All Saints Day Sermon| November 7, 2004| Rev. Rolf D. Preus
And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. There shall be no night there: They need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light. And they shall reign forever and ever. Then he said to me, “These words are faithful and true.” And the Lord God of the holy prophets sent His angel to show His servants the things which must shortly take place. “Behold, I am coming quickly! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” Revelation 22:1-7
When God made Adam and Eve, He planted a garden called Eden and He gave them this garden as their home. A river flowed through the Garden of Eden. In this garden were many beautiful trees. Two in particular are mentioned: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God commanded Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam disobeyed. After Adam disobeyed, God cursed the ground on account of Adam. No more would Adam or his descendents be lords over God’s creation as in the beginning. The labor that had brought pure joy would now be painful toil. While God had made man, both male and female, in His own image as the crown of creation, now the creation God put under their authority would be at odds with them. Thorns, thistles, pain, and finally death would combine to speak to fallen humanity’s conscience the judgment of their holy God. God concluded His curse on Adam with these words: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19)
After expelling Adam and Eve from Paradise, God sent angels with flaming swords to guard the way to the tree of life. They had forfeited life. In defying God who is the source of life, they had embraced death. They had rejected the blessing in favor of the curse. The nature of God’s good creation had changed. It was not God’s fault. It was Adam’s fault. It was our fault. For we were there and we joined in Adam’s sin of defiant rebellion against God’s authority. We brought the curse upon ourselves and we embrace death and we call for God’s curse every time we sin against Him.
Who is responsible for the curse of sin? Two answers can be given. All sinners are responsible. God is responsible. All sinners are responsible because there would be no curse unless there were sin. God is responsible because the curse is His divine response to sin. God does not ignore sin. He curses those who commit it. His law speaks His curse against sin. In Deuteronomy chapter 27 we read “cursed is the one” at least a dozen times before a description of an offense against God’s law for which one should be cursed. At the end of every curse we read, “And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” God’s curse of humanity on account of our sin is seen most clearly in the death of everyone born into this world. As God said to Adam, “for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” The primary purpose of God’s law is to curse those who disobey it. As St. Paul writes in Galatians 3:10, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.’” Strife, conflict, war, judgment, and death have been features of human life from the fall of Adam. The law of God puts voice to the curse that anyone with eyes can see. We live and we die under the curse and we need to be delivered from it. St. Paul writes in Galatians 3:13, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’”)
Christ was cursed for us. He became the Lamb of God and He took away the sin of the world by bearing the curse of the sin of the world. In our text for today we see Jesus pictured as the Lamb who shares with His Father the throne of God in heaven. But that’s heaven, not earth. We live here on earth. Look around you. What do you see? Do you see the curse removed? Do you see the restoration of innocence? No, you see a world under the curse of God. You can ignore it. Deny it. Rail against it. You can’t change it. Try to stop death. It can’t be done. And so the curse descends upon one generation after another. The angels guard the way to the tree of life and won’t let you eat. And so you must die.
The reality of the curse is seen not only in God’s law that pronounces it upon us and death that serves as the final exclamation point of God’s law. The curse is seen in how we curse and judge and condemn one another. Have you ever met a truly nonjudgmental person? We stand in judgment of others because we are under judgment ourselves. There is a myth that Christians are judgmental while those who reject the Christian faith are tolerant and nonjudgmental. This is not true. Consider, for instance, a series of letters that appeared in the Grand Forks Herald last Friday. I’m sure that those who wrote them would think of themselves as nonjudgmental and tolerant. They were upset by the fact that 73% of the voters in North Dakota voted in favor of Measure One, which defines marriage as the legal union between a man and a woman, excluding any other domestic union. The letter writers described the majority of North Dakota voters who want to defend traditional marriage as a bunch of hateful bigots. Why? Those under the curse can only curse. They cannot bless. Those under judgment can only judge. Those who reject Christ and His Church are judged to judge and cursed to curse because that’s all they know how to do. Those who reject God’s word do not thereby become tolerant and nonjudgmental. In fact, those who deny God’s word have made themselves judge over God and thus judge over God’s people. The most vicious bigotry is directed against the Church and Christians.
Christians are despised, judged, and cursed. Jesus says it is a blessing. Christians aren’t like other people. Oh, they look much the same. They appear to suffer from the same curse because they get sick, they suffer pain, and they all die. To their shame they also engage in the same kind of cursing and judging that feature the lives of unbelievers. But Christians are blessed, not cursed. They are blessed in Christ who bore the curse. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. In the flood of Jesus blood they are cleansed from guilt and blame. The curse exists only as an empty shell of a curse. They work, get tired, lose heart, and die. But they do not lose faith because God keeps them in the true faith by means of His holy word and sacraments.
You can’t see the saints’ holiness by looking at the saints. You must look beyond the saints to see what makes them holy. You must look to Christ and see His holiness. This is the holiness that makes the Communion of Saints a communion of saints.
All Saints Day is a day to thank God for the saints who have gone before. We thank God not only for those especially valiant Christians who confessed the truth in the face of persecution and death, but we thank God especially for those dear Christians who were God’s instruments in bringing us to the font and from the font to the services of God’s house. We thank God for passing the faith on from generation to generation. We thank God for this, as we must sorrow in helplessness as we watch those nearest and dearest to us die. But as we watch what appears to be the evidence of God’s curse, God opens to us a window into heaven that gives us the right perspective on our lives here below.
Look at this picture of heaven! The pure river is the water of life. Even as the water of holy baptism washed us clean of sins here below, the water of life flows into eternity, a pure, crystal clear, source of innocence and joy forever! The water flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb. The Father offered His Son as the Lamb to take away our sin, and there in heaven we see what innocence is truly like. We are invited to eat from the tree that was denied to us, the tree of life, the tree that gives you eternal life. Its leaves bring healing. There in heaven, the curse is gone. It is no more. We worship God in a purity that has reached perfection. We see God as He is, and we aren’t afraid. We look at the beauty of His holiness and because we are confirmed in holiness and purged of all sin we see God’s face and rejoice in what we see. Even as we received the sign of the cross on our foreheads in Holy Baptism, we remain identified by the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit throughout all eternity. The night of sin and death are removed forever. The curse was removed from us here on this earth, but the residual effects of the curse hounded us throughout life. Now we reign with God and the Lamb forever and ever.
Will this come to be? Just as surely as God’s words are faithful and true. When will this come to be? Jesus promises, “Behold, I am coming quickly! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” In a sense this is true right now. We are bound by time. God is not. We struggle here below against our own sins. We judge and curse and criticize and condemn as if we are living under judgment and know no way out. But our struggle brings us back to the font where we were washed in the blood of the Lamb and to the altar when we eat and drink the heavenly food that heals us and brings us eternal life. We rest secure in the Lamb who was crucified for us, and thereby removed the curse from us. Blessed in Him, we bless each other. We live, not under God’s curse, but with our Christian hope fixed on the heaven described in the word of prophecy recorded in the Revelation of St. John. These words are faithful and true.
This is how we can confess these words. They are true. The curse you see in fruitless toil and senseless death is only what your eyes can see. The truth of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection cannot be seen, but it is the final truth, the final “Amen.” We confess this truth, preach it, bring it to all the world, stand on it, live in it, and die trusting in this truth. There is no more curse. In Christ all judgment is met and no condemnation remains. We can bless God and one another with pure hearts. The river that flows from the throne of God and the Lamb has purified our consciences. The curse is gone. We are ready for glory. Even so, Come Lord Jesus, come quickly.