For weeks now we’ve had some difficult topics to deal with in the scriptures each Sunday. From camels and needles, the rich struggling to fit into heaven, to divorce and very high, nearly unreachable standards. Even the reformation can be difficult to talk about, especially when we are today a church that is constantly seeking unity. Even in that celebration, we have to remember our failings. Our sinfulness is put before us in full view during this time of the church year. Sometimes, more even than during Lent, the season of the church year between Pentecost and Christ the King is full of the kinds of texts that show us what the Christian life is to be like, while also showing us how we fall short of these ideals. As the bible says—be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. But it also says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
I don’t know about you, but right about now, I could use some good news.
But now we have the book of Revelation. Oh Gee, another optimistic book! Whenever we see the name “Revelation” most of us probably start to think about war, violence, strange images of horsemen and bowls and numbers. Some may even think of things like Nostradamus, end of the world predictions or even the Left Behind series of books and movies.
When I was in college, I took a course on Revelation. The professor, Dr Stoffell, had written his doctoral dissertation on the book and the class was filled to capacity with a waiting list. On the first day, Dr Stoffell said ‘if you are in this class to find out when the end of the world is coming or to figure out if conflicts in the Middle East are foretold in the bible or whether or not the predictions of Nostrodamus match up with scripture…if you are here to see which current world leader is actually the anti-Christ then I strongly suggest you drop this class right now. The book of Revelation is a book of hope.’
By the next week, over half the class was gone. ‘Now,’ he said in the second class, ‘that’s much better.’
Revelation is a book of hope? I didn’t believe him then, but I do now. I stayed because I could not figure out how on earth this was a book of hope….but it is. Sometimes, things are not always what they first appear to be.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus goes to see his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. This is not a happy or social visit because Lazarus is dead and all the people are in mourning. Mary even sounds a bit disappointed in Jesus when she says, “Lord, if you’d only been here, my brother would not have died.” And who could blame her really? Jesus had received word earlier that Lazarus was ill. He could have come sooner! He who had made the blind see, the deaf hear, the one who cast out demons. He who healed lepers. He could have done something but he didn’t arrive soon enough. If we were to look a little earlier in the gospel of John, we see that Jesus knows that Lazarus is ill, and yet he doesn’t go to him. Instead Jesus tells the disciples that Lazarus is sleeping and he himself is going to waken him.
So here in the middle of this day of mourning, in the midst of Martha’s scolding of the Son of God about potentially releasing the stench from the tomb, in spite of Mary’s frustration with his delay, in the face of the absolute certainty that is death itself, Jesus prays to the Father in heaven and instructs the people roll away the stone in front of Lazarus’ tomb. ‘Lazarus, come out!’ he says. And he does. Lazarus who was once dead is now alive; a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own resurrection and a symbol of what will be for all of us for our resurrections.
Death is a difficult thing to talk about. It is hard to deal with. It is hard to get our minds around. And that is reasonable. After all, death is our greatest enemy. It touches all of our lives and robs us of our loved ones. We come up with comforting ways of talking about it like: it was their time or it was God’s will. Regardless of whatever else we say about it, death as we experience it was never God’s will. Death was and is never part of God’s plan for the world and God has promised us from the time of the fall that he will one day defeat death and evil forever.
In our Old Testament lesson for today, we hear of the great banquet at the end of time. It is called the Messianic Banquet and it is a theme that can be found throughout scripture. It tells of a time in which God will make a banquet for all peoples, all nations of people, all races, all groups, all people. This banquet will have the richest of foods, the best of wines. And it will be at that banquet that God will destroy the shroud that has been cast over all people. The death shroud that has covered humanity since the fall will be gone. Forever.
He will Swallow Up Death Forever. He will wipe away the tears from all faces.
In the Revelation text for today, we hear about this time. “Look for yourself and see—God has come to make his home here among mortals. He will come and live with them—he is Emmanuel—God with us—he will wipe away the tears from the eyes of all people. Death will be no more. There will be no more crying and pain. Look and see for yourself,” God says, “for I have made all things new!”
That is why the book of Revelation is a book of hope. The truth is that all the bad things we read about in that book are things we already know in this time. We already know war and famine and sickness. We already know death and loss and pain. But this is the hope of our God who comes to live with us, who will swallow up death forever and will himself, with his own hand, wipe away the tears from our eyes. Revelation reminds us of the promise that God has made, that he began on the cross and the sealed tomb: he will destroy evil and death and he will make all things new. And every day, he is working on fulfilling that promise.
On All Saints’ Day, we remember all of those who have died. We remember them by lighting candles, saying their names, remembering the stories of their lives. But more than all of this, when we come to the table today, to the altar for communion, we are reminded that these loved ones are with us at this great banquet. We call this the foretaste of the feast to come; the feast of that Messianic Banquet. In this foretaste, we are reunited with those who have died. They are part of what surrounds all Christians: the great cloud of witnesses. And every time we take the body and blood of Jesus, not just on All Saints’ Day, we are reunited with them all.
Sometimes, it is hard to think about those we love who have died, just like it is hard for us to face our sins, our own brokenness and shortcomings. Even though neither our sin nor death nor evil itself, were part of the original plan, even though none of them were part of God’s original creation nor original human nature, they are all a part of our world now. We might feel like Mary and Martha must have at the death of their brother Lazarus. But their mourning, like ours, turned into joy.
In just a few weeks, we will begin the season of Advent. As the days shorten, the nights lengthen, and as there seems to be even more literal darkness around us, we celebrate the light of God coming into the world. Candles, light and stars are the themes of this season as we anticipate the coming of the Son of God, both in a manger all those long years ago, and his coming again—Emanuel—God living with us. Let us rejoice in the truth we find in scripture: all things are possible with God. He has begun a new creation in his Son, Jesus Christ and he will wipe away the tears from all eyes, swallow up death forever and he will make all things new.