Saturday, November 09, 2019

Saints: Who Are They? Who Aren't They?

[This message was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio during All Saints' Sunday worship last Sunday.]

What is a saint? All Saints’ Sunday challenges us to ask that question each year. 

The first thing we should do in approaching this question, I suppose, is to talk about what saints aren't, or in a phrase used by the late Lutheran composer John Ylvisaker, what the saints ain't. There's a helpful discussion of this subject in Article XXI of what's known as the Apology to the Augsburg Confession. The confession makes up a portion of The Book of Concord, a place where Lutheran Christians summarize their understanding of Biblical Christian faith.

Article XXI deals with the subject of the invocation of saints, the use of saints' names to intervene for people in prayer. Behind this idea is that saints are somehow superabundantly good and can somehow put in good words for us with God that Jesus, the One we confess to be Lord, God, and Savior, doesn't.

The article says, in part, "Our Confession approves honoring the saints in three ways. The first is thanksgiving. [In their lives, we see examples of God's mercy for sinful human beings.]...The second service is the strengthening our faith. When we see Peter's denial forgiven, we also are encouraged to believe all the more that grace truly superabounds over sin...The third honor is the imitation, first of faith, then of the other virtues...[God, by His grace creates through Christ]...We admit that, just as the saints (when alive) pray for the Church universal in general, so in heaven they pray for the Church in general. However no passage about the praying of the dead exists in the Scriptures...Scripture does not teach the invocation of the saints, or that we are to ask the saints for aid..."

In short, dead saints aren't who we're to talk to when we're trying to communicate with God. Scripture teaches that we're to pray in the name of God the Son, Jesus. The early Church knew that there is no other name given by God by which we can be saved. Jesus says that He is the way, the truth, and the life, the only connection that humanity can have to God for salvation and prayers heard by God. As a young person said to me years ago, "If I can go right to the top, to God, in my praying, why would I talk to a dead believer who can't hear me?"

That's what saints aren't. To find out what they are, we’ll turn to today’s first lesson, Revelation 7:9-17. 

Revelation, as you know, is based on a series of visions given to the apostle John about sixty years after Jesus’ resurrection. 

Beginning at chapter 6, John sees Jesus, the second Person of the one God, open the first six of seven seals. With the opening of each seal, John sees this old creation in which we live move closer to its inevitable end. He also sees glimmers of the new creation that the risen and ascended Jesus will fully usher in at His second coming, when He returns to this world to claim His kingdom from our enemies: sin, death, and the devil. Jesus’ return will bring celebration and relief to all who have turned from sin and who have believed in Christ.

But, as the last verse of Revelation 6 points out, the return of Jesus won’t be universally welcomed, any more than He or His people are universally welcomed today. Those who have rejected Christ will ask the caves, mountains, and rocks for help. “‘Fall on us,’ they will beg, ‘and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb [the Lamb being Jesus]!’ For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?” (Revelation 6:16)

Then, just before the opening of the seventh and final seal, John is allowed to see two scenes which he records in Revelation, chapter 7. 

The first scene comes in Revelation 7:1-8, right before today’s lesson. The location of this scene is this world. God assigns four angels to hold back the final destruction of the old creation. “Don’t damage the earth,” God tells the angels, “until we’ve marked all of the servants of God with a seal on their foreheads” (Revelation 7:3) (This is the seal of the Holy Spirit which every baptized person receives on the day they’re made new by water and the Spirit.) Then the numbers of those sealed for salvation are counted out. The total comes to 144,000. The Bible is not here saying that just 144,000 people out of all human history will be part of God’s eternal kingdom! The number 144 is derived from multiplying the 12 tribes of Israel times the 12 apostles Jesus chose to lead the post-resurrection church. For John, it would have been a number implying perfection and completeness. And, tacking three zeroes onto the back of 144, would be a bit like one of us saying that “a gazillion” people showed up for an Ohio State football game or watched the seventh game of the World Series this past week

Then comes Revelation 7:9. John writes: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count…” 

This is no little crowd of 144,000! It’s a crowd so big that “no one could count” it! 

I find this incredibly moving because on a starlit night 4000 years ago, an elderly man to whom God had promised the impossible struggled to believe that God could overcome decay and death to give him a son and a future to his descendants.

The man’s name at the time was Abram. (Later to be changed by God to Abraham.) To Abram, the promise seemed too good to be true. So, God reassured Abram in Genesis 15:5: “[God took Abram] outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” 

The multitude from every nation that John is shown in His vision of heaven after the life of this old world has come to an end are the descendants of Abram, the very descendants God had promised on that starry night so long ago. They were, in the words of John in his gospel: “children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:13). This multitude comes to be numbered among Abraham’s descendants not by genetics, but by faith in the God Who ultimately revealed Himself to Jews and Gentiles in the person of Jesus Christ

Jesus says in John 14:9: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” This the Father, God the Father, the same one Who made Abraham and Sarah the ancestors of nations, not because their bodies were capable of making children, but because God’s Holy Spirit, by the grace of God, can make new life in all who turn from sin and entrust themselves to Jesus.  

Jesus, God the Son, is the God Who gave Abraham that promise four millennia ago. And He is the God Who promises that all who turn from sin and believe in Him become descendants of Abraham. They are saints of God. When we come to believe in Christ as our God and Savior, we are the saints of God!

Saints are those who trust God to give them the free gifts that come to all who follow Jesus: gifts like forgiveness of sin, eternal life, and the power to live each day for His purposes

But if sainthood is a free gift from God, we must not think for a moment that sainthood is easy. We see this from just four words in our lesson from Revelation today. 

The first two of those words appear at the beginning of verse 9: “After this.” After what, exactly? John saw the multitude of saints after an event that’s mentioned in verse 14. 

That’s where you can read two more important words: “great tribulation.” 

Despite the propaganda that comes from those who misconstrue Revelation, "the great tribulation" does not refer to some endtime cataclysm. The great tribulation is the common experience through which every believer in Jesus goes in this life.

Life in this world is the great tribulation

We live in a place filled with beauty and wonder. But with its beauty and wonder marred by human sin, death, and even the suffering of the saints, this world, at its best, can still only give us a glimpse--a kind of shimmering shadow--of the beauty and wonder—the perfection—that await all who persevere to the end in following Jesus as their only God and King. 

After completing life in this world, the saints who have kept on trusting Jesus, will be met by the Savior, Who will make them clean forever, Who will dry their tears, Who will feed their hunger and quench their thirst for the righteous life that only He can give, and He will welcome them into the new creation for which each of us was made. 

But even in the best of times, this life can be a struggle. 

How much easier the lives of Christians would be if we just went along with the world instead of rooting ourselves in the truth and grace of God revealed in His Word. Of course, along with that ease would come death, because life is only found in Christ!

The devil tests, tempts, and tries the saints. And every believer in Christ will, eventually, bear the scars—physical, emotional, relational, or all three—that come to those who seek to follow Christ. 

Mark it well: Follow Christ and He will most certainly thwart you in some of your most heartfelt desires because He is far less interested in giving you momentary happiness than He is in fitting and forging you and your character for an eternity spent in His presence. In this life, I have chafed under Christ's hand of loving discipline more than once and I'm sure that I will chafe under it many times again before I die. I'm reminded of the words of the preacher in the New Testament book of Hebrews: "Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined--and everyone undergoes discipline--then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness." (Hebrews 12:7-10)

The Old Testament saints living in exile, the victims of injustice, would cry out to God, “How long, O Lord?” Their pain was echoed for me in the words of a saint and friend battling cancer who told me, “I just can’t seem to catch a break.” In this life, we’ve all been there...or will be. 

Our own personal “great ordeals” may include persecution, chronic or fatal illness, disagreements over priorities with those we love or with whom we work, or the conflicts that happen within us when a sin tantalizes us and we know that we must choose God’s way and not our own. The latter may be the greatest tribulation of all!

What is a saint? 

Saints are people who daily turn to Jesus for forgiveness, faith, courage, and new life. 

Saints are sinners who trust that Jesus loves and gives new and everlasting life to sinners. 

Sometimes saints turn to Jesus haltingly. Always imperfectly. At times, speaking for myself anyway, resentfully. But saints find that their lives as disciples and human beings are always buttressed by daily repentance and renewal. 

No matter how saints’ hearts may wander, they always know to come back to Christ

They know to Whom they belong and they know where they’re headed

They know that this life is not perfect. But they have a purpose in their living: To live for and to let the whole world know about the Lamb Jesus, Who will, after the last page has been closed in the last chapter of the last volume of this world's story, welcome all who have trusted in Him to His new creation

In the meantime, dear saints of God, trust in Jesus. Know His love for you even in the midst of life’s greatest tribulations and know for a fact that, if you remain steadfast in following Jesus, like saints before us, you will be in Jesus' everlasting kingdom. You will hear Jesus say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” (Matthew 25:34) Amen!

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. I'm also a saint by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and a sinner by my very nature at the same time.]

Friday, November 08, 2019

A Reminder to All Who Have (or Seek) Power

Today for my quiet time with God, I read the 19th. chapter of John's gospel, with its account of Jesus' trial and execution.

These verses, part of the exchange between Jesus and the spineless but ruthless Roman governor Pilate struck me: "'Do you refuse to speak to me?' Pilate said. 'Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?' Jesus answered, 'You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above...'" (John 19:9-10)

God rules over this world in two ways.

First, He rules over those who have come to trust in Him through Jesus. True disciples of Jesus voluntarily accede to the gracious rule of God out of gratitude for the undeserved grace He bears for those who persist in turning from their sin and trusting in Him to give them victory over sin, death, and darkness. People who live in this kingdom seek, imperfectly, to love God and neighbor, trust in Christ, and live a lifestyle of daily repentance and renewal.

Second, God rules through imperfect human governments. Recognizing sinful human nature (as did the writers of the US Constitution, hence the system of "checks and balances") and the inherent human desire to be own gods and to rule over our neighbors, God gives coercive authority to earthly governments. Absent earthly governments with their coercive power, the world would be an infinitely more chaotic place than it is.

But earthly governments and earthly governors are to act justly. When they don't, Christians may and should seek redress...not for themselves, but for their neighbors who they love.

Romans 13:1 in the New Testament, for example, tells Christians: "Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established."

But just a chapter before, Christians are also told, "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."

In other words, for the sake of our neighbors, Christians are to obey their governments.

But for the sake of the same neighbor--and for our own eternal identities as disciples saved by grace through faith in Jesus, we are to stand against authorities when they act unjustly. The witness of Scripture is that this is particularly so when the victims of injustice are the poor, the stranger, the widow, the powerless, or the marginalized.

In John's account of Jesus' passion, Jesus offers no resistance to Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. Jesus' concern is not for Himself, but for others. It was precisely to go to the cross as the perfect sinless sacrifice for human sin and to reverse the death sentence that sin brings every human being that Jesus came into the world.

Concerned though that Pilate has an understanding of reality and the lengths to which God was willing to go in order to spare us from death and separation from God (remember John 3:16), Jesus reminds Pilate, "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above."

There's an important reminder here for all of us who wield power in this world, whether we're parents or teachers, politicians or pastors, generals, doctors, factory supervisors, employers, customers, or citizens: Whatever power has been given to us over the life of this world or our little corners of it, has been entrusted to us by God. That power is to be exercised lovingly, justly, and humbly.

May the God Who is revealed in Jesus Christ help us to do so.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]