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Sermon for All Saints Sunday, Year B

Based on Isa. 25:6-9 & Rev. 21:1-6a

By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“Visions & Hopes”

   Visions and hopes….Life is well nigh impossible to live without visions and hopes. Visions and hopes make all the difference in our personal lives, as well as in the life of the church and the history of the world.

   Centuries ago the Spanish fleet had the following inscription on their flags: Non Plus Ultra, “Nothing More Beyond.” But then Columbus discovered America, and they had to remove the “non” from their flags. Then the flags read: Plus Ultra, “More Beyond.”1

   In our first and second lessons today, we are given two very similar, parallel visions filled with hopes for a better, redemptive future. They are visions and hopes of Plus Ultra, “More Beyond.”

   Both of these passages were likely written out of a context of persecution and exile. In our first lesson, the prophet offers his people—who likely were languishing in Babylonian exile, or at least living under the threats of a Babylonian military invasion—a word of future vision and hope. They had lost, or were in grave danger of losing, their nation, along with their religious, social, economic, political and cultural roots. The oppressive life of exile was wearing them down to the depths of despair. Where was their God who had made an eternal covenant with them? Had God abandoned them now forever? If so, what were they to do? How were they to live? Was there any vision or hope left among them?

   Out of this context, a prophet appears among them to share this encouraging vision and hope with them. He assures them that there is indeed a redemptive, liberating future with their deliverer, liberating God. His word of vision and future hope takes shape as “a feast of rich food” and “well-aged wines,” involving “all peoples” on the mountain of the Lord, that is, at Jerusalem, the holy city. Along with this banquet feast of all nations, God promises to destroy “the shroud,” “the sheet” of death. Death shall be swallowed up forever. Along with this, there will be only joy, celebration, since God promises to “wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth. The prophet’s message ends with an invitation to his people. The invitation is one of encouragement, joy, and celebration: “let us be glad and rejoice in his (God’s) salvation.”

   The vision and future hope of the writer of our second lesson is a similar one. It too likely comes out of a context of suffering, persecution and exile. Tradition has it that John wrote this book of Revelation while in exile on the island of Patmos. He, like the prophet of our first lesson, wishes to communicate a message of encouragement, vision, and future hope to his people, suffering under the persecution of the Roman Empire. When one reads or hears his words, one is given the impression of sheer awe, wonder and joy at what God is doing to save his people.

   The writer tells us that he sees “a new heaven and a new earth,” along with “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Notice that all of this newness is not a continuation of the old. Rather, it is totally new, because everything old has passed away. This new Jerusalem is described in the love language of a marriage. The marriage now is an eternal one. It’s a marriage between God the groom and the new Jerusalem, the bride, wherein we God’s people from all nations shall gather and dwell. Once again we are given a similar, parallel message as our first lesson, when the writer goes on to describe God’s saving activity: “and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” This, vision and future hope is, once again, a message of encouragement, of celebration and joy.

   Today, we gather here, maybe some of us or even all of us, feeling a little like those ancient Israelites in exile and those early Christians facing persecution. It is not easy to be a faithful Christian in a post-Christian era. Maybe we too are feeling threatened in some way or other; maybe we are struggling with our own or our loved one’s sufferings and doubts; maybe we’ve lost our job, or health, or a friend, or a loved one; maybe we feel so alone and forgotten that it’s extremely difficult for us to live with hope; maybe we’re confused about how our life is unfolding and lack a clear sense of vision concerning our future; maybe we are struggling with God and wonder where God is or what God is doing with our lives. Then there are the larger problems, concerns and issues of our church, our nation, and every nation—how can we live meaningful lives? Can we really live with a sense of vision and hope in our personal lives, our church, and our world right now and in the future? Our first and second lessons today give us words of encouragement, vision and hope. They are words from God to us. They provide us with an alternative way to live. Instead of doubt, despair, apathy, fear and resignation; over against a cynical, bitter, selfish, indifferent way of life; our lessons instruct us to celebrate life, live with vision, hope and joy; share God’s Good News of love and salvation with others. In the midst of all the troubles and complexities of our world, take heart, don’t give up, God is still in control. God is working in us and others to make God’s new heaven and earth, and the new Jerusalem.

   On this All Saints Sunday, we remember and honour all of our faithful departed, who have gone ahead of us to their eternal reward. We remember them and look to them because they lived, in very profound ways, the visions and hopes of our first and second lessons today. We remember them and look to them because they inspire us with the lives that they lived. Lives of holy meaning and purpose. I love the following story ascribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne, about one such “ordinary, everyday saint.”

   In a pleasant, sunny valley surrounded by lofty mountains, lived a boy named Ernest. On the side of one of the mountains, in bold relief, nature had carved the features of a gigantic face.

   From the steps of his cottage, the boy used to gaze intently upon the stone face, for his mother had told him that some day a man would come to the valley who would look just like the Great Stone Face. His coming would bring joy and happiness to the entire community.

   “Mother,” said the boy, “I wish that it could speak, for it looks so kind that its voice must be pleasant. If I were to see a man with such a face, I should love him dearly.” So Ernest continued to gaze at the Great Stone Face for hours at a time.

   Several times the rumor spread that the long-looked-for benefactor was coming, but each time when the man arrived, the rumor proved to be false. In the meantime, Ernest had grown into manhood, doing good wherever he could. The people in the village loved him. Everyone was his friend. And as he became an old man, Ernest was still looking for the arrival of the long-expected one.

   One day a poet came into the valley. He had heard the prophecy about the Great Stone Face, and at evening, when the sun was setting, he saw Ernest talking to some people. As the last rays of light flooded the massive outlines on the distant mountainside, they fell on Ernest’s face. The poet cried aloud, “Behold! Behold! Ernest himself is the likeness of the Great Stone Face.”

   Then all the people looked, and sure enough, they saw that what the poet said was true. By looking daily at the Great Stone Face, Ernest had become like it.2

   As we remember and honour; as we are inspired by All The Saints today, we too can become like them, provided we keep our lives in proper focus. We, like all the saints who have gone before us, need to keep our eyes and our lives focused on messages like our first and second lessons today. For it is God’s Word not that of the world that has the power to give us true vision and hope. It is God’s Word that offers us the promise of a new heaven and earth, a new Jerusalem, an eternal redemption and salvation. If keep our lives focused on these visions and hopes, we too shall reflect their reality in our lives to the world, just as Ernest did in the story.

   May God help us to live out the reality of these visions and hopes in our lives, so that we, together with All The Saints shall celebrate the Feast of our Messiah, which has no end, and be able to sing together that wonderful hymn:

Jerusalem my happy home, When shall I come to thee?

When shall my sorrow have an end? Thy joys when shall I see?

O happy harbor of the saints, O sweet and pleasant soil!

In thee no sorrow may be found, No grief, no care, no toil.3

 

           



1 Cited from: Donald L. Deffner, Sermons for Church Year Festivals (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1990) p. 91.

2 Cited from: Brian Cavanaugh, More Sower’s Seeds: Second Planting (New York & Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1992) pp. 40-41.

3 Lutheran Book Of Worship, hymn #331 (Minneapolis & Philadelphia: Augsburg Publishing House & Board of Publication, Lutheran Church in America, 1978).

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