I preached this sermon on All Saints Sunday, the traditional day on which the church celebrates the lives of saints who have gone on to be with the Lord. I tackle the problem of death head-on, and our hope for heaven. “Brothers and sisters, the gospel is this: In this world of tears, in this world of sin and suffering, in this world in which death seems to win, our Lord Jesus Christ assures us, ‘I will make this right!'”
Sermon Text: Revelation 7:9-17
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
Heaven has been back in the news recently. A couple of weeks ago, Newsweek magazine featured a cover story on the subject—a first-person account written by a highly respected neurosurgeon named Eben Alexander. Several years ago, Dr. Alexander contracted bacterial meningitis. He was in a coma for seven days. During that time, monitors measured brainwave activity, and we know for sure that his cortex—the part of the brain that controls thoughts and emotions; the part of the brain that makes us human—was shut off. For all practical purposes, he was braid-dead. Yet somehow, during this time, he was fully conscious. And he had what he believes was an experience of heaven.
Dr. Alexander was nominally Christian before, but he didn’t put much stock in the many reports of near-death experiences. He believed they were caused by the cortex malfunctioning. In this case, however, his cortex wasn’t functioning at all. So how is it possible that he had this experience? He’s now not only a believer in life after death; this experience has brought him back to his Christian faith and back to church.
I’ve told you in the past about the weird and troubling nightmares I often have. One recurring one that I have is getting a call from my old high school principal, who tells me that they recently discovered that there was a mix-up with their record-keeping 24 years ago when I graduated. They audited their files, and as it turns out, I didn’t really take all the required coursework that I needed to graduate and earn a high school diploma. So, in spite of the fact that I now have three college degrees, I have to go back and finish high school. If I don’t, they’ll call Georgia Tech and Emory University and tell them to take away my college degrees! So in my dream, I’m this 42-year-old man walking the halls of my old high school with a bunch of teenagers, trying to remember my locker combination! I know it’s ridiculous. But you know how it is when you have a nightmare: it seems so real and powerful! In those first, groggy moments after I wake up from this dream, I have to spend a few seconds convincing myself that “No, Brent, you are not back in high school. No one is going to take away your college degrees. No one is going to say that your professional credentials aren’t legitimate. You have a job and a wife and a family and everything is O.K. This is the real world; that dream is not the real world.” And I feel a sense of relief! And after a few more moments I feel foolish that I could mistake this silly dream for reality.
When I was reading the Newsweek article, one thing that impressed me about the doctor’s story is that when he regained consciousness, he didn’t have that experience of waking up from a dream. On the contrary: he believed that his time in heaven was at least as real, at least as solid, at least as substantial, as anything he’d experienced in this world of time and space.
That’s helpful to me as I think about heaven—because, for me, I find a lot of the language we use to talk about heaven unhelpful. For example, for the past 17 years, whenever a significant milestone in my life occurred—graduations, the birth of my children, ordination—I could count on my Aunt Mary, who died last month, telling me how confident she was that her late brother, my dad, was “looking down on me” and feeling pride at my accomplishment. I would never tell her this, but the thought that Dad had the equivalent of a 50-yard-line club-level seat in heaven, viewing all the significant events in my life, never brought me much comfort. I figure, if deceased loved ones can see us at our best, what’s stopping them from seeing us at our worst? I can’t help but think of Superman’s X-ray vision. Maybe a lead-lined umbrella would protect me from my dad’s prying eyes?
Regardless, my problem with speculating about what people can and can’t see down here makes me think of comic books and superheroes and X-ray vision. It makes me think of people who live somewhere up there looking at us down here—as if heaven were a physical place somewhere up in the stars. In other words, this way of speaking of heaven makes it seem unreal to me. I need heaven to be real.
In today’s scripture, John wants us to know that heaven is real—at least as real, at least as solid, at least as substantial as anything we know in this world. The seven churches to whom he addressed this special kind of letter that we call the Book of Revelation needed to know that heaven is real. Many Christians were being persecuted at the hands of the Roman Empire. Many were suffering. Many were being killed—all because of their Christian faith. For many of them, life itself was a nightmare. And John wanted them to know that it’s a nightmare from which they would awake—and they would awake into a new and better reality. One in which they would never hunger or thirst again, where Jesus Christ, the lamb whose blood was shed to take away the sins of the world, would also be their Good Shepherd. And Jesus would lead them beside springs of life-giving water, and wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Does life ever seem like a nightmare to us?
Our temptation is to compare our lives with the lives of these early saints and think, “Well, I haven’t suffered nearly as much as they suffered. I live this comfortable suburban life in which I have everything I need. More often than not, suffering for me is waiting two hours in line for early voting. Unlike these first-century saints, no one’s going to throw me in jail or get me killed for going to church. What do I know about suffering? Who am I to complain?”
But not so fast… On this All-Saints Sunday, for example, it’s likely that some of us are nursing painful memories of loved ones who are no longer with us.
We’ve probably all known faithful Christians who lived good, long lives and were well-prepared for death when it came. They knew the peace of Christ that surpasses all understanding. And when we went to their funeral, it felt like a celebration of a life well-lived. We’ve probably also known others who’ve suffered for years from debilitating illness, like Alzheimer’s, and when death finally came, it came as a welcome relief.
But sadly, we’ve probably also experienced death in other ways—when death comes unexpectedly, for instance. When loved ones die in tragic accidents. When spouses die suddenly of unforeseen illnesses. When children commit suicide. When young soldiers die in war. When parents have to bury their children. When parents suffer stillbirth or miscarriage. So far from being a welcome relief or a peaceful transition at the end of a long life, death punches us in the gut and mocks us and causes us to question our faith.
One of the best funerals I ever attended was the funeral for my Uncle Harold. He died, unexpectedly at 54, and, well, 54 isn’t old, and his death felt premature. His life felt unresolved. He had so much more living to do. There were things that needed to be said that were left unsaid. I’ll never forget the elderly country Baptist preacher who led the funeral service. After he eulogized Harold and preached the gospel, he sang Harold’s favorite gospel song, a song called “Beulahland.” He sang in this authentic, quavery, country voice. In between the first and second stanzas, he motioned to the pianist to stop playing for a moment. With tears in his eyes and his voice cracking, he said, “Fifty-four years isn’t long enough, is it?” And at this point, it was like a dam burst. Most of us in the sanctuary of that church just lost it; the tears came quickly. This preacher spoke the words that all of us were feeling. Fifty-four years isn’t long enough. This death, this terrible thing that has happened, has robbed us of this life we cherished, and it just hurts and there’s no getting around it. It hurts!
No… Maybe we’re not being martyred for our faith, but we all know enough about suffering in this world.
I haven’t told you about my no-good lousy dog Neko in a while. That’s in part because she has grown into this good, sweet little girl… for the most part, at least. One small problem we have now is that she’s always looking for opportunities to bolt… to escape from the house, to escape from the fence in the backyard, to escape from her leash or collar. She’ll come back, of course, after she’s had her fun, but not before we start worrying about her. There are wild animals that might attack her. There are cars that might run over her. There are neighbors in nearby subdivisions who might fall in love with her and decide to keep her as their own.She bolted recently one night when I had her on a leash in the front yard. I wasn’t holding the leash tightly. And she heard an animal rustle in the woods nearby, and she took off into the darkness.
I was so angry at her! But I was angry because I loved her, and I was worried. I didn’t want her to get hurt or get in trouble. Why doesn’t she trust me? I know what’s best for her! I know what she needs to be safe! I know what she needs to be happy! And she’ll be happiest on my leash, by my side, following my rules, following my direction. But she still ran away… What if her leash got hung on a bush or tree in the middle of the night, and she couldn’t get away? All these scary thoughts went through my head.
I love this dog. Because I love her, I was angry at her for running away. Because I love her, I was filled with compassion for her. Because I love her, I wanted her to be safe. Because I love her, I wanted to rescue her from harm. Because I love her, I wanted to find her and bring her back home where she belonged. And if something bad happened to her out there in the dark woods or on the streets nearby… if she got hurt… if she got killed… If something bad happened to her, and I had the power to fix it, to make it right, I promise I would.
Brothers and sisters, the gospel is this: In this world of tears, in this world of sin and suffering, in this world in which death seems to win, our Lord Jesus Christ assures us, “I will make this right!”
And he did make it right, first by coming to us—God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God—and took upon himself our sins, and died the death that we deserved to die, and defeated all the powerful forces of sin, evil and death in our world, and he won a victory over them. And through his resurrection, he gives us the victory. We don’t experience this victory in all its fullness on this side of eternity, but today’s scripture promises us that we will experience it on the other side. In heaven. In resurrection. In the meantime, we hold fast to this vision of heaven, for we know—we feel it deep in our bones—that the day is coming when our Lord will shelter us, when we won’t hunger or thirst anymore, when he will lead us beside springs of life-giving water, when he will wipe away our every tear. That day is coming. The Bible tells us so.
When I was an engineer, I traveled frequently with a group of guys who were field service technicians. Most of them were a little rough around the edges. The Queen would not invite them to have tea at Buckingham Palace, if you know what I mean? But I loved them. Most of them used salty language, but one of them, especially, used to curse like a sailor—except when he called his wife. One minute, he would be all, “Blankety-blank this blankin’ machine. And that guy is bankety-blank-blank-blank if he thinks I’m going to blankety blank that thing!” And then he’s like, “Hey, baby. I miss you so much. I can’t wait to see you. I love you so much. I’ll see you soon. O.K., I love you.” The mushiest stuff came out of his mouth. It seemed so out of character. I teased him about it a little. “Why do you get all mushy like that when you talk to your wife?” And, without skipping a beat—in complete seriousness—he looked me in the eye and said, “Because it might be the last thing she ever hears me say.”
That shut me up completely. There’s a favorite prayer of mine from our United Methodist funeral liturgy. It includes these words: “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.” In his own way, my co-worker was living that prayer out—at least as it relates to his wife. I’m willing to bet that many of the saints that we’ve honored today, who’ve made an important difference in our lives, for whom we are grateful to God, lived as those who are prepared to die.
In response to this message, let’s make the words of this prayer our own: “O God, who gave us birth, help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are accomplished, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in you, and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.”