Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent – December 1, 2019
Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
As common as the turkey and the stuffing and the cranberry sauce that we enjoyed this past week is the post-feasting nap. Many people, myself included, have pointed to the amino acid tryptophan as the reason everyone is sleepy after the Thanksgiving feast, but apparently that’s a myth. According to WebMD, a pretty reputable source of medical information on the internet, turkey doesn’t have any more tryptophan than chicken. You never hear of anyone getting sleepy after a grilled chicken breast! In fact, the protein in turkey helps keep blood sugar levels in check and can actually prevent grogginess. So what’s the real culprit? What is the real reason people are so sleepy after the Thanksgiving meal? Overindulgence. We are sleepy simply because we eat too much!
The post-Thanksgiving dinner coma is a timely metaphor for a spiritual condition we are being warned about in our scripture readings for this first Sunday in the season of Advent.
First we hear St. Paul tell the Romans that now is the moment for them to “wake from sleep.” He encourages them to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, to live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.” He encourages them to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, making no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
Here wakefulness is being contrasted with the spiritual sleepiness of overindulgence. Spiritual sleepiness means living solely for the pursuit of pleasure, drinking too much, indulging every urge, every appetite without regard to what is holy or healthy. Wakefulness, on the other hand, means being awake to Christ, paying attention to his presence and his promises.
In our gospel reading we hear Jesus talking about the final coming of his kingdom. He clearly says that about that day and hour NO ONE knows. Then he goes on to emphasize the importance of being ready, of staying awake. He says that before the final coming of his kingdom it will be like the days of Noah. People were eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage. In other words, they were carrying on with their daily lives. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this, except that if you remember the story, the people in Noah’s day were doing all of this while oblivious to the reality of God. They had rejected God. There was no one left who had faith in God except one man, Noah. Everyone saw Noah building his ark and laughed at him on their way to the Black Friday sales.
This is what it will be like at the coming of the Son of Man, Jesus says. People will be busy indulging themselves, serving themselves, living for themselves, and they will fall asleep to the presence of God. Jesus says that some will be so spiritually sleepy that they will miss the coming kingdom altogether. “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming!”
It is a bit of a paradox, or an irony if you prefer, that leading up to Christmas, one of the two biggest days on the Christian calendar, we find ourselves in a season that is constantly trying to lull us into a spiritual slumber. Now that the holiday season is in full swing, we are constantly being tempted to overindulge in things that distract us from Christ, things that make us too spiritually sleepy to prepare for his coming.
This is why we have the season of Advent! This is why we need it! Advent means “to come.” We are reminded again and again through the season of Advent to stay awake, to prepare our hearts for Christ’s coming among us: at Christmas, to be sure, but also at his final coming, as well as his coming among us even now through Word and Sacrament.
There is much talk of cultural appropriation in our society today. Well, it seems that Advent is being culturally appropriated by the world around us to do the opposite of what it is intended to do. For example, I saw a story on the Today Show’s website last week that caught my eye. It was about Advent. I was so excited! They were talking about Advent on the Today Show! The story was called, “The 52 Best Advent Calendars for 2019.” Well, I scrolled through all 52 of them, and you know what? Only ONE of them had anything even remotely to do with Jesus. There were lots of candy Advent calendars, of course: Reese’s and M&Ms and chocolates shaped like stormtroopers. There were the popular LEGO Advent calendars, with 24 little LEGO things to build. Then things got really crazy. There was an Advent calendar with 24 different little bottles of hot sauce. One was called a “Manvent” calendar and was filled with spicy nuts and beef jerky. There was a Barbie Advent calendar which comes with a Barbie doll and 24 different items of clothing for her. One was called – I kid you not – the “NYX Professional Love Lust Disco Greatest Hits Lip Advent Calendar.” It has 24 different kinds of lipstick! There were Advent calendars with 24 different kinds of wine, 24 different kinds of beer, 24 different kinds of liquors. Again, out of these 52 so-called Advent calendars, only ONE had any kind of reference to Jesus Christ. The rest were all counting down to nothing! They were just an excuse to indulge!
“As in the days of Noah,” Jesus said, people will be eating and drinking, paying no attention to God. “Keep awake, therefore!”
Or as Paul writes: “Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep.” “Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness.” “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to satisfy its desires.”
It’s easy to point our fingers at the culture around us, but you know what they say – whenever you point your finger at someone you always have three fingers pointing back at you. The truth is, we are just as likely to fall asleep to God’s presence as anyone else. We don’t come to church because we are better than those people buying those silly so-called Advent calendars. We come because we need to wake up too! We too are tempted to overindulge in eating and drinking and shopping and reveling and indulging in ways that make us spiritually sleepy. We get busy with all kinds of things this time of year that might be fun, but that obscure Christ rather than draw us closer to him.
Please don’t misunderstand me. The feasting and shopping and revelry of this season is not inherently bad or wrong. Advent doesn’t exist to wag its finger at our celebrating. Advent is not a blue version of the Grinch, seeking to squelch our joy. Instead Advent seeks to direct it towards the reason for our celebrating. It seeks to keep us awake to the coming of our Lord Jesus, the only source of true joy!
We mark the time with devotional candles and calendars because it keeps us mindful of Christ’s first coming as the baby in the manger, the Word made flesh, Emmanuel, God-with-us.
We gather for worship both on Sundays and on Wednesdays because we know Christ comes to us even now through Word and Sacrament, to give us his gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. We come to church because it is the ark. And even though people laugh at it and mock it and ignore it, we know it is the vessel of our salvation.
And today, as we kick off this season, we are reminded that we are being prepared for a deeper salvation that is still on its way. As Saint Paul writes, “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers.” Christ’s final kingdom is yet to come. With every day that passes we are one day closer to the healing and restoration of all things. Advent teaches us to live in joyful anticipation of this promise being fulfilled. Chocolates shaped like stormtroopers can bring temporary happiness, but the promise of Christ’s final coming gives us lifetime’s worth of hope and joy.
So let us not overindulge in things that make us spiritually sleepy! Both Paul and Jesus warn us today that there is a spiritual slumber that can result in missing out on the coming kingdom.
Let all our celebrating this season point us to Christ Jesus.
Let us stay awake to his presence even now, for through his Word he renews us in his promise, and in his Supper he gives us a foretaste of the feast to come.
Sermon for Christ the King Sunday – November 24, 2019
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
There’s a reason they called it “the Skull.” Not only is the skull a symbol of death still today, but the hill just outside of Jerusalem was actually shaped like a skull, which was darkly fitting given what happened on the top of that hill. Criminals were crucified there. They had their hands and feet nailed to beams of wood, and then they were lifted up to hang from their wounds. They were stripped naked to add to the public humiliation. Their crimes were written on signs and posted above their heads as a deterrent to others. Just like a hanging in the Old West or an execution in medieval Europe, people came to watch. They came to taunt, to mock these criminals as they died, getting in their last jeers and curses.
People who were crucified didn’t die from the holes in their hands and feet – not directly. They died from asphyxiation, from lack of oxygen. You see, people would hang from their crosses for hours, and over time the weight of their bodies pressed down on their rib cages, getting heavier and heavier with every passing hour, making it increasingly difficult to breathe. You could push yourself up with your hands and feet to take the pressure off and get some breath, but you could only do that for so long with nails stuck through them, and so you would eventually suffocate.
What happened over and over again on the placed they called the Skull is arguably the most cruel way human beings have ever come up with to put someone to death. That this was done to Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, makes our gospel reading for today an account of the darkest day in human history.
But even there – even at the place called the Skull – something beautiful happened. Even on this darkest day in human history, as Jesus hung there naked and bloodied and dying and seemingly powerless, even there we can see the power and glory of Christ our King. It is all there in a beautiful exchange of words.
There were lots of words spoken there at the Skull. The leaders scoffed at Jesus, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers mocked Jesus, saying, “Here’s your wine, O great and glorious king!” and then giving him wine that had gone rancid. They put a sign over his head that read, “This is the King of the Jews.” It was all part of the joke. Even one of the other criminals was deriding Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” These words added plenty of insult to the already excruciating injuries Jesus was enduring. (Excruciating literally means “from the cross”)
But then something beautiful happened. Then there was a beautiful exchange of words giving us a glimpse of the strange power of this king of ours. There was this beautiful moment between Jesus and the other criminal being crucified beside him. In his weekly commentary on the lectionary readings an old professor of mine called this exchange a diamond on a dung hill.
The second criminal begins by making a confession of sin. He rebukes the first criminal, saying, “Don’t you fear God? Don’t you know that we have been condemned justly? We are getting what we deserve for our deeds!” He knows why he is on a cross. He knows he has broken the law. He confesses the truth about himself.
But then he goes from a confession of sin to a confession of faith. He confesses that Jesus was innocent: “But this man,” he said of Jesus, “has done nothing wrong!” And then, amazingly, he confesses his faith that Jesus is a king! He confesses his faith that Jesus has a kingdom, and that in spite of their current situation there on the Skull, his kingdom will come. He confesses his faith that Jesus is who he says he is. He is the savior, and he believes that this savior can even save him.
All of this is found in what he says next: He turns to Jesus – and remember that every breath of someone being crucified is precious, every breath is numbered! He turns to Jesus and with one of those last breaths he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And without question, without hesitation, without a new member class, Jesus turns to him and says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Do you understand what is happening here? Paradise is the same word used in the Bible to describe the Garden of Eden before the Fall, back before sin and death came into the world. Jesus is promising him a place in that Paradise. Jesus is promising him a place in that Garden where there is no sin or death anymore. Jesus is promising him a place in that Garden where people live forever in right relationship with God.
And when will all of this happen? Does he have to hang onto life for another day or two to show that his faith is legit? Will he have to endure a thousand years of purgatory first to get clean from all of that sin?
No! When will this happen? “Today,” Jesus says! In fact, it is already beginning right then and there on the hill called the Skull as he confesses both his sin and his faith, which brings him into right relationship with God. It is already beginning right then and there on the cross as he hears this word from Jesus which says, your faith in me is enough. Today you will be with me in Paradise.
Such beautiful words! Such a beautiful moment. This exchange is indeed a diamond on a dung hill!
When we’re on that dung hill, sometimes we wonder where God is. When we’re on the hill called the Skull, we wonder if this King is really in charge. When we’re bearing crosses of our own, struggling to catch our breath because of anxiety, or grief, or pain, or fear, we might wonder if Jesus is really the powerful King we claim he is.
If Jesus is such a great and mighty king, why is his church so despised and mocked and ridiculed?
If Jesus is both a loving and powerful king, why do so many bad things happen? Why do babies die of a stupid fungus at Children’s Hospital in Seattle? Why did that wonderful young man from Mighty to Save Ministries die in a car accident when he was doing so much good for others? Why do our loved ones get cancer? Why are human beings so cruel to each other? Why do they so often seem to get away with it?
These are the questions we ask when we’re on the dung hill, when we’re on the hill called the Skull, when we’re bearing our crosses. These are the kinds of questions I am asked all the time as a pastor.
And you know what? I don’t have an answer. Sure, the Bible tells us a bit about why the world is like it is. But it only does so in broad strokes. When someone asks why a specific thing happened to a specific person, I have no answers.
But even if I did, would it help? If I could tie it all together with a nice tight theological explanation, would it really help? Would it really take away anyone’s pain?
I don’t have any answers for those hard questions, but because of this beautiful exchange of words between Jesus and this criminal, I can tell you this: your king is not far from you in your times of suffering. He is right there beside you. Jesus didn’t come to wear a crown of jewels and precious metals. He came to wear a crown of thorns, that he might take all your sin and suffering on himself. He didn’t come to sit on a velvet throne. His throne is a cross, that you might turn to him as you bear crosses of your own. He didn’t come to save himself, as the people taunted. He came to save you.
Because of this diamond on a dung hill, I can tell you that Christ your King is with you when you find yourself on the hill of the Skull. He is here even now, forgiving your sin so that you can live in right relationship with God, today and forever. He is here even now speaking these beautiful, gracious words to us, inviting us back to the paradise of the Garden, back to fellowship with God.
This king of our ours is a strange one, to be sure. He isn’t like any other king. But like that criminal beside him you can turn to him in every time of need, no matter what you’ve done, no matter what you’re suffering. You can turn to him in faith and trust, and when you do you will see that he will love you to your very last breath and then some. He will indeed remember you, so that you can enter into the Paradise of his eternal kingdom.
Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost – November 17, 2019
Malachi 4:1-2a, 2 Thessalonians 3:16-13, Luke 21:5-19
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Everything Jesus talks about in our gospel reading for today has either happened already or is happening right now.
There is nothing left of the Temple in Jerusalem except about sixty feet of one limestone wall. From time to time people continue to come in the name of Jesus saying they know when the end of the world is coming, and inexplicably they always manage to gain some followers. We continue to hear of wars and insurrections. Nations continue to rise up against nations. There continue to be great earthquakes and famines and plagues. Many families are divided and broken. The church faces all kinds of challenges: everything from apathy and unbelief to cultural hostility to outright persecution, depending on where you live.
It is hard to distinguish our gospel reading from what you might read online any day of the week. It is hard to distinguish what Jesus says here and what you might see in any given moment on a 24-hour news channel, right? Jesus is brutally honest about the world we live in. He is exceedingly accurate in describing the things that have and continue to come to pass.
All of this could lead to despair. For many it already has. In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that despair is one of the great plagues of our time. We see the symptoms all around us in all kinds of self-destructive behaviors. Sociologists are pointing to what they call “diseases of despair,” things like alcoholism and overdoses and suicides, as the reason the life expectancy in our country has gone down every year for the past few years. Despair is a real plague in our time!
Hopelessness is a real problem as well. I have been saddened to see many stories circulating recently about how many young people today have already decided that they won’t have children because of fears about climate change. Now I’m all for a clean environment and good stewardship of the earth – as Christians we all should be! Our own scriptures tell us God created us out of the soil, and that we are caretakers of this garden. But there is an alarmism out there that is feeding a sense of hopelessness. That young people would be so lacking in hope that they would give up on bringing children into the world is just sad to me. Sad and wrong.
Thankfully, there’s more going on in our gospel reading for today than Jesus being honest and accurate about the world we live in. Jesus also tells us how to live in a world like this.
First of all, Jesus tells us not to be led astray by end-times alarmists and their predictions. “Do not go after them,” Jesus says.
Jesus says that when we hear of wars and insurrections, to not be afraid. These kinds of things will happen, but the end is yet to come. They will not go on forever!
When the church is struggling or facing hostility or is under attack, Jesus encourages us to see it as an opportunity! We are encouraged to see those situations as an opportunity to testify with words that he himself will give us!
When all the tumult of the world is swirling around us, Jesus encourages us to keep the faith, to hold fast to his promises. “Not a hair on your head will perish,” Jesus says. Some of you are scratching your heads with that comment, wondering where all that beloved hair went! What Jesus means is that God will preserve you completely. If that means he’ll have to grow back some hair on you someday, he’ll do it! He’s coming again to renew all things! Jesus calls us to endure in this promise – for by this endurance we will gain our souls.
And so our Lord Jesus calls us to hope. He calls us to faith. He calls us to live in joyful anticipation of the new day he is bringing.
This faith is not a passive thing. It is not inactive or lazy. It does not sit around twiddling its thumbs, ignoring our neighbors as we wait for Jesus to return and fix everything. That’s what our reading from 2 Thessalonians is all about.
As I mentioned last week, one of the major issues Paul is addressing in his letter to the Christians in Thessalonica is questions about the end times. Some in Thessalonica believed it had already come. Others believed it was happening any day. And it seems that some of those who believed the Day of the Lord was just around the corner used it as an excuse to give up on the business of living as a productive member of society! If Jesus was coming again, probably next week, why bother going to work? Why bother investing in your family? Why bother serving your community? Why not just sit back and wait?
Most scholars believe this is what is behind Paul’s words in our reading for today when he scolds those in Thessalonica who are living in idleness, not doing any work. “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat,” Paul says! Now it is possible that these were just lazy freeloaders who were living off the charity of the church – that is possible! – but given the context of the letter it appears more likely that there was a group of Christians there in Thessalonica who had kind of checked out of life because they thought the return of Jesus was imminent. Paul addresses them, saying, “Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and earn their own living.” And then to everyone in Thessalonica Paul says, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”
“Do not be weary in doing what is right.” These words are for us too!
I know how easy it is to fall into the despair plaguing our society. We too are prone to the kind of hopelessness we so often see around us. And it can be paralyzing. It can sap our strength. It can cause us to want to check out of the world around us and give up on the work God calls us to do.
But today God says to us through the apostle: “Do not be weary in doing what is right.” We are called to work and to carry out our callings and to do what is right – all with good hope, all in joyful anticipation of the day when Christ will make all things new.
We do right by serving our neighbors and loving our families and doing our jobs.
We do right by caring for God’s good earth. We reduce and reuse and recycle, we strive to be green and clean – not out of fear, but out of love for our Creator and trust that he will ultimately renew the earth.
Some do right by having babies! There is nothing more hope-inducing than a newborn baby! Rather than fear for their future, dream with them about how they will do right for others.
We do what is right for the church even as we struggle. Rather than being paralyzed by how the culture around us is changing, rather than remaining idle while we face decline and sometimes hostility, we invite, we reach out, we bear witness, we testify – trusting our Lord’s promise that he will be with us to give us the words.
As Martin Luther himself once wrote, “Faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing,” so brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right!
We don’t find this strength and this hope in ourselves. Cable news and the internet certainly don’t give it to us.
We find this strength and hope to do what is right through God’s promises to us. We find this strength and hope through the promise that he has the future in his hands. We find it in the promise that the Day of the Lord is coming, and that when it does, all will be well at last.
As God tells us through the prophet Malachi: “For you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”
As God says to us through Jesus, “Do not be terrified by what you see going on around you. The end is yet to come.” And, “Not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
So be of good hope, friends. Jesus is coming again. In the meantime, we have work to do!
Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost – November 10, 2019
Job 19:23-27a, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
These are nice scriptures for us to hear after a rougher-than-usual All Saints Sunday last week. I really felt for our assisting ministers. It was hard to get through that list of departed saints, not just because of who was on the list – some of the beloved matriarchs of our congregation – but also because of how recently several of them died. In fact, we aren’t even done burying them all yet.
Not only that, but death has cast its pall over our whole community in the past few weeks after some “high profile” (for lack of a better term) deaths of beloved community members. I was talking to one of my funeral director friends on Thursday and he commented that these kinds of deaths are felt throughout the community, and I’d say he’s right.
There has been plenty of death in our congregation and in our community recently, and I know that some of you are keeping vigil for loved ones even now. How wonderful it is then that our scriptures for this morning are Easter scriptures. They aren’t literally the readings we hear on Easter, but they are full of resurrection! They are full of life and hope and the promise of eternal life.
First we have Job making a rare lectionary appearance. Job has had everything stripped away from him. He has lost his children and his friends and his wealth and his health. In his utter devastation he turns to God, saying “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and no other.” “I know that my Redeemer lives” – what a proclamation of hope in the midst of so much grief and loss. Someone should write a hymn with those words!
Next we have our reading from Second Thessalonians. The Christians in Thessalonica faced their own struggles against sin, death, and the devil, such that some of them were confused about how and when it was that they would be gathered into Christ Jesus. Some were saying it had already happened. In theological circles we call this “overrealized eschatology.” (With a big name like that, you know it is bad!) Paul tells them to not be deceived by those who say that the day of the Lord is already here. He encourages them instead to live in faith, knowing that they have been chosen as the first fruits of a salvation that is only beginning to blossom. Paul tells them they have some hard stuff to go through right now, but that through Christ God has given them “eternal comfort and good hope.” The final day is yet to come!
And then we have our gospel reading. We have some work to do to unpack this text. As we heard, the Sadducees went to Jesus with a question about the resurrection. The first thing you need to know about the Sadducees is that they don’t believe in the resurrection. Luke tells us this right off the bat: “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection…” This detail helps us to hear the question for what it truly is: it is a question posed to mock the whole idea of life after death.
To do this, the Sadducees point to the Jewish practice of levirate marriage. This practice, spelled out in Deuteronomy, meant that if a man had a brother who died without having had children, leaving behind a childless widow, that man was to marry her and have children with her – both as a means of carrying on his brother’s line and as a means of security for the wife. It sounds utterly strange and a little incestuous to us today, but this was a way of caring for widows in a time where there was no life insurance and no social security.
The Sadducees, thinking themselves to be oh so clever, came up with a scenario based on this practice that they thought would illustrate how absurd the idea of the resurrection is. They asked Jesus, “What if a woman marries seven different brothers – each of whom die without giving her a child – and then she dies. In this supposed afterlife, whose wife will she be?” You can almost see the smug grins on their faces. They think they’ve debunked the whole idea of life after death!
But Jesus isn’t impressed. I mean, having come from heaven, he would know, right? Jesus tells them that they’re thinking in human categories that don’t fit in the afterlife. The whole levirate marriage custom is a custom for this age to care for widows. In the afterlife there will be no need for such customs. In the afterlife we will be like angels. We will be children of the resurrection. In the afterlife, things will be profoundly different than they are in this age. This doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t know each other in heaven – it just means that these earthly customs will no longer be needed.
Jesus goes on to point these Sadducees to the story of Moses and the burning bush. The Sadducees, you see, only accepted the first five books of the Old Testament. This story is in Exodus, so he’s appealing to sources they would have seen as authoritative. Jesus says to them, “The FACT that the dead are raised,” (note Jesus uses the word “fact”!) “Moses himself showed!” In that story, when God spoke to Moses through the burning bush, God said, “I AM the God of Abraham, I AM the God of Isaac, I AM the God of Jacob.” God doesn’t say, I WAS their God back before they died. He says I AM their God. “For to him,” Jesus says, “all of them are alive.”
When the Sadducees tried to debunk the resurrection, Jesus – who would know, right? – tells them the truth about eternal life. He points out that the promise of the resurrection can be found all the way back when God revealed himself to Moses.
We have Sadducees today too, by the way. One of them is president of Union Seminary in New York. Another is a clergyman who sells a whole lot of books. Watch out for them. Don’t let anyone rob you of the hope Christ Jesus came to give you.
This Easter hope we hear in our scripture readings today gives us strength when we, like Job, face all kinds of difficulties in life, when we are stripped of the things we cherish most. This Easter hope gives us peace when we, like the Christians in Thessalonica, are struggling against sin, death, and the devil, when we are confused about where Jesus is in our lives. This Easter hope gives us courage to live bravely and boldly as we trust in our Lord and Savior and his ultimate victory over death.
I have a pastor friend who was diagnosed with cancer six months ago. He’s been keeping his friends posted on his treatments through regular email updates. Well, he sent an email out just this week to let everyone know that he has decided to stop his treatment. He and his wife of 42 years sat down with his oncologist. He asked a few questions. On the drive home he told his wife they could wait to make their decision after a good night’s sleep. But his wife could see what he was thinking. She knew his heart. She knew his desire. She said to him, “It’s OK. You can stop treatment.”
Such courage from him, being ready to die, but also willing to continue those nasty treatments if she needed him to fight a little longer. Such courage from her, loving him so much that she is willing to let him go. These are two people who love the Lord Jesus. These are two people who are being made strong through the promises he has made them.
So you see, the promise of eternal life breaks into our lives on this side of the grave, giving us comfort, giving us strength. The promise of Easter comes to us even now, giving us hope, giving us peace.
Take hold of this promise, friends. Trust in the promises our Lord Jesus has made to you. We have been made worthy of heaven through Christ! We are children of the resurrection! That’s the promise Christ made to you in your baptism.
Because of this, you can live bravely and boldly.
Because of this, you can love sacrificially.
Because of this, you can live in the comfort of knowing your departed loved ones are alive to God.
Because of this, you can know peace in the midst of trouble, and joy in the midst of sorrow.
Because of this, even if that which you cherish most in life is stripped away from you, you too can say, “I know that my Redeemer lives!”
Dear saints of God, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
If you go to the Mariners Hall of Fame at T-Mobile Park, you will see people who have won great victories for the team over the years, people like Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., and Edgar Martinez.
If you go to the Country Music Hall of Fame, you will see people who have done great things for the genre, people like Hank Williams and Patsy Cline and Waylon Jennings and Emmylou Harris.
If you go to the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard, you will see the names of people from a variety of forms of entertainment who have achieved some level of fame, everyone from Humphry Bogart to Meryl Streep to Mickey Mouse.
Sometimes this is how we think of the saints. We think of them as those Christians who have won great victories for God, those blessed faithful who have done great things for Christianity, particularly those who have achieved some level of fame for having done so.
And this isn’t necessarily wrong! The calendar of remembrances for various saints of the church is indeed a list of those who have done great things for God and have been remembered and celebrated by millions of Christians over hundreds and hundreds of years.
It is good to remember not only the people of the Bible, but also the saints from throughout church history: people like Perpetua & Felicity, brave young woman who gave their lives for Christ in the third century, or Gregory the Great, a reforming pope in the seventh century, or Francis of Assisi, a renewer of the church in the thirteenth century.
Remembering and celebrating these saints is not a “catholic thing.” It is a Christian thing, or at least it ought to be! It is certainly a Lutheran thing! The Lutheran Reformers only beef with the saints was that they not be prayed to or seen as mediators of salvation. Otherwise, they were to be remembered and celebrated. As it says in the Augsburg Confession:
“Concerning the cult of saints our people teach that 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.”
And so we do remember and celebrate the saints – particularly those who have been given a place on the Christian calendar of remembrances for all God has done through them.
But today is All Saints Sunday. Today we remember ALL the saints! And our gospel reading for this morning moves our gaze from the saintly hall of fame to some people we are far less likely to think of as saints. A saint, after all, is merely someone who has been blessed by Jesus. A saint is someone who has been brought to faith in him. A saint is someone who has been claimed by Christ and made holy by his Word. And these aren’t always the people we think they are!
In our reading from Luke we hear how Jesus looked up at his disciples and said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry, for you will be filled.” Here Jesus is bestowing his blessing on those who have little, those who are just scraping by – the kind of people who usually have no worldly influence. These are people who were thought by many in Jesus’ time to be cursed by God, but here is Jesus blessing them!
We hear Jesus say, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” Jesus is blessing those who hurt, those who grieve, those who are feeling defeated and lost instead of strong and victorious. Again, suffering like this was seen by many in Jesus’ time as a consequence of sin. Remember when some disciples asked Jesus, “Who committed the sin that caused this man to be born blind, this man or his parents?” That’s what people thought! But here Jesus is blessing those who weep.
We hear Jesus say, “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.” People have always associated truth and goodness with popularity, right? Here Jesus is blessing those who are not popular or well-liked, those who have been cancelled by the culture or cast out of certain circles because of their faith in him.
All of these are declared blessed, they are declared holy – and so they are declared saints! They are not saints because of anything heroic they have done, but simply and solely because the Lord Jesus has declared it so by his word: “Blessed are you,” Jesus says. “Blessed are you, blessed are you.”
There are warnings here too. Jesus says: “Woe to you who are rich, and full, and laughing, and liked.” As Professor Matt Skinner explains in his commentary for this week’s gospel, the word translated as “woe” does not mean “cursed” or “bad.” It certainly doesn’t mean “damned.” It is a word indicating warning. Jesus warns those who are wealthy and secure and happy and popular.
And for good reason! It is so very hard to receive the gifts of Christ when your hands are already full. It is hard to live for his kingdom when you already have your own castle. It is hard to be filled with his blessing when you are already full of yourself. There’s a part of all of us that needs to hear this warning, to be sure. But there are blessings to be heard as well.
To those here today who are struggling financially, those who are worried about making ends meet, those who are looked down upon because of your economic status, Jesus declares you blessed. He says that yours is the kingdom of God!
To the many here today who weep for the loss of loved ones, those who reach for the familiar warmth of your beloved in the middle of the night and only find cold bedsheets, those who want to call a mom or dad to share something with them only to realize there is no one there to call, Jesus blesses you. He has a promise for you: you will be comforted.
For those who take flak for your faith in Jesus Christ – maybe you are mocked at work or excluded from certain social circles, maybe you get teased in your own home, from your own family members – Jesus blesses you. He promises you that you are in good company. That’s what happened to the prophets too! Jesus promises you your reward will be great in heaven.
I don’t know if any of us here today will ever end up in any “Saint Hall of Fame.” I know I have several people in this congregation I’d like to nominate! Even so, I don’t know that any of us will ever end up with a date on the Christian calendar and be remembered and celebrated a thousand years from now.
But as the saints of God we have something even better than a spot on a calendar. We have an inheritance. Paul refers to this inheritance twice in our second reading for today. He says, “In Christ we also have obtained in inheritance.” When we heard the word of truth, the gospel of our salvation, and believed in him, and were marked with the seal of the promise of the Holy Spirit, we were given the pledge of an inheritance. Paul prays that we would know “what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.”
The Lord Jesus has made us his saints. And as his saints we inherit a kingdom that is eternal. As his saints we have the promise that we will know the warmth of our loved ones again one day. As his saints he has a reward in heaven in store for us that will make all we suffer through on this earth disappear in the blink of an eye. To borrow from Tolkien, we will inherit a kingdom where everything sad becomes untrue. That’s Jesus promise to his saints! That’s his promise to you!
We are not saints because we have achieved for ourselves a hall of fame level of holiness. We are his saints simply and solely because Jesus has declared it to be so. He declared it to us in our baptism, where we were made holy by his grace, declared a saint and a child of God, and marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit.
For those of you who are hurting and may have forgotten all this, our Lord Jesus declares it to you again here today through his Word, saying: “Blessed are you, blessed are you, blessed are you.”
Thanks be to God. And all the saints said: “Amen.”
This sermon is delivered in character as Martin Luther, who emerges from the “sacristy time machine” to take questions from the congregation.
Guten morgen, guten morgen! It has been a few years since I’ve been here to the O.H.L.C. It is good to be back. I love time traveling to the internet age. I love your “memes” as you call them, those funny pictures you post online with funny captions. You know, back in the time of the Reformation my buddy Lucas Cranach and I had something like memes. I’d come up with the ideas and Lucas would draw these slightly naughty cartoons that were printed on the printing press. They spread like wildfire! They went…how do you say it…viral! Here is one we made when the pope tried to ban our faith. [Woodcut is shown on screen.] We responded by showing a couple of German peasants breaking wind in his direction! The caption said: “Don’t frighten us, pope, with your ban, and don’t be such a furious man. Otherwise we shall show you our can!” Now that’s a meme, am I right?
Anyhoo, your pastor wanted me to take questions from the congregation, so let’s do that. If you have a question, please raise your hand.
Question #1: Dr. Luther, why do we celebrate Reformation Sunday on the last Sunday of October?
Yes, thank you. Good question. While there have been many reform movements in the church, the Lutheran reformation can be said to have begun on October 31, 1517. That was when I went to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg – not to trick or treat, but to post my 95 theses. It was an urgent call to debate. You see, as a monk I’d had the privilege of studying the scriptures in great depth, and the more I looked from the Bible to the church, the more I saw that things weren’t lining up. Church practice had gotten far afield from the Word of God. Take forgiveness – according to the scriptures, forgiveness is not something to be sold or earned, it is something to be proclaimed freely for all in Jesus’ name! Or the sacraments – our celebration of the Lord’s Supper is not a sacrifice to God, but the receiving of a gift from our Lord Jesus, the gift of his grace, the gift of his presence. There was the papacy, the marriage of priests, the nature of saints. I could go on and on – and believe me, I did!
Yes, church practice was way out of alignment with God’s Word as given to us in the Bible. The posting of my theses was the first step in bringing about reform. It was the first step in clearing away the spiritual mischief of church bureaucrats so that the Good News could ring once more. My favorite thesis is number 62, where I wrote: “The true treasure of the church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.” You know what grace is, don’t you? You better if you dare to name your church after me! Grace is unearned favor, undeserved blessing. That’s what God gives us in Christ!
As I said, I posted my theses on October 31st, the day before All Saints Day. I knew the church would be full of worshippers the next day, and that they would see my call for debate. This is why you celebrate Reformation Sunday on the last Sunday in October, and actual Reformation Day on the 31st. No tricks here – only the treat of being saved by grace through faith! Not because of what we do, but because of what Christ has done for us!
Question #2: What do you believe is your greatest accomplishment?
Without a doubt I would say my greatest accomplishment was to translate the Bible into the language of the people. I’m glad you asked this, because there’s a great story behind it. After the meeting at Worms, where I was put on trial for heresy, when I refused to recant there was a price put on my head. Charles, the emperor, had to let me leave the city because I was promised safe conduct and he couldn’t go back on his word. But as soon as I was outside of town I was kidnapped! Riders in black surrounded my wagon. They put a bag over my head and took me away. Thankfully I was kidnapped by friends! My prince, Frederick, sent these riders to take me away to hide in his castle at Wartburg until things died down. Little did I know I would be there for an entire year! I used the time to translate the Bible into German. I came up with a disguise so I could sneak out of the castle. I grew a beard and wore a sword on my belt to look like a knight. I went to the markets as Knight George, listening to how the people spoke so that I could translate in the language the people used, language people could understand. I wanted people to have the Word in their own hands, so that the church couldn’t bury the gospel ever again!
Question #3 What was your biggest challenge in life?
Biggest challenge? I can name three: sin, death, and the devil.
As a young monk I wrestled mightily against sin. I never felt like I measured up. I could never do enough to shake the feeling that I was falling short of the glory of God. Thankfully I came to see in Paul’s letter to the Romans that righteousness before God is not something we achieve, but is something given to us freely as a gift through Jesus Christ, received through faith. This Word from God changed everything. It truly set me free!
I have known the sting of death. My dear wife Kate and I lost two of our beloved children. Elizabeth was just an infant, while Magdalena was thirteen years old when she died. My grief was so crushing that there were times I thought I might never come out of it. But Christ held me fast.
And, of course, there have been times when I’ve known the hot breath of the devil tormenting me, planting doubts in my heart about my worth and my work. I have known many dark nights of the soul. The devil wreaked much havoc in my day, such that I sincerely thought the end was near. There was so much violence, so much disease, society seemed to be coming apart at the seams. There was so little hope, apart from Christ.
Those were my three greatest challenges.
Question #4: What would you like to say to Lutheran Christians today?
Well, first I would say that things in your time aren’t as different from mine as you might think. Sin, death, and the devil are still as active as ever. I know you struggle against sin, even though that seems like a passe idea among so many in your time. I see how you try in vain to make yourself righteous – and what does it get you? Either pride or despair, both of which are rampant in your culture today. I know you have buried people you love. I know your culture is rife with anxiety and despair. I know it sometimes seems to you like the devil is winning, that your society is coming apart at the seams, that the end must be near. Sin, death, and the devil are all still around in 2019!
And so I would say to you what our Lord Christ says in the gospel reading we heard today: Continue in his word! Continue in his word so that you will know the Lord, as the prophet Jeremiah says, so that you will know that he forgives your iniquity and remembers your sin no more. Continue in his word so that you will know that God is your refuge and your tower as the psalmist says, your mighty fortress in the midst of all the challenges of life in a fallen world. Continue in his word so that you will know that though you fall short of the glory of God, he has made you right with him by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Continue in his word so that this good news we have been given will never be buried ever again! Continue in his word so that you would truly be his disciples. Continue in his word, and he will continually reform your hearts in faith, hope, love, and joy.
Our Lord calls all Christians of all times and all places to continue in his word – to abide in it, to immerse ourselves in it, to remain in it. He promises that if we continue in his word, we will know the truth, and the truth will make us free.
And if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed!
I must be going. I leave you with a hymn I wrote on this very subject, “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word.”