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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

The Lamb Will Be Their Shepherd

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For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their Shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17).

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

Each year, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday. Fittingly, all our readings today give us insight to the relationship we have with Jesus as sheep and Shepherd and the benefits of that relationship.

Our Gospel takes place during the Feast of Dedication, also called Hanukkah, the Jewish national holiday celebrating the purification of the temple by Judas Maccabaeus in December 165 B.C. Jesus was walking in the temple area near Solomon’s colonnade. It offered some protection from the winter’s cold. The Jewish religious leaders encircled Jesus and asked Him point blank: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

Sad to say, they didn’t really want to know the truth. What Jesus had already told them, what He had done, and the way He lived in His Father’s name were clear evidence that He is the Christ. But they did not want to believe. Similarly, today, many people claim to want to know exactly who Jesus is, yet they ignore His own words and ways. “You do not believe,” says Jesus, “because you are not among My sheep.” Those who are not among God’s chosen flock turn deaf ears and blinded eyes to Jesus.

In contrast to such unbelievers, Jesus’ sheep hear His voice. He knows them and they follow Him. The relationship between Jesus and His followers is intimate, personal. And because He is the Christ, the Son of God, the relationship is eternal. He gives His sheep eternal life. They will not perish forever. No one can snatch them out of His hand.

What words of comfort for you and me! We are secure forever with Christ Jesus. Our security is locked up with the Father in heaven. No one can take us from Jesus’ hands because that would mean seizing us from God the Father’s hands. And no one can do that. What is true of the Son also is true of the Father.

Jesus’ words are clear. He is from God. He is the Son of God. He is God. He is the Christ. “I and the Father are one,” he concludes.

It’s not enough to gather from His words only that He and the Father think alike or have a harmonious relationship or treat His sheep alike. Jesus is speaking of being one essence with the Father, of being God. And that’s exactly how Jesus’ enemies understand Him. To them, Jesus’ words sounded like blasphemy, so they pick up stones to carry out the penalty described in Leviticus for blasphemers. Their hatred and anger cannot be contained. They are ready to ignore the legal need for a trial. They are ready to carry out capital punishment even though they know by law that only the Roman government has that authority.

But no one will take Jesus’ life. He will lay it down of His own accord when the time is right. And He will raise it again. He will give His sheep eternal life, and they will never perish, and no enemy will snatch them out of His hand.

Jesus, in our Gospel, warns of enemies from outside of the Church; Paul, in our First Reading, warns of those from within—false prophets, fierce wolves. He encourages the undershepherds of Ephesus, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the Church of God, which He obtained with His own blood.

Paul understands that a preacher must answer to God for the message he preaches or fails to preach. By saying, “I am innocent of the blood of all,” he is expressing his confidence that no one will go to eternal death because Paul has failed to preach the truth to him.

God’s will is that all men turn in “repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” All the teaching of the Bible and all true preaching centers in this. To alter any of God’s Law or God’s Gospel is to misrepresent God’s will. To say more or to say less than God’s Word says can make a pastor guilty of someone’s blood, make him the cause of someone’s eternal damnation.

Shepherds feed and lead the flock. Pastors feed and lead the Church of God. The Holy Spirit has made them overseers, supervisors, for that purpose. As undershepherds, pastors are to guard themselves and the whole congregation. Paul uses the picture of a flock because he is thinking of the Good Shepherd who gave His life for the sheep, the God who bought the Church “with His own blood.”

That is a striking expression, so striking that some copyists and editors and commentators have tried to change it. That’s unfortunate. The phrase, “God’s blood,” reminds us that when God became man, He did not stop being God. As the God-Man He is not two persons but one person. What the Man did God was doing. What belongs to the Man belongs to God. When Jesus’ blood was shed, God’s blood was shed. When God bought the Church, He did it with His own blood.

The savage wolves of whom Paul speaks are false prophets of the same kind Jesus warns about in Matthew 7:15: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” No church anywhere at anytime can be complacent about the possibility of false teachers. Wolves kill sheep. False teachers kill souls. That is why we take our doctrine and practices so seriously. Though some misunderstand it as mean-spirited or intolerant or arrogant, it is actually most loving—a matter of eternal life and death.

False prophets generally do not come from outside but arise from within. They do not oppose the truth in a straightforward way and say that it is false. Rather, they distort it. They use the right words but twist and pervert them. Such lies and distortions must be opposed and exposed with the truth of God’s Word.

Who can keep the pastors faithful in their work and protect the Church from the savage wolves? Only God. How will God do that? Through the message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. The Word proclaims God’s grace, imparts God’s grace, and keeps us in God’s grace. That Word will make us grow to Christian maturity and gives us a share of the blessings that God has for His saints.

Paul knows that he will not always be there to help the Ephesians, but God with His Word will help them as He has even while Paul is there building them up in the eternal inheritance the Lord Jesus has prepared for them by His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. So He does today in God’s Word written through the prophets and Christ’s apostles and spoken by His undershepherds, His called and ordained servants. Listen to Him!

In our Gospel, Jesus tells us, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” Then He promises: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand.” In Revelation, St. John gives us a sneak peek at the eternal life in the new heaven and earth where the Lamb will be the Shepherd forever.

The people in the great crowd which John sees before the throne of God in heaven are coming out of “the great tribulation.” That crowd represents the whole Church as if it is already triumphant, as if it is already complete, as it will be at the resurrection at the End.

The crowd of saints comes out of the great tribulation victorious because they have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Because of the redeeming death of Jesus Christ, the crowd of people stands pure and holy in the presence of God. With sins forgiven by the blood of Christ, and covered now with the righteousness of the Lamb, they share in the victory of the Lamb before the heavenly Father. They stand before the throne of God and “worship Him day and night” (Revelation 7:15).

The one who sits upon the throne “will shelter them in His presence,” literally, “spread His tent over them, the same word used in John 1:14, when the Word became flesh, He “tented” among God’s people. It could be that, in using this word, God is condescending to our human understanding of existence and manner of speaking. But more likely, the word is used to direct attention to the fact that God’s people, raised from the dead will live intimately in the flesh with God in the new heaven and new earth, and in a familial, intimate way, He will dwell with us in a manner that can be experienced also with the human senses. And because God will tent among His saints in heaven, “they shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore” (Revelation 7:16). All our greatest needs will be taken care of!

As we reflect on what John saw and heard, we can’t help but be comforted with this thought: God always keeps His promises. John sees the final end of God’s promises concerning His people at rest in the presence of God and the Lamb, never again to be pained by the harshness of life we formerly experienced it in our earthly existence. In our new life with God, the Lamb “will be [our] Shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water” (Revelation 7:17).

This relationship between God and His people, as pictured by His being our Shepherd, was revealed so beautifully in the 23rd Psalm. Throughout the Old Testament, the Lord promised His people that like a shepherd He would look after them in order to rescue them and care for them. In order to carry out this Word, God then promised to provide His people with a shepherd. The promised shepherd would be His servant, born in Bethlehem from the seed of David. In the verses, preceding our Gospel, Jesus identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd.

Now in our text, John sees and hears the final outcome of these promises. The Shepherd of the Lord has been provided. By His death and resurrection, the servant David has rescued God’s people. As their Good Shepherd He tends the flock, caring for them and leading them through the great tribulation to “springs of living waters—eternal life—already now on earth, then in heaven with God, and finally forever in the new heaven and new earth.

A final truth describes the rest and the peace of the crowd of saints before God’s throne in heaven: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17). Tears and laments are part of the experience and character of the faithful people of God while on earth. Tears are shed over one’s sins and the sins of others, over the ruin and sufferings experienced by others, over one’s own afflictions, when confronted with God’s anger, when alone and in sorrow, at death, and at other times of sadness.

In this life the shedding of tears is as much—at times even more—the experience of Christians as are joy and laughter. But it is the gift of God’s grace to turn the weeping and sorrow into joy, for He has promised a day when “the Lord will wipe away tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8). John now sees the complete and final fulfillment of this promise of God. The final word describing the peace and joy of the saints before God in heaven says it all: “and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The Lord is your Good Shepherd. You hear His voice through His Word and follow Him. He feeds you on the green pasture of His Supper, His own body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. No one will ever snatch you out of His hand. The Lamb will be your Shepherd forever. 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.