St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

God will wipe away every tear

God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, All Saints Day, 4th Novem­ber 2018

Read­ings: Isai­ah 25.6–9; Rev­el­a­tion 21.1–6; John 11. 32–44

Our All Saint’s Day read­ings span the cen­tur­ies but have a com­mon theme, namely God’s plans for the future of his world, often described in poet­ic lan­guage. All three texts also make men­tion of tears and in a week where I have con­duc­ted two funer­als, I found that sig­ni­fic­ant.

If you have read much of the Book of Isai­ah you will know it con­tains a great deal about judge­ment. This is par­tic­u­larly evid­ent in the first half of the proph­ecy. Chapter 1 opens with God’s damning assess­ment of Israel: “Ah sin­ful nation, people laden with iniquity, off­spring who do evil, chil­dren who deal cor­ruptly, who have for­saken the Lord, who have des­pised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged.” The nations sur­round­ing Israel also have strong words uttered against them for their idol­atry, arrog­ance and boast­ing. The mes­sage of judge­ment cul­min­ates in a rather ter­rible con­dem­na­tion of the entire world in Chapter 24 where the Lord declares that he is about to lay waste the earth and make it des­ol­ate. The read­er is left feel­ing without hope and facing a bleak future in a dysto­pi­an world.

Then sud­denly in chapter 25 we are giv­en a glimpse of a very dif­fer­ent future. Instead of hun­ger, there is feast­ing with food and wine in abund­ance; instead of death there is life in all its full­ness with death being swal­lowed up. Instead of mourn­ing there is joy and every tear wiped away. Instead of God’s anger and judge­ment there is sal­va­tion and hope. What is even more won­der­ful is that this glor­i­ous future is not just for Israel, but includes all nations, all people. There will be com­mun­al cel­eb­ra­tion.  These are the things that the text looks for­ward to but as we know they haven’t happened yet. The people of Israel were soon to see the destruc­tion of their temple and city; many would be taken into exile to Babylon. Yes, a rem­nant would return and rebuild the city and temple but it would nev­er be like the former glory of the reigns of Dav­id and Solomon. And there would be more invaders in years to come: after Babylon, Per­sia, after Per­sia Greece and then finally Rome. Yet, the vis­ion of Isai­ah was not for­got­ten and faith­ful Israel­ites looked for its ful­fil­ment with the com­ing of the Mes­si­ah.

We are not unlike the Israel­ites of old. We live on a plan­et endangered, and facing calam­ity with many of our lead­ers sleep­walk­ing into a very uncer­tain future. We still live with ill­ness and death. We still live with a world divided in which old ten­sions between nations are alive and well. We face deep divi­sions in our own nation. So on this All Saints day we do well to remem­ber the saints who have gone before us and who in the words of the writer to the Hebrews, (they) “died in faith without hav­ing received the prom­ises but from a dis­tance they saw and greeted them.”

The New Test­a­ment read­ing from Rev­el­a­tion also gives us a taste of the future God prom­ises. John’s apo­ca­lyptic images of a world in crisis, with war­ring armies, tyr­an­nic­al gov­ern­ments, and filled with fear, pain and suf­fer­ing would have res­on­ated strongly with his ori­gin­al audi­ence. And if we think the events described in Rev­el­a­tion seem far- fetched we only have to be reminded of the his­tory of our world over the last one hun­dred years and the suf­fer­ing exper­i­enced by so many through war, dis­ease and nat­ur­al dis­aster. Rev­el­a­tion can be a grim read but so too is a lot of his­tory. So it is with a sense of relief that we come to Rev­el­a­tion chapter 21 and find John’s vis­ion of the new heav­en and the new earth.

We all have dif­fer­ent images of what heav­en might be like. For most people heav­en is some­where up there where we hope­fully go when we die. It is a place dif­fer­ent from earth and far removed from earth’s woes and wor­ries. But the final chapters of Rev­el­a­tion give a rather dif­fer­ent view of heav­en from the one we are temp­ted to ima­gine. There is no hint of escap­ism in John’s vis­ion. In John’s vis­ion heav­en and earth are both brought togeth­er-there is no longer any sep­ar­a­tion but God dwells with his people and makes all things new- not all new things. In the new heav­en and new earth there is con­tinu­ity with what has gone before.

In John’s final vis­ion he attempts to describe the indes­crib­able- he gives us a series of word pic­tures to show us the future of God’s world. The imagery is pro­foundly earthly for he is not describ­ing some eth­er­e­al realm far removed from plan­et earth but rather an earth renewed. “Then I 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.” Some com­ment­at­ors have under­stood this to mean that the earth as we know it will dis­ap­pear or be com­pletely des­troyed but this is not how the rest of this chapter or the fol­low­ing one actu­ally reads. This is not an end­ing but a new begin­ning. The first earth was cap­tive to imper­i­al dom­in­a­tion and sin, the new earth will be resur­rec­ted from the old. John along with many Bib­lic­al writers freely mixes his lit­er­al sky and meta­phor­ic­al heav­ens and this is cer­tainly true of his final vis­ion. His vis­ion brings to ful­fil­ment the first peti­tions of the Lord’s Pray­er, it is the time when God’s name is hal­lowed, his king­dom has come and his will is done on earth as it is in heav­en.

John’s vis­ion of heav­en has earth being invaded by a city, the New Jer­u­s­alem. The Bible begins with a garden but it ends with a city. One might have thought that if the story began in Eden it should con­clude with Eden recovered. Gar­dens are quiet and sooth­ing, we go there to find peace and serenity. We expect heav­en to be like that; cit­ies by con­trast are noisy, dirty and crowded. What’s more the city com­ing down from heav­en is not a beau­ti­ful city like a Par­is or a Florence, no, it’s Jer­u­s­alem a city with a long his­tory of con­flict. It had its moments back in the days of Dav­id and Solomon but those hal­cy­on days were soon for­got­ten when it was des­troyed by the Baby­lo­ni­ans and then again by the Romans. This was the city Jesus wept over and the city where he was nailed to a cross. Surely this is the last city you would expect to be por­trayed as mod­el for heav­en. The vis­ion makes it plain that there is no lim­it to God’s trans­form­ing power. As Eugene Peterson puts it: “heav­en is quar­ried out of the marble and gran­ite of our self- will, our self- asser­tion, — all our broth­er & sis­ter hat­ing, God defy­ing, Christ reject­ing cities………Now des­cend­ing out of heav­en we see the city as a com­munity in ador­a­tion, ready to receive God’s love in faith­ful­ness, a bride adorned for her hus­band! …..and the city and the bride are us.”

John also records the voice from the throne of God declar­ing: “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.” A few years ago Bette Midler made fam­ous the song, ‘God is watch­ing us from a dis­tance’. I think it appealed to people because it expressed the widely held view that if there is a God, he is remote, at a dis­tance. But that is not the God of the Bible. John’s Gos­pel opens with the start­ling declar­a­tion that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. The Word trans­lated dwelt lit­er­ally means, ‘ten­ted’. The Divine Word came among us and pitched his tent with us. That is the same expres­sion used here in Rev­el­a­tion. God him­self will tent with us and make his home among mor­tals. God will be face to face with his cre­ation and we will not be ashamed as Adam and Eve were in the garden. This is the beatif­ic vis­ion and it will be for all God’s people not just the priv­ileged few. Here we see Isaiah’s vis­ion brought to ful­fil­ment. God will dwell with all his people and will wipe every tear from their eyes.

The third read­ing today is John’s account of the rais­ing of Laz­arus from the dead. It is a won­der­fully dra­mat­ic nar­rat­ive. John chooses his mir­acles care­fully for he sees them as rev­el­a­tions, signs that point bey­ond the astound­ing event itself to some­thing else, or more to the point someone else. They testi­fy to Jesus as the Son to whom the Fath­er has giv­en life. This scene of the rais­ing of Laz­arus points to Jesus’ own glor­i­fic­a­tion through his death and resur­rec­tion. The text is not just about how Jesus will raise us on the last day or raise us to life when we pass through death. Jesus calls Laz­arus out, like the good shep­herd of John 10 who calls his sheep and gives them life. Jesus is the one in whom there is life and death can­not con­tain him. Jesus is the place where death ends and ever­last­ing life begins. The life of Jesus breaks into our life and trans­forms it. What we need to under­stand is that on both sides of the grave there is life for us because Jesus has come to call our names, to unbind us from all that holds us in bond­age and to set us free.

Finally a word about tears. Tears are a sign of our human­ity and most often a sign of our love for someone. We should nev­er be ashamed of our tears. Jesus wept at the grave of Laz­arus because he loved him and loved his sis­ters-they were his friends. He shared their grief and pain. More than that he was soon to carry the grief and suf­fer­ing of the world. So in John 11 we see both the human­ity and the divin­ity of Jesus. The prom­ise of the read­ings from Isai­ah and Rev­el­a­tion is that God will wipe away our tears: it is lovely image and one to treas­ure when we exper­i­ence sor­row of any kind. Com­ment­ing on these verses, the Poet and Theo­lo­gian, John Donne asked the ques­tion, “But what can God do for those who have no tears?”

Philip Brad­ford