October 29, 2017

All Saints Day

Deuteronomy 34

Psalm 90


Photographs that go back at least 40 years in the history of the church were shown on the screens.

Friends, from these photos, we can see how much our church has changed in its more than 75 years of history. The building has definitely changed. The church had moved from one location to another and, along the way, has made some changes to the current building. The people have also changed. Different people, from different backgrounds, have come and gone.

But there is one thing that is constant, even though it is not obvious in those photos. That one thing is God’s mission in and through our church. All the people that we see in the photos, and all of us today, are parts of God’s mission to bring salvation to the world.

But God’s mission will not stop existing after we are gone. God’s mission involves not one generation only, but many generations. Our generation is only one generation in the long arch of the history of God’s salvation for the world. There were many generations before us and there will be many more generations after us who will take part in God’s mission for the world.

We hear this message in the story of Moses being forbidden to enter into the promised land, which is our reading today from the book of Deuteronomy. The story was probably one of the most moving stories in the Bible. Moses ‘survives’ the last four books of the Torah, or the Pentateuch, which is the first five books of the Bible. He is present prominently in the Torah as the central figure besides God. Of all the people who deserved to enter into the Promised Land, Moses should be first amongst them.

Yet, this great leader was not allowed to enter into the Promised Land and could only see it from a distance. The task to lead the people of Israel in the Promised Land was to be given to a new generation of leader. Moses had ‘successfully’ freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and guided his people through the dangerous journey in the desert. But the task ahead of the people of Israel was of a different nature and it needed a different generation of leader to deal with it.

Indeed, God’s salvation is a mission that is beyond anyone’s lifetime. It stretches way back into anyone’s past and forward into anyone’s future. It involves many generations, with each generation faces its own challenges.

This is the declaration of faith that we also find in our reading today from Psalm 90, which is the only psalm that is attributed to Moses in the book of Psalms. Now, it doesn’t mean that Moses himself wrote the psalm. The psalm was linked to Moses because it fits easily into Moses’ particular circumstance. Just like Moses, the author of Psalm 90 seemed to face a situation that compelled him to reflect on the brevity of his life.

Again, after God, Moses was the most important character in the first five books of the Bible. Yet, this dominant figure must accept the fact that he wouldn’t play any part in the next chapter of God’s mission with God’s people. Moses had become the leader of Israel for more than 40 years; and 40 years of leadership was not a small achievement. But to God, 40 years is just like a breeze.

Indeed, the author of Psalm 90 likened human’s life to a dream that appears briefly in someone’s sleep, or like weeds that sprout in the morning and die in the evening. (The weeds in my yard are different unfortunately. My weeds sprout in the morning and stay alive ‘forever’, multiplying into a myriad of baby weed.) He reminded himself and his readers that they were all merely dusts, nothing more. He wanted us to reflect that everything that we achieve, everything that we desire, must be put within the context of our brief existence. We won’t be here forever. We are here only for a short time.

In contrast, God’s presence stretches from eternity to eternity. In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Psalm 90 opens with this declaration in verse 1:

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” God is a refuge not for one generation only, but for all generations. And by saying ‘all generations’, the author of Psalm 90 didn’t mean only the generations before him, but also the generations that would come after him.

Today we are to commemorate All Saints Day, which is usually held on November 1. But because November 1 falls on Wednesday this year, we commemorate All Saints Day today.

All Saints Day is the day when we remember all the saints who have passed away before us. In the Roman Catholic tradition, Saints are those people who have been canonized by the Church. They are special individuals with spiritual gifts who play important spiritual roles in their life as well as in their death. In the Roman Catholic Church, not all people can be called saints; only certain individuals deserved to be called saints.

But in the New Testament, the word saint was used not only for people with special gifts or roles in the Church, but for all who followed Christ. The word saint is derived from a Greek word whose basic meaning is to “make holy” or “set apart”.[1] In the Old Testament, the people of Israel was called to be holy, to be set apart, just like God was holy. In the same way, in the New Testament, all Christians were called to be holy, to be set apart; in other words, to be saints.

Many authors of the writings in the New Testament called those who dedicated their lives to Jesus’ teachings as saints. For example, six of the letters that was written by Paul were addressed to saints.[2] So for us, All Saints Day is the day we remember not only particular individuals, but all people of faith who have gone before us. Today, we will expand the commemoration to include all people whom we have lost.

All Saints Day, therefore, connects us to past generations (especially those who were responsible for the giving and nurturing of our faith). But it also connects us to the future. Just like Psalm 90, All Saints Day reminds us of our brief life. Today, we are the ones commemorating, but one day, we will be the ones commemorated. One person, who used to play significant role in the church, once said to me how easy it is for someone to be relegated into the history book.

But one thing remains: God’s presence. Generations have come and gone, and more will come and go, but God will still be here as God has always been. God and God’s mission for the salvation of the world is the common thread that connects all generations into one single story.

So, friends, today we are reminded that we are just one chapter in a book that God is writing about the world. There are many chapters before us and there will be many more after us. One day, we too will have to pass on our ‘mantle of faith’ to the generation who will come after us.

The Church doesn’t have a mission. Its mission is God’s mission and God will work with the next generations to continue God’s mission for the world. We may never witness the conclusion of God’s mission. Just like Moses, we ourselves may never arrive in the ‘Promised Land’, but the journey towards it will continue, with or without us.

Friends, we all are here only temporarily, not forever. We are here only for a short while and soon, others will take over from us. Our role in God’s mission is not eternal. But let’s not let this lead us to disappointment and despair, but to wisdom and maturity, doing the best that we can for the glory of God and God’s Kingdom now; and trusting God and the next generations to do the rest.  

Toby Keva

[1] Saints Definition and Meaning in Bible Dictionary (www.biblestudytools.com)

[2] Saints Definition and Meaning in Bible Dictionary (www.biblestudytools.com)