Strangers on Earth
“After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried in a loud voice:
‘Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb’” (Revelation 7:9-10)
What a marvelous picture of the future glory awaiting those who belong to Jesus Christ!
The Apostle John, writing in the Book of Revelation, shares with the Church throughout the ages the vision given to him by God. It is a picture of the great reward awaiting those who live their lives on earth as faithful members of Christ’s body.
Gathered before God’s throne where the “Lamb who was slain” and who rose again from the dead, sits at the center, are the saints who have gone before us.
According to St. John, these are those who have come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. They have been cleansed and purified and made holy.
We are assured these saints will never again hunger, nor thirst. Nor will they experience the scorching heat of the sun. Rather, they will eternally be led by their Shepherd, the Lamb at the center of the throne, to springs of living water, which never dry up. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Today, on All Saints Day, we recall and celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us and lived lives worthy of Jesus Christ.
Together with the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, we remember those who lived their lives “by faith.”
We remember Abel, who offered God an acceptable offering and by faith was commended by God as a righteous man. And we recall that by faith, Abel’s life still speaks to us today.
We remember Enoch and Noah and Moses for their acts of faith and as men who understood the truth that “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
We recall the life of Abraham who, by faith, began walking towards an unknown destination simply because God told him to do so. Abraham lived his life by faith and it was credited to him as righteousness.
How? How could Abraham set out on a journey without knowing where to go?
Because Abraham considered him faithful who had made the promise.
The list of the lives of the faithful departed goes on and on, and we are to be encouraged and inspired on this All Saints Day by the lives of those who lived lives of faith according to the promises of God. Likewise, we honor and imitate the lives of the everyday saints of today.
Today is also what’s known as Reformation Day throughout the worldwide Church. It was on this day in 1517, that Martin Luther hammered his 95 Thesis onto the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
Luther’s main complaint with the Catholic Church of his day was the selling of indulgences for the ‘springing of a loved one’s soul out of purgatory.” Luther believed this unbiblical practice extorted money from poor Christians for the building of grand cathedrals and undermined the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Luther’s 95 These had an immediate impact throughout Germany and beyond, prompting the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, of which our church is a part.
For Luther, living a life of faith based on fidelity to God’s Holy Word was what made an everyday person a saint. Luther did not look only to those sequestered away in cells and caves for inspiration.
Rather, he looked to the everyday lives of those who engaged with the world as those who were “aliens and strangers” in it. Like those who were created for a different world, one like a “city with foundations whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).
In our reading for this morning from St. Matthew’s Gospel account, we are invited to lean in and listen to a conversation between Jesus and his disciples.
Jesus paints the picture of an “upside down” sort of kingdom. In this kingdom, those who are blessed – or literally, ‘made happy by God” – are not the type of people we typically associate with greatness or success or even relevance.
In this upside down kingdom, the blessed are those who are poor in spirit; those who mourn; those who are meek – or small before God; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, rather than lust after the all the glittering images the world has to offer.
This kingdom is populated by those who are merciful and pure in heart, rather than overly competitive and self-focused.
In this kingdom, the lives put on display and celebrated belong to those who are peacemakers and those who are persecuted, insulted and falsely accused because of their identification with Jesus Christ and his purposes.
To each of these every day saints, Jesus says, “rejoice and be glad” because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way the world persecutes and says all sorts of evil things about you, the prophets who went before you were also persecuted.
And so, on this All Saints Day, we think about God’s eternal kingdom and those who live – and have lived before us – lives marked by faithfulness, obedience to God’s vision and humility.
This is not always easy to do.
Yesterday morning, the 11U lacrosse team I coach put on display the best and worst of human nature when it comes to competition, sportsmanship and even discipleship.
Our growing lacrosse league is still in its infancy in some ways, so we only have two teams in our age group. This means we play against the same team each Saturday morning for the next couple of months.
Last Saturday morning, our team enjoyed a dominant performance in which they won by a score of 9 to 4. Our young players were all smiles, confident, generous in their support and encouragement for the other team. In fact, our team was downright pastoral in their interactions with the soundly defeated team from Bossier.
And then, yesterday morning happened. It turns out the other team was blessed by the arrival of a new player. Within seconds of the initial face off at midfield, it was apparent this youngster had a history with the game of lacrosse.
Within the first minute of the game, this new opposing player scored a goal, then another one . . . and another one . . . and another one. This new player put on display moves you typically do not see until a player hits high school.
As our players came off the field, the mood in our huddle changed significantly. Gone were the smiles, the high fives, the confident fist bumps, even the joyful residue of last Saturday’s sweet victory.
Instead, I heard confused whining, complaining about missed calls by the referee, who miraculously had become blind as a bat and completely biased in his relationship with the opposing team.
In our huddle was a growing sense of dis-ease and frustration. When one of their players went down with an injury, our players assumed the worst. “He’s obviously faking it’” they said. This is the type of thing that happens to human beings when the winds of fortune turn against us.
Does this mean our players are inherently poor sports? No, of course not. It’s simply a reminder that they are young, developing human beings, smaller versions of ourselves on a bad day.
As former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson once noted, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Our young lacrosse team had figuratively gotten punched in the mouth and they now faced the challenge of recovering their sense of joy in simply enjoying a game known as “The Creator’s Game” as good sports.
And they will. During our next few practices we’ll continue to work on developing skills necessary to become a proficient lacrosse player.
We’ll also work on something else: we will utilize this occasion of being on the negative side of a 9 to 2 competitive outcome to consider how other teams and players have responded to defeat.
We will look to teams from the past, and to current advanced players in high school, college and the pros, to discern their practice habits, their attitudes and their approach to life.
I am confident that over the next couple of months, our young players will grow as disciples – or learners – of this new sport they already adore playing.
In doing so, they will become better players and better people.
I think, in a microcosm, this is the same process we go through as disciples of Jesus Christ. Good days and bad days, stacked one after another and laid out in a linear fashion are what we call “life.” On any given day, disciples of Jesus Christ are moving toward or away from him by degrees.
In thinking about this new kingdom of God Jesus Christ portrayed to his disciples, it is clear those made happy by God – the saints of past, present and future - are the very ones who, because of their identification with Jesus Christ, get “punched in the mouth” by life in this fallen and broken world.
And Jesus response?
“Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).
As we continue on in this day of remembrance, All Saints Day and Reformation Day, I pray we will be encouraged in our walk with God.
Listen to these remarkable and encouraging words from the Letter to the Hebrews:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easy entangles, and let us run with perseverance that race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3).