The Saints Don't Long to Come Back
Today we remember all those who have died in Christ. We see our Christian dead in heaven safe with Christ as they indeed are, but we wish they were back here with us. I have news for you. They don't want to come back. It's not like in the movie "Ghost" or the more recent "What Dreams May Come." They aren't pining away to be back here. Why would those who shine in glory wish to be back here with us who feebly struggle? More importantly why don't we who feebly struggle here long to be there with those who shine in glory?
We celebrate All Saints' Day not to miss our loved ones who have passed on in Christ, but to remember the end of their faith that our faith might be encouraged. But what do we do? We think of our loved ones at holidays, celebrations, or vacations in the past rather than being in the heavenly Church in the present. It's as if they were happier here than they are there. We think this way because we judge the Church in heaven by the Church on earth. The earthly Church is filled with sinners who regularly irritate, annoy and even hurt one another. The earthly Church is torn by schism. The earthly Church just plain bores sinners sometimes. Moreover, it is weak and despised in the world. People want to be associated with Dell, Longhorn football, or presidential politics more than they do with the Church on earth.
Don't judge the Church in heaven by what you see of the Church on earth. John shows us that the Church in heaven is not characterized by sinners but by the glory of God. He shows us that the Church in heaven is not torn by schism but one, holy, complete Church. And far from being scorned or forgotten by the nations, the glory and the honor of the nations are brought into Her. In heaven it doesn't matter if you're associated with a powerful nation, a rich company, or a successful sports team; it only matters that you're associated with the Church.
How different things are in heaven than they are on earth. The saints in heaven long for you to be with them in the heavenly Church. They are not looking down wishing they could be with you at that birthday celebration or this holiday or on that vacation. No, they're longing for you to be where they are. And do you know what they're doing this very minute? Exactly what you're doing. The bulletin says the servants of the Lamb "will serve Him." Literally it says "they will liturgize Him." The saints in heaven are not carrying water, building mansions, or paving streets with gold. They are singing the Lamb's praises, hearing of His mighty acts, and rejoicing in His salvation just like you're doing right now. Only their liturgy isn't hampered by their sinfulness as our is.
The saints in heaven don't long to come back. What they long for is for you to know the Lamb as closely as they do. But think about it? Who wants to be associated with a lamb? The Mercury cougar is much more appealing. And can you imagine Exxon filming a lamb running down the street rather than a Bengal tiger? Who wants a lamb in their tank? Even Merrill Lynch's bull is preferable to a lamb, isn't it? There is a fad sweeping across the smaller towns of Texas called Mutton Busting. Kids 6 years and under ride sheep around a rodeo ring. It's funny because everyone knows sheep are weak, defenseless, harmless. Lambs are even more so, aren't they?
So who wants to be associated with a lamb? How much better for our Christian dead to be back here where they could still have a tiger in their tank! How much better for them to be here where they could drive a Mercury Cougar, a Dodge Viper, or a Ford Mustang! How much better for them to be here where they could still be associated with a bull charging through a China shop! You see, we can only think that they somehow long to be here because we really do have a low view of lambs. They don't however. The Church, both in heaven and on earth is "the wife of the Lamb." Those in heaven know Him as their Provider, their Protector, their Peace. Not only is the Lamb the Groom of the Church, He is their Lamp. There is no sun or moon, no night or darkness for the saints in heaven because the Lamb is a continual lamp there.
You don't get the full joy of this without stopping and thinking. Some people are afraid of the dark; in heaven there is no darkness to fear because of the Lamb. Some older folks can't drive at night and don't even like to go out in it. Shadows and shading make things uncertain, indefinite, but not in heaven. Everything looks bleaker at night. Every problem looks taller; every valley looks lower; every sadness deeper. So much does everything look worse in the night, that we habitually say to ourselves and others, "Things will look better in the morning." In heaven, there is no night because the Lamb is always there driving away every shadow, every shade.
In heaven, the Lamb is the Groom of the Church, the Lamp of the Church, and the Temple of the Church. The bulletin reads, "I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb ARE its temple." But what it really says is "I did not see a temple in the city, but THE Lord, THE God, THE Almighty, temple of it IS even the Lamb. All through the Book of Revelation John sees the mysterious Trinity through the Lamb. The Lamb is always before the throne. The Triune God, the Lord, the God, The Almighty is the temple through the Lamb. The Lamb is the God of heaven.
He is the God of earth too. Though the whole world longs to be associated with cougars, tigers and bulls, the Christian Church has always longed for the Lamb. Coming here each Sunday as we do, we are confessing that we are followers of the Lamb. Even though we do indeed often long for our dead in Christ to be back here, in this sanctuary we confess ourselves to be longing for the Lamb.
The third window on my right depicts a Lamb lying down on a book sealed with seven seals. This symbolism is straight out of the Book of Revelation. The Lamb lying down represents Christ bearing the sins of the world. He is lying down because the burden is monstrously heavy. The book He is lying on is all of human history. The Lamb in the Book of Revelation is the only one who is worthy to set in motion all of human history. Do you see what we are confessing by this window? All of human history is in the hands of Christ the Lamb of God that bears not only our sins but the sins of the whole world. Though we may drive a cougar with a tiger in its tank paid for by the help of Merrill Lynch's bull, we confess here that a Lamb is in control of not just world history but our history.
But that's not the only Lamb we have here. We express a oneness with our dead in Christ who worship the same Lamb we do by having another window with a Lamb on it. Appropriately enough we see this Lamb as we leave. On the center window in the choir loft, the Lamb is depicted standing up with a banner. This stands for the victorious, risen Christ who has conquered by means of the cross. Notice that the Lamb has the symbol for the Father and the Holy Spirit on windows on either side, and that the symbol for the Holy Trinity is on the same window as the Lamb though above it. This is straight out of Revelation. Here on earth as it is heaven, we only know the Trinity through the Lamb.
Friends, it is not that our loved ones in Christ safe in heaven long to be back here where the cougars, tigers and bulls roam. No, we long to be there with them where the Lamb reigns visibly. You see Woodstock was right. Woodstock was that music festival that took place in Woodstock, New York in 1969. A famous song from there has the line, "We've got to get back to the Garden." Yes, we here on this fallen earth long to get back to the perfect Garden of Eden.
The problem is we think we have made this fallen earth back into the Garden. There was no sickness or death in the Garden. We think if we get our flu shots, watch our diet, do our exercises that somehow there will be no death here. There were no clothes in Eden; the climate was comfortable day and night; the growing season perfect. We think through central heat and air, hot houses, and artificial light that we have made it back to the Garden.
What? Am I crazy? Do I wish to do away with flu shots, good diets, and healthy exercises? Do I want to stop using central heat and air, greenhouses, and artificial light? Not hardly. I only wish to point out that these things can give us the illusion that we have made it back to the Garden, and that's why we at times long for our loved ones safe in heaven to be back here on earth. The real irony of this is that they HAVE made it back to the Garden.
Can't you see the Garden in the last part of the text? There is a river of water flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb to water all of heaven. In Eden, a river flowed from the garden to water all the earth. And what's this? The tree of life. You remember the tree of life that the Lord drove Adam and Eve away from lest they eat of it in their fallen state and so live forever lost. But here is the tree of life not merely bearing fruit in season, but every month. There is more than enough to go around. And would you look at what the leaves are for? For the healing of the nations. What were leaves used for in Eden? Covering the shame of Adam and Eve. How much better than Eden is heaven!
Even if we could get back to the Garden here by means of medicine and technology, we would still have the curse to contend with. Women would still have pain in the childbearing process, the ground would still be cursed even if weed killers kept it at bay, and we would still have to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow. But how is it for the saints in heaven? "No longer will there be any curse," says our text.
Dear friends, our real longing is to be with our loved ones in heaven not just for them. Such a longing draws us here Sunday after Sunday. Here heaven and earth touch. Here the Lamb of God that they see face to face we see in the Waters of Holy Baptism, in the Words of Holy Absolution, and especially in the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion. Here the Lord lifts His countenance on us and makes His face to shine upon us even as He does always on the saints in heaven. Here the heavenly liturgy is done on earth even as it always being done in heaven. And our windows aren't merely decorated for show but for faith. We could at much less expense be looking out on 45th street and see the cougars, tigers and bulls powerfully going by. But instead we shut off and out the world and put before our eyes what the saints of Christ see constantly before them: the great things of our salvation and the Great One of our salvation, the Lamb.
To be sure, we can't help but at times long for our loved ones in Christ to be back here with us in this life. However, this is never the case for them. They only want us to know the perfect bliss that they know in the City of the Lamb. We confess the same by returning here again and again to bow once more before the Lamb and receive His good gifts rejoicing that here the distance between the saints in heaven and those on earth is really not that great at all. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Saints Sunday (11-5-00) Rev. 21:9-11,22-27; 22:1-5