Anonymous Reunion

Revelation 7:9-17
David A. Davis
November 21, 2021
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A long time ago I was sitting in a coffee shop here in town talking to a visiting scholar who was here for a year either at Princeton Seminary or the Center of Theological Inquiry. I can’t remember which. The professor was joining us for worship each Sunday so I was looking to offer a pastoral welcome of sorts. What I didn’t expect was a conversation that changed how I thought about preaching resurrection hope. Our casual get acquainted conversation turned challenging and intriguing for me as I listened to the scholar’s stinging critique of the church’s proclamation on Easter and at most funerals. The gist of the argument was that preaching resurrection should not sound like the content of a greeting card. Examples given ranged from preaching that denies the reality of death to sermons full of kitschy illustrations that promote the concept of immortality of the soul. Something along the lines of “he is not dead, he’s just gone to the other side of the lake to fish” is what comes to mind. I think about that conversation while writing most funeral homilies and every time Easter rolls around. This week I thought about it while working with this text from the 7th chapter of the Book of Revelation. And every time that scene in the coffee shop comes back to me, the professor’s concluding remark both inspires and haunts me a bit in my sermon writing: “resurrection hope has to be more than whether you and I get to heaven!”

It has to be more. That’s sort of my takeaway from John the Revelator’s vision of the great multitude that no one could count and he couldn’t name. The great multitude and the Lamb at the center of the throne. It is a word picture of a life forever with God that is something more, something greater, something beyond the collective sacred imagination of the people of God. And I think one can say that about the whole witness of scripture, that when it comes to the kingdom of heaven, it points to something more than this person or that person going to heaven. “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. And I saw the holy the city, the new Jerusalem, coming out of heaven from God…God will dwell with them and they will be God’s peoples, and God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death shall be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21). “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another one eat, for like the days of the tree shall my people be…the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox, but the serpent—its food be dust! And they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 66).  Matthew 25: the hungry fed, the thirsty given something to drink, the stranger welcomed, the naked clothed, the sick and imprisoned visited.  When it comes to scripture and the kingdom of God, you can always point to more. It is always more. It is always greater.

In his work with the Book of Revelation, Brian Blount, president of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, former New Testament professor at Princeton Seminary and worshipping member of Witherspoon Street Church, urges the reader not to miss the image of the city. A holy city full of a great multitude. Full of God’s presence. God’s dwelling place. Full of God’s glory. Full of God’s light. Professor Blount offers the compelling description that God’s glory shrouds the city like a fog. God is completely on the loose among God’s people. The nice promise that “the lord will be their light” doesn’t really begin to describe it. It’s not just a light, there is no more sun, no more night, only God’s glory. God’s presence in the heavenly city, it is the promise of “Immanuel” God with us, on steroids. God with us to the nth degree. The promise of God with us followed by a million exclamation points. God on the loose among us forever and ever and ever!

The power and wonder of a confusing, mysterious book of the bible like the Apocalypse to John is that it is not to be understood; rather it is to be felt somewhere deep in the soul. It is a proclamation of the resurrection promise of God that is to be felt. That in a world so full of chaos, suffering, death, and empire-ly power run amuck, that the beautiful city of God will not  only come down from heaven, it will rise again. The promise that even in a time when the mountains totter and the nations rage and evil carries the day and rules the night, that the peaceable kingdom of God will ultimately prevail and that in God’s future the wolf shall live with the lamb, and they will not hurt or destroy in all of God’s holy city. God’s promise that when the powers of darkness rise up again and again, and the rich just get richer, and the sinfulness of self-interest seems to win all the time, and assault victims are demonized by the most powerful in the land, and the sick hunger for guns and gun rights is fed by millions and millions of dollars while 1 in 4 children in this country live in poverty, then, even then, right then you have to feel God’s resurrection promise that the darkness shall never conquer the light, that hate will never conquer love, that death shall never have the last word.

Because one day, one day, justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream…because one day, one day, as the psalmist says, steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, and righteousness and peace will kiss each other…because one day all the hungry will be fed, all the thirsty will have drink, all the strangers will be welcomed, all the naked will be clothed, all the sick will be cared for, all the prisoners will be visited, and the lame shall walk, the oppressed set free, and poor lifted up. One day. Because that’s God’s future and it is a promise that is always more. You have to feel promise. That God’s future is the world’s future. It is the city’s future. It is our future.

God’s beauty and the kingdom of heaven. Beyond scripture. Beyond words. Because when it comes to what you and I can fathom or believe or imagine, the resurrection promise of God in Jesus Christ will always be more. Yes, death not having the last word and light forever conquering the darkness. But also love overcoming hate. Love that is stronger than death. Bodies. Minds, Souls restored. Little girls and little boys of every color, of every race, of every nation joining hands as siblings one with another. Schools. Mosques. Synagogues. Campuses. Homes. All safe from violence. No more guns. No active shooter. No high school, no college hero giving a life to save others at the end of gun. No one grabbing a gun and traveling to join a protest and take justice into their own hands. No more guns. No one grabbing a gun and jumping into a truck to hunt down a person of color running through the neighborhood. No more guns. No child randomly killed by a gun in the cross fire that plagues the nation’s cities. No more guns. No raging floods, only living water.  No climate change-induced storms, only streams of righteousness. No more words like Stage IV or metastatic. No more bigotry and hatred or someone whose equality or marriage or job is threatened because of their love for another.  No one unjustly convicted. No enemies, no threat level, no terror. No surge. No pandemic. No sickness. No death. No fear. Only lasting peace and unbridled joy and feasts and sonatas that last forever and glorious views of creation. Only beauty there in the heart of God.

When you become a grandparent, it seems that everyone asks you what it’s like. The question doesn’t come with the connotation of “how is it knowing your now so old you can be a grandparent.” The question comes just as often, maybe more often, from other grandparents who I think just enjoy listing to someone else try to describe what it is like. This is my answer that I have given more often than I can count: as someone who makes a living with words, there really are no words that can describe the overwhelming joy and love that comes with becoming a grandparent. Words are not enough.

Despite the fact that I have now used 1,436 words, words will never be enough when it comes to God’s promise of resurrection hope and life. The promise of a glad reunion gathered around the Lamb of God. A multitude which no one can number. Words aren’t enough. The promise of God is always going to be more.  That’s why Noel Werner’s adult education class this morning is titled “The Sound of Reunion”.  Maybe a series? The sound of reunion. The smell of reunion. The touch of reunion. The feel of God’s great reunion promise forever in the kingdom of heaven.

Experienced sermon listeners will remember hearing a lot about “the already and the not yet” when it comes to the promise of God. The affirmation of all that God has done and of God’s faithful presence in our lives and the longing for what is yet to come in the wonder and mystery of God’s promise of salvation for all that God has created. Much of what a preacher is called to do is to enable you week in and week out to affirm, experience, and testify to God at work in and through your lives. As one teacher of preaching puts it, to empower people to see the extraordinary grace of God in the ordinary places of life. The “already” part of God’s promise.

But I have to be honest with you, these days when I look around at the world and the nation, when I read the news and think of my granddaughter’s future, when I wake up too early in the morning and ponder another day,  I find myself longing for more of the “not yet” part. I don’t mean “not yet” in the eternal sense. I don’t mean the “not yet” of when the roll is called up yonder.  But I do mean the “not yet” part of God’s resurrection promise and hope for us and for all of creation. A bit more of a foretaste of glory divine. More of that promise you can feel. You can sometimes feel it even more than you believe it. More of that promise. Just a little more of what God intends.

Is it to much ask, God? For a little more of the world you intend? A bit more of the “not yet” here and now? Because I know, I know it deep down and can feel it. There is always more when it comes to the promise of God made known in and through Jesus Christ. There is always more when it comes to your life, and my life, and all of creation now and forever in the very heart of God.