Sunday, November 7, 2010
Sermon for All Saints’ Day (observed November 7, 2010)
“Something Better” (Hebrews 11:32-12:2)
This Thursday is Veterans Day. On that day we will honor all the men and women who have served in the armed forces of our nation. It is a day “to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.” (From the Veteran’s Administration website at http://www1.va.gov/vetsday/page.cfm?pg=3)
You might say that All Saints’ Day is the Church’s Veterans Day, or better, the Church’s Memorial Day. Today we give thanks to God for the saints of every generation, those who were led to life eternal by faith in Christ. We give thanks for all the veterans of the faith, both named and unnamed. Chapter 11 of Hebrews, the chapter from which today’s text is taken, has been called by some the “Hall of Fame” of faith in the Bible. There, the names of many saints are given. Others are left unnamed. You and I can add to the list of names given there, names of people whom God has placed in our life and who were examples of faithfulness to Christ … parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, dear friends. But there is a multitude of saints in heaven whose names we do not know, but for whom we still give thanks to God. We give thanks to God that He marked them as His own in Holy Baptism. We give thanks to God for the faith He created and nourished within them by His almighty Word. We rejoice in their courageous confession of faith in the face of troubles and trials, in the presence of problems and persecution. They served God and their brothers and sisters in Christ. Many laid down their lives instead of denying their Lord and Savior.
The author of Hebrews says of these martyrs of old that the world was not worthy of them. On the other hand, the world which is opposed to God thought quite differently about them. They thought that these believers in Christ were not worthy of living in the world. For instance, when St. Paul gave his defense before the crowd in Jerusalem, they cried out “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live!” (Acts 22:22) The world thought that the saints were not worthy of the world, but the exact opposite was true: the world was not worthy of having such noble men and women living in its midst.
Chapter 11 of Hebrews records example after example for us of people living by faith. At the beginning of the chapter, the author writes, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation.” Then, he goes on to describe the lives of the central saints of the OT, to whom the promise of the Savior was given and through whom the seed of the Savior was secured … Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, even Rahab the prostitute. He could go on and on. But for the sake of time and space, I suppose, he decides to hurry up and summarize the rest. “And what more shall I say?” he asks. “For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets…”
Gideon, Barak, Jephthah, and David each “conquered kingdoms” and “became mighty in war” and “put foreign armies to flight.”
Samuel administered justice as a judge and a prophet.
Samson’s weakness was turned to strength once again.
Daniel “stopped the mouths of lions” in the lions’ den, or rather, God shut their mouths. Daniel fully trusted that God would save him.
Daniel’s three friends quenched the fury of the flames when the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar threw them into the fiery furnace. Again, it was God who kept them from being roasted. But it was their faith in God’s care that took away their fear, as they bravely declared, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Dan. 3:17-18) Even if God did not rescue them from the flames, they still were not willing to deny that he is the one and only God. So either way, whether saved from the flames or not, the fury of the furnace was futile for these three friends.
Then there was Elijah and Elisha, who raised to life the sons of two women.
Jeremiah was tortured. Zechariah was stoned. According to tradition, Isaiah was sawn in two. Still others lived the lives of fugitives, exiled in the desert wearing animal skins, scavenging for food, living in caves and holes in the ground like wild animals. The world was indeed not worthy of them.
After all this, we hear these words: “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”
There is “something better” waiting for all the saints, including you and me and all who trust in Christ. Together with the veteran saints of old, God’s plan is to bring us all to completion one day.
Article 21 of the Augsburg Confession says, “the saints are to be remembered so that we may strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by faith. Moreover … each person, according to his or her calling, should take the saints’ good works as their example.”
And so we are called to model their lives and their faith. The veteran saints knew that “something better” awaited them. That something better was “a better resurrection.” (v. 35 KJV) “Women received back their dead by resurrection.” But these resurrections were only temporary. These resurrected people had to eventually die again. That verse goes on, as the KJV puts it: “Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection.” The saints of old knew that God had promised to send a Savior one day. That promise was first given to Adam and Eve. And afterwards, all the saints of old trusted in God’s promise. They trusted that although one day they would die, there would come a better day when they would be raised to eternal life.
The veterans of the faith kept their eyes on God’s future promises. You and I keep our eyes on God’s fulfilled promises in Christ, “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Because of Christ, this “something better” is not just for the veterans of the faith who have gone before us. That “something better” is for all who trust in Christ. In repentant trust, we “lay aside every weight” that would hinder our walk with God. Through the word of absolution, we are loosed from the “sin which clings so closely” to us and draws us away from God’s love and mercy. And one day, when our gracious God decides that time is up, Christ will visibly return and we will be united with the veterans of the faith in that “something better” that God has planned for us. We will be raised to life again, just as our Lord Jesus was, never to die again. We will see God face to face. There will be nothing to hinder our fellowship with him ... no sin with which to be entangled, for it will all be done away with once and for all.
And so we model the lives and the faith of the veteran saints in the midst of the “race that is set before us”... in the midst of our own struggles, trials, temptations, remembering that something better awaits us and keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.
You and I may never stare down a hungry lion, get thrown into a fiery furnace, or get sawn in two. None of us will probably ever lead an army into battle.
None of us will probably ever be tortured or stoned, although our brothers and sisters in the faith in other parts of the world still face these things on a daily basis.
Nevertheless, we each have our own unique problems to deal with. Each day brings choices which challenge us, trials which take away our joy in Christ, temptations which take our eyes of off Jesus, doubts which are determined to destroy our faith.
Remember that you are not alone. You are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. They went through similar trials and temptations. As St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Cor. 10: 13) In other words, don’t think that you’re the first person to deal with whatever you are dealing with. Others have gone through it and come through it with God’s help. Their lives witness to us that God is strong for us and able to give us patient endurance and perseverance to face our struggles.
Perhaps you doubt whether you are worthy to be marked as one of God’s saints. You doubt whether you will be able to endure. You doubt whether you will be able to stand with that gathering of veteran saints when you die. You know all too well your shortcomings. You know all too well your sin and shame.
Remember, the blood of the Lamb of God covers all your sin and shame. You are now clothed in the white robe of Christ’s righteousness. The works that Christ has done in and through you are all that will be seen when you appear before God’s judgment throne, not your sin. God has already promised you, “I will forgive [your] iniquity, I will remember [your] sin no more.” (Jer. 31:34) Because you are baptized and forgiven through faith in Christ, you are one of God’s holy ones … one of God’s saints.
God truly has “something better” planned for us. One day we will become a part of that group of veteran saints in heaven. Together with them we will be raised on the Last Day to enjoy the blessedness of life eternal. There we will be eternally comforted and satisfied. There we will receive our full inheritance. There it will be made clear to all that we are sons of God, because of God’s only begotten Son who was a peacemaker for us at the cross.
Blessed are you, O saints of God. Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven.