Sunday, October 28, 2012

October 28, 2012 - All Saints Day

Vast Made Personal - Sermon for All Saints Day
Isaiah 25.1-9

             This Sunday at Church Street United Methodist Church, we observe All Saints Day by reading the roll of the honored dead. The focus on All Saints Day is not on the extraordinary achievements of a few celebrated Christians but on the grace and work of God through ordinary Christians – like those we name today. We are inheritors of their faithfulness. Because they have come to the end of their lives, we remember them with thanks to God. Then, we take up the work of Christian witness and service that still lies before us.

Eternal God, neither death nor life can separate us from your love.
Grant that we may serve you faithfully here on earth
                  and in heaven rejoice with all your saints who ceaselessly proclaim your glory.
We pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord,
            who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
            one God, forever and ever. Amen.

[ILLUS: McMinnville]
            I go each October to decorate my parents’ graves. I’m not altogether sure why I must do this each year. When I was younger, I did not care about doing such a thing; now I never miss. I think the reason I must go is to acknowledge the fact that these were the people who gave me the chance to see this beautiful fall day – and every day.

            From my parents’ graves, I can look across that cemetery to see the graves of ancestors back to the Civil War. According to the family story, my Great-great grandfather Zeke Martin fought in the Civil War. During one the battles, he was captured and taken to a prisoner of war camp where he stayed until the end of the War. But, even after the War ended, he did not come home as other soldiers did. Almost a year passed before they saw him.
            Then one day, he came home. It was dinner time and the family was at the table. He walked into the house without knocking, came into to the kitchen where he took his place at the table – as if he had just come in from plowing. He sat down, joined the meal, but never said anything about his experiences in the war and gave no explanation about his year-long delay in returning home.
            Apparently, everything was all right, though. A year later Zeke and his wife had a baby boy. They named him Robert E. Lee Martin, my great-grandfather. I’ll leave it to you to figure out on which side my Great-great grandfather fought.

There are people in our lives who make the great events and movements of this world personal.
            Despite the fact that I was born and raised in the American South, the Civil War for me was just a long chapter in my American History Book. When my mother took me to visit my great-great grandfather’s house years ago, that War took on personal meaning. Every time I visit that cemetery, I recall the story as I clean the encroaching weeds off his footstone.
            NOW, if we are very, very fortunate, there are people in our lives who make the great events and movements of the Christian faith personal. These are the saints we name today. They give the doctrines and the convictions of Christianity flesh and blood. Christianity first came alive for us in their lives.
·         They love us unconditionally and show us what god’s unconditional love does.
·         They treat people along their way with grace and show us how God surely treats us with grace.
·         They forgive in ways that heal broken, hurting relationships and show us how God’s forgiveness can heal us.
These are saints who in a thousand everyday acts show us the great sweep of God’s love scooping up the world to welcome it home.

II. Years ago, J. B. Phillips wrote a small book with the title: Your God is Too Small. In it he challenged Christians to grow up in their faith rather than holding on to childish notions of God. In the opening, he said:
            The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs. While their experiences of life have grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their idea of God has remained largely static. It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday-school age, unless he is prepared to deny is own experience of life. If, by a great effort of will, he does do this he will always be secretly afraid lest some new truth may expose the juvenility of his faith. And it will always be by such an effort that he either worships or serves a God who is really too small to command his adult loyalty and co-operation (1).

Though written 50 years ago, the point Phillips made is still relevant.
            We read the Bible looking for answers to our questions, comforts for our worries, and a kindly face watching out only for us. We look for a God who is speaking to us and to our corner of the known world. Because we are looking for the God of small size and limited concern, we hardly catch the full message. It does not take a particularly big God to do just that much. What we miss, sadly, is that the great God speaks to nations and peoples and across the ages.

[TEXT] In Isaiah 25, the prophet speaks to Israel in exile. Earlier in the book, the prophet warned Israel that God demands righteousness and justice. He warned the people that punishment would follow if they chose to ignore the great demands of God. Well, the promised punishment came in the form of national defeat and then exile in Babylon. Now in exile along with the people, Isaiah speaks a word of comfort to those who have lost everything. He speaks to Israel in exile, but at the same time, he tells them of a God who addresses the whole world and for all time.
A. 1 O LORD, you are my God;
            I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
            plans formed of old, faithful and sure.

Isaiah will praise God even in the midst of their exile. What a faith he has brought with him! And then, he claims that God is following his “plans formed of old, faithful and sure.” He is convinced that God is not making history up as events unfold. God has purpose and direction and love at work through the events of history.
            He is convinced that God is a refuge for the poor and the needy, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat. The exiles in Babylon with Isaiah would resonate with all this, they would hear the prophet speaking to them.
            B. Now a promise:
            6 On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast…”
In the previous verses, the people would have identified with the poor and the needy. And that felt good. They stood apart from the Babylonia captors and apart from people they saw as “not like themselves.” Their politics, their nation, their language set them apart from the Babylonians who had conquered them. Today, hearing our roll of the honored dead read out makes it hard  to see this day as anything but personal, focused, tender toward us and those we call by name.
            But, the feast which Isaiah promises that God will provide is not just for a few; it is a feast for all the peoples. Isaiah has taken us from focus on ourselves and our neediness to a feast to which all the nations are invited. Surely, it requires a big God to embrace all the peoples and all the nations. It requires faith in a big God to step back and allow God to embrace all the nations in His care.
            C. Now, in the sweeping movement of this prophecy as it gathers up the peoples around the world, Isaiah turns to our concern on this All Saints Day.
7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
            the sheet that is spread over all nations;
            he will swallow up death forever.
8 Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces,
            and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
                        for the Lord has spoken.
We have shed tears at the loss of so many precious souls who once brought us joy. We need to hear Good News of God moving to make the world new again.
            Paul, in 1 Corinthians caught this promise, when he wrote about the work of Christ:
54  When this perishable body puts on imperishability,
            and this mortal body puts on immortality,
then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
            "Death has been swallowed up in victory."
5  "Where, O death, is your victory?
            Where, O death, is your sting?"

[APPLIC:] We gather on this All Saints Day to savor God’s word of assurance for us in our personal experience of loss. And surely God does speak to us the words of assurance and hope to us. But, savor too the promise of God that all the world is caught up in this vision. Open your heart to the possibility that God’s redeeming work will work hope and peace and justice for all who have lost loved ones in all the nations and for all time.

All Saints Day is the day when we who honor our dead claim God’s promise for all those who have gone before.

II. Consider something else: We have read as our scripture for this morning, a prophecy spoken to exiles living in Babylon roughly 2500 years ago. How does the ancient word of this scripture still speak to us in the 21st Century, living on another continent?
+We go to cemeteries to tell the stories of our ancestors so that we know the stock we came from. We might need to know one day where we came from.
+We go to cemeteries to tell the stories of our ancestors to learn what dreams and loyalties shaped their lives. We might need to know the loyalties, perhaps un-acknowledged, that are written into our DNA.
+We come to church on All Saints Day to see what Christians before us have worked for and now leave to our care. We might need to know the length and breadth and depth of this faith.
+We read the ancient promises from scripture in the conviction that God’s promises remain in force because they reside in God who gave them, not in human beings who hear them.
+We read the ancient promises from scripture because they tell us who we are and what faith in this God will make of us. The prophecy from Isaiah and from Revelation points us to our destination.

1. Phillips, J.B. Your God is too Small (Introduction), 1961.

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