As a preacher, I know I have a tendency to talk a lot about grief. And that’s because grief has been a part of my life for just about as long as I can remember. I went to my first funeral when I was five (or, at least, the first funeral I can remember). It was for my mom’s mom, my Grandma Orpha – though we always called her Grandma Ziggy. She had been sick with cancer, and she looked sicker every time we went to see her. She died around Christmas time that year, and two months later, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.
The same year my mom died, one of our next door neighbors who was a dear friend of the family was violently murdered – which was as traumatic as you might imagine. And over the years since then, I have lost grandparents and great grandparents, uncles, mentors, close friends still in their 20s, and a cousin I grew up with who was born the same year I was. I’m only 35 and I have already lost so many people that I care about.
So when I read a text like this one from Revelation, it hits me differently. When I try to picture the multitudes gathered together in praise before God’s throne, it’s not a faceless crowd of people that I’m imagining. I see my mom’s face – and Grandpa George, and Kristin and Kasey and Ellen and Uncle Franklin and Leo and a whole host of others. I see the faces of all the saints that I remember and honor today.
The vision that John describes in this text is full of power and comfort: God is seated on the throne of all creation, surrounded by angels and elders and living creatures. And all around the throne, there are people – people beyond number, from all nations and tribes and languages – people who lived and suffered and died, who came through ordeal and tribulation; some who lived long lives, others who died well before their time. All of them, together, stand before God’s throne, dressed in clean, fresh clothing, singing and worshiping and praising God. These people are under God’s protection, and they will no longer know hunger or thirst, or pain, or death.
Although I often feel sad remembering the people that I’ve lost, it brings me comfort and hope to remember the promises that God has made to us about eternal life together in the kingdom. And grief actually keeps me in touch with that feeling of hope. I remarked to a friend of mine earlier this week that I often feel like I’m living with one foot in this world and the other foot in the world to come; there are so many loved ones I will never get to see again in this life – and so I live trusting in God’s promises, hoping that I will get to see them in the life to come.
No earthly power can give us that kind of hope. No earthly power can even come close to giving us the things that God has promised us. Human power and agency and wealth stop at the point of death and go no further. As we see in our first reading from Revelation and in our psalm, only God has power over life and death. Only God has power both in this life and in the next. And so we put our trust in God for our future, because we know – like the psalmist writes – that God will deliver us from all our terrors and save us from all our troubles, that God will redeem our lives.
And our hope isn’t only for God’s promised future. God has power both in this life in the next, and just as God acts powerfully to give us a future full of hope, God is also powerfully at work in this world right now, in the present. God’s power is at work answering our prayer that “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The kingdom of God isn’t only a future hope that we await on the day of resurrection; the kingdom is already under construction right now, in this world, in this life.
And I think our gospel reading from Matthew gives us some clues as to where and how we might find that kingdom construction work in action. This text, of course, is the beatitudes, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In the beatitudes, Jesus lifts up several different categories of people and calls them “blessed.” His list includes the poor, the grieving, the persecuted, and others that we probably would not immediately think of as being blessed. These folks aren’t blessed in the way that many of us might think about blessings – they’re not blessed in terms of wealth or health or material happiness. Instead, they are the people to whom God is most present. And it’s among such people that the work of the kingdom is often most vibrant and most active.
This is where we are called to go, to join in the kingdom work among God’s beloved people. Because we know that, of all the powerful ways God works in the world, one of the most powerful ways is through us. “God’s work, our hands,” is more than just the tagline for the ELCA. Even as we cling tightly to this hope in God that we hold for the future, that hope also calls us to be present to the needs and possibilities of the present moment. Our hope for the future calls us to engage with the present, to join in kingdom-building efforts wherever we can find them.
And although we know that human power and authority are limited, we also know that God still works through it to shape the world. This is something we should all bear in mind this week especially, as we prepare once more to choose leaders to have power and authority over our country, our state, and our community. We should let these values guide us and try to choose leaders in line with qualities listed in the beatitudes: leaders who are merciful and humble, leaders who place an emphasis on peacemaking, leaders who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice.
Maybe it feels a little incongruous to talk about grief and the upcoming election and hope for the future all together in the same sermon. But, again, this is what it’s like to live with one foot in this world and the other foot in the world to come. Our hope for the future informs the choices that we make in the present; it can help us to see that the work we do here and now in God’s name is in continuity with the kingdom to come. We can choose to be part of the answer to that prayer that “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
As Christians, we live with our eyes fixed on Christ. We trust him to lead us forward into the future – knowing that that future will take us all the way through death and beyond. And we live with hope and longing for that vision from Revelation – for that day when, at long last, we too put on those clean, fresh clothes, pick up our palm branches, and join those faces we’ve been longing to see in eternal praise before God’s throne:
“Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”Revelation 7:12