"Finish the Race"
November 6, 2011
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Revelation 7:9-17


Confession is good for the soul, so I'm going to come clean.  I was hoping not to be here this morning.  I know that's an odd thing for a pastor to announce in the middle of Sunday worship.

Don't get me wrong.  I love being with our church family each Sunday morning and I still have to pinch myself some days that I have the marvelous privilege of leading worship at this great church.  But this particular morning I was hoping to be elsewhere.  To be exact: New York City.

At this very moment, more than 40,000 people are running the New York City marathon and I had hoped to be one of them.  You don't have to run a qualifying time to get into this prestigious race; you just have to be lucky.  Well over 100,000 people apply for the race, and this is the second year in a row my name was not drawn in the lottery.

The New York City marathon is an amazing spectacle because it includes everyone from the world's running elite to soldiers running with full gear and backpacks, to blind runners holding the elbow of a friend, to people with one leg flying down the streets on crutches.

With more than 40,000 runners, it's one of the largest marathons in the world, but the number of runners pales compared to the number of spectators.  Over one million people line the sidewalks of the course that weaves its way through the city's five boroughs.  They stand there for hours, cheering on the runners with shouts of "Way to go!  Keep it up!  Looking good!"

Many marathoners will tell you that the people on the sidewalks make an enormous difference.  When you have run 18 miles and your legs are beginning to cramp and exhaustion is setting in, your mind tells you "It's time to quit; you cannot possibly run eight more miles."  But the people on the sidewalk are shouting, "You can do it!"  And their encouragement helps you to reach down inside of yourself and find a few more ounces of determination to keep going.  Their words of support convince you not to quit regardless of how miserable you feel.  The people on the sidewalks inspire you to finish the race.

Today is All Saints' Sunday, the day we pause to remember those people of faith who have gone before us and are now encouraging us to run the race that is life.  And they are encouraging us to run it with all the beauty and determination and hope we can muster.  These saints are no longer physically present with us - we cannot see or touch them - but if we will allow ourselves a few moments of silence, and recall what they said to us in the past - by their words and actions - we might be able to perceive what they are saying to us today.

Think for a moment, who are the saints - the faithful, departed - who are standing on the sidewalk cheering you on?  Maybe a parent who took you to church when you were young, where you learned that God loves you and has a purpose for your life.  Perhaps a grandparent who read the Bible to you or helped you get into a habit of saying a prayer before you go to sleep.  Was there a camp counselor or Sunday School teacher who listened to you when life was a struggle and you felt alone or rudderless.  Maybe one of the people on your crowded sidewalk was a coach who helped you learn self-discipline and the need to get back up after you've been knocked down.  Perhaps one of the people on your sidewalk was a pastor who helped you survive the death of one you did not believe you could live without.  Or maybe a person in history who took a courageous stand for justice that changed people's lives.

What words of encouragement are the people on your sidewalk shouting to inspire you to finish your race and to finish it strong?

This morning's Scripture passage is an encouraging word to people who are struggling.  Although many refer to this book of the Bible as the Book of Revelation, its proper name is "The Revelation to John."  That's because one of the apostles of Jesus, named John, was sent into exile on the tiny island of Patmos, and while he was there, he had a series of visions.

It's important to keep in mind that John shared his visions with first century Christians who lived under severe political oppression and were being persecuted for their faith.  Some had already been martyred for having the courage to declare that Jesus, not the Roman Emperor was their Lord.

Our passage begins, "After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count...robed in white...and they cried out "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne!"  Did you note that our passage begins with the two words: "After this"?  It naturally raises the question, After what?

If we work back to the previous chapter we find that these same people initially cried out to God in a very different voice.  In today's passage, they cry out in words of praise and thanksgiving, but if we turn back to chapter six, they cry out in distress: "Lord, how long will it be before you avenge our blood?"  The text tells us that they are the ones "who had been slaughtered for the word of God." (Rev. 6:9)

Now, in chapter seven, we learn that these are the ones who were killed for their faith.  And as we read on, we discover that now they have assumed a special place before the throne of God where Christ guides them to springs of the water of life and God wipes away every tear from the eyes." (Rev. 7:15-17).

By sharing his visions of heaven, where suffering will be no more, John was encouraging the faithful on earth.  He was telling them that those who had died for their faith had not died in vain.  They were now reaping a heavenly reward.  John hoped his visions would inspire those who were being persecuted to hold fast and not relinquish their faith, because they are on God's side and ultimately things will be set right.

Although John's visions were meant initially for those living under the tyranny of Rome, his message has inspired followers of Christ for 20 centuries to remain faithful, to persevere and to finish their race strong.  Unfortunately, through the ages, some have distorted this message.  People in positions of power have insisted that we can do little to change the status quo.

Those who currently live under injustice must simply be comforted by the belief, that although they suffer now, their reward will come later in heaven.

I don't believe for a second that's what John intended.  He was not saying, "One day, God alone, will set things right and until then all you can do is grit your teeth and endure whatever suffering comes your way."  He was giving us visions of life in God's eternal kingdom not only to give us hope for a future reward, but also to inspire us to implement these visions as best we can during our time on earth.  That's why Jesus taught us to pray, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  It is why Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves.  It is why he said that those who will be welcomed into God's kingdom are the ones who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger and cared for the sick and the poor.

John gives us visions of a better world not simply to encourage us to endure the present one, but to inspire us to change it, so that it will be more in harmony with what God intends.

Coventry Cathedral in England is more than 1,000 years old, but its current building will be only 50 years old next year.  It is a unique piece of architecture.  The south side of the church is not stone, but a wall of glass.  And etched into the glass are huge figures, saints and angels, ten feet tall.  They're blowing trumpets, soaring and dancing.  It is an artist's bold attempt to envision heaven.

You might expect such images to evoke a faith that is other-world oriented.  You might think that images of saints and angels would support a theology that focuses on heaven, not earth.  You might imagine that the artist and architect were attempting to create an environment that steers our eyes away from the problems and suffering of this world to a heavenly kingdom where all is well.  You might think such things if this glass were not clear and if this church were not located in Coventry.

On November 14, 1940, Coventry suffered the longest air raid endured by any city in England.  The German Luftwaffe reduced most of the city, including the centuries old Cathedral, to ruins.  And today, when you look at that glass wall of the new Coventry Cathedral, your eyes are drawn to the figures of angels and saints, but also drawn to look through them directly at the ruins of the old bombed-out church.   You see the harsh reality of a broken world, but you see it through a heavenly vision of what God intends for the world to be.

On Christmas Day, 1940, a mere six weeks after death and destruction nearly obliterated their city, the provost of Coventry Cathedral gave a radio broadcast from its ruins.  "He declared that when the war was over he would work with those who were currently their enemies 'to build a kinder, more Christ-like world.'  And following the war, that congregation presented the cities of Dresden and Berlin with special crosses like the one they have in Coventry and developed a partnership between Coventry and the German cities.

Since that time, Coventry Cathedral has understood itself to have a special calling from God.  They are committed to taking the message of reconciliation to all parts of the world, and thus far there are 160 centers around the world whose mission is to work for peace and reconcilation."1

Like the saints of Coventry Cathedral calling their members to minister to a troubled world, our saints call out to us to do Christ's work.  Where are your saints calling you to go and what are they calling you to do?  Listen.




1. From the Coventry Cathedral website.