Isaiah 65:17 – 25, Hebrews 11:29-12:2
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘saint’? It means ‘holy person’ but then what do we understand by this term? Does it mean someone who is regularly at prayer, a regular churchgoer who presents themselves in a pious way, a ‘holy wullie’ one might be rude to say? The New Testament perspective of a holy person is simply someone who follows Jesus and has been baptised. Paul however goes further and offers another category, heroes of faith. He describes graphically the forms of abuse that these saints of God endured.
But where is God in all this, the God who is both worthy of such loyalty and the one who equips people with faith that hardens their resistance to the enemies of God? And what about the remarkable claim, that for all of their greatness, these saints of faith did not receive what was promised?
All those mentioned in Hebrews 11 Paul says, are worthy of praise. Indeed we can only agree, since in the early church, although some received deliverance in exceptional circumstances, others suffered humiliation, torture and gruesome death. These faithful shared the stress of keeping faith before God’s promise was fulfilled.
In the mix of detailing their suffering Paul however gives us a word of hope. Faith endures. Faith trusts God’s promises even when the present calls those promises into question. Eventually we shall no longer believe, for we shall know. In the meantime, however, we have a race to run. So as athletes for Team Jesus, we need to focus on the coach who encourages us, the pacemaker who runs alongside us. The one who is waiting for us at the finish line urging us on and building our confidence.
And there is something more. When our knees are weak and our breath gasping, when we feel worn out in the journey of faith, wondering whether we can hold on and complete the race, we remember the company we are in. We remember those who have gone before us, and the one who has run this race and who beckons us home.
And what does home look like? Traditionally heaven is the home of “all the saints”. We are all called to be saints and we try to meet this calling by loving God and our neighbour; and confessing our failures. By grace we receive forgiveness, enabling us to enter the glory of God’s kingdom and enjoy a new life, free from pain and death; together with all those we love and in the company of the great Christian heroes and heroines of the past.
All well and good. But I sense that there is something lacking here. An aspect of sainthood that is more than than just the the metrics of human achievement.
The poetic picture that Isaiah presents is one of communal harmony. Here is true peace, the Hebrew word is shalom, which embraces wholeness. Like him we can only speculate on the exact nature of this heavenly place, but we can be reasonably certain that it will be in a different time and space from this universe; a place where there will be room for the immortal souls of all those who have lived on earth.
What Isaiah is emphasising is the mix of peace and wholeness; the deep down joy that we are loved by God. A life lived in happiness in this secure knowledge, that extends all the way to eternity, the place of eternal happiness in the kingdom of God. There indeed we shall celebrate in joy with “all the saints”. Amen.