Jesus has promised us, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”1 Do you see? He said, he meant it. He has not left us on our own. He has brought us into His Kingdom in the waters of Baptism and keeps and guards us through the preaching of His Gospel and the forgiveness of sins found in Holy Communion. Jesus tells us to “straighten up and raise your heads” even though we deserve the opposite, for we should by all accounts be looking for a place to hide and withdraw. But He not only commands us to straighten and raise our heads, He makes it happen through His love for us which He poured out on the cross in His blood. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight.”2 God is getting ready to bring that final release and deliverance, our rescue from sin, death, and devil, the fulfillment of all our hopes and all His promises, to its glorious end on that last day. Remember and keep this in your heart always: “your redemption is drawing near,” for your salvation is nearer to you now then is was yesterday.
The Sadducees do not understand, they cannot see the kingdom of God. They believe that what is perishable cannot put on imperishability, that what is mortal cannot put on immortality. Jesus in His very person shows us otherwise. Those who are in Him will indeed rise again from the dead, raised to imperishability and immortality in a new body, to be with Him forever in a new heaven and new earth. Do you know what the leading cause of death is? Being born. And we who are born in the flesh will all face that day, but for the Christian born of water and Spirit we do not face death without the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. This is a promise not just for the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. No, this is a promise also for you. God’s promises do not have an expiration date. All the promises of God have their “Yes” and their “Amen” in Christ. So this is a promise for you, you who believe and are baptized.
So this age is most assuredly not the age yet to come. There is something much better. Therefore we are waiting in hopeful expectation for Christ to return in glory. But He has not left us on our own, for even in this waiting we have the means of grace to establish and strengthen our faith. “38 Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.”1 In Holy Baptism you were made alive and continue to live in repentance and faith. Today we receive His very Body and Blood, and in this eating and drinking we have the promise of the new life yet to come – we “live to Him,” He who was raised from the dead.
I think you can tell most of what you need to know about a church and about what they believe, teach, and confess in that church by attending a funeral service. Watch what happens in the service. Hear what the pastor says, look at what he does. A funeral tells you so much because it deals with the most fundamental questions of life and death, of salvation and eternal destiny, of who God is and what his relationship is to us. In other words, a funeral service is where the rubber really meets the road.
So there is much to learn about a pastor and his teaching or a particular church body by attending a funeral. What hope is given to those who are gathered, and what is the basis for this hope? Are doubts dealt with head-on, or are they actually made worse, is uncertainty actually increased? What does it all mean – life and death? Is the joy we have in Christ Jesus expressed in the midst of the sorrow felt by the loved ones who are there? Are they directed to the good works and life of the person who is deceased – that the departed was a very fine person who did his or her best – or are they directed only to the work of Christ, and to Baptism? You will find a variety of answers to these questions, and unfortunately even in the Christian Church you will find a host of competing teachings and confessions.
This is all very relevant for us to consider on this observance of All Saints Day. All Saints Day was actually two days ago, right after that day we call Halloween, All Hallows Eve, the Eve of All Saints. Now, the Reformation didn’t get rid of the saints – we just stopped bothering them. For Lutherans rightly reject the invocation of the saints – calling on them, pleading with them, hectoring them for things in this life, because of course Christ is our one mediator before the Father. All Saints Day is also like a portal into the end of the church year which is just three weeks away, and as we move into advent the readings will focus our attention on these “rubber meets the road” topics: death, Christ’s return to judgement, Heaven and hell, a new Heaven and new earth. In these things we will hear time and again how Christ will bring His redemptive work to its final culmination. So on All Saints Day we remember the blessed dead who have gone before us, especially commemorating those who departed this last year. They are now in the presence of the beatific vision that St. John describes, they are part of the heavenly chorus who are “standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.”1
But on this day we should also be reminded that every Sunday is like “all saints day” for us as we gather in the Divine Service, for we remember these same saints in our Liturgy every week. Here in this little parish heaven punches through to earth in the Divine Service. Today and every Sunday we gather in the banquet feast that is also ongoing in the heavenly places, which we acknowledge and praise in the Service of the Sacrament praying “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” before we launch into the ancient hymn of the Sanctus. The praise is sung by people and angels, the praise is for the Lamb who was slain on Golgotha, who is present in heaven and on earth. The saints pray with us, we are all part of the one Universal Church, militant on earth and triumphant in heaven.
So when we hear the words of St. John this morning from the Epistle reading, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are”2 I can’t help but think of this heavenly and earthly Church as the family of God. For to say we are made God’s friends is not enough. No, John says that we are called children of God. Why? Because of the love the Father has given to us, namely that Christ loved us in this way, that He rendered perfect obedience to the Father, who gave to us His Son to redeem us from sin, death, and devil. God loves us even while we were mired in sin, with no way out to save ourselves. Such is the personal and loving nature of our Heavenly Father. Such is his love that we are called his children.
The World Did Not Know Him
Of course, the world doesn’t see it this way. “The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”3 The world cannot understand how one who is born into and become used to to sin has nevertheless been received as a son or daughter of God, called a child of God. So the world looks at Christians and says, “Ah hah! Hypocrites! How is it possible to be called a child of God while sins are still present?” This is the judgment of the world, this is the logic of the flesh. No, the world does not know you, but you know the world. The world cannot understand how God really works because they do not know of him who sent Christ into the world in order to save us, yes while we were still sinners. We can be called “children of God” because that’s what really happens in Baptism – we are raised from death to life, from darkness to light, and made part of the family of God as his adopted sons and daughters.
And so we are God’s children now along with the saints who are already in the presence of the throne of Heaven. This is all because of God’s love for you. And even though on many days you might not especially feel like a child of God, nevertheless this is true and right, even though you are still in the flesh and still feel the flesh. But this should not disturb you, for St. John says, “what we will be has not yet appeared.”4 In our earthly pilgrimage from the bondage of sin, through the healing waters of Holy Baptism, to the promised land where we will be with Christ forever, we live with this constant tension between the now and the not yet. For now we see the things of God that are hidden to the world revealed to us through eyes of faith. And the world, the flesh, and the devil are constantly seeking to cover those things back up, to steal away the faith which you have been given, and the hope that springs from that faith. You see, this hope in the things that God has promised us – the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, is more than wishful thinking. The hope the Apostles speak of is not “Gee, I sure hope so” but “Yes, I am sure of it!” Luther says, “Therefore we are children of God not by seeing God but through faith.”5
Surely this hope of faith is one of those rubber-meets-the-road moments that I mentioned earlier. Because, to be sure, we are all handed over to death eventually. But at that moment the covering will be lifted and “we shall see him as his.” St. Paul teaches us, “12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”6 And not only will we see Christ, but the St. John says “we shall be like him.” Faith in his Word and in Christ grasps hold of this promise of what we will be like. God is life, and therefore we shall live forever with him. God is righteous, therefore will shall be filled with righteousness. God is immortal and blessed, and so we will enjoy everlasting bliss in that vision. The ones who have gone before us already have what we yet hope for, the bliss of Heaven. “4They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”7
But St. John does not let his hearers detach this vision of Heaven from Christian experience and, yes, responsibility. The sure hope that we have in this life along our earthly pilgrimage actually has implications for the here and now. In other words, in our waiting and hoping, our lives should reflect the name that we have received, the name in which we hope. The last of the three verses in our Epistle says, “3 And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”8 St. John immediately urges the Christian to bear fruit either through love and through hope. We love because He first loved us, and whoever has this hope of seeing Christ and being with Him and like Him daily seeks to mortify the flesh, to put it to death – to beat down the ways of the world, the flesh, and the devil that would seek to rob us of that very hope. The Apostle James writes, “8Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”9 So here is another of the “rubber-meets-the-road” moment on this All Saints Day. The Augsburg Confession makes clear that we should not call upon the saints in Heaven nor seek help from them. However, “the saints are to be remembered so that we may strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by faith. Moreover, it is taught that each person, according to his or her calling, should take the saints’ good works as an example.”10 We should walk in a manner worthy of our calling, as those who have been sanctified – that is, made clean – by the work of the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament.
So our All Saints celebration now comes into proper focus. We who might grow weary of the battle in this life look to the promise of the next life we have received in Christ. And we remember that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and have already taken their place in the Heavenly Divine Service. In faith we have this hope, not just for ourselves, but for our loved ones who are now safe in care of Jesus. So “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”11
The alternate Gospel reading for Reformation Day which we heard this morning from St. Matthew certainly does not lend itself to a horn-tooting, self congratulatory celebration. And that’s good, because we have this day on the calendar not to pat ourselves on the back. In fact, if nothing else as we look back on the works of Martin Luther and the other reformers we should be reminded that the church exists in a world that neither desires nor tolerates the Gospel.
So St. Matthew records for us that Jesus says, “12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”1 That might seem puzzling to us at first glance. What does it mean to do violence to the kingdom of heaven? How is that even possible? What exactly is being attacked and how? Well, wherever and whenever forces are arrayed against the pure preaching of the Gospel and right administration of the Sacraments then the kingdom of God is under attack. John the Baptist heralded the coming of the Messiah and yet the people did not believe him. The works of Christ did not win authority, the cross would become a scandal for many. Christ is preached to many but acknowledged by few. His own people persecuted Him while strangers received Him. Those who are adopted into His family seek to be part of His heritage, while His own family rejected Him. Old Testament Israel repudiated the Christ, they missed Him, but the Gentiles embraced Him. And so it is that the kingdom of heaven suffers violence.
This is also what Luther fought against, for abuses and false teaching were rampant in the medieval catholic church. The church taught that the pathway to salvation was within the ability of each individual believer, through good works, through the merit of properly performing the works of penance, and even through the acquisition of an indulgence, a piece of paper which offered a pathway to heaven simply because the pope said so. In doing so violence was done to the kingdom of God because consciences were burdened and turned away from the grace and mercy Christ offers through His Word and Sacrament.
Today things are no different. The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, there many challenges to the faith. The world stands opposed to the church. In fact the world desperately wants to change the Church and her message. The attack is focused on the Word of God and specifically on the central message of what he has revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures – “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them”2. You see, if God needed to reconcile the world to himself than there must be something that was wrong. Something that needed to be fixed. That’s where trespasses come in. For in our sinful nature we stand opposed to God, a miserable, alienated state of affairs. We know this is the legacy of our first parents in the garden who transgressed God’s Holy Law and placed all of humankind, indeed all of creation under the burden of brokenness and wrath and despair. Our daily transgressions are the actual embodiment of that corruption, lived out in the flesh. Bu today for many people this message is radioactive. To speak of original sin and its consequence directly contradicts the high priests and priestesses of our culture who tell us that everything is fine, that people are by nature good and moral beings who have nothing but the best intentions. Well, God’s Word says otherwise. The Apostle Paul say in our Epistle from Romans, “19Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”3
But the pressure to change is enormous. Sometimes that pressure comes from inside the church as well, when people are too easily swayed by competing voices or perhaps are just tired of fighting. So the Church needs to be ever vigilant, to always return to the foundation upon which she stands which is God’s Word. Jesus says, “15He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” 4 No one can claim that Jesus is unapproachable, but instead He draws all people to Himself, in order that they might hear and believe. Our Lord says, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.”5
But to those who either won’t hear or won’t listen Jesus directs these words: “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, 17 “ ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’”6 Again we see that John’s preaching did not turn the people toward repentance of the their sins and sorrow for their transgressions. They even said he “has a demon”! That generation responded with unbelief. They missed it, they missed John pointing them to the Messiah. They missed Jesus Himself who went before them and performed miracles and acts of power, bringing the kingdom of God in the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. And then the ultimate act of violence was inflicted upon Christ Jesus when He was hung on that cross at Calvary, when the sins of all humanity were put on Him in order that we might be justified. But Christ was risen from the dead in victory over the all the forces of sin, death, and devil, and now He sits at the right hand of God as our mediator. “Wisdom,” Jesus says, “is justified.” Christ Himself is the Wisdom and power of God, true God and true man in one person. The rejection of His word is on those who turn away, not on Christ, for He is justified, He is without blemish or guilt. And the good news of the Gospel brought forth out of the Reformation is that we have that same righteousness given to us through Christ. We are therefore justified by grace through faith.
So yes violence is suffered in the kingdom of God, the Church is under attack and must remain vigilant. But the Church is not overcome by this violence, the kingdom will never be overthrown. Martin Luther bears witness to the providential care of God for his holy church, for even as others around him were subject to persecution and death God protected the life of the Reformer so that the Gospel could once again go forth as the foundation of the Church. God gave Luther the grace to stand firm and to stubbornly fight for the right teaching of the Holy Scriptures above the teaching of popes and councils. In his famous speech before the Diet of Worms he said this: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”
On that day in 1521 the kingdom of God was not overthrown. Luther was spared and the rest is history. But the work of the Reformation continues in the right preaching of the Holy Scriptures, and in the rebuking of those who would bind the conscience of God’s people to anything other than Christ. The temptation is always there to allow Christ to be watered down, to forsake right doctrines for something new and different. But that is allowing violence to be done to the Word of God. So we must always be vigilant, for the Gospel always will fight against this error. John the Baptist knew this. The martyrs of the early church knew this. The heroes of the Reformation knew this. And you and I know this as well.
With His good gifts and Spirit our Lord in on our side. In your Baptism He has counted you among His redeemed, and continues to shine the light of the Gospel into your heart through Word and Sacrament. This is our Reformation Day celebration. “Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,”7 our victory has been won, the Kingdom which cannot fall remains ours forever. Amen.
Today as we gather in the Lord’s house he is still all about this giving and forgiving thought the Means of Grace, through His Word and His Sacraments. We were cleansed in the purifying waters of Holy Baptism. And today He continues to heal us, to bind up our wounds that we incur in this life, all in the Divine Service. On Thanksgiving we gather to thank and praise our God for all that he has done for us, and yet our God still blesses and gives and forgives, for that it his nature — mercy, favour, and grace.
And as we gather in the Divine Service we learn how to rightly give thanks, to return thanks, for this his service to us. The Lord’s Supper is also called the Eucharist, which means “give thanks.” When St. Luke tells us the leper “fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks” (Lk 17:16) the Greek word is euchariston. So before we receive the true Body and Blood of Christ we do give thanks and pray before feasting at this table. “Let us give thanks to the Lord out God.” “It is right to give him thanks and praise.” We offer a prayer of thanksgiving, and we say the Lord’s Prayer. Just as Jesus gave thanks over the bread and wine in the Upper Room, so we give thanks for this bread and wine, Body and Blood, for us. When we prepare to approach the Lord’s Table, the prayer of the lepers becomes our own: “Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us” (LSB, p 163). Have mercy. Give us what we don’t deserve. The lepers prayed, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (Lk 8:13), and they were cleansed. We pray, “Lamb of God, have mercy on us,” and we are cleansed, cleansed by the blood of Jesus and by his body, given to us in this Eucharistic feast.
So the battle in heaven is over and done with. Christ has conquered all that could stand between us and the righteousness of God; the mighty angel Michael and his army of angels have carried out their marching orders “to a T.” But remember what I said earlier? The Christian life is often compared to a battle in the New Testament. So even in our having received the justification of the saints, even in our having been sanctified, cleansed and made holy in the Blood of the Lamb, still we are battling against the things that would take us down in this life. For it it true that Satan has been kicked out of heaven. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he now inhabits the earth, “going to and fro …and from walking up and down on it” (Job 1:7). And he is taking aim at the church. He is taking aim at your faith. He is taking aim at the means of grace, at the Word of Christ and His Sacraments. Did God really say? How could water do such an amazing thing as bring a lost sinner into the Kingdom of Heaven? What do you mean “take and eat, take and drink, this is true Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins?” How can that be possible? So this battle rages on. And wherever and whenever you are confronted with someone or something that wants to separate you from these gifts, what Christ has given for you for the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life, you can be sure that the devil is at work. Luther says the devil works not to captures our senses, that is, what we can see, but our minds. He seeks to deceive us with false and wicked opinions. Wherever doubt and division are present in the Church then you can be sure that the devil is at work. The things we see, the conflicts that take place between people, even the disputes about the articles of the faith that are clearly revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures — these belie the underlying nature of what is actually happening. Remember, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood” but again the powers of darkness that drag us back to sin and death.
The door is narrow, but it stands wide open through the Means of Grace, Word and Sacrament. The preaching, teaching, and table fellowship of the earthly ministry of Christ continue this day for you. He is still present to teach through His Word and to serve you with His very Body and Blood at His table, the table that is prepared for you today, all for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
The door is open, but many will ignore it. Jesus does not mince words. This is not a game. This is not a horse race. The ones who refuse to repent and to receive the Master of Banquet feast now stand on the outside looking in. All these warnings are specific and directed at the individual — “‘I tell you’ Jesus says. ‘I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’” (Lk 13:27–28).
But then here is the promise for those who repent and are baptized, a picture of the heavenly feast that awaits through that door: “And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God” (Lk 13:29). You see, the ones who will be with Christ at His table are not there on the basis of ethnicity or family ties or how much money they have or on the basis of their own accomplishments. The door is open to everyone, from everywhere, for all time. “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Ac 2:39). The Holy Scriptures testify that God, who has called you, is so faithful that when he has “begun a good work in you,” he will also continue it to the end and complete it, if you do not turn away from him, but “remain steadfast to the end in that which he has begun.” For this purpose he has promised his grace.
Fire, a baptism of suffering — this is the commission, His commission. Now we can understand what Jesus is telling us about peace and division, for Jesus surely does bring peace to those who are brought into His kingdom through the waters of Holy Baptism. In this Sacrament we are made to participate in His death as our sins are washed away by the blood of the cross, and we are raised again to a new life in Him. This is peace with God, won on the cross, kindled with the fire of the Holy Spirit. But this does not lead to peace in earthly life. That is not part of the promise. In fact quite the opposite. The teaching of the cross which brings peace with God also brings the enmity of the world. The salvation on offer through Christ will serve to separate you from those who reject this Gospel. We see this in Jesus’ entire ministry, the contrast between the religious authorities of the day who reject and persecute Him, and the sinners and tax collectors who receive Him in faith. You see, there are only two paths, two ways, one of life, and one of death, and there is a great difference between these two ways. Apart from Christ there is no peace between these two ways, no way to accommodate the gulf that separates them. That is division. For those who are grown accustom to life apart from the Word and and the Sacraments the conscience develops a false sense of security. Only Christ can bring that reconciliation, only the Holy Spirit can move hearts to turn back toward God in repentance and faith.
The opposition to Jesus only increased as He made his way to Jerusalem, and the divisions against the disciples would only increase after Pentecost as the Word was kindled in the ancient church. Jesus says opposition to Him would even split families. The same is true of our our age, in the time of the church, as the Body of Christ waits for the consummation of all things when Christ returns in glory. On that day the final division will take place: Jesus will divide the goats from the sheep, those who have been sealed in the waters of Holy Baptism and have confessed their faith in Christ will be confessed by Christ to the Father. On that day the peace Christ announced when He greeted the disciples in the upper room after His resurrection, “Peace be with you” will once and for all be established in the midst of God’s people, because Christ will be present with them forever.
Christ is our life: He is the author of our creation and our salvation and by the power of the Holy Spirit in Word and Sacrament He keeps and sustains us in faith and empowers us to fight against the power of sin and darkness. And Christ who is our life will appear again in glory when He come to collect all that belong to Him, who are the sheep of His pasture, and restores all things in a new heaven and a new earth. The new creation that awaits is the glorious end of the revelation of God’s salvation. This is the hope of the Christian, who knows that the battles of the here and now are not the end, for there will come a time when reality of salvation that we already have in Christ will be completely and once and for all fulfilled. There will come a time when the foretaste of the banquet feast of the Lamb that we have in Holy Communion will be fully realized when we gather around the throne of God. And on that day there will be no more battles, no more sin, no more death. “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power” (1 Co 15:42–43). We will appear with Christ in glory. For He is our life for all eternity.
Now seems to be the time for groaning and hardship and trial, but then it will be for rejoicing. Now is the time for desiring, then is the moment of embracing what we long for. What we desire now is not present, this is true. But let us not falter in desire for the things that are above. Let us continually desire to daily set our minds on Christ, who is our life — the One who made the promise, who seated at the right hand of God. From thence he shall come again.
So the rhythm of the Christian life takes place along this path. Your faith is now rooted. To be rooted means being rooted in something, and I’m no one’s idea of a gardener but it seems really apparent that the quality and type of soil that plants are rooted in will determine how well they grow. That’s a good metaphor for the Christian life — Jesus thought so, remember the parable of the sower? The Lord says, “15 As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience” (Lk 8:15). We must be rooted in something that aids in our growth, and that something in the life of a Christian is the good soil of God’s Word. These roots grow down into that soil your entire life. The roots are what you build on, so that you are “rooted and built up in him,” and this is what being established in the faith looks like — firm in commitment, strengthened against all the prevailing tides and winds of an increasingly secular culture. The apostle warns against this: “8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col 2:8–9). The writer of Hebrews also says to his church, “9 Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace” Heb (13:9). Rooted, built, and established in faith. This is the rhythm of faith. This it the walk of a Christian in Christ.