All Saints Sunday
He shall receive a blessing from Jehovah, And righteousness from the God of his salvation.
The word saint refers to several different groups of people. A saint is one who has been set aside for special recognition for their lives of faith by the church. Yet, it also refers to all those who have died in the faith. The biblical witness gives a third definition, using the word saint to refer to all those who believe. Each Sunday we confess together our belief in the communion of saints, the fellowship of all believers throughout time and space. We gather together around the table of our Lord Jesus Christ and receive His body and blood with all those who believe from the beginning until the end. Even future generations - those who do not yet know the Lord - are with us in the liturgy, sacraments and the word because God promises it to be so.
This past church year has been filled with celebrations for the saints. We've praised God for St. Peter and St. Paul, St. Bartholomew and St. Matthew. We have looked to their lives and ministries for inspiration and hope. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, people throughout the ages that have lived and died for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. Through their testimony we see the love and mercy of God as they pass the things He taught and did from generation to generation.
Yet, not all of the people in that great cloud of witnesses have been recognized for their faith. Millions of Christians have died without fanfare or memorials, and yet in their own quiet way have touched our lives with their faith. It is for those Christians that we celebrate All Saints. This Sunday we will particularly remember those who have passed this year into life eternal. Who are you remembering? Your parent, spouse or sibling? An old teacher or pastor? A neighbor, friend or relative? For many, this has been a difficult year, a year filled with loss to violence and disease. We have had plenty of reason to mourn.
All Saints Day is not really a day for mourning. It is a day to celebrate the promises of God. Though death seems to be an end, our scriptures for this week talk of hope, peace and new things. For a Christian, death is just a passing into new life in Christ, when we receive the blessings promised by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We weep over the loss of those we love, for they will never again join us in the laughter and pain of this world. Jesus wept, for in death we see the reality of sin and the grave. It is separation from those we love, an end to the blessings of life.
Mary and Martha tried to get Jesus to come and save Lazarus from death. For them, the gravity of the situation may have been even greater than when we lose someone we love. As women they had few rights, and from the stories it seems that Lazarus was the man in their life. His death would bring them more than grief; it could bring other suffering. Both women greeted their Lord with the words, "if you had been here…" Some of the Jews in the crowd of mourners thought Jesus cried crocodile tears. "If he can heal a blind man, he could have saved Lazarus." Lazarus had been in the grave for four days. They had no hope.
It was a common belief in the days of Jesus that the spirit of a person hovered nearby until the third day, and then it left the person forever. Since Lazarus was dead for four days, there was no way he could be raised. His spirit was gone forever. They knew Jesus had the power for healing and salvation, but they lost hope when they thought it was too late.
With Jesus, however, there is always hope. Death is not the end of life for those who believe. Even though the flesh dies, those who have faith in Jesus Christ will live forever. It is easy for us to look back on this story and consider the sisters faithless because they did not trust Jesus. Yet, we look at these stories with 20/20 vision. They did not have the Holy Spirit, were still learning who Jesus was and what He was there to do. Martha confessed faith in Jesus, proclaimed Him to be the Christ, and yet she still did not really know the power He would wield against sin and death.
Our story in today's gospel lesson begins with Mary meeting Jesus. She fell down at his feet and wept. "If you had been here…" she said. If He had been there, they would not have seen the power of the living God. Jesus went to the tomb and told them to roll away the stone. The ever practical Martha replied, "It is going to smell really bad." It was a useless effort; the rotting body of their brother was best left undisturbed. Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" This event, this death, was meant for good. The life-giving power of God would be demonstrated through Jesus Christ. This would also set in motion the events that would lead Jesus to His own death on the cross. Jesus looked to heaven and thanked God for hearing His prayers. "Now, let's show them that you sent me." He cried out to Lazarus, and the dead man walked from the grave. He was still covered in the linens they had used to cover his dead body. Jesus ordered the grave clothes removed and Lazarus to be set free.
When someone we love dies, we mourn the loss we feel because they are no longer with us. But those of us who have faith have a hope that the others do not have. We know that Jesus calls the names of those who have gone to the grave and they walk from the grave into a new life in His kingdom. He weeps with us, because sin and death was never God's intent. But then He calls us to remove the grave clothes and set our loved ones free. There is hope beyond the grave. Jesus made it possible.
So, now we gather regularly at the table of our Lord, to celebrate the promise and get a foretaste of the feast to come. Isaiah tells us what it will be like. "And in this mountain will Jehovah of hosts make unto all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined. And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering that covereth all peoples, and the veil that is spread over all nations. He hath swallowed up death for ever; and the Lord Jehovah will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the reproach of his people will he take away from off all the earth: for Jehovah hath spoken it. And it shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is Jehovah; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation."
John also gives us an image of that which is to come. "And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth are passed away; and the sea is no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven of God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of the throne saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he shall dwell with them, and they shall be his peoples, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God: and he shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and death shall be no more; neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, any more: the first things are passed away. And he that sitteth on the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he saith, Write: for these words are faithful and true. And he said unto me, They are come to pass."
The Psalmist asks, "Who shall ascend into the hill of Jehovah? And who shall stand in his holy place?" He answers, "He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; Who hath not lifted up his soul unto falsehood, And hath not sworn deceitfully." Without Jesus, it would not be possible for any to stand in the holy place. We would have no hope for resurrection, no hope for eternal life. But we do have hope, because Jesus died to defeat sin and death. He was raised so that we can have eternal life in Him. He is the King of glory, He is the Lord.
Those who believe in Jesus will receive blessing from the Lord, salvation from their Savior. We will see the day when mourning is turned to joy. We will feast at the victory table. We will walk the streets of the new heaven and the new earth. We will see the new Jerusalem adorned in beauty and grace. There will be a day when we will see all these things. For today, we get a glimmer of the promise to come, in fellowship with one another as we worship the King of glory. Jesus overcomes even time and space by drawing His children into one body as we kneel together at His table and receive the glorious gift of the bread and wine.
All Saints Day is sad as we remember those whose lives have slipped from our grasp, but it is also a joyous event as we remember that they are still with us as part of Christ's body, kneeling there at the altar of peace. Jesus is the resurrection; He is our hope and life. He has overcome death and the grave and in Him alone is our hope for salvation. We will receive a blessing from the Lord, those who seek after Him and believe in His name. Thanks be to God.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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