Thursday, November 04, 2004

Sermon: All Saints Day (transferred)

4 November 2004 at Chapel of Lutheran High School, Metairie, LA

Text: Rev. 7:9-17

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

This past Sunday, Lutherans celebrated Reformation Day – which honors certain saints of the Church – including Blessed Martin Luther – who risked his life so that the Gospel might be preached. On Monday, Lutherans joined the rest of the western Christian world to celebrate All Saints Day, a holy day set aside to praise God for all the saints: prophets, apostles, martyrs, doctors of the church, and examples of faithfulness and good works. Included also are the countless number of anonymous saints who have crossed over from this vale of tears to everlasting life and glory.

Our text gives us a snapshot into heaven, as we see a great multitude, more people than can be counted. They come from every race and nationality, speaking every language imaginable. They are in the very throne room of God, in the presence of Christ – the Lamb. Like the people who welcomed our Lord into Jerusalem as a king, this mysterious crowd waves palm branches. And notice how they’re dressed. They are not wearing cut-offs and t-shirts. They are not dressed like they’ve just gotten done working on their cars. They are in the presence of God, standing before his royal throne, and so they are dressed for the occasion. They are wearing the white robes of righteousness given to them at baptism.

And this mighty crowd cries with what seems to be one voice: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” This chant is so deafeningly loud, St. John, who sees this vision, must have wondered if his ears would pop. And the crowd of people are not the only ones there. There are also angels, who join in the eternal hymn: “Blessing and glory and wisdom, thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen!”

Somehow through the noise, an elder asks John if he knows who these people are, this crowd too large to be counted. John is so overwhelmed that he can only blurt out: “Sir, you know.” The elder identifies these people as those “who come out of the great tribulation and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” These grateful people refuse to leave their Savior and King, singing his praises day and night for eternity. They have returned to Paradise, to the Garden of Eden. They are without sin, without hunger, without misery, without tears, and without death itself. And the one called the Lamb is their Shepherd – who leads his own lambs to living fountains of water. All memory of pain, death, sin, sickness, poverty, hunger, persecution, and hatred are wiped from their eyes along with their tears.

So who are these saints? Is this crowd only those whom the Church has canonized, people who bear the title “saint”? If that’s the case, how could the crowd be so large? Does this crowd only consist of doctors of the church, reformers, priests, nuns, pastors, deaconesses, professional church workers, and Sunday School teachers? Are these only martyrs and people of great faith? Once again, most of us do not have great faith. Most of us are spiritual weaklings and cowards – not noble humanitarians like Blessed Mother Teresa and Saint Francis of Assisi, not doctors of the Church like St. Augustine and Blessed Martin Luther, not brave martyrs like St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Felicity and St. Perpetua. Most of us are not patient and devout heroes of prayer such as St. Monica and St. Benedict.

Yet when Paul wrote his letters to the churches that are today books of the New Testament, he addressed all Christians as “saints.” All of those whose robes have been washed in Christ’s blood, who have been born again through water and the Word, who have come out of the great tribulation of this sinful world, are saints. Most will never be remembered by name by the Church – but every saint is precious and known by name to our Lord. Dr. Luther said that all Christians are at the same time saints and sinners. And this explains John’s vision, that these saints are not dressed in the clothing of their own deeds, but rather are wearing white robes given to them when they came into contact with the Blood of Jesus. The saints in John’s vision are redeemed sinners. They are grateful that they have been rescued by someone else’s blood – that someone else being the Lord Jesus Christ.

As the ancient hymn attributed to St. Ambrose called the Te Deum prays to God: “The glorious company of the apostles praise Thee, the noble army of martyrs praise Thee, the goodly fellowship of the prophets praise Thee.” And the hymn also mentions the rest of us: “The holy Church throughout all the world doth acknowledge Thee.” For the Church is not only those who perform great deeds: the heroic martyrs, God’s chosen prophets and apostles and the doctors and teachers of the church, but also the helpless baby at the baptismal font, the man with Alzheimer’s disease who wastes away lonely in a nursing home, and the woman who lives year after year completely paralyzed. This crowd of saints includes high school students who struggle with temptation and the pressures of fitting in. This crowd includes single mothers who live paycheck to paycheck, and prisoners, and the homeless. This multitude of saints includes even murderers who have repented and washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.

And so dear sinner-saints, it is proper that we praise God for the mighty men and women of faith whose works of love inspire us and set an example of godly Christian life for us.

For when we honor the redeemed, we are also honoring the Redeemer. The saints testify to the only true Saint the world has ever known: our Lord Jesus Christ. For it is his blood that covers our sin and allows us to stand in his presence with a palm leaf. It is being baptized into his death that gives us a white robe. It is his Word and Sacraments that usher us into the throne room where we will never again suffer or be unhappy.

And every Sunday the church gathers. We confess that there are not two churches: one here on earth and another in heaven. Rather we “believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” The oneness of the church is not destroyed even by the separation of death. For where Jesus is, there are the saints – those here on earth, and those who have “come out of the great tribulation.” The church on earth and the church in heaven unite around the throne of God and in the presence of the Lamb. When we gather around the altar on Sunday, we know that our deceased relatives and friends who have likewise “washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb” are right there with us. When we sing “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,” we sing along with the countless Christians of every age. When we chant “Holy, holy, holy,” we do so with millions of the faithful from every time and place. And when we kneel before the Body and Blood of the Lord, we are united with those whom we wish we could speak to, but can’t. We kneel next to those whom we love but can no longer embrace. We are not only in the presence of Jesus, but are also surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, this host arrayed in white, those who fall on their faces night and day before the Lord himself.

Though we live in a mortal body decaying with sin, these bodies will be resurrected and made new. And though our worship is imperfect, it will be perfected. Though our voices crack, they will one day sing in perfect harmony with angels. Though we’re tired and distracted, hungry and bored, we will one day be so alive and filled with joy that we will never grow weary of joining this great crowd in heaven, singing and praising God.

Dear friends, let us continue to praise God, even in this time of sin and tribulation, even in spite of our unworthiness and doubt. For it is our Lord himself who clothes us with his righteousness, and shepherds us to the living waters of baptism into which we are declared to be saints, both now and forever. Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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