By Ajit John
We have a baptism for our celebration of the Feast of All Saints. How appropriate, one might say. Because we will be welcoming two beautiful young lives into the company of the faithful, into a very large family that reaches round the globe, and, of course, that includes a huge company of those who have gone before us, saints well-recognized and saints unknown, rejoicing nonetheless with us as these two new candidates are brought into the circle of God’s grace.
We have some amazing texts to think about this morning, one from Isaiah and one from the Book of Revelation. Both texts are filled with famous imagery about heaven, the place God has set aside for his people.
This place of God, this destiny of our history, where time itself is compressed is part of what Isaiah says is God’s saving plan — “plans formed of old,” that is to say from the beginning — a place of feasting for all nations and for all people. There is a feast of rich food — no calorie-counting where the saints in glory dwell, a feast of well-aged wines, rich food filled with marrow. One commentator on this Isaiah text rightly wondered if we in North America can appreciate what’s on offer here. There’s not much of a contrast for the North American reader between what is promised and life as it is in a land of plenty. Our food is already rich and our wine stores have row upon row of the very best wines at accessible prices, and no longer just saved for great feasts.
This isn’t the case for most people in the world and certainly not for most people throughout history. The picture in Isaiah about the mountain of the Lord and the feasting on rich food would have presented a startling challenge, something to catch one up short. That contrast breaks in upon us from time to time, even in the West.
The New York Times published a riveting photo on its front page. The world saw the serene face of a beautiful 6-year-old girl with a horrifyingly emaciated body. Amal died in a refugee camp in Yemen. It captured the world’s attention because such a thing can happen next door to a fabulously wealthy country. But, said one reporter on the scene, Amal is sadly one of thousands in exactly the same predicament. She represents the hunger and pain and longing that God addressed in this text from Isaiah.
The feast on the mountain of the Lord, for us who hear this text read this morning, is not just a place in the future, at the end of time. It’s a place that Jesus said was breaking in with him and in him right here and now. Into such a hope are all baptized and sent.
There is, because of this coming empire of God, a place for judgment as well as for mercy. We see the words in this great Isaiah passage alternate between mercy for all and judgment on the wicked; between the most generous inclusion and yes, exclusion, if we are to be honest. God’s mercy has meaning only where there is judgment pending. Mercy and judgment are stuck together here. Yes, there is a feast prepared here. But that isn’t all. God comes to wipe out injustice, to end terrible suffering and vanquish the kind of death that grips the little ones like Amal. “The song of the ruthless was stilled,” said Isaiah about the reign of God: words of salvation are woven together with words about a feast on the mountain with rich food and aged wines.
Such is the place where God intended his people and indeed all nations to end up. And for this he sent his beloved Son Jesus. Because those plans “formed of old” included the destruction of death itself. Looking down the road to Jesus, the prophet Isaiah says God comes to destroy the shroud cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations. “He will swallow up death forever.”
And so Jesus came. We have for the Sunday of All Saints the wonderful eyewitness account of the raising of Lazarus. A beloved and familiar passage, to be sure, but I want to focus on just one thing this time around: I want you to remember the voice of God sounding out across the whole creation, as it did in the very beginning, the voice of God now speaks words of life in the midst of death and corruption. It lies at the center of this Gospel passage — the voice of the Lord with power to bring back the dead.
If you have wandered recently, in and around that city just an hour south of here, you might have noticed the advertising campaign for the Canadian Opera Company. It’s simple but remarkably effective. Words like these are scrawled on a diagonal across an advertising wall:
“A voice can break your heart”
“A voice can show you the answer”
We know that this is true of the great singers — whether its Teresa Stratas or Jon Vickers in the ’70s or Aretha Franklin or even Lady Gaga. A voice can grab you by the throat, even if the singer isn’t famous. I remember when we lived in Paris, an old blind woman who sang regularly in the subway tunnel “covers” of all the famous Edith Piaf songs. Not many people could rush by. Because that voice, so close in power to the original Little Sparrow of the Paris Streets, had the power to break your heart.
The voice waits for the right moment in the gospel passage. We know from the preceding verses that Jesus had heard that his good friends Mary and Martha at Bethany had sent word that their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus loved, was gravely ill. We know also that Jesus took his time getting there — so long, in fact, that Lazarus died and was already four days in the tomb before he arrived. Where have you laid him? He asks as he walked toward the tomb. Some in the crowd said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?
Jesus is upset by this. Why, you may well ask? Because, even those close to him didn’t understand that God’s purpose, planned from of old, was to destroy the shroud that was cast over all people, to use Isaiah’s words — the burial sheet, spread over all nations. God meant to swallow up death forever.
And so when they came to the tomb of Lazarus, he asked for the stone to be rolled away. Then after praying to the Father, the Son of God himself spoke with the voice that was present at creation. That same voice fell upon the darkness, corruption, and death and pre-figured what would happen on Easter morning. Jesus cried with a loud voice into that awful darkness, “Lazarus, come out.” And then as the dead man came out with the graveclothes still attached, Jesus told them to unbind him — take off the constraints and let him live a full life until it is time for him to come into the heavenly City with all the saints.
It’s that heavenly City that is revealed in the 21st chapter of the Book of Revelation. In the new heaven and the new earth, we see the new Jerusalem, where live all the saints of God, the Church, coming down, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. It’s the language not just of Isaiah’s banquet upon the mountain, but of a great wedding feast. Once again a loud voice breaks upon the scene. “See, the home of God is among mortals. God himself will be with them. Tears and pain and death shall be no more. See, I am making all things new. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”
It is the voice, of course, that is heard each time we celebrate the Eucharist together, and the voice we recall at every baptism. See, I make all things new.
In a moment we will stand around the font and bring two little ones into this new creation in Christ. See, I am making all things new, says the voice still. No matter what life holds for them, they have been bathed in waters that are from the springs of the water of life that flow from the city of God.
We will hear the names of each child, Vivian, Samuel, spoken by parents and sponsors. Let them be to us the voice of the Lord himself calling each one into new life. The voice of Jesus, heard at the open tomb of Lazarus, can touch their hearts even now. The voice will show them the way in the years ahead.
The baptism liturgy makes it clear the victory of God that will save Vivian and Samuel. They are marked with Christ and held as his own, no matter what life offers them.
When we move to the font for the baptism we will take with us the Paschal candle, the Easter candle, as a visible sign that God’s triumph at Easter is the very triumph into which these young lives are caught up in baptism. This, brothers and sisters, was God’s plan from of old.
The Rev. Ajit John is a priest in the Archdiocese of Toronto.