We had a death in the parish early this week, and the funeral will be tomorrow morning. As I looked over the readings suggested by the Prayer Book for a funeral, it was tempting to steer the family toward Revelation 21 and John 11—maybe no one will notice that I am preaching the same sermon twice. But I ended up going in the other direction. I chose different lessons because All Saints’ Sunday isn’t supposed to feel like a funeral even if a funeral is supposed to feel like All Saints’ Day.
These lessons, as my friend Steve Pankey pointed out early in the week, are all about heaven. What’s heaven like? In my preparation for a Tuesday, lectionary-based bible study, I read about Wisdom of Solomon—a 1st-century-BCE text that was written by an anonymous Hellenistic Jew. Given its date and context, I’m guessing that it holds the view of heaven that was common in Jesus’ day: “Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself.” The reading from Wisdom seems to suggest that heaven is an escape from the pains of this world. The foolish, it stresses, are those who look at the suffering of a righteous person in this life as the end. Although it doesn’t mention the wise, it implies that they can see that beyond this painful, tragic life is hope for something else. The whole lesson gives me the sense that someday God will reach down and pluck us off this island rock and transport us to space.
The reading from Revelation takes a radically different approach: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Instead of an Earth-to-Heaven salvation, it envisions paradise descending onto the earth and the whole creation being made new (see Pankey’s blog on this). What strikes me, though, is that the situation for the author and readers of Revelation was still very much like that of Wisdom—persecutions, suffering, occupation, oppression. What changed in between Wisdom and Revelation? What happened to help the theologians of the day realize that God’s promise of salvation isn’t an escapist hope but a confidence that this world will someday be made new?
The answer, of course, is Jesus. Jesus shows us that God is invested in this world—not as an accident but as a purpose. God doesn’t wait to take us away from this mess. He comes down, takes on the created nature, and redeems it. Both passages understand that our suffering is not the end of the story, but one of them gets the real message of hope. We are not waiting for an ejector seat that will rocket us up away from this mess. We are waiting for God’s reign to be established here so that all pain and suffering will go away. That means the world we live in is a sign of hope—not just a sign of brokenness.