“Blessed Beyond Belief”
SERMON All Saints’ Day
November 6, 2016
Today we are going to use the word “Bless” a lot. You know, like when someone sneezes and everyone says, “Bless you.” I am going to put it to you today, since we have the Beatitudes as our Gospel text, that because of what God gives, what Jesus does, we are “Blessed Beyond Belief.” The word blessed is used a lot in the Gospel for this All Saints’ Sunday. “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness…” and so on. These blessings, the Beatitudes, are some of Jesus’ most famous words. And, indeed, they remind us this day that We Saints Have Been Blessed Beyond Belief.
Now before we get to the good stuff, it is good Lutheran preaching, or so I was taught, to first talk about the bad stuff. We all know how to “count our blessings.” We will hear that idea discussed a lot more as we approach our National Day of Thanksgiving. But instead of starting with how we are blessed by God, I want to start with how the way we act (sometimes) and the things we do (sometimes) can keep the other people around us “beyond belief.” Do we act in ways that put the message of Jesus Christ “beyond belief”? Do we ever say or do something that when others look at us who are not in the church (and they know we are Christians), that makes them think to themselves, “If that’s a Christian, I don’t want to be one”?
Let me give you an example of what I am talking about. A world-class athlete—whose name you’d all recognize—wrote about how his stepfather was a man who professed to be a Christian: He’d talk a good game, talk about Christ, talk about faith, but he had a bad temper. He used to whip his stepson for silly things—kid things—like being messy.
Then when the boy was 14, his mother went into the hospital for surgery. He had to leave for a swim meet while she was still recuperating, and his stepfather went along as a chaperone.
As they waited together at the airport, the stepfather began to write notes on a pad. He’d write, then ball up the paper and toss it into the garbage can, and then start again. The kid thought this was strange. After a while, the step-dad got up to go to the restroom. The boy went over to the garbage can, retrieved the wadded papers, and stuffed them into his bag.
Later, when he was alone, he took them out and read them. They were to another woman. The stepfather was writing love notes to another woman while his wife was in the hospital recovering from surgery (adapted from Lance Armstrong, It’s Not about the Bike [New York: Putnam, 2000].
What kind of impression of Jesus Christ do you suppose that gave this boy? Maybe you haven’t sinned in that way, but ask yourself this: Does my conduct ever put the blessings of the Christian life beyond belief for others? Foul mouth, posting nasty things about politicians, financial cheating, slandering others, self-righteousness, a judgmental character. Jesus says, “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!” (Mt 18:7). Yes, there is forgiveness for all these sins, but that’s not the point right now. The point is that our sins, our forgiven sins, still have consequences—and one consequence is that we sometimes make the blessings of the Christian life unbelievable for others.
There’s more. Each year on All Saints’ Day we hear the Beatitudes read. The Beatitudes are Gospel, good news of those blessings God’s given us. But how so? If you’re like me, you might hear the Beatitudes as “sugar and spice and everything nice”—sweet and pleasant, but not the Gospel they in fact are. To really understand how the Beatitudes are Gospel, try, for just a moment, listening to them as Law, as condemnation for the godly lives you and I don’t live. “Blessed are the meek,” but how often do we turn the other cheek? “Blessed are the merciful,” but how many times do we, who have been forgiven, not forgive others? “Blessed are the peacemakers,” but how many times do we fly off the handle and create bigger problems? “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.” How many of your daily decisions do you base on what God has revealed to us in the Bible? Are you getting the point? The purpose of God’s Law is to accuse us because of our sin.
“Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law” (Gal 3:10; Deut 27:26). “Blessed are the poor in spirit” is the very first of Jesus’ Beatitudes. We may not fit the bill of most of the Beatitudes, but at this moment, at this moment, we should all be feeling “poor in spirit.”
There’s only one person who is accurately described by the Beatitudes. That’s the Son of God. Jesus is the only one who is all the things the Beatitudes talk about. Verses 3-10 are actually describing Jesus.
Jesus, as you’ve heard many times, died for our sins on the cross. But there’s another reason why He’s the Savior, the one who rescues us. It’s called Jesus’ “active obedience.” Before His crucifixion, during all the years of His visible presence on earth, Jesus kept the Law of God perfectly. As a baby, as a toddler, as a teen, as a mature man, Jesus did the will of His Heavenly Father without fail. He is the one who is meek, who hungers for righteousness, who is merciful, pure in heart, and who is persecuted. While you and I, in the pressures of daily life, give in to our sinful nature and break the commandments of God, Jesus has no sin and committed no sin.
And yes, Jesus did endure the punishment of God against our sins. All those times that you and I have not led the blessed life, all those times when you and I have put the blessings of following Jesus Christ beyond belief for others, all those sins He paid for on the cross. Most important, the greatest reach of His suffering on the cross is into your soul and mine to remove the curse. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’” (Gal 3:13).
But what about us? Can we be blessed?
After all those Beatitudes, which are actually describing Jesus and what He did to save us, Jesus turns to us in our text and adds, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way, they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (vv 11–12). Yes, Jesus says you, we, will be blessed.
How can this be? C. S. Lewis wrote: Christ says, “Give me all. I don’t want so much of your money and so much of your work—I want you. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there; I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self. . . . I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you myself; my own will shall become yours.” (C. S. Lewis, “Beyond Personality,” in Sermon Illustrations for the Gospel Lessons [St. Louis: Concordia, 1982], 81, author’s emphasis)
How in the world can we empty ourselves so completely that Jesus Christ will move in, live in us, and let us share in His blessedness? This, too, is beyond belief. Yes, that we should be blessed like this by a Savior who died and rose for us is beyond belief, except for the fact that the Bible says this one thing: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). The blessings of the perfect life of Christ and His forgiveness would be beyond our belief were it not for the working of the Holy Spirit. That’s why Baptism is so important. That’s why reading the Word is so important. Christ makes His home in us. “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). God blesses us, He gives us what we need. We are blessed beyond what we believe we can be blessed.
Today is the day we observe All Saints Day. We think thoughts about those who have gone before us. This is always a Sunday I think about my parents and grandparents. And especially today I think about my dad, a big-time Chicago Cubs fan, and how he must be feeling this morning after Wednesday night’s (actually Thursday morning’s) game. We are reminded today that when we worship here, we are also worshipping, as our old, old hymnal put it, we are worshipping with, “the angels, the archangels and all the company of heaven.” But it is ALL Saints Day, and so we also remember how blessed we are by God, that Jesus has done everything necessary to make us children of God (as John reminds us in the Epistle). The Triune God has brought us faith, forgiveness, and eternal life.
Therefore, we know that one day Jesus will return, The Last Day, is the day when we will truly be blessed beyond belief. On that day, we will no longer walk by faith, but by sight (2 Cor 5:7). We will see our Savior face-to-face. On that day, we will dwell with God and all His saints in heaven. We will live with God and God with us (Rev 21:3).
Until then, we pray that people who’ve been offended by our conduct will be there with us. How many people will be in heaven that had no use for the Christian message at first, but the Holy Spirit worked on their hearts with the Gospel? The encouraging answer: “A great multitude that no one could count” (Rev 7:9). We are blessed! We belong now, and always, to Jesus.
Adapted from a sermon in Concordia Pulpit Resources Vol. 14, Part 4.