My alarm went off on the cold morning of January 12, 2010 and I rolled over, turned it off, and started to read through the notifications that had come on my phone. I was living in Sumner at the time and doing my internship. Thanks to Facebook and twitter, I immediately learned the news of the devastating 7.0 earthquake that shook Haiti that day. One of my classmates was in Haiti with her internship congregation. Three other students were there doing a January term class, or J-term. The following day, I read the emails from our seminary president. Renee, Ben, and Jon were okay. They were figuratively shaken but they were okay. And then another email followed. It stated that Renee and Jon were well, but Ben’s status was unknown. Then a final email came confirming that Ben was one of hundreds of thousands killed in the earthquake. Ben was killed after being trapped in the building that the three were staying in. In his final minutes of life, as he was being crushed by concrete, rebar, and debris, Ben was heard singing the tune of “Where Charity and Love Prevail.” The last words he sang were “Lord Jesus you bear all the sins a world away. God’s peace to us we pray.” With the help of the Haitian people, mourning their own losses, and volunteers from the Lutheran World Federation, Ben was one of the first people actually recovered from the rubble. By then, of course, he was long gone.
I had known Ben Splichal Larson since before seminary. When Chris and I were touring seminaries, it was Ben and his cousin and best friend, Jon, that took us out for drinks at the Busted Lift in Dubuque. I think I knew then that I was in the presence of people who were special. Not just Ben, but Jon is pretty awesome as well. I thought of Ben as I read that Revelation reading. Ben was quoted as saying that when he dies he wants to go out singing. And that he did. It is a beautiful picture, at least to me, to picture all of our Saints singing the praises of God together.
The Revelation reading says there was a great multitude, so large that no one could actually count how large the crowd was. The multitude was from every nation, and spoke every language, and they were all colors, and abilities, and statuses. It continues saying “and all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.’” They are everybody. These saints that sing the praises of God look like us and at the same time, look nothing like us. And the most astounding thing is this: they sing.
My Chris has too many stories of students he has worked with that have been told somewhere along the way that they cannot sing. It usually happens when a person is young. A likely well-meaning choir teacher pulled the student aside and, for whatever reason, told them that they cannot or should not sing. It breaks his heart when he hears these stories and it breaks mine when he relays them to me. In fact, a lot of his doctoral research is going to focus on why people don’t sing…especially why men in church don’t sing. But in the midst of everything else, believers should and do sing. This isn’t a case of just knowing about salvation and God’s goodness, but knowing it so well and being filled with such joy that you simply must sing. “Revelation overcomes such trickery with the music of the heavenly choir reminding the saints–living and dead–that the good news is heard, even overheard. The saints’ cry may not always come in four-part harmony, but it is always a joyful noise. So the saints listen while they join in the song.” (Tom Tate, Feasting on the Word p220)
This reminds me of that hymn “how can I keep from singing?” In the midst of good and evil, war and peace, feast and famine, wealth and poverty, in the midst of life, no matter what comes across the path of the saints, they just cannot help but to sing. And at the same time, the saints, living and deceased cannot help but listen. And so why do we listen? We listen because by listening we hear the good news. We can experience the good news. We can experience the empty tomb. We can see it with our eyes. We can smell the slight hint of death but we don’t see the body. We can taste the confusion of knowing a man was crucified and laid in a tomb, but now he is no longer there. We can feel the radiance of joy starting to creep into our bodies and shine on our faces through the light that is Christ. But, but! Not until we hear the triumphant cry of “Alleluia! He is risen!” (He is risen indeed, alleluia!) Do we actually dare to believe it.
We gather here, week in and week out, despite what is going on, because we need to hear the good news. It’s one thing to show up. It’s another to show up and hear “you are forgiven. You are loved. You are freed from your sins.” And as if that isn’t good news enough, we sing this good news. We sing it so we ourselves can hear that good news and we sing it so those around us can hear it. Sometimes we may not believe it for ourselves, so we need to hear it from someone else. So we sing. And we show up here, on the first day of the week, just like the women at the tomb, to show ourselves, to show others, to show the world that death, no matter what it may look like, never has the final word. To show up to worship is an act of courage. So much goes on in our weeks that can easily crush us. Life is hard, friends, I get that. Many of us experience highs and lows in our 6 days that follow Sunday. We show up on Sunday as a sign of defiance. We renounce the devil and all the forces that attempt to defy God. We renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God. We renounce the ways of sin that draw us from God. All of that defiance is tiring and can make us weary and weak spiritually speaking. So we show up in the hopes that even the smallest glimpse of hope will encourage us for the week ahead.
And we sing. We sing with our saints. We sing because of our saints. We sing in the hope of joining the saints. The Lamb is already on the throne, in charge of everything we are and everything we need. That Lamb, Jesus Christ, is our shepherd and we shall want for nothing. And our troubles won’t disappear. Evil will do everything it can to attempt to sway us away from God. But our tears, when they come, are wiped away by God. What a powerful image. In our suffering and joy, God is there. Our song is one of salvation. Our song is one of hope. Our song is one of love. Our song is one of peace. And our song has the power to transform us and the people around us. Our song is sung, with joy, in the face of death, knowing that death never has and never will have the final word. We sing, my beloveds. We sing with the saints, for the saints, and surrounded by the saints.