Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Lord, I want to be in their number... when the saints go marching in...
Two big weeks – last week Reformation! Today All Saints! Change and decay all around I see says the old hymn Abide with Me. Change and decay which can only be reformed and renewed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Last week it was about a church that needed to be made new and Luther and those who raised up the Gospel to accomplish just that.
Today it is not about the Church but her members – about the saints great and anonymous who went before us and who bequeathed to us this living legacy of faith and hope and about you and me. But this day is not simply an acknowledgment of a past; it is the focus forward on that which is to come. We are not who we were. We are saints by God's declaration and Jesus' blood in the waters of baptism. We live right now sustained in hope by the means of grace. We are focused forward on the future prepared for us.
Today begins with the last line of the last hymn we sang just last week. In A Mighty Fortress, we sang the Kingdom ours remaineth. The kingdom IS ours. We are not waiting for it. It has already come to us. Jesus brought the Kingdom to us by His birth in human flesh and blood. He delivered this Kingdom to us by His suffering and death. This Kingdom is here because Christ is here. He is no feeling in our gut or idea in our minds. He is here in the means of grace, the Word and Sacraments. We do not imagine Him but meet Him in the reality of the splash of water, the voice of the Word, the sound of absolution, and the taste of bread and wine. Here is Christ. Here is the Truth that endures forever. Here is where God shows Himself to us and delivers to us His grace. We don't want for it; it is already here!
If Christ is here, His body is here – the Church. Christ is not some floating head but the head of the body which is His Church. The Church is not some imagined place but the concrete place where God is in the midst of His people in the Word and Sacraments. Here He calls us to be His own and live under Him in the Church. The Church, the body of Christ, is where Christ the head is and He is where His Word is preached and His sacraments administered faithfully.
Once a non-Lutheran spouse complained to me that Lutherans worshiped forms and not the Christ. I told her she was absolutely right. “I knew it,” she said. But the form IS Christ. He is not some ethereal spirit but the concrete Christ of the means of grace. We worship the Christ who is right there in the water that cleanses us inside and out, in the living voice of the Gospel that speaks and our sins our forgiven, and in the bread and wine that feeds us His own body and blood. The problem is for those who worship an absent Christ located only in feelings and ideas. We worship a present Lord, Emmanuel, God with us in the means of grace.
The Kingdom is ours and it is here right now because Christ is here in the means of grace that deliver up to us His Kingdom. But not all of it is seen. We see those who, like us, are flesh and blood. But there are also the saints who have gone before us. They are here but are unseen by these earthly eyes, discerned only by faith. Though hidden, they are one with us in praise to God when, in the liturgy, we sing “Therefore with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven we laud and magnify Thy holy name, evermore praising Thee and singing...” Until that day when the barrier between heaven and earth comes down for good, we are closest to the saints who have gone before us through the liturgy.
The kingdom is all the baptized children of God – both the living and the dead, those who labor like us under the constraints of this flesh and the taunts of this world and the devil and those whose labors are complete, who have finished their course in faith and now rest from their labors. We walk among them. They are the giants who have left to us the big footprints of a people made mighty in Christ, forgiven of their sins, who lived without fear of death, and who died confident of Christ's life in them.
We walk with the giants – but by God's grace we are equal sharers with them in all that Christ has done. We share an equal inheritance with them of the riches of God's grace but we are becoming giants whom others will look to with thanksgiving to God and in whose footsteps they will follow as we have followed those who went before us, and all of us follow Christ.
We are a people on the move. We cannot afford to be wearied by the despair, disease, and death of this world neither can we afford to become too comfortable with the joys of the present day. Our troubles cannot steal from us all that Christ has given and our joys cannot match up to what He has prepared for us. So we keep on the march, in step toward the great future God has prepared for us. In New Orleans the jazz tradition has the mourners are accompanied by the old song "When the saints go marching in." That song begins: We are traveling in the footsteps Of those who've gone before But we'll all be reunited On a new and sunlit shore...Oh when the saints go marching in, Lord, I want to be in that number... So today we come to pray, “Oh, I want to be in that number.” It is the urgent call of the saints praying God to prevent both the heights of today’s glory and the depths of its sorrows from stealing away our focus and our attention to the heavenly glory yet to come.
We are not content with only today. We are marching toward a certain future Christ has prepared for us. We will not be content until we reach that immortal land of promise. We do not walk on our own. The Kingdom of God is with us in the Word and the Sacraments. Christ is here and His presence gives us courage and comfort. But we are marked for greater things. We wait for the culmination of what He began. As we journey in faith, we eat, we drink, we confess, we are forgiven, we are loved, we love, we are served with Christ's gifts and we serve one another in His name. This is no aimless trek but the march of the saints to God's promised goal.
There is more to come for us and for the kingdom begun in us in baptism. There is more than mind can comprehend. We are marching toward Zion. The saints from yesterday and yesteryear, those long gone and the recently departed, those living among us and those who have gone before, we are the saints of God. Some are marching by faith – the saints in whose steps we march. Some are marching by faith – walking in the way toward a dimly seen but glorious eternal tomorrow. That is what All Saints Day is about. What can we say to all this but, "Lord, I want to be in their number! Keep me, Lord. Keep me going, Lord. Keep me focused, Lord."