Festival of All Saints – Vicar Anderson sermon
Text: St. Matthew 5:1–12
In Christ Jesus, who has blessed you His Saints, by His all-powerful Word on behalf of all He has accomplished for you, dear fellow redeemed:
To our world a blessing is something you can see with your eyes or grasp in your hands. The world measures blessings by the amount of success or wealth someone has or the amount of popularity they have. People don’t boast about their failures, instead professional athletes and prominent politicians only boast when things appear to be going well for them. To consider oneself blessed when that clearly doesn’t appear to be the case would be foolishness to them.
On this All Saints Sunday it is fitting for us to hear what it actually means to be blessed. Today we remember the Lord’s saints, all those in the faith who have gone before us to their heavenly home, all of us here on earth continuing in the good fight of faith and all those after us who will complete the race. Today we hear in what we often call the Beatitudes that the Lord’s saints are blessed in a far different way than the world tends to think.
Jesus taught the people saying (Matt. 5:1–2), “blessed are the poor in spirit,” those who lack spiritual resources on their own and must depend on someone providing these resources for them. “Blessed are the mourning,” the ones saddened by their sins, dealing with the consequences of their own poor choices. “Blessed are the meek,” the gentle and submissive, those who are pushed around and imposed upon.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst,” people searching because they recognize they lack what they need. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” This means that those who are blessed are people like you and me.
In the eyes of the world the Lord’s saints look anything but blessed. They think we are fools because we put our faith and trust in something we can’t see or grasp. This can impact our way of thinking and seep into how we as Christians look at our life. We are tempted to begin searching for evidence of blessings; if we can’t feel them then they must not be there.
We start to base the objective truth of our blessings from Christ upon our subjective emotions, which wax and wane day-by-day, or even moment-to-moment. We feel happy one moment and feel like the world is crumbling all around us the next. This only causes us to question God. Our troubles in life feel more like God’s abandonment than His love. We start to doubt whether or not God is good, because how could a good God allow such turmoil and trouble to inflict us?
Some Christians believe that blessings come only to those who earn them. They tell us, “good things are coming your way, work harder, keep God at the center of your life and things will be better,” believe stronger, think more positively and the Lord will bless you, you’ll see.” Well, what if things don’t improve, or what if they continue to get worse? That is why this is a false kind of gospel.
Christ never promises that we will have a comfortable earthly life if we follow him, in fact His Word tells us to expect the opposite. St. Peter writes, “beloved do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” (1 Peter 4:12–14)
What if the happiness and goodness of life depended on our efforts or the strength of our faith? Imagine if forgiveness depended on our loyalty to God, or the proof of our faith was dependent on our obedience to God’s Law. What kind of a life would that look like for us? It would be one full of angst and regret, one of uncertainty and doubt, the definition of a truly un-blessed life!
Thankfully this is not how our merciful God wants us to live. Instead He wants us to look outside ourselves to our Savior on the cross of Calvary for the certainty of our happiness and goodness in life. To see that Jesus was tempted in every way like us but did not sin; He suffered grief and insult in His life yet remained silent. We share in His sufferings and He in ours. Even more God abandoned His own Son on the cross, suffering the eternal agony of hell, so that you and I would never have to.
Jesus’ perfect life and His atoning death are the source of your blessed life. He does not meet you halfway, instead Jesus went the whole way. He lived with perfect and complete obedience to God’s Law in your place, always faithful to God the Father. Your Lord does not say, “if you do this, I will do this,” His grace is not conditional, it is a promise already kept for you.
The Lord has created His saints by declaring you forgiven of all your sins. He forgives the moments you doubt His goodness and the times you are convinced He has abandoned you. He forgives selfishness in the times of your success, when you give Him no honor for His help and guidance. He forgives the times you get stuck staring at yourself instead of looking to Him.
In order for us to look to Christ it first requires us to despair of ourselves and recognize how powerless we are against sin and the devil. We must in repentance acknowledge that we are helpless and lack the ability on our own to resist sin. The Lord’s saints hate their sin because it stands in the way of enjoying all the blessings He has given them.
We look to Christ who did what God required of all of us, but what we were unable to do (Romans 8:3–4). Christ is not another lawgiver; the Beatitudes are not a new law. Jesus tells us He came to fulfill the Law by His life and death—not to abolish it or add to it (Matt 5:17). Jesus is the one who has cleansed us from all guilt and shame and God blesses you on account of that fact, not on account of anything you do.
We His saints still struggle with sinful thoughts and sinful actions and want to do better but we can’t do it on our own. St. Paul knew this well, he writes, “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:18–19).
Jesus did not abandon St. Paul and He does not abandon you. He has provided the means to continuously uplift and sustain you. God brought you to faith and now He continues to shower grace upon you through His Word and Sacrament. The Lord forgives us our sin, strengthens us and keeps us in His embrace. We kneel at the rail communing with all the saints in heaven and on earth where He distributes forgiveness to us in the Lord’s Supper, freely giving us eternal salvation and a renewal of life.
Jesus opens His mouth and the Word that comes out from it effects change. The same Word of Christ that made water into wine makes the poor in spirit rich in spirit. You are no longer spiritually poor; He has supplied everything for you. The same powerful Word of Christ that raises the dead to life turns sinners into saints and the unblessed into the blessed. It has the power to quicken those spiritually dead to a new life in Christ. This new life starts here but continues on for you in heaven.
Jesus tells you, “great is your reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:12). There He gives you a reward of immortality and infinite wealth. He has reserved a place for you where there are many mansions (John 14:2). Even greater than all of this, after your resurrection from the grave you will dwell both body and soul in the glory of your Savior, in His fullness and without end. “Rejoice and be glad” (Matthew 5:12), because all of this has been given to you.
The Lord has blessed you by His resurrection. His resurrection is proof that God the Father has accepted the sacrifice on the cross. It is a declaration of righteousness and forgiveness over all people. God declares you righteous on account of His Son’s life and death, which overpowers death and hell for you. His resurrection means that God no longer sees you as a sinner, but as a saint.
God’s wrath is not directed at you; instead His loving face shines upon you. You hear these words of the Lord spoken over you every time the benediction occurs in church. “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious unto you, the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24–27).
God’s face is like the warmth of the sun upon you. It sends beams of sunshine into a heart in need of salvation, making it a recipient of His grace. Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes that because of God’s grace you are blessed no matter what circumstance you find yourself in. Jesus gave Himself for you so that a rich supply of goodness would pour down to you from God’s good favor.
The Lord never ceases to speak His Word, in order that you who are called His own might gladly hear and forever hold firmly to it. When your time comes you will join the host of saints in heaven, arrayed in white, who rest from their labors in everlasting blessedness.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
+ + +
(picture from “The Sermon of the Beatitudes” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Festival of All Saints – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Every year when we observe All Saints’ Day, we have the custom of singing one hymn in particular. The hymn is about 250 years old, and for many years you could count on singing it at funerals in Norwegian Lutheran churches. This hymn is “Behold a Host, Arrayed in White,” and we will sing it again today. The first stanza of the hymn is based on the first part of today’s Epistle lesson from Revelation 7. Here the apostle John describes what he saw in his vision of heaven:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
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.” (ESV)
Now in these days of social distancing and small crowds, it seems strange to see old video footage of football stadiums and concert halls full of people. The same thought might have struck you when you heard about the “great multitude [in heaven] that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” What a glorious scene! Unlike the Tower of Babel when the peoples were divided and moved away from each other, now God’s people from all over the world and all across time are brought together.
There are no enemies in this great multitude, no cultural or language barriers, no socio-economic differences. These people are one, both regarding their status before God and their purpose in His presence. This oneness is emphasized by their common clothing. They are dressed in flowing white robes, perfectly clean. One of the elders in heaven explained to John how the robes got so uniformly white. He said, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
Now that is the strangest bleach we’ve ever heard of! How could blood ever make clothing whiter? Because it is not just any blood, it is “the blood of the Lamb.” This refers to the fact that no sin stains the believers in heaven. They stand pure and holy before God because Jesus shed His blood to wash away their sins.
This is why they now sing joyfully “before the throne and before the Lamb.” They hold palm branches in their hands like the crowd that greeted Jesus on Palm Sunday. On that occasion the people cried, “Hosanna!”—“Save us, we pray!” And now the saints rejoice in the salvation won for them by crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
They sing together one song with one voice, the only song worth singing. They sing the song of their salvation through the God-Man Jesus. He is the Lamb enthroned in heaven. He has won the victory for them over sin, devil, and death. By faith in Him, these saints have now been translated from the troubles of the world to the glories of heaven. They have come out of “the great tribulation,” and now join the angels and the elders and the four living creatures in the praise and worship of their Lord.
We sing the first stanza of hymn #553, which tells us about this “host, arrayed in white,” who “in the flood of Jesus’ blood / Are cleansed from guilt and blame.”
Behold a host, arrayed in white,
Like thousand snow-clad mountains bright;
With palms they stand. Who is this band
Before the throne of light?
Lo, these are they, of glorious fame,
Who from the great affliction came
And in the flood of Jesus’ blood
Are cleansed from guilt and blame.
Now gathered in the holy place,
Their voices they in worship raise;
Their anthems swell where God doth dwell
Mid angels’ songs of praise.
We wish we could be there with the saints and angels in heaven, or at least get a temporary taste of their joy. The elder speaking to John explains what the saints have now that they are in God’s eternal presence:
“Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. 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.”
Here the contrast between heaven and earth is described. In heaven there is no more hunger or thirst. No one is overcome by weariness or weakness. No harm is done by the sun and scorching heat. The sheep are not without a shepherd. No tears fill their eyes.
But the opposite is true on earth. On earth there is trouble, pain, sorrow. “[A]ll tribes and peoples and languages” are not united here. Here there is division—sometimes deep division—within the same community and even the same house. Instead of loving their neighbor as themselves, many decide to just love themselves. They view any challenge to the way they think as a great offense. Those who do not share their ideas are the enemy, who do not deserve to be treated with respect. We see these attitudes so clearly in our tense social environment.
And we are just as guilty of these divisions and troubles as others are. We have hated our enemies and cursed those who persecute us, when Jesus tells us to love them and pray for them (Mat. 5:44). Often our hardships on earth are self-inflicted. Because of our sin we bring trouble and pain on ourselves.
But other things happen simply because we live in a fallen world. Sometimes we get sick or injured. Eventually we will die. It may not be your own death that causes you the most anguish. It may be the death of a loved one, or even just the thought of having to live without someone you rely on for so many things.
We feel powerless in the face of death. We do not control who it strikes or when. It has always been this way since the fall into sin, but we are perhaps more aware of it this year than in years past. No matter what we do, no matter what measures we take, we cannot escape death.
But there is still hope! There is one who entered death and emerged from it again. A Lamb was snatched by the great jaws of death—easy prey, easy victory! But no! This was no ordinary Lamb. It was the Lamb of God. Jesus died in your place, so that death could not hold you in its terrible jaws. It is true that you will die, unless Jesus returns before it happens. But you will not stay dead. You will rise again. Your Savior will come and call you forth with a shout, and you will rise up to Him with glorified body clothed in the white robe of His righteousness.
That is your comfort today as you remember all who have gone on before you, whether parents or grandparents or siblings or children or friends. You will see the faithful departed again, and “God will wipe away every tear from [your] eyes.” We sing stanza two of the hymn:
Despised and scorned, they sojourned here;
But now, how glorious they appear!
Those martyrs stand, a priestly band,
God’s throne forever near.
So oft in troubled days gone by,
In anguish they would weep and sigh;
At home above the God of love
For aye their tears shall dry.
They now enjoy their Sabbath rest,
The paschal banquet of the blest;
The Lamb, their Lord, at festal board
Himself is host and guest.
God wanted John to write down what he saw in heaven so you and all believers would be comforted. He knows what trials and troubles you face here on earth. He knows how easy it is to become disheartened by the wickedness and sin you see all around you and that you also find inside yourself. He promises that these struggles are only temporary, while the bliss of heaven is forever.
In this text from Revelation, the Lord gives you a glimpse of the life to come. He shows you that you will not be alone in heaven but will be surrounded by a great multitude that cannot be numbered. That means you are not alone here on earth either because there are many around the world who confess Jesus as their Savior from sin.
While you are here, God calls you to stay close to Him by hearing His Word and partaking of His Sacraments. These are the means by which He strengthens you and keeps you steadfast in the faith. He also gives you the courage to let the light of His truth shine in your life, “so that [others] may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mat. 5:16).
You won’t carry out these callings of God perfectly. You are still a sinner. Sometimes you will only stumble along, and sometimes you will fall—hardly the picture of a holy child of God. But the blood of the Lamb was poured out for all of your sins. All of your wicked thoughts, all of your self-inflicted wounds, all your doubts—all of them are forgiven by the merciful God. You can meet death and the grave with confidence knowing that nothing stands between you and God’s grace. You are reconciled to God the Father because of the perfect life and the holy death of His only-begotten Son.
When you hear John’s account of the saints in heaven and when you sing today’s hymn, picture yourself among that great Host, Arrayed in White. Look forward with confidence and joy to the day when you will join that holy choir, holding palm branches, gathered around the throne of the holy God. You will be numbered with those saints because you have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. Your place in heaven is reserved, where you will sing the song of salvation for all eternity. We join together in the third stanza of the hymn:
Then hail! ye mighty legions, yea,
All hail! now safe and blest for aye;
And praise the Lord, who with His Word
Sustained you on the way.
Ye did the joys of earth distain,
Ye toiled and sowed in tears and pain;
Farewell, now bring your sheaves and sing
Salvation’s glad refrain.
Swing high your palms, lift up your song,
Yea, make it myriad voices strong:
Eternally shall praise to Thee,
God, and the Lamb belong.
+ + +
(picture from “Seventh Seal and 144,000 Sealed” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Festival of All Saints – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 5:1-12
In Christ Jesus, whose righteousness and blood have opened the way for us to heaven, dear fellow redeemed:
Parents spend a lot of time telling their children to “stick with it,” because “the hard work will pay off.” It may be in reference to schoolwork or practice for a particular sport. Or maybe a child has taken on a job that is harder than he realized. He feels like quitting, but his parents urge him on: “Stick with it! You can do this!”
As we get older, the problems of life get more complex and serious, and we don’t always have the cheerleader in our corner urging us and helping us to “stick with it!” We feel as though the burden on our shoulders is more than we can carry. We feel like no one understands our troubles. Close relationships break apart, and we don’t see how they could ever be repaired. Our best efforts fail, and we are at a loss for what else to try. We imagine that there is no good solution to the difficulties we face.
Such feelings of helplessness are symptoms of life in a fallen world. In this world, righteousness and justice do not always win out. Kindness, love, and respect are not always returned. Wrongs are not always righted. Hard work is not always recognized. Sacrifices are not always appreciated. And the Gospel of Christ’s redemptive work is rejected by a great many.
It is because of the trials believers face in this world that Jesus spoke today’s words of comfort. His list of “Beatitudes” begins His “Sermon on the Mount,” which spans three chapters in the book of Matthew. Though some try to turn Jesus’ words into a creed for social justice, His words address spiritual and not social challenges.
The first blessing is for “the poor in spirit.” It is for you who recognize your spiritual bankruptcy. By nature, you have nothing good to present to God, nothing to offer that could make you acceptable to Him. You confess yourself to be a “poor sinner,” who can only “flee for refuge to [God’s] infinite mercy” (ELH “Confession of Sin,” p. 41). While despairing of yourself, you have the same confidence as the psalmist: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17).
The second blessing is for “those who mourn.” It is for you who regret the wrongs you have done and are sorry for them. As much as you would like to take back things that you have done or said, you know that you cannot do this. And so you look to your merciful Savior. The hymnist Paul Gerhardt expressed this hope beautifully, “Rejoice, then, ye sad-hearted, / Who sit in deepest gloom, / Who mourn o’er joys departed, / And tremble at your doom; / Despair not, He is near you, / Yea, standing at the door, / Who best can help and cheer you, / And bid you weep no more” (ELH #94, v. 6).
The third blessing is for “the meek.” It is for you who have known injustice and unkindness, but who humbly commend your “body and soul and all things” into God’s loving hands (Luther’s Morning & Evening Prayers).
The fourth blessing is for “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” It is for you whose soul pants for God like a ragged deer searching for flowing streams. It is for the soul that thirsts “for the living God” (Ps. 42:2). The world is a spiritual desert, so you long for the spiritual oasis of God’s Word and Sacraments where your spirit can be refreshed and strengthened.
The fifth blessing is for “the merciful.” It is for you who take the burdens of others upon yourself by offering help and encouragement and by praying for them. You do not love your neighbor perfectly, but God is pleased by even your humble efforts. No good word or kind deed goes unnoticed by Him.
The sixth blessing is for “the pure in heart.” It is for you who want to live a God-pleasing life, who want to follow His will. You recognize that your heart is not pure like it should be, and you trust that God will graciously create “a clean heart” in you and “renew a right spirit” within you (Ps. 51:10).
The seventh blessing is for “the peacemakers.” It is for you who want to establish and keep peace not by compromising the truth, but by speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:25). You gently and patiently bear with others in love because you are “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).
The eighth blessing is for “those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” It is for you who are attacked for doing and saying the right thing. You willingly endure criticism and ridicule for your beliefs, because your trust is in God. You believe that nothing “will be able to separate [you] from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).
The ninth blessing is for “you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account.” You know what it is like to have lies told about you, or to have unkind assumptions repeated about you. When these hateful words are spoken against you because of your confession of Jesus and His Word, you have the promise of God’s unchanging love and compassion for you.
As you have listened to the list of those to whom Jesus Gives His Holy Blessings, you might think that some of the descriptions apply to you, but some do not. Maybe you do feel “poor in spirit,” but you have not been much of a “peacemaker.” Maybe you have been “mourning” about your sin, because you have not been very “merciful.”
But here is the comforting truth: Wherever we have lacked righteousness—which is in every aspect of our lives—Jesus substitutes His perfection. All of our pride, our me-first attitude, our lack of mercy toward others, our inner uncleanness, our reluctant faith—all of it is covered over by the righteousness of Jesus. When God looks at His children by faith, He does not see our sin; He sees the holiness of Jesus. This is why we are called saints even while we bear a sinful nature in this sinful world.
Today, we remember the saints from our churches who have entered the church triumphant within the past year. We remember Edna, Godfrey, Mavis, Eunice, and Stella. It is common in our culture to speak about the dead as though they had reached perfection on this earth. The five people we remember today would not want us to do that. They knew their sin just as surely as we know our own sin. But they were saints on earth by faith in Jesus, and now their souls are in heaven, unencumbered by any pain, sorrow, or trouble.
They are part of the great host that we heard about in today’s Epistle lesson. They are among the countless number of saints “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9-10). We are glad for them, but we miss them. And we find it harder to face the troubles of this world without them.
This is why Jesus promises the blessings He does in the Beatitudes. To you who are “poor in spirit,” Jesus gives “the kingdom of heaven.” To you who “mourn,” Jesus gives comfort. To you who are “meek,” Jesus gives the inheritance of all things. To you who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus fills you with His holy food and drink. To you who are “merciful,” Jesus bestows His mercy. To you who are “pure in heart,” Jesus leads you into the glorious presence of God. To you who are “peacemakers,” Jesus calls you His brothers, the sons of God. To you who are “persecuted,” Jesus gives you the peace of heaven. To you who are reviled and lied about, Jesus gives you the eternal reward of Paradise.
These blessings are yours by faith in Jesus. You are among the suffering ones that He describes here. He is telling you that He understands your sorrow. He understands your pain. He understands the loneliness of life in the fallen world. If anyone knew these troubles, He did. He was despised and reviled and persecuted by all people in order to win for sinners the eternal riches of God.
This Lord who suffered on your behalf is now with you in your suffering. No matter how much it may feel like it at times, you are not alone. Jesus is here for you as you struggle through. He “opens His mouth” and speaks comforting words of forgiveness and healing to you through your pastor and other Christian friends. And He addresses your spiritual weakness by feeding you with His holy body and quenching your thirst with His precious blood. Jesus Gives His Holy Blessings Even to You.
This does more for you than a motivational “Stick with it!” or a “You can do this!” Instead Jesus says, “I can do this, and I have done it. All that you need, I have given to you. All that is Mine is yours. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” By faith in these promises, we will one day be free of all our troubles and will join those saints above, that joyful host clothed in white robes. Then together we will worship the Lamb, our Savior, forever.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
+ + +
(portion of “The Sermon of the Beatitudes” painting by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Festival of All Saints – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 5:1-12
In Christ Jesus, who has opened the kingdom of heaven to all who trust in Him alone, dear fellow redeemed:
An athlete being interviewed after a victory might say with a smile that he is blessed to have the talents he has. The family sitting around the table at Thanksgiving might list all the good things they share. And you, when you look around at your neighbors, might think to yourself how blessed they are and wish you could have the blessings that they do.
When we think about “blessedness,” we imagine happiness and good fortune and success. But that is not how Jesus speaks about it in today’s text. He says that even those who mourn and those who are persecuted are blessed. How can this be? Well which would you rather have: riches now or riches forever? joy now or joy forever? peace now or peace forever? Of course it doesn’t have to be an either/or. God often gives His children riches, joys, and peace both now and forever. But often is not always.
It can be very difficult to see the blessing in a job lost, in a relationship broken, or in the death of a family member. These things feel more like a curse to us than a blessing. We might even express as much to God. “God, why did You let me get fired?” “Why didn’t you fix my relationship?” “Why didn’t You heal my loved one?” We are troubled by the knowledge that the Lord is all-powerful, and yet does not help us in the ways we want. Is it because He is uncaring? Is it because He is punishing us for some reason?
God does not promise that we will understand the reason for every trial we experience. He does tell us that some trials are given to train us in Christian discipline, “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Heb. 12:6). St. Paul writes that with this in mind we can even “rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Rom. 5:3-4). Whatever the reason for our trials, we remember the promise from God that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (8:28).
Everything works out for good “for those who love God.” But how can you and I know that we love God enough? If the standard is what Jesus lists today in the first part of His “Sermon on the Mount,” we have all fallen short. Jesus says that “the poor in spirit” are blessed, but we are often proud and boastful. “The meek” are blessed, but we are often self-centered and glory-seeking. “Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” are blessed, but we hunger and thirst the most for earthly goods that do not last. Then there are “the merciful,” “the pure in heart,” and “the peacemakers.” It is not hard to think of where we have failed in those areas too. So if these behaviors that Jesus outlines are required for blessedness, how could we ever hope to be blessed?
On your own, you can achieve and gain things that are counted as blessings in the world. You can take a job that suits you. You can get married and have a family. You can make a good name for yourself. You can buy a house and nice things to go in it. But these are all earthly blessings. They are yours for a short time, and then they are left behind. The blessings Jesus refers to are spiritual blessings that benefit you not just here in time but on into eternity. They are blessings that you cannot get on your own. They must be given to you. And before they can be given to you, those blessings had to be won.
When Jesus presented His list of beatitudes, He knew full well that no one could perfectly live up to them. That doesn’t mean it was a waste of time to speak them. It is important for sinners to know the righteousness that God requires. It is important to be reminded that even our best efforts do not come close to what God commands. But the Bible is clear that our salvation does not depend on our own righteousness. It depends on the righteousness of Jesus.
Did Jesus meet the standard of God? Let’s see. Was He poor in spirit? Did He mourn for the lost? Was He meek? Did He hunger and thirst for righteousness? Was He merciful? Was He pure in heart? Was He a peacemaker? Was He persecuted for righteousness’ sake? Each of these beatitudes describes a different part of Jesus’ active obedience. They describe how He humbled Himself and willingly endured all sorts of injustice in His quest to save sinners. Because of His perfect life, Jesus was blessed before God and given the kingdom of heaven.
But the Son of God did not become Man to win this reward for Himself. He came to win it for you. He lived a perfect life for you so that you would inherit heaven, so that you would be comforted, so that you would receive mercy, and see God, and be called His own sons. But how do you get these blessings? How do you know they are yours? Jesus says, “Blessed… are those who hear the word of God!” (Lk. 11:28). And He says, “Blessed are those who… have believed” (Jn. 20:29). You receive the blessings of God, not by your own works or good behavior. You receive the eternal blessings of God by His Word alone and through faith alone.
Today we are remembering the members of our churches who have entered the church triumphant within the past year: Harvey, Art, Maxine, Jim, Hilda, Jean, and Vera. Adding up their ages nets a total of well over 600 years and an average of almost 90 years each. If we totaled the blessings we received from knowing them throughout their lives, it would be a very lengthy list. But the blessings they received from God are uncountable. From the time of their baptism until their dying day, the Lord poured out upon them His grace and comfort, His righteousness, forgiveness, and life – always and only through the means of grace.
The Lord does the same for you too. By His powerful Gospel, He sustains and strengthens your faith, so that the benefits of Christ’s perfect life and atoning death are continually credited to you. Through faith in Him, Jesus’ righteousness is given to you as though you had produced it yourself, and His cleansing blood is applied to you as though you had paid for your own sins.
If you lived before the Reformation, your priest probably would have told you that you must make satisfaction for your own sins. He would have also reminded you to do what you could to help the souls of the deceased get out of purgatory. How might this be done? By making pilgrimages to various holy sites and relics, by purchasing indulgences from the pope, by sponsoring private masses in the name of a loved one, and so on. But how could human works ever satisfy a person’s great spiritual debt?
The righteousness that counts before God could never come through your works. It must come through faith, faith in Jesus who accomplished everything for you. In Him you are declared to be a saint, or holy one, of God. You are counted as one who is innocent, sinless, pure. Everything God demands of you, He freely gives you. So when Jesus talks about the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers – He is describing you, because you are in Him, and He is all those things.
What this means is that you are blessed. Blessed Are You even when you mourn and suffer persecution. Blessed Are You even when everything seems to be going wrong, because “the kingdom of heaven” is yours in Christ. All of your earthly blessings can be taken away from you, but the spiritual blessings of God are eternal. This is why Jesus says, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things—all you need in this life—will be added to you” (Mt. 6:33).
The Lord is not uncaring about your troubles, nor should you assume He is punishing you when something bad happens to you. If you as a Christian experienced no trouble in the sinful world, that in itself would be a cause for concern! We will have trouble here, because we are only temporary inhabitants of this world. Our true home is somewhere else. St. Paul writes, “[O]ur citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20).
When Jesus returns visibly in all His glory, He “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (v. 21). Then we will look like the saints that we already are in Christ. Then we will inherit the eternal blessings that we already possess but do not yet fully enjoy. Then we will live under the Lord in His heavenly kingdom, “and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness” (Explanation to the Second Article). What a blessing that will be!
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
+ + +
The Festival of All Saints – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 5:13-16
In Christ Jesus, whose “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5), dear fellow redeemed:
It is quite a view to look at America from outer space, particularly at nighttime. The eastern half of the country is peppered with light, as is the west coast. You can tell from the concentrated circles of light where the larger cities are, and you get a sense of just how many people there are in our country.
In today’s sermon text, Jesus says that His followers are “the light of the world.” Imagine if believers in Christ actually glowed with light. How would that look from the night sky? Would the most concentrated number of believers be in America, or somewhere else in the world? How closely would the number of self-proclaimed Christians match up with the people of light?
When Jesus calls us “the light,” of course He is not referring to a visible light, but to the faith that glows within us. Our faith is unseen. But our actions are seen by others. We give glory to God by living according to His Commandments. But we dishonor Him when we break His Commandments. This is why Jesus Calls Us to Be the Holy Ones We Are. We are already counted as righteous before God by faith in Him. But we also want to live holy lives so that more around us are drawn to the light of Christ.
A lot of emphasis is placed on being unique these days, on being your own person, no matter what crazy or deviant behavior this might include. But in reality, all people by nature are the exact same. They may look different on the outside, they may have different personalities, but they are no different on the inside. They are driven by sinful desires and walk in spiritual darkness. God describes this darkness as the world of “orgies and drunkenness… sexual immorality and sensuality… quarreling and jealousy” (Rom. 13:13). Spiritual darkness blinds sinners to what is good and holy, and it feeds hatred and all sorts of wickedness (1Jn. 2:9-11). Jesus said, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (Jn. 3:19-20).
Believers in Christ no longer walk in this spiritual darkness. They do not conform to the world, but are transformed by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 12:2). Some say this happens when a person opens his heart to Jesus and lets the light of God’s grace shine in. But if we are lost in the darkness of our sin, there is no getting ourselves out. Our spiritual darkness is like being left alone in a pitch-black cave deep in the heart of the earth. Trying to escape this darkness through our own efforts ultimately makes us more lost and confused than we were before.
Only God can rescue a sinner from spiritual darkness, and He does it by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word. 2 Corinthians 4 says that God “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (v. 6). Jesus came as a bright light into the dark world. His holiness and goodness were so blinding that many covered their eyes and would not see or listen to Him (Jn. 1:10-11). The devil convinced them that it would be better to remain in their self-righteousness than to repent of their sins and entrust themselves to Christ. But some did repent by the power of God and received Him by faith (v. 12). They were reborn into the kingdom of light.
You also have been blessed with spiritual rebirth. You “were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (v. 13). By the powerful working of the Holy Spirit, you were delivered from the dark womb of the world into the light of God’s truth and grace. When you were baptized in God’s holy name as a child or heard the saving Gospel later in life, the Lord “called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1Pe. 2:9). He changed the trajectory of your life and your future in the most dramatic way possible. You became His child by faith in Jesus and were made an heir of His eternal kingdom. God turned you “from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to [Him],” and He gave you “forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith” (Ac. 26:18).
All of this is because of what Jesus did for you. “I have come into the world as light,” He said, “so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness” (Jn. 12:46). In Jesus, you no longer have to fear what the devil may do to you or what will happen to you when you die. The guilt of your sin does not need to weigh you down anymore. You broke God’s law by failing to perfectly love Him and your neighbor, but Jesus fulfilled it. He lived a holy life for your sake. He also destroyed the power that sin, death, and devil had over you by going to the cross as your Substitute and rising again from the dead in victory. This is why God now counts you among the saints, “the holy ones.” By faith in Jesus, that is what you already are. But is that how you live?
Probably the worst thing someone could say to us after knowing us for a few years is: “Oh, I had no idea you were a Christian!” We would have to wonder what we had said and done that made this such a surprise. Was it because of the way we lived, engaging in immoral and unethical behavior? Was it because of the language we used, including the frequent misuse of God’s name? Not that we have to give a personal testimony of our faith in Jesus to every stranger we meet. If you have met people like that, you know that this is a little awkward. But the people around us should notice something different about us, even if we do not talk about Jesus.
I suppose a person could say about this that they never signed up to be a “poster-child” for Christianity. “There are better people to talk about and represent Jesus than me,” they say. But God did not put someone else in their position in life with their particular experiences and acquaintances. He called that specific person to be His child and to live for Him. The Lord does not favor one Christian over another. He says to each one: You are salt, so be salt. You are light, so be light. Why? Jesus says, “[T]hat they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Since God has chosen you as His child, He has chosen you to be His representative. He wants others to learn about His love through you. That is after all how you came to faith, through the example and testimony of someone else.
This is why it matters how you live your life. You want others to see what God has done for you, how His love has changed you, what His forgiveness has meant for your life, the sure hope you have of life after this one. But if the way you live and act is just the same as the unbelievers around you, what does this say? The Apostle Paul writes, “[F]or at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light” (Eph. 5:8). We feel the pressure of what Jesus asks of us. Sometimes we just want to fit in and live free of the law like non-Christians do. But this isn’t actually freedom. It is slavery to darkness where there can be no true hope or joy.
And yes, as a Christian, your actions will be closely watched by the people of the world. If they can catch you trying to pass the blame for your sin, or getting puffed up with pride, they will conclude that Christianity is just what they thought all along—a waste of time. But if they see your humble attitude and hear you repent of sin and offer forgiveness to others, they will be faced with something totally foreign to them, something strange—and yet something hopeful. It is at those times that they may ask you to tell them more about Jesus.
The history of the Christian Church is filled with weak and cowardly sinners, whom God called to be His holy ones. You are not the first one to wonder why God chose you, or how He could ever use someone like you for His good purposes. But sinners like you are just the instruments God wants to use to proclaim His saving Gospel. You are something the world needs because you have something the world needs. This is why Jesus calls you “the light of the world.” He has brought you and many others out of spiritual darkness, and has filled you with the light of His grace. When the light of your faith shines, it is the light of Jesus that people see.
None of us is really up for this responsibility that Jesus gives us, to be salt and light in the world, to be His representatives. But God knew what He was getting when He called us to be His own. He was not looking for “super saints” who already had their lives in good order. He was looking for sinners, and He found us. We are the ones God loves. We are the ones He chose in His Son. We are the ones who live in the light of His salvation.
The world cannot see this light, and neither can we. But what we cannot see with our eyes, we know by faith. We know that we are not alone in this dark world, because there are many brothers and sisters in Christ around us. We also know that God keeps His promises. He promises to be with us and strengthen us in this life, and He promises to take us to live in His heavenly kingdom. Already, many saints have been translated in spirit to heaven, where they await the resurrection of their bodies on the Last Day.
It would be quite a sight to see God’s children glowing with light on earth, if we could see this from the night sky. But imagine if we were able to look up and see the saints in heaven above. They would be countless like the stars. And one day you will “share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col. 1:12). You will be joined to that number by God’s grace, and then you will be exactly what you are—holy in God’s sight forever.
+ + +