Monday, November 3, 2008

Sermon for November 1-2

The Feast of All Saints (November 1)
November 1-2, 2008
Text: Revelation 7:9-17

Dear Friends in Christ,
In the ancient world, the pagan, idol worshipers, generally believed in a kingdom of the dead. You died and went to the kingdom of the dead which was ruled by a certain god. Generally, the kingdom of the dead was not a nice place. It was really a belief that everyone was going to hell. There was no real concept of heaven. Nor was there any distinction made. It didn’t matter what your life was like on earth, you weren’t going to like the kingdom of the dead. Such a view of the afterlife removes any sense of divine judgement. There is no justice to the results in the afterlife. Hitler and Luther would be in the same place.

We are coming to a time when neo-paganism is increasingly dominating thought and practice in the United States. Even much of what passes for Christianity is really neo-pagan or gnostic. Gnosticism is a belief system that radically divides the spiritual from the material. We again see the wide spread belief in a generic kingdom of the dead. The implications of this are staggering. It makes a person’s confession irrelevant. In time, it turns society itself into an earthly hell. It must be noted that all attempts to create heaven on earth have failed and will always fail. But we only need to turn on the evening news or look at a news site on the internet to see many examples of man quite successfully turning earth into hell. The list would include many of the third world dictatorships of today, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam when the communists took over and the like.

In contrast to this idea, the Scriptures from the first, insisted that the true God distinguishes in death. Many scholars consider the book of Job to be the oldest book of the Bible, predating even the five books of Moses. We read these word of Job, recorded in Job 19. “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:25-27a) In these words Job is expressing a certain confidence that he will be raised to eternal life with God. Further Job is stating that it will be a bodily resurrection from the dead. Not only his soul or spirit will live, but his body also will live. He will physically stand in the presence of God. This is not a New Testament concept. This is not a late Jewish concept. It was understood by those who worshiped the true God from the beginning. But note also what Job calls God. Job calls God “my Redeemer”. God redeems, He buys back from sin and death. So this concept also was present from the very beginning.

This then brings us to the vision of heaven that was given to St. John. Here we see the same ideas being expressed in the very last book of Scripture. It speaks of a great multitude gathered around the throne of heaven. Note what the people cry out. "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" This is the Father and the Son. But note salvation is God’s property. It is His to give. He gained possession of salvation when Christ, God the Son, died on the cross. So now God can give salvation to whomever He chooses. But God is not arbitrary. Who is it that He saves? Those who have washed their robes in the blood of Christ. In other words those who trust in Christ to save them. Those who have made the sacrifice of Christ to be a credit to their account by eating the Body and Blood of Christ.

The implication of this is that there are others who are not gathered before Christ. And indeed we could point to dozens if not hundred of Scripture passages that make it clear that those who reject Christ, either out of ignorance or out of actual defiance will not be in heaven. They will be cast out from the presence of God. In short Hitler and Luther are not in the same place. But it works a little differently than many people think. Those in hell receive justice for their works. Those in heaven are there because Christ received justice for their works, in their place. So in this sense hell is the place of divine justice. Heaven is the place of divine grace.

What is this place of divine grace? What will it be like? Our text tells us this: “He who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” It is called a new heaven and a new earth. It is called a new Eden. We do confess in the creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body. This is stating that heaven is not a new spiritual realm. It is a new material realm in which we are confirmed in God’s grace, like the angels. C. S. Lewis suggests that our life on earth will seem to be a mere shadow compared to the physical reality of heaven. In other words heaven is more physically real than this earth. In this new world of heaven, Christ provides all that we need, the most delectable food, the sweetest drink. There will be no more pain or suffering. Those are gone because sin will be gone. But the best thing of all will be that we will live in the unshielded presence of Christ our Creator and Redeemer.

This gives us great hope and also great comfort as we consider those who have died before us. In heaven we will see them again. But we don’t have to wait to be with them. The divine service also transports us into those very same courts of heaven. We confess this in the words of the liturgy - “therefore with angels, and archangels, and all the company of heaven.” We gather before Christ’s throne with all the saints of heaven. We kneel at the communion rail with all the saints of heaven. So when I kneel to receive the Lord’s Supper, I don’t kneel alone. My sister Sandy, my brothers Danny and Mark, my grandparents, Bonnie’s parents, my aunts and uncles and the like are all there with me, and I am with them. Not even death separates those who are in Christ.

We live a world that increasingly does not understand life and death, heaven and hell. The world increasingly does not understand divine justice and divine grace. In this climate we must be ever more bold and firm in our confession. The dead in Christ live. Death will not hold us. We will not simply be taken to a kingdom of the dead. We will be in the heavenly kingdom of Jesus Christ, which we could rightly call the kingdom of the living. We rejoice that many who have gone before are already there in Christ’s presence. They are the saints of heaven. We rejoice that in the grace of Christ we will join them - that we too are numbered among the saints of heaven.

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