Texts: Isaiah 25:1-9; Revelation 21:1-7; John 11:32-44
The midterm elections Tuesday offer hope to some that at least a few of the problems on the national level might be addressed and reversed, but the truth is that regardless of the outcome on Tuesday, we will still be living in trying times. It is for seasons such as this that Isaiah and John recorded their visions; to remind us that even when everything seems to be going to hell in a handbasket, the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.
Isaiah’s vision declares that this is how God’s victory is achieved—not in God’s ability to reduce the fortress to rubble, but in bringing victors and victims, oppressed and oppressors together in peace at one table to celebrate the end of war, the end of violence, the end of death. God destroys the shroud that darkens the faces of all peoples—even the victorious ones: that shroud is not the cessation of biological function, but the threat of violence by the powerful, and the need to use violence to preserve and defend our lives from others. God accomplishes this not through more death and violence, but through life and peace.
This promise of Isaiah is an apocalyptic one. “Apocalypse” does not mean the end of the world, nor does it mean something terrible and frightening. The Greek word apokalupsis means, literally, “revelation:” the revealing of things hidden. In this case what is hidden is the reign of God over all creation. Apocalyptic literature like Isaiah’s oracle or the book of Revelation is not a promise of some far off future, but an assurance of God’s present victory. When everything looks bad and getting worse, the apocalyptic promise of God snatches us out of our cynicism, our hopelessness, our desperation and reveals to us the truth: that God has already won. The present reality is a cracked façade that hides behind it the just and peaceable reign of God; and God’s reality is already beginning to peek through.
This is the reason we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. The holiday is not a somber remembrance of those who have died, it is the jubilant carnival in thanksgiving for all the people—living, dead, and even those not-yet born—who continue to remind us that God has already won. We commemorate this day by recalling the dead; not as those lost to us, but as those who endured faithfully to the end, who experienced firsthand the wonderful things God had done for them and who testified to us about those things. We recall them today because now—even in death—they continue to testify to us about those acts of God. Some of them have left lasting legacies of faith for us—stories and songs we continue to share, choices they made that have shaped who we are, the positive impact they had on us and the world around them because of the work God has done and is doing through them. As we remember them and continue to abide in the love we share with them, God’s promise is made real to us.
And so, the dead testify to what God has done and remind us of God’s past faithfulness; the newly arrived and the unborn testify to what God will do and encourage us to trust in that faithfulness of God, and together they give us hope that the God who has never let us down never will.
The hope of resurrection, you see, is not hope for the dead; hope for the dead is useless to the living—it is our hope that we will die so that we might know hope. And yet, this is the hope to which we so often reduce the gospel. We shrink it down to a hope for the dead, a hope for a far-off heaven we might one day see. It becomes for us a hope of escape from the trials and tribulations of the world, a hope that we might die before things get too bad.
Instead, the hope of resurrection is hope that comes to us through the dead—through their testimony during life and in death, and through their resting in the promise of that hope. The message of hope is not of escape, but of endurance. The hope we receive from God through those dead saints gives us the strength to endure whatever evils we must—as they have done. That strength comes not from the promise of eventual escape, but by giving us eyes to see the victory of life in the midst of death.
St. John the Seer records this vision in Revelation of the City of God coming down out of heaven to earth; of the drying of all tears and the healing of all grief. It is not a hope for the dead, a hope of escape from earth to be with God in heaven; it is the hope shared with us by one long dead that we might see that God has already come from heaven to be with us. Even in the midst of the pain, the fear, the evil that surrounds us, God has already trespassed the barrier between heaven and earth to conquer those things. And those things—fear, desperation, hatred, division, insidious lies and authoritarian rulers, even death itself—those things are not conquered with the sword of an avenging God, but with the patient, enduring word of hope.
We have been washed in this hope. We eat and drink this hope. This hope sustains us and gives us life, because this hope is alive, animated with life that is stronger than death. It is the hope of saints giving testimony to the wonderful things God has done across the ages, the hope of strangers becoming siblings, the hope of people caring for one another instead of fearing one another. It is the hope that has been fulfilled in the escape from Egypt, in the return from exile, in the empty tomb of Easter morning. We are people who live by this hope, people who have been reborn in this hope. That is what it means to be a saint—to be one who has been changed by this hope, and who bears witness to it.
Those candles represent the tiniest fraction of the host of God’s saints, just as the faith we share and the community gathered here are the tiniest fraction of God’s kingdom. Nevertheless, those candles bear witness to that hidden reality; and so the reality of God’s abiding and impending reign is revealed in and to and through us. With the eyes of hope, we may see that though it is hidden behind the despots who would rule this world and the lies they weave, God’s reign is already here shining through the cracks in of this world and seeping in at its seams. Their legions will still make a lot of noise and cause a lot of grief, but in Christ, the ultimate victory is now assured.
Our hope is not in the powers of the world, in politicians or armies or strong rulers; those powers of the world that are dying and already defeated, no matter how useful they have been. Our hope is in the living God who is still seated on the throne, and in the Lamb who has defeated death forever. Our God has done wonderful things, and this is the God on whom we wait; let us now be glad and rejoice in God’s salvation!