University Lutheran Chapel, Boulder, CO
In the Name of the Father, and of the X Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus comforts his Christians and urges them toward joy, saying: “Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven.” Jesus, that master physician, always knows the precise comfort we need, for who of us does not frequently doubt and wonder whether it is worth it? Whether the pleasures and enticements of the world might not, in the end, outweigh the joys of heaven? Perhaps we should not so zealously cling to God’s Word and instead travel the broad and easy road. No. “Take heart!” says your Jesus. “Do not listen to Satan’s Siren songs.” Your reward in heaven is great. It is worth it.”
In calling heaven a “reward” or “wage” does Jesus mean that it must be earned by our works? Hardly. You see, there are rewards of merit and rewards of grace. A reward of merit is what you have earned. A paycheck, for example, is a reward of merit. It is in this sense that Scripture teaches: “The wages of sin is death.” You by your sins have earned death, both temporal and eternal. Death is the meritorious reward of our sin and the reason Jesus had to die for us.
A reward of grace, however, is not earned. In this sense a father might reward his children with a trip to Dairy Queen not because they have done anything to deserve it but simply because he wants to; because they are his children and he loves them for his own reasons. That is a reward of grace. Thus does Jesus call heaven a “reward,” not because it is earned but because the Father awards it to those who are his children through faith in Christ.
The reward of heaven, though a present-tense gift already bought and paid for by the blood of Jesus, is still a future-tense hope. Jesus does not comfort his Christians by telling them that will live suffering-free lives. Rather, he says, they will be comforted, they shall inherit the earth, they shall be satisfied, etc.
Writing to the Christians in Philippi, St. Paul put it this way: “Not that I have already attained [the resurrection of the dead], or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind” (Php 3:12–15). According to these words, it is a mark of immature, fake Christianity to expect your best life now, as Joel Osteen and his ilk preach. Paul would have us forget what lies behind and set our eyes firmly on the resurrection of the dead. For though many of God’s promises belong to us now—such as the forgiveness of sins and salvation—many promises belong only to that Last Day. Only then shall God wipe away every tear from our eyes and bring the new heavens and the new earth.
In this sense you students are at a disadvantage. You are excited about this life. Most doors and possibilities are still wide open. You are excited about college. You daydream about the possibilities of work, marriage, children, buying a house, becoming famous, etc. All these things which seem great to you obscure the hope of your great reward in heaven.
This is why all college students need All Saints’ Day. You need to remember that you are not the first to be young. We on earth are not the entirety of the church. The Lord would teach you through the examples of those Christians who have lived in this world before you. David speaks for all Christians when he prays: “Remember not the sins of my youth” (Ps 25:7), which verse alone ought to impart great wisdom to the college student.
Indeed, it is a great gift that the Lord arrays his church with both young and old, children and the elderly. For just as the young remind the elderly that there is still good in life that God gives for our enjoyment, so the elderly saints teach the young that our greatest reward is not found in this life but in the life of the world to come. The elderly saints long for a holy death. It isn’t that they are unthankful or think that life isn’t worth living or has no joy. It’s that, having tasted the joys of this life with their attendant tears, they are more keenly aware that the greater joys lie ahead.
Nothing teaches this better than suffering and loss. The Lord who gives us faith in Christ so that we may be saved also exercises our faith so that we learn to “desire to depart and be with Christ.” The Lord best prepares his saints for heaven by stripping them of everything but him in this life. Allow me to illustrate this with the words of the Irish poet, Thomas Moore:
Tis the last rose of summer,
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone;
No flower of her kindred,
No rosebud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
Or give sigh for sigh.
I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one!
To pine on the stem;
Since the lovely are sleeping,
Go, sleep thou with them.
Thus kindly I scatter,
Thy leaves o’er the bed,
Where thy mates of the garden
Lie scentless and dead.
So soon may I follow,
When friendships decay,
And from Love’s shining circle
The gems drop away.
When true hearts lie withered,
And fond ones are flown,
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?
The key thought here is being alone and how life is not meant to be lived that way, not for a rose, not for man. God made Eve because people were not meant to live alone. As with every passing All Saints’ Day more of your loved ones will have fallen asleep in death, so the Lord will use grief to make you more keenly long for the new Jerusalem and the fellowship of those whose rest is won. The more years the Lord gives you and the more “fond ones are flown,” the more you will see your true life hidden in Christ and in the new Jerusalem.
But whether you are young or old, single or married, feeling alone in college or alone in a nursing home, All Saints’ Day speaks to you an important truth: That you are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses. That the Lord who bought you from sin and death by his blood will never leave you alone or forsake you. In Christ you have an eternal society with God, men, and angels.
You have learned to say all of this in the simple words: “I believe in the communion of saints.” These words show that you, the church militant, are the minority when compared to the church triumphant in heaven. In fact, they are more alive than we are in that they are no longer beset by sin and loneliness, and are enjoying the presence of the Holy Trinity. When Christians die the church does not decrease in number but increases as death becomes for us our heavenly birthday through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And in Jesus we are not lost to them nor they to us. For the whole church in heaven and on earth—all those who trust in Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins—all these saints live and move and having their being in Christ, who is God not of the dead but of the living.
Although we cannot yet see the saints who have gone before us, we still have fellowship with them and worship alongside them in the body of Christ, especially as that body and blood are given to us in the Sacrament. This is why the best communion rails, like this one, are shaped as a half circle. We are confessing that we are not alone; that the other half of the circle is occupied by the saints in heaven. Though we cannot see them, they also worship around the same Lamb of God. When we visit the graves of our loved ones we have but the memory of the body and also the future hope of its resurrection on the Last Day. But in the Sacrament of the Altar we are with them now and they with us because we are all one, living body in Christ whose voice resounds in unison from both heaven and earth, from both in front and behind the altar: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of thy glory! Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest!
Come, then, take up this night the song of all the saints. Come to the Lord’s Altar. Gather round the Lamb of God. You who mourn and you who rejoice, you young and you old, you saints on earth and you saints in heaven, come now: “Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for your reward in heaven is great.”
Come soon, Lord Jesus.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.