“Promise”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

November 1, 2015 – All Saints Day

Revelation 7:9-17

 

There’s something about this time of year. I don’t know if it’s the light, slanting and golden and receding day by day… or if it’s the leaves, moving from summertime green to fall’s flaming red, glowing orange, burnished bronze, drab brown… or if it’s the air, carrying just a hint of winter’s frosty nip… But something about this time of year always turns my heart toward endings, toward partings, toward the impermanence of this mortal coil and the loss that is part of every human life.

This congregation is no stranger to loss, particularly, it seems, in the past year or so. Nine of our sisters in Christ have departed this life and entered the next since last All Saints Day, and we miss them dearly. Diane and Margot and Carol and Louise and Betsy and Trudy and Mary and Jean and Rita—each of these women brought us a unique glimpse of God’s face, a beautiful glimpse of God’s heart, and each of their passings leaves an empty place in our midst.

You have known other losses, too. Some of you have said goodbye to parents, siblings, and friends. Some of you are anticipating the death of aging or ailing loved ones. Whether it is sudden or long-expected, whether it is merciful or cruel, death does not come without grief. And so, today, on this All Saints Day, we honor that grief, those deaths, the losses that weigh down each of our hearts.

You have known yet other losses, too. For some of you, dear friends have moved away. For some of you, jobs have been consolidated or eliminated. For some of you, a relationship that once was warm and close has turned cold and distant, and there seems to be no prospect of reconciliation. For some of you, physical or mental illness has taken away your energy, or your ability, or your joy. For some of you, family conflict has sapped your spirit. For some of you, worry for a loved one has all but consumed your heart. For some of you, despair at the state of the world has dimmed your hope. For some of you, unanswered prayer has left your spirit empty and dry.

This congregation is no stranger to loss, and neither was John of Patmos, the author of the Book of Revelation. Probably of Palestinian Jewish heritage, and certainly a follower of Jesus long before that was a popular or socially-acceptable thing to be, John and his people suffered persecution and oppression under the might of the Roman Empire, which had little tolerance for those early Christian rabble-rousers. John had known the sting of rejection, the pain of abuse, the fear that his life would be snuffed out and no one would remember or grieve his passing. Surely he also knew the loss that all humans encounter, sooner or later—the grief of death, of parting, of estrangement, of distance, of despair.

John was exiled to the island of Patmos, off the coast of what is now Turkey, because of his beliefs. While he was there, he received the wild, dramatic visions recorded in the Book of Revelation.

Revelation is an often-misunderstood book. You have probably heard it interpreted to provide a calendar of the end times, or to dictate who will be in and who will be out at the final judgment, or to frighten people into obedience. But none of that is what the book was meant to do. Revelation, at its heart, is this: good news for people who are suffering.

Revelation, like other writings in its genre, takes human struggles and projects them into the cosmic sphere, where the powers that be in this world are overturned by the forces of good, the forces of God. This includes oppressive regimes like the Roman Empire and also the everyday chaos and hardship of human life. All these powers, in John’s visionary imagination, are upended. God has promised.

Did you hear—I mean, did you really hear—the promises of this passage? A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages—the ones who have come out of the great ordeal (which is to say, all of us)—worshiping God with joy, receiving shelter from God’s throne, not hungering or thirsting any more, being protected from the elements themselves, being guided to the springs of the water of life, having every tear wiped away by God’s own hand. If that’s not good news, I don’t know what is.

So if you are lonely today, this promise is for you: you will be united with that great multitude that no one can count, and in that crowd, you will find the ones for whom your heart longs.

If you are hungry in body or in spirit today, this promise is for you: in the fullness of time, the day will come when your every need will be satisfied.

If you are unreconciled today, this promise is for you: all that divides us in this life will be washed away until we cannot even remember why we parted in the first place, so great is the uniting power of God’s love.

If you are lost in the desert today, this promise is for you: you will be led home to the oasis of living water where you will never thirst again.

If you are grieving today, this promise is for you: mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for we will all be reunited in God’s own heart, in that great multitude where your beloved dead and mine have already taken their place.

Friends, God has promised it. And here’s the thing about God’s promises: not only are they trustworthy and true, truer than we can possibly imagine, but they are also already true today, not just in some long-off future. Somehow, mysteriously, in a way we cannot fully comprehend, the realm of God’s fullest joy is already real, already in existence, even as it is not yet fully realized in this world. Our present reality and the reality of God’s promise coexist somehow.

And every once in a while, especially at this time of year, when the world turns toward winter and our hearts turn toward endings and partings and impermanence—every once in a while, the veil between these worlds grows thin, and like John of Patmos, we, too, can catch a glimpse, a vision, a revelation of the promise that is, already and always, coming true.

 


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