Nov. 7, 2021 All Saints Day The text today is John 11: 32-44.
32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
This morning’s Gospel reading begins at verse 32, and to be sure, there’s a wondrous miracle taking place in the verses that follow; the raising of Lazarus from the dead. But I think we should take a look a bit earlier in this chapter of John, at the point where Lazarus’ sister Martha confronts Jesus as he enters the village where Lazarus has died. She, like her sister Mary did in the verses just read, in her grief says to Jesus “if only you had been here my brother would not have died”.
Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”. Now this promise that was made to Martha is at the center of what we as followers of Jesus Christ hold fast to. It is the very core of what we confess to be true. Jesus’ words are meant for us as well as Martha.
Right after Jesus makes this declaration he asks Martha, “do you believe this?’” Martha, in response to Jesus’ poignant question replies simply and truthfully; “yes Lord, I believe”. I think this telling of the dialogue between Martha and Jesus presents a rather sterile description of how this exchange likely happened. I would think there must have been more going on than “Jesus said” and “Martha replied”. She is grief-stricken at the death of her brother and probably more than a little upset that Jesus didn’t come immediately when he heard of Lazarus’ illness. She felt confident that Jesus would have been able to heal her brother and prevented his death if he had arrived sooner; she had heard that Jesus had restored the sight of a man born blind. Healing Lazarus would have been easy for Jesus. Perhaps the actual exchange between Jesus and Martha was a bit more profound than John writes. I like to imagine that Jesus held onto the distraught Martha in some fashion; maybe he grasped her by her upper arms, or placed his hands lovingly on her shoulders. Perhaps he even cradled her cheeks while he consoled her. I like to think that he looked her straight in the eye when he asked her; “do you believe this?” I also imagine that she, choking back sobs looked into the eyes of Christ and in complete assurance responded; “yes Lord, I believe”. I’m going to ask you to keep Martha’s confident, faithful reply within easy reach in your mind; we’ll come back to it again in a little while.
After the tornado picks up Dorothy’s house and it lands on the Wicked Witch in Land of Oz, the Munchkins declare in song that she is “positively, absolutely, undeniably, and reliably dead”. John’s gospel takes great pains to affirm that Lazarus also is truly dead. The Jewish people in Jesus’ time believed that the life-force or soul remained close to a body for three days after death. John states twice in this chapter that Lazarus has been dead for four days; so, like the Wicked Witch there’s no denying that he is beyond all hope of rising again. So, when Jesus cries out, “Lazarus, come out!”, and Lazarus appears, covered in burial linens, those present know that they are truly witnessing a miracle; an unquestionably dead man has been brought back to life.
It’s generally accepted among biblical scholars that the raising of Lazarus is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own rebirth, but in truth these two events are only marginally similar. Lazarus did come back from the dead, only to later eventually die. His was a life restored; not to be confused with Jesus, who was genuinely resurrected from the dead! Jesus’ resurrection is a life re-established to endure beyond the present age; a life eternal, one without end. And Jesus’ resurrection is a precursor of the ultimate raising of all the saints on the last day.
Let’s talk about saints for a bit, shall we? Paul, the great letter writer of the New Testament, after his conversion, spent the rest of his life travelling throughout the nations spreading the Good News of Jesus. He was beaten, imprisoned, and persecuted for the sake of the Gospel. His letters account for much of what we know about the beginnings of the church and how early Christianity developed. His life is the quintessential description of the capital “S”- Saint. We are all acquainted with the person of Saint Paul.
But here is the definition of a saint, lower case “s”, as found in “The Lutheran Handbook”: “A saint is a person who is justified by faith in Christ apart from the works of the law and who continues to trust and believe God’s promises in Christ”. This definition kind of expands the pool from which one may decide upon whom lower case sainthood may be conferred, doesn’t it? Allow me to bestow, or at least acknowledge the title of everyday saint on a few of those who I think we all agree deserve it:
Saint Sunday School Teacher, Saint Church Musician, Saint Usher, Saint Scripture Reader, Saint Church Council Member, Saint Youth who serves others, Saint Donor of clothing, food, and school supplies, Saint Parent, Saint Child in worship. The list goes on…
Some famous saints have been given their titles based on their place of origin, or where they have done their saintly work; for example, Saint Francis of Assisi or Saint Patrick of Ireland. I’d like to suggest another such designation; Saint worshiper of the Pews”. That’s right, each and every one of us. After all, each of us falls into the definition I just read, right?
“Justified before God by our faith in Christ alone, and our continued belief in the promises God has made to us in Jesus”. I’ll grant you, none of us acts all the time in ways that might be described as “saintly”. But we’re not expected to; God knows that we can’t; that’s why he sent his Son to atone for our brokenness, our sinfulness, our “unsaintliness”. But we do the best we can, in spite of our sinful human nature. My favorite quote of Martin Luther is that we are all; “simul iustus et peccator”; Latin for; “at the same time, saint and sinner”. On one hand there is the “old” us; rebellious, sinful, and separated from God. On the other, the “new” version of us, joined to Christ; faithful, righteous, forgiven, and blessed. So, while we will always stumble, occasionally fall, and perpetually struggle with our “old” sinful selves, we are nonetheless saints by virtue of our faith in Christ and by the grace of God.
Today being “All Saints Sunday” we find ourselves pausing to give thanks for and to honor those faithful servants who have gone before. We reflect on the lives of those who have had an impact on ours; those who we strive to emulate as workers in the kingdom. These are the Christians who have gone before us and to whom we may have looked for, and found mentoring, inspiration, and example. They might have been any of the saints mentioned earlier; Sunday School teacher, our first Pastor, church musician, kitchen server, or other church worker. But more likely we remember the people who were important in our lives who perhaps didn’t have church-based titles. Maybe they were referred to with more everyday labels; Mom, Dad, Son, Daughter, Sibling, Grandparent, Uncle, Aunt, Niece, Nephew. Or perhaps; Friend, Co-worker, or teacher who inspired us. Or, perhaps even those saints who were a part of God’s kingdom, who served with us here in this place:
We remember this day the sweet voice of Magnolia Pak, who tirelessly gave of herself as a researcher striving to find a cure for breast cancer. And Sharon Emond, the faithful woman whose home was the gathering place for the youngsters in her neighborhood who could always look forward to sampling her baked treats. This day we recall Janet Grahn; Sunday School teacher, Finance Team member, and Council member tirelessly devoted to the support of this very church. Kenny Linder, who just may have liked dogs more than people, yet whose gracious generosity helped this parish through some of its darkest days.
Jim Bylund was a lover of mountains, a Scout leader, a sports coach, and above all else an unwavering patriot. Paul Voellings will be remembered as a Korean War hero, steadfast Green Bay Packers superfan, and creator of artworks. Albert Vezina graduated the School of Lay Ministry and rode atop a camel in the shadow of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, all in his 90’s; a man of quiet, yet indomitable faith. Janice Kungoian determined that winning beauty pageants in her youth didn’t compare to the joy she received from doting on her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. And Ronald Edgren, who rose to become a CEO in the plastics industry, yet who devoted much of his retirement energy to the children served through “We Care for Little People” daycare program. We remember this day, all the saints who are now with Jesus in the heavenly places.
The reality is that we pause today to recall the lives of all those fellow Christians who for a while played important roles in our lives. Their faith may have laid the foundation for our own spiritual growth. The way they treated others might have encouraged us to try to be like them. Their trust in God’s promises may have been what motivated us to seek out Christ for ourselves. Just by being a part of our lives was probably enough; simply by knowing, and maybe loving them, some of their worldly saintliness rubbed off on us.
These are who we remember today, the people who were in our lives for a time, and have entered God’s kingdom before us. And while we may feel sadness when we contemplate their loss, we know that just as Jesus raised Lazarus, he will, on the last day raise our loved ones. And as fellow saints we are confident that we will be together with them again. We know this because like our ancestors we have in our hearts the same answer to the question Jesus posed to Mary and Martha, when he told them “I am the resurrection and the life”. He asked; “Do you believe this?” And, just as all those who have gone before us have affirmed, all the saints, all of us will truly answer; “yes Lord, we believe.”
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God, this day we recall the earthly lives of the saints who have gone before us to be with you. We pray that you have received them and that they now live eternally surrounded by your glory. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One whose raising of Lazarus, and whose own resurrection assures all the saints of the everlasting life to come. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.