Sermon for the Third Sunday of End Time – Saints Triumphant
Luke 20:27-38 + Isaiah 65:17-25 + Revelation 22:1-5
Is there life after death? What about those who die? Do they really live on? All Christians know, I think, what the Bible has to say about it. But even Christians, in our weakness, may find ourselves wondering at times. Is it true? Can it be? Does life really go on for us – and for our loved ones – after we die?
It doesn’t really help when the unbelieving world starts mocking the Christian’s belief in a human soul, resurrection from the dead, heaven and hell. But you have to understand, the world has been mocking this Christian belief for a long time. In our Gospel today we meet that group of Jews known as the Sadducees, a group that said there is no such thing as a resurrection from the dead. They didn’t believe in heaven or hell or the existence of angels either, for that matter. Only the here and now.
They presented that ridiculous question to Jesus, that bizarre scenario of a woman who was widowed by seven husbands. “Whose wife will she be at the resurrection, Jesus? Ha! Try and answer that! See how ridiculous your resurrection belief is? Dead is dead. There is no life hereafter. We gotcha.”
But Jesus had an answer for the Sadducees, an answer that speaks to us, too. In his answer to the Sadducees, Jesus confirms it in unmistakable terms: Yes, yes, yes, Life goes on for the saints. In some ways, 1) A life that’s changed for the better. In other ways, 2) A life that hasn’t changed a bit.
Life goes on for the saints of God. This text from Luke 20 doesn’t address the question of those who die in unbelief, those who die in their sins. Other passages of Scripture talk about them and their eternal torment in hell. Here Jesus speaks of those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead. Right away he throws it the Sadducees’ faces. There is another age beyond this earthly age. There is a resurrection from the dead. But you mockers won’t be considered worthy of it. You who make a mockery out of the teaching of Christ will know what it means to fall into the hands of the living God. All will rise at the resurrection – but some will rise to everlasting shame and contempt.
Others will be considered worthy of that age. Who are they? They are the saints – the holy ones, sinless ones. Yet, not saints as the world understands the word. To God, all are sinners and all were considered worthy of eternal punishment. But some are now considered saints, worthy of the heavenly age, worthy of the resurrection from the dead. Who are they? They are the ones who have heard the Word of Christ and believed it – the Word of Christ that condemns sinners for their sins but that speaks of Another Man who took the sinner’s place under God’s condemnation. The saints are the ones who have put their faith in Jesus to be judged in God’s tribunal under Jesus’ name rather than their own. They bear the title of saint because they bear the name of Jesus Christ – spoken over them as they were baptized into his name. I tell you the truth, Jesus says, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.
That crossing over happens already here on this earth. The Word of Jesus calls out to all sinners, “Repent and believe in me for righteousness, and my righteousness is yours. My life is yours. My saintly status is yours. You are my saints on earth – saints by faith in me.”
A LIFE THAT CHANGES FOR THE BETTER
But things change for the saints on earth when they die. Life goes on for the saints of God, and in many ways, it’s a life that changes for the better. Here’s how Jesus describes it in his answer to the Sadducees’ question.
“The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage.” What, no marriage in heaven? No more husbands and wives living in loving, committed relationships? That’s a change for the better?
It is, Jesus says. Marriage is for this life, for this age. Marriage is God’s gift, part of God’s earthly arrangement of this thing we call “family.” Husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister. What are those earthly callings for? They’re for the members of a family to take special care of one another as we grow up and grow old, as we raise children and send grown up children off to make their own families, as grown children return to take care of their parents in their old age or sickness, and brothers and sisters console one another when their parents die. Then there are those who are not blessed with children or blessed with a spouse or blessed with an earthly family at all.
That arrangement changes when we die. It changes for the better. Those who have very difficult family situations or non-existent family situations in this age may be able to grasp that easily. For others, it’s hard for us to even imagine. How can it be better not to live in families, not to live in eternal marriages – like the Mormons or the Muslims believe? It’s not that Christian husbands and wives and parents and children won’t be together in heaven. They will. They just won’t be alone. There will be no more need for us to be isolated into this family unit and that family unit. There will be no more raising children, no more growing up or growing old. There will be no more sin to keep us from getting along with one another.
As Jesus says about the saints triumphant, they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. All believers in Christ will finally live together, not as husbands and wives, but as brothers and sisters, as children in one house, in God’s house, just like the angels live now in holiness and perfect community. We’ll drink together of the water of life that flows down the middle of the Great City. We’ll eat together of the tree of life, and be healed together by its leaves. We’ll gather together, not just once a week, but all the time around the throne of God and worship the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world. The life of the saints in heaven is not lonelier without marriage. It’s less lonely. The truth is, there will be no more loneliness ever again. Life goes on for the saints of God. A life that’s changed for the better.
A LIFE THAT HASN’T CHANGED A BIT
In other ways, though, even though they’ve died, life hasn’t a changed a bit for the saints of God.
The word of Jesus is enough for us who believe in him when he says, “Yes, yes, yes, life goes on for the saints of God. There is a heaven. There is life there, and resurrection from the dead.”
But the Sadducees didn’t believe Jesus came from God. In fact, the only part of the Old Testament they accepted as true were the first five books of the Bible, the writings of Moses. Not a problem for Jesus. He directed them to Moses for proof of the resurrection.
“But in the account of the bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” Jesus is talking about Exodus 3 when God appeared to Moses in the burning bush: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” And we read that without really thinking about it, don’t we? Well, of course, God means that he – the God appearing to Moses now in the bush – is the same God who appeared to Abraham 400 years earlier, and then to Isaac and then Jacob, even though these three patriarchs are now dead.
But that’s not what it says. I am the God of Abraham. Or to turn it around. I am Abraham’s God. I am Isaac’s God. I am Jacob’s God. To be someone’s God means to be the one whom someone recognizes as God, gives thanks to as God, worships as God, prays to as God, fears, loves and trusts in as God.
You get what Jesus is saying here? When God says that, 400 years after Abraham died, he is Abraham’s God, he means to say that Abraham is still alive, that Abraham still recognizes the Lord Yahweh as God, still worships him and gives thanks to him as God, still fears, loves and trusts in him as God – just as Abraham and Isaac and Jacob did when they were alive on earth.
The same is true for all who have died claiming God’s promised Messiah – the Christ – as their righteousness before God. They live in heaven; we live on earth. They see God and worship God face to face, from his glorious side; we see him, too, but from his humble side – in the Means of Grace. We see and worship him in the words of the Gospel, in the water of baptism, in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. He’s just as present with us in Word and Sacrament as he is with the saints in heaven. This is why in our worship we even use the same words and the same forms that the saints have been using for millennia. This is why we pray before we sing the words of the Sanctus, “Therefore with all the saints on earth and the hosts of heaven, we praise your holy name and join their glorious song…” Because they’re still praising, they’re still singing in glorious song, those saints of God. They stand in his presence always. We stand in his presence when we gather together around Word and Sacrament. It’s the same God. It’s the same worship, just from different angles. In this sense, life goes on for the saints of God and it hasn’t changed a bit.
And so, on this day, when we celebrate the triumph of the saints who have fallen asleep in Jesus, it is altogether proper for us to give thanks to God for the undying life that we share with them; for us to worship the God of Ss. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The God of St. Joseph and the God of St. Mary. The God of Ss. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The God of Ss. Peter, James and Andrew, Ss. Paul and Timothy and Titus. The God of Ss. Augustine and of Athanasius. The God of Ss. Martin Luther and Martin Chemnitz. As we look back at the past year here at Emmanuel, two of the saints here among us joined the saints triumphant, too, and so we worship the Triune God who was and remains also the God of St. Willis Koepnick, who joined the saints triumphant on January 26th, the God of St. Vern Ebert, who joined the saints triumphant on August 28th.
And as your thoughts turn to your loved ones who died claiming Jesus Christ as their righteousness before God and his wounds as their worthiness before God, it is proper for you to call him their God as you remember today that they are just as alive as you and I. Nothing has changed. And if you have a believing loved one who is close to dying, nothing will change for him, either, except that he’ll go from being a living saint in this Church Militant to be a living saint in the Church Triumphant. Life goes on for the saints of God.
Now we live in apparent defeat; then we will live in perfect triumph. This is the promise of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who has earned for us a place in God’s house and promises eternal life to all who trust in him. His Word is more reliable than those who mock the resurrection in their unbelief. His word is also the strength you need when Satan afflicts you with doubt. Jesus Christ is the one whose life spans the breach between this age and the next, and whose word and sacraments keep us united to his life, until he calls us home, as he called home so many saints of God before us. Life goes on, for them and for us, because of Jesus Christ, our living Lord. Amen.