First Reading: Isaiah 25:6-9
6On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
7And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
9It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
Psalm: Psalm 24
1The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world and those who dwell therein.
2For the Lord has founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the rivers.
3Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord,
and who may stand in God’s holy place?
4Those of innocent hands and purity of heart,
who do not swear on God’s being, nor do they pledge by what is false.
5They shall receive blessing from the Lord
and righteousness from the God of their salvation.
6Such is the generation of those who seek you, O Lord,
of those who seek your face, O God of Jacob.
7Lift up your heads, O gates; and be lifted up, O everlasting doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
8Who is this King of glory?
The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle!
9Lift up your heads, O gates; and be lifted up, O everlasting doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
10Who is this King of glory?
Truly, the Lord of hosts is the King of glory.
Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-6a
1I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
5And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6aThen he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
Gospel: John 11:32-44
32When 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.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus 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.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I 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.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The 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.”
Allow me to share another Aesop Fable that perhaps will speak to our text today.
The Old Lion & the Fox
An old Lion, whose teeth and claws were so worn that it was not so easy for him to get food as in his younger days, pretended that he was sick. He took care to let all his neighbors know about it, and then lay down in his cave to wait for visitors. And when they came to offer him their sympathy, he ate them up one by one.
The Fox came too, but he was very cautious about it. Standing at a safe distance from the cave, he inquired politely after the Lion’s health. The Lion replied that he was very ill indeed, and asked the Fox to step in for a moment. But Master Fox very wisely stayed outside, thanking the Lion very kindly for the invitation.
“I should be glad to do as you ask,” he added, “but I have noticed that there are many footprints leading into your cave and none coming out. Pray tell me, how do your visitors find their way out again?”
Let us pray: Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Today’s text for All Saints Sunday has a cave in it. Did you notice? It is the cave of death that holds Lazarus. The story is familiar to most of us. Two sisters, Mary and Martha, were good friends of Jesus and their brother, Lazarus, who became sick so they sent for Jesus. Jesus delayed and did not arrive until Lazarus had been dead four days! What kind of love is that??? Jesus arrives at the wake with his 12 disciples and is first met by Martha, “If only you had been here….” Jesus tells Martha his famous statement, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. (John 11:25)” That promise precedes our text for today. Our text picks up as Mary and mourning Jews join Jesus and Martha and again we hear, “If only you had been here…” The Fox stands at the front of the lion’s cave and realizes footprints go into the cave but none come out. He may well have wailed, “If only Jesus had been here!”
This Sunday Bethany remembers thirteen saints who have gone into the cave of death this year and we have not seen any footprints coming out. We join with the Jews who came to Mary and Martha to grieve, to be a presence in the face of loss, and to lament. We stand today and remember the lives of those who meant so much to us. Most of them I knew briefly or visited and they changed my life. They left footprints in my life. But we do not stand hopeless for we know something the sly Fox did not!
When we think of saints, we often think of people like Mother Teresa who worked with the poor in Calcutta. We think of St. Francis of Assisi. We often think of people who have entered the cave of death and have been canonized officially by the Catholic church. This is not the Lutheran understanding of saints. Lutherans would understand all Christians in heaven and on earth to be regarded as saints. Let me say that again, all Christians living in heaven and living on earth are saints.
Today, we honor the cloud of saints who have gone before, modeling for us the life of faith with its challenges and rewards but we must not forget the crowd of saints that surrounds us, the living saints. Living Christians we understand to be saints. God considers us saints because of Christ’s death on the cross. Let us read:
- Psalm 31:23 “Love the Lord, all you his saints. The Lord preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.”
- Romans 1:7 “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
- Romans 8:27 “And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
All these verses refers to people alive now. So as we stand here today, we are aware of the clouds of saints who have gone before, the crowd of saints that surround us on our earthly journey, and the children, the saints to be who follow in our footsteps.
Standing in the shadow of the Reformation last Sunday, as Lutherans we do not believe the saints mediate between us and God for redemption. We claim, Christ alone! I would assert that those who have gone before us into the cave of death, have exited by the back door into eternity and eternal life with God. Our Old Testament reading in Isaiah affirms that there is a day coming when we will all be united and we will rejoice with those who have gone before:
“Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. (Isaiah 25:9)
Like the Fox, we do not see footprints of saints leaving the cave of death because the cave is a transition to be with God. Revelation affirms our belief that God is not like that old lion, our enemy the devil who prowls around seeking whom he can devour and who seejs to destroy us but God is the Alpha and Omega making us all new. The footprints of saints enter the cave of death but only to travel through and exit to the other side. God goes through the cave protecting them.
We do not see footprints exiting, but does that mean there are no footprints. I have been suggesting this week that the cloud of saints who have passed through death have left footprints, perhaps not on the ground but in our lives, as we see pictures that capture memories of them and remind us who we are and how they are part of our lives. The memorabilia that sits around our homes reminds us of them. The songs we enjoyed together, when played, bring back memories. All these footprints that lie within our hearts speak to the eternity that waits when we will be welcomed into their presence.
Mary and Martha lamented, “IF you had been here…” Our world agrees with the Jews who say, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Perhaps like the Fox who refuses to enter the cave, we believe we can avoid death and trials if only Jesus were present. The evil one tries to convince us that if we only have enough faith then life would be happy and we could delay death. If we have problems then we suspect God does not love us. If we have trialss then for sure we believe God has abandoned us. But I would present the idea this morning that Jesus is present in the “crowd of saints,” He is present today in you, the people of God. You walk with each other on the journey of life and you are present during the hard times. Jesus is not absent but is present in the saints – the Christians- people who are saved by grace and live around us.
Ooops, now we face the problem. The cloud of saints with God are in glory but the crowd of saints that surrounds us is a bit of a motley crew. God sees us as saints because of Christ but we are still sinners in this world. We are in process. We are being sanctified and often we fall short. Our human nature that is being made new, often fails. We start our service confessing that we have not loved God with our whole heart and we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. We are saints in process with warts and irregularities that challenge each other. We should all wear signs, “BE patient, God is not finished with me yet!!!”
We honor the cloud of saints today who have gone before and who have blessed our life. We seek to live with the crowd of saints who surround us and who are in process. I mention a third group, the children of saints. That makes three “c’s” and we all know three points makes a good sermon, right! I would be less than honest if I did not mention that not all people are saints. Not all people have become Christians. Now this is a bit of a touchy subject but as we look at our world and as we remember the dark places in our lives, we know this is true. I am not talking about the “Oops, sorry I hurt your feelings” mistakes, but the real evil experienced in abuse, in war, in experiences underlying mental illness and the evil that so terribly scars so many lives.
We come to an amazing truth in Christianity. Life starts with death! I suspect not too many “amens” on that one. We read in Romans 6:4, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” In our baptism, we identify with Christ and with his death, and that opens the door to life. As my husband would say, “That’s deep!” That’s a verse we should underline in our Bible so it jumps out an reminds us when we get discouraged.
As Lutherans, we believe that all people have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, Romans 3:23. We bring our babies and new believers to be baptized because we believe baptism is a sacrament, a sacred act, whereby through our faith and testimony or through the faith of the parents, we are marked with the cross on our brow and on our breast. We commit ourselves and our children to Christ believing he walks through that cave of death with us. He is the one faithful to that covenant formed, not us. He went to the cross and rose again proving he has conquered death. No saint, as wonderful as they may have been in life, has resurrected and can promise eternal life. No living saint, as wonderful as their testimony may be and as godly as their life may be, can offer to go through death with us. It is only as we identify with the resurrected Christ that we can be sure the cave of death has a back door to eternity.
Unlike Aesop’s Fables that capture part of the great truths of life, we believe there is a greater truth that Christ revealed through his life. Jesus came as the incarnate God, the Redeemer, and sends his Holy Spirit. It is a truth we share with others. We can walk up to that sly Fox sitting before the Lion in his cave and we can agre with the Fox that footprints go in but do not come out but we can share the good news that those people we honor today did walk into the cave but walked with someone greater than the lion and walked out the back door.
They were met by Jesus who said, “Unbind him, and let him go.” We will meet our friends again in eternity. The footprints they left in our lives comfort us as we grieve. The crowd of saints around us, walks with us towards that cave. The Holy Spirit walks with us. But as we enter the cave, we will hear the voice of our Savior welcoming us into eternity and he will say, “Unbind”. Wow!!!
The people of God said, “AMEN! Praise be to God!”