Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sermon on Mark 11:1-10
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
November 27, 2011 (The First Sunday of Advent)

The Gospel lesson for today is the account of the events we celebrate every year on Palm Sunday.  I suspect that this may have seemed a little strange to many of you.  Why tell a story that takes place less than a week before Jesus’ death, to start off a season leading up to His birth?  Especially since there’s another Sunday in the Church year, Palm Sunday, devoted to this event?  Well, the reason the Church has historically read this lesson today is because it depicts for us what the season of Advent is all about: preparing for and meditating upon the coming of our King to us, His people.  In fact, for those of you who did not know, that’s what the word Advent means: “coming.”  When we talk about Jesus’ advent, we are talking about His coming.  Of course, there are many ways in which our Lord comes to us.  For the sake of convenience, we usually talk about our Lord’s advent in three ways: past, present, and future.  He has come to us, referring to Christ’s incarnation at Christmastime, which we will celebrate in less than a month, He comes to us now in Word and Sacrament, and He will come to us again when He returns in glory on the last day.  Just as Christ came to Jerusalem lowly and riding on a donkey, He came to this world lowly, born of a poor young virgin named Mary, in a cave that functioned as a stable because there was no place else to stay.  Just as when He came to Jerusalem the people sang, “Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest,” when He comes to His Church Sunday after Sunday we sing these very same words that He has first given to us in Holy Scripture.  When He comes again in glory there will be no stopping Him despite the wishes of those who would rather He stayed away, just as the Pharisees couldn’t stop Him or His disciples when He entered into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday.  All in all, the entry into Jerusalem is a good picture for us of what Advent is all about.

The first thing we notice about what happened on that Palm Sunday is that Jesus chose to ride into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey, a lowly beast of burden.  We might have expected Him to ride on a fine horse or a chariot drawn by several horses, instead of this lowly donkey.  But then, we might have expected Him to choose a more glorious method of becoming man than to become an infant and be born in the normal manner from the womb of a young carpenter’s fiancee named Mary.  And when He comes to us now in the Divine Service we would expect Him to come in a way more glorious or noble than water, the words of a pastor who is a sinful human being like everyone else, and bread and wine.  But God doesn’t do things in the way we might expect.  He comes to us in simple, lowly things out of love, so that we in our sinfulness can be healed by His forgiveness rather than destroyed by His righteousness.  Only when He comes again in glory will His divine power and majesty be shown forth to the world.  When He came to us at Bethlehem, and when He comes to us now, he shields His power and majesty under lowly and ordinary things, just like He did when He came to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

But because He comes to us in this lowly and simple way, it becomes too easy for our sinful human nature to think that there is nothing special here.  It is too easy for us to dismiss the words of the pastor in Holy Absolution and in Preaching as just the pastor’s words, and not as God’s Word.  It is too easy to forget about the glorious reality of death and resurrection that Christ works in a person being baptized, and instead focus on the cuteness of the baby and how he reacts to having water poured upon his head.  In the same way, it is too easy to forget the purpose for which Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, namely to die and rise again, and simply focus upon the cuteness of the baby lying in the manger.  It is too easy to forget the glorious reality of the heavenly feast of victory of which we partake in the Lord’s Supper, and simply focus on the fact that it adds to the service time.  But I suspect that’s not the whole problem.  You see, it’s a lot easier to sit and talk about a Jesus who is safely “up there” in heaven, but it makes us uncomfortable when we remember what our Lord came to do for us, and what He does for us when He comes to us now.  Our pride doesn’t like the idea that we needed Christ to die on the cross.  Our pride doesn’t like the idea that we need Christ to forgive our sins, to wash us clean in Baptism, to give us His body and blood.  We like to think we can do it ourselves.  The old Adam in us would rather Christ didn’t come, because His coming shows us our own unworthiness, and we’d rather pretend that everything is alright.

Since the old Adam has been drowned and died in Holy Baptism, however, the new, resurrected Christian in us joins that large multitude of His disciples who worshiped Him and sang His praises.  These disciples had been born again through the Word of Christ and lived no longer for themselves but for the Lord who was going to Jerusalem to win their freedom from sin, death, and hell.  Despite the lowliness of the donkey upon which Jesus rode, His disciples gave Him the treatment fit for a king.  They made the dusty road into a royal, cushioned highway using their own cloaks, and waved palm branches, and sang His praises.  Even though Jesus did not exalt Himself but rather humbled Himself, He was still the Lord of heaven and earth, the creator who ruled in heaven over all of creation.  His people, those who had been born again through His Word, saw Him for what He was, and they treated Him as well as they were able like the mighty ruler He is.  And even though He was humble and lowly in that manger in Bethlehem, His praises were sung by angels, and He was worshiped by the shepherds and even by the wise men from the east.

We do the same thing when He comes to us in the Divine Service.  When He comes to us in the Word, on most Sundays we sing the same song the angels sang on Christmas night, “Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”  To be sure, because Advent is a penitential season we didn’t sing it this morning, but the next time we will sing it again, on Christmas day, we will join with the angels who sang His praises that first Christmas.  And when He comes to us in His body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar, we echo the words of Psalm 118, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest,” just as the people on the road that day did.  Despite the common appearance of water, human speech, bread and wine, it is Christ who comes to us, and we his people recognize Him and praise Him for it.

When He comes again in glory, the majesty and power and glory which have been hidden under His seeming lowliness will be seen by everyone, and whether or not they want to, all people will acknowledge Him as the Lord of the universe.  We who have received Him in Word and Sacrament will be overjoyed at His coming, and even those who would rather ignore His coming will for once not be able to complain, because they will see their true Lord coming to judge them.  His coming again will fulfill everything that we have received in His life on earth and His coming in Word and Sacrament.  During this season we focus on preparing for His coming to us, and we do that by receiving Him in His Word and His body and blood.  By His grace, we will be ready to sing His praises when He comes in glory.  Come, Lord Jesus!  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Day of National Thanksgiving

Sermon on Luke 17:11-19
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
November 24, 2011 (Day of National Thanksgiving)

“What is the Second Commandment?  You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.  What does this mean?  We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use satanic arts, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.”  In other words, it’s not just this one day out of the year (a day which wasn’t established by Church tradition but by national tradition anyway) that we are to give thanks to God, it is our duty to do so all the time.  The danger in a day like Thanksgiving Day, as with any other day devoted to a specific theme, whether it’s a church holiday or a national holiday, is that people might get the idea that since we’ve got a day set aside for this, we can ignore it the rest of the year.  Okay, that’s over with.  What’s next, Christmas?  But, as the catechism reminds us, to call on God’s name in thanksgiving for His blessings to us is something that we are always to do.  However, since we do have this day to celebrate, it is meet, right, and salutary for us to take the opportunity to hear what God’s Word says about the subject of thankfulness, and so be encouraged to heed the Second Commandment at all times, not just on this one day out of the year.

Of course, giving thanks to God is not natural for us.  It’s not something we do when we’re left to our own devices.  Left to our own devices, we’d rather forget who it is who provides us with clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all that we have.  Our old sinful natures can’t stand the idea that we’re dependent on anybody or anything else.  That’s what really causes the sort of rebellion against God’s intention for human behavior and human relationships we see all around us.  It’s not just a matter of wanting to do these certain things even though God says not to do them.  It’s a matter of wanting to turn the relationship around, to show God and everyone else who’s boss.  I suspect that many of the sins we find rampant around us today would not be nearly so popular if it weren’t for the fact that God said not to do these things.  The fundamental problem isn’t so much the disobedience to parents and others in authority, the greed, the murder, the abortion, the adultery, the homosexuality, etc., as it is the rebellion which refuses to acknowledge that we are His creatures and are dependent upon him.  All these other things wouldn’t be nearly so attractive to people if it weren’t for the fact that they are ways of expressing rebellion and independence against God.

It is this false attitude of independence over against God that is the opposite of thankfulness toward Him.  We could talk about all the different ways in which we show thankfulness to him, by praying to Him, coming to His house regularly to hear His Word and confess back to Him what He first said to us, by obeying His commandments for us in our daily lives, by saying prayers of thanksgiving before or after our meals, by confessing Him before the world especially when challenged to provide a reason for the hope that is within us, and so on.  But the real difference between a thankful person and an ungrateful person is in the heart.  We train children to say, “thank you” when someone gives them a gift, because that’s polite.  And it is good to train children this way.  But such outward habits don’t necessarily reflect what is in the heart.  What is in the heart of natural man is the sort of self-centeredness that not only will not, but can not thank God, because it will not and can not admit that anyone besides himself should be the center of his attention.  And that’s what we all are by nature, because we are descendants of Adam and Eve.

And so thanksgiving, like everything else we do that is good, right, and salutary, is not something that we can bring forth on our own.  It’s something we can only do because God has first put to death our old selves and recreated us in the image of His Son Jesus Christ.  We love because He first loved us.  We forgive because He first forgave us.  And we give thanks because He has created in us a clean heart and renewed a right spirit within us.  The outward actions of praise, thanksgiving, and worship are only pleasing to God if they flow from a heart that knows that He has given us all of our blessings and is truly grateful for them.  Otherwise it’s mere show that doesn’t help anybody.

But that sort of a heart is precisely what He gives us.  You see, God’s blessings to us extend beyond clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all that we have.  They extend to the white robe of Christ’s righteousness, His body and blood in the great wedding feast of victory which has no end, the heavenly mansions.  God didn’t just give us a bunch of stuff, He gave us Himself.  And He did so while we were His enemies, refusing to recognize Him as the one who made us and gave us everything.  And He has remade us to be what He originally created us to be.  His Son became naked, hungry, thirsty, homeless, friendless, lonely, sick and even dead for us on the first Good Friday, so that we could be put to death with Him and rise with Him that first Easter morning as those who do know their Creator and the giver of all good gifts.

And so we give thanks to Him.  Not just for giving us the blessings we enjoy in this life (which are truly remarkable, as even those who are considered “poor” in our country have more conveniences and comfort than kings did in Biblical times), but for the blessing of eternal life.  And the giving of thanks is not only the outward words or actions or songs or liturgy, although those are meet, right, and salutary when done for the right reasons.  The giving of thanks is in a heart which recognizes who our God is, who our Giver of all good things is, and looks to Him for these things.  When the heart knows who God is, the mouth will too.  So will the eyes and the hands.  We thank Him by acknowledging Him as the one who gave us all this.  And we show that we know Him as the Giver by continuing to receive in faith what He has to give, not just for this life, but especially for the life to come.

At the end of this Gospel lesson, Jesus says to the one leper who returned to worship Him, “Arise, go your way.  Your faith has made you well.”  Actually, what the original Greek says is, “Your faith has saved you.”  The word that is translated “made you well” is actually the same word that is translated as “saved” or “salvation” when we’re talking about spiritual things.  True faith recognizes God not just as the giver of things in this old, corrupt, and temporary life, but as the giver of that eternal life where there will be no more leprosy or any other effects of sin.  And that is the faith God grants you through His Word.  Go your way.  Your faith has saved you.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Last Sunday of the Church Year, Series A

Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
November 20, 2011 (Proper 29, Series A)

One thing that’s always struck me about this particular Gospel lesson is the fact that neither the sheep nor the goats knew that they did or didn’t do these things for our Lord.  “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink?  When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You?  Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?” the sheep ask.  And the goats ask a similar question: “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?”  Of course, we all know Jesus’ answer, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did (or did not) do it to the least of these My brethren, you did it (or did not do it) to Me.”  When we serve our neighbor in love, it is really God we are serving, as we are acting as His hands to give them what they need, whether in terms of the things we do every day in our daily vocation which helps provide food for our own families or others, or in terms of the things we make a point of giving to others out of pure charity, it is through these things that God provides their daily bread.  And so when we do these things to the best of our ability, when we serve our neighbor in love, we are in reality serving God.

Of course, we never do these things totally with a pure heart, do we?  The work we do to make a living, we do for ourselves, so that we can get the paycheck and buy food.  We don’t think of it as serving our neighbor.  And when we do give to the Church or to charity (which none of us does as much as he should), the left hand manages to find out what the right hand is doing, and we still end up thinking of it as something that we’re doing so that someone, somewhere will reward us.  Either we’re thinking that God will be more pleased with us because we’re doing as He wants, or, especially in the case of donations to the Church or of work done serving in offices for the church, we might possibly think it gives us some say in the direction of the church, as if the fact that we help the congregation out gives us the right to tell the congregation what to do.  It’s still all about ourselves, isn’t it.  It’s not about our neighbor and it’s definitely not about Jesus.

And that poses a problem, because the judgment scene depicted in today’s Gospel lesson is something that we could face at any time.  Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead.  And even if that doesn’t happen for a long time yet, the verdict is already “locked in” when you die, which is also something that could happen to any of us at any time.  What we see in ourselves, however, matches pretty closely the description of those on Jesus’ left.  Even when we outwardly seem to be serving God and our neighbor, we’re doing it for ourselves.  And even outwardly we haven’t done as good a job as we could have.

The thing to remember here, though, is that those on His right are also surprised when Jesus points out that they have done all these things for Him.  Just as those on His left think they’ve done a pretty good job of serving God and their neighbor and are surprised to find out that they hadn’t, those on His right are surprised to find out that they have served God and their neighbor in a manner that pleases God.  God sees us opposite of how we see ourselves.  If you think you’re doing a pretty good job of serving God and your neighbor, through God’s eyes you will fall short, because you’re not doing nearly as good as you think you are.  But if you realize that you’ve fallen short, and you know that there’s no way for you to do as well as God expects of you, then you’re one of those who will be surprised to find out that you and your good works are, in fact, pleasing to God and done in service to Him.

After all, when God looks at you, He sees Christ.  And Christ did all these things for us, when we were spiritually in need.  He visited us when we were sick and in the prison of this sinful world.  And not only did He visit us, becoming one of us and bearing all our sin and infirmity; but He healed the sickness of our sin, just as He healed those who were sick with frail and diseased bodies in His Ministry on earth.  He freed us from the prison of our sinfulness.  And just as He clothed Adam and Eve with skins after their Fall into sin, so He clothed the nakedness of our sinfulness with the pure white garments of His perfect righteousness in the waters of Holy Baptism.  He feeds the spiritually hungry and gives drink to those who spiritually thirst with His Body and His Blood in the Holy Supper.

And yet, He did all this by taking it on Himself.  He fed us and quenched our thirst by becoming hungry and thirsty Himself.  He said so on the cross: “I thirst.”  He resolved our separation and estrangement from God by becoming estranged from the whole world and even His own Father.  He clothed the shame of our sin by being exposed to the elements on the cross, while the soldiers divided his garments and cast lots for his cloak.  He healed our disease of sin by becoming “sick” to the point of death for us.  He released us from Satan’s bondage by becoming a prisoner of the Sanhedrin and the Romans despite his innocence.  He took all of sin upon Himself, and so all the effects of sin in the world afflicted Him as well.  He did all these things for us, and so now all those who are suffering under the effects of sin in the world become pictures for us of our Lord.

That’s why Jesus says, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did (or did not) do it to the least of these My brethren, you did it (or did not do it) to Me.”  Because all the suffering that is in the world on account of sin, which we still see around us every day, was actually taken by Jesus into Himself and nailed to the cross.  And so when we in some small way try to alleviate that suffering, whether by providing a shoulder to cry on or a kind word, or whether we offer more substantive help in the form of charitable donations, we are doing it for Him who already took all of it upon Himself.  And, further, we are also preaching by our actions about that place where there is no hunger or thirst, no estrangement or nakedness, no sickness and no prison.  That’s what Jesus won for us by becoming all these things, and that’s what we ultimately have to offer.  Not just temporary help for this life, but eternal life without any problems or suffering or grief ever again.  And that’s what we ourselves will inherit, and that’s what we receive even now as our hunger and thirst is satisfied by Jesus’ own body and blood, His righteousness clothes our unrighteousness, and we even now enjoy  the visitations of Him whose separation from His Father unites us to both Himself and His Father.  It was Christ’s charity to us that got us this, not anything we did or could do.  And it is Christ’s charity working through us that He will see in us on that last day.  Come, you blessed of the Father.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pentecost 22 (Proper 28), Series A

Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
November 13, 2011 (Proper 28, Series A)

The word talent as we know it in modern English actually comes from today’s Gospel lesson.  In today’s language, talent is defined as “a special natural ability or aptitude,” such as the ability to be good with numbers, good with music, great at basketball or running, or any of a thousand other things a person might be good at.  But in the Greek of the New Testament, a talent was a unit of money, specifically, a large gold coin.  Now, many interpreters of this parable have taught that the gold coins given out to the servants represent various gifts and abilities God gives to His Christians, which He then expects to use them in His service.  The association between these natural or special abilities and the gold coins of today’s Gospel lesson has historically been so strong that the Greek word for these gold coins became the English word for these abilities.

And that interpretation of this parable has some merit to it.  Each of us is unique, and each of us has unique abilities and areas of life that are our particular strong suit.  As we consider our place in life under the Ten Commandments, one of the things we must look at as we consider our place in life, is the various abilities which God has given each of us.  After all, that’s part of how our particular place in life is determined.  Some are good at physical labor, others are good at intellectual pursuits and abstract thinking.  Some are talented in music, others in visual art.  Some have the ability to read facial expressions and body language very well and are thus able to figure out the politics of a situation when others of us are totally clueless.  And the list could go on.  As we think about how we serve God and our neighbor in our own place in life, our own particular talents do figure into the picture.  A strong swimmer has an opportunity to keep the Fifth Commandment by helping and supporting his drowning neighbor in every physical need in the way that a man who can’t swim simply can’t do.  And so it can be useful to see the parable in this way, as an exhortation to actually use the abilities that God has given us and not to hide them or cover them up out of fear of messing things up.

The problem, of course, is that, just as with all the other gifts that God has given us in this life, we have been unfaithful stewards of the abilities God has given us.  Music can glorify God; it can also glorify as god things that are not God.  Intellectual ability can be used to deny Him as well as to understand the world He has created.  Physical prowess can be used to hurt as well as to help.  And so on.  And so the mere use (as opposed to hiding away) of our abilities is not what gets us right with God.  In fact, if we glory in ourselves and our own abilities instead of glorifying God, our abilities can drive us farther away from Him.  That was what the third servant was afraid of doing; that’s why he hid the talent he had been given in the ground; he was afraid of what using it might do to hurt his relationship with his master.  Because apart from the Gospel, apart from Christ, our God really is “a hard man, reaping where He has not sown, and gathering where He has not scattered.”  There really is zero tolerance for those who abuse God’s gifts if their transgressions are not covered by Christ.  And that’s where we find ourselves as we look in the mirror of God’s law: we are either abusers of His gifts, or we are those who are afraid and hide them away.

Here is where I think we need to look at this parable a little differently.  If the talents of the parable are our natural abilities, then we have all failed to use them properly, if not failing to use them at all in God’s service.  That doesn’t really help us much.  However, if the talents in the parable are seen as something different, something special that God has given His Christians, then it changes the whole picture.  I’m not speaking here of any particular “spiritual gift” of the sort that many churches give their members surveys for.  Most such “spiritual gifts” are actually only natural talents, and, depending on how the survey is designed, often what is measured is not a person’s aptitude for a particular position in the church, but merely how much they happen to enjoy doing that thing.  You don’t have to be good at something to enjoy doing it, or even to think that you’re good at it, for that matter.  No, there really is only one thing that God gives to Christians and not to everyone else.  All the blessings we have in this life are things that God gives both to the just and the unjust; as Luther reminds us in his explanation to the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone, even the wicked, without our prayers.”  No, what God gives specifically to Christians is faith and trust in the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation which was won for us by Christ on the cross and proclaimed to the world in the empty tomb.

That faith, that trust, is what works in us to produce all sorts of other good works.  That faith that God forgives, loves, and will save us is what gives us the freedom to serve God and our neighbor with whatever else He may have given us without fear.  It is precisely the absence of that faith that the third servant showed when he buried the coin in the ground.  He was so afraid of using the gift wrongly that he failed to receive the gift as a gift, but instead saw it as a burden.  And that is the exact wrong thing to do with the gift of faith.  In fact, to do that with the faith God has given you is to deny the content of that faith.  True Christian faith trusts in the forgiveness of sins.  It is doubt, not faith, that causes us to see God according to His wrath against sinners.  There is no wrath for those who trust in the forgiveness of sins, only the joyous freedom to go about our lives and do whatever we do to His glory and out of love for our neighbors.  To bury faith is to doubt God’s goodness.  But the gift here is God’s own demonstration of His love for us: while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.  It’s true that faith buried is no faith at all.  To see God as a harsh master is to see Him outside of Christ.  But that’s the beauty of His gift to us: faith gives us Christ Himself.  And it is He that works in and through us to love and serve our neighbor, both in the ordinary ways that come about as we go about our daily work, as well as in that most extraordinary way that God gives us, namely of telling our neighbor about Christ and thus giving him that eternal life where we will all share in the joy of our master.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, November 6, 2011

All Saints (transferred)

Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
November 6, 2011 (All Saints Day, transferred)

There are a number of days during the course of the Church Year that are known as “Saints’ Days,” or festivals of various saints.  These festivals are devoted to remembering the lives of certain Biblical saints, not because they themselves were especially good and holy—they were sinners like the rest of us—but because God was able to work through them in a significant way.  The saints honored in this way include the 12 apostles, the Evangelists (in other words, the authors of the four Gospels), as well as several other men and women from the Bible whose role in salvation history was especially significant.  These days are usually attached to a particular date rather than being a Sunday observance, and so we only end up celebrating most of them an average of once every seven years or so, give or take how the leap years mess things up.  The Roman Catholic Church traditionally celebrates significantly more saints than we do, so that almost every day on the calendar has somebody associated with it.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but traditionally for the sake of simplicity and in an attempt to restrict certain superstitious abuses that have sometimes become associated with remembrances of specific saints among the Roman church, Lutherans have tended to restrict ourselves to only celebrating specific days for characters from the Bible and a few other significant individuals in Church history.

But if these men were sinners just like us, and they only became famous and significant in the history of the Church because God chose them by His mercy and grace to work through them in His kingdom, then what about all the other saints?  What about us?  After all, we work in God’s kingdom, and even though what we do may not be as spectacular and world-changing as the Biblical saints, each of us plays a part in how God provides for His people, both physically and spiritually.  Or, if we aren’t inclined to toot our own horns, what about the millions who have gone before us?  What about those who have died in the faith whose names are known only to God?  When do we celebrate them?

Well, there is a festival to celebrate them and us, known as All Saints’ Day.  Now, technically All Saints’ Day is November 1st, which is why Halloween is on October 31st. Halloween is an archaic way of saying, “All Hallows’ Eve,” or, “All Saints’ Eve.”  During the middle ages, All Saints’ Day was a very important holiday, almost as important as Christmas and Easter.  Anyway, on October 31st some people, especially the more superstitious peasants, were afraid that demons would try to disrupt the high festival that was going to take place the next day, especially since October 31st was also the ancient pagan high festival of Samhain, and so they would try to scare the demons away by carving faces onto pumpkins and dressing up in outlandish costumes.  Now, of course, Halloween has mostly lost its nominally Christian origins and become a secular holiday in its own right, much like the “Festival of Santa Claus” and the “Festival of the Easter Bunny” have.  In fact, Halloween has become an opportunity for many people to act more than a little bit demonic themselves, a celebration of ancient, pagan Samhain rather than a repudiation of it.  However, this Christian festival of All Saints is, in fact, the origin of Halloween.

In any case, All Saints’ Day is set aside to remember the lives of all of God’s holy people, both those still living in the Church Militant, and those who have been transferred to the Church Triumphant through death, especially those members of the Church who have died in the past year.  It is about all Christians.  In today’s Gospel lesson we have a description from our Lord of these saints, these holy ones.  This is a fairly well-known section of Scripture called the “beatitudes.”  They get that name from the word blessed, which stands at the beginning of each section.  The word beatitude is a Latin word which means “blessing,” and so in calling these the Beatitudes we are really calling them the Blessings.  Many of us have heard the Beatitudes many times.   But have you ever stopped to think about the Beatitudes?  Of course, we were born sinners, born under the law, and so we by nature tend to think that blessings come as rewards for good works on our part.  And so, when we read these lines, what we are tempted to see is a series of commands or a series of Biblical principles on how we are to live our lives, if we want the blessings mentioned by Jesus in the second part of each verse.  In fact, they have sometimes been referred to by various people as “be-attitudes,” with a hyphen in the middle.  This is silly from a linguistic perspective, because beatitude is a Latin word meaning “blessing” that has nothing to do with either the word be or the word attitude.  And the Beatitudes aren’t really intended as a series of moral instructions for us to follow if we want to get the rewards listed from God.  After all, we can’t keep these completely, any more than we can keep the Ten Commandments perfectly.  And two, at least, of the Beatitudes, aren’t something that we do to fulfill God’s Law anyway.  “Blessed are those who mourn.”  Mourning is not something we do deliberately in order to please God.  Mourning simply comes upon us because we live in a sin-filled world, where death and suffering are unfortunate realities.  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”  Again, this is not something that you do to fulfill the Law.  It’s something that happens to you because you live out who you are as a Christian and the world doesn’t like to see it.

The other Beatitudes can, of course, be understood in some sense as moral exhortations; after all, being poor in spirit, being meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, being merciful, being peacemakers, these are things that we can in some ways try to do.  And it is good to examine ourselves according to these Beatitudes so that we can get an honest picture of ourselves.  Are you poor in spirit?  You should be; everything you have is a gift from God, the way a rich man gives a coin to a beggar.  Are you meek?  You should be; the Christian is humble and does not exalt himself.  Do you hunger and thirst for righteousness?  You should; after all, being righteous is how God wants us to be.  Are you merciful?  You should be; God was merciful to you.  Are you pure in heart?  You should be; God has taken up residence within you and your heart is to be His temple.  Are you a peacemaker?  You should be; God has made peace with you, so you should make peace with others.  To a point, it can be useful to look at the beatitudes in this way.  But only to a point.

You see, the real reason Jesus gave these beatitudes, is as a description of who and what Christian saints already are.  You and I, and those of our loved ones who have joined our Lord in heaven before us, are these things whether we can see it or not.  They are these things because Christ is these things.  The Beatitudes are first and foremost a description of Christ Himself.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.”  “Blessed are those who mourn.” We remember Jesus weeping at the tomb of His friend Lazarus.  “Blessed are the meek.”  Here we remember how Jesus was led away to the trial from Gethsemane without fighting or complaining.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?”  “Blessed are the merciful.”  “And Jesus went out and saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them and healed their sick.”  “Blessed are the pure in heart.”  Here we remember that Jesus was without sin.  “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  Jesus is the one who makes the ultimate peace, the peace between God and man.  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.”  Is there any greater persecution than what Jesus suffered on the cross?

When you were Baptized, as your baptism is renewed and restored through daily prayer, when you hear the Word of Absolution and hear the Gospel preached to you, and especially when you receive Christ’s body and blood, these attributes of Christ become yours as well.  Christ’s righteousness covers your sin, and that’s why you are acceptable to God, but it also enters you and makes you perfect and holy like He is.  It makes you a saint.  And so therefore all of these descriptions of saints we find in the Beatitudes are descriptions of you as well.  And because of this, the blessings which are listed here are yours as well.  To you belongs the kingdom of heaven.  You shall be comforted.  You shall inherit the earth.  You shall be filled with righteousness.  You shall obtain mercy.  You shall see God.  You shall be called sons of God.  And again it is said, yours is the kingdom of heaven.  And finally, because you share to some extent in the sufferings of the prophets and the saints who were before you, sufferings which depict in us the sufferings of Christ Himself, you shall share in their reward.  The saints in heaven are gathered around the throne of the Lamb, singing His praises and receiving His victory banquet.  There we shall be as well.  In fact, there we already are as we eat His body and drink His blood, joining with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven lauding and magnifying His glorious name.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +