Tag Archives: All Saints’ Day

The Voice That Wakes the Dead

Paradiso by Gustave Dore

A Sermon originally delivered to Calvary Community (Reformed) Church on November 1, 2015.
Text: John 11:32-44

“If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

“If you had been here, [he] would not have died.”

Have you ever uttered words similar to this? “Lord, if you had been here, things would have been different.” Of course, few, if any, of us would readily admit this, even to ourselves, but think about this from the perspective of your darkest moment. Maybe that was a long time ago, perhaps that is now. “Lord, if you had been here, things would have turned out differently.”

The words are strong, they are heavy. But they are not wrong. If Jesus had been there sooner, things may have very well turned out differently. The beginning of this story is one that plays out even today.

Word came to Jesus that his friend Lazarus was ill. Jesus was close to this family. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus spends some time at the home of Martha and Mary, and at the beginning of this story, the writer looks ahead to when Mary will anoint Jesus with perfume and wipe his feet with her hair.

Their brother, Lazarus, was ill and Mary sent word to Jesus that the one whom he loves is ill. From this, we can see that Jesus had a rather close relationship with Lazarus. The word simply came that Lazarus was ill, no indication as to the severity. No indication as to whether he ought to jump on a plane or simply driving was sufficient.

But before Jesus gets to where his friend is, he has already died. Martha goes out to meet him, “‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’”

Mary hears that Jesus is coming, and she goes out to meet him, tears streaming down her face, filled with a mixture of sadness and anger, denial and confusion. She throws herself at his feet. She spoke, we would like to think, calmly and with great reverence, but I think that her voice was filled with desperation and sadness and anger, “‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’”

And Jesus saw her weeping, and everyone else with her weeping, we are told that he was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” and from this we may infer that he was likely feeling a similar mixture of anger and grief. Perhaps he was feeling in similar ways to when he wept over Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel. And Jesus wept. We ought not over-sentimentalize this, but we cannot also think that Jesus was somehow immune to the emotions of humanity. Indeed, Jesus was sinless, but save this, he was human in every way, and this would include emotions. “‘Where have you laid him?’” Jesus asked. “‘Come and see,’” Mary replied.

And the whispers arose amidst the crowd, “This man can bring sight to the blind, could he not stop this man from dying?” Why did he do anything? Why couldn’t he do anything?


Death is a reality of life. We can do great things to extend life and to stave off death, for a while, but we cannot eliminate it. The paradox of this is that death causes so much sadness and grief and anger and paint. We experience this when a pet dies, and even more significantly when loved ones die. Everyone dies but each and every time it feels like a punch in the gut, like the rug has been pulled out from under us. Even for those of us who have the strength of the hope of restoration, the death of a loved one is painful.

I have to wonder, though, if this may be because deep down we know that it is not right. I wonder if in the deepest recesses of our beings we know that this is not the way it is supposed to be. We can almost feel the fact that death was not a part of the creation that the Divine proclaimed to be “good.” And so we struggle against death with every ounce of our being. While we do not have to face death with fear, but it is not a friend. Death is an enemy and our spirit knows it.


Jesus came to the tomb and the stone at already closed it, and Jesus requested the stone to be moved. Perhaps Martha thought that Jesus wanted to look upon his friend one last time. Perhaps she wondered if one of his miraculous acts was on his mind. But she cautions him, “‘already there is a stench, because he has been dead four days.’”  The subtext is clear. He’s dead. Tradition was clear that by this time the soul was gone and he had passed the point of no returned. But hadn’t Jesus raised others? Yes, but never after this long. Immediately after death anything is possible, but four days? His soul is gone, his body is decomposing. He’s undeniably dead and nothing can be done to change that.Jesus replies but he does not scold. He reminds her that she would see the glory of God. I am sure that still not quite understanding, she had the stone taken away, and no sooner than this happened, the stench of death began to escape from the dark portal to the realm of the dead. Jesus looked upward, and I can imagine that for a moment time stood still, the breeze may have seemed to abate and the ambient noise faded into the ether. Scripture records Jesus’ prayer, but who knows if everyone — or anyone — could hear it. After he finishes he continues to stand for a moment with his eyes closed and lifted up, bathed in the light of the afternoon sun.

He then shifts his gaze to the cave-turned-tomb and stares intently into the dark. And glaring down into the darkness, Jesus cries with a loud voice, commanding the darkness and shaking the stones so that all could hear — “Lazarus, come out!”

At first there was nothing, and then into the light steps Lazarus still wrapped in the burial cloths. What a sight! I imagine the crowds would have been in absolute awe — shock really — and that Martha and Mary would have been beside themselves with what they had just witnessed. When he had fully emerged, Jesus ordered, “‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”

And this  is all that we see of Lazarus. We know knowing of his reaction or his experience. We know nothing of what the remainder of his second life looked like. He just fades away into the annals of time.

But, you see, this story is not really about just Lazarus. This story was really a dress rehearsal of sorts for a similar, but far more significant event, that was to happen not long after when we will see another death, another tomb, and another person emerging from the door which is only supposed to swing one way. Indeed, in the raising of Lazarus we have a foretaste of Easter, and Easter is, itself, a foretaste of the great and final resurrection when Jesus will once again stare down into the darkness of death and call forth no one person, but all of the saints of all times and places, whom we now know as the great “cloud of witnesses.”


So why are we spending so much time talking about death? Today is All Saints’ Day — a day when we remember those who have been taken from us and a day that we can give thanks for those who have been given the gift of seeing God.

All Saints’ Day is not just for remembering saints with names like Augustine of Hippo, or Francis of Assisi, or Paul of Tarsus. But also whose saints with names like Victor and Donald and Jay. Saints who may not be known beyond their own communities, but saints whose names are nonetheless prominently engraved on the stone rolls of the Kingdom of God. And as with Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, we do not come to praise those who have gone before, to to praise the One who as called them out of darkness and into his marvellous light.

And so it can seem that death always has the final answer, after all, we are all headed for the grave at some point. But here we see a disruption in this narrative in calling Lazarus back to this side of the veil.

So, let us give thanks for all the saints, extraordinary and ordinary — those known to the whole church of Christ, and those who may only be known to us. And we know that for them, the grave is not the final word, but the final word comes from the One who calls to us and frees us from that which binds us, and sets us free.

And it is because of this that we can live into our calling here on earth, that we can live into the desire of the Divine to be a blessing to the world, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to give sight to the blind, to release the captive, to clothe the naked, and to bring forth justice and peace in a lost and broken world which is so loved by God. This assurance does not bring us out of the world, at least it ought not, but it should drive us into deeper engagement with the world. Because truly, what do we have to fear? This gives us the power to shake our fist with the Apostle and proclaim, “‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’” And it grants us the confidence that not even death itself can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

We can have the confidence that Jesus does not just have the ability to save souls or hearts or minds, but Jesus has the power to break even the seemingly unbreakable bindings — as William Barclay notes, the voice of Jesus is the voice that wakes the dead.


The Ordinary Ones

Sermon originally preached at Calvary Community Church. Text: 2 Kings 5:1-14


Few things are more delightful to me in this passage, than the fact that this whole event happened, this story was recorded, this whole thing began with the words of a little foreign slave girl. This little slave girl, someone with no social standing or status to speak of, spoke words of wisdom that people heard, but no one truly listened to.

This little slave girl was in the service of Naaman’s wife. Now we are told that Naaman had leprosy. While typically we think of leprosy as the disease that makes body parts fall off, this may or may not be exactly what from which Naaman was suffering. In the ancient world, the term leprosy covered a multitude of skin diseases. But whatever it was, it was likely incredibly unpleasant.

So Naaman comes home from a day at the palace meeting with the king to discuss military strategy, and as he comes home it is apparent, again, to everyone in the household that no matter what their doctors have done, Naaman is still in great suffering. So as this little slave girl, whom they captured fromt the land of Israel, as she was helping Naaman’s wife to get ready for bed, she remarked to her mistress, “O, if only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” And the slave girl finished her tasks and when she had left, Naaman’s wife went to speak to Naaman the words that the slave girl told to her.

I can imagine that Naaman would have been cautiously hopeful. On the one hand, this was a possibility for him to be cured from this awful disease, but I can also imagine that he would be cautious so as not to get his hopes up. Someone as important as Naaman would have received the best medical care available at the time, and the chances were good that he had sought medical attention. But whatever he may have been thinking or feeling, Naaman brings this to the King.

Of course, though, the king cannot send Naaman with just a camel, no, Naaman is important, and so he sends a letter to the King of Israel, but not only this but sends ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. This is quite a sum, but for someone so important in the kingdom, this was well worth it. So this has now become a matter of diplomacy. The king of Aram, which is modern day Syria, sends him to the King of Israel with all of this money.

So Naaman and his grand royal caravan shows up at the palace of the King of Israel with the letter, requesting that the king cure Naaman of his leprosy. The king, of course, tears his clothes because he can’t heal Naaman, and he thinks that the king to the north is trying to set a trap for him, requesting the impossible from him.

And all of this because they heard the little girl, but did not listen to her.

But Elisha gets word of this, after all, the king doesn’t tear his robes without anyone taking notice. So Naaman goes to Elisha’s house. I love the specificity of this part of the story, “So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house.”

It wasn’t just Naaman who showed up, but his entire entourage, he comes with his status and his pride and his prestige, and he shows up at Elisha’s house, the ordinary house of a prophet.

But Elijah won’t play into this, and so he sends a messenger out to him with the instructions. Go and bathe in the  Jordan river seven times and you will be healed.

But Naaman will have none of this. Naaman didn’t want to be told this simple thing from this simple messenger, he wanted the great prophet to come out, and wave his hands, and call on God and bring all the special effects and do something fitting of his status. Not only this, but he was told to bathe seven times. That’s it? I came all the way from Aram for this? In the Jordan, no less? The murky and muddy waters of the Jordan River?  We have rivers back home, and they are cleaner and nicer and more pristine than these backwaters.

Naaman turns away and begins to lead his entourage away.

But one of his servants came to him. “If he told you to do something involved and difficult, wouldn’t you have done it?  Why not just do this simple thing, what do you really have to lose?

So Naaman got down from his horse, and took of his armour and put down the shield of his king. He walks down into the Jordan River and baths seven times, and his flesh was restored to perfection.


The beauty of this passage is not so much in the end of Naaman being restored to health, I mean, that is the climax of the story, but that is not necessarily the beauty. The beauty is that the driving forces in this story were ordinary simple folks. The slave girl who got the whole ball rolling, the servant who convinced Naaman that he didn’t have anything to lose give washing in the Jordan a try. When God is involved, these ordinary people can be capable of extraordinary things. When God is involved, an ordinary messenger can speak grace. When God is involved, servants and slaves can speak truth. When God is involved an ordinary river can take on miraculous properties, and when God is involved, the ordinary can do extraordinary things.

Today we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, when we take these ordinary elements, bread from the earth and fruit from the vine and God does something extraordinary with them. In the moment, we are lifted up into heaven and we commune with, we are united with, Christ and all the saints of all time and places, and for a moment, for a brief moment, we can experience the glory of heaven.

This is what we believe about the sacrament, and it is beautiful, it is amazing. And all of this from these ordinary elements.

We serve a God who continually uses ordinary things. A nomadic person in Mesopotamia who would become the father of the people of God, a bush that is ablaze but is curiously not consumed, a person who had difficulties with public speaking, an unwed teenage girl who would give birth to the redeemer of the cosmos, and ordinary people like you and me. God takes these ordinary things, and by God’s grace, extraordinary things happen.


Today is All Saints’ Sunday — the day we observe All Saints’ Day. All Saints’ Day is not the day to think about Saint Augustine or Saint Francis or Saint Benedict or Saint Luke or Saint John, All Saints’ Day is when we remember all those brothers and sisters in Christ who have gone before, all those who are properly called saints, all those who have stood in the presence of God and have seen the beautiful vision of the glory of God. All Saints’ Day is not a day to glorify the dead, don’t get me wrong, but a day that we can give God thanks for those who have impacted our lives, either individually or as a church, those who may not be known to many, but who, in one way or another, represented Christ to us.

Faith is not something that we come to on our own, the journey of faith is not one that we trod alone. Each of us have, and have had, people in our lives who have told us stories about God and about God’s people. We have had people who have shared with us the story about grace and redemption found through Christ. We have had people in our lives who have spoken grace into our lives, who have spoken God, who have served as companions and guides on the way.

These people are not always the important ones, maybe not the obvious ones. Maybe these people are not the kings, but rather the little servants, the people who blend into the woodwork, the people who don’t have much prestige or power, people who are not often noticed, but who can speak or live wisdom.

The wonderful thing about God is that those who are far off have been brought near, the first will be last, and the last first, the weak will be given power, and the powerful will be cut down. God can work through unexpected people in unexpected situations.

So today, we can give thanks to God for God’s immense creativity, for God’s desire to work through ordinary things and ordinary people, we can give thanks to God because “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28).

But God didn’t just work at one point through ordinary people, but God continues to work through ordinary people and ordinary things, this is God’s modus operandi

So as we look back at the past in the story of Naaman, we stand in the present as we give thanks for those who have gone before, we can also look to the future, and think of the possibilities that might be in store for this ordinary little church on the top of a hill in New Berlin, Wisconsin. We have a wonderful past and these walls could tell so many stories of so many different people. Stories of people coming to faith, and people growing in faith. Stories of life: marriages, baptisms, celebrations of birth, recovery from disease and illness. Stories of grief and loss, death and funerals. Stories of ordinary people doing ordinary things as God’s people. But think of the stories that they might yet contain. The stories of ordinary people telling about the story of how God took on flesh and lived a life like you and me, and taught people what God desired, and lived a completely obedient life which ultimately led to his death, only for him to raise from the dead.

It’s a story that begins relatively ordinary but ends extraordinary. It is a story which is like you and me, and those for whom we give thanks today.