Isaiah 25: 6 On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines.
7 On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth.The Lord has spoken.
On sunny summer mornings in a Kansas pasture, after the hay has been cut and the dew is heavy, when the angle of the sunlight is just right, you can just make out three barely visible rises in the earth, three slight, easily overlook-able rounded mounds, each about the length and width of a grave. For that is what they are: three unmarked graves, side-by-side, just a quarter mile off the still-visible tracks of the old Santa Fe Trail by which miners, pioneers and settlers once went to California, and the American Southwest.
Whose graves they are the owner of that pasture does not know; they were already there when his ancestors first settled that land, in the 1870’s. Were their names ever inscribed on any crosses over those graves, those markers soon fell to the prairie wind and returned to the prairie soil. Most likely they are the graves of people from a wagon train on the Santa Fe Trail. For three deaths and burials together in time and place, don’t blame Cheyenne nor Commanche raiders. The biggest killers in the Old West were diseases like cholera, lurking in many campsites and water holes along the trails.
Each of those three people were likely born to great happiness and high hopes; their mothers and fathers probably welcomed and carried and cradled and sang to them as newborn babies, with joy and delight. They grew up and then lit out West, again with high hopes. Their lives and loves, as are ours, were intense, deeply personal, often painful and perplexing, and yet also highly-treasured. But their names remain a mystery to all. Of all the tears and treasure and tenderness that go into a human life, is that all that our existence amounts to? A slight rise in the earth, eventually to be smoothed over and forgotten?
That is the issue, I believe, for which wars are waged, empires start and grow, towers are built, businesses are started and expand into mega-corporations, and some people run for high office: death. Something deep within the human soul says, “Am I not worth more than a forgotten grave? Will there not be something to survive my few and fleeting years, to give meaning to this all-too-brief existence, something by which to remember me, at least? If my name does not outlive me in the history books, let it be on a corporation, like Ford or Chrysler, or a charitable foundation. If not that, then on a building, or at least a book, a brick on a sidewalk, or a bench in a park or a scenic overlook. For all the striving and struggle that life entails, does it all end only in ……nothing?
If so, would that not render every life meaningless, and without value? Say Yes, that’s all there is, in the end, that each fleeting individual lifespan means or matters nothing compared to the infinite reaches of space and time, and what could be more depressing and oppressive?
We are increasingly aware today of the many kinds of oppression that divide, depress and degrade human dignity and possibility, oppression linked to religion, to race, to money, to party and politics, to sex, class, age and ability. And we should be more aware and responsible to all such oppression. But oddly enough, the most powerful, universal and inescapable kind of oppression, the most devastating and destructive kind, is the kind of oppression we spend the most time and energy avoiding and denying: again, death.
That’s how Isaiah describes death in the passage we heard earlier, as “the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations,” even, a “disgrace.” In modern parlance, we’d call death “the supreme wet blanket,” the ultimate dasher of all hopes, the killjoy who stalks every celebration, the fog of depression that clouds the mind and paralyzes all enthusiasm. Death and dying, along with the devastation, loss and separation it causes, simply do not line up with the depths and dignity of a human soul. It is the ultimate insult and affront to our status as bearers of God’s image.
The degradation, depression and oppression of death over the nations is all the more ironic when you consider how the nations themselves employ the power of death to keep themselves alive, or to enforce their wills over other nations, even over their own subjects and citizens. Now, by “nations” Isaiah means the Gentiles and their many tribes and ethnic groups. But these words would also apply to the modern nation state, armed to the teeth with the instruments and the idols of death, like missiles and bombers, warships and submarines, armies, navies and air forces, or espionage and security forces to control dissidents at home or abroad.
Ironically, by wielding the tools of death, nations themselves become the tools of death. As nations add to an ever growing stockpile of weapons, and ramp up the worship of death in entertainment, politics and the economy, as the right to abort becomes pressure to abort, and the right to die slides toward the obligation to die, the weight of death’s oppressive shroud becomes all the more heavy upon us, hardening our hearts numbing our consciences and devaluing our dignity. Our current epidemic of gun violence only updates the words of Jesus to Peter, when Peter swung a sword to defend him in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword.” And so the nations, which think they have mastered the technology of death, are themselves enslaved, mastered and manipulated by death.
But today we celebrate the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promise through Isaiah, to “destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations,” and to “swallow up death forever,” to “wipe the tears from our eyes,” and to turn the disgrace of death into the everlasting deliverance and dignity of eternal life. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s first fruits, or down payment, on the fulfillment of this promise.
The Old Testament is clear about sin’s relationship to death, like a hand in a glove. “The soul that sins shall die,” said the prophet Ezekiel. Sin itself is a manifestation of death, a death wish of the spirit. That’s of a piece with God’s warning to Adam: “Eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, snatch with your own hands the status of godhood, and you will die.”
The Old Testament is not always quite as clear about whether an individual soul might survive death. God promised Abraham and Sara descendants, a people, who would carry on their name and memory forever, but not that they themselves, necessarily, would live forever. But here and there in the Old Testament, hints and rays of light break through about hope for the eternal life of persons—and not just a people–such as in Psalm 23, “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Here, in Isaiah 25, is the first Old Testament suggestion of eternal life for people of all the nations of the earth, the Gentiles.
What was a barely whispered hope in the Old Testament becomes a resounding symphony of resurrection joy in the New Testament. Those glints and glimmers of hope beyond the darkness of death now break forth into the glorious light of that Resurrection Sunday dawn which we celebrate today. What Isaiah foresaw, the Risen Jesus now demonstrates powerfully, convincingly: that death is fleeting; life is forever. God, through Christ, has taken upon himself our death, so that we might take upon ourselves his eternal resurrection life. And so does God swallow up death, which swallows up every human life.
Dying is still scary; death still packs a sting that lingers for the survivors. The pain of each loss can return at odd, surprising moments, catching us off guard with waves of grief, like sneaker waves at the Oregon coast. But at the empty tomb, the lamb of God has defanged and declawed the lion of death, so that it can no longer keep its prey. In the empty tomb we see the fate and the future of that shroud of death which covers the nations: like the grave cloths lying empty in that empty tomb, so will the oppressive shroud of death rest and remain over no one.
Therefore, because the oppressive shroud of death has been torn and lifted by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, every life counts, and for keeps. No one is forgotten. As long as “the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever,” then so does every person endure forever. To God, no life is ever meaningless nor worthless, and no name is forgotten, not even those of the three unknown travelers lying under those barely perceptible mounds in that Kansas pasture these past 170 years. They still have names, and those names are known to God. On the day when we shall know as we are known, we too will know those names. As C.S. Lewis said in a sermon: “You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
Because the oppressive shroud of death is torn and lifted by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we also can trust that every act of love toward every person counts. None are fruitless nor forgotten, for they all contribute to the formation of an eternal soul, the shaping of a timeless identity, soon to be revealed and revered forever in their own resurrection.
Let this truth give us confidence and courage in the face of chronic disease and disabilities, and in the waning stages of life, either our own or those of our loved ones. In such stages and ages of life, it’s common to wonder, “What am I good for anymore?” or “Why am I still here? Am I more of a burden than a blessing to my family and my community?”
Family, friends and caretakers also experience the frustration of knowing that there is little to nothing we can do to fix the problems of anyone’s disease, disability or dying. But we must not seek the meaning nor the value of our lives only in what we can accomplish, accumulate, or contribute. Whatever care and love we share with another person, even if they cannot remember our names nor our visit five minutes later, we still have been in the presence of an eternal someone, and not just a sufferer of a disease or a difficulty. We are all infinitely and eternally more than that. The Resurrection promise of eternal life tells us that no one is without value or dignity, and no life is without worth or meaning, however short or hard it might be this side of the grave.
Someone named Jim Fowler wrote a poem about his experience caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, in which he said:
At heaven’s gate
where all the leaves
of lost memories are restored,
they WILL remember
all the loving fragments, melodies, touches,
prayers, and tales by which you loved them.
Angels will sing, dance and shout,
Sensing your love in these loved ones’ joys
I suspect that angels will sing, dance and shout also because of who and what we become by showing such love with another eternal child of God who will outlast and overcome all difficulty, disease and disability by the power of Christ’s resurrection. Just as no person is lost nor forgotten forever to death, not a whit of our love for anyone will be lost nor wasted to death, either. Our acts of love will build everlasting monuments, greater and more enduring than any skyscraper or any bridge bearing our names. That’s what Easter’s empty tomb tells me.
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ has exposed and broken all the idols, the ideologies and the instruments of death, and their ownership of us, their mastery over us. Let us trust our lives, now and forever, to the One who conquered death, who will wipe all tears from our eyes. He is lifting from us the shroud of death that covers all nations, just as he left his own grave cloths behind in an empty tomb.