Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Blessed Ones and the Blessed One

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Dear Beloved Saints in Christ:
Today, a week after Reformation Sunday, the Christian Church commemorates her saints. That can be more than a little confusing for those who believe Martin Luther's great contribution to Christianity was ridding sanctuaries of statues and paintings and stain glass windows depicting believers who have been called to the Church triumphant.
But, contrary to what some may believe, there is no inconsistency between observing the Lutheran Reformation — the rediscovery of the true Gospel of God's grace and forgiveness in the substitutionary sacrifice Christ Jesus — and observing the commemoration of the saints — those who have received by true faith the true Gospel of God's grace in Christ.
God always means for the two to go together: the bright beams of the Gospel — and the fruits of that saving Light in the minds and hearts of the faithful that constitute the Church — Militant (Christ's children on earth) and Triumphant (Christ's children now in heaven).
God in his mercy gave us the one saving gift of his Son upon the Cross — and with that redeeming gift comes all others, including the gift of the saints.
And how many individuals came up to you Friday and wished you a blessed Reformation Day? How many did you wish a blessed Reformation Day to, only to receive a blank stare back?
And so it is with a proper understanding of All Saint's Day. The world knows of Hallow's Eve, but knows nothing of the true reason to bow the knee and give thanks to the Triune God for all those our Creator and Redeemer properly considers his own dear saints.
For example, ask your neighbor the significance of the first of November — and more likely than not you'll get the answer: it's the day after Halloween. The day to pick up the discarded candy wrappers in the front lawn. It's the day to take the rented costumes back to the store and put the "cobwebs in a can" and the squeeze bottle of fake blood back in the box until next year.
But what of the saints? The hallowed of All Hallow's Eve? Does our world (and our old nature) commemorate saints? Well, yes, but in it's own worldly way.
You see, the world's saints are marked by behavior thought to earn the title "saint" or "holy" or "pious" or "moral." If you're shooting for sainthood you can't kick the dog or be a disappointment to those who know you best. If you want to make the grade you have to prove yourself worthy of the title "saint." No investing in tobacco or oil companies. No problems at work or at home or with the neighbors. To be a saint, you need to present yourself to everyone around you in a way that will make them compelled to confess, "She's a saint." "He's a saint."
The requirements are grueling if you desire to be the world's saint. You have to stand out from the crowd with your saintliness, with your holy living. The competition is so ruthless the Roman Catholic Church now requires three miracles by the candidate — performed after his or her death.
But what of us here this morning? What of us here who have given up long ago on impressing the world or our relatives or boss or neighbors that we're on our way to earning our halo and becoming a saint in the eyes of the world? What of us who just struggle to get through the day without saying something stupid or hurtful — or neglecting those we have been called to serve with our time and care and resources? What of us who have our hands full trying to curb our own pride and self-centered concerns, that our Lord and his Word and love of God and neighbor would follow? What does commemorating the saints have to do with us who are so spiritually challenged — so morally disabled — so crippled and debilitated with temptation and sin and excuse-making?
We might, on a good day, be able to fool those around us, to produce in our neighbor some applause or accolades for our saintly behavior, but everything comes to a dead end when we realize that before God, everything is seen as it really is, for God looks at the heart. God looks at our fallen heart and sees even in our desire to be saintly the stain of sin and the hunger to be rewarded for what we believe we have made ourselves into.
But as we hear the clear words of the Beatitudes that come from our Lord before his disciples, a part of us cried out with the recognition that the moat he constructs is too wide and deep to cross, and the wall is too smooth and high to get over.

[Jesus] 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 satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:2-8 ESV)

How could Christ come and announce such an impossible standard for those who's simple desire was to become God-pleasing saints? How could he take the measuring stick of the Ten Commandments and not only affirm them but show them to be a thousand times more impossible for any of us to master?
How can a loving, merciful, forgiving Savior announce such standards that are beyond our grasp, even for an hour or a day? Why did he have to shut and bolt and weld the door shut on my attempts to attain holiness and sainthood — and with it the reward of heaven?
Couldn't Jesus simply overlook the demand for complete obedience under the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes? Couldn't God just look the other way and measure my life only according to my outward behavior — when I'm in public? Why does everything I say and do and think, why does everything I have done and failed to do have to factor into the Almighty's decision when it comes to granting me the title "saint"?
King David himself may have been wrestling with the same impossibilities of attaining sainthood when he wrote the psalm quoted in this morning's introit — Psalm 31. In repentance, aware of his own sinful hopelessness, he is given the gift to accept the fulfillment and end of Moses and the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes as he cries out:

In you, O LORD, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me!
Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily!
Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me!
For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me; ... .

Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God. (Psalm 31:1-3, 5 ESV)

We are God's dear, holy saints in the same way we are God's dear, holy Church. Not because we have attained or earned or deserve it. Not because we have sincerely tried or somehow desired to make it our own.
We are God's saints because Christ has won that title for each of us. It was Christ whom God judged by both his public behavior and his private thoughts. It was Christ who was laid in the balance and proclaimed without spot or blemish. Christ is the holy one, the saintly one, the dear one before God on his almighty throne.
And in winning that title "saint" with his perfect life, our Lord Christ bestows it on all who will look to him in faith as their only righteousness and blessedness and holiness.
If there are any here this day who have fallen for the temptation to believe that the title "saint" and the status of being God's own dear child is for sale, that it can be earned by outward behavior the world labels good and perfect, then turn and look to the holy and perfect Law of God and then look to your own heart. Repent and confess the reality of your fallen human condition and God's revelation that only One has earned righteous before God. Salvation belongs to him alone.
Christ has taken upon himself your failure and sin and inability to keep God's righteous Law. He has taken it and made atonement for it. And in your Baptism, you have been given that white robe that makes you God's dear, precious, holy saint. Clothed in Christ you have been declared blessed, sanctified, hallowed, God-pleasing, perfect and pure.
In repentant joy, come to his table, clothed in faith and in the wedding garment of the Lamb who knew no sin, yet was made sin for us. Feed from his pierced hands and hear again the word of his heavenly Father this day:
"Trusting in my Son and his Cross, I declare you my dear child and saint."

A blessed All Saints Day to you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

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