“The Multitude from Every Nation”

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.  They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”  And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”  I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.”  Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.  They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Today is October 31st, so I say to all “Happy Halloween!”  — an annual event that seems to take over our national psyche a little more each year.  But did you know it’s also the day on which other significant events have taken place?

  • On this day in 1941, Mount Rushmore was completed after 14 years of work
  • In 1938 Orson Welles broadcast his famous ”War of the Worlds” that caused much of the United States to become panicked by the possibility that Mars might be invading the world
  • In 1926, Harry Houdini, the American magician and stuntman died on this date
  • In 1913, our country celebrated the dedication of the Lincoln Highway, the first automobile highway across the United States – which I only mention because there’s a superb novel by that name that came out last month which I HIGHLY recommend
  • And in 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses, which challenged many of the teachings of the Catholic Church, on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany which we commemorate as Reformation Sunday

“Hallow” — or holy person — refers to the saints celebrated on All Saints’ Day, which we celebrate as the festival when we give God thanks for the saints who have walked the way of faith before us.  Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when the Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago, mostly in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their new year.

All Saints Day marks the end of summer, the harvest, and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death.  Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31st they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.

Most Sundays our church focuses on living out our Christian faith.  But this is the Sunday of the church’s year when the church gathers and gives thanks to God for past people, for dead people.

Yet it’s not just this Sunday.  In a way, EVERY Sunday is All Saints Day. Whenever we sing a hymn, read from the Bible, even pray or preach, we are doing so with the saints.  We’re dependent on those who have gone before us to give us the words, tell us the stories, and teach us the tunes through which we praise God, grow in our faith and commitment, and find the ways that lead us to God.

Today’s lesson from Revelation, the last book of the Bible, speaks of heaven as a great multitude so large that no one could count them.  This passage is often read at funerals and memorial services.  At a time of death, as we celebrate memories of our loved ones, we also seek to look ahead to our shared destination. This passage from Revelation lifts up the gift God gives us in our Christian memory, both individual and collective.

This great multitude are those who, having sung God’s songs on earth in their lifetimes, now sing that song before the throne of the lamb for all time.  When asked, “Who are these?” the author, known as John the Elder from the island of Patmos, is told that they are the ones who passed through great ordeals and yet were faithful.  They kept believing, and hoping, witnessing, and giving, even when the going got rough.  Now they rest from their labors.  Now they’re in the presence of the great shepherd who wipes away all tears and guides them to the waters of eternal life.

Note that these saints, robed in white, are in a great processional, a great parade moving around the throne of God.  You and I today are part of that long, more than 2,000-year processional moving toward the lamb.  The saints are those who walk before us, those who show us the way. 

I would not be here today if it were not for all those saints who guided me – in the Baptist church of my childhood, Sunday School, in youth group, those who told me the stories of Jesus, those who taught me in a college religion class, in seminary, in the first UCC church I belonged to.  Those who believed in me and guided me when I was confused, and put their arms around me when I was struggling.  I’m thinking of a multitude of members of this congregation, who are too many to name.  I expect that you are also thinking about the people who brought you here today, the saints who nurtured you in this faith and to whom you owe your commitment to Christ.

We’re only here as a church – having survived multiple challenges, including a pandemic – because a number of particular people, in every age, embodied and practiced their faith in visible ways.  As Val said a few minutes ago, “This past year may have been our greatest challenge, but it is also our greatest triumph.”  Many of you are here this morning because some person whom you admired (probably a person older than you) lived their faith in such a wonderful, inspiring way that you said, “I’d like to live that way myself.”

So I invite you now to take a moment to reflect upon, and then name, the saints you have known in your lives…For those at home, hold their names on your lips and in your heart.  For those gathered here, please share their names and I’ll repeat them the best I’m able…

Let us remember what we owe to the saints, all of them.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.