Sunday, November 5, 2006

All Saints Sunday
Isaiah 25:6-9 or Wisdom 3:1-9
Psalm 24
Revelation 21:1-6a
John 11:32-44

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.

Grace and peace to you from God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. These words are spoken by many pastors, including Paul in his letters to the churches, at the beginning of an important message. We hear them at the beginning of sermons. These words draw our attention away from the cares of this world into the heart and soul of why we are Christian – because God has blessed us with His grace and His peace. Grace and peace is what this day is all about. We might think of All Saints Sunday as just a day to remember the people who have died, but there is so much more to it than looking backward.

It all began in the early days of the Church, when Christians were being martyred for their faith. The day of their death was considered their ‘birthday’ because it was the day they entered into the eternal presence of God. They were remembered on that day with a feast or a festival and honored for their faith. First there were local commemorations but soon the feasts of the martyrs were shared and celebrated in many places. Eventually all the saints were honored – both martyrs and those who are remembered for their faithfulness. Soon there were so many saints that it became difficult to honor every one on their individual ‘birthdays’ so the Church chose one day to remember the martyrs. That date changed over time until the eighth or ninth century when it was finally set to November 1st.

We use this day to remember not only those that have been officially recognized as Saints, but also to remember those whom we loved who have passed from life into death. Usually we focus on those who have passed more recently, but the day is certainly a good time to recall those we have loved and lost. It is a way for the community of God to unite in our love for the great cloud of witnesses, the saints whom have attained the promise of eternal life in Christ.

We spend a great deal of time wondering what it might mean to spend eternity with God. Artists since the beginning of time have tried to paint the image of heaven to help us see. Writers have tried to put into words their vision of the heavenly realm. In our age, movie makers have even tried to portray life in heaven so that we might experience it.

In the Old Testament passage we get a glimpse of one vision. Isaiah was speaking to God’s people who had wandered. In their unfaithfulness they faced the discipline of God. They were exiled, taken from Jerusalem by their enemies. They had no hope, no peace. They did not recognize the grace of God. But God was never far, for He cannot be kept in the boxes we build. He had a gift to give, the gift of salvation. They would one day see home again, and there they would experience the gracious generosity of God. “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.”

Perhaps this promise would be more meaningful if we looked at it in modern language. In “The Message,” Eugene Petersen writes, “…a feast of the finest foods, a feast with vintage wines, a feast of seven courses, a feast lavish with gourmet desserts.” It will be a feast with the finest steak, the most succulent barbeque, the sweetest chocolates and the creamiest ice creams. It will be Thanksgiving dinner or the ‘all-you-can-eat-buffet.’ When we partake of these meals we suffer from the guilt of overeating and the additional pounds that end up on our hips. However, in that day we will feast without worry or fear, without concern for calories or carbs or cholesterol. In that day we will not have to spend days cooking or cleaning up. God’s gracious hospitality will be well beyond anything we can imagine or desire.

There is no place we see this more completely than as we kneel to receive the Holy Supper. At Holy Communion we receive the body and blood of Christ, strengthened by His forgiveness and His grace. We kneel there outside time and space, amongst the whole body of Christ, from the saints of days gone by to the saints who have not yet even been born. We commune with the loved ones we mourn even while we commune with the loved ones who are kneeling right next to us.

This is why All Saints Day is not just for those who have passed from death into eternal life. It is for us, too. We are part of the community of saints from the moment we are baptized into Christ, having heard the saving word of forgiveness and welcomed into the loving embrace of our Father. We are saints, just as they are saints, and this day is also for us. At communion we partake in the bread and wine with all saints throughout time in space, getting a glimpse of the feast which those whom have already passed are already enjoying the promise.

We get another glimpse of heaven in today’s New Testament lesson. John, exiled to Patmos, experiences grace in a vision that takes him in and makes him a part of the story of God’s relationship with His people. The book of Revelation takes us back through the story of God, from the end – the letters of the apostles, through the rough times, through the blessings, through the unfaithfulness and the repentance of God’s people. We see the world unravel around promises until we come to the great crescendo of the ultimate battle between God and the enemy – a battle that began in the Garden when Adam and Eve believed the serpent instead of His Word. Finally, we are returned to the Garden, to the presence of God. In today’s passage, John writes, “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.” All that happened from the beginning to the end is redeemed, everything is restored to the way it was meant to be.

For God never intended for human beings to die. He created us to be in His image, to live with Him and to love Him for eternity. We were casualties of the battle between God and the adversary. Yet, we aren’t innocent victims. In the freedom of God’s love, we chose to turn away. Our choice made us see God with fear instead of love. God was never far, however, He had a gift to give, even then, the gift of salvation. So, we were exiled – cast out of the Garden to keep us from living an immortal existence in fear of our Creator. So while Isaiah was talking to a people in a specific place and time, he was also talking to all of us. We are exiles, living in a foreign land far from our Creator.

We would still be that way, except for His grace. He did not stay away, but came into our exile with us and faced all that we would face. Jesus knew what it was like to be human and He did so after giving up the all the glory of heaven. He faced temptation, but did not sin. He knew what it was like to be tired, to be hungry, to be lonely. He knew pain. He even wept.

We see the most poignant example of His emotion in today’s Gospel lesson. This passage is one we hear in its entirety during Lent, as a foreshadowing of what will happen to Jesus. It is also the event that acts as the catalyst for the call for Jesus’ death. This is the beginning of the end. In our verses today we see Mary in tears coming before Jesus with a cry of pain. “If you had been here, he would not be dead!” I know how Mary feels. Though we have been blessed this past year with good health and we have not lost any loved ones, we know what it is like to face death. We know what it is like to bury someone we love, to mourn their passing and to try to go on in this world without them. We have experienced the emotions that run rampant as we adjust to life that is now new and different. We cry, but we also laugh. We get angry and we doubt. We wonder and we hope. In today’s lesson, we see the tears.

Jesus waited to arrive at the tomb until Lazarus had been buried for four days. There was a belief among some of the Jews in Jesus’ day that the soul hovered near the body for three days. At the fourth day there was no hope. The body would already be decomposing and smelly. But even worse, there was no soul to be restored to the flesh.

We are told that Jesus wept. Why? Was it for His friend who had died? Certainly the people there said that He must have loved Lazarus very much. Was it because the people did not believe? Some were very cynical about Jesus – why would He use His powers to heal a stranger and never show up to save His friend? Did He cry because He knew that this was the beginning of the end, that saving Lazarus would bring about His own death? Perhaps. We do know that Jesus went to the grave of His friend at that time for a purpose. The raising of Lazarus was meant to prove the power of God, to glorify God and to create faith in the hearts of those who would truly see.

In the Gospel lesson we see yet another vision of an eternity with God, but it is unlike the others for it is not a vision of some future time or place. It is living faith in the here and now. When Jesus called Lazarus to come out of the tomb, he was wrapped from head to toe in burial clothes. It must have been difficult for him to walk. Jesus said, “Loose him and let him go.” Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, but there was more that had to be done. For Lazarus to be truly free, the death clothes had to be removed. And Jesus called those who loved Lazarus to help. That is how it is with us today. It is Jesus’ word that saves, but He calls us to help remove the death clothes. We not only become part of the community of faith, but we become part of that great cloud of witnesses, sharing the grace and peace of God with those who have been called by Jesus to true life.

The psalmist asks, “Who shall ascend into the hill of Jehovah?” Human beings never reach the point of perfection that we can approach the throne of grace on our own. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. In faith, by faith and through faith, we are saints. With Jesus we can ascend the hill, receive the blessing and vindication. As His followers, believers in His name, we can go with Him before the throne.

We do not often read from the works that come from the deutero-canonical writings of the Old Testament which is where we would find the Wisdom of Solomon. In this reading we see the lives of the saints – including us – thanks to the grace and mercy of God. He holds us in His hands. While the world looks at suffering and death as punishment, we live in the peace that these things are only temporary and that we will see the fulfillment of the hope we have. Trusting in God means that we will know His presence among us now and forever.

God has promised us His extravagant goodness in the day that we too get to go home and live in His eternal presence forever. For today, however, we still live in the knowledge of the promise knowing that God also dwells with us in the here and now. As we live out the hope for tomorrow, we live in the faith of today – believing that God is with us and that He calls us to share His love and mercy with all so that they too might be released from their death clothes and live for eternity in His presence. As we celebrate this All Saints Sunday, we remember the saints that have gone before us but we are reminded that we too are saints. As we celebrate Holy Communion we receive a foretaste of the feast to come. We get a glimpse of heaven even while we are still on earth, for God is dwelling with us. In His grace, we join together with all the saints outside time and space until we will all live together as we await the New Jerusalem. Thanks be to God.

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