Sunday, November 7, 2021

Sermon: “Momentary Saints”, 1 Samuel 3:1-10/Revelation 21:1-6 (November 7, 2021)


In Christian circles, we talk about “God’s kindom” or “the kindom of heaven” all the time, but we tend to have a limited understanding of what it is, precisely, that we’re talking about. We know it’s really, really good, that it’s “already and not yet” here (whatever that means), and that it will mark Christ’s return. Other than that, we’re pretty clueless.

That’s where apocalyptic literature like Revelation comes in handy. Hopefully, you remember that, theologically speaking, an apocalypse isn’t actually defined as a catastrophic event. Our English word is derived from a Greek verb meaning “to uncover or reveal”. And in the context of scripture, apocalyptic literature refers to writings that uncover or reveal God’s kindom to us.

There are apocalyptic passages all over the Bible, but Revelation is the only book in the New Testament that’s entirely devoted to this genre. So, it makes sense that it has a reputation as one of the weirdest books in the Bible. Not because it’s a “fortune telling” book that predicts the future (it’s not), but because its entire purpose is to describe something utterly indescribable.

The kindom of God will be so different from anything within our current frame of reference that Revelation describes the earth we know as being, for all intents and purposes, completely gone—not just transformed, but entirely re-created. The Greek word used to describe God’s dwelling with humankind in this strange new place implies more than just the spiritual presence that we expect; it conveys a sense of physical co-habitation. In this new earth, “death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore.” In theory, we can understand what this would be like, but can you honestly imagine a life completely free of pain and grief? They’re such integral parts of the human experience. It’s all beyond our capacity for comprehension.

So, when God gives John of Patmos a vision of the new heaven and new earth, he does his best to communicate it through his writing…but unfortunately, he’s bound by the limitations of human language. Although we’re assured that “these words are trustworthy and true,” they may be, but they simply aren’t sufficient.

God, however, isn’t done with us at the close of the biblical canon. God doesn’t just leave us with a single, imperfect means to understand the world to come. In addition to the gift of holy scripture, God also provides another way for us to perceive this indescribable new kindom. We celebrate them on the first Sunday in November, and we call them “saints”.

There are lots of different ways that we Protestants define “saints”, but we all agree that the category includes vastly more than just the miracle-working among us. Personally, my favorite understanding of saints is that they’re the ones who allow us to catch actual glimpses of the extraordinary new heaven and new earth that Revelation “uncovers”. This status doesn’t require any mystical abilities—since we’re all created in God’s image, we all have the potential to be an instrument of God’s revelatory apocalypse from the moment we’re born. We each have the capacity to be a saint.

That’s not to say that we all serve as saints in the same way. There are some whose saintliness comes from the fact that our love for them and theirs for us is an embodied preview of heaven’s love. Others are relentless supporters and encouragers, making sure that we keep the new heaven and new earth in our sights whenever we falter. But there are also saints whose impact doesn’t grow out of a deep and abiding relationship. Sometimes, a saint may only be in your life for a season, but in that short time, they completely transform the way you understand God and reveal to you that precious glimpse of the elusive new heaven and new earth.

Eli was this sort of saint for Samuel. It’s true that he’d known Samuel since the boy was a toddler, but there’s no evidence that they were particularly close. Although Eli had been Samuel’s primary caregiver for most of his childhood, Samuel probably thought of him more as a supervisor or instructor than a parental figure. In those days, “the Lord’s word was rare, [and] visions weren’t widely known,” even in the temple, so it’s not like there was a deep spiritually woven into the relationship between the boy and the priest. For both of them, their daily life at the temple was a job: nothing more, and nothing less.

Scripture makes a point to tell us that at this time, “Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.” So when Samuel hears a voice calling to him early in the evening, he naturally assumes that his boss has an errand for him to run or something equally banal. He dutifully rouses himself and goes to Eli. Twice, Eli tells Samuel that he’s mistaken and should go back to bed. But by the third time this happens, Eli manages to connect the dots about who’s ACTUALLY calling to Samuel. Instead of sending the boy away again, Eli gives him simple instructions that change Samuel’s life forever: go back to bed, and next time you hear the voice, say these words. Because of Eli, Samuel gains understanding about what it actually means to be in God’s very real presence. All it took was twelve Hebrew words—none of them especially sacred—for Eli to help Samuel catch his very first glimpse of the divine.

It was like Eli had flipped a switch in Samuel’s understanding of God’s kindom. A boy who had never encountered God before suddenly finds himself at the beginning of a prophetic career, hearing and seeing and thinking and believing things that he’d previously never imagined, never even thought possible. In the space of an instant, Samuel becomes a different person. All because his supervisor takes a moment to explain what he’s hearing. Samuel experiences an apocalypse through Eli—his saint in that particular moment.

We all can name the saints who’ve shown us God’s kindom over the course of many years, but we shouldn’t forget the saints, like Eli, whose impact is brief but profound. The people who “switch on” your understanding of God through small glimpses of the kindom. They can show up anywhere and be anyone—your hairdresser, your Uber driver, a friend of a friend.

For me, like Samuel, one of my most memorable momentary saints was an instructor. While I was taking his New Testament overview course a whim during my first semester in college, something clicked. Suddenly, I realized that there was so much more to know and to understand about God’s kindom, and I wanted to pursue it. I saw with greater clarity what was so amazing about this God that I’d been worshiping my whole life. I never took another class with that professor, but the impact of that first one has stayed with me to this day. That professor flipped a switch. He was my momentary saint.

Now, I don’t know if this is a function of having grown up an hour away from Niagara Falls, but this type of saint reminds me of coin-operated binoculars. Have you ever used one of those at a scenic tourist spot? When you first press your eyes to the lenses, you see nothing. Under normal circumstances, your vision is completely blocked. But the moment you drop a coin into the slot, the obstruction clears as if by magic. Not only can you suddenly perceive the dazzling view (which had actually been there the whole time), but for a few minutes, you’re able to see a level of detail that takes your breath away. Everything appears so close that it seems like you could reach out and touch it. This clarity only lasts for a brief moment (a quarter will only buy you a minute or two of scenic apocalypse), but now that you know what’s there right in front of you, you know what you’re looking at and can more easily continue the exploration on your own, without help. And you’re never the same for having seen the world in a new way.

These “saints for a moment” operate the same way (although they rarely require a quarter). The “already and not yet” of God’s kindom surrounds us, but we struggle to see it on our own. We need help “uncovering” it. Momentary saints offer us these little apocalypses (sometimes without even meaning to) in our everyday life so that the reality of the new heaven and new earth is suddenly brought into sharp focus. Although the enhanced view doesn’t last long, its impact does. There’s no un-flipping the switch in your understanding once you’ve seen what’s there. Your way of seeing the world never quite goes back the way it was before you received this flash of revelation. It completely transforms the way you understand your God, your faith, and your life.

Who’s flipped the switch for you? Who was it that first cleared your vision and allowed you to see the details of God’s kindom up close? Who led you to your first little apocalypse? Who’s done it since then? Remember these people. Pray for them. Honor them. Include them in the story you tell of your own faith. They’re an important part of the reason for your joy in Christ, for your faith in the resurrection, for your hope in the life everlasting. They’ve allowed you to experience another small piece of the Good News that is beyond words, and that’s no small thing.

Let us celebrate all our saints, momentary and otherwise, as we continue to work towards the kindom that they reveal to us. And may we all live our lives as saints of God, until the day that we no longer need glimpses of the kindom because the old earth has passed away and the new earth is all that we know. Amen.

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