In the opening of the James Bond Movie “Live and Let Die”, we see an altered view of a New Orleans Funeral. The mourners are sad – until they dispose of an enemy spy and then they are celebrating.
The New Orleans Jazz Funeral was a major attraction until Hurricane Katrina, after that, the tradition went into limbo and is just in the last few years starting to re-emerge. Funerals would begin with solemn and sad music and over a short period of time they would blaze into life.
The upbeat music and dancing of the jazz funeral was intended to both help the deceased find their way to heaven and to celebrate the final release from the bounds of earthly life. The call-and-response style of music and chant, coupled with tambourines, drums, horns and dancing were elements of African funeral ceremonies which crossed the seas with captive slaves.
While the Jazz tradition caught on with folks from the deep south, the Catholic Church restricted their people from participating in that kind of funeral service. Yet over time, the jazz funeral tradition grew to become New Orleans most honored of funeral ceremonies, with horse-drawn hearses and parades for fallen police officers, well-known musicians and other pillars of the community.
In some of the most elaborate of Jazz funerals, the mourners would be wearing all black robes, only to rip them off, to reveal bright white outfits. Then the musicians would play an upbeat version of ‘When the Saints go Marching In’.
Christian Churches have set aside November 1st or the Sunday before as All Saint’s Day since 835AD. This is the day when we celebrate the lives of those faithful believers and family who have gone ahead of us to heaven.
In some Churches, the names of those who have died in the last year are read and a bell is rung. In other traditions, candles are lit in memory of those who have passed, over the previous years. In some traditions, it is a day where every person attending church and the pastor wear all white or all black.
In the United Methodist Hymnal, you will find music for funerals and Memorial services. But in the official book of worship, there is nothing called a funeral. Instead, it’s called
“A Service of Death and Resurrection”.
In our tradition, there is a tension between mourning and celebration. Death is simply the road to new life in Christ. So, like the Jazz funeral, our mourning becomes cries of Joy in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
One of the regular readings for “All Saint’s Day” comes from Revelation Chapter 7. It is a glorious view of heaven, but let me back up a little and set the stage…
The Apostle John had been preaching the Word, until he was arrested and sent to the Island of Patmos. While there, he was tortured, starved, deprived water, and forced to hard labor in the mines. During his time there, John had a vision.
God gave John a heavenly glimpse to sustain him. His journey began as John stood before an open door to heaven. Then, a voice like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place, after this.”
John saw the throne of God, and he saw angels and creatures all around the throne singing. Then John saw the scroll with the words of life and the future written on it but it had 7 seals that no one could open. Finally, he saw the lamb, Jesus. Jesus was the only one who can break the seals. With great wonder and excitement, the seals were broken, and the scroll was opened. If you want more detail about all these events, you will have to read it all later.
Then John gets a worldview; he sees angels start to roll up the earth by its 4 corners. As you may have guessed, Revelation is written in Apocalyptic type literature. It often presents images that symbolize other deeper meanings. In other words, you cannot take everything literally.
Then, John sees the earth rolled up like a scroll. The number of those sealed in the scroll of the world was 144,000. It represents 12,000 people each from the 12 tribes of Israel. Some believe that they are the only ones to be saved. Others believe, those will be all that remain when the world ends.
But as we keep reading, that first interpretation seems limited. John writes, “After this, I looked, and there was a multitude that no one could count. They were from every nation, tribe, people and language, all standing before the throne and before the Lamb.
They were all robed in white and they held palm branches in their hands. And they cried out, “Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” and there was singing and waving of the branches in heaven.
Then one of the saintly elders turned to John and asked, “Who are these robed in white, and where did they come from?”
In Biblical times, robes were worn as an honor of distinction. Robes set a person apart. We have similar traditions today. Judges were robes, graduates and teachers wear robes and clergy sometimes wear robes. It signifies accomplishment, character, office, or a level of respect.
Kings and priests wore robes in Biblical times. Kings wore purple robes as a sign of honor, royalty or affluence. Priests might wear brown, black, blue, red or white robes, depending on the occasion. And Joseph wore a coat of many colors, that set him apart. But white, white was a symbol of purity and innocence.
Today, you see white at weddings, baptisms, or in the spring when things are new again. If a thing reflects no light, it is black. If it reflects part of the light, it has some color. But if an object reflects all the light back, it is white.
White is wholesome and pure, spotless and blameless. That is why good guys used to all wear white. And that is why the multitudes in heaven wear white, to perfectly reflect the glory majesty and purity of God.
Isaiah 1:18 reads, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”
So those standing in heaven wearing white robes have been washed and cleansed in the blood of the Lamb. They are blameless and sinless.
Now, the last time I checked, blood has never washed anything clean. In fact, it often leaves a stain that is hard to get out. Again, – this is not meant to be taken literally but symbolically.
In heaven, we will have heavenly bodies. We are not even sure what that means or if we will even need clothes. The point here is; that we are made new in Christ. His death took our burden of sin away and we are new beings in heaven; unburdened and truly free.
In ancient literature, waving palm branches was a sign of victory. Much like the way they waved the palm branches for Jesus as he entered Jerusalem or when soldiers returned victorious from battle.
Now, let’s go back to the question the Elder asked John, “Who are these people and where did they come from?”
John’s response is, “I have no idea. Only you know,”
Then the elder replied, “These are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white again in the blood of the Lamb.”
While some believe the great tribulation means the end times, many interpret this to mean all those who come from our troubled world. Tribulation means; those who come from a place of trouble or suffering – that seems to fit our world quite nicely, don’t you think?
John was inspired by his brief view of heaven. He was inspired to live life to the fullest before he went home to heaven. He wanted to fulfill his reason for being on the earth, first. Once he knew where he was going, there was no hurry to go there. Sadly, Today, some folks get that reversed; all they think about is heaven.
This view of heaven convinced John, that there was still a lot of room for others in heaven. And that there was still much work to be done on earth; to get others home.
Famed preacher D.L. Moody spent decades preaching, teaching, writing, evangelizing and traveling the world non-stop. Then on December 22, 1899, his heart began to fail. Yet, he shared the Good News to the very end.
His children were worried about him and of course, they were afraid for him to die. So, they asked him ‘if he was afraid to die’. Here was his response,
“Someday you will read in the papers that D. L. Moody, of East Northfield, is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it! At that moment, I shall be more alive than I am now.
“I shall have gone up higher, that is all; out of this old clay tenement – into a house that is immortal—to a body that death cannot touch; that sin cannot taint; – a body fashioned like unto His glorious body. I was born of the flesh in 1837. I was born of the Spirit in 1855.
“That which is born of the flesh may die. But that which is born of the Spirit will live forever.” D. L. Moody loved to quote the first two sentences as a way of shocking his audiences with the truth that death would not be the end of his life but only the beginning.
The truth is, heaven can wait. There is far too much work to be done here and now. There are too many lost souls that need to find their way back home and they need us ‘to help point them toward Jesus.
On this ‘All Saint’s Sunday’, make it your mission, over the next year — to pray for 10 unchurched people, invite 3 to church and to lead at least one to the Lord.
You see, life in America today, doesn’t threaten Christians with death. Jesus conquered the grave! Instead, it entices us away from the church, to pursue other activities. It is time to make first things first again! Bring folks back to church and to Jesus!!!
Our goal should be to fill up heaven, so we can give more praise to Jesus. May it be so. Amen.