"No More Tears"
The ancient hymn book of Israel had a lot to say about tears. I'm talking of course about the book of Psalms. "I am weary with my moaning," the Psalmist cries out to God in a time of trial, "Every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping." [Psalm 6:6] There is a lot about tears in the song book of Israel because there was a lot of pain and struggle in Israel's life. And there was a lot of pain in the Psalmist's soul because Israel was so prone to wander from the God who had saved them. "My eyes shed streams of tears because your law is not kept," the writer says in Psalm 119:136.
Personally, I am glad for all this acknowledgment of tears that have been shed. I can relate to it. There have been times when the words, "I flood my bed with tears," could have applied to me. Like most of you, my life has included mountain tops of joyous experiences and valleys of crushing grief. My personal favorite words about tears in all of the bible are these words in Psalm 56:8, "You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?" I once did a children's message on this verse and brought a small vial about three quarters full of water to illustrate the concept of how God pays attention to every single one of us and is aware of our times of grieving. And I would tell them that I would probably have one of the biggest bottles in God's store room of tears.
That is comforting to me. Absolutely, powerfully comforting!
Over the past thirteen months we've all seen so much in the way of pain and grief haven't we? The very words, "September eleventh," creates a knot in the chest of most of us. Children have disappeared from their parent's lives in tragic abductions. Bitter struggles in the ancient holy land have children learning to hate their neighbors. Literally thousands of people who worked hard and saved their money for decades have awakened to bankrupt pension plans.
In the Psalmist's words, there have been rivers of tears for so many in the recent past. I wonder what kind of river it would create if God somehow took all those bottles of tears mentioned in Psalm 56:8 and poured them out on the earth all at once? It might look like the story of Noah's Ark and the mighty flood all over again.
So it is good to know that God is aware of the tears of every one of us.
But there is something more in the Christian faith. It is wonderful that God knows and cares about our pain and grief. It is comforting to realize that we are personally and individually cared for. But it is mind-boggling to realize that God knows exactly what it feels like to shed tears of grief and pain.
In the letter to the Hebrews, the writer speaks of the high priestly ministry of Jesus Christ and makes a special point of the fact that as our high priest, Jesus understands our human nature fully because he shares in it. "... we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin." [Heb. 4:15] And having come and shared our humanity, Jesus knows what it is like to shed tears. "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears... " [Heb. 5:7]
The good news in all of this comes in our reading from Isaiah. "... the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces..."
I would like for you to think about these words for a moment. They bring a peace to our lives that can not be found in any other source.
"... the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces..."
There is a deep and abiding promise in these words that, when all is said and done, God will bring healing to a broken world and to our fractured lives. There is a deep longing within each one of us to see pain and grief wrapped up in the arms of God until the last tear has been wiped away and there is a fresh wholeness that becomes the central reality of our lives.
The promise Isaiah utters eight hundred years before Christ is repeated almost at the end of scripture in Revelation 21: 3-4:
There is a concept here that is central to our lives of faith. Because this promise of no more tears is from God, it is as good as accomplished. Yet it is not completed in our present lives. It was a promise when Isaiah proclaimed it and it was a promise when the writer of the last words of scripture penned them. Even though ages have come and gone, it remains a living promise - and as a divine promise for all who place their faith in God - it is the fountain of hope for our lives.
But wait a minute. Is this "pie in the sky by and by?" Is this hope what Karl Marx referred to when he said, "Religion is the opiate of the masses?"
Not at all. It is very clear that our hope in God's promises is what lives at the heart of Christian faith and is the one great thing that distinguishes persons of faith from those who buy into the values of this present world. Though the promise is not yet fulfilled, it functions at the heart of our life together.
In other words, God's promise that there will finally be, no more tears... is at the heart of our worship. Worship ought to be a joyful thing because it connects us with the promise of final healing for our brokenness. We sing and rejoice and reach out to the world around us because we live as those who are under the power of God's great promise.
Do you see? We are a people of joyous worship because we build our lives on promises of healing and wholeness that can not be broken. Isaiah says, "I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure..."
When worship is not a joyful thing it may be because we are not fully connected to God's promise of freedom from everything that brings grief and pain to our lives. We celebrate the faith as a community of people who are both already, but not yet. That is, we are already living with God's promise as life's foundation, but the promise is not yet fully actualized in God's kingdom which shall never end.
These two concepts - the already and the not yet - have powerful implications for our living that Isaiah points to in our reading.
Because we are people who have already embraced God's promises for living, we are people of hope. "I will praise your name for you have done wonderful things." Though the complete redemption of this world lies in the future - the prophet sings praises because God's promise is God's action. The Lord has said it - therefore it is done.
Besides people of hope, the promises we live by means that we can be people of patience. Isaiah affirms that on the day when God brings about the completion of redemption, "It will be said... Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us." Waiting is difficult. Especially in tough times. It is even more difficult when the outcome of some trial is uncertain. But when the waiting is simply the necessary prelude to a guaranteed good outcome, we are much more able to grow in patience. God's guarantees of, "...no more tears," makes it possible for us to grow in patience.
These two qualities of hope and patience are inward qualities that shape our lives and our community of faith. But these qualities of hope and patience are not all. We are also people of a particular kind of action in our world because of the promises we live by.
"...you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress..." To share in the promises of God means that we also share in the purposes of God. The church and its people are attentive to the needs of the poor and dispossessed of the earth. Very frequently, it is the church that is present in the disasters of the world with hope and help in the name of the Lord. We live as those who have been called to share in a heavenly banquet. We are committed to bring food to the hungry because we are already living by the prophets proclamation that, "...the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food..."
And - we are called to bring justice to an unjust world. God will also, "...destroy... the shroud that is cast over all peoples..." Though justice and righteousness are absent from so much of the world, we live by the goodness and righteousness of God that is already our life's reality, but not yet shared by the world. When God makes it possible for us, we must bring a taste of that kingdom wherever we live.
Listen once again to these words. They are one of the main foundation blocks in our life of faith.
"... the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces..."
Glory be to God!
Connections in the Texts
It was Tielhard de Chardin who said, "Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God." A wedding is a time for joy and an invitation to the wedding banquet of a son of royalty would be an occasion for great joy. What a wonderful thing to be invited to celebrate with the royal family! Isaiah points to the eschatalogical hope of the "feast" that God will bring about when all the divine plans are brought to fruition. The feast is a celebration of the elimination of oppression and all that is wrong.
Paul's contribution to the discussion focuses on the qualities that are to characterize our lives in light of the fact that we are destined to share in the feast of God. Rejoice! While Isaiah portrays the feast in physical terms of a great feast, Paul lifts up the spiritual-emotional terms of kingdom fulfillment -- "the peace that passes understanding." Likewise the 23rd Psalm speaks of a life of peace and tranquility where the Great Shepherd is in charge.
The texts could be blended into a great discussion of Holy Communion or Eucharist as the central experience of the people of Christ who affirm the joy of the banquet and the certainty of the victorious outcome of the Divine intent. While there is a somber note to the Lord's Supper, there is the promise of fulfillment and joy in the kingdom of God. Jesus declines to partake of the bread and wine at that Last Passover, but says that he will eat and drink with his disciples "new in the kingdom of God." [Mk.14:25 & Lk.22:16] If you decide to take these texts in this direction, a good theme would be, "Eucharist is a Certain Promise of Joy."
One of the issues this parable addresses is the danger of a cavalier attitude toward our relationship with God. Some years ago, a man in the congregation made a comment that went along the lines of, "The Jews rejected Jesus, so the Lord made the church God's people instead." Meanwhile, I could name very few people who took the notion of church membership and worship more lightly. He had an attitude that said, "I'm a member of the church and that means I am okay with God."
If he was busy sailing -- he had no time for "the banquet".
He is easy to target because there is nothing subtle about his attitude. Yet, I become a bit uneasy when I ask the text to crawl deeper into my attitudes and assumptions. One of the ways Matthew helps me to examine my relationship with Christ is to take me to the mirror and ask, "How much like a wonderful celebration -- a royal wedding feast -- is my relationship with Jesus Christ!"
Make it clear to your listeners. "People -- we've been invited to a royal celebration!"
The beginning of the text reminds one of the Psalms. It is a prayer of thanksgiving. Within this psalm-like beginning, there is a theme that resounds throughout scripture. "You have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress." One of the tests of God's people in the judgment is whether they were attentive to the poor. [Matt. 25:35] In Luke's gospel, Jesus begins his ministry with the affirmation that he has been sent to bring good news to the poor. [Lk.4:18]
This speaks to the invitation God issues in Matthew's parable. Finally, God invites all those who were not on the original invitation list. The poor, the outcast, the rejected and despised will be at the feat. The words of Isaiah 53:3 come to mind... even Messiah is "despised and rejected of men..."
The vision of Isaiah 25:6-9 is one of the wonderful "fulfillment" passages of scripture. The victory of all that is right over all that is wrong provides the central drumbeat of hope throughout scripture. Verse 8 will be picked up once again in the book of Revelation when the vision of fulfillment is complete. The words are spoken countless thousands of times each year over the graves of persons we lay to rest in hope. "And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." [Rev. 21:4]
One of my favorite themes of all time on this passage is contained in a full text sermon on a part of this passage. You will find it at: "Antidote for Anxiety" One of the ways you could go this week is to use the Philippians passage and do a meditation of the juxtaposition of the physical and spiritual perspectives of what it means to be in the Kingdom of God. Matthew and Isaiah look to the physical representation of a feast. Paul and the 23rd Psalm focus on the inner qualities of peace and security under the reign of God. Either way -- it is good to know the Lord!
Call To Worship (Based on Psalm 23)
Leader: Gather us
together today O Lord,
A Prayer of Confession
God of compassion and mercy, look with favor upon your people as we confess our sins. Our faith is weak in the face of crisis. Our hope gives way when we are threatened or maligned. We have so often misplaced our trust and have given ourselves to things that can not deliver us. Forgive us our failures and look with grace upon our confession that we might know the joy of your salvation. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
The promise of God is that we will never be forgotten nor forsaken. As we turn away from the sin that separates us from God, we are forgiven and refreshed in the newness of life. Believe the good news that in Christ you are forgiven. Amen.
A Prayer of Thanksgiving
O Lord God, our only hope and strength, we give thanks that of your great goodness and mercy you send your only begotten son to become incarnate and to redeem us from sin and everlasting death. We pray that during these days of Advent, you may enlighten our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit that we might give true thanks for the wondrous gift of you love. May this joyful good news become the comfort we need in times of trouble and temptation, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A Prayer of Dedication
The gifts we bring to You today,
Almighty God -- are but the