time she opened up.
Lexie’s year had been marked by loss. Her brother had been on his second tour of Afghanistan when he was killed by a roadside bomb. The grief had driven her parents apart, and driven her into seminary, where she was just trying to get through each day. She asked her question again. “Do you think God will come back to wipe away all these tears? All our tears?”
Lexie’s question is one of those that is at the heart of our faith—the heart of nearly every faith, actually. How do we make sense of death? What is the point of that grief, that emptiness in our hearts? And for Christians, what do we make of a God who loves us, and still lets us know that pain?
If there is a single question that brings people to faith, it has to do with death. And if there’s a single question that drives people away from faith, it has to do with death. Those questions haunt us; we’re desperate to know, one way or the other, what death means for us. What it means for those we love.
Answering those questions is a multi-million dollar business. People are eager for books and movies that claim to know the truth of heaven, stories that boast first-hand evidence of life after death. There are whole corners of Christianity where you’ll never hear much of anything preached but heaven, and how to get there (or how not to).
And it’s not like the Bible has nothing to say on the subject. Actually, we have the opposite problem. The Bible has lots to say about death, and God, and how it might work. But all those stories, those claims, those visions, they don’t mesh. The Bible has lots of answers on heaven, and none of them, on the surface, agree. The details are different. The timelines are out of sync. The way the dead are personified morphs and changes.
The visions of God’s kingdom from the Book of Revelation have stuck in the Christian imagination, and with good reason. Its author is a talented poet and a creative visionary, painting a world of joy and respite with images familiar to him—cities and throne rooms, robes and palm branches, fruit trees and still waters. Images of power and victory, of community and safety, of abundance and joy. I don’t think the author ever intended to tell us what heaven looked like as much as he wanted to give us a foretaste of how it might feel.
The problem is, we get hung up on these images, which feel as foreign to us now as they would have felt familiar to Revelation’s first hearers. I remember hearing a story once of a little boy asking what heaven would be like. His grandmother, no doubt remembering these white-robed elders singing their eternal praise, told him that heaven would be like church, only forever. The boy wrinkled his nose. “Well, if that’s so, I definitely don’t want to go there!” he declared. I can’t blame him. I love church—I mean, I love it with a passion—but church forever sounds like a drag. But being with people I love, loving God together—which is what church is at its heart—however that looks or sounds or feels? Sign me up.
Like I said, there are lots of visions of heaven in the Bible, and I don’t find that dispiriting or faith-shaking. In fact, it fills me with hope. Not that we know what heaven is or looks like, but that we know there is something more. So many authors, across so many centuries and cultures, and all of them sure that death is not the end for us, that God’s power does not hit a brick wall when we stop breathing. What all those different stories say to me is that somewhere deep inside us, we know this truth: in life and in death we belong to God. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Whatever it looks like, however it plays out for us, life after death is still life with God. Is still us being loved. That doesn’t change.
I believe that. I believe it with all my heart. I believe that the people I have loved who have died—my own personal saints—I believe they are with God, loved by God, loving God. I believe they thirst no more, hunger no more, hurt no more. I believe God shepherds and shelters them still. I believe death probably matters a lot less from the other side of it.
But I still cry. I still cry when death hits.
And I don’t think that makes me unfaithful. I think it’s how I participate in God’s love. After all, as so many wise people have reminded me in my life, grief is the privilege of having loved someone.
Grief is the privilege of having loved someone. A broken heart lets love spill out. It is not joyous. It is not peaceful. But it is love, at its rawest, its most powerful. And I think sometimes that that’s when we get nearest to the heart of God—God who chooses to love us unconditionally, no matter what grief and pain we cause God. A heart that knows what it means to lose an only child, and to turn the sky dark with it. A heart that knows to wipe away tears, but not to stop them up, because each one is a precious testimony.
God’s heart is a heart that knows grief, as all hearts that love do.
My professor couldn’t answer Lexie’s question. He knew his Bible too well to be able to give her easy answers. But he could tell her what he hoped—that yes, there would be a day when she would feel God’s hand on her cheek, wiping away those tears, soothing away months and months of exhaustion and pain. Not because it was wrong of her to cry, or because it was time to forget about her brother, or move on from her parents’ separation, but because it was time for her to know the other part of God’s heart, a heart so big and strong that death could only still it for three days’ time. Time for God would wipe away her tears so she could see again, and see that nothing is ever truly lost or gone with God. That weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.
Today we mark All Saints’ day, a day set aside in the church year to remember those who no longer have to wonder about the mystery of heaven, but now simply enjoy it. We set aside this day both to grieve and to hope; to say plainly that we miss the people we love, but to also say plainly that we are not totally cut off. That by God’s grace we still remember their warmth, still recall their wisdom, still follow in their faith. That by God’s grace they are still a part of us. That we believe we are still a part of them, too, and that somewhere they are saving us a seat.
That is our hope, and I pray that if you are grieving today—even the gentler grief of older hurts and losses—that you can feel that hope. But if you can’t—if it still hurts too much—if the pain is still too fresh, I want you to know that that does not mean you are cut off from God. God is with you in that grief, in that pain, catching each tear, holding you tight.
We are still here. We still get hungry and thirsty and sunburned; we still get grumpy and tired and lonely; we still feel vulnerable and exposed. Our throats get sore if we sing too long and it takes Tide, not the blood of the Lamb, to get our whites white again. We know all too well that this world is not heaven.
But we also know that this world is not without heaven’s touch. Because here, even in the midst of everyday hassles and aching pains, even here we know what it is to be sheltered by God. To find unexpected peace. To take joy in time spent with friends. To see glimpses of a world where people of every race and tribe sing in unison, not discord. To feel connected with God, and with each other, in a way we couldn’t describe if we used every word in the dictionary.
If you want a textbook answer for what heaven looks like, I’m not your woman. But if you’re curious what I think it will be like, I can only tell you this: like love. Like love, in all its raw, endless, fearsome power.
Because when I feel that love—from my saints, from the Spirit within me—that’s when I think I’ve glimpsed heaven.
For love that overpowers death, I give thanks and thanks and endless thanks. Amen.