Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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All Saints Day 11/4/2018

All Saints Day or All Saints Sunday is officially classified as a Lesser Festival on the church calendar meaning that it’s not up there with Christmas and Easter and the other Principal Festivals of the year of which there are six. (so you don’t spend the rest of the sermon trying to figure it out, Epiphany, Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday are the other four) This is a day though, when we broaden the definition of a saint to include all the baptized, living and dead, not just those individuals who have been formally recognized by the church. Today is more about our personal saints, people who might seem quite ordinary to the wider world but who are important to us. We especially think about and honor those who have died since last All Saints Day.

All Saints is a Lesser Festival but I feel like it has taken on greater importance here at Bethany, perhaps approaching the significance of a Principal Festival, mostly because of the ritual that has developed around it with the choir singing We Are Surrounded as the names of those who have died in the past year are read along with the pictures of loved ones and the lighting of candles as we remember our personal saints. What we do today demonstrates the power of ritual as perhaps more than at any other time of year, the realm of heaven and the realm of earth are experienced as one. The gap is closed and the reality of choirs of angels, the church on earth and the hosts of heaven is revealed.

What it does is to make this more than a day of remembering the past. Remembrance is important, memories of loved ones are important as we deal with loss, but with our ritual, we go beyond memory and move into a sense of those loved ones present with us, presence that transforms our reality; rather than dwelling in the past we lean more into the future. Through our ritual, eternal life becomes more than just words.

As always though, there are words that accompany our ritual, words that in this case, help us to imagine and move into the world of eternal life and hope that the Bible gives us. For starters, the poetry of Isaiah is especially evocative. Today’s verses are from Isaiah 25 which is part of what is sometimes called the Little Apocalypse, a sequence of chapters that focus on the future and the working out of God’s purposes.

God is imagined in several different ways in today’s verses. It starts with God as the host of a great dinner party, a feast of rich foods and well aged wines and keep in mind that these words were written at a time of exile and hardship when such a feast wouldn’t have seemed very likely. Yet Isaiah imagines a feast prepared by the Lord, not just for some people but for all people. It calls to mind words from chapter 2 of Isaiah that speak of the mountain of the Lord, a mountain that all the nations of the world will stream to. This image of the feast like the image of the mountain, is about a future feast and celebration for everyone, not just the people of Israel.

The imagery then shifts as the next verse describes a shroud of death that covers all people and all nations, a grim image to be sure, one that seems to deny future possibilities until…the Lord of hosts rises up to swallow death. You might picture the Lord as a sea monster like the whale rising up to swallow Jonah or the shark in Jaws emerging to do its damage but here it’s death itself that is conquered and swallowed by the overpowering strength of the Lord: “He will destroy the shroud that is cast over all people, he will swallow up death forever.”

The imagery then shifts again from power to gentleness: “Then the Lord God will wipe away every tear from all faces, and the disgrace of his people God will take away from the earth.” Now God is imagined as a parent or caregiver or nursemaid patiently offering comfort until any fear and sadness has been calmed and life can go on.

With all of these images, the text is looking forward to new possibilities, looking toward the future and things that haven’t happened yet. None of it seemed likely, but Isaiah dared to imagine it. In the original context of Isaiah, things did happen; the future imagined did unfold; the exiles returned home; the city of Jerusalem and the temple were rebuilt; there was even a brief time of independence.

The nature of poetry though and the nature of the world the Bible gives us, is that they’re not just about the specifics of one particular time and situation but the images are such that they bring hope into other times and other situations, times and situations that are still looking forward to things that haven’t happened yet…times like the present.

We still live with the reality of death, death that hasn’t been swallowed up forever. We live with the reality of tears that haven’t all been wiped away. We still wait for that great feast and the peace that welcomes all people and nations. We still look forward in hope to the day when God will make all things right and bring people together, the day when death will be destroyed forever. Today though, with our All Saints ritual and the accompanying words, we perhaps, at least for a short time, experience that promised future. Death loses its sting as we experience the presence of those saints who have gone before us and we realize that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses looking on and encouraging us.

What happens is that, in a sense, time is reversed and the revealed future moves back and becomes part of the present. That idea is actually at the heart of what we believe about Jesus as in his resurrection, we see that our future has been revealed. We know how the story ends so the reality of that revealed future moves back and impacts the present. We live in a time of already but not yet; the already of the future having been revealed, the not yet of the full realization of that future still to come. On All Saints Day though, we move a little closer to the fullness of that future.

It’s interesting that many years later, imagery similar to that of Isaiah was used by the author of Revelation as his vision is described. It’s another vision of the realm of heaven and the realm of earth being joined as the holy city, the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven so again the gap is closed. It’s another image of God not dwelling in some far off heaven but coming to dwell in our world and in doing so, transforming our world: “He 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.” On All Saints Sunday, we are invited into that vision of all things being made new. We’re not there yet except in glimpses, it’s still already but not yet, but we live in hope for the promised future.

John’s gospel provides an appropriate final word to our All Saints observance that again leans more into the future than it dwells in the past. It’s the story of the raising of Lazarus as an especially emotional Jesus confronts the ultimate enemy, which is death itself. It’s classified as the last of Jesus’ signs in John’s gospel and it’s a sign that leans Jesus into the future, pointing to his glorification in his death and resurrection.

In the overall context of John that leaning into the future is a big part of what’s going on in this story, but on All Saints Sunday that might not be the main point for us. What we are reminded of today is that Jesus is about life; he’s the one who meets us not just when we face physical death but in all those deathly places of sadness and grief, times of loneliness and guilt and despair. Jesus’ presence and his voice, his life, become part of our present. He meets us in all those places and times where hope seems gone and through him they are transformed. Jesus is the place where death ends and everlasting life begins. In his death and resurrection, the future has been revealed and it changes the present.

On All Saints Day, time does become fluid as the past and the future move into the present and enable us to experience a different reality. We do remember the past as we experience the saints who have gone before us. We do lean into the future with the promises of Isaiah and Revelation, the promises of all things made new and death will be no more. Even more though we experience the past and the future as part of the present knowing that there is no part of our present that the voice of Jesus can’t reach and transform just as it reached and transformed Lazarus.

There is still a not yet to it, but on All Saints Sunday we do come closer to the truth of already.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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