All Saints Sunday: Heaven Is Never Full

The second reading for All Saints Sunday, Year A, is Revelation 7:9–17.


The Book of Revelation gets a bad, and undeserved rap.  It’s Greek name is Apocalypse, and that has come to mean something catastrophic. But the word really means a message that reveals a deep truth. And rumor has it that the book is all about the destruction that is God’s ultimate punishment for evildoers and unbelievers. But, as the author of a fantastic Anchor-Yale Commentary on Revelation, Craig Koester, says, the book isn’t about destruction, but about the destruction of destruction.


Chapter 7 of Revelation starts with a scene that also gets taken out of context to make it seem like God is going to wind up with a tiny sliver of humanity that will go to heaven. Four angels who have the power to wreak damage on earth are told by another angel not to proceed until the slaves of God are marked with a seal. And the visionary author hears that 144,000 are marked out from the tribes of Israel. So, some read here that those saved by God will be a meager 144,000, proving that many are called, but few chosen.


But, verse four tells us plainly that John, the visionary author of the book, only “hears” that number 144,000. What he sees, starting with verse 9, is “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” This infinite number of folk–this motley crew,  then proceeds to praise the Lord. What a scene!!!


Then, the whole of the heavenly host falls on the ground and gives glorious praise to God for what has happened.


Who are these mobs of people? What is happening here?


The heavenly joy is because this is what it’s all about. It’s plain that this is God’s will being fulfilled. And this is the very center of the faith of both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures: not destruction, but the destruction of destruction—not the salvation of a few, but of a countless multitude—not just folk who look, believe, and act like us, but all sorts.


Our beloved United States of America used to believe in this sort of vision. We thought of ourselves as just a bit of the plot of God’s will. We used to be proud of the words of our Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” We used to want our nation to look like heaven.


Our President, not too many months ago, said “America is full.” His administration has been unable to build much wall on the Mexican border, but it has certainly turned the screws on the locks of our border. It has gone even further and kicked out over 150,000 of the huddled, yearning masses who had run the gauntlet to be accepted as asylum applicants, and sent them back to the violence they had fled–while pretending it was all being done to protect us from the pandemic.


People who believe in the God of a heaven that is never full cannot accept that our vast nation has no room for the desperate. We cannot be among those who slam doors in the face of the deserving. We must speak against these policies, act out against them, and vote against them.


If we trust the God who gathers, we will turn and behold the host arrayed in white who have endured the ordeal. We will rejoice over God’s wide open arms so that we can join in the joy of the Great Party that our Lord has invited us to.


For this reason they are before the throne of God,

and worship him day and night within his temple,

and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.

            They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;

the sun will not strike them,

nor any scorching heat;

            for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,

and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,

and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”



About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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