For They Shall Be Comforted- Sermon for All Saints Day- November 1, 2020
Sermon for All Saints Day
November 1, 2020
I have been reading a book that chronicled the terrible story of the abduction of over 200 school girls in Nigeria by a radical Islamist terror group called Boko Haram. The high-school age girls were taken captive at night from their Boarding School. They were mistreated by a lack of food and water plus primitive living conditions. This Islamist group opposed education for girls. Most of the girls taken were Christian, although some were of the Moslem faith. The girls, no matter their faith, stuck together supporting one another through years of hardship and grief, missing terribly their parents and other loved ones. The Christian girls were cajoled into converting to the Islamic faith. Some did thinking it would mean better treatment. But many Christian girls would not abandon their faith. They tried to gather and pray but they were discovered and threatened with deadly harm if they were caught again.
Finally after two and one-half years some of the girls were released after a deal was reached between the terror group and the Nigerian government. Half-starved and emaciated they were given medical attention. Then they were flown to the capital for an official reunion with their parents who were flown in from their homes 500 miles away. Although it was part government photo-op with high officials present, the freed girls were swept up into the arms of their long-suffering parents with tears, lots of tears of joy. Then the joyful reunion took on a scene common to African culture. The drums started beating, louder and louder. The people started singing, and then you saw the wonderful scene of everyone present, girls, parents, high-ranking politicians cut loose in joyful dancing, celebrating freedom. When the girls were freed and safe what was the first thing they asked for? You might think new clothes since all they had to wear for years were shabby and worn out garments. Yes, they would receive new colorful dress so common among African women. But the first thing they asked for was a Bible. They had been deprived of worship for so long they could not wait to read and feast on the Word of God.
This scene of the celebration of freedom from evil and persecution reminded me of the scene heard today from the reading from Revelation. The writer, John, had the vision of a great multitude that no one could count. People of every nation, tribe, standing before the Throne of God and before the Lamb in heavenly splendor. The Lamb is Jesus, called in the Gospel of John as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The title of Lamb refers to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. On the cross Jesus was mocked and shamed, laughed at and yelled at because he could not save himself from such a terrible death. Jesus even cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Sometimes people will say of someone who did a terrible thing , “how low can you go?” We could say the same of Jesus, the Lamb of God, not because of something terrible, but revealing his triumph over the powers that threaten and oppress us. Jesus would surrender his life as sacrifice revealing love so powerful that nothing ever in creation can separate us from this Lamb of God. No matter how low we may be, Jesus is there with us to lift us up with the strength of his mercy, grace, and love.
Years ago I would visit a parishioner in a nursing home. He wasn’t elderly but afflicted with multiple-sclerosis which robbed his ability to walk. He talked about his farm and how he would like to see the grain crop—he had rented out his land. So I thought I would drive him out to have a look. I am surprised the Nursing Home staff let me take him because I soon got into trouble. He was in his wheelchair and we headed out to the car. But as I tried to lift him out of the chair it soon became apparent that he could not help me at all. He had no feeling or strength in his legs. He was up out of his chair and I feared I could not get him into the car. I feared I would drop him on the pavement as I went to get help. But as we struggled he kept on saying, “I am useless, I am useless.” Somehow I got him to the car where he plopped down into the front seat with a thud. After our little day-trip I had more sense and got an aid to help him into his wheelchair. We can be immobilized with our worries, anxiety, and fear. We can feel helpless over what we cannot control, but even worse we can condemn ourselves as ‘useless’. In such times as these we need an aid, a helper, a savior. No matter how low we are, Jesus is there. His cross draws us to the life-saving truth that we are not useless, but ever remain beloved children of God. Trust Jesus, the Lamb of God who gave up all for you and me, trust Jesus, also called “shepherd” in the text, to guide us through life. Jesus is resurrection and life, a well-qualified Shepherd to accompany us through all the dark valleys of life, even the dark valley of the shadow of death.
In this vision of heaven in the lesson it is not quiet. All the people were shouting ‘Salvation’, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb.” There is a lot of singing going on as well, the redeemed joining the angel choirs singing “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever. AMEN!! This text may sound familiar for in other contexts the words of Revelation have become an important part of our hymns and liturgy. Sometimes we can get the idea that Revelation is about predicting the future, the end of the world, and violent battles of good and evil. There are scary scenes to be sure. Just before today’s text we hear of ‘seals’ being opened, and the first four picture of what have been called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: conquest, war, famine, and plague. Just remember who the one is opening the seals revealing such earthly troubles: it is the Lamb meaning Jesus has triumphed over the worse of human sinfulness with the best of God’s love-the gift of salvation through faith in Jesus who will not forsake us. But parts of our liturgy, and in over 90 hymns in the hymnal, take inspiration from such scenes of salvation in Revelation prompting us to sing with words like “This is the feast of victory of our God, alleluia, worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be the people of God.”
One of the elders stationed at the throne of God to praise God asked the question about the great multitude “who are these people, the ones robed in white, and where did they come from?” He answered his own question, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” This again is a reference to Jesus’ sacrifice, possibly inspired by the prophet Isaiah who admonished the people of his day, “Come now, says the Lord, though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow, though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Those before the throne of God and the Lamb are those who have come out of the great ordeal. At the time this ordeal referred to the harassment and persecution experienced by the Christians. At the time the Emperor of Rome, the powerful Super Power of that day was called the son of god; but as a Christian you worshiped Jesus as the Son of God. The Emperor was called Savior, Lord, and High Priest, titles stamped on the coins, but as a Christian Jesus was your great High Priest, Savior and Lord. All this could mean harassment and denial of society’s approval, or ever arrest and death. There are Christians today in the world who face imprisonment or worst because of hostile forces—think again of the those Christian girls from Nigeria. In the United States we do not suffer such fear of imprisonment for faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. But we do have times of ordeal: the word translated that way literally means to be under pressure. People are certainly under pressure when they are sick without adequate insurance; people are under pressure when they cannot pay the mortgage; people are under pressure when they have lost their jobs; people are under pressure when they suffer the throes of an addiction.
Last Tuesday I was watching with children part of a DVD series titled “Chosen”, dramatizations of the life of Jesus. The dramas creatively show biblical truths from the New Testament. One scene showed Jesus at work as a carpenter, a craftsman really, and he was making a fire. Of course there were not matches so by friction and two sticks being rubbed to start a flame. One child said he was surprised to see Jesus working so hard to start a fire, why couldn’t he use his magical powers. Of course Jesus did not have ‘magical powers’ to make life easier. What Jesus did reveal was the compassion and mercy of God. So with our pressures Jesus does not use magical powers. Jesus is not a magician with tricks. We live with pressures for that is part of life. But may we not fail to have Jesus as part of our lives. May we trust Jesus to be with us with compassion and mercy, the Savior truly with us to shepherd us through each day.
Our reading from Revelation is a text often read at funerals. On this day we call All Saints, we remember loved ones who have died. This is important for us. Grief is also a part of our lives and there can be sadness. The church never says “get over your grief and move on in your life” as if grief is something bad. It is so significant to read in Matthew’s gospel Jesus’ words, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” The word ‘comforted’ actually means someone who is faithfully by your side. As we remember loved ones who have died may we know who is ever by our side. Jesus is the shepherd who bears grief with us, and ever is guiding us to the springs of water of life.” We commend to almighty God, our loved ones in their death, for God will take care of them with full compassion, for God is present to wipe away every tear from their eyes.
A common word we hear all too often is “pandemic”; the whole world has been afflicted with the ravages of a deadly virus. So many are mourning, people of every tribe, nation, and language. We also think of the health-care workers who are exhausted because the great demands upon them because so many are sick. But may this special Sunday, All Saints, inspire us with the panoramic vision of heaven, the redeemed from every nation and language, who are before their compassionate Savior who will shelter them—and us–forever with his comfort, compassion, and impossible to cancel love.