The Festival of All Saints—4 November 2018

5212053Our text is from Revelation 12:10-12a:   10 And I heard a great voice in heaven saying, “Now has come about the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ, because the accuser of our brothers has been thrown out, the one who was accusing them in the presence of our God day and night.  11And they conquered him because of the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their witness, and they did not hold their life dear even in the face of death*.  12 On account of this break out in celebration, O heavens, and those who dwell in them!  But woe to the earth and to the sea, because the devil has come down to you, having great fury, knowing that he has but a short time!” (translated by Louis Brighton. Revelation: Concordia Popular Commentary. Concordia Publishing House)    (* ESV- for they loved not their lives even unto death.)

It is an image that I will never forget. I was reading an article about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. The words describing the persecution were horrific enough, but then there was the photo, the photo of an unnamed mother and her two young boys. They were dead. A noose had been placed over each of their heads and they had been tossed over the side of an empty well. And there the photo showed them dangling. They were executed because they were Christian. Like countless Christian martyrs before them, this mother and her two boys did not hold their lives dear but rather confessed Christ even in the face of death.

Do you know the origin of the Festival of All Saints? All Saints was originally observed as All Martyrs Day. You see, the well-known martyrs of the early Church, such as St. Stephen and St James of Jerusalem, all had their own feast day. But because of the many persecutions throughout the empire, the number of those who had laid down their lives in the confession of Christ far outnumbered the 365 days on the calendar. And so the Church assigned a specific day to remember all who had died a martyr’s death. Later, the feast was expanded further to embrace not just the martyrs but all saints. That is why today we are observing the Festival of All Saints.

Today, we remember the martyrs, including those seven Christians gunned down two days ago in Egypt. And we remember, not just the martyrs, but all saints—those who in glory shine and those who still feebly struggle here on earth.  We remember the famous saints, and as well:

We sing for all the unsung saints, / That countless, nameless throng,

Who kept the faith and passed it on / With hope steadfast and strong. (LSB #678)

And personally, I remember my grandparents, Reinhart and Clara, who brought up in the faith my mother, Laverne, who in turn introduced my father, William, to the faith and also brought me up in the faith. And you, too, pray a prayer of thanksgiving for the parents and pastors and other people whose lives touched your life with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We do not pray to the saints who have gone before us into heaven. But we do honour them by imitating both their faith and their holy living and by thanking God for pouring out His mercy on these dear saints just as He bestows His mercy upon us.

And as we remember the saints who have gone before us into heaven, we also remember what all saints have in common. Now, the saints in glory no longer feebly struggle, as you and I do, against sin, sorrow, and suffering.  And yet, there is so much that we have in common.

In today’s text, St. John speaks of two realities: the reality of the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ and the reality of the devil coming down to earth in great fury, knowing that he has but a short time! You and I are currently living under both realities.

In his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes these words of wonder: But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:4-6). Do you see? It is not that we have to wait for heaven, for heaven is already ours. We have already been raised up with Christ and seated with Him in the heavenly places. Of course, we do not yet experience all the glory of heaven untarnished by sin and death. But in a very real sense, we already share with the saints in glory the marvelous and underserved privilege of being raised and seated with our Saviour Jesus in the heavenly places. And so, we join with the saints in glory in breaking out in celebration, rejoicing in the gift of receiving salvation and of being made citizens of the kingdom of God.

But then, there is a reality which the saints in glory no longer share with us. It is the reality of the devil raging in great fury here on earth, spreading his lies, promoting wickedness, and attacking the Church. The saints in glory no longer suffer. But you and I are intimately acquainted with the devil’s attempts to discourage us from believing in God. And we feel the sting of his accusations, accusing us of not being Christians, of not being forgiven and loved by God, of not being saved. Here on earth, the saints feebly struggle against all kinds of temptations, accusations, tribulations, and sorrows. And finally, we die. All this is a reality which the saints in glory no longer share with us.

And yet, there is so much that we have in common with the saints in glory. For starters, we all share in the reality of the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. Actually, that is what a saint is. Saints are not a special class of Christians who have led exceptionally holy lives. Rather, saints are all those who have been baptized into Christ, thus receiving God’s gift of salvation and being made citizens of His kingdom.

You are a saint, for you are baptized into Christ in the Name of the Holy Triune God. And in all who are baptized, our Saviour Jesus now works His power and authority to conquer the devil. You could never do it on your own. In your own strength, you could never have saving faith in the one true God; you could never resist the devil; you could never remain faithful unto death and thus receive the crown of life. But our Saviour Jesus Christ works in you and all the saints His power and authority to conquer the devil. That is what we have in common with all the saints in glory.

The truth is that no one goes to heaven without conquering the devil. For you see, the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, … do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come (Small Catechism: Third Petition of the Lord’s Prayer). Now the Good News is that Jesus Christ has already conquered the devil through His death on the cross, where He bore our sins and suffered our condemnation. But there is even more Good News. Jesus works His victory over the devil into the lives of His saints, so that we too conquer the devil.

In our text, St. John tells us that the saints conquered [the devil] because of the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their witness, and they did not hold their life dear even in the face of death.

We saints conquer[ the devil] because of the blood of the Lamb. The devil wants to deceive us and mislead us into false belief, despair, shame, and all kinds of sinful vices. In short, the devil wants you to take your eyes off of Jesus and onto your sins, your problems, your sorrows. But in mercy, God gives you the power to say: “Begone, Satan! For the blood of Christ has atoned for all my sins, and in Holy Baptism, Christ has given me the white robe of His righteousness.” On Good Friday, the shed Blood of Jesus won the victory over the devil, sin, and death. And in Holy Baptism, you have been washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb. And even now, the risen Christ gives you His Blood to forgive you and to strengthen you so that you remain faithful unto death.

We saints also conquer[ the devil] by the word of [our] witness. And what is our witness? It is our Gospel confession that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, who came in the flesh to save sinners through His death and resurrection. The Gospel has spread throughout the world, so that today there are Christians everywhere. And we consider the Gospel to be our greatest possession. Yes, the Good News that God so loved the world  that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life—this Good News makes us rich even if we should suffer the loss of all things (John 3:16). And so, even when you experience great temptations, great sufferings, great sorrows, hold on tight to the word of your witness, which is your confession of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who is God-in-the-flesh come to save sinners.

Here is what we have in common with the saints in glory.  Like them, we conquer[ the devil] because of the blood of the Lamb. We endure our afflictions knowing that we are washed clean in the Blood of Jesus, which atones for all our sins. And, like the saints in glory, we also conquer[ the devil] by [holding fast to] the word of [our] witness, the Gospel.

While they were living, the saints who have gone before us also feebly struggled, just as we do. But God forgave them and gave them His mercy so that they did not hold their lives dearer than the Gospel and so that they died confessing Christ Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.

And God does the same for you and me. He calls us to repent of all the ways we have held our lives dearer than the Gospel. And He forgives us. And He gives us His mercy, so that by His grace, we now hold the Gospel as dearer than our lives. God helping us, we live each day remembering the words our Lord spoke to His disciples: If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.… For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:35). This denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following Jesus is a life of joy, for even as we lose our lives for the sake of Christ and His Gospel, our lives are saved for all eternity. Our suffering cannot rob us of this joy. And even if a noose is placed around our necks or a gun placed to our heads or a knife to our throats, yes, even if we should be given the privilege of dying a martyr’s death, we will rejoice in the salvation which Christ has given to all His saints, the salvation no one can take from us.

The day is coming when we will stand in heaven with a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,  and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10). And there, all the saints will have yet one more thing in common. It will be the unity of our attention. We will not be paying the least bit of attention to ourselves. Rather, all the saints will be united in their gaze upon the Lamb on His throne, the Lord Jesus Christ victorious in His sacrifice of love. Yes, we shall see Jesus as He is in all His glory and we shall break out in celebration. With a pure joy unmarred by sorrow, our hearts and our eyes will be fixated upon Jesus Christ who humbled Himself by taking our place on the cross so that we could have a place at His side forever. And there, in the presence of Jesus, we will finally know without an ounce of doubt that what St. Paul had written is true: that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18).

And so, on this Festival of All Saints, fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. Fix your eyes on Jesus, so that you might not grow weary or fainthearted in this fallen world. Yes, fix your eyes on Jesus. And rejoice that He did not hold His life dear in the face of death but that He gladly laid down His life for you so that you may live forever with Him. Amen.