11/1/2015 All Saints’ Day The text is Rev. 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44; Isaiah 25:6-9.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I was doing my prep work for today’s sermon, I can across this story about the junior high youth group at First Church. As with most youth groups of this kind, the kids were kept busy with a variety of events. They discussed a lot of movies and celebrated every holiday with a party. But when it came to exploring the Bible, it was another story.
One Sunday, the youth advisor announced that the group was going to begin to study the Gospel of St. John. To begin the study, he gave everyone an assignment. “During the next week,” he said, “we want you to flip through the Gospel of John until you find a verse that means something to you. Memorize the verse and then next week, come back and recite it for the rest of the group.”
As would be expected, attendance the next week was spotty, but the few who were present were prepared. One by one they went around the circle and recited such beloved verses as John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”), John 3:3 (Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”), John 1:14 (And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth.), and John 11:25 (Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”). Every verse memorized and recited contained truths compressed like brilliant diamonds. At least, it looked that way until it was time for Jonathan, the minister’s son, to reveal his verse. Grinning, Jonathan cleared his throat and announced that his verse was John 11:35. Then, with a note of sobriety, he look around the group and recited, “Jesus wept.”
That did it! The rest of the group burst into laughter. As the youth advisor tried to calm things down, he said, “Tell us, Jonathan, why did you pick that verses?” With perfect teenage logic, Jonathan replied, “Because it’s the shortest verse in the Bible.” Well, my friends, in our gospel for today, those two words, so aptly recited by the teenager, have been expanded to four. It now reads, “Jesus began to weep.” But those two additional words do not change the significance of what took place as Jesus went to the tomb where his friend Lazarus had been laid.
For those of us who have ever experienced tragedy – those of us who have ever sat at the bedside of a beloved friend or parent who was dying of cancer; those of us who have been in the unenviable position of cleaning out the family homestead after burying our last parent – for us, those two small words, “Jesus wept,” lets us know that we have a compassionate God who suffers with us.
We may not know for sure why Jesus wept on the day that he went to Lazarus’ tomb. He might have been sympathizing with Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha. He might have been weeping out of frustration and pain because Mary and Martha and those accompanying them didn’t understand who he was. Or, he might have simply cried out of his own grief for the loss of a dear friend. John doesn’t give a reason for the tears. But what John does make clear is the reason for Jesus’ delay in arriving in Bethany.
Now, everyone present at the tomb understood that Jesus could have healed his friend when he was ill, and yet Jesus chose to delay his arrival until Lazarus had died and had been in the grave for such a long period of time that there was no question that he was indeed dead. Jesus waited that long before coming to the aid of his friend in order that God might be glorified through what he was about to do. And in the present of those grieving their loss and expressing disappointment over Jesus’ tardiness, Jesus spoke, and the tears of those present were wiped as Lazarus came out of the tomb. From death there came forth new life. But unlike the resurrection on the last day, Lazarus’ life would be temporary. It would not be forever. Lazarus would one day die again and would then wait for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
In our first and second lessons for today we are given a vision of what that life will be like. In Isaiah, it’s described as a land filled with the best food. There is no calorie counting here. In Revelation, it’s described as a place where pain and tears shall be no more, a place where even Jesus had no need to weep for all shall believe and shall know the glory of God. In the movie, Titanic, it is this passage from Revelation that the Hollywood moguls chose to have the priest recite as the ship is sinking. Holding on and surrounded by those who will perish, the priest shares the vision of the old things passing away and of the new things that are to come. Four times in this passage the word, “new,” describes what is to come: “a new heaven,” “a new earth,” “new Jerusalem,” “Behold, I make all things new.” It is compared to the beauty of “a bride adorned for her husband,” a bride coming down the church aisle for the wedding ceremony, dressed in her absolute finest, prettier than at any other time in her life! In the movie Titanic, as the priest speaks of tears being no more and former things passing away, what you see on the screen is a woman, dressed in a flowing evening gown, floating in the midst of a flooded cabin. What they show is death. Yet, as in the warmth of the water in a mother’s womb, there is the promise of life, here in the cold waters of the frigid Atlantic Ocean, there is the promise of new life where God will dwell among his people.
For, my friends, Jesus affirms the power of God to keep his promises and to restore life in the raising of Lazarus. Our access to that life is not determined by how “saintly” a life we lead on earth. Our access to that life comes through Jesus Christ who came to save all who believe. Jesus has the power of God to make all things new.
So today, as we remember those who have gone before us to join the great cloud of witnesses, we remember that, although we might grieve for their passing, they have received God’s greatest gift, the gift of new life in his kingdom. This life is without pain, without tears, without sorrow. It is life full of joy and best of all things. It is the new life given to them through faith, and by what Jesus has done for us and all people on the cross and through the resurrection. So while we may shed tears and may grieve for their passing, there is no reason to despair as they are safe and comfortable in the care of our compassionate God.
Do you believe this? Do you believe this? For it is in believing and trusting in God’s promises through Christ our Lord that the gates of heaven are opened to us. Death shall not have the last word. The last word belongs to God and that is the word of life. Believe and trust in this promise of God. For the tears of grief and the cloud of pain cannot overshadow the promise of what is to come. Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
Believe and trust in the Lord! And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.