The Church Year is coming to a close. In a month we will enter Advent and Christmas will be almost here. But for now we’re very much in fall. Leaves are changing color and falling, the sun is overtaken by both rainclouds and darkness, warm is giving way to cold, and it’s far too easy to feel blue. The year is coming to a close, and we’ll soon be ready for it to be gone too.
So during this month The Church turns to the last things. She calls on us to contemplate our death, what comes after death, the resurrection of all flesh, the last judgment, and the life everlasting. Our congregation sets aside this day to remember all our faithful departed, especially those who have departed this life during the past year.
Why now? Dr. Luther posted his 95 Theses around 2pm on October 31 because soon people would be coming to the Castle Church to begin their preparations for the feast days of the following week. The next day, November 1, is All Saints Day. On this day and during the week following the Church remembered all the faithful departed, originally countless martyrs, who did not find a place in the Kalendar. So some churches like ours do this today on the Sunday following; others do it at other times, such as the Last Sunday after Trinity or even New Year’s Eve.
Dr. Luther was well aware that death surrounds us. He was also well aware of the needs of the tender conscience. Unlike so many, he did not have a hardened conscience. He was well aware of his sinfulness. He knew it wasn’t just the things he did wrong, but he was full of corruption. So he was always trying to discover what sins he had committed that he didn’t even know about. He was so afraid of going before God’s judgment seat at his death without those specific sins forgiven.
Two weeks ago I said the Reformation was concerned with God’s forgiveness, the Absolution. For this reason it was also concerned with the happy death, that is, with dying with the peace only Jesus’ Gospel gives. Only faith in the forgiveness of sins allows us to go before God’s judgment seat when we die with hope and confidence. Only the forgiveness Jesus won for us on The Cross gives us paradise, God’s nearer presence, rest from our labors, reunion with all those who have departed this life in The Faith and now sleep the sleep of peace. Only Jesus’ Cross delivers us from this life to the next.
Why is this? Why can’t we build up a war chest filled with money or good deeds to buy or force our way into heaven? Why can’t we tell God to give us what we deserve for our good deeds? Why can’t we be in control of our eternal destiny?
The angel answers, “Fear God and give Him glory.” That is Reformation Day’s Epistle, not All Saints Day’s, but it answers the question. Whoever wants to make his own way into eternity, that person does not fear God or glorify Him. He glorifies himself as his own god. God says: “Don’t commit idolatry. Worship Me alone.” Whoever tries to make their own ways to heaven will never make it, because Jesus gives the way, shows the way, and draws us along that way. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; nobody comes to The Father except through Him.
We cannot find our way there. Our flesh hungers and thirsts not for righteousness but to satisfy the never satisfiable passions of the flesh. Why? Because our hearts are not pure; they are corrupt with sin. We dream of showing no mercy and love a good fight. We find it easy to revile others and utter all sorts of evil. We are not born saints. We are not born essentially good. We are born poor, miserable sinners.
We are born poor, miserable sinners. We are not born essentially good. We are not born saints. “Our flesh has not those pure desires The spirit of the Law requires, and lost is our condition” (TLH 377:2). Our flesh can’t abstain from sin. Therefore our guilt can only increase. The guileful heart can never be cleansed of sin. Therefore there’s no way our works can ever gain for us heaven. The Law’s job is not to show us how to get into heaven but to show us the sin that lurks within us and bring it to light so we’ll want nothing to do with it; it reveals our guilt and makes us conscience-stricken.
If you want to know how to get into heaven, look to The Gospel. That’s what gives life to the soul. That’s what gives peace, comfort, and blessing. The Gospel doesn’t give us rules. That’s what The Law does. The Gospel doesn’t tell us about ourselves either. The Law does that too. The Gospel tells us about somebody else. It tells us about Jesus. It tells us Jesus is our way to heaven, to eternal life.
The patriarch Jacob had a dream. He dreamed of a ladder with God on it and the angels going up and down on it. We often hear it translated that God was at the top of the ladder, but it really says He was affixed to the ladder. This is a picture of The Gospel. We don’t go up the ladder to God. Jesus’ Cross is the ladder. Jesus’ Cross gets us to heaven. The holy angels take us there. We get there solely through God’s loving-kindness.
The only place we see God’s loving-kindness for sinners is Jesus’ Cross. Nature doesn’t teach it to you, sports doesn’t display it, politics can’t gain it. God’s wrath over sin needed to be satisfied. Jesus came to satisfy it. That is the purpose of His Life and Death. He kept every rule you have ever broken. He did none of the sins you’ve ever done. Then He bore your guilty sentence on His Cross. He suffered all the punishments, physical and eternal, we deserve for our sins. He shed His Blood all the way to the death to cleanse us, to forgive us, to turn us sinners into saints.
What is a saint? We normally use that word for the faithful departed, even though St. Paul uses it in his Epistles for congregation members just like you. A saint in Latin is a holy person. You have been made holy by The Blood of The Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. All the faithful departed, all our loved ones who have died in The Faith, are saints because they were made holy by The Blood of that same Lamb.
So today we remember. We remember those who received their reward this year. But this leads us to remember how and why they received their reward. They were baptized into Christ. He clothed them at the font with the righteousness He won for us all when He died. He clothed you with that same righteousness the same way. You are baptized into Christ. You are holy. You sins are washed away. Eternal life is yours. Heaven is your future.
But heaven is not the end. For He is coming again. He will raise us from the dead. Then we will live with Him forever in that eternal wedding feast we’re preparing for right now. So let’s prepare for it. You prepare by hearing His Word and receiving His Sacrament. For that is how He makes you saints. That’s how you get the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.