Sunday, November 06, 2011

Sermon: All Saints (transferred) – 2011

6 November 2011 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 5:1-12 (Rev 7:2-17, 1 John 3:1-3)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Our Lord Jesus points out the many differences between the kingdom of this fallen world and the kingdom of heaven. For example, in the eyes of the world, riches are considered a formula for happiness. But in the kingdom of heaven, poverty of spirit is blessed. In the eyes of the world, those who mourn are seen as being punished, or unlucky, or just plain losers. But in the kingdom of heaven, our mourning will give way to comfort from the Comforter, the Holy Spirit of God Himself.

Similarly, the world frowns on the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers. Rather the world values brute force, the self-serving, the mighty, the dominant, and those who seek out conflicts and battles and achieve victory by raw power.

One of the most profound differences between the world and the church involves persecution. In this world, persecution is meted out by the powerful over the weak – often as a means to “put people in their place,” to lord over the defeated, to humiliate and humble one’s foes, and to exercise what St. Augustine called “the lust for domination.” But our Lord tells us that suffering persecution is a cause for rejoicing! For this is a mark of the church. Which means that if you are persecuted for the sake of Christ, it is evidence of your salvation, of your blessedness. It is a cause for joy!

These are indeed great differences in the way the world and the kingdom of God operate.

But there are also similarities.

In this life, especially in our fallen world, we need mentors, heroes, examples. We need teachers and trailblazers, role-models and helpers. We need forebears in the faith to show us how to live out the life of the kingdom. We need real-world examples of what the Lord’s kingdom looks like, to be in the grace of God, under the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the comfort of the Comforter.

We are saved by grace. We receive this grace through faith. It is given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ through His blood as a free gift. And yet, we need examples of how this manifests itself in our dark and fallen world. We need heroes and heroines to show us how to bear up under persecution. And there is no shortage of such saints!

This is what All Saints Day is all about.

We look to the past and the present, and we reflect on the lives of our sainted brothers and sisters – some known and celebrated by the entire church, others who are lost to history. We rejoice in the victory won in Christ by those who lived long lives of service to the Lord and His Kingdom, as well as to the martyrs whose lives were cut short by the devil’s servants, and yet whose lives continue to serve as a testimony of Christ and as a witness of faithfulness to believers and unbelievers alike.

Indeed, they bear the title “children of God,” and we confess with St. John: “See what kind of love the Father has given us.” The Lord in His love and mercy has given us heroes and heroines in the kingdom who have shown us the path to walk, the same path as our Lord who said to them and to us: “Take up your cross and follow Me!” We follow in the footsteps of those who followed the Lord even unto death, and then, even unto life.

Dear friends, we are not alone in our walk – though our own footsteps are heavy laden and we are exhausted at times. We walk the same path as our dear brothers and sisters of old: saints, martyrs, doctors of the church, pastors and laity, men and women, parents and virgins, the old and the young, Jew and Gentile, the mighty and the weak – heroes and witnesses all. Indeed, we are not alone, for as St. John testifies: “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.”

And they sing their eternal song from the eternal liturgy! We have joined them today, singing the great hymn “Dignus est Agnus,” “Worthy is the Lamb!” On earth, they were fed to lions. Their terrified children were taken from them. They were burned at the stake, humiliated and mocked, tortured by beatings and crosses. They were tempted to be unfaithful to Jesus by the offer to save their own lives and the lives of their children who were also tortured.

Dear friends, being a Christian is no trifle. The saints remind us not only of the high price paid by our Lord Jesus Christ for our forgiveness, but also the high price in blood that is required of some Christians in making the good confession before kings and princes, before the wicked world and before the holy church. And though we may never be called upon to die as martyrs, but we are all most certainly called upon to live as martyrs, as witnesses of our Lord Jesus, as those who die to self in order to live in Christ.

The Lord’s promise is for every man, woman, and child who faced sword and beast, stake and cross, prison cell and torture: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” And that promise is for us.

Rejoice and be glad!

To this day we have brothers and sisters who sit in lonely isolated cells: men and women who would give anything just to see their beloved spouses or children even for a single second, just to touch them one more time, just to speak face to face a single word. They would give anything to do for a single second what we take for granted every day. Rather they would do anything except one thing: deny their Lord and Master.

At this very moment, Pastors Behnam Irani and Youcef Nadarkhani sit in cold, dark cells in Iran for following the Lord’s call to preach. Today, Pastor Ilmurad Nurliev is serving his 437th day in a cell in Turkmenistan. Imran Ghafur, a Pakistani layman, is in his 859th day of captivity for the sake of Christ. He has asked for our prayers and rejoices that the Lord is using him for the sake of the kingdom. Asia Bibi remains also in a cell in Pakistan in her 870th day of captivity – only she has actually been sentenced to hang – to the terror of her Christian husband and two young daughters. There are many, many others who today are giving up their freedom and even their lives as a testimony and a witness to our Lord’s message of the cross, of forgiveness, of freedom from the devil’s dominion, and of the promise of the resurrection and eternal life.

How we need such heroes today, dear friends!

We do not need more “heroes” who can throw a ball, play a guitar, shock and scandalize with their behavior, those who throw money around or bully others. We don’t need any more “heroes” as the world sees them, but we need the encouragement and the example of our brothers and sisters who are willing to lay down their lives as a thank offering to the One who laid down His life for us as a sin offering – the one all-availing sacrifice for the sin of the world!

How weak and shameful we are by comparison! How quick we are to allow other things to take precedence over our Lord and His Word! Oh, how badly we need heroes to point us to the path that leads to the cross and the empty tomb, the way that leads to life and victory and glory!

How we long for the day of vindication for all the saints, that day about which we all sing, whether seated comfortably in freedom on a padded pew cushion, or chained in agony to a concrete slab:

“And when the fight is fierce the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong,
Alleluia! Alleluia!”

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

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

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