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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko


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All Saints Sunday

Revelation 7:9-17

 A Glimpse of Glory

The ride to glory

A grandmother wanted to keep her 5-year-old grandson busy while his mother was in the hospital so she took him to a nearby park to ride a giant ski lift. The cable car was very crowded that day and the young boy could not see out any of the windows. About half way up the lift, the boy pulled on his grandmother's jacket and asked in a rather loud voice, "Grandma, is this what we will ride in to go up to heaven." Everyone on the cable car laughed. When the car arrived at its destination, all the adults wanted to meet the small boy who was riding to glory.[1]

Children have little difficulty imagining the unimaginable. They are not inhibited by the limitations of language. They will freely use analogies from their physical world to describe the mysteries of the spiritual world in matter-of-fact terminology and with absolute certainty.

Sharon was a little girl dying of cancer. One day she told her support group that instead of an angel as a guide, she wanted Lassie to come and lead her to Heaven. When a few of the boys teased her about choosing a dog, Sharon replied that she wanted the dog because, "Lassie always knows how to get back home." Angels appeared too exotic, even scary, for Sharon but Lassie could be trusted to bring her to back home safely.

Adults may view a child’s spontaneous description of heaven, as humorous or sweet, but adults themselves are usually uncomfortable talking about a subject sometimes even in the abstract. Dallas Willard tells a story about one mother who never talked to her children about heaven. She wanted to protect them from disappointment. She was afraid that they would suffer an irreversible let down and cynicism if they discovered that heaven did not exist[2]. Willard did not understand why she thought that her children could experience consciousness and feelings after their death if an afterlife did not exist. The woman's reluctance to talk about heaven was based on an irrational fear.

We do not hear many sermons on heaven these days. I will occasionally refer to it in sermons, most often at funerals, but have never taken an entire sermon to reflect on the subject. The Puritan divine Richard Baxter called heaven our "everlasting rest"[3] and admonished his church members to meditate on their future destiny as a source of comfort and joy in dealing with the struggles of this life.

For me, it is easier to talk about death than heaven. I have counseled many people who knew that the climax of life was only a matter of days. I have listened to their stories of life and their fears of facing the unknown. I have also been at the bedside  with family members when a loved one exhaled her final breath. And I have even personally given the subject serious consideration when I prepared for my bone marrow transplant. But heaven is a different matter. Even the apostle Paul referred to it as a "mystery" (I Cor. 15). In his letter to the church in Corinth he described it as something that, "no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor human heart conceived." (1Cor 2:9) Augustine, the great Bishop of Hippo, even commented that it is sometimes easier to say what it is not than what it is.

The apostle John chose a different approach. The beloved disciple had seen a glimpse of glory in a dream, a vision. He had been transported in Spirit into another realm of existence. He saw lions, and horses, and armies and kingdoms. He heard earthquakes, lighting strikes, and trumpets. The images flashed before him. John simply retold his vision. He described what he had seen with his eyes and heard with his ears. He does not try to analyze it nor interpret it. He just retold that incredible tale. Herein lies the secret of understanding the book of Revelation. The book is the record of a dream and therefore must be understood as a metaphor to the reality that lies beyond this world. Heaven itself cannot be described but John expresses the reality through symbols. John's metaphoric description conveys a wonderful glimpse into glory to teach us many things about our everlasting rest.

We will not be alone

In his opening sentence, John reminds us that we will not be alone. Today's passage opens with a description of the multitudes that will stand before the throne. They will be so great in number that no one could count them. They will be from every tribe and nation. Every language will be heard. What a wonderful thought, to consider being united with the saints who have gone before us; not just those remarkable people who by their incredible achievements deserve special recognition but also those humble people who faithfully served God by being our friend. The ones who reminded us what we should do and encouraged us to walk in faith; people who showed God's love by loving, who showed God's patience through their patience; who showed God's faithfulness by being faithful. They were people who strove in their own special way to be saintly and touched our lives. Historically, the church has designated November 1st  as All Saints Day, the day we remember that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. The day that we not only remember their witness but also the promise that one-day we will stand together with them. While John does not specifically mention it, I cannot help but to believe that we will do more than just stand with them. For me it would not be heaven unless we had the opportunity to renew and deepen friendships.

Since Adam and Eve, we have been estranged from one another. We have difficulty making friends and cultivating relationships. Lucy once asked Charlie Brown, “CB where is your lonely place.” Without pausing Charlie Brown replied, “Earth.” Loneliness haunts the human soul. We desire more than acquaintances, we long for companions, people who share our life experiences, people who understand are outlook on life, and people who know and share with us the presence of God. But we are often like ships passing in the night. We signal to acknowledge our awareness of the other but never really get to know the other. Heaven for me will be that to go beyond the obstacles that encumber us and to truly become one in Christ.

The Promise of Reward

John also tells us of the reward that awaits those who have suffered for the faith. The church in the US does not often consider the importance of this. Few of us even know anyone who has suffered for the faith. Martyrdom is the stuff of storybooks or ancient history. Or is it?

The students were all bent over their papers taking their mid terms. They had to carefully sort through each question. It required their complete concentration so very few of them noticed when Robert Flores entering the classroom at the University of Arizona carrying a handgun. Some knew him as a nervous guy who incessantly squeezed a stress ball in class.

Flores walked up to the professor, Cheryl M. McGaffic, and asked her, "Cheryl, are you prepared to use your spiritual resources now?" "'Here's a lesson in spirituality. Make peace with your maker." He then turned to the assistant professor, Barbara S. Monroe, and killed her. His selection of his victims was not a random act. Cheryl was a professor of ethics and spirituality. She was praying and pursuing to be a chaplain. When [4] before shooting Cheryl and Barbara, Flores had killed Robin E. Rogers in another part of the building. Robin was active in her church and a leader for the contemporary praise service. Flores apparently had resented the spirituality of these women.

The first century Church could empathize with Cheryl, Barbara, and Robin. It understood that the faith made a person a target for evil. John recorded his vision to encourage a Church suffering from persecution. They needed reassurance. They needed to know that their suffering would not be in vain; that God would know and that God would reward them. In John’s glimpse of glory, we see those who have suffered for the faith, enjoying a special place. They are wearing white robes to symbolize their victory of faith but also the righteousness of Christ. They are waving palm branches as signs of their festive joy.[5] The disciple of Jesus hopes that this vision would encourage the Church to endure the pain of tribulation for the greater glory that awaits them.

Its desirability

John’s third glimpse into glory is difficult for modern readers to fully appreciate. He tells us that in God’s presence, there is neither hunger, nor thirst, nor heat, nor pains. God himself wipes away the tears from our eyes. Jesus also joins in providing for our comfort. He leads the saints to the springs of living water, the springs of joy and goodness evermore. John's portrait of heaven is a destiny, "in which there is no suffering, nor death, nor grief; all that has passed away, a new reality has come, a new life has come, a glorious life. It is a life in which there is peace, and joy and praise; a life in which there is ecstasy and excitement, love and tenderness, serenity and exhilaration…."[6] However, a Methodist preacher once said, "questions about the afterlife aren't too pressing for those who are fairly well fed, well housed, well nurtured."[7] He accurately critiques the inconsistency of our spirituality. We are so preoccupied with this earthly existence that we forget that a greater glory awaits us.

A father decided to surprise his children. He told them that they were going to Junction City KS, for their vacation; the city where his father had been a pastor. He described for them the wonders of the Midwestern City—its playgrounds, swimming pool, a real special ice cream stand, and a fantastic bowling alley. Being a preacher himself, the father embellished the story and his children began to look forward to their journey to the Heartland of the Midwest. They even bragged to their skeptical friends.

Their first day of vacation was wonderful. After spending the day walking through granddad's church and seeing nearly all of the city's tourist attractions, the kids were ready to check into the motel and go swimming. Dad then sprung his surprise. He said, "You know something, it is kind of boring here in KS. Why don't we just drive to Disney World!" His wife who had been a coconspirator reached into her bag and pulled out four custom-made Mickey Mouse hats. That is when the children surprised their parents. Instead of jumping up and down with excitement they complained, "Who wants to get back into the van? What about the swimming pool and the bowling alley?" It was a long drive from KS to FL and Dad had to listen, the whole way, to the children expounding on the virtues of Junction City over Disney World.[8]

God can empathize with the frustration of that father because we are like children who stomp our feet and insist on the merry-go-round in Junction City when he has made plans for us to enjoy Disney World's Space Mountain. C. S. Lewis once described our attitude toward life and eternity. He wrote, "We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea."[9]

During my battle with cancer, I learned the difference between fighting for life and clinging to life. In a life threatening illness, the patient's will to live becomes an absolute imperative. Unless the patient has a fighting spirit, the disease will triumph. However, that is much different than clinging for fear of death.

We are to be people with one foot on earth and one foot in eternity. Our joy, satisfaction, sense of fulfillment is not to be found in our toys, bank accounts, or careers. They are not even ours but have been given by God to accomplish his purpose and will. We should hold them with a healthy sense of detachment. Our eyes are to be fixed on that heavenly throne. Our heart is to long for that mystical union with divine love.

The Indescribable

Heaven itself cannot be described, all "…attempts to relate the ineffable, see the invisible, [or] understand the incomprehensible"[10] will fail but John gives us a glimpse into glory. His dream should assure us that we will not be alone. His vision should remind us that a reward awaits those who persevere through persecution. And finally, his revelation should create within us such desirability for the next that we can easily cast aside the temporal pleasures of this life; knowing that they are merely tokens of the joy that we will share in the next.



[1] Unknown source.

[2] Philip Yancey, "What's a Heaven For?" Christianity Today, Oct. 26, 1998, p. 104.

[3] Richard Baxter, The Saints Everlasting Rest.

[4] Ted Olson, “University of Arizona Killer Apparently Resented Spirituality,” Christianity Today, posted 10/31/2002, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/142/42.0.html.

[5] Robert H. Mounce, Revelation, NICNT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1977, 171.

[6] Richard Fairchild, "All the Saints,"

[7] William H. Willimon, "A Vision of Heaven," Pulpit Resource, Vol. 27, No 4.

[8] Yancy, (1998).

[9] C. S. Lewis quoted by Yancy (1998).

[10] Russell, (1997)

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