This sermon is about the book of Revelation, specifically chapters 4:1-8:5, but more about what we feel when our minds wander to that book’s supposed subject. When we hear apocalypse we think endings, we think things that are incomprehensible, and we fear. But all of that is exactly the opposite of the purpose of the book. The purpose of the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ is assurance. The purpose is so that we know. And in the middle of the tribulation – not the fear induced popular “they left me behind” tribulation, but life in this fallen world – Christ is revealed and what he has done for his saints, the full number of them. This sermon is about that unveiling.
It is both All Saints Day and two days before a presidential election. As I pondered the texts for today I was struck by the polarity between our current expression of the City of Man, illustrated by the Presidential race, with the vision of the City of God seen by John.
From the one: Democracy, division, sickness and racial strife. From the other: The Kingdom, unity, shelter in the presence of God and rightly ordered allegiances.
This sermon reflects on what parts of this are available for the Saints at warfare in the midst of the tribulation, and what All Saints at rest look forward to.
The day on the Christian Calendar was All Saints (Observed). Actual All Saints is November 1st. The point of the day is slightly different depending upon the tradition you are in. In a Roman Catholic tradition it is about all the minor saints which might not have been celebrated. In the Lutheran or Protestant traditions it is more about a celebration of the church at rest, and how the communion of saint continues to help the church at warfare. In the Roman tradition that is straightforward – invocation or prayer directed toward the saint. In the Lutheran tat is not the case. Instead the saints become for us living examples. Examples of faith and of life. Lives worthy of thanksgiving. This sermon asks the question “What is a Saint” and explores their role in our lives.
Who is a Saint is an interesting question. The typical answers I think fall into three categories.
a) Anyone we loved who has died. This is the generic or default answer. It is either just being nice or an unthinking universalism.
b) All those who have faith in Jesus. This the “Protestant” answer.
c) Those displaying heroic virtue. This is the “Catholic” answer.
All of these are bad answers, and all of them have a bit of the Truth. On All Saints Day (observed) this sermon attempts to ponder that question and why each one of those is a bit wrong. It also attempts to think about what a better answer would be. It then encourages us to take action in our lives. The theological engine is the distinction that Luther drew between passive and active righteousness. Passive is our righteousness before God. Only God can make saints. Active is our righteousness towards our neighbors. A tree, or a Saint, is recognized by their fruits. The sermon attempts to hear and sort and apply the word to our lives in Christ.
Today was All Saints (observed) on the church calendar. In Lutheran circles All Saints is not a celebration of some spiritual elite but the celebration of the church in all its dimensions – the church militant, the church at rest, and the longed for church triumphant. Given special notice are those who have entered rest in the past year of the congregation’s life. Because of this juxtaposition of those of us still struggling and those at rest, as well as its position toward the end of the church year, it opens itself to a meditation on our now and not yet existence. Now we are children of God; not yet do we fully know what that means. That is John’s writing. We see the Love of God, but every time we see it, it is met with challenge. Satan challenges it, the world refuses to see it, and even our own weary flesh can challenge what has been revealed to us. God loves us. When Christ appears, we will be like him in glory, in that resurrection body. We know this because we’ve seen it, or have accepted the witness of the apostles. That is what we know by faith and by hope. And because we hope, we live into that not-yet reality now. “We purify ourselves as he is pure.” No, we will not always be successful. But blessed are those who hunger for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
Biblical Texts: Rev 7:9-17, 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12 (All Saints Day) Full Sermon Draft
All Saints Day officially was Nov 1, but we observed it today. It is one of those festivals or celebrations that I do every thing I can to raise its profile. In my strange head it should be The Lutheran festival. Roman Catholics reserve saints for institutionally proclaimed brand names. The various flavors of reformed observe a strict separation of the communion of saints and attempt not to use the word for the most part. It is the Lutheran church that both holds up the great and the local as witnesses of the faith, and only a sacramental church can maintain anything but historical connections with the church at rest. Just some stray thoughts roughly in line with the Augsburg Confession on the Saints.
The sermon itself does three things. It examines one perversion and one mistake in the witness that have hurt the church in the last generation. The primary effect is the eclipse of the cross, but you could also say that it is the movement of sovereignty of God to us. It then proclaims what I think is the consistent witness of the saints – today the cross, tomorrow the crown; the offerings of the world pale in comparison to the life in Christ regardless of its temporal trials. It concludes with the challenge of the middle section of the beatitudes. Are we willing to live life in this world according to the way of Christ? The saints did. The saints do. Are we knights of faith? Is the story of the church, the witness of the saints compelling and binding on us?
Worship note: I left in the recording two hymns. LSB 677, For All the Saints, is a great hymn that tells the full story. And I left in our concluding hymn, LSB 662, Onward Christian Soldiers. In think the progression of hymns reflects the message. We gather to remind ourselves of who we are and what our story is. Then we go out to live it. Onward until our day of rest.
Nurse Kaci Hickox is a fascinating sign, an almost perfect illustration of this age. What looks like heroic compassion combined with staggering amounts of narcissism and selfishness.
Keying off of her invocation of her rights, this sermon puts forward the beatitudes as a “Kingdom Bill of Rights”. Unlike our typical invocation of rights, which are always about justice for us, the Kingdom rights point always toward God or toward our neighbor. They are costly. They are love. And they are what Christ has done for us.
Being All Saints celebration, this sermon then meditates on how the saints serve the people of God as lights in dark places and tells the story of a couple such lights.
Note: the choir between the First and Second readings of the day is our Children’s Choir.
“To those who know a little of christian history probably the most moving of all the reflections it brings is not the thought of the great events and the well-remembered saints, but of those innumerable millions of entirely obscure faithful men and women, every one with his or her own individual hopes and fears and joys and sorrows and loves — and sins and temptations and prayers — once every whit as vivid and alive as mine are now. They have left no slightest trace in this world, not even a name, but have passed to God utterly forgotten by men. Yet each one of them once believed and prayed as I believe and pray, and found it hard and grew slack and sinned and repented and fell again. Each of them worshipped at the eucharist, and found their thoughts wandering and tried again, and felt heavy and unresponsive and yet knew — just as really and pathetically as I do these things. There is a little ill-spelled ill-carved rustic epitaph of the fourth century from Asia Minor: — ‘Here sleeps the blessed Chione, who has found Jerusalem for she prayed much’. Not another word is known of Chione, some peasant woman who lived in that vanished world of christian Anatolia. But how lovely if all that should survive after sixteen centuries were that one had prayed much, so that the neighbours who saw all one’s life were sure one must have found Jerusalem! What did the Sunday eucharist in her village church every week for a life-time mean to the blessed Chione — and to the millions like her then, and every year since then? The sheer stupendous quantity of the love of God which this ever-repeated action has drawn from the obscure Christian multitudes through the centuries is in itself an overwhelming thought.”
— Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (1945)
All Saints on the Christian calendar is a “High Holy Day”. In Roman Catholicism it has a very clear purpose – the remembering of All Saints which are those who have official church recognition. In Lutheranism, or Protestantism in general, it sometimes seems to be a day looking for a firm meaning. Some Lutherans just bring over the Roman Catholic idea which they are free to do following the Augsburg Confession article 21. Some, perhaps most, let it pass without mention other than singing the Hymn For All the Saints, which is one of the strongest in the book. As such it can be a gauzy day sometimes bordering on ancestor worship. My take has been to turn All Saints into a festival of the church akin in Pentecost with a slightly different focus. Pentecost tends to focus on the Work of the Holy Spirit which often turns to missions. All Saints turns more to the result of those missions – the life of the body of the church. The hymns hold before us mostly the vision of either the church at rest (those who have died) or the church triumphant (the New Jerusalem). The missing element is often the church militant i.e. us. So that is what I try to do with All Saints, remind or meditate on the now and the not yet of the life of the church. Now we are the Children of God. But the fullness of the Kingdom is not yet made manifest. Not even for the Church at rest who continue to ask “How Long?” (Rev 6:10). The goal is to see the unity of the church in Jesus Christ.
This sermon, because it is John I grumble, flips the normal outline. Paul and Lutherans are much more comfortable experiencing our fallen nature and sin and looking to Christ as our savior. A progression of law to gospel. John holds a vision before our eyes. We are now the children of God. Any troubles we have, the existential problems that cause Paul and Luther anguish, are mere trifles to John and that vision. He doesn’t deny them, but each time turns our eyes back to the prize which is God. That is what this sermon attempts to do. And that view might actually make more sense for a day when you are admitting new kids to the sacrament. With Paul or Luther, once you find a solution to the existential problem, the pressure can be off so to speak. (Insert joke about confirmation and bats.) With John we are never at the manifestation of the vision in this life. We experience the now and the net yet of the Christian life more fully. The joy which is now ours and the pain of it not yet being completed.
So, I’ll admit this is dense, but I also think it is worth of listen or a read. The saintly calling of vision and endurance in the midst of the great multitude.
Zombies are real, I see them every day. In fact I am often one myself. Until I can put down those appetites and rest. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who recognize their inability to fulfill their appetites…theirs is the the Kingdom of Heaven. Want to get the full story, read or listen to the sermon.