Sunday, November 4, 2018

Phil Kniss: The end of disgrace

“All Saints Day”
Isaiah 25:6-10; Revelation 21:1-6

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Today I thank God 
for the space we are given on All Saints Day for lament.
There are ample reasons these days to give voice to 
our complaints,
our griefs,
our distress and anger,
our expressions of sorrow.

But I heard some good news this morning 
in the reading from the prophet Isaiah.

So today I thank God 
for the space we are given on All Saints Day to also 
receive and celebrate the Gospel—God’s Good News.

I’m ready for good news.
I think you probably are, too.

The Old Testament reading this morning, from Isaiah,
made this declaration—
a word of confident hope in the midst of suffering:
“God will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of the people 
God will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.”

Then Isaiah adds, on that day people will say,
“Yes! We knew our God would save. 
And this is what salvation looks like.”
Or in the words of the late Eugene Peterson,
“Look at what’s happened! This is our God!
We waited for him and he showed up.”

What we aren’t told explicitly,
and which may be relevant for our context today,
is that as these words of Isaiah were being spoken
while life for the people of Israel was in shambles.
It was utter chaos.
There was unspeakable suffering.
Powerful adversaries were storming Jerusalem,
destroying sacred places,
carrying people away,
separating families.

And the other biblical Good News we heard this morning
was from Revelation.
The words were,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples,
God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
See, I am making all things new.”
Present tense. I am making all things new.

Echoes of Isaiah. 
The end of tears. The end of disgrace.
Thing is, as those words were being written down,
the writer, John the Revelator,
was living in isolation on a prison island,
while his people were trying to be exterminated 
by the Roman Empire,
because their religion was a threat to the social order.

John painted a word picture, a vision,
of people singing and dancing around the throne of God,
at a wedding reception,
the marriage supper of the lamb, he called it.
This, in the midst of horror.

Funny how biblical prophets sometimes see things that aren’t there.

Now we could look at these, and other Bible stories,
about heaven holding a happy festival,
while unspeakable suffering is happening on the earth,
and conclude, 
that God is set apart from human suffering, remote, aloof,
only wanting to get us up and out of our present life,
so we can sing and dance in heaven,
far away from this hell-hole called earth.
If that’s our conclusion, we misread it.

All that rejoicing in heaven
does not draw God’s attention away from the suffering on earth.
it does not distract the saints and angels.
It does the opposite.
Heavenly rejoicing is tied directly to earthly suffering.

There is rejoicing because the saints
have “come through the great ordeal.”
There is rejoicing because the lamb that was slain, Jesus Christ,
whose body was broken,
who willingly laid down his life,
who was humiliated, tortured, killed,
yet who never resorted to the violent ways of his enemies— 
that lamb now sits on the throne.

Good and evil still face off against each other.
But the calculus has changed.
The lamb is on the throne.
The power of love and life
has defeated the power of violence and fear and death.

The victory of the lamb means the end of disgrace.

I like how many English Bibles translate 
the Hebrew word “cherpah” [kher-PAW] with the word “disgrace.”

The prophet used the word cherpah in describing 
what Yahweh took away from his people.
God removed the dis-grace of his people, Isaiah 25:8.
Dis-grace—the disappearance of grace—
is all too common in our daily life these days.

We see it everywhere.
We see it in our political leaders, from the president on down.
We see it in our neighbors, in our enemies, and in ourselves.

We look around,
and the events that keep assaulting our values as human beings,
we look at them, and we cry out, accurately, 
“This is disgraceful!”

It is disgraceful.
It is right and good to be honest 
and name it
and lament it
and decry it
and protest it
and to lean into an alternative way of living.

But in the midst of it all,
while we are mired in this mess,
there is another reality unfolding in heaven.

God is not numb to the suffering of God’s people.
In fact, God’s heart stretches toward those who suffer.
God notices the suffering. 
God is pained by it.
God’s desire is for peace, for justice, for shalom.
God sees what both Isaiah and John saw— 
all of heaven caught up in celebration,
because the saints have come through the “great ordeal,”
and are now cheerleaders,
our “great cloud of witnesses.”
The saints who precede us,
also see what the prophets saw.

So, rather than heaven being removed from our suffering,
it is tied directly, inextricably to us.
Our suffering becomes heaven’s occasion
to ratchet up the celebration,
make it loud enough that we can hear it— 
we who are still slogging through the mess 
that is human brokenness.

We don’t listen enough for that sound,
we don’t turn our ears, on purpose, 
toward the sounds coming from heaven.

We have unfortunately
been formed (or misformed, as the case may be) by this idea
that heaven is far away and removed, in the sweet by and by,
a place the fortunate will one day escape to,
in a grand rescue operation that will take us away from here.

So we muddle through the mess of life here on earth.
Wishing we were “up there”—wherever that is.

But the vision of John the Revelator
has heaven rejoicing while it is coming down to us, to be with us.
Again, in the words of Peterson,
“I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, 
descending resplendent out of Heaven . . . 
I heard a voice thunder, “Look! Look! 
God has moved into the neighborhood, 
making his home with men and women!”

That movement from heaven to earth, to make things new,
is just as clear in any translation you choose.
The NewRSV says,
“See, I make my home among mortals.”
The holy city is coming to where we are,
and the lamb on the throne is making (present participle)
making all things new.”

In the grand mess that is life on earth right now,
we are not alone.
We are being accompanied by those who have been here before.
And we are being joined by heaven itself.

We are not the first ones to face these challenges.
And we won’t be the last.
There is a great stream of history—
that stretches back before the scriptures were written,
and flows ahead of us farther than we can see.
We are wise to remember that we are midstream.

That’s one of the main reasons the church has an All Saints Day.
There are a variety of meanings that varieties of Christians
have given to this day, over the centuries.
And we need not get bent out of shape over
the different ways that Christians have distorted this day,
or distorted the biblical idea of what a saint is.

Because at its best,
remembering the saints who have gone before us,
and finding points of connection with them,
is a way to embrace our present circumstances in this life,
and gain courage and strength to face our own future,
because the lamb is on the throne.

Saints we cannot identify with do us no good whatsoever.
That misguided notion that sainthood 
elevates persons above and beyond us,
to some higher plane of holiness
than what we will ever achieve or imagine,
that notion is of no use to us.

Saints, in the way the word is used in the New Testament,
are all believers—on earth and in heaven—who are “in Christ.”
The source of their holiness, and ours, is Jesus Christ.
Saints inspire us and encourage us,
precisely because we can see ourselves in their shoes (or sandals).

This is not to disparage some other Christians
who have another whole system of thought about saints.
But in our tradition, we don’t wait until we can somehow prove 
their mystical other-worldliness,
before we name them saints.

Rather we thank God for, and name, 
those who have gone before us,
not to enshrine them,
but to identify with them in their humanity.
For many of these named,
we are well aware of the suffering surrounding their deaths.
For some,
we know of suffering that accompanied their lives.
For some, 
our relationship with them was complicated or painful.

But the picture of their life and death
is not the last picture we see.
We have a biblical picture
of persons dressed in heaven’s party clothes,
worshiping a God who says to them and to us,
“Behold, I am making all things new.”
All. Things. New.
Thanks be to God!

—Phil Kniss, November 4, 2018

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