Softly and Tenderly

Revelation 21.1-6

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”

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Revelation is full of some of the most bizarre imagery in all of Christianity. Pick up the bible; flip all the way to the end, and what you find sounds like the stuff that some people will scream out from the street corners of life. In Revelation we read about beasts and dragons and lambs, we catch a glimpse of the bowls of God’s wrath, and the destruction of the world.

It is an often-ignored book of the bible, and for good reason. Revelation has been responsible for countless deaths throughout the centuries, as zealous Christians believed they were seeing the images of the book before their eyes and acted accordingly. It rests at the foundation for some of the strangest modern Christian literature. And it accounts for the never-ending amount of fundamentalist preachers who claim to know the exact day of calamity that will bring about the end of the existence.

Growing up in the church, I can barely remember ever hearing about Revelation. On Sunday mornings we were more inclined to hear about the miracles of Jesus in the gospels, or the great narratives of Genesis, than we were to hear about visions of God’s power and destruction. Even today as a pastor, I am ashamed to admit that after leading worship for two and a half years, I have only preached on Revelation once, and frankly it was to talk about the writer of Revelation more than the text itself.

Yet, if regular worship ignores the power of Revelation, funerals are the place where it is most needed.

It is no accident that the text we read this morning has been used and associated with Christian burials for nearly as long as the church has existed. When faithful disciples gather for services of death and resurrection, Revelation 21.1-6 needs to be read precisely because of what it proclaims. This handful of verses offers evocative and moving images of comfort to those of us who live past our friends and family who die, and for those of us who live in troubled times.

John of Patmos, the writer of Revelation, saw a map of the future; a description of what God will do in time. From his vantage point John witnessed a new heaven and a new earth. All that we have come to know had passed away from recognition, and even the sea was no more. But there in the sky John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from heaven adorned like a bride for her husband. Like the wonderful moment of a bride walking down the aisle in church, with all of the joy and expectation of a new and beautiful future, God’s city came to rest with God’s creation.

And then John heard a loud and booming voice declare, “See God’s home is now with mortals. God will live with them and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will cease to exist; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. The first things have passed away and God’s divine reality will reign forever.

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And the one seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new! Write this down because it is trustworthy and true. It is done! I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”

John’s words are a consolation, a vision of hope for a people in distress. These words have brought comfort to countless Christians throughout the centuries, from the earliest disciples persecuted for their faith to those who still live in fear because of what they believe. And at funerals, they help to remind each of us about God’s love in the past, present, and future.

It was freezing outside as we all gathered around the grave. We had gone through the funeral service in the sanctuary, we had praised God in spite of loss, we had remembered the saint’s life that were now about to bury in the ground, and we had somberly marched into the cemetery with our heads hung low.

There is a strange thing that happens between the sanctuary service and the graveside. The finality of death takes on an entirely new and deeper meaning as you witness a casket or urn prepared to be lowered into the earth. Gone are the familiar smells and sights of the sanctuary only to be replaced with the sounds of nature and the smell of dirt.

We stood there and patiently waited for the family to gather as close as possible, and then every eye turned to me. When we mourn the dead, we become helpless and rely on someone to guide us through the right words and actions, hoping that the pastor will be true to the life and death of our beloved while declaring the hope of the resurrection.

Every person shivered in the wind. I offered prayers and scriptures reflective of the person’s life, I made time for silence so that we could all properly reflect on what we were doing, and then I walked over the casket. I reached down to the ground, and like I had countless times before, I grabbed the loose soil and dropped it onto the wood. And then with my hands resting on the casket I began to sing, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling. Calling for you and for me. Earnestly tenderly Jesus is calling, calling O Sinner come home. Come home, come home, ye who are weary come home. Earnestly tenderly Jesus is calling, calling O sinner come home.

4.2.7

4.2.7

The beauty of Revelation 21 is in the discovery that God will dwell with us, and the home of God will be with us. The hope of the text is the fact that God will call for all of us to come home at one point or another. The bell will toll for us all, but death has lost its sting because of the gift and grace of Jesus Christ.

Since becoming a pastor, I have had to bury a lot of saints, those faithful servants of God’s kingdom who witnessed in their lives to the love of God. While I have sat with numerous friends and families as we mourned the dead I have been brought back to this passage in Revelation that describes the beautiful future in store for us. And though we weep here and now on earth, we wait for that glorious day when death will be no more, when mourning and crying and pain will be no more and we live and with the One who reigns forever.

Today we honor the saints who have come before us, whose examples we wish to follow. God has gathered us in this place to remember what the saints did with their lives, and give thanks for their witness. The saints of faith are our brothers and sisters who risked in all for the sake of Christ.

Today we remember those from this church who have died in the last year, and we join in mourning with all of their friends and families. We remember George Harris, Howard Cassidy, Ray Lancaster, John Taylor, Sam Folkes, Jerry Pangburn, Jo Anne Berg, Dick Dickerson, Lucy Wisely, Frances Pack, Frank Rankin, and Steve Wisely. Some of us have the privilege to recall the life lessons they shared with us, we can remember admiring them for their faith, and we can even picture where they used to worship in this sanctuary.

To hear their names while hearing the words of God from Revelation is to join in solidarity with the saints of our lives and be strengthened by their witness; we too can be saints if our lives become examples of God’s love and compassion toward others.

Being a saint is not something that just happens when we die, but is a worthy goal in the here and now. Instead of lazily watching the days of life pass by, we can embrace God’s call on our lives to start bringing about glimpses of God’s kingdom on earth. This vision of the new heaven is available to us because God continues to make all things new, even us.

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So where do we begin? We begin by looking to the place where God dwells with mortals: worship. We start our saintly lives by mirroring the saints who have come before us. We give thanks for their witness remembering that they modeled their lives after Christ and we start doing the same.

We look for the living saints in the pews next to us. We ask for their prayers to give us the grace to be better Christians, we seek them out for advice, and we rely on their teachings. We begin seeing the pews not as walls of division, but instead as avenues of connection.

And then we come to the table and feast from the bread and the cup being strengthened for the work of ministry in the world. We start seeing this table as the connection between past, present, and future, as we remember all who have feasted before us and that this is a foretaste of God’s heavenly kingdom.

We can start living like saints because we belong to a communion of saints. We can start living like saints because Jesus gave his life to destroy the powers of death. We can start living like saints because God makes all things new. Amen.

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