Today is All Saints Day. Traditionally this is the day on which we remember all those saints who have already entered into Heaven, as each of us also hopes to do at the end of this life. “For all the saints” is the natural hymn to sing at this time of year—one that always affects me deeply since we sang it at my mother’s funeral. “O blest communion, fellowship divine,/ We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;/ Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine./ Alleluia! Alleluia!”
Each of our Scriptures this morning directs our thoughts towards Heaven, and invites us to live today in light of Heaven’s glory. We walk together through the texts, and then look for their implications today.
Isaiah 25:6-9. In this great passage from Isaiah 25 we see the Messianic Banquet, where all wrongs are made right and all evil is destroyed. Chapter 24 pictures the coming of the end. In the midst of people worshipping God (24:14-16) Isaiah sees the coming doom, judgment in which no one has any hope at all.
Hear the first three verses of Isaiah 24: “See, the Lord is going to lay waste the earth and devastate it; he will ruin its face and scatter its inhabitants—it will be the same for priest as for people, for the master as for his servant, for the mistress as for her servant, for seller as for buyer, for borrower as for lender, for debtor as for creditor. The earth will be completely laid waste and totally plundered. The Lord has spoken this word.” This withering scorching judgment brings in God’s reign, pictured in the Great Banquet at which God’s people feast and death and disgrace are destroyed forever.
The Marriage Supper of God pictured here became a basic image in Jewish and Christian thinking. In Luke 14 Jesus eats at the table of a prominent Pharisee. One of the people at the meal said, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” In reply, Jesus tells the parable of those who make excuses and are excluded from this feast, and those who come in to take their place. The story serves to remind its hearers that all history is consummated in joy in God’s presence, but not all people will take part in that joy. In Revelation 19 (read at All Hallows Eve in the church’s year), John pictures the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Again, it is the feast at the end symbolizing the joy and completeness of God’s victory over evil and God’s reign over eternity.
So Isaiah gives us this picture of joy and victory, but only after reminding us of the reality of evil and despair in this world. I think I see what Isaiah wants us to hear: The reality of the Great Banquet gives meaning to the present. God gives us the ability to live in the present in the reality of God’s reign, in spite of the evil and terror around us.
Revelation 21:1-6a. As the book of Revelation comes to an end, we see the destruction of evil in chapter 20, bringing about the New Heaven and new Earth in chapter 21. Just as Isaiah 24 pictures judgment and Isaiah 25 shows the joy that follows, Revelation 19 pictures judgment, and Revelation 20 pictures the joy that follows. The New Jerusalem shows us all wrongs made right and all evil destroyed. As with the Messianic Banquet, we can live in the present in the reality of the consummation of good at the end of all things.
Hear the text again:
1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
A question from verse 1: What is the sea that now disappears? The Sea is the area in front of the throne—so in Revelation 4:6, leading to the line in the hymn: “Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.” Here it is simply a bowl-like area before God’s throne. But the sea has another meaning as well.
In Revelation 13:2 the beast comes out of the sea. This image goes back to the beginning of creation, when everything was formless and void, and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of “the deep”. The deep can also be the sea—that primeval chaos out of which God brought all of creation in order and peace.
In this second sense, the sea is a constant source of danger and of the power of evil. Then we read verse 1: “There was no longer any sea.” The source of evil and danger is itself done away with. Not only are sin and sorrow overcome, but their source is gone, and in its place we see the New Creation where God’s people live forever with God. So we come to the gospel reading.
John 11:32-44. We could observe many details from the story in John 11, such as the way that Mary and Martha responded to their brother’s death. They showed an almost unshakable faith that Jesus could have helped their brother, but they do not seem to see that he still can. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But Jesus is here now, and Lazarus is dead.
Jesus’ response to Lazarus’ death shows both his humanity (“Jesus wept”) and his divinity (“Lazarus, come out!”). In this action showing his intimate union with the Father, Jesus makes the final end of all things a present reality. He raises Lazarus from death.
The miracle raises many questions. What kind of life did Lazarus receive? Presumably it was simply his old physical life continued, so that he had to die all over again. Dying once is hard enough; he had to do it twice! Where was he during those four days? Was he with God, or in some kind of limbo, or what? The text doesn’t answer such questions, and they are not the point of the story.
The point is clear enough. Jesus let his followers see for a brief moment something of the glory that Isaiah describes in chapter 25 and John the Revelator describes in chapter 21. John and Isaiah point to the end and say: See what God has prepared for us? Jesus brings that wonderful vision into the immediate moment and tells us, “It starts now!” To put it another way, we live in the present with the reality of God’s reign, through God incarnate in Jesus, who brings God’s reign into our daily lives.
The Text in our Present Experience
Take one item from the year’s news. ISIS has taken territory in Iraq and Syria, bringing hundreds of thousands of people under its control. The result for women in ISIS-controlled territory is bad, and the fate of men forced to join in the fight is no better. Last Christmas I got into a discussion with a close friend about how to respond to the threat that ISIS poses. He was clear in his response. We must use military force to stop them as soon as possible. They are beheading innocent people. We must stop them! My heart feels the agony with my friend. Here is great evil abroad in our world, and we have to deal with it. The trouble is that we end up using the methods of those we oppose, determined to defeat them quickly. As we fight them, we become like them.
This pattern is not reserved only for great international events, but is played out in almost every relationship we have in our daily lives. When someone attacks us, we find ourselves fighting back with attitudes and actions that do not fit the way that Jesus has taught us to live. I have experienced those conflicts from the inside, and I have felt the stab of pain that comes when a brother or sister proclaims that you have attacked them—and now they will defend themselves.
The hurt that Mary and Martha felt when their brother died (and that Jesus shared with them) is the same hurt that we experience so often in this world. Like Mary and Martha, we may know that all such things will be healed in Heaven, but we hurt now, and we need help now.
Into that hurt Jesus comes with this glimpse of and experience of the New Earth and the New Heaven. We receive a glimpse of Heaven, and we receive also the strength to live today in the light and reality of Heaven.
Aim for Heaven
This is the reason that I have used this title: Aim for Heaven, and earth will be thrown in. These words come from the musical, “For Heaven’s Sake”, but let me give you the words as C.S. Lewis wrote them in Mere Christianity.
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next… It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither (p. 134).
Some people accuse Christians of being “so heavenly-minded that we are no earthly good.” We are told that Christianity is the opiate of the people (Marx’s idea: that religion calms people down so that they do not fight against the injustices of this world, allowing capitalist governments to continue to rule unjustly). We are told that talk about Heaven is bad because it teaches people to accept bad things here because we will receive our reward in heaven—the idea of “pie in the sky by and by”.
Lewis responded to these charges by pointing out that our ultimate goal in life actually tells what we will live for now. If we aim at earth, trying to fix things that are wrong using whatever means come to hand, we lose both Heaven and earth. But Jesus gives us new life, with the possibility of living by the light of the resurrection. Paul calls this kind of life, “walking in the resurrection” or “walking in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). We die to self, and we live to Christ.
When I was in college, I spent one summer working for a tree trimming and lawn care company. At first I helped with the trees, pulling away the branches that had been cut out of the tree. Then they sent me up the tree for the first time, and I cut out my first branch. I cut out the wrong one, a major branch instead of the small one growing out of it! They transferred me to mowing lawns, so I spent most of the summer mowing lawns—at the height of the season, starting at 7 am and going until dark. Long days, up to six days a week.
I learned a lot about mowing lawns. One of the first and most important lessons was to make the lawn look neat. I was taught to mow in straight lines, horizontally one week and vertically the next week. Straight lines are harder to do than you might think. You watch the line between the cut and uncut grass, but when you look back, you find that you have wondered off the straight and narrow. Your lines start to look a little bit like the morning after the night before.
So they taught me a trick that ensures straight lines. Any farmer who has plowed a field knows the trick. Although you have to watch the ground just in front of you, your goal is in the distance. You look at some object beyond the end of the lien you are about to mow, and walk steadily towards it. If you remain focussed on that goal in the distance, you will walk in a straight line. If you focus on the obstacles near at hand, you will go astray.
That’s the idea. Keep your eyes fixed on the banquet at the end. Remember the new life God has given us, which already flows inside your veins. Live that new life. Even though the people around you press you to respond with the anger and attacks that fit the turmoil around us, you keep watching Jesus and walking towards him. And as Lewis says, you will make more of a difference than you can guess.
Aim for heaven and earth will be thrown in,
Aim out beyond the now and near;
Aim for forever, and there will come a day
When you find forever is here.
If you would save your life,
Then you must choose
To give away your life,
For what you lose—
Out at the end of time is what you win.
Oh aim for heaven, aim for heaven, aim for heaven,And earth will be thrown in.
Grace Bible Church
1 November 2015: All Saints Day