The kind of saints Jesus seeks

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Sermon for All Saints’ Day

Revelation 7:2-17  +  Matthew 5:1-12

Dear saints of God, made holy by Holy Baptism and by faith in the holy, precious blood of Christ, and called to lead holy lives here on earth: Today is All Saints’ Day. What does that mean? It means that we take a moment today to praise God for all the saints, for all the Christian believers who have ever lived and have now fallen asleep and entered the Church Triumphant. And we give special thanks today for those saints who were willing to suffer death on account of their faith in Christ—the ultimate witness or testimony to the truth of the Gospel. We call them Martyrs.

We have much in common with the saints who have gone before us. No matter what nationality they are, no matter what language they speak, no matter how much wealth they have, how old they are or what their background may be, all the saints have some common traits and characteristics, and they’re set forth for us today by Christ Himself in the Sermon on the Mount, in the Beatitudes, that series of nine short “Blessed” statements. These are the kind of saints Jesus seeks.

Blessed are the poor in spirit. “Blessed” means happy, fortunate, people who are privileged in the sight of God. These are the ones God seeks. These are the ones God smiles upon and the ones to whom God will give entrance into the kingdom of heaven: the poor in spirit. Not sinless people. Not “good people” who have earned a place for themselves in God’s kingdom. But the poor in spirit, those who have nothing to offer God and who are well aware of it. You will not hear from these saints things like, “Well, I’ve lived a pretty good life, so I think I’ll be OK on the Last Day.” No way! It’s a characteristic of the saints that they acknowledge their sins and do not try to earn their way into heaven. Instead, they flee for refuge to Christ and hope to be saved only by trusting in Him who was crucified for them and who paid for their sins with His holy, precious blood. To them and only to them does the kingdom of heaven belong, while all those who are “rich in spirit,” all those who think they have something good of their own to offer to God, are not blessed, but cursed.

Blessed are those who mourn. Everyone on this earth mourns. But not everyone is blessed. Jesus is talking about the mourning of His people, His disciples. And the Scriptures present two main reasons for the mourning of the saints.

First, the saints mourn over their own sins. David in the Psalms or St. Paul in Romans 7 give us some examples of how the saints see how grievously they have sinned against God, how they have not done the good they want to do, but the evil they do not want to do, this they keep on doing. And they don’t excuse it or justify it; instead they mourn over it and seek to be rid of it. They shall be comforted, Jesus says. Comforted here in this life with God’s word of forgiveness, in Baptism, in Holy Communion, in the absolution that releases sinners from the guilt of their sins and reconciles them with God. Comforted also in the next life, when their sinful flesh is finally sloughed off and they are finally free from the sins that so entangle us here in this world.

There’s another kind of mourning of the saints described in Scripture. It’s the mourning caused by the enemies of God’s people, by sin, death, and the devil. David says in Psalm 6, I am weary with my groaning; All night I make my bed swim; I drench my couch with my tears. My eye wastes away because of grief; It grows old because of all my enemies. Death is an enemy, as we face our own mortality or the mortality of our loved ones. The devil is a ferocious enemy as he attacks us both directly and indirectly, through all the evil that surrounds us in this world. That evil—the evil of injustice, temptation, violence, immorality, and godlessness—torments the souls of the righteous, even as the evil of ancient Sodom tormented Lot’s righteous soul. But here on earth they will be comforted, because here and now the Lord Christ still reigns over the world, holding evil in check and turning it to His good purposes, and then in eternity, all evil will be cast into hell, and the saints will be free from it forever; Christ will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Blessed are the meek. This blessed meekness isn’t a personality trait. St. Peter didn’t have a meek personality, nor did Martin Luther as he pounded those 95 Theses onto the church door in Wittenberg 498 years ago yesterday. Again, this meekness—it’s a spiritual trait. It’s a voluntary gentleness, lowliness, humility. It’s the same word used for how Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, “lowly” and riding on a donkey. It’s the opposite of conceited, the opposite of overbearing, the opposite of selfish or self-seeking. The saints are intentionally lowly, intentionally humble, like Christ Jesus, from the heart looking out for the interests of others ahead of their own. The meek will inherit the earth, Jesus says. These are the kind of saints He seeks for His kingdom.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The saints in Christ’s kingdom here on earth are not apathetic or indifferent to the Gospel. They hunger for it. And they know where righteousness comes from—not from within themselves, but from Christ, the Righteous One—His righteousness which the Holy Spirit applies through the Means of Grace. That means the saints on earth are characterized by eagerly seeking out the Means of Grace. They seek it first in Baptism, and they are filled. They seek it continually in the preaching of the Word of God, and they are filled. They seek it often in the Holy Supper, and they are filled with the righteousness of Christ here on this earth until they fall asleep in death. And when those saints pass over into the Church Triumphant as their bodies are laid in the ground, they shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore, for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters.

Blessed are the merciful. Mercy is an attribute of God. God is merciful. God is moved by man’s misery and wretchedness and neediness. He shows mercy to those who deserve to be punished for their sins. He showed mercy by sending His Son into our flesh and having Him put to death so that sinners could live. Now those who have been brought to faith in the merciful Christ are characterized by mercy, too. God expects it from the saints and will not tolerate it if those who have been shown mercy by Him refuse to show it to their neighbor.

Blessed are the pure in heart. The saints have pure hearts. How did they become pure? “Pure” is the same word in Greek as “clean.” What do we sing after the sermon, quoting Psalm 51? “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” It is God the Holy Spirit who purifies and cleanses the hearts of His saints. He does it through daily repentance on the part of the saints, as they recognize the evil of their heart, confess it, receive forgiveness for it, and then strive, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to get rid of the evil from their hearts. It’s a daily battle for the saints here on earth, but the struggle has an end, and then they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers. Again, this isn’t referring to political or secular pacifism. Not all those who lobby against war are blessed in the sight of God. But saints, in their daily lives, seek reconciliation wherever possible. Where feelings have been hurt or offense has been given, the saints seek to make it right. They apologize if they’ve sinned against their neighbor and seek to repair what they broke. Or, if they’ve been sinned against, the saints are ready and willing to be reconciled with the guilty party, to forgive those who trespass against them, just as they have been forgiven by God for their trespasses. In this way they are acting like true sons of God, because God is the ultimate peacemaker, who gave His Son into death in order to make peace with His enemies.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. And to this saintly trait Jesus adds a double beatitude, a double blessing: Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Now, being persecuted isn’t a trait. It’s something that is done to you by someone else. What is the trait that God seeks here? It’s the willingness to suffer persecution for Christ’s sake. It’s the steadfast confession of Christ that attracts persecution like a powerful magnet, because the world hates Christ with a passion, and the more Christ is found in the confession of your lips and of your life, the more the world will identify you with Christ and will turn its hatred toward you. It’s part of what we call the blessed cross, the suffering a Christian willingly and patiently endures for the sake of the Gospel. And, contrary to all human reason and logic, the cross is a cause for great rejoicing, because when you bear a cross for the sake of Christ, you are simply following Jesus along the path, and you know where that path ends—not in shame and death, but in glory and resurrection from the dead.

In the eyes of the world, none of these traits is cause for happiness. In the eyes of the world, the saints are the most wretched, pitiful people who have ever lived. But in the eyes of God, the saints are precious. The saints are blessed. All believers in Christ are blessed.

Now maybe, in the picture Jesus has painted for us today of the saints, of the blessed, you have a hard time recognizing some of your Christian loved ones who have died. Maybe you have a hard time recognizing yourself in some of the beatitudes. Here’s something Luther once wrote: This life is not godliness, but growth in godliness; not health, but healing; not being, but becoming; not rest, but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way; the process is not yet finished, but it has begun; this is not the goal, but it is the road; at present all does not gleam and glitter, but everything is being purified. All the saints on earth are repentant believers in Christ, or else they are not saints. And all believers in Christ strive to grow in all the blessed traits that Jesus described, or else they are not believers in Christ. Jesus genuinely seeks these traits in His people, but He also is the one who sends His Spirit and who works through His Spirit, through His Means of Grace, to create these traits in you, even as He has given you new birth through the Word. Even today, through these words from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is molding you, His saints, into the kind of saints He seeks. What was lacking in the believers who have died has now been perfectly fulfilled in Paradise. What is still lacking in you, God will continue to fulfill as long as you live on this earth, until you join that blessed cloud of witnesses in the Church Triumphant. Amen.


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