"Jesus' End is Our Beginning"
Revelation 7:2-17; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
A pastor friend once said: “On All Saints’ Day we preach the parish’s funeral sermon.” That’s most fitting. This time of year our hearts and minds naturally gravitate toward the end of things. We experience shorter days and longer nights. Weather gets colder and leaves fall from the trees. We anticipate the so-called “death” of winter.
When we celebrate All Saints’ Day, we name those from our congregational family who have died since last All Saints’ Day. Today we remember Don, Leslie, Doris, Viola, and Jean. This also draws our attention to our own end, to our own death. It’s what we fear and fight at all times. In fact, our many other fears, no doubt, are manifestations and outgrowths of our fear of death. Why do we fear COVID so much? Ultimately, because we fear dying. We also fight and fear our own sins, our own sinful desires, the world’s contempt, the world’s persecutions. Now we are not being morbid or doom-and-gloom. We’re simply being realistic. In our realism we also learn to persevere. As we will soon sing:
Oh, blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Keeping our eyes focused on the end, on the goal, helps us persevere. On All Saints’ Day, our Lord Jesus gives His end-time promises to comfort us and strengthen our faith for our “new beginning” as His holy people.
Our first reading gives us a glimpse of heavenly glory to sustain us in our earthly pilgrimage. In the first portion, we get to see God’s view of His Church on earth. The living God knows His saints. No matter how bad things get for us and from our perspective, our Lord gives us His point of view. One hundred forty-four thousand are sealed—12,000 from each of the 12 tribes. It’s not a literal number; it’s the symbolic number of perfect completeness. When you hear the term “sealed,” think Baptism and the sign of the cross made on your forehead. It’s the mark of ownership and protection. God knows His own and keeps His own—the perfectly complete number of them.
In the second portion of this reading, we get a sneak peak of the Church in eternal triumph. God’s saints know their God. It’s a vast “multitude that no one could number.” More than that, this entourage is “standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” As you can see depicted on our wall, they are wrapped around with white robes. In the reading, they also carry palm branches of victory. They joyfully cry out with a loud, unified voice: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” In Christ, salvation’s victory is an absolute certainty.
You who now live in the great tribulation have a promise that gives you hope and courage to stare down all fear. Those robes washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb will be your glorious dress. The life you now have—life from God and with God—will be fully seen and enjoyed. Keep your eyes on the goal; it helps you persevere.
Our second reading gives us a personal promise to calm and purify us as we wait. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” True love begets true children. God declares it and makes it so, even for us who are so fearful and fatigued in the fight. What kind of love is this? St. John later says, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us” (1 Jn. 3:16). Our Lord engaged in the same fierce fight we must endure, and more. His struggle took Him to the long warfare of the cross—battered by betrayal, mocking, and isolation; injured by thorns, lashes, and spikes; and finally finished by giving up His own spirit. It was all love because it was all endured for you. And once He rose on the third day, it became clear for all to see. Your Lord, the Lamb, laid down His life and took it up again for you—to conquer your fears, your sin and sins, and your death.
It’s what makes you “God’s children now.” Oh, sure, you may feel more like an orphan, out of place and without a home in this fallen world. Your own doubts, trials, and fears may cloud your vision, and you may not always see yourself as God’s child. Don’t rely on your eyesight, though; trust your Lord’s promise. You will see clearly when He appears. And “we know that when he appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is.” As John also tells you today, “Everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure.” You have been made pure in your Baptism—as pure as Jesus is—and you will get to see that when He appears. Keep your eyes on the goal; it helps you persevere.
Our Gospel reading gives us Jesus at the beginning of His ministry. He begins His teaching by giving us end-time promises to sustain us in our journey to new life. With your eyes on the goal, you can persevere. First, Jesus promises to fill all who suffer from innate emptiness. Note the words He uses to describe you, me, and all His followers—poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting. Your innate empty condition leads to the result of how you live. Because you are spiritually bankrupt—because you have absolutely nothing to offer to God—you live all of life mourning your own sin and the sin that infects the world. Because you are meek and lowly—truly in need of deliverance—you hunger and thirst for Jesus’ rightness.
Only Jesus can fill your innate emptiness. He does this in both the now and the not yet. Now He promises and assures you that His heavenly reign, with all its blessings, belongs to you. Now, by faith, to be sure. What lies ahead in the “not yet”? You will be comforted. You will inherit the earth, the new creation. You will be satisfied. All of that because you now have and will then have Him—your Savior, the Lamb who purifies you by His blood.
Then Jesus promises to transform His disciples with His very own life. Jesus’ mercy shown on the cross makes His Christians merciful. By His shed blood He creates in you a new and pure heart so that you will get to see God face-to-face. Since you are thus made a child and heir of God Himself, you now get to live, move, and have your being as a peacemaker. That’s another way of saying, “a bringer of the Gospel” to those around you. And when you are persecuted and reviled for belonging to Jesus, confessing Him, and being His faithful follower, you have a very real and powerful promise in the here and now: His heavenly reign, with all its blessings, still belongs to you. There’s no room for triumphalism in Jesus’ Church. Just as He reigns and blesses from the cross, so too you and I get to live under the cross. That’s what helps us persevere even as we keep our eyes on the goal promised by Him.
So come and be filled at His Table. Come and be transformed by Your Lord’s very Body and Blood. Here, at this Table, in this Meal, your Lord gives you the blessings of His heavenly reign: forgiveness, life, salvation, peace, and hope.
All Saints’ Day is not only the day of preaching the parish’s funeral sermon. It’s also the great Easter feast of the second half of the Church Year. On Easter we celebrate our Lord’s resurrection from the dead, His victory over death itself. On All Saints’ Day we celebrate and anticipate the coming fruits of His resurrection for us, His Church.
The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.
Alleluia! (LSB 677:6)