Date: All Saints Day, November 6, 2016
Texts: Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 149; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
Context: The early Church commonly commemorated a martyr’s death on the date of their death. However over time, the number of martyrs made this untenable, and the Church moved to single days of observances for those who died for the faith. In the late 4th century this was observed in some places directly after Pentecost Sunday. Pope Gregory IV in the 9th century established November 1 as a date for the entire Church. This observance also gradually extended to encompass all those who died in the faith, rather than just those who died specifically because of their faith. In our congregation, we name specifically those who have died in the past year, ringing a bell after each name is read. Then we invite the congregation to say aloud the names of friends and loved ones who have passed, regardless of when or whether they were associated specifically with our congregation or not. As with Christian memorial services, while this is a somber moment, it should also be a moment of joy. We miss those who have passed before us into glory, but we know that they are at peace, and that we will be joined together again in Christ on the Last Day if not sooner.
Revelation 7:9-17 – I like to refer to this as the family reunion photo. Everyone is here. Nobody is forgotten, everyone is included, nobody is blinking or sneezing or looking away. It is complete and perfect – the only complete and perfect family reunion photo in all of creation history. Note that the emphasis is not on one another, but rather on God and the Lamb. We tend to think of heaven in terms of being with our loved ones again. While I won’t argue that this is true and wonderful, it will pale in comparison with being in the presence of God. At least initially! The perfection of unity in our relationship with him will permeate every other aspect of ourselves and our relationships. Paradise is restored as God’s family is finally and completely perfectly at rest and joy together in one time and place.
Psalm 149 – The next to last of the psalms is one of both praise for God, and preparation to be utilized by God in carrying out his vengeance against the nations and peoples, shorthand for those opposed to God and his rule. We might look at this psalm as a counterpart to Psalm 2, which proclaims the folly of those who set themselves against God and his Anointed. His Anointed will dash the opposition in Psalm 2, and here in Psalm 149, God’s people have a role to play in this as well. Note that praises to God and wielding the sword go together. It is not possible to wield the sword properly if praise for God is not corresponding. In taking up the sword God’s people are only carrying out the judgment that is already written, rather than determining how and where and when the sword is to be used. These verses have been variously used to stir up support for holy war throughout history, and never to good end. Yet despite our sinfulness, it must be remembered that those who will not receive God’s mercy will receive their desire to be apart from him. They will be banished, receiving the judgment they have requested and the chains they ultimately have forged for themselves. Evil will be defeated and finally cast out, and this is the hope of God’s people in all times and places. We look forward to the day when our faith is vindicated by the return of the Anointed, by the culmination of all things into a new heaven and a new earth and a future that will have no suffering and no end.
1 John 3:1-3 – God gives us his love, makes us his children, and so we are. Period. God receives the glory because it is He alone who accomplishes this miracle, that rebels and sinners should be made obedient and holy children. This reality should be something the world looks forward to, but it does not, lost as it is, separated from God by willful ignoring of his reality (Romans 1 stuff!). We ourselves are prone to doubt this amazing reality, but it is real all the same, independent of our recognition. But one day our natures in Christ will be revealed. Satan will have no further means of making us doubt and wonder about ourselves, and it will be obvious to all the world as well. It is to this hope that we cling, towards this end that we struggle each day against sin and temptation, that we might better resemble the people we truly are, children of God.
Matthew 5:1-12 – None of the categories in these beatitudes are ones that the world values. Poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who seek after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, the persecuted – all in one way or the other are rejected by the world as, at best, impractical and naive, and at worst as targets for exploitation. The world may claim to like mercy but only when it suits personal ends, only from a position of strength. The world may idolize the pure in heart but it insists on defining what such purity consists of. Peacemakers are sought but most people would prefer the shorter road of achieving peace through strength. Jesus focuses on the least desirable, least comfortable categories of people in this sermon, assuring them that while they may suffer by the world because of their condition, their suffering is not without hope. Now is not all there is, and the future is already decided. Jesus does not offer merely the idea of a better tomorrow. He does not exhort these people to work harder to change their fortunes and circumstances. He declares what is already real and true for each of these categories. There is no doubt or uncertainty, as He sees with eyes that perceive far more of the future than we are capable of.
On All Saints Day we celebrate this vision. Those who precede us in death already know the truth of what Jesus says. They have heaven, comfort, satisfaction and mercy. And they – along with us – will indeed receive the kingdom of heaven as well as the earth. It is we who are to be mourned, rather than them! We must continue to suffer, to hunger, to mourn, to hunger. But God’s promises are sure, and we do these things in the light and peace and joy of these promises. What we endure is nothing new – it is what God’s people have endured for hundreds and thousands of years. So celebrate today as we remember those whose fight is over, who have rest at last, and who we will one day join together once again in praise of our God with!