Sunday, November 1, 2020
A few years ago, I had to have one of my back molars extracted. It was an unusual thing, my dentist said. I take pretty good care of my teeth, but for whatever reason, X-rays showed that the tooth was rotting from the inside out. So, I had my tooth removed, and I decided not to put in an implant, at least for now. Do you know that feeling you have when something about you changes like that? A missing tooth, a broken arm, getting your hair cut dramatically where you’re brushing hair that isn’t there until you get used to the new you? It took me quite awhile to adapt to not having one of my back teeth, and I am reminded daily that it’s not there. The experience was a good reminder for me of how hard any loss is, even if it’s just a lost tooth. It takes a long time for us to live a “new normal.”
This year has been a year of many of us enduring losses much bigger than losing a tooth. Some of us have lost jobs, or had our hours reduced. A significant percentage of our congregation has moved, and even while a new home is exciting, we miss our old homes. Many grandparents and great-grandparents have had to go long stretches without seeing their grandkids, or even children. We’re missing out on physical touch, regular hugs. And today, we name aloud to God our grief over loved ones we have lost. This time of year with Thanksgiving and Christmas around the corner, we feel the loss of loved ones who may have died twenty or thirty years ago, and our increased inability to travel and our long periods of isolation make that loss even more difficult. The loss isn’t just like a missing tooth, or a haircut, but setting the table for two when there’s just one, picking up the phone out of habit and there’s no one to call. It takes a long time for those losses to heal.
Today is a day where we ask what God has to say about all of these losses we’re experiencing, and thanks be to God, God sustains us with plenty of good news from the Word this morning. As you may be aware, we’ve been going through the book of Revelation in our Saturday Bible study, and several of the participants commented that they’re not sure they have ever heard a sermon on Revelation. Well, challenge accepted! I want to focus on God’s hopeful good news to us from chapter seven in Revelation today. John wrote Revelation at a time when many Christians were suffering, being persecuted, and even dying because of their faith in Christ. John is not only writing to call unbelievers to belief and repentance, he is writing to encourage believers who have suffered many losses.
We typically think of fearful images such as the beast, the dragon, and the four horsemen of the apocalypse when we first think of what is contained in the book of Revelation. This is true about the book. In fact, Chapter 6 ends after the opening of six seals with plagues and destruction coming upon the Earth, and the Christian martyrs ask, “who is able to stand?” At the height of these faithful Christians’ suffering, fear and confusion we have God’s answer here in chapter 7: the faithful are able to stand because “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb!” The book of Revelation does not deny the reality of pain, suffering and loss for Christians. But it emphasizes over and over again the hope we have in Christ, the lamb who was slain, who has conquered all that we are afraid of so that we might live life eternally, whole and complete around God’s throne.
How can we stand? Who can stand it, any longer? Well, only by God’s help, we can. And this vision of heaven that chapter 7 gives us is one we can hold onto and look forward to. We have this promise that God will make everything complete and whole again. A great multitude that no one can count from every nation will stand in worship of God. We will hunger no more, thirst no more, weep no more. Whatever loss we suffer will be restored.
You know, one of the little things that I know at least some of you are missing is being able to come together around this altar rail for communion. In many churches, including ours, we have a visual reminder of what we can look forward to as Christians with an altar rail. It typically is not complete. It may be a round semi-circle or like ours, three-quarters of a square. The idea is that on the other side is God’s throne in heaven, where the saints that have gone before us, people we know and people we don’t, all the faithful from every time and place, join us each Sunday around the throne of God to worship at the feast that has no end. The vision of the book of Revelation is one of completion and wholeness. The numbers four and seven are used over and over again as numbers that are symbols of completeness. Four represents the four corners, four winds, four directions…it’s shorthand for everywhere! And so the four living creatures fall on their faces before the throne and worship God. And they sing a song with seven praises of God, another number of perfection and completion: “Blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Our God brings wholeness and completion through Christ!
Today, it’s OK to not feel complete. Whenever I run my tongue across my gums there’s that gap that reminds me I am not whole. Something is missing. As Christians, we feel this reality more acutely this year than in many years, that we can enjoy glimpses of heaven, glimpses of wholeness and restoration here on Earth but God’s vision of wholeness is definitely not yet fully a reality for us. We rejoice today that we are living saints of God, we are blessed, we are God’s beloved children. But through living the pain of this year we also know something is missing – something is not complete in us, we are still also sinners. The altar stands empty awaiting our return to “regular worship” sometime in the near future. Our loved ones join us on Zoom across the country and the globe awaiting a much bigger reunion. And our loved ones on the other side of heaven stand ready with God to welcome us to our eternal home when that times comes. In our missing half of ourselves, we sustain one another with the hope we have in Christ the Lamb seated on the throne, who will guide us to springs of the water of life, wipe every tear from our eyes, and give us a home eternally. Amen.