Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The company of the saints. . .

Sermon for All Saints, Observed, preached on Sunday, November 5, 2017.

    Analogies and metaphors and comparisons are the means by which we teach and explain things.  There are too many analogies of the Church to quote – The Church is a gas station where the empty are filled up to head back out to the highway of life or the Church is a hospital where the wounded and hurting receive God’s care or the Church a lighthouse shining forth with the beacon of hope that is the Gospel or the Church is museum of saints where the world looks for virtue.  I could go on but I won’t.  There is a bit of truth in all of them but they all fall short in describing what the Church is and what happens here on Sunday morning.
    Frankly speaking, the Church is a disappointment to most.  They come with great expectations and instead they find the font is filled with water, the Gospel is proclaimed in words, on the altar are bread and wine, and God is on a cross.  It does not help when the people of God start off by confessing that they are poor, miserable sinners, they are not strong, will never be, and must always depend upon the Lord’s strength, and they do not chart their own destiny but submit to the will of God in Christ.
    Most of us come to Church hoping and expecting and wishing for something more.  It is all too predictable. Why do we need a pastor when the words of the liturgy are printed out for all to read?  Why do we follow the same order week after week?  Why are the lessons are prearranged and predictable?  Why, unless the acolyte, choir, organist, or pastor screws up or somebody gets ill and passes out, there are no surprises on Sunday morning.  The songs are all so old.  It is all so routine.  They say familiarity breeds contempt. And it all feels so tame, so ordinary, and so boring.  Or. . . is it?
    We are not here for something new but to find refreshment in the age old promise kept in Christ.  We are here not to learn new skills but to rehearse and practice for the future God has prepared for us in heaven.  We are here anticipating that eternal tomorrow even though for now we are all caught in space and time.  What does that future look like?
    John tells us.  A great multitude of the heavenly host – an uncountable number – sits before the throne and the Lamb.  Clothed in white with palm branches in hand, they cry out in song:  “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb!”  And everyone falls on their knees, the voices in heaven and on earth to sing the unending hymn:  “Blessing and honor and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and power and might be to our God forever and ever.  Amen.” 
    Look around you.  Is that what you see?  If it isn’t, you need to look harder with the eyes of faith.  Because that is what is here.  John was overcome with awe at that moment.  He could not even speak.  Where is our awe?  Where is our realization of the holy ground of God's presence on which we stand?  Where is our awe before the God who can love us as we are and send His one and only Son to save us at the cost of His death?  Where is our awe before the means of grace that deliver to us not only the promises of God but God Himself in ordinary forms of word, water, bread, and wine?
      John is questioned.  “Who are they and where did they come from?”  Ahhhhhhh you know.  They are the ones who have come through the great tribulation.  They are clothed in the white robes of the Lamb’s righteousness and they are washed in the blood of the Lamb. Because, you see, salvation may belong to God, but He has given it to YOU.  He has given it to the sinner in need of forgiveness, to the unclean who needs to be washed, to the unworthy who must be redeemed, to the lost who must be found, and to the dead who must be raised.
    The shocker is this.  God is not a God of the dead; He is God of the living!  Our dead who die in Christ are not dead at all.  They live in Christ.  And the life they live is not some vague spiritual existence but a life with voices that sing and mouths that eat and hands that wave palm branches.  They are not the sad ones.  We are those who sorrow and not only because they are gone but because they already have what we do not yet have.  We are not yet who we shall be but they already are, around the throne, lifting voices in song, without hunger or thirst, cooled and washed and drinking in the living water, every tear has been wiped from their eyes.
    When Christ appears on this earth, we shall be like Him and like them.  We shall see His unveiled face and we will bask in the majesty of the eternal God.  The history of God’s saving acts will be constantly retold but there will be no mention of our sins.
    God’s people complain and God hears them.  They rebel and He goes after them.  They suffer and He is wounded.  They fall before temptation and He restores them.  They sin and He forgives them.  They deny Him but He won’t deny them. They die and He pulls them from the earth for heaven and eternity.
    Our praise is not about who God is but about what He has done. Read the Psalms, Leviticus, those Lutheran hymns you hate to sing, Revelation, the liturgy – it is all about God and what He has done.  We praise the Lord not for who He is, for that is beyond us, but we praise Him for what He has done.  Apart from what He has done, we don’t have a clue who He is.  In our worship we recount the saving actions God has done and through them we know Him and have confidence in His salavation.
    There is a reason a cross stands front and center, a crucifix shows Christ suffering, a font that is filled with water, a pulpit to raise up the Word, and an altar where we are fed Christ’s flesh and blood.  Here is the glimpse of the heavenly liturgy, here is the anticipation of the eternal tomorrow, and here we recall the saints BECAUSE they live and we shall soon be one with them in the place of light and life.
    Here we shed our tears for those who cry no more but not as people without hope and expectation of joining them.  Here we join our voices with angels and archangels and all the heavenly host, bridging time and eternity to sing:  Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Sabaoth. Heaven and earth are full of your glory, Hosanna, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.  Bridging time and eternity, we who live and the dead in Christ are one people.
    You what to know what the Church is?  It is where the dead live.  We don’t come here to regroup to fight on our own but to be swept up in Christ’s eternal victory.  We don’t come here to get something from God but to meet Christ as He is, where He is, in the fullness of His saving glory.  We don’t come here to find a better fit for the world and this mortal life but to anticipate the eternal day.  We are connected here, heaven and earth together.  We don’t come here to refresh our fading memories of those who have died, we come to rehearse the heavenly liturgy so that we will join them when God ushers in His new creation.
    Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb forever.  The dead in Christ live and we live with them in Christ, for now here, but for eternity there.  Amen.

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