All Saints’ Day 2015

All Saints
Revelation 7:9-17
November 1, 2015 A+D

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

John hears the great multitude singing a song of praise: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb!” There is probably no time on earth when the song of the Church Militant matches the song of the Church Triumphant more closely than All Saints’ Day.

Whether the saints are singing or not in Revelation 7 might be debated, but the word translated by the ESV as “crying” out means that they have deep emotion. People cry out in anger or fear or joy. It doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not the words were spoken, chanted, or sung.  This happens to be the word that was used of the crowds as they cried out Hosanna on Palm Sunday. They probably sang then also because it was a Psalm. Anyway, these saints are singing, explicitly, elsewhere in the Book of Revelation, and it would not make a lot of sense here for them to be yelling praise at God.

They are singing because that is the natural way for Christians to speak. When one is freed from all sorrows and sin, filled with joy and beholding the beatific vision, there is really no choice but to sing. That which Christ has won for us, which He bestows in His abundant generosity, calls forth in us exuberant and selfless joy that cannot be fully expressed or articulated with mere words or at half volume. They sing in a loud voice.

Even on this side of glory, adding music helps to serve the emotional overload that comes with the forgiveness of sins. Though we are baptized and our sins are forgiven, we are still bogged down by the memory of our sins and temptation. We are afflicted with many sorrows. We aren’t yet as free as the saints transferred to glory, so we can’t express the joy we feel with the same selfless abandon that they do. We have real reasons to still be sorrowful and numb. We still have laments to sing and songs of mourning, whereas they have none. They have no regrets or shame. They are utterly free of temptation and have been sealed in bliss. And they have had every tear wiped from their eyes. So they have to sing. They can’t help it. They sing the way we breathe or our hearts beat because there is no way, even in perfection, for words alone, in monotone, to carry the joy of what they have in Christ.

But our lack luster praise comes from more than legitimate sorrows and the struggles of the cross. There is something of our fallen flesh that is self-aware and self-absorbed. It holds us back from the full-throated exuberance of the saints in heaven because we are embarrassed and ashamed. The more affluence we have and the more we imagine ourselves to be intellectually and doctrinally and even liturgically sophisticated, the less we will abandon ourselves to God and give ourselves over to this joy. We are afraid of looking foolish and thus are guilty of being proud. This causes us to prefer toned-down doxology and prayer. “The self-sufficient cannot and will not abandon themselves to God”* because they only need a little help from God and the way they worship shows it.

Repent.  This is the path to Hell and it is paved with calm expressions, songs that fail to give God His due, and prayers that don’t ask for anything.

This is not to say that the worship style of modern day charismatics and so-called “praise songs” is more self-abandoning and exuberant in the way of heaven than the stodgy Lutherans who are looking over their shoulders to see who is looking at them. In fact, if they are compared to the Book of Revelation and the Psalter, the singing and style of what are known as “praise songs”  are obviously shallow and vapid. They are a narcissistic reductionism to merely the emotional. They feed not the soul but the self. It is not self-abandonment at all. Rather it is a pre-occupation with self that puts its own cultural tastes and preferences, and its desires to be gratified, above the salvation of God in Christ. That is why they typically have very little of the history of God’s salvation in them.

In contrast, the saints in heaven sing: “Salvation belongs to our God who is sitting on the throne and to the Lamb.” That song shows us that highest praise we can give God is to recognize Him as our Savior but it also tells us something of the Trinity and of the Ascension while also invoking the Incarnation and the whole of the Old Testament sacrificial system.

Praise in the Bible springs from the history of Israel. God is the key character and actor. Man and the devil cause problems and God intervenes in mercy to save man from his own devices by means that deliver the Sacrifice of the cross. History may not repeat itself, but the same patterns continually emerge. This is because God is utterly consistent in His steadfast, patient mercy and we aren’t very creative in our sins. The people rebel and grumble and complain and bring on themselves all sorts of misery. When the burden gets too great, they again beseech God to intervene and rescue them. He drives them to it. Then He intervenes and rescues them. Thus the Exodus, the exiles, and the prayer in the belly of a whale. Then they forget or get caught up in their sins and do it again. Thus Moses becoming angry and striking the rock, Peter denying Christ in the courtyard, and Nathan’s confrontation of David.  Again God re-reconciles them to Himself. The last word belongs to God. He works all things together for good. It is His mercy and His Word that endure forever – not the sins of men nor the accusations of the devil. That is the history that we need and from which cometh praise.

We bask in this history and not simply in God’s attributes. We aren’t basking in God’s sovereignty and majesty and greatness – but in the history of who He is for us, that is, in His salvation. Biblical praise, as seen here and everywhere in the poetry of Israel, sings back to God who He is and what He has done for and to us. His attributes are revealed in that history, to be sure, but the focus isn’t abstract, rather it is on the recurring events that all culminate first in His death and resurrection and then in our coming resurrections and the completion of the good work begun in us.

So when the angels respond: Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God” this is not a list of things that happen to be true about God, a scattered and random list of praiseworthy things about His character. Rather this list is a description of the salvation that belongs to God but is given to man. That salvation doesn’t benefit God: it benefits us. It isn’t for Him, it is for us. It belongs to God, but it is man’s salvation. He wins it for us by His suffering, death, and resurrection in order to give it to us. So it belongs to Him, but it is our salvation. The saints sing about this and then the angels respond. It is liturgical and not disconnected. The salvation that belongs to God is the blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, and might not of God, but of man. The salvation that belongs to God gives to man blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, and might.

It is a bit confusing in our translation because the ESV treats the sentences differently even though they have the exact same grammatical construction, namely, neither sentence has a verb. In English we need a verb so we put in the verb “to be.” Normally we would translate the first sentence as “Salvation be to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb” but that sounds funny because God doesn’t need saving and we do. We understand, rightly, that it is our salvation. AT Robertson says this is a dative of possession, which is an incredibly rare rodent, but I think he is right. Nonetheless, these grammatical relationships aren’t an exact science. What matters, however, is that the second sentence be handled in the same way as the first. If we aren’t talking the first time about saving God then we aren’t talking the second time about blessing God. This is required by the parallel relationship and the antiphonal character of these two sentences, but the translators couldn’t help themselves. They might be used to praising God’s attributes apart from His history and therefore they find it odd to sing about blessing, honor, and so forth as belonging to God for the benefit of the saints.
The sentences are not disconnected in heaven. They are grounded in the history of salvation. The saints who are free of all sorrow are free to abandon themselves to this joy, without any embarrassment and to give themselves over completely to God. They praise Him for what He has given to them in Christ and the angels also rejoice in that same gift and sing it back to them. The day will come when you will able to do this as well, when the good work begun in you is complete, when you will be free to sing and praise God without fear of embarrassment or need to draw attention to yourself and without even a hint of sorrow, without any baggage at all. Until then the hymns of All Saints Day are good training. They give us a glimpse into what it will be like to praise God in heaven.

In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.

*This sermon owes much to the essay “Doxological Abandonment” by Walter Brueggemann in

Brueggemann, Walter. From Whom No Secretes are Hid: Introducing the Psalms. Edited by Brent A. Strawn. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014. The quoted line is found on page 47.

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