Sermons, Uncategorized

For All the Saints

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Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 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” (Revelation 7:13-14).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Today we observe All Saints’ Day. This day is a little bit different from other saints’ days we might celebrate in the Church. On other days we identify and commemorate one particular saint, such as St. Matthew or St. John. Just who are we commemorating on All Saints’ Day? Well, all the saints; but who are they?

Traditionally, someone is called a saint who has lived an exemplary life of faith. Most of the people we call saints have been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, which teaches that saints have lived so well that they have merited a superabundance of grace from God and have earned God’s favor so much that they can transfer a little of that grace and favor to you.

A process of canonization is followed. In the Early Church period, the process was not very well defined. Now, however, there are specific rules to follow before declaring someone a saint. First, the person has to be dead for at least five years. That counts any of you out! Then, once the person has been dead for the requisite period, there are a series of investigations to see just how virtuous the hoped-to-be saint actually was. If these investigations turn out favorably, the documentation is turned over to cardinals and bishops who take a vote on whether to proceed or not. Finally, there must be at least one miracle performed by the dead saint-to-be before the examination is completed, and one miracle performed after! As you can see, it takes quite a bit of effort to become a saint according to Rome. You can’t stop working at it even after you’re dead!

Those who have studied the lives of some of the people who bear the official title saint very quickly discover that the saints, while extraordinary in terms of their faith and life, were also flesh and blood people who were at heart sinners. In addition to showing generosity to children, St. Nicholas was a staunch defender of the doctrine of the Trinity, but that zeal for the faith was carried too far when he reportedly punched an opponent in the nose. As Lutherans, we do look to the saints as examples of faith and Christian living, but we’re careful not to ascribe more to them than is right. None of them merited anything before God but were what they were because of the grace of God toward them.

There is only One who has actually merited the favor of God. There is only One who has earned the right to the title saint. That One is Christ Jesus. And He, had done it for you and me—for all the saints!

Today you heard the  Beatitudes. Many teach that the Beatitudes are primarily rules for how you should lead your lives as Christians. Some even teach that if you try really hard, you can actually live up to them. Taken that way, the Beatitudes are pure Law; they condemn and give no hope, for none of us truly live up to such standards. All of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And, even if we manage to general keep lesser angels of our nature in check, our mouth has still uttered hurtful and untrue words, our heart is still fill of sinful thoughts.

But the Beatitudes are not so much Law as they are rich Gospel because they properly describe everyone who is incorporated into the One who earned the title saint. They don’t so much give us a roadmap on how to become a saint, but describe who we are, even now, as someone washed in the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. The Beatitudes are a description for all the saints!

Let’s review the Beatitudes with this mind.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). Who is poor in spirit but the soul incorporated in Him “who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6–8). Christ cried out in poverty of spirit, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46).

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4). Who has mourned but the soul incorporated in Him who mourned, not over His own troubles but over the unbelief of His people? Christ came to comfort His people as their Savior, but He was, in the words of Isaiah, “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). He grieved over Jerusalem, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matthew 23:37).

Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:5). Who is meek but the soul incorporated in Him who as King entered Jerusalem, “Humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9)? Christ said of Himself, “I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). He gained that rest by enduring the Passion, silent before His executioners.

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6). Who has hungered and thirsted, but the soul incorporated in Him who did all things that righteousness might be fulfilled? Christ endured the cross “so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:21). He became, according to St. Paul, “Our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).

Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful” (Matthew 5:7). Who has been merciful, but the soul incorporated in Him so dedicated to mercy that, according to Hebrews, “He had to be made like His brothers in every respect, so that He might become… merciful” (2:17)? Christ mercifully healed and forgave all who called upon Him in faith, even from the cross crying out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what to do” (Luke 23:34).

Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart” (Matthew 5:8). Who has been pure in heart, but the soul incorporated in Him so pure that, again from Hebrews, “In every respect [He] has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (4:15)? For the pure love of others, Christ sacrificed Himself, as Paul says, “He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9). Who has made peace, but the soul incorporated in Him who made our peace with God? According to the Benedictus, Christ came “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79). He said to the disciples, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you” (John 14:27). According to Paul, “He Himself is our peace… through the cross… He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (Ephesians 2:14, 16-17).

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matthew 5:10). Who has endured persecution, but the soul incorporated in Him who was perfectly righteous yet condemned? Because Christ was righteous, He became the target for the world’s hatred; He was threatened with death from all sorts, from Herod to the Pharisees of the Sanhedrin to Pilate.

To Christ belong all blessings. And so, to the soul incorporated in Christ also belongs the blessings! To the believer in Christ belongs the kingdom of heaven, the comfort of salvation, the inheritance of the earth, the fullness of righteousness, the mercy of the Father as exhibited in Christ’s righteousness, the mercy of the Father as exhibited in Christ’s resurrection, the right to see God, the right to be called a child of God. Indeed, great is the reward in heaven for the soul incorporated in Him who “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and… upholds the universe by the word of His power. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrew 1:3).

Jesus lived the perfect, holy, righteous life you and I could not and would not. Jesus, the Lamb of God, died on the cross as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world—yours and mine, included. Jesus sanctified the grave and gave us Sabbath rest with His own three-day rest in the tomb. Jesus rose from the dead, giving us the certain hope of the resurrection of our bodies to eternal life on the Last Day. Jesus ascended into heaven and sits at the Father’s right hand interceding for us and reigning over all things the sake of His Church, the communion of saints, even as He is always with us in His means of grace as He promised. One day, Jesus will come back in glory, for all the saints, to bring us to live with Him in His kingdom forever.

Christ’s saintliness is proven by what He has done. (And yes, Jesus even did several miracles after He had died!) And now this One who earned the right to be called saint also calls you holy. Jesus, by His grace, makes you a saint and all of the blessings He has earned He now gives you. They are for all the saints.

We have a description of what it really means to be a saint in today’s First Reading from Revelation. Note how the people are described. First of all, there are lots of them, not just those who went through canonization or even those who led particularly exemplary lives. These, we are told, are saints because they have washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb. The blood of Jesus has removed their iniquities in Holy Baptism, and they have been clothed with His own sanctity and righteousness.

Now, having been cleansed, they dwell in the presence of Christ, who provides them with eternal blessing and consolation. These are victorious in Christ. All that was arrayed against them—their sins, death, the devil—are destroyed and removed by Jesus. Now they carry the palm branches of His victory.

This, dear Christians, is a picture not only of heaven but also of you here in the Church on earth. Already our Lord has sanctified you in the waters of Baptism, dwells among you in His Word and Sacrament, and bestows upon you in His Word and Sacrament, and bestows upon you the victory over your enemies. You may not feel like a saint yet, but in God’s eyes you are, for you have faith in Christ Jesus, His Son, who has saved you and made you holy.

Oh, you don’t see it yet—you don’t appear that way. Neither do you see Jesus yet in all His glory—rather, He cloaks Himself in His Word and Supper to give you forgiveness and purity again. For now, this is something that cannot be visibly observed or measured, but only seen through the eyes of faith.

It won’t always be like this. One day Jesus will come back for all the saints. Jesus is coming back in glory for all to see. You haven’t seen Him revealed in His holiness and glory yet. But you will. You will see Him as He is, the glorious Son of God who took on flesh and died for you. And then, as one redeemed and forgiven, you’ll be exposed for who you truly are even now for Jesus’ sake.

You’re pure.

You’re a saint.

You’ve washed your robe and made it white in the blood of the Lamb.

You’re one of God’s children, now and forever.

Because you are forgiven for all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.  

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Sermons, Uncategorized

Blessings and Woes

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And [Jesus] lifted up His eyes on His disciples, and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

“Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.

“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.

“Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”  (Luke 6:20-26).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

So, is it better to be dirt poor or filthy rich? Horribly hungry or completely satisfied? Racked with grief or bubbling with laughter? Hated by all or liked by all? The answer seems simple enough: You don’t find a whole lot of self-help books on how to ruin your portfolio, devote yourself to starvation, make your life more tragic, or how to make an enemy out of everyone. These are mostly things that happen quite naturally if you don’t help yourself.

Yet, when Jesus preaches to His disciples in our Gospel lesson, He declares that it is a blessing to be poor, hungry, weeping, and hated. Even more startling, He declares that it is a woe to be rich, satisfied, laughing, and of good reputation.

What is He saying? After all, He poses the same words to you. So, is it better to be poor or rich? Hungry or satisfied? Grief-stricken or joyful? Hated or loved? The purpose of this sermon is to answer these questions, and we must answer them in two ways—the way of the Law and the way of the Gospel.

First, the Law. There’s no doubt about it: Jesus declares blessing to the poor, hungry, weeping, and reviled; and woe to the wealthy, satisfied, happy, and popular. Part of this is because Jesus is declaring to the people that things are not as they appear. Those who are successful in the world aren’t necessarily blessed by God; and those who suffer all sorts of misfortune may still have His eternal favor.

For instance, He says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”; and on the other hand, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”

Wealth has its share of temptations, to be sure. In order to gain riches, one might have to resort to all sorts of sinful practices: Ignore wife and children, worship the job, take the credit for the work of others, and work for the ruin of your competitor, just to name a few. The road to wealth is littered with all sorts of ways that make it necessary to ignore the Lord’s commandments.

Once wealth is achieved, the road is hardly any more sanctified. Those who have riches may well put their trust in them and reject the Lord’s grace. Or they may spend so much time with their luxuries that they have no time for the Lord and His Word. Those who fall prey to the temptations of riches will certainly face God’s wrath and woe. The poor will not be so tempted if they have no wealth.

Likewise, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied”; and, in contrast, “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.” A full stomach was hard to come by in Jesus’ time; and although we take it for granted, a full stomach on an ongoing basis is still a sign of wealth in this world. In a nation where news broadcasts spend far more time dwelling on diet plans and the dangers of gluttony than hunger and famine, this is a woe to take seriously.

With this blessing and woe, Jesus again warns against the peril of placing worldly luxuries—in this case, food—over and above obedience to Him. The hungry are not tempted to dwell on a full belly if they have no food to fill it with.

And again, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh”; and “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” Ours is certainly an age where people seek out entertainment and pleasure, where mourning and weeping are to be kept in a closed room because death is too much of a downer. Jesus issues the warning that those who devote themselves to a pursuit of worldly pleasure, and in doing so ignore repentance and confession, will face God’s wrath and woe.

And once again, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.” And on the other hand, “Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”

The Lord says, time and time again, that His message of sin and grace will be rejected by the world; so it panned out for the prophets. Therefore, one who enjoys immense popularity with the world probably isn’t being faithful to Christ and His Word. The one who is rejected is far more likely to be the faithful one.

So, with these four blessings and four woes, the Lord warns against the dangers of wealth, a full stomach, laughing, and popularity. He explains why the one who is poor, hungry, grieving, and rejected is blessed.

But we know that it’s not that easy. Some people are poor because they’re just too lazy to hold down a job, or because they’ve done some incredibly foolish things that have cost them their livelihood. Furthermore, while those who are poor don’t suffer from trust in wealth, they may certainly be afflicted with covetousness and envy for what others have—and perhaps resentment toward the Lord. The Lord doesn’t bless foolish choice, felonious behavior, or slothfulness, does He?

Some will mourn and be sad because by their sinful choices, they’ve completely ruined their lives. They may be saddened out of guilt for harm brought to others. Is this what the Lord chooses to bless? I don’t think so. And, frankly, some people are unpopular because they’re rude, boorish, and/or irritating. When people supposedly speak ill of them, they are only saying what is honestly true.

Clearly, then, Jesus is not saying that those who are poor are more righteous in God’s sight than those who are wealthy. Both have their sins and vices to deal with. The idea that all poor people are noble and all rich people are evil is in keeping with the writings of Marx, Lenin, and Mao—not God’s Holy Word. Scripture clearly indicates that all people are born with the same sinful nature.

Well, then, perhaps the Lord is telling us that we need to make sure that we don’t become too rich, too satisfied, too obsessed with pleasure, or too popular. Look for moderation, in all things as Benjamin Franklin suggested. This is closer to the truth, but this is still Law. And in the end, you will find no comfort there.

Let me try to illustrate where this line of thinking leads: It says, in effect, that Jesus warns against the perils of wealth, and so we’d better be careful about wealth and accumulating wealth; and isn’t it a good thing that we’re not filthy rich? But please note: Jesus never stipulates how rich “rich” means. I daresay that we’re not exactly a wealthy bunch. But compared to the slums of Calcutta or the shantytowns of Central America, we’re doing quite well. Are you sure that you’re poor enough to be blessed with the kingdom of heaven? Are you sure you’re not rich enough that you haven’t already received your consolation?

Jesus warns against the perils of a full belly, and these are words to take seriously in a land where throw out as much food as we consume. So we may well respond that it’s a good thing we’re not gluttons who live only for the next meal; but are you sure you’re hungry enough to be blessed? Are you sure you’re hungry enough, and not too satisfied now?

Likewise, Jesus warns against those who laugh now, who pursue pleasure and ignore the fact that this world is under the curse of sin. We may well respond that unlike those unbelievers, we certainly realize our need for forgiveness. But, be honest. Don’t you still delight in some of the worldly entertainment and luxuries? Are you sure you mourn the state of this world enough to be blessed?

And as we’ve spoken of just recently, we can expect that, as a congregation and as individuals, some will be offended at us for the Gospel that we proclaim. On the other hand, there are no picketers outside calling for the dissolution of St. John’s/Our Saviour’s/Trinity Lutheran Church. We’ve certainly not faced the threat of imprisonment or martyrdom for the faith. Are you sure that we’re proclaiming the Word purely enough to invite the rejection that the prophets faced? Are we excluded enough by the world to be included by Christ and His blessing?

No, you won’t find much comfort in the Law of God. The Law declares that you are to be poor, hungry, sad, and rejected to be blessed by God. But it doesn’t stipulate a level. Just how poor, hungry, sad, and rejected do you have to be? You never can tell, can you? That’s the purpose of the Law, to accuse you, to leave you in despair—to make sure that you know you can’t trust in you, to realize that your salvation must come from outside of you.

“Pastor, we’re well aware that we’re not saved by our works—we’re not saved by being poor or rich, but by Jesus. It’s Him that we need.” And in saying that, you are absolutely right. In fact, that is exactly what Jesus is saying with this Gospel lesson, when we answer the questions according to the Gospel. Who has been perfect in all that He does? Only the Lord Jesus, of course. He has been perfectly poor, perfectly hungry, perfectly mournful, and perfectly hated.

As far as poverty hear this Good News from St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 8: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.”

Taking on human flesh is enough of a step down for the Son of God; yet He stepped even lower in that He was born to poor parents and grew up to be a Man with less of a home than foxes or birds. He became even more poverty-stricken, for He exchanged His perfect righteousness and holiness for our sin at the cross, and suffered God’s judgment for us there. Jesus became perfectly poor for you.

As far as hunger, remember Christ’s wilderness temptation. Not only did Jesus go hungry, but He did so while constantly tempted by the devil; and throughout those forty days, Jesus remained perfectly sinless. Why? So that He might remain the perfect sacrifice for your sin. Jesus was perfectly hungry for you.

As far as mourning, Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, for He knew the wages of sin. Likewise, He lamented for Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37) because they had rejected God’s Word and stoned His prophets. The Lord Jesus grieved the sinfulness of man and mourned death—so much so that He died in our place so that He might raise us up from the dead. In other words, Jesus’ weeping was perfect, for He wept over sin even as He delighted in doing His Father’s will.

And reviled? Spoken ill of? “Here is a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners,’” His enemies charged. “He deceives the people,” they said. “You are demon-possessed,” they shouted. “Let Him be crucified!” the crowd cried to Pilate. So reviled was Jesus that the crowd demanded that a insurrectionist be spared and the holy Son of God be put to death. Oh, yes: At the cross He was despised and rejected by man—and forsaken by God for our sin. Yet perfect in His love, He prays that His Father would forgive them.

Do you see? Throughout His life and journey to the cross, Jesus is perfectly poor, hungry, mournful, and reviled—and perfectly sinless. And, therefore, perfectly blessed. And at the same time, at the cross, He suffered all of God’s woe for all the sin of the world. Now, if only He’d take away your woe and give you His blessings. Oh… but that’s exactly what He does, isn’t it?

Hear this Good News of woes and blessings: The Savior takes away from you and the Savior gives. The Savior takes away your sin and suffers its woes on the cross. He becomes the perfect Sacrifice whose blood is shed so that you can be forgiven. But even as the Savior takes away your sin and woe, He credits you with His blessed sinlessness. He shares His merit with you, so that you might be holy and blameless in the eyes of God.

How can you be blessedly poor, hungry, mournful and rejected?

You can’t—not by your own works, reason, or strength. But on the cross, the Lord gives you credit for His perfect obedience, and His merit covers up your sins. Thus St. Paul writes in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

If Christ dwells in you with the forgiveness of sins, then He brings with Him all the blessings He has earned for you. And you can be sure Christ dwells with you. When you were baptized, He joined you to His death and His life, sharing both with you. By His Word proclaimed, He continues to dwell among you. And at His Supper, He puts His body and blood into you for the forgiveness of sins. Are you baptized? Do you hear the Word? Do you receive His Supper? Then you can be sure—Christ dwells with you, and so every blessing of His is yours.

If you and I are to seek perfection by being poor enough or sad enough or enough of anything, we will never reach perfection, but face only woe. That is the message of the Law.

But the Gospel declares this: Blessed are you, because your Savior Jesus Christ has been perfectly obedient in your place, and covers you with His merit now and forever. He takes on your woes and gives you His blessings.

In other words, blessed are you: Because you are forgiven for all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.