Sunday, November 4, 2018

All Saints' Sunday
Revelation 7:(2-8) 9-17
Psalm 149
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven.

I have changed my view on Halloween a dozen different times in this writing. Sometimes I have looked at it from the point of view as good clean fun. As a matter of fact, there was a time when Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. I had such fun dressing up in costume, over-decorating the house, and giving candy to the multitudes of children that visited our home. At other times I have taken a less positive perspective. There are things about Halloween that is not acceptable in our Christian life.

In his letter to Galatia, Paul talks about the deeds of the flesh: adultery, sexual immorality, uncleanness, lustfulness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, strife, jealousies, outbursts of anger, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. Of course, our children don’t partake in some of these, but how many costumes these days are called “sexy whatever.” The kids might not be getting drunk, but how many adults will over-imbibe today to celebrate? The Greek word for “debauchery” means “lack of self restraint.” How many times have we watched children push each other out of the way to get to be the first one at the next door?

“Hatred” means “hostility, in opposition, or hateful.” We spend Halloween dressing up as evil characters, doing nasty things to one another, bringing people to a state of fear. Even in good humor, this is a hateful thing to do. And what does Paul mean by “and things like these?” The list of sinful acts that could be drawn from this term is extensive. Paul doesn’t leave a loophole for those who want to do things against the nature we are given in Christ. During Halloween celebrations we see gluttony. The children stuff their faces with candy. Greed is rampant. “Just one more house, Mom, please?” We cannot forget pride. “My costume is better than yours.”

I haven’t really participated in Halloween festivities much since my kids have grown. Our neighborhood gets a lot of children, and it is frustrating to see the traffic jam at our corner as parents from distant places drop off their kids because they think we are rich. Our neighbor told us they gave candy to over three hundred children last year. Despite this, we decided we would turn on our lights and open our doors. I’ve purchased tons of candy and plenty of non-food treats for the kids who have allergies. Unfortunately, severe weather is threatening the fun and we may not see the hundreds of children for which we have prepared.

Now, this talk of Halloween really has nothing to do with the topic of this week’s Midweek Oasis. And yet, it has everything to do with it. Halloween has become a holiday about death with ghosts and zombies. Yet, there’s another way of looking at this night. It is All Hallow’s Eve, a night that leads us into All Saints’ Day which is a time when we should remember the saints who have passed through this life into life eternal. Unfortunately, the world has added the icons of evil and death and has made this a holiday that brings out the worst in people. As we recall the memories of those we love, let us make this night about fun, laughter and sharing instead.

For many, the focus on death is not only frightful, it is depressing. Too many have had to face the loss of people they have loved over the past year. Even if there is no recent deaths in our families, All Saints’ Day reminds us of those whom we continue to miss. My mom has been gone for twenty years and my dad thirteen, but I still think of them often. I know others who are the same. On nearly a daily basis I see one of my Facebook friends post a candle or a rose for those in heaven who are celebrating an earthly or heavenly birthday.

Jesus tells us “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” We are comforted by the Word of God that tells us this life is only a momentary journey on our way to an eternity in heaven. We believe and we are blessed. We find comfort in the promise that our mourning will one day come to an end forever as God Himself wipes away our tears.

The greatest blessing is that the kingdom of heaven is not just a future hope. The Gospel lesson is a list of blessings - beatitudes - that are hard for us to understand. Where is the blessedness in poverty, mourning, meekness or hunger? In a world that seeks wealth, fame and power it is hard to accept mercy, purity of heart and peacemaking as the way to succeed. These are not seen as strengths, but weaknesses. Finally, it is impossible to rejoice in persecution. Yet, Jesus says, “Blessed are they...” They are the blessed ones, the ones who are receiving the mercy and grace of God.

The hope of faith is framed in this passage by the assurance of God’s presence. In verse three, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” In verse ten He says, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Notice that in these two verses, the gift is present: theirs is the kingdom of heaven. IS. In verses four through nine the gift is future. Jesus tells us that the blessed will be comforted, will inherit the earth, will be filled, will receive mercy, will see God, will be called sons of God. A time will come when all our suffering will cease and we will be with God for eternity, but we are assured that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the blessed of God now.

Living in the promises of God is never easy. There will always be those who oppose Him and seek to destroy His people. Persecution is always a possibility when we follow in Jesus’ footsteps. He was spot-free Lamb, sinless and innocent. Yet He suffered the cruelest torture and death imaginable. We are baptized into His life and His death, called to persevere through this life until we see the fulfillment of His promises.

John writes about those who make it through tribulation, “These are those who came out of the great tribulation. They washed their robes, and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. Therefore they are before the throne of God, they serve him day and night in his temple. He who sits on the throne will spread his tabernacle over them. They will never be hungry, neither thirsty any more; neither will the sun beat on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the middle of the throne shepherds them, and leads them to springs of waters of life. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” John gives us hope to live our faith in Jesus Christ in this world today sure of the knowledge that one day we will live in a place with no hunger, thirst or pain. Someday we will live in the very presence of God for eternity, with nothing to separate us from the fullness of His glory. This is not ours by our works, but by God’s grace. This leads us to a life of worship and joy, not evil and death.

In the passage from Revelation, John describes an incredible number of worshipers. The book of Revelation has been widely interpreted, and misinterpreted, since John wrote it nearly two thousand years ago. Read a dozen commentaries and you’ll find a dozen different explanations for the symbolism of the images and the numbers. First there is a list of the tribes, twelve thousand from each who are sealed by God. The number 144,000 is not literal; it is twelve times twelve tribes times a thousand which was the largest number understood by man at the time representing the fullness of the Jewish people. John then follows with a description of a great multitude that no one could number. The first group is made of Jews and the second of the nations; worship in heaven will include all believers, both Jew and Gentile.

The multitude cries out, “Salvation be to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” This is a moment of worship, of thanksgiving, of witness to the work of God in Jesus Christ. He is being praised for saving God’s people, bringing them through the tribulation and making them right so that they can stand before the throne. The angels see this praise and join in with the faithful, singing a doxology of praise. Whatever the numbers, every one of the faithful, both angelic and human, are part of the eternal worship that will glorify Christ forever. This is our eternal hope; this is the life the saints will live according to God’s promises. This is the hope that God has fulfilled through Jesus Christ, washing our righteousness with His blood so that we can stand before Him in praise and thanksgiving; it is the hope that we will never suffer again.

All Saints Day is not really a day for mourning; it is a day to celebrate the promises of God. For a Christian, death is just the passing from this world into new life in Christ where we receive the blessings promised by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We weep over the loss of those we love, for they will never again join us in the laughter and pain of this world. Even Jesus wept, for in death we see the reality of sin and the grave. It is separation from those we love, an end to the blessings of life in this world. When someone we love dies, we mourn because we feel the loss, but we know that there is hope beyond the grave. Jesus made it possible.

Those who believe in Jesus will receive blessing from the Lord, salvation from our Savior. We will see the day when mourning is turned to joy. We will feast at the victory table. Jesus overcomes even time and space by drawing all the saints - past, present and future - into one body. All Saints Day is sad as we remember those whose lives have slipped from our grasp, but it is also a joyous event as we remember that they are still with us as part of Christ’s body. Jesus is the resurrection; He is our hope and life. He has overcome death and the grave and in Him alone is our hope for salvation. Those who seek after Him and believe in His name will receive the blessings of the Lord.

The apocalyptic text gives us a picture of what life will be when everything has been fulfilled. That multitude represents all those who have believed in Jesus throughout time and space. We stand somewhere in that multitude. We are part of those who have washed our robes in Christ’s blood and who will spend eternity worshiping God. We are the children of God. We are the saints. Thanks to God’s grace we are blessed with this future, but that doesn’t mean that our present will be without pain. We will suffer. We will get sick. And yes, we will die. In the scene from Revelation we are assured that God is faithful. He is worthy of our praise and we are called join with all the heavenly host in worship even today while we still wait to join the multitude.

“Amen! Blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, and might, be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” This sevenfold blessing is a doxology, praising God in every way. It begins with the word “Amen,” which we usually use to end a prayer. Here it calls us to listen. John uses the word “amen” often throughout his writings, particularly in his Gospel to indicate that Jesus is about to say something very important. “Amen, amen lego humin” is Greek for “Truly, truly, I say to you.” When John writes that Jesus said “Amen, amen” we should listen. So, too, both the “amens” in this passage call us to hear the words of the angels that define God’s character and establish the reason for our praise. We praise God because His is the blessing, His is the glory, His is the wisdom, and He deserves the thanksgiving because His is the honor, His is the power and His is the might.

When we think of blessedness, pain never enters our mind. To us, blessed are those who are healthy, wealthy and popular. We equate blessedness with being comfortable, contentment with satisfaction. We would never consider the poor, hungry or sick to be blessed, for they are suffering in a world that God made good. However, the danger comes when we are too comfortable. We do not see that we need help; we do not look to God for His grace.

Jesus had a way of turning our world upside down, and He certainly did so in today’s Gospel message. The Beatitudes go against everything we expect. We would much rather be comfortable and happy. We would much prefer a life of wealth, health and popularity. However, Jesus never promised us a rose garden. He promised Himself. We can find blessedness in poverty and in mourning, not because there is anything good about these things but because it is in suffering that we turn to grace. Physical blessedness is found in pain because the pain makes us look to the one who can heal us. Spiritual blessedness is found in suffering because it makes us look to God.

The saints are those who trust in God no matter their circumstances. When you read the stories of the Saints, you see horrific tales of beatings, torture, and murder. Many were burned to death or beheaded. They were thrown in prison and forgotten. They were ripped from the people they loved and forced to serve as slaves. Through it all they never wavered in their faith. They accepted the pain and suffering, and even sang God’s praises while their world fell apart. They were witnesses, even unto death, of the Gospel and God’s grace. They have learned to live in faith from those experiences, and they have passed those lessons on to us.

A story is told of a young boy and a trip to a cathedral with his grandmother. As they wandered the aisles of the church looking at the windows, the woman asked her young grandson, “Do you know who the saints are?” She was referring to the figures in the windows and their stories. The young boy answered, “They are the people who the light shines through.” He knew that there was more to their life than just their story. They were saints because God shines His light in their lives.

It is interesting to think about the light through stained glass. I love to walk through a church on a sunny day. It is wonderful for those who are on the inside because the light shines through and we can see the glass in all its beauty and study its message. But what happens when it is dark outside? The windows look lifeless and dark from inside. And yet, as the light shines on the inside, that is the very moment when people on the outside can see the story.

The light comes from inside us and it shines for the world to see. We can complain about the darkness, death and evil all around us, but it is when the light shines out to the world through our lives that we actually have an impact. When we focus on life rather than death and light rather than darkness, the world will see God and know He is real.

John writes, “See how great a love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God! For this cause the world doesn’t know us, because it didn’t know him.” We are the saints, the children of God. It is the love of God that gives us this grand and glorious title; by His mercy we are adopted into His family and we will inherit His kingdom one day, just as those faithful ones we have loved and lost have already received their inheritance. We live in the hope of faith that one day we will join them to dwell forever in the presence of God. For now we have to deal with the reality that we are blessed though we are ravaged by the world. Sometimes the blessing is in the suffering, as with those martyrs of old whose robes were washed with their own real blood; they were blessed because though they passed through death into the bosom of God for eternity by the blood of Jesus Christ.

The closest we will come to experiencing the future kingdom of heaven in this life is at the at the communion table when we share the Lord’s Supper. In some forms of the liturgy we hear words like these: “Join our prayers with those of your servants of every time and every place and unite them with the ceaseless petitions of our great high priest until he comes as victorious Lord of all.” Our worship is timeless and the fellowship numbers in the multitudes.

They say that the veil between this world and the next is very thin on Halloween. That’s why there is such a focus on ghosts and zombies. Some of other religions even performing rituals to draw near to that other world. On All Saints Sunday, we are reminded that it is true that the veil is thin, but in a very different way. While there aren’t ghosts kneeling with us as we receive the body and blood of Christ, the Church Triumphant is there amongst us, sharing in the same feast and worshipping the same Lord. They already have what we only know through hope: eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven that God has promised to those who believe in Him. While we still have to wait to see that hope fulfilled, the Kingdom of Heaven is ours today because God is faithful.

Isn’t it amazing how we laugh at the darkness and death of Halloween, but we mourn at the celebration of the saints? This All Saints Day, even as we remember those who have been lost, let’s do so with rejoicing. There is pain in the death of those we love because they will no longer be with us. But there is also joy because we know that they are now among the multitude who are praising God forever. Let us sing for joy, just as the psalmist, knowing that we too will join them one day. “Praise Yahweh! Sing to Yahweh a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints.”

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