Last Sunday of the Church Year (Matthew 25:1-13)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Last Sunday of the Church Year + November 25, 2018

Text: Matthew 25:1-13

            We can all agree that being prepared is important.  If you are prepared for something, it will be easier to meet when it comes.  This is true of things we know when to expect, like Christmas, bills, school assignments, or retirement.  But it’s also true of things we don’t have a date on, like natural disasters and when the car will break down.

            Despite how important it is, preparing for the future is often shuffled to the bottom of priorities. released a study indicating that 36% of American workers have absolutely nothing saved for retirement.[1]  We all know that earthquakes and floods can and do happen, but how many of us actually have stores of water and food for these events?

            In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, our Lord is talking about preparation.  We may not have a date on it, but we know—because God’s Word is true—that Christ will return.  Even tomorrow is not promised to any of us, but the Lord’s coming in glory is.  His coming will be like a “thief in the night”[2] but for those who are prepared, this will not be a shock.  In order to prepare us, so that we will not be caught off guard, Jesus tells this parable: 

1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.

After nation has risen against nation, famines, earthquakes, great tribulation, false prophets, and frightful signs in the heavens,[3] the return of Christ will be a relief for the God’s people.  At last our Savior has come! They will shout, “This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation.”[4]

But then comes the shock: not everyone who is waiting for the Lord enters into the Marriage Feast!  Haven’t all ten been prepared?  All have dressed themselves for their Bridegroom’s return.   They all have their lamps handy.  They even all fell asleep in waiting for the Bridegroom.  So why are five wise and five foolish?

It’s has to do with the oil.  The five wise had oil to last the wait, but the foolish only brought enough for the moment.

But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’

It seems that the wise are coldhearted toward their companions.  How can this be an example of charity?  The virgins have oil and they are not willing to share!

The real trouble is they are not able to share because the oil is living faith, and each must have his own.  Verse 1 in Greek makes a special point that that each has her own lamp.  To be sure, Christians are commanded to share material things with those in need, but faith is something that one person cannot give to another.  As Martin Luther began one of his sermons,

The summons of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Every one must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone. We can shout into another’s ears, but every one must himself be prepared for the time of death, for I will not be with you then, nor you with me.[5]

The reality is that each of us must be prepared with his or her own faith.  Faith is a gift from God, but it is one that each needs to have and treasure above all else in this life.

            Jesus tells this parable to His disciples.  He speaks to those in His Church, not to those outside.  The ten virgins stand for the whole of all who consider themselves Christians.  Enough has been said by the Lord to those who reject His Word for themselves—Muslims, Hindus, agnostics, and atheists.  But Jesus is our Lord and He has every right to our attention.

            It is also fitting that He has our attention now, because the time is coming when we will all grow drowsy and sleep.  None of us can escape death (which the Lord calls sleep more than once).[6] He tells us that the sleep of death will come to us all before His return.  As the Apostle Paul says, “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”[7]

             The virgins are decked out for the Bridegroom’s return.  No doubt they are all beautifully clad and full of anticipation.  As Psalm 45 foretells, “All glorious is the princess in her chamber, with robes interwoven with gold. In many-colored robes she is led to the king, with her virgin companions following behind her.”[8]  The Church, the Bride of Christ is waiting eagerly for His return.

            But it turns out for all their preparations, the foolish virgin companions have run out of oil.  They would have been fine if the Lord had come back immediately, but He delayed in returning. 

Now, this has a lot to say to us as Lutherans, who move heaven and earth to get our children baptized, but then never bring them to church again.  It speaks to parents who could care less about the Divine Service until 7th grade hits, and suddenly their junior high student must be confirmed.  Pastor Mark Surburg calls confirmation the “magic talisman of the Lutheran Church,” that parents and children go to great lengths for a moment in time, but neglect training in godliness for the rest of life’s journey.

            The Lord also warns everyone who would trust in virgin garments.  Even though you rarely miss a Sunday at Church, and though you gave generously in the offering plate, and though you sponsored every one of the pew Bibles, none of this will win you the Bridegroom’s eye.  The Apostle to the Hebrews and St. Paul both agree, “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” and “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”[9]

            The wise virgins know this, but the foolish virgins, like the goats from last week, think they can make an appeal to seniority and that their dedication counts for something.  Once fed at the rich table of Law and Gospel preaching and the comfort of the Sacraments, they leave to subsist on scraps at their friend’s non-denom church.  They move to college, get divorced, or lose their job and decide that church they were at is what’s wrong with their life.  They marry an unbeliever and think they’ll save him by sitting next to him on the couch.

            Empty lamps with the flame burning out is what all of us become unless we are regularly filled by the Lord.  If the Lord brought us to heaven immediately, we might be fine.  But He doesn’t.  He tarries, and the journey of life is long.  “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  Be prepared for the whole span of your life.

            When it comes to preparing for things like retirement or an upcoming trip, the emphasis is on our work and our decisions.  If we don’t save or we don’t pack, we’ll be sorry.  But when it comes to being a wise virgin, the Lord prepares you. He gives you a heart of wisdom to number your days,[10] so that you see your desperate need for the gifts He freely gives.  We come to the Lord like an empty vessel, needing to be filled.  He gladly does this!  He is filling you right here in the Divine Service.  In faith, you hear His Word, receive His forgiveness, and taste His Body and Blood.  He fills you in Bible study, so that as you spend time meditating on His Word, He fills you with eternal riches.

In being filled, you sometimes might miss out on sleep, or watching a football game, or your kids might not be the basketball star you wish they could be.  But the wise virgins know that what her Bridegroom gives—and still has laid up in eternity—far outshines anything on this earth.  Unless He comes before, you will grow drowsy and your earthly life will ebb to a close.  You will be with Him until that final trumpet sounds and all the virgins rise.  Those wise, prepared virgins will rejoice and sing in the words of Psalm 45:

    Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.

The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness;

                you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness.

                  Therefore God, your God, has anointed you

with the oil of gladness beyond your companions;

And “with joy and gladness they will be led along as they enter the palace of the King.”[11] Amen.


[2] 1 Thessalonians 5:2 (Epistle reading)

[3] An overview of Matthew 24

[4] Isaiah 25:9

[5] Sermon for Invocabit Sunday (1st Sunday in Lent), March 9, 1522

[6] Let us not laugh at Him like those at Jairus’ house or be ignorant like the disciples at Lazarus’ death  (Matthew 9:24; John 11:11-15)

[7] 2 Corinthians 6:2

[8] Psalm 45:13-14

[9] Hebrews 11:6, Romans 14:23

[10] Psalm 90:12

[11] Psalm 45:6-7, 15

Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Matthew 25:31-46)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year + November 18, 2018

Baptism of Nathan L. Vasquez

Text: Matthew 25:31-46

It’s no myth from the past or a method of keeping people in line.  Every person will appear before the judgment seat of Christ.  “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Cor. 5:10)

But that brings up the question, what will people be judged by? 

35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

And to those bound for hell, He says,

For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

This sounds like they will be judged by their works, and that those works are the basis for whether someone placed on the right (going to heaven) or the left (going to hell).

But if that’s the case, this would seem to contradict the rest of Scripture which says, “The righteous will live by his faith” (Mal. 4) and “by works of the Law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16) and the King’s own words to the sinful woman: “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” (Luke 7:50)

If we’re to believe that He will judge us by our works, a performance-based review, who tips the scales?  How would anyone know if they had worked their way over to the right side of the King?  If you go down that road too far, you’ll wind up in the ditch on either side.  On one side of the road is pride, where you’re sure that all your hard work for God must amount to some kind of reward.  This is the ditch that we see Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr in heaven simply because of all the good they appeared to do.

Then there’s the other ditch which is filled with despair.  How could I ever hope to measure up in God’s sight?  I’ve got such a load of sin that I could never make it up to Him!  I couldn’t possibly hope to do enough good to be called “a saint.”  Incidentally, this is also the ditch people wind up in when they think the Church will fall down the minute they walk through the door.

If our eternal destination depended on how well we measured up against God’s standards, then no one could be saved—not Mother Teresa, not Saint Paul, not you or me.  Even King David himself prays, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.” (Psalm 143:2)

Listen to these words again:

And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food…

The key is in what He says before the works: Inherit kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world.  I know some of you in the congregation have worked all your life, but I don’t know any person who has worked since the foundation of the world.  I also don’t know how many inheritances have to be worked for—unless you have a sadistic relative.  No, an inheritance is something that is bequeathed to you after someone dies.  So now put those two together—works and inheritance.  The only one who has been working to prepare from the foundation of the world is the Son of God, who “for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven…and was made man.” (Nicene Creed).  He is also the one who died, and who made us His heirs—“This is my Blood of the New Testament which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:20) 

So Christ has worked and Christ has died, and the sheep receive what He earned and what He willed them to receive.  It is true—“by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

But what about the works?  After all the King says they have done all these marvelous things—fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned.  But the righteous seem to have a memory block and can’t remember doing all that.  That’s because this is what faith is.  Faith receives the perfect, righteous life of Jesus.  Through faith in the Perfect Man, the faithful are counted as perfect, acceptable in God’s sight.  That’s why it’s such a shock on that day, because they are not judged only by their deeds; they are judged on the deeds of Jesus Christ and receive a perfect passing grade.

Now lastly, it sounds like those on the King’s left, the goats, are judged by their works—“Lord when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?”  And it’s true.  The goats, the wicked, are those who refused the way of faith and chose the way of works.  They tested God by saying, I’m sure there will be an exemption for people like me.  Surely God would let the decent people go to heaven.  But because they refused Christ, they are judged exactly by their works, and found wanting. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and that’s what they find out by the time it’s too late.  But to you who hear the Word today, believe the rest of the verse: “and are justified by His grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24)

But the works are mentioned for a reason.  When the Lord talks about works, he doesn’t let His people off with a free behavior pass to do whatever they please.  Scripture speaks very strongly against the idea that faith exists in a vacuum.  Works are the fruit of a heart that actually has faith.   The Apostle James, not being up on Lutheran lingo says, “So faith alone, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17)  And he’s right.  If we claim to be Christians, but it makes no difference in how we order our life, then we have a faith problem. 

Jesus endured His bloody suffering and death because our sin went to our heart.  The heart is where our will is ruled, and that’s where all actual sin comes from.  But because Christ’s sacrifice in which we believe starts in the heart, the heart must change.  Today, we witnessed the power and promise of God for Nathan, because St. Paul writes, “He saved us by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit whom He poured out on us through Jesus Christ our Savior.” (Titus 3:4-6)  While everyone who believes in Jesus has this power, Baptism confirms God’s work to make us new people.  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10)  Through Baptism, God answers this call by giving the gift of the Holy Spirit who mightily works to crucify our old self and the wickedness in our heart, and raises us with Christ to walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4).

So yes, as far as good works, Christ-like, sacrificial, loving works toward God and our neighbor—God does expect those because He puts them in our new heart.  And whatever still rears its ugly, evil head, He forgives.  But on the Last Day, we will be judged on account of our faith—whether we believe in Jesus from the heart or whether we choose a do-it-yourself alternative.  Out of His boundless mercy, and according to His wonderful promises, may we be found on the King’s right hand.  Amen.

Works are also the fruit of faith, the visible evidence of the difference between the saints and the wicked.

Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 25)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 25) + November 11, 2018

Text: Exodus 32:1-20

Waiting is hard.  I don’t know anyone who is perfectly patient about rising above their present troubles.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could always do what the Apostle to the Hebrews admonishes us to do: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross.” (Heb. 12:2 NIV)  Would that we had such undivided devotion to our Lord and the unshakable kingdom He has prepared for us.  But the reality is, we get impatient waiting on God’s timing when He doesn’t work on the schedule we’re so convinced is right and reasonable.

How true this is also of the Church as a whole.  After the Ascension of Christ, believers were in eager expectation that Jesus’ return was right around the corner.  Apostles were martyred—that’s okay; Jesus is coming back soon.  They had all things in common and nobody lacked within the tight-knit Christian community (Acts 2:44-45).  Doctrinal controversies came—circumcision and early Gnosticism,[1] but the Apostles were present to clear up the confusion.  When the Galatians had false teachers come to them, they got a personal letter from the Apostle Paul himself!  Take heart, brothers, this is only for a short time; the Lord is at hand!

Then the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD and, the believers remembered His words like those in Matthew 24.  This is happening just like Jesus said!  Surely, Jesus will return is in a few years!  Then over twenty years pass, and the last apostle, John, dies of old age.  Now we’re starting to get worried.  By the time the generation of the resurrection eye-witnesses fell asleep, waiting started to get real hard.

Over the next two hundred years, persecution and martyrdom were commonplace.  Compromisers got off scot free, and false teaching was rampant at times.  Then the public church came in 312 AD.  By now people were pretty sure that the Lord’s return wasn’t immediately around the corner.  The down side of this is that the Church began to get complacent.  When Christians received public approval, when they built large buildings, and the Church became an institution with earthly property and influence, there came with it the temptation to get comfortable with this life.  Now, that is a big generalization, and certainly not true of every Christian, but it’s a lot easier to be in it for the long haul when you can look at church buildings, bishops, and large assemblies as affirmation of what the Church is.  The church is the hierarchy under the pope, the church is the building, the church is how many believers we can count, the church is long-standing tradition!

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

It had been all of 40 days since Moses went up on the mountain.  They had seen the smoke and the thunder, and been terrified by the peals of trumpets and the threat that no creature must touch Mount Sinai.[2]  But I mean, it’s been over a month now, and we don’t know what happened to this Moses fellow.  In their impatience, they took matters into their own hands.  You know what would really help this group stay together?  A cast image!  Every great nation has its idols, and that really brings unity.  We’re the people the Lord has brought out of Egypt, so let’s make a god[3] to go before us!

Now at this point, we know that what the Israelites did, and asked Aaron to do was clearly idolatry and against the plain command of God.  But there’s something to this request of the people: “Up, make us gods who shall go before us.”  The word there in Hebrew is asah which means to manufacture (in contrast, God is the only one who can create banah out of nothing).  It’s the work of human hands, a creation by a creature.[4]  The people were asking for something tangible that they could put their trust in, and they wanted that something to be what their hands built.

In Romans 1, St. Paul explains what sin does in the heart of man:

21 Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things… 25 they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”

They worshiped and served the creation over the Creator.  The creation for them became more significant, more worthy than the Word of the Creator.  That’s what happened when Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was beautiful, good for food, and desirable for wisdom.[5]  Those attributes of a created thing became a higher pursuit than fidelity to God and His command.

As all things in the Scripture are written for our learning, what’s the lesson from the incident of the Golden Calf?  Of course, don’t copy pagan worship practices, making an idol and ask it to save you, as if you could treat a crucifix like a lucky charm.  But more to the point for us: We are waiting, have been waiting, and likely will continue to have to wait for the Lord’s return.  In our waiting, the Church collectively and as individual souls, need to be watchful that we don’t start worshipping the Church instead of our Lord, or the things that serve the Church at the expense of our devotion to the Word of the Lord.

How much different the Church today would be if all of us actually believed that Jesus’ return was imminent!  We might actually take His Word seriously and not have our hearts weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness (Luke 21:34).  We would have a much clearer focus of what the Church is, and what she is to be busy doing as she waits.

“Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19): We would be more interested in sinners who repent and believe than if they’re the kind of sinners we want to sit next to in the pew.  But there’s a world of difference between the law-based weeding out that ICE does and the soul care that happens in the Kingdom of Heaven.  What makes the difference in God’s eyes between someone who is “deported” versus a citizen of heaven is whether they hear the Word of the Lord, confess their sins, and believe that only Jesus is able to save their sorry self.

“Preach the Word in season and out of season…with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2)  Have you ever thought about why pastors give sermons?  It’s not the same as a stump speech from a politician, or a keynote address from an expert in the field.  What happens from the pulpit is God’s Word being applied to His people—both Law and Gospel.  A wise homiletics professor told his students to preach every sermon like it’s the last your people will ever hear.  While the Lord’s return may not be next week, your death might come before next Sunday.  And for your part, listen to the servant the Lord has sent you.

From the Gospel today: “If they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.” (Matt. 24:26)  If we truly believed that the Lord’s return was imminent, we wouldn’t take doctrine and Bible study so lightly.  It’s a matter of spiritual life and spiritual death which Christ you follow.  When you are confirmed in the apostolic faith, you can be sure that you have the real Christ because He is the one who speaks from the Scriptures.  If ever you are tempted to leave the Church where this true Christ is proclaimed because you are turned off by outward fluff like music, I beg of you consider the health of your soul!

So it’s clear that we sin and put our trust in the wrong things just as much as our forefathers.  Holy and mighty God, have mercy upon us sinners!  We truly deserve to have You sweep us away and give Your kingdom to others.  But that’s where the other part of the story of the Golden Calf applies to us: Moses interceded (vv. 11-14).  He implored God to not give the people what they deserved for their disobedience and foolishness.  And that is what Jesus Christ does for you and me.  St. John, the Apostle who died in old age penned these words for us before He entered glory:

“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:1-2)

We have an intercessor better than Moses, one who has offered Himself on behalf of our sins.  While many make take advantage of God’s grace and take His patience for granted, may we believe and appreciate the wrath of God which Jesus has saved us from.  The reason God is so gracious to us today is because the blood of Jesus is so powerful.  Brothers and sisters, let the Spirit move you to greater devotion to your Lord.  When you are called out for something that is not God-pleasing in your life, repent immediately; don’t put it off to tomorrow.  When you are offered forgiveness, run, don’t walk to the altar of the Lord.  What we believe is no trifling game, and the Lord truly is coming soon.  Against all that our slothful, proud, and arrogant flesh tells us, live each day as if tomorrow you will face the Judgment Throne of Christ.  Now, in terms of the readings, you will have to wait till next Sunday to hear that Gospel.  In the meantime, go in the peace which Christ has purchased for you, and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless until the coming of our Lord.  He who calls you is faithful and He will surely do it.  Amen.

[1] 1 John 5:4-12, Heb. 10:19-25

[2] Exodus 19:10-15

[3] The name for God in Hebrew is Elohim, a plural.  It’s possible that the people weren’t asking for multiple gods, just a single god after the manner of pagan worship.

[4] Isaiah 44:9-17

[5] Genesis 3:6

Hymn Notes (3rd to Last Sunday of the Church Year)

LSB 655 Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word is a children’s hymn that Martin Luther composed in 1541-42. At that time, the Evangelical (later called Lutheran) church was under ongoing threat by those loyal to the pope. In addition, the advancement of the Turks into the region of Budapest brought war to the eastern border of the Empire. In the original text of stanza 1, we beseech God to “curb the Turks’ and papists’ sword” (later a more general and mild “by deceit or sword”) so that the Gospel of Christ may be preached and believed in spite of its devilish enemies.

LSB 496 Holy Spirit, Light Divine was written in 1817 by Dr. Andrew Reed in London. During his ministry in the Congregational church, Dr. Reed had a heart for orphans and the mentally ill. This hymn was penned as a prayer to the Holy Spirit, who alone can enlighten the darkness of our guilty hearts and sanctify us to fully know and trust in Jesus Christ.

TLH 650 Joseph Grigg was a Presbyterian pastor in London and composed this hymn in 1765.  Behold, a Stranger at the Door, based on Revelation 3:20 expands on the Lord Jesus’ call for spiritual renewal and perseverance within His Church.  Aware of how easy it is for us sinners to become spiritual indifferent and not pay attention to our Shepherd’s voice, this hymn rather bluntly admonishes us to realize this and repent of it, and then to be forgiven and renewed in devoted serve to our Lord and Savior.

LSB 718 Jesus, Lead Thou On, composed in 1721, has long been a favorite among Lutheran Christians.  Nicolaus von Zinzendorf, its composer, was born of royalty and had strong roots in the Pietist revival movement in Halle, Germany. He zealously left everything to become a missionary and travelled around Europe, the British Isles, and America. Although during his lifetime, von Zinzendorf caused trouble by inserting himself into established congregations, he left a beneficial legacy of several hymns and spiritual songs.

Hymn Notes (All Saints Day)

Jerusalem the Golden, written by Benedictine monk, Bernard of Cluny (France), echoesthe hope of all the faithful. Based on visions from Revelation 21 and 7, “we know not what joys await us there,” but it will be our eternal Sabbath rest andhome with our God.

In Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones, we sing of the angel hosts of heaven (Eph. 1:19-21, 6:12; Col. 1:16), whom we are privileged to join in adoration and praise of God. The Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of the Feast in Revelation 19, therefore the preface says, “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven…”

For All the Saints, though a relatively recent hymn (19th century), depicts the great cloud of witnesses with which we are surrounded (Heb. 12:1-2).  On earth, the church “feebly struggles; they in glory shine,” but though hidden from our eyes for now, the same hope awaits all who have hoped in Christ in every generation.

Onward Christian Soldiers, an American favorite, emboldens us for the journey and spiritual warfare that still await us in this present world. Our victory over sin, death, and the devil belong to our Lord, and He calls us to follow Him as His cross goes before us. (Exod. 14:13)

All Saints Day (observed) (Revelation 7:9-14)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

All Saints Day (observed) + November 4, 2018

Text: Revelation 7:9-14

After this 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, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

All Saints is a holiday in the true sense of the word—a holy day—because it commemorates what God calls holy, distinct from that which God calls profane.  God separates us from the multitude of unbelievers.  “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:15) and from today’s Epistle: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” (1 John 3:1)  For now though, it doesn’t look like it.  It looks like Christians and Muslims and Jews and dogs and cats all die the same.  Their flesh lies rotting in a box, or incinerated at 1500 *F.  But even though that flesh has perished, the Last Day will reveal quite the distinction.

In God’s eyes there is a difference as significant as the first day when He separated light from darkness.[1]  Jesus says, “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:28-29)  But this difference is on hold until the Last Day.  For now, the Lord says, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:28) and “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

This future has not come.  But don’t be foolish like the people who say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” (2 Peter 3:4)  So, they lump Christians together with other religions and look down their noses and think, ‘Isn’t that quaint! They comfort themselves with some bright hope of an afterlife. Whatever helps you sleep at night!’  But because they do not believe, they don’t understand that no Word of God ever fails.  The Lord Jesus did not get lost in the clouds on His way back, nor did God sleep through the day and hour of His Son’s return.

At God’s appointed time, this hum-drum cycle of days and years and seasons will suddenly end.  Creation will come unraveled and then the Lord will return for His people and to mete out judgments against His enemies.  None of this was fabricated in some pious person’s imagination; this the Word of the Lord and the Church says, “Thanks be to God” for this.[2]

From an earthly perspective, death is death.  It’s all the same.  Your body wears out and you die.  It’s sad and painful when someone dies, and eyes are filled with many tears.  But death in God’s sight continues to be life: “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26).  It is deliverance, as the faithful pray, “but deliver us from evil.”  God even goes to the point of saying in Psalm 116: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” (v. 15)

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

So God has turned death into life and a precious deliverance.  Also from God’s perspective, what we now live in is a tribulation, even though unspiritual eyes will just ask why you’re making such a big deal of your religion.  We may call it ordinary life, but God calls it a pilgrimage.  Many say that whatever faith you are is just a matter of opinion, but God says it makes the difference between eternal life and eternal death.

We live in both realities—before God and before man.  We have eyes of faith and eyes like the rest of mankind.  We have hearts that belong to Jesus, but we also have hearts which can be enticed by God’s enemies.  This is what calls for perseverance among the saints.  It would be great if the Lord took the baptized immediately to paradise, but in His wisdom, He leaves us “to struggle, [while] they in glory shine.”[3]  Perhaps that’s the hardest part of being a Christian, that we don’t always have tangible confirmation of our trust.

But we are not alone while we wait with longing hearts.  The Apostle to the Hebrews writes, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…[and] we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” (Hebrews 11:1, 12:1)  We are called to a hope that we cannot now see, but one which is precious, eternal, and certain.

As we live straddling these two worlds, we have fleeting moments where the beatific vision is clearer, like when we read a favorite passage in God’s Word, or hear an inspiring song.  Yet something surpasses the elation of personal spiritual highs, when the faithful are called together in assembly.  In that gathering, heaven does touch earth.  Here in the Divine Service, we are gathered in the Name of the Lord, and He is among us.  That’s also why it’s here that we remember and receive the Lord’s Supper.

The Lord’s Supper brings us the closest to our heavenly reality that we can share in this side of glory.  That’s because it brings the heavenly reality in the Flesh.  Most of the Christian life happens in the heart and is unseen.  When we try to share our faith with others, if they don’t have the Holy Spirit, our words fall flat and it’s like we’re speaking a foreign language.  If we share our Christian faith with another believer, it’s a beautiful thing and there’s a special connection with fellow believers on this earth.  At the same time, we long for something tangible in our fellowship with God.

This He gladly and freely gives us in His Supper.  “Taste and see that the Lord is good. Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.” (Psalm 34:8)  In this place, it is the Lord Jesus who personally invites us to His Table to feed us with His Body and His Blood.  His Body, once broken and now risen victorious over death, is on your tongue.  His blood, once poured out for your sins now flows eternally to give life to you under the shadow of death (as the Scripture says, “the life is in the blood,” Lev. 17:14)—and it is this very blood on your lips.

Saints, fellow heirs of the kingdom of heaven, your inheritance is very great.  Even as we bear the tribulation of this life, our Savior stands among us and pours out the strength and perseverance which we need on our pilgrimage.  Come again—and come often—to the Table where your Risen Lord feeds your mortal body with the Bread of immortality.  Come and be renewed in what is eternal.  The world in its present form is passing away, and what now troubles you will also pass away.  But what God has worked for your life and salvation is eternal.  In this we have hope; through Jesus our Lord.  Amen.

[1] Genesis 1:4

[2] 2 Peter 1:21

[3] LSB 677, “For All the Saints,” st. 4