Festival of All Saints—5 November 2017

5212053Our text is today’s lesson from Revelation:   9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,  10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”  11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,  12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” 

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”  14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  15  Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.  16  They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.  17  For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (ESV)

Life in this world has often been described as a “vale of tears,” an old English way of saying, “valley of tears.” That expression comes from a single Bible passage: Psalm 84:6. Our English Bibles today do not translate that verse with “valley of tears.” They just use the Hebrew word, Baca: Blessed are those whose strength is in you [O Lord]…As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs. The Valley of Baca. That Hebrew word Baca is related to “weeping”. The valley of weeping. The valley of sorrows. The vale of tears. It is a way of describing the pilgrimage of God’s people through this life, though this “valley of tears”, on our way to the eternal joys of God’s kingdom. And even though our English Bibles no longer use that phrase in Psalm 84, the expression “valley of tears” is still well known to us—and the experience of life as a “valley of tears” is well known to us as well.

Walking through the valley of tears is an experience that even God’s saints know. We who believe in Christ alone for salvation, we are indeed God’s saints, but we are not immune to sorrows. Quite the contrary. Yet, on this All Saints’ Day, we rejoice. We rejoice because although it is true that life in this world is often a vale of tears, the day is coming when God will wipe away our tears forever.

This world truly is a vale of tears. Now, slick marketing ads and tv commercials promote products and services that often seem to promise an escape from pain and sadness. And the world, of course, does not like to be presented as a vale of tears. But this remains true: we all do live in a valley of sorrow and weeping.

And there are so many sources of our tears. We cry over physical pain and mental anguish. We grieve over the death of a loved one. We weep at the injustice, the mistreatment, and the persecution going on in the world. And we mourn over our own sin and guilt. Yes, if we saw our own sin rightly and fully, we would weep greatly and bitterly.

The Psalms describe the grief of life in vivid terms: Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also.…My tears have been my food day and night… I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears (Psalm 31:9; 42:3; 6:6).

Even in our happiest moments, there is often some sorrow. The author Henri Nouwen observes: “There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our lives. It seems that there is no such thing as a clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the most happy moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of limitations. In every success, there is the fear of jealousy. Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In every friendship, distance. And in all forms of light, there is the knowledge of surrounding darkness. When you touch the hand of a returning friend, you already know that he will have to leave you again.… But this intimate experience in which every bit of life is touched by a bit of death can point us beyond the limits of our existence. It can do so by making us look forward in expectation to the day when our hearts will be filled with perfect joy, a joy that no one shall take away from us” (Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life).

Today, on this Festival of All Saints, by God’s grace, we look beyond our sorrows to the joy that awaits us, the eternal joy that no one shall take away from us. For we know that in His great compassion for us, Jesus, the eternal Son of God, entered into our vale of tears.

God is not blind or deaf to our weeping. Think back to the words spoken by God to Moses at the burning bush: I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:7-8).

What tears have you shed? God knows your suffering. He has seen your tears and heard your weeping. The Psalms even speak of God storing up our tears in a bottle and keeping record of them in a book (Psalm 56:8).

But God has done more than notice our tears. God has come down to deliver us. Yes, the Son of God became Man—God-in-the-flesh—and He entered into our valley of sorrows. There was no room for Jesus in the inns of Bethlehem. And soon after Jesus’ birth, Herod would come seeking His life, and many mothers of slaughtered boys would be wailing (Matthew 2:16-18).

Jesus Himself experiences all the sorrows of this world; He weeps. He weeps with Mary and Martha at the tomb of their brother, Lazarus (John 11:33, 35). He weeps over Jerusalem and its coming divine judgment (Luke 19:41). And He cries out in sorrow over the bitter path of betrayal, abandonment, and death before Him (Mark 14:33–34; Hebrews 5:7).

But our Lord Jesus Christ also came to do more than simply weep with the sorrowful; He came to take away their tears! To the widow at Nain, Jesus comes to raise her dead son, saying, Do not weep (Luke 7:13). To those wailing at the death of a man’s little daughter, Jesus says: Do not weep, for she is not dead but sleeping (Luke 8:52). At first they mock Him, but soon the girl is alive, and their tears are gone! To Mary Magdalene, weeping in the garden outside His tomb, Jesus comes to speak her name and to bring her resurrection joy (John 20:11-16). Jesus, the eternal Son of God, came into this vale of tears as a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;… he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:3-6).

Jesus bore all our sins and suffered the death-wounds you and I deserved. And through His death, we are healed, we are at peace with God. And so, because of all Christ Jesus has done for us, one day, in heaven, our God will wipe away forever every tear of the saints. And that includes you and me, for we are indeed counted among the saints, among those whom God has declared to be holy in the waters of Holy Baptism. Yes, in heaven, our God will wipe away all of our tears forever.

This world is a vale of tears, but its tears are temporary! This is God’s promise to us. He tells us that weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning, yes, in the new day of the resurrection (Psalm 30:5). And we remember the words our Lord spoke to His disciples: You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy…, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you (John 16:20, 22). And then, in Revelation, we have St. John’s vision of the saints rejoicing in heaven. Yes, we have God’s promise that our tears and our sorrows will give way to joy eternal!

The day is coming when John’s vision will be our own vision. With our eyes, we will see a huge multitude from every nation, all in white, with palm branches and song worshiping Christ, the Lamb of God. And there in heaven, we the saints will no longer hunger or thirst, nor will we shed any more tears. And the blood of the Lamb of God will have made all the difference for you and for me. For, baptized into the Name of the Holy Triune God, we are indeed counted among the saints coming out of the great tribulation[ , who] have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. In that day, God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, forever!

Wiping away someone else’s tears is one of the most intimate of all personal interactions. It is the very picture of empathy and compassion—the caring one is acknowledging and sharing the hurt and the grief behind those tears.

But the act of wiping away someone’s tears is not simply joining with them in grief; it is not just “weeping with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Taking your fingers and drying someone’s tears says something. It personally promises hope: “Don’t cry. Let me dry your tears. You are not alone. I am here to help, to shoulder the burden, to mend things. No more tears now. It will be okay. I promise.”

Now, when we wipe away someone’s tears, we have a heartfelt desire to mend things and to make everything okay. But, of course, we are weak, frail human beings with no absolute power to make all things right. But it is completely different with God. God has absolute power and authority over heaven and earth. And what’s more, He loves us all for the sake of Jesus Christ our Saviour, who suffered and died for us. In this fallen world, this vale of tears, our gracious God is with us, to help us. He invites us to cast all our burdens upon Him, for He cares for us. And He promises to make all things right. He has already done so through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. But only on the Last Day will we see with our eyes that God has indeed made all things new, for death itself will be destroyed.

For now, we wait. And often, we weep. In this life, we sow in tears. Blessed are those who mourn, Jesus says, for they shall be comforted (Matthew 5:4).

And as we wait for the day God will dry our tears, we look for opportunities to dry the tears of others, to extend to them God’s own compassion, to bring them the good news of Jesus—who saw their tears, carried their sorrows, cleansed them by His blood, and who will one day wipe every tear from their eyes.

Today, we celebrate God’s faithfulness to those who have died in the faith, whose struggles and sorrows are over, whose tears have ended. God’s saints shed many tears in this world. But for His saints in heaven, there is no more crying—only joy. They behold the face of God (Matthew 5:8), and God beholds them. And praise be to God, the day is coming when we too will behold the face of God—we shall see our risen Saviour Jesus in the flesh—and God will behold us in the glory of heaven. He will reach out His nail-marked hand to us and wipe away every tear from our eyes. Amen.