Friday, November 09, 2012

Sermon: God will swallow up death forever

Date: 4 November 2012
At: All Saint's Church, Rampton
Texts: Is 65.6-9, John 11.32-44


In the ancient world, death hung like a malevolent spectre over everything.

In our reading from Isaiah, the prophet mentions death as “the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations.” At this time, life after death was considered to be something ethereal, ephemeral. Sheol was the name given to the place where the dead were, and it was a place of almost nothingness. You were conscious, but then again, you weren’t. Death was the place from which you could do nothing more. So, we hear the Psalmist say in different places in different ways, “Lord, save me. I cannot praise you from the grave!” Death was the silent shroud that blocked out the sun of life. All nations held its fear in common. Death was the common denominator.

In our reading from John’s Gospel, it is not much different. By this time, a hope of resurrection had developed, and Mary avows her belief that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. But, still, we see the depth of the malady. Mary weeps. Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” When Jesus comes to the tomb, he weeps, and John records again that he is “greatly disturbed.” And the dead man is quite literally covered in a shroud, wrapped in cloth, bound, held tight. The shroud covers all people.

And the shroud motivated and terrified people. For some, it motivated them to live their lives to the utmost, because they knew they would have nothing after death. For others, it simply terrified them, and they sought ways to dull the pain of the knowledge of death. “The shroud is cast over all peoples. The sheet is spread over all nations.”


We live in a world where the shroud seems to be being pulled back. Advances in medical technology mean that the average lifespan has increased significantly. HIV/AIDS is on its way to being solved, and we are all pretty sure that the cure for cancer is just around the corner. Many of us can expect to live into our eighties or beyond. When Social Security was enacted in the United States, the minimum age for receiving benefits was after the average age of death. Now, we have so many people reaching retirement that the system is overwhelmed, almost sunk.

But the idea that the shroud is being pulled back is an illusion. The mortality rate is still 100%, even if we do squeeze a few more years out of life. Everyone is going to die. The shroud of death may seem to be being pulled back, but really, it is just being ignored. We have hidden it. We have become a culture where “life” is the goal and the idea of “dying a good death” is either poo-pooed or lost entirely.

But, what does that mean? It means that we live in a world where we care more about the present moment than we care about future generations. We do things that feel good now, not things that will leave a legacy or change the world. We start treating our body with contempt, subjecting it to the abuse of alcohol or drugs or anything else that helps us forget that even as much as we are told to live in the present that the present can sometimes be a really horrible place to live.

And so we go on, content with the degradation of our bodies, content with death creeping up on us unawares. We go into that abyss without consideration, unprepared. The shroud of death still covers all nations, but we have learned to ignore it almost entirely.


Returning to Isaiah, we see that the shroud of death is not meant to be ignored. It is meant to be destroyed. Isaiah writes, “And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever” (25:7-8). God will swallow up death forever.

When God has done so, the life of the world to come will not be like Sheol, a place of darkness. It will be like a great banquet. Isaiah says there will be rich food and well-matured wines. The guest list includes people from every nation on earth. At the party, God will personally wipe the tears from all faces, especially the faces of his chosen people Israel, who have waited for him so long so that he might save them. Then the whole gathered throng will be glad and rejoice in God’s salvation. God will swallow up death forever.

And it is in Jesus that God has swallowed up death. We see the beginning of it in his ministry when he brings the dead back to life. “Take away the stone,” Jesus says to Lazarus’ sister Martha. Even when the smell of decay reaches his nostrils, he does not relent. “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” And the crowd does see, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man comes out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. “Unbind him, and let him go.”

But it is not until Jesus himself is taken down from the Cross and buried, laying under the shroud that is cast over all peoples, that God’s victory over death is finally seen in its fullness. For, on the third day, the lifeless form receives life again. A sharp intake of breath, the removal, folding, and putting aside of the shroud, all these are the signs that in Jesus Christ, God has swallowed up death forever and that God is, through Jesus’ ministry, preparing the table on the mountain, where the rich food will be together with the well-matured wines, to which we will all be called to sup.


Today is the first Sunday after the twin celebrations of All Saints and All Souls. On All Saints, we remember those heroes of faith who have come before us. On All Souls, we remember all the faithful departed. It is a time the Church sets aside to remember those whose example we can follow and to remember those who are near to us who have passed beyond this life into the next. It gives us opportunity to think and pray and hope. And given that God will swallow up death forever on that mountain, it is a hope of resurrection, a hope of being raised on the last day to share the humanity with which Jesus ascended to his Father’s right hand. This is a day of hope, a hope that brings joy.

For, although we live in a society that tries to hide the shroud of death, we can embrace it. We know that in Jesus Christ, God has swallowed up death. The shroud will be destroyed. We don’t have to fear our deaths because we know that just as Jesus was raised on the third day, we will be raised on the last.

And since we have that hope, we don’t have to avoid talking or thinking about death. We can think about what it means to die well. We can meet death when it comes not as people without hope, not with fear and trembling, but in the sure and certain hope that Jesus Christ is the one in whom we have our life and being.

And that means that now, in the present, we can live with joy. We can embrace the life of discipleship as the saints did. We can heed God’s call to holiness. We can reach out our hands to our neighbours. We can put the work into this parish of All Saints, this place named for all those who have come before. In the great cloud of witnesses, they have not stopped cheering for you here in Rampton. They have not stopped applauding your faithfulness and encouraging you to keep running and to finish the race well. And it all comes back to God. Since God has swallowed up death forever, we can live our lives in the present, plan for the future, and trust that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will raise us with him in glory.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

**Photo by Belén Galán.