All Saint’s Day (observed) (November 5, 2017)
“On the Way to Zion” (Psalm 84:5)
In the past, pilgrimages were popular among Christians. People would travel to the Holy Land, if it was feasible. Closer to home was Rome … the burial place of Saints Peter and Paul, the seat of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. Another popular destination in Western Europe was the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Travelers would walk hundreds of miles on the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, ending up at the cathedral which supposedly contains the remains of St. James … the apostle who was one of the sons of Zebedee and was the first of Jesus’ disciples to be martyred.
The expectation was that some spiritual benefit would come from taking a long journey to a holy place. You could earn time off your lengthy stay in purgatory, according to the teaching of the church of the Middle Ages. You could also do it for your dead relatives in purgatory, praying for them along the way and helping them to reach heaven, thereby being able to give thanks for them on All Saints’ Day along with all the rest of the saints who finally made it to heaven. But let’s set aside any misconceptions about earning heavenly travel rewards points and putting coins in the coffer to spring people from an intermediate state of existence that does not exist. Purgatory is not a Biblical concept.
That’s not to say that taking a pilgrimage is a bad thing. It may indeed end up being a faith-building experience. For example, people still like to go on pilgrimages to places like Israel to see the places where Jesus walked and talked and to help make the Bible stories they have heard come alive in a new and fresh way.
As you head out on a pilgrimage, you need to make sure you have strength for the journey. It doesn’t pay to head out, only to stop half way there because you are exhausted or your resources ran out. Plus, you need to make sure you are travelling in the right direction. A slight deviation from your course in the beginning will lead you far away from your hoped-for destination many miles down the road.
The psalmist had the pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem in mind when he sang, “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.” Their strength comes from the Lord because their hearts are set on the highways to Zion. They know exactly where they are headed. They are headed in the right direction. They are on their way to Zion.
Zion, you may remember, is the name of the hill where King David built his house. Later, David’s son Solomon built the temple on an adjacent hill. The name Zion soon became synonymous for the whole temple complex and for the city of Jerusalem itself. Jerusalem was the Holy City because it’s where the temple stands. It was the Holy City because it was the sanctuary of Yahweh. Within the temple was the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies where Yahweh promised his very real and gracious presence would dwell for the people. And so, the psalmist could also sing the words at the beginning of Psalm 84, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.” The pilgrim traveler gets more and more ecstatic as he walks along the highway that leads to Zion, to the Holy City, to the place of God’s gracious presence.
But Zion is not only used for an earthly locale. The pilgrim traveler on the way to Zion looks far forward. He looks beyond the veil that keeps us from seeing heavenly realities. The veil is lifted for us in Holy Scripture where God pulls back the curtain and gives us a glimpse of eternity. We hear in Psalm 50:2, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth” (Ps. 50:2). And in the Revelation to St. John, chapter 14, we hear this: “Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads” (Rev. 14:1). This is a picture of the saints in heaven in the presence of Jesus, the Lamb of God, who was slain for the sins of the world. 144,000 is not a literal number, remember, but symbolic of the total number of believers. It’s more than just 144,000. It’s more like the countless number of stars that God showed to Abraham and told him, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them … So shall your offspring be.” And Moses then states, “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:5-6). Like the number of stars in the sky, so will be the number of those who are counted as sons of Abraham, righteous by faith, both Jew and Gentile alike. And one of those stars that Abraham saw so many years ago was lit for you, dear baptized Christian. You are righteous by faith in Christ. You are a child of Abraham. You were on the mind of the Lord all the way back then.
So, Zion also signifies for us the place of God’s presence apart from sin and temptation and danger and death. It is the place where the departed saints dwell, “those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” … that is to say, those who know and believe that the shed blood of Christ at the cross has washed away the stain of sin which they bore. They are the ones coming out of the great tribulation … this current existence where we experience suffering, sickness, opposition, and persecution, this current existence where all creation groans waiting to be released “from its bondage to corruption” and is waiting to “obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).
But these are not the only ways in which the name “Zion” is used. Zion is also used as a term for the Church. First, listen to some hymn stanzas that sing about it this way:
· “Savior, since of Zion’s city, I through grace a member am, Let the world deride or pity; I will glory in Your name” (LSB 648, stanza 4).
· “Preserve, O Lord, your Zion, Bought dearly with Your blood; Protect what You have chosen Against the hellish flood” (LSB 658, stanza 3).
· In today’s sermon hymn: “We, where no trouble distraction can bring, Safely the anthems of Zion shall sing” (LSB 675, stanza 3).
· And lastly, “Hark! The songs of peaceful Zion Thunder like a mighty flood: ‘Jesus out of ev’ry nation Has redeemed us by His Blood” (LSB 821, stanza 1).
You see how in those stanzas, the name “Zion” refers to the Church. Also, in Hebrews 12, the author writes about the fearful sight of Mount Sinai, then says, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to the innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:22-24). This doesn’t sound like a place … like a mountain … like a city. It sounds like a description of the Church … both those who are in heaven already awaiting the day of resurrection, and those who are still here on earth, cheered on by that great “cloud of witnesses” whose journey is finished while we continue our pilgrimage (Heb. 12:1).
You see, you don’t need to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to feel any closer to God. Besides, the temple is no longer there. That was knocked down by the Romans in 70 AD. And even when the temple still stood, it had been replaced in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth. So you can take a little mini-pilgrimage every Lord’s Day and whenever the people of Zion gather together for the Divine Service where in the Divine Supper Jesus is present with his Body and Blood. This is the sanctuary of Yahweh. This is where you experience his gracious presence in the most profound way. This is your Holy Land right here. This is your Zion.
“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.” Sometimes the things that life throws at you make it hard to carry on. You want to pull off the highway. Set up camp and forget about the rest of the journey. It’s not only our bodies that get weary in this pilgrim existence. Our souls do, too.
What is your heart set on today? Are you only looking forward to receiving good things in this life? What happens when you don’t receive those things you were expecting? “Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” says the wise teacher in Proverbs 13:12. Is your heart pointed in the right direction, or have you already gotten far off course, not even considering your eternal destination?
If this is true of you (and it’s certainly true of each of us at times), then it’s time for some encouragement and a course direction. “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.” Those connected to Christ Jesus in baptism and by faith are blessed, even though their journey is not yet complete. They are blessed … utterly happy and joyful and fulfilled, like those whom Jesus describes in the Beatitudes. They are blessed because they find their strength only in the Lord, not in their own resources. They are poor in spirit. They mourn over their sinful condition. They are meek and lowly. They are reviled and persecuted simply because of their confession of faith in Christ. But in spite of all that, they will be comforted and satisfied. They will receive mercy and will see God. They will be sons of God in the kingdom of God.
So here we are in Zion, spending time with the saints who are already in the heavenly Zion. All Saints’ Day is about remembering those who have gone before us, giving thanks to God for the faith he gave them and the faith they demonstrated, and learning how to properly worship God in all reverence and holiness as they do.
But it’s also about spending time with the saints with whom you will spend eternity … those who are with you here, gathered together in Zion … learning to love them, learning to forgive them, and learning to give glory to God together for all that he has done for you.
We’re in this together … on this pilgrimage … in it for the long haul with the Lord’s strength … on the way to Zion.