Sermon for All Saints Sunday – November 4th, 2018
Isaiah 25:6-9, Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
We had an interesting little episode here in the sanctuary this past week. As many of you know, I lead a little chapel service here in the sanctuary for our preschool class on Wednesdays. This year our Wednesday service fell on Halloween. I started out the Bible teaching time asking the kids about things that make them afraid. I heard about zombies and vampires and monsters, things you’d expect from preschoolers on Halloween. One little girl said she was afraid of “Frankensteins.” Then I talked about how sometimes when I’m afraid, or ministering to someone who is afraid, I often turn to a passage from Isaiah 43. There God says: “Do not be afraid…I have called you by name and you are mine. When you walk through fire, I will be with you. You are precious to me and I love you. Do not be afraid.” I told them that was a promise they could hold on to, a word they could remember whenever they were afraid.
After the Bible lesson we moved on with the service with a couple of songs. Then we moved into our prayer time, when I invite the kids to share who they want to pray for that day. When I got to one kid, I found that he wasn’t ready to move on from our conversation on what made him afraid. He mumbled something about singing “Jesus Loves Me” when he was afraid and something about his mom giving him hugs. And then he startled me by saying he was afraid of a man with a knife. He said he saw the man on TV, and that his name was Michael Myers (from the horror movie “Halloween”). He said he was afraid that this man was coming to get him. As he spoke his eyes started to get all watery. He started wringing his hands. His lips started to tremble and his voice got shaky. He was starting to lose it, so I interrupted him. I tried to assure him that Michael Myers was pretend, a character. He wasn’t real. He insisted, “No, he’s real and he’s going to come through the TV and get me.” I said, “No, no he won’t. I promise you that will never happen. He’s a pretend character. He’s not real. He’s fake.” He finally started to calm down. He repeated my words: “He’s fake.”
Then once again I pointed to our Bible verse for the day and reminded him that whenever he’s afraid, he could think of that verse. I asked him if I heard him say that he sang “Jesus Loves Me” when he was afraid. He said he did. I asked if it helped. He said that it did. I told him to keep on singing.
This episode really stuck with me. I keep thinking about it. Not only does my heart ache for this little four-year-old who should not be worrying about horror film slashers, but this interaction, happening as it did on All Hallow’s Eve, that is, the eve of all saints, reminded me of the greatest of all human fears, the fear that haunts all of us – the fear of death.
And now today on All Saints Sunday we read the names of those in our congregation who have died since last All Saints Sunday. We remember together all our loved ones who have died in faith. We remember all the saints, all the believers throughout history who have died and are now in the Church Triumphant. As celebratory as All Saints Sunday is and should be, it has the whiff of a funeral about it, and so that fear of death has a way of being stirred up in us once again. For we know that while Michael Myers is pretend, stage four cancer is not. We know that while Frankensteins are fake, congestive heart failure and strokes and traffic accident fatalities are all- too real. We know that one thing or another is going to come and get all of us eventually.
Being reminded of this is hard. It is scary. It causes us to be afraid. But today God interrupts our fears to give us a word of promise, a word to calm our trembling hearts.
In the first reading, God says to us through the prophet Isaiah that “he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations.” God says he will “swallow up death forever.”
In the second reading, God says to us through the revelation to St. John that “the home of God is among mortals” – that is, among those who die! “He will be with them,” it says, “they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”
Best of all, we have our gospel reading for today. There we see how Jesus went to be with Mary and Martha after their brother, Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus, died. Jesus wept with them. But he didn’t just weep with them. Jesus, who earlier had told Martha that he was the resurrection and the life, decided to show them exactly what that meant.
Jesus asked them to take him to the tomb. When he got there he asked that the stone be rolled away. Martha said, “Lord, no! He has already been dead four days. There is a stench!” Not only was there a stench, but for Jesus to go in there with their dead brother would require Jesus to get dangerously close to being made unclean for being in contact with the dead. But Jesus didn’t care about the stench. He had bigger concerns than being unclean. Lazarus was his friend. Lazarus was someone he loved.
In one of my previous congregations I did a funeral for a dear woman. Her husband of more than fifty years was a landscaper and caretaker for a golf course. He spent most of his life dressed in dirty coveralls and with dirt under his fingernails. But on the day of her funeral there was no dirt under his fingernails. He was dressed in his best suit, with a crisp white shirt and tie. As we finished up the committal at the cemetery he didn’t want to leave. Everyone else left and he was still there. He insisted on watching his wife be lowered into her grave. I didn’t want to leave him alone, so I stayed with him. The crew reluctantly lowered her down. (They don’t like to do that with family present.) And what happened next is something I’ve never seen before or since. This dear sweet man in his nice clean suit got down into the dirt at the edge of her grave. He laid down on the grass on his stomach and reached down into his beloved wife’s grave, calling out her name. He didn’t care about the mud that was now all over his suit. He was reaching out for his beloved.
That’s what Jesus is doing for Lazarus. Jesus loves him, and so he doesn’t care about getting dirty. He doesn’t worry about the possibility of being made unclean. Jesus pokes his head into the tomb in spite of the stench. He calls out for his beloved friend. And the difference between Christ Jesus and this grieving husband is that his word has power! Jesus says, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus comes out. By the power of his word, Jesus raised him up from death.
The Lord Jesus is going to do the same thing for you, you know.
In his own death and resurrection Jesus has conquered death once and for all. He has fulfilled what Isaiah wrote about death being swallowed up forever. Because of him, God dwells with us mortals, and because of him, death will be no more.
We will still contend with death, to be sure. As St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians, “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” So it is coming for us all. But you are a beloved friend of Christ. He loves you, and so when that enemy does take you, you can be certain that Jesus will get down into the dirt with you. He’ll poke his head into your tomb. He’ll reach into your grave. He’ll shout out your name, saying, “Come out.” And his word has power! His word has the power to call you out of your grave and into eternal life with him.
His word has power for us now, too. One of the reasons we celebrate All Saints Sunday is so that we can hear our funeral sermon ahead of time. We usually only hear this kind of proclamation, this kind of assurance, at funerals, right? Maybe on Easter Sunday. Today is our chance to hear our funeral sermon ahead of time so that the power of this promise can fill our hearts with comfort and peace here and now. Today is our chance to hear a word that we can cling to when we are afraid for ourselves or grieving for someone else. Today is a day to hear a promise that can calm our trembling hearts.
God has swallowed up death forever. His home is among mortals, and he will wipe away every last tear. In Christ, God has ultimately destroyed death forever, and so we can be confident that when the noise of this world is eventually hushed in our ears, the next thing we will hear is his voice calling our name.
And so whenever we’re afraid, whenever our hearts start to tremble and we start to wring our hands and our fears threaten to overwhelm us, with my little friend from preschool we can hold fast to God’s word. We can remember his promises.
We can sing, too! We can keep on singing! “Jesus Loves Me” is a good one, but this next one is pretty good too. Please stand as we sing together, “Shall We Gather at the River.”
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church