Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 31 October 2021.
• First Reading: Isaiah 25: 6-9 (The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces)
• Psalm 24: 1-6
• Epistle: Revelation 21: 1-6a (No more death or mourning or crying in pain, for the old order has passed away)
• Gospel: John 11: 32-44 (Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead)
We are all familiar with the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, with its host of well-known actors. But today’s lessons are more usefully described as two weddings and a disrupted funeral.
The two weddings are really one in which God promises a celebration of the final reunion of humanity with His purposes, so rudely interrupted by the events in the Garden of Eden. Now He plans a glorious feast for the whole of humanity who have received His blessing and responded to His gifts and salvation.
If the church was betrothed to Jesus on the day of Pentecost, then at All Saints we are celebrating the wedding feast of the Lamb. It is the Lord’s party and all who believe and trust in Him are invited.
It is not an invitation that we have to earn – only one that we have to receive and respond to. And the preparations are well advanced with every detail of the food, the placings, the décor, and the entertainment being honed to perfection. Even the clothes will be arranged for us.
And yes, many of those doing the preparing will be people we have known and loved, and who have gone before us over to that further shore and into that greater light. And yes, they are waiting for us to join them which we trust that we will do in due course.
For this is the lens through which we see our personal passing from this life into the next and though which we understand that those who we have loved and lost in death are also waiting for us with eager expectation.
Already we worship with them every time we celebrate the Eucharist as we proclaim our worship ‘with angels and archangels and with the whole company of heaven.’ In that sense we are already with them as we worship Jesus as Lord.
But then there is that interrupted funeral. Jesus had been told of the sickness of His friend Lazarus. This is the only close personal friend of Jesus who is mentioned apart from His own disciples who included John, the beloved disciple.
Jesus had deliberately let Lazarus die so that He could go to his tomb and raise him to life. He had heard of his decline but decided to hold back. You might say that this was some kind of friendship, and yet Jesus was taking the opportunity to say something and to do something for all of us.
Jesus was allowing Lazarus to die in order to proclaim His authority over death. There are other examples of Jesus raising the dead: the son of the widow of Nain and the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue of Capernaum.
Yet all of these died, having been restored to life for a while. Jesus would however lead them all on a different journey. These had died under the provisions of the law of the Old Covenant. In this sense they were all Old Testament deaths, and it would only be when Jesus Himself had died that things would change.
With Jesus’ own death then the regime would be different. Death would no longer hold any terrors of the believer. His resurrection would be the first of many, not to condemnation but to hope. Those who died after Jesus would die in the knowledge and promise of Jesus’ own resurrection.
The fear of the unknown would be gone and the fact of death would hold no more terrors, even if we may all wonder at the timing and manner of our own deaths. But even in the worst of circumstances our deaths would be relatively brief while the hope of eternal life would be forever.
Our outlook is now changed and changed forever. Death is no longer that great abyss of nothingness, full of terrors. It is not even that place where everything is obliterated and we would not even recall that we had lived, let alone what we had done.
Today we are celebrating life rather than death. This is no death cult, and we have no business to be seeking it out. The idea of heroic deaths may inspire the living just as the idea of sordid deaths may repel us.
Even the most tragic and needless death can still be offered by those who live, into the mercy of God. And yes, part of our funeral service is to commend the soul of the departed to the mercy and love of God.
That is one reason why I am drawn to that prayer in the office of compline, said last thing at night:
O Lord Jesus Christ, who at the hour of Compline did rest in the sepulchre, and didst thereby sanctify the grave to be a bed of hope to thy people:
Make us so to abound in sorrow for our sins, which were the cause of thy passion, that when our bodies lie in the dust, our souls may live with thee;
Who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end.