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Asleep in Jesus—Forever with the Lord
1 Thessalonians 4:11-12

 
Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
All Saints Day (Transferred from November 1)—November 2, 2008

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In Adult Bible Class this morning we are beginning a new study of the Church Year, the annual cycle of celebrations around which our Christian worship is traditionally organized.  The early Christians took several holidays that were already popular in the secular society of their day and transformed them into Christian celebrations.  The pagan winter solstice celebration, which after the darkness of winter celebrated the rebirth of the sun, s-U-n, was transformed into Christmas, a Christian celebration of the birth of the Son of God, s-O-n, who is the Light of the World.  Many Easter customs likewise were adapted from pre-Christian celebrations of spring equinox. 

This morning we are celebrating another Christian holiday which predates Christianity, All Saints Day, which actually fell yesterday.  You may not realize that for some reason, THE single most widely observed tradition across human history is a festival in remembrance of the dead sometime around November 1st. Since the beginning of recorded history, and still to this day, human societies all around the world—as diverse, for example, as the Aborigines of Australia; the Fiji Islands; Peru; India; Mexico; the ancient Persians, Egyptians, and Druids—have celebrated a day in remembrance of the dead sometime around November 1st. 

In the 1500’s, when the Spanish conquistadors and missionaries arrived in Mexico and Central and South America, they were dumfounded to discover the natives already celebrating a holiday just like their All Saints Day and at the very same time of the year. 

From the standpoint of anthropology and sociology, this is a great mystery.  No one can explain why it is at this particular time of the year that diverse cultures all around the world—and even across the ages—have special commemorations to remember the dead.  Some suggest it is because in the fall the natural world is dying—except that this festival is just as widely observed at the very same time in the southern hemisphere, where it is not fall but spring.

In his famous book “The Flood,” Missouri Synod pastor and professor Alfred Rehwinkel suggested that perhaps the great Flood which once destroyed almost the entire world’s population took place around November 1st.  On the anniversary of the Flood, Noah and his family remembered with sorrow the world they had once known, the world that had perished.  And in the collective memory of human culture that annual remembrance has been passed down to us.

However it originated, the Christian Church adopted and transformed this annual remembrance of the dead into a Christian holy day, “All Saints Day,” a commemoration specifically of the Christian dead, the faithful departed.  So, All Saints Day is really the original Memorial Day.

The word “saint” comes from the Latin “sanctus” and means “a holy person.”  When we hear the word “saint” we probably think of the great heroes of the faith, St. Peter, St. Paul, etc.  The kind of people who have halos over their heads in old paintings.

But, the word “saint” is used in the New Testament for ordinary Christians, like you and me.  Paul starts out his letters: “To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus;”  “To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi;” “To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse;” “To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout [the region of] Achaia;” “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints.”

In the language of the Bible, saints—including those people with halos in the old paintings—become saints not through their own goodness, not through their own inherent holiness, not through their own good works, but through faith in Christ.

Paul says in Romans, “Are we any better?  No, not at all! . . .  all alike are under sin. . .  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Paul confesses his sin against the Lord:  “I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison . . .  I do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”  And you remember how Peter sinned by denying his Lord: “He began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, ‘I do not know the man!’  Immediately a rooster crowed.  Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: ‘Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.’ And he went outside and wept bitterly.”

The bad news is, you too are a sinner like Peter and Paul.  But, the Good News is, you also are a saint, right now.  You are holy in God’s sight, just like Peter and Paul and all the people we usually think of as saints.  Like those people with halos in the old paintings, you really are a saint, in the same way they were: through faith in Christ.  For through faith in Christ HIS holiness, his saintliness, is credited to you.

Psalm 32 says, “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.  Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him.”  Through trusting in Jesus as your Savior, your sins are covered over by his holiness and perfection.  Revelation says of the saints in heaven: “These are they who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  Through trusting in Jesus as your Savior YOU are clothed in the white robe of his righteousness, making you worthy to enter eternal life.  Hebrews puts it this way: “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” 

Paul says in Colossians: “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.  But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”  That is a description of YOU, how God sees YOU through faith in his Son: “holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”

“Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.  Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him.”  The Good News is, through faith in Christ YOU are RIGHT NOW a saint in the sight of God: holy, righteous, worthy of heaven, because Christ’s holiness and righteousness is credited to you.

So, on All Saints Day we remember ALL the faithful departed, who were made saints by God through faith in Christ.  On All Saints Day we remember not so much the great heroes of the faith, but ordinary believers.  Like my father, and my grandmother, and your loved ones who departed in faith.

Paul writes in today’s Epistle Reading from 1st Thessalonians, “We would not have you be ignorant, brothers, about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. . .  And so we shall be forever with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”

Note that Paul does not say that we do not or should not grieve.  Grieving is not a sign of weakness or a lack of faith.  For, the shortest verse in the Bible tells us that even “Jesus wept” with grief Himself, when he stood before the grave of his friend Lazarus.  Like Jesus, we grieve and weep and mourn our loves ones.  However, as Psalm 30 says, “Weeping may remain for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”  Although we grieve and weep in the “night” of this world, we still have hope, in Jesus’ promise of joy in the “morning” of eternal life, and reunion with our loved ones there.

Jesus promises, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in Me.  In My Father’s house are many rooms. . .  I am going there to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to be with me, so that where I am you also may be.  You know the way to the place where I am going. . .  I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” 

For many of our loves ones, Jesus has already fulfilled his precious promise, “I will take you to be with me.”  Even now their souls are with him in paradise.  And on the last day, he will raise up all the dead, our bodies and souls will be reunited, “And so we shall be forever with the Lord.”

“I am the Resurrection and the Life,” Jesus promises.  “Whoever believes in me, even though he die, yet shall he live.”  That is Jesus’ promise to you, as you remember your sainted loved ones this All Saints Day. For, even though your loved ones, and you yourself, die, yet you shall live, together, with him in eternal life.

“We would not have you be ignorant, brothers, about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. . .  And so we shall be forever with the Lord.”

It was 20 years ago this year that my father died.  I selected from these verses the Scripture for his tombstone, which reads, “Asleep in Jesus.”  Someday, my mother’s tombstone next to it will continue the quotation, “Forever with the Lord.”

 “Therefore comfort one another with these words.”

Amen.

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