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?”