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All Saints Sunday November 4, 2012

One of the most joyous scenes in all movie-dom is the final scene in Star Wars, Part VI, the Return of the Jedi. After much suffering and mourning and death, the Empire’s evil Death Star space station has been destroyed and the emperor of evil with it. The main characters make merry with the furry little bear-like Ewoks on the forest moon of Endor. Han and Leia have found love. Luke and Leia now know they are brother and sister. And to top it all off, there are the resurrected figures of Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda, the good Jedi knight and Jedi teacher, as well as the redeemed figure of Luke’s father Darth Vader. Death has been swallowed up in life. The good side of the Force has triumphed.

Of course this is just a moment in the life of the characters, but it is a moment they will always remember and draw hope from, even in the darkest times in their future. They will remember that death can be defeated by life, that pain can end with joy, that there are times of no more mourning, that even the dead return to life.

All Saints Day is a celebration of happy endings after the pain and mourning and death that affects every human being on earth. It celebrates eternal life in the midst of death. It is a story of God coming to dwell with God’s people. Jesus’ raising of Lazarus is a miracle within the cycle of life as was the destruction of the Death Star. Jesus receives a message that his beloved friend Lazarus is ill. Instead of going immediately to heal him, Jesus says to his disciples that the illness does not lead to death, but is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. Jesus waits two more days, then tells the disciples that Lazarus is dead. For their sakes, he says, he is glad he was not there so that they may believe. All of Jesus’ signs in the book of John are written down so that people may believe that Jesus is the Word of God, who has come to save the world. 

When Jesus gets there, Lazarus has been in the tomb four days, and there are mourners everywhere. The first person he encounters is Martha, who complains that if Jesus had been there Lazarus would not have died. Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again, and she takes it to mean on the last day, which she believes in, but which is not much comfort to someone who is grieving so deeply, even though there is hope beneath the tears. But Jesus surprises her. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even if they die will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” He asks her if she believes this and she says yes.

Then Mary comes with the same complaint as her sister. They know that Jesus can heal, but they have no idea of his ultimate power. Jesus was greatly disturbed at the weeping of Martha and the other mourners with her and he began to weep. He was also angry, which is what the words translated “greatly disturbed” mean in Greek. Jesus was angry at the power of death and suffered with his friends over it. 

When Jesus gets to the burial site, he tells Martha to have the stone taken away. But ever practical Martha says there will be a stench because Lazarus has been dead four days. Jesus has her do it anyway and reminds her that he told her she would see the glory of God if she believed. Then Jesus prays a prayer of thanksgiving to God for his relationship with the Father1 and calls to Lazarus to come out. Stumbling because of his grave clothes, Lazaurs emerges. Jesus says “Unbind him and let him go.” Lazarus has been freed from the bonds of death and liberated to live new life. God’s power flowing through Jesus has given him control over life and death. The greatest of his signs has been accomplished.

The story of Lazarus is one of unbridled joy after incredible suffering. Jesus has brought eternal life, which Mary and Martha believed would come at the last day, to earth right now. In this setting, eternal life is about victory over death and a life spent growing in intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. Of course Lazarus would die again, and there would be grieving and crying and pain again, but this sign gives the crowd the knowledge that death has been defeated, that life has won out, that Jesus has the ultimate power of God within him to bring life out of death. 

Our other two lessons are about what happens, not in this world but on the last day, when the hope of God for the world is realized. The souls of the righteous, made that way through Jesus’ death and resurrection, will be in the hands of God, and no torment will ever touch them. There will be no more death, no more sin, no more crying and no more pain because the old heaven and earth will have passed away. The sea, representing chaos in the Near East, will also be gone. There will be a new heaven and a new earth, In fact, God will make all things new. The new Jerusalem will come down from heaven and God will dwell with mortals. God’s beloved will receive good things, and the faithful will abide with him in love. Grace and mercy will be upon God’s holy ones, and he will watch over his elect. 

This picture of what will happen on the last day, when the kingdom of God is fully realized, is truly a beatific vision. Eternal life in a place of light and love and mercy has become a reality. God and mortals are truly together for eternity, and God says that the promises God made are trustworthy and true. 

This picture of heaven is great biblical description, but rarely one we think about except the part about no pain and crying and mourning because we hear that regularly at funerals. We might also think about Jesus telling his disciples that in his Father’s house are many rooms, and that he is going to return to take them to be with him. There are as many views of heaven as there are people. A song on the radio, “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away” imagines that the singer would take his kids to visit one day. He would see his grandfather and friends and relatives who have died and introduce his children to them. In other words, heaven is a place where you meet and mingle with all those you have lost in the past. As they leave, they would hear everyone praying, so there would be a lot of praising God. Another song, “When I Get Where I’m Going”, focuses on seeing God: “When I get where I’m going, and I see my Maker’s face, I’ll stand forever in the light of his amazing grace.”

Author C.S. Lewis thought of heaven as a place where you shed your emotional baggage and are freed from all your burdens. In The Great Divorce, he talks about people gently being coaxed to give up things that are holding them back, that are keeping them from living God’s full life now. The people, on the platform in a train station, stay where they are until they are willing to trust God and let go. This is not to inflict punishment, but to bring the freedom that heaven gives. The “Family Circle” cartoon pictures the grandpa as an angel with wings, coming down on occasion to visit the grandma who misses him so much. 

When you think of heaven, what do you wonder? Will your pets be there? Will you have wings? Will it be like earth? There are scads of questions and no answers except that God is love and heaven will be perfect. Whatever is there, we will all think we have reached that place where we never want to leave, where we will always experience love. 

All Saints Day is a day of rejoicing. We celebrate all those who have gone before us and are now with God. We rejoice in the Communion of Saints. We here on earth and those in heaven are connected through the grace of the Trinity and we are all part of the Body of Christ, brothers and sisters in his loving service. Brother James Koester of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist says that “the promise of triumph we celebrate [at all Saints Day] is for all of us, not some collection of stained glass perfect people, but rather for those who have lived lives of hope, or even just attempted to do so. It is for all of us who have lived lives of faith or even just attempted to.” We are all saints. We have hope in the power of Jesus who brought Lazarus back from the dead, and we are promised new life and joy at the last day by God. Rejoice and be glad. We are all included in God’s great love and mercy and for this we give endless praise. 

AMEN.

      - Rev. Ann Barker

Works Cited:
1. Gail O’Day, New Interpreter’s Bible, “The Gospel of John”, p. 692
2. Brother James Koester, from “Brother Give Us a Word”, posted Nov. 1, 2012