All Saints’ Day (observed), 2016
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
Is it always hopeful and comforting to wonder what the future holds? I don’t think so.
Right now, fans of the Cleveland Indians, and the St. Louis Cardinals for that matter, are probably saying to themselves, “Maybe next year.”
And they’re right, maybe next year, if there are no major injuries to overcome, no ill-timed slumps. But does that kind of hopefulness comfort and strengthen you? I don’t think so.
“Fan” being short for “Fanatic,” the end of a season can be a time of mourning. And the comfort available looks either backwards, saying, “We had a good season” or forwards, saying, “Maybe next year.”
And both of those are terrible ways to comfort someone who’s mourning.
Being so close to victory and losing demoralizes you. Looking back at a season of great achievements that ultimately fell short helps nothing. It doesn’t matter that you won all your games in June if you lose all your games in October.
And looking forward to next year ignores the reality of the pain and suffering that loss brings. Saying “Maybe next year” can’t be said without adding the words “And maybe not.”
Looking back or looking forward, when you suffer loss, there’s nothing that can be said that takes that pit-of-your-stomach pain away. And that’s just talking about baseball.
We could make the same argument about the election, however it goes.
Today being our observation of All Saints’ Day, we must also look at things this way:
When you suffer loss, when a friend or brother dies, what possible comfort is available you?
Looking forward, maybe you think this way or maybe someone says to you: “Time heals all wounds.”
That is commonly said, but another way to say “Time heals all wounds” is to say “You’ll get over it.” Well, maybe. Maybe not.
You may move on. You may think about things less often. But that doesn’t take away the pain of remembering, and you’ll be surprised at how much there is that will cause you to remember.
Or, looking backwards, maybe you think this way or maybe someone says to you: “He had a great life. He lived life to its fullest. He was everybody’s beloved role model.”
But is that what comforts us? Is that even true? Does that strengthen your resolve to live a life faithful to God?
I don’t think so.
With sin, it’s always the case that we would rather deny a hard truth than face it. That’s our corrupt human nature.
But when Jesus teaches the Beatitudes, He teaches us the truth. It’s not an easy truth. But it is truly comforting.
There are two things that must be said about the Beatitudes before you can rightly understand them:
- They are not “attitudes” that you are to “be.” The Beatitudes are not a How-to-be-a-Christian checklist. They’re descriptions of faith and the kingdom of God, but they follow this order: In Matthew 3, Jesus is Baptized. In Matthew 4, He’s led by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the devil. Baptism prepares you for and enters you into the Church Militant. Then, Jesus preaches, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Then, He calls the first disciples—Peter, Andrew, James, and John—and they follow. Then Jesus teaches the Beatitudes. They can’t instruct you in how to become a Christian, because Jesus has already called the first disciples. That means the Beatitudes are descriptions of faith and the kingdom of God, but not how to get there. The Beatitudes contain what is true for the Christian as well as what will be true for the Christian all in spite of what was true for the Christian. And I’m emphasizing the tenses there on purpose, because…
- The second thing you need to know about the Beatitudes is that there is a purposeful structure to them. There are eight Beatitudes and a ninth, kind of, summary statement. Some speak of what is true now. Some speak of what will be true. I’ll read them again, and listen to the verbs.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3-10).
If this is a checklist, we’ll very quickly fail. Who wants to be poor in spirit? Who wants to mourn? Is your meekness what it should be to inherit the earth? Do you hunger enough to earn satisfaction? Are you merciful enough to receive mercy? Are you pure in heart? And do you make for peace?
If Jesus is teaching us how to be a Christian, He’s condemning us all! Instead, Jesus is showing us what is true for the Christian, now and not yet, in this life and in the life to come.
To be “poor in spirit” is actually a good thing. It means to be spiritually bankrupt. It means to have nothing to offer. To be an empty cup that God fills with His Spirit such that it runneth over. Every Christian is poor in spirit, because every Christian relies upon God for salvation. Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Right now.
But Jesus knows that even with the kingdom of heaven, you suffer. All mankind mourns the death of loved ones. Only Christians mourn because of sin. While no earthly words can remove our grief, Jesus speaks the words of heaven: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). It may seem like you have no comfort now. It may seem that all hope is lost. But that’s not true. Remember, you have the kingdom. And Christ your King knows, Himself, what it is to mourn and to walk through death’s dark valley. He knows that you need the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. And when Christ returns to raise the dead and give eternal life to all who believe, you will be comforted. And that comfort will never be taken from you. Blessed are those who mourn. They shall be comforted.
And as we mourn our sin, we confess our meekness. We are nothing before God, or as we say it at the beginning of every Divine Service, “O, Almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable, sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities…” We are the one whom God helps. The empty cup that God fills. The sinner, forgiven. The dead, raised to life. The lowly, the meek, who inherits what we could never be earned. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
Even if you have nothing but mourning now, you will have the true riches when our Lord returns.
And while we mourn, while we confess our sins and meekness, we are tempted to satisfy the flesh. Just as you can satisfy your earthly hunger with a healthy meal or an entire box of Little Debbie cakes, so you can satisfy your spiritual hunger with righteousness or wrath.
To hunger and thirst for righteousness is nothing more than to mourn and confess sin, to meekly humble yourself before God, to believe that your righteousness is Christ the Lord. And, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).
The next Beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7), is interesting because it sounds like a quid pro quo, this for that, arrangement.
Matthew writes in chapter seven, “For with the judgment you pronounce, you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:2). It’s not that you forgive yourself by forgiving others or that by forgiving you get forgiveness. But when you forgive others, you’re confessing that God has forgiven you. And so the measure you use, that of the forgiveness of sins in Christ for all, the forgiveness you pour out, will be measured unto you. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7).
The next beatitude is my favorite, because of how we’ve corrupted “heart” language over time.
If I give you a rotten apple. Does that make you happy? Would you rather I keep the rotten apple to myself?
Is your heart pure? You must answer, “No.”
But have you ever heard the question, “Have you given your heart to Jesus?”
The absolute best response to questions like this can be found in Bo Giertz’s The Hammer of God. A marvelous book that every Lutheran should read.
In the story relevant to us, there are two characters, the young go-getter Fridfeldt and the old, staunch rector. Fridfeldt tells the rector that he’s a believer, that he’s given his heart to Jesus. And the rector says, “Do you consider that something to give Him?” Almost in tears, Fridfeldt responds, “But sir, if you do not give your heart to Jesus, you cannot be saved.”
And here it is, the rector replies: “You’re right. And it’s just as true that, if you think you’re saved because you give Jesus your heart, you will not be saved. You see, it’s one thing to choose Jesus as your Lord and Savior, to give Him your heart and commit yourself to Him, and that He now accepts you into His little flock; but it’s a very different thing to believe on Him as a Redeemer of sinners, of whom one is chief. You do not choose a Redeemer for yourself, you understand, nor give your heart to Him. The heart is a rusty old can on a junk heap. A fine birthday gift, indeed! But a wonderful Lord passes by, and has mercy on the wretched tin can, sticks His walking cane through it, and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with Him. That’s how it is.”
We pray in the Psalms: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). So, blessed are those whose heart is made new in Christ. Or, as Jesus says it, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
With the next Beatitude, we imagine a problem that’s not really there.
We are children and sons of God now, so why does Jesus say that we will be called sons of God?
The answer is straightforward: a theme throughout all of Matthew is discipleship, or “sonship.” The Son of God hears the Words of His Father and does them. The wise disciple hears the words of Jesus and does them. Since you have not yet kept the faith unto death, it’s still the case that you will be called sons of God.
That doesn’t take the kingdom away from you. That doesn’t mean you aren’t forgiven. What it means is, we look forward to the resurrection when all the sons of God are called forth from death and grave, and to them and all believers, Jesus says, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (cf. Matthew 25:21ff). So blessed are those who know what the peace of God is. Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).
Now, Jesus has said all of this to prepare you for what will inevitably happen if you hear His words and do them.
If you confess your spiritual poverty, and mourn over sin, and live and serve meekly, and hunger for the righteousness of Christ alone, and forgive others their sins, and ask God to redeem your rusty, old can of a heart, and if you look forward to the peace of the resurrection and life everlasting, if you hear Jesus’ words and do them, you will be persecuted.
So, Jesus reminds His disciples, all of us included: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).
For All Saints’ Day we remember those who’ve gone before us in the one, true faith, the prophets and disciples who are examples for us in the faith. We thank God for them.
We remember our dearly departed. We acknowledge their faith and our grief. Grief is not a sin…Sorrow is not a sin…when you remember that death is not the end.
We confess the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. We never stop confessing the resurrection, because that is the hope we have, even and eventually the joy we have, when a friend or brother dies.
So on All Saints Day, we thank God for the Beatitudes, the descriptions of who we are in Christ and who we’ll be when He returns.
In this way, whether we’re looking to the past, present, or future, we have the sure and certain hope of Jesus’ words:
Blessed are you.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!