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Psalm 24   Of David. A Psalm.

1 The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it;
2 for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.
3 Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?
4 Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.
5 They will receive blessing from the LORD, and vindication from the God of their salvation.
6 Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.
7 Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.
8 Who is the King of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle.
9 Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory.
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“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations;  8 he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.

9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”Isaiah 25:6-9 

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“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;  4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” – Revelation 21:1-6 

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In our readings for today, Psalm 24 talks about God as the King of Glory, and it talks about the people who will ascend with God to the holy place. Isaiah talks about a mountain also, where the Lord of Hosts will make a feast for his people of rich food and well-aged wine, in a place where death is a thing of the past. And the author of Revelation describes a new heaven and a new earth where death and tears and pain are no more.

Holy Mountain

It is appropriate and fitting for Scriptures like these to be read on All Saints Day, as we remember our loved ones who have passed this past year.

This year has been a very hard year. It’s been hard because we have lost so many, and it’s been hard because many of us haven’t been able to be with our loved ones as much as we would have liked. For those who have lost loved ones, there is nothing that can be said to ease the pain of loss. But it does matter to know that friends are close, standing in sympathy today.

At times of grief we may feel a confusing jumble of emotions, from sorrow to anger to longing to questioning to doubt to hope. And some days we may feel nothing at all, which can be even more upsetting. We may wish we could have just one more conversation with our loved one. We may have questions for God.

And then when the loss is no longer quite so immediate, it’s not unusual to find ourselves asking questions like: Do I really believe in life after death? What will heaven be like? How can I be sure we’ll get there? How can bodies that have died be reassembled? Will we really see our loved ones again? Will we see our pets again? What will it be like to meet God face to face? Will God really be able to forgive everything I’ve ever done wrong?

If Scripture teaches us anything, it’s that in order to live – or die – with confidence, we need to keep our eyes on God. God is the one who knows the way. God is the one with the power over and sin and death. God holds the key and knows the answers. And God loves us.

I don’t want to sugar-coat things. Life is tough. Death is tougher. It is hard to face mortality. It’s hard to keep on keeping on in a world where someone we love is missing and isn’t coming back.

For those of us who love Jesus, we believe that death is like a doorway: a portal we pass through. Or we may think of death as people did long ago, like a river that needs to be crossed – a river that’s so wide and so cold that we need help to get across it. We may remember the words of the old song:

Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin’ for to carry me home…

 I look over Jordan and what do I see? …
A band of angels comin’ after me…
Comin’ for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot…

Or maybe this song:

Michael, row the boat ashore…
River Jordan is deep and wide – alleluia
Milk and honey on the other side – alleluia
River Jordan is chilly and cold – alleluia
Chills the body but not the soul – alleluia
Michael, row the boat ashore – alleluia!

I like the analogy of the river. It’s like a river of time that sweeps everything away. Cold waters indeed. We don’t dare try to swim them because we don’t have the strength. We need a vessel, or an angel, or something, to guide us.

For those of us who love Jesus, we have promises from God that this life is not all there is. That we have a forever home and a future.

Our psalm today says: “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it…” (Psalm 24:1) And the psalmist goes on to say:

3 Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?  4 Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.

What God requires is easy to understand but very difficult to do. How do we know if we’ve done enough? If we’ve been holy enough? Or if we have missed a few marks, how do we know if we’ve confessed enough?

This was the dilemma Martin Luther got himself caught on when he was a monk back in the 1600s. He was trying to say enough prayers and do enough penance to satisfy a perfect God – and he realized what he was trying to do was impossible. No level of perfection, no amount of indulgences, no amount of praying, would be able to assure him of a place in God’s heaven. And then he tripped over Romans 1:17 that speaks of “… a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”” Salvation by faith alone – God accepting us if we will only trust – believing in a God who can and does forgive – this became the foundational teaching of all the Protestant churches.

So it’s not about what we do or how much we do. Anything we do that is good, we do out of love and thanksgiving to God. What saves us is that Jesus has already done all that is necessary.

The reading in Isaiah echoes and confirms this thought: “It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” (ital. mine) (Isaiah 25:9)

The salvation God provides is the foundation for our hope.

And with that foundation in place, we turn to our reading from Revelation. Revelation is a book that is rarely preached and often misinterpreted. Revelation is not a game plan or a strategy or a playbook for the end times. I know people who have spent hours trying to figure out which nations and which world leaders are being hinted at in Revelation. I’ve known people who have spent hours looking at Revelation as if it’s a timeline: “1000 years till this happens, and 500 years till that happens…”

Revelation

“Misunderstood Revelation is really a story of hope.” — the Catholic Register

Revelation isn’t meant to be read this way. Revelation was written for the believers in the early church as an encouragement. The early church, after the initial explosion of people coming to faith by the thousands, went through some very difficult times. In the year 70AD the political leaders of Jerusalem rebelled against Rome and Jerusalem was crushed – burned to the ground. So the center of the Christian faith – the believers in and around Jerusalem – were scattered throughout the Roman empire: Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. As they were scattered, they started to face persecution – partly because they were foreigners and refugees, and partly because they preached a religion that did not acknowledge the deity of Caesar. Caesar thought he was a god. Caesar thought he was the ‘king of kings’ – but Christians knew better. And they were persecuted for saying so.

So Revelation was written to comfort and encourage people who were suffering great losses. Which makes it appropriate for us, especially on All Saints Sunday, and especially during this time of social and economic and political upheaval. These words are for us.

God tells us in Revelation there will be a new heaven and a new earth, that the old heaven and the old earth will pass away. Does this mean that all of our efforts at conservation and mitigating climate change are in vain? NO. This creation, this earth we live in, was given to human beings by God, and we were commanded to take care of it – and that is still our job.

But Revelation is talking about something different. The writer says in verse one “and the sea was no more”. In Bible times the Sea was a metaphor for whatever brings evil into the world. The sea is where storms come from, and there were mysterious creatures in the deep, and it was a place where ships sank and people died… it was a dangerous place to be. It was a metaphor for tragedy. So Revelation is saying that the powers of evil and all of the hardships in this world will be done away with. The earth will be remade in such a way that the effects of sin and death will be gone.

And then we see the New Jerusalem, the holy city, coming out of heaven ‘prepared as a bride’. This echoes back to Psalm 45 which we read earlier this year, which was written for the wedding of Solomon but also foretells the wedding of the Messiah – the heavenly wedding we now see in Revelation.

And the groom, God, loves us. In verse three, where it talks about God ‘dwelling’ with us, the Greek actually says he ‘pitches his tent with us’ (and as I read this, I’m imagining the kind of tents they had in the Harry Potter movies, the ones that grow to fit all the people, and have all the modern conveniences). God will be with us, living with us. God will wipe away every tear from every eye. God will make us whole. God will make us holy – because God is able to do so. And death will be a thing of the past. Pain and grief will never come again, because “the first things have passed away”.

No Death

This world we live in now belongs to the ‘first things’. The life we know, the grief we experience, the fears we know, the insecurities we know – these all belong to the ‘first things’. And the first things are passing away. In this life we still deal with all these things. But Revelation means suffering is a temporary thing, so we don’t have to compromise with the wrongs of this world just to try to make life a little easier.

A new world is coming. God says, “I am making all things new.”

And then he says “It is done!”

At the crucifixion, we heard Jesus say “it is finished” but this is not the same thing. The Cross was about salvation. The word Jesus cried out then – tetelstai – basically means ‘paid in full’.

Here in Revelation the Greek word translates into ‘it is created’ or ‘it is made’. The creation is complete. Something totally new is here: “the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

When the new things come, what was in the past will pass away. It’s difficult for us to try to imagine something we’ve never seen before, because this life is all we know.  But maybe this will help make some sense: I think it might be similar to being born. When our mothers were pregnant with us, if we had been able to verbalize our experience in the womb, we might have said: “this is a nice place. It’s always warm, and I feel safe, and I have as much to eat as I want, and I can hear pleasant sounds around me. I think I’ll stay.”

But at the end of nine months, ‘staying’ is no longer an option. We are born into a world we had no idea existed – something we could never have imagined – and yet it’s the same world we were always in. We just didn’t know it. We couldn’t perceive it from inside the womb. When we passed through the portal, all of a sudden we could see what we couldn’t see before, and the womb became a thing of the past, at least as far as we were concerned. We all know where we came from, but in terms of everyday life our prior existence in the womb is gone and forgotten.

I think entering God’s kingdom will be something like that. It’s not that we’re going to leave earth and go somewhere else. Scripture says “in Him (in God) we live and move and have our being.” So God’s world is with us already – surrounding us, nurturing us, womb-like. But we can’t fully perceive it yet. There are realities – spiritual realities, physical realities, God-realities – all around us that we can’t see just yet. When we pass through death’s portal we will be able to see and know God’s world, where death and sorrow and tears don’t happen any more. The reality we knew – what we know now – will be completely a thing of the past, like a womb that we no longer live in.

And somehow we will know – or God will point out to us – our loved ones: our ancestors, our ‘tribe’, who have been waiting for us.  We will be home in every sense of the word.

It really is beyond our imagining. But God promises it will be good, and safe, and free of danger, and free of sin, and free of tears. We will enjoy God. And God will enjoy our enjoyment and be pleased with our pleasure.

So we call to mind all these promises of God as we remember our loved ones today. And let us also share these promises and this hope with others as God gives us opportunity.

May God bless to us and to others a deep and lasting knowledge of God’s word and God’s promises. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, November 7, 2021

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