All Saints Day
November 2, 2014
“The Blessed Life”
St. Matthew 5:1-12
And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying: "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 filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain 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. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
The Christian festival known as All Saints Day falls on November 1, but we celebrate it today. We remember the saints who have entered into their heavenly rest. We look to God’s word to see what makes us saints and the kinds of lives that saints live. Today we listen to the beginning of our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount where he preaches the Beatitudes, describing those who are blessed by God.
Jesus is our pastor. His words are the words of life. What he says is food for our souls, for he is the Good Shepherd, and we are his sheep. Jesus opened his mouth and taught. He taught disciples. A disciple is one who receives instruction from another. A disciple of Christ is a Christian. A Christian listens to what Jesus says and believes it.
This faith is no mere intellectual assent. We acknowledge many things to be true that we don’t trust in. I plan on voting tomorrow. I go to the polls to vote in the belief that some policies are better for the country than others and some candidates are better suited to serve in the government than others. But I certainly don’t trust any politician to fix all the problems that ail us. I don’t look to the political process to help me find what I really need in life. Faith in human institutions is faith in human weakness and such faith will always disappoint. Jesus offers us the kingdom of heaven. This is not a kingdom of this world, but it is a kingdom in this world. It is where God governs his children by his grace. It is where God leads his children to faith and sustains them in the true faith until they die. This is the life of true blessedness.
Here our teacher, Jesus, throws out every single religion ever invented through the spiritual prowess of man. Adherents of respectable, man-made religions teach that to be blessed, to find that spiritual good that you seek, you must be spiritual. You’ve heard their slogan: “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual.” To admit that you are not spiritual, that you are, by nature, poor in spirit, void of the goodness in which God created us, spiritually blind and at enmity against God – such an admission is offensive to folks who think of themselves as spiritual.
But we are all by nature spiritually depraved. We are, all of us, by nature spiritually helpless. This is a result of original sin. When Adam fell into sin, human nature changed. David described this sinful condition in Psalm 53 where he wrote, “Behold I was born in iniquity and in sin my mother conceived me.” St. Paul writes in Romans 5, “By the disobedience of the one the many were made sinners.” This is how we Lutherans confess this doctrine of total depravity:
Only when we admit that we have no spiritual power within us and rely on the Holy Spirit’s gracious power that comes to us from outside of us can we be blessed by God. God gives the kingdom to those who don’t deserve it. God gives the kingdom to those who are powerless to enter into it by their own spiritual strength, because, by nature, they are spiritually helpless.
Confessing our spiritual poverty isn’t a matter of fact admission that says, “Sure, I’m a sinner, and so is everyone else.” Confessing our spiritual poverty and sin is a confession we make about ourselves. Listen to King David’s confession. We read in Psalm 51,
Sin is personal. It causes personal hurt. It hurts the sinner who does it, thinks it, and wants it. The hurt causes sorrow. When Jesus, the sin-bearer, faced our sin in the Garden of Gethsemane he said that his soul was sorrowful, even to the point of death. Sin brings sorrow. We haven’t loved God with all our heart, soul, and mind and we haven’t loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have broken the Ten Commandments. This is sin. We feel its sorrow burdening our souls. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Sorrow over sin is a humbling thing. Jesus continues his sermon with the words:
They are meek, timid, and fearful. They cannot lay claim to anything good because they know they deserve nothing good from God. They don’t boast before God or men. The spiritual poverty that led them to mourn their sins in sorrow has also humbled them as beggars before God. They plead for God’s grace. God rules the world for these people. They are his and the earth is his and they shall inherit what is his.
This brings us to the central blessing of the beatitudes. It is where faith is born. Spiritual poverty, sorrow, and meekness lead to a spiritual hunger and thirst for what we do not have and cannot provide for ourselves. Our Lord Jesus says we are blessed when we experience this spiritual hunger and thirst, because he is among us fill it. He says:
Jesus did the righteousness we did not do. Those who hunger and thirst for true righteousness and know they cannot find it within find it in Christ. His suffering takes away our sin. His obedience is our righteousness. This is why his kingdom – where he reigns over us – was established on the cross where he offered up to divine justice his obedience to replace the world’s sin and bore in his innocent body the whole world’s sin. There is our righteousness. It is Jesus crucified for us. There is where we become saints by that most wonderful exchange. He bears our sin and robes us in his righteousness. This is what faith eats and drinks and lives upon. Faith isn’t a mere intellectual affirmation of a religious truth. Faith devours God’s promise of Christ’s righteousness, takes it in, and cannot get enough of it. It satisfies our deepest need in life. We need to be righteous. We need to be holy. We need to be saints. And God, by speaking the word, makes us saints.
We are sinners and saints at the same time. Our lives are still infected with sin and sin taints all that we say and do. But the gospel tells us that our sins are forgiven and we are righteous. Our sin will cling to us until the day we die. We will never stop hungering and thirsting for the righteousness that is reckoned to us for Christ’s sake. Though our sin is not yet entirely purged, we do have a new nature. The faith that receives Christ’s righteousness also receives the Holy Spirit who changes our nature to be conformed to Christ.
We eat and drink the righteousness of Christ and the rest of the beatitudes follow. We become merciful as we receive God’s mercy. Our hearts are made pure as we see God in Christ. We learn the ways of peace as God confirms us in our faith that we are sons of God. We become conformed to the image of Christ here in this life.
And this brings persecution. That, too, is a blessing. When we are privileged to suffer for what is right God is perfecting us in patience and strengthening our faith. We learn what matters in life. We learn what is precious. God uses the persecution that is intended to harm his church to strengthen his church, confirming us in our conviction that the kingdom of heaven is ours. It is ours here and now under whatever cross we must bear. It is ours because Christ is ours.
Christians suffer insults, cruelty, and slander. They suffer for Christ’s sake. The world resents Christ and his claims. The world claims its own spiritual strength and doesn’t want to admit its poverty. It rejoices in itself, and will not mourn its sin. It boasts of its own righteousness, and will not meekly beg for God’s grace. In its self-righteous self-satisfaction it doesn’t hunger and thirst for the righteousness of Christ and so it remains unfilled. Self-righteousness does not produce mercy, purity of heart, or peace. It yields judgment, corruption, and conflict. And it persecutes Christ and his Christians.
Consider it pure blessing when you suffer on account of Christ. A Christian, who won’t go along with the crowd, will not join in their sin, will not worship with purveyors of false teaching, will not compromise the pure gospel for praise, prestige or position in life – will suffer persecution, insults, judgment, and slander.
But it is pure joy to suffer for the sake of him whose suffering makes us righteous before the throne of God. To be saints in this world involves us in a great contradiction. Before God we are beautiful: robed in the righteousness of his dear Son. Before the world we are strange. We love what they cannot see. We abase ourselves in confidence that God will exalt us. We see blessing where the world sees curse. The world cannot understand. But God treasures us as his dear children. As we think of our dear Christian loved ones who are now confirmed in the bliss of heaven we know that their joy is our joy. We are joined with them in a holy fellowship that no power on heaven or earth can break.
Rolf D. Preus