Against the backdrop of the host arrayed in white, I sing the song of the blackbird! “It seems wrong that out of this bird, / Black, bold, a suggestion of dark / Places about it, there yet should come / Such rich music, as though the notes’ / Ore were changed to a rare metal / At one touch of that bright bill.” [R.S. Thomas, A Blackbird Singing]
On All Saints Day, we remember…we remember with both gladness and sadness those who have gone home…especially those in the past year. Now they are among that great cloud of witnesses about which the Hebrews writer speaks. Now they are in God’s presence lifting us up in prayer and still encouraging us by our remembrance of the way that they kept the faith and followed the Lord Jesus in lives of humble service. We look forward to a joyful reunion with them when we too have finished the race and, by the grace of God in Christ, have been received into the Father’s everlasting embrace. The host arrayed in white!
Ah, but for us it remains something of a blackbird’s song! When our life has been touched profoundly by the old vision—marred by sin, death, and devil, for this world offers us countless examples of its inhumanity, of its suffering and loss, of its inexplicable and incalculable darkness and despair—when life is touched by this it shatters the illusions of safety and security that are part of our customary way of dealing with unpleasant things. For until we are personally touched, we can always change the channel on the television, or turn it off. We can skip to a more pleasant part of the newspaper. We can change the subject when it comes up in conversation or avoid people who remind us that no one is safe in this life. But it is temporary. It is a coping strategy that is successful only so long as your life is seemingly charmed. Eventually we all discover that sin, death, and devil—that unholy trinity—take up residence at our house, too.
Our god remains far too small if we live in a safe world behind protective walls…where the news is mostly good and the living is mostly easy. It is inevitable that a god of mostly sweetness and a god of mostly good things will fail us when the unholy trinity—sin, death, and devil—attack us and wound us…and change us in ways that we had not previously imagined possible.
Many people unwittingly confuse such a god with the one true God. Which is why a sudden experience of sin, death, and devil is often so unnerving. Perhaps having prayed the 23rd psalm, they thought that devotion to God meant that nothing bad would ever happen. Perhaps more than a few of us have thought that keeping the faith is some kind of quid pro quo that guarantees a quiet and peaceful death at advanced old age.
The God of Scripture is not some sort of talisman that keeps sin, death, and devil away if we learn the secret of how to befriend Him. No, the God we confess as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a God who has stepped into the old vision of sin, death, and devil…and it is they who are not the same anymore!
If your god has failed you—and the increasing number of people who self-identify as “nones,” people of former faith and of no faith all indicates that their gods have indeed failed them—well, it’s high time to trade in those lesser gods for the one true God. The god of all-happy-all-the-time churches has nothing to say to people who are hurting, has nothing to offer to those who get battered by sin, death, and devil.
St. John knew all about the unholy trinity and all about a god that was too small. At the time of his writing down the Book of Revelation, John knew that the Roman emperor, Domitian, was demanding that Christians proclaim Caesar as lord and god. Domitian required that all of his subjects offer up the ritual of burning a pinch of incense to their god emperor and to honor him above all others…or else….
No faithful Christian could ever do such a thing, so the threat of persecution and death was very real. Some of John’s churches were wavering in their faith. Rather than living faithfully within Caesar’s realm, some were running away to a safe place to escape the trials; some were giving way to conform to Caesar’s demands.
Through a series of visions, the Holy Spirit gave John a glimpse into heaven after the old things had passed away, after the unholy trinity of sin, death, and devil had once and for all been banished. All those strange and curious visions remind John that on the cross, Jesus, God’s Son in human flesh, had destroyed the ultimate power of sin, death, and devil…and the petty power of lesser gods and beasts and antichrists like Domitian. Oh yes, hell could break loose on earth, the raging unholy trinity and the threatening god-wannabe emperor. But they could never win the day, as Martin Luther had us sing last Sunday. One little word, Jesus, could undo them. He can still undo them today!
St. John reminds his readers then and now that God’s vision is certain. At the last, there will be no more sin, death, and devil for those who are God’s people. At the last, the old vision will have been shattered, the old little gods unmasked, and the old pains and heartaches healed. At the last, Christ will shepherd us to springs of living water, and God will wipe every tear from our eyes. This remains the blackbird’s song, so dark and hidden in this world, compared to the shallow, entertaining gods, yet blackbird’s song is a song so richly beautiful in the ears of the saints of God!
If you have been washed in the water of Holy Baptism, then you, too, have heard that blackbird song. You have died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. You have been given the gift to see the unholy trinity of sin, death, and devil for what they are—pretenders in rebellion against the one true God. Yes, they peddle their lies. Yes, they stick it to us where we are most vulnerable. They shatter the cherished illusions that come from clinging to lesser gods, gods which can never save or deliver us. But…they cannot win the day. One little word—Jesus.
On this day of All Saints if you have been finding that your god is too small, as the English pastor J.B. Phillips once described, then don’t settle for such a god that is impotent in the face of the unholy trinity. Why be left out in the darkness, in the despair and hopelessness that come from having a god that is too small? The God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit wants you to get in on the eternal life and love He shares forever.
Behold the host arrayed in white…the saints of heaven’s glory. But we saints on earth still feebly struggle; not yet for us the hand that wipes away all our tears. Ours is the song of the blackbird. “Listen, I have a song / to sing that time will / punish you for listening / to and you will not know it.” [R.S. Thomas, Vespers]
Aye, all the children of lesser gods rush out to shout and jeer our pie-in-the-sky songs on All Saints. But that pie is ours. Christ has promised! And the day will come when the one true God will shatter the old visions to make things new.
So on this Sunday of All Saints—those in heaven, us here on earth—let us fling our blackbird songs, our prayers, and our praises against the darkness. For the saints we have loved have already entered the New Jerusalem. For them the old things have passed away and everything has become new. The saints have gone marching in! And today it is they who sing to us: “you, too, shall be in that number….”