Text: Matthew 5:1-12
Date: All Saints’ Day (Observed) + 11/6/11
All Saints’ Day originally came to be when the calendar began to be too full of names of those Christians who have died and gone before us through death and the grave into the everlasting arms of our Savior. We continue to remember the most famous of our forebears, the prophets and apostles and martyrs and teachers of the Church from Biblical times even to our own more local saints as we observed last Sunday on the 200th birthday of Pastor C. F. W. Walther. Then we remember the even more local saints as we may speak of a sainted pastor or teacher, mother or father, wife or husband, sister or brother, or (God have mercy) son, daughter or grandchild. It is only natural, good and right that we remember those who have gone before us with the sign of faith on the anniversary of their death (their “heavenly birthday”) and more often. Because in the early centuries the numbers increased into multitudes, All Saints’ Day became the day dedicated to the remembrance of, you guessed it, all who have gone before us. In German Lutheran or Evangelical tradition the day has become known as Totenfest, “toten” meaning death.
The scripture readings for this day have been rather universal across denominational lines. So the reading from Revelation gives us the vision of the Last Day, the Eternal Day of resurrection with “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Rev 7:9). And we find ourselves searching that crowd in our mind’s eye to see some familiar faces there. Then, on this day, the Holy Church hears not our Lord’s last and final words of His earthly ministry, but His very first words, the Beatitudes from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chapter 5. We even sang those words this morning. And they’re worth singing and memorizing! But they are worth singing and memorizing, reading and hearing not as the gut reaction of our fallen nature and sinful flesh would hear them—as qualifications and rules to be met by us if we want join in that number when the saints go marching in—but singing and memorizing and reading and hearing them as proclaiming, first, the gospel, how our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ fulfilled all righteousness for us and now what He makes us to be by baptism and faith in Him, His holy ones, saints beginning already now and forever.
“Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain” not necessarily a Mount Everest but at least a significant hill, “and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.” Teachers of that time indicated that they were going to begin teaching a lesson not by standing at a podium or in a pulpit, but by sitting! The disciples understood and so they came to stand or sit around Him ready to listen. This teaching was primarily for His disciples. That “the crowds” also gathered around probably goes without saying. But did all who were gathered hear Him? And did all who heard Him understand what He was saying? I’m…not…sure. And so, what did He say?
Matthew doesn’t simply write, “Jesus said,” but increased the drama and expectation and importance by saying, “And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying.” What they were about to hear, and what we hear today, is to be understood as something of greatest importance. That some make the parallel with God giving Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai are not completely wrong. But what do we hear in the Beatitudes? Laws like the Ten Commandments? Or something beyond the Law?
“Blessed.” “Makarioi.” The Greek word does not just refer to generic happiness but in its oldest meaning it is to speak of the happy state of the gods or redeemed men above earthly sufferings or labors. In this sense the hymn gets it right when it says,
Oh, how blest are they whose toils are ended,
Who through death have unto God ascended!
They have arisen
From the cares which keep us still in prison. (LSB 679)
Our struggle with sin ends in death. Then the Christian enters that happy state of rest; resting in the arms of the Savior.
In the New Testament the word translated “blessed” refers to the distinctive religious joy that comes from a person’s share or possession in the salvation of the kingdom of God. Just from this definition you can see that this “blessed-ness” is not a requirement for gaining the kingdom but the result of having gained it already. And the “gaining” of the kingdom of God is not by our works but by our faith in Jesus, the Son of God. The kingdom is not something yet to be somewhere, but is the gracious rule of God beginning now, here.
So now how else are we to hear these words? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” First it sounds as if Jesus is speaking of a number, a multitude of others in the plural. And He is. But He can only speak of them as having received their character and blessedness first from Him as a gift. For who is “poor in spirit” after all? Who is it that is constantly aware of their need of God? Not me! Is it not more common that we, quite often, conduct ourselves as independent, doing pretty well on our own, thank you, that we only become aware of our need of God when things seem to get out of OUR control? Therefore we must discover that Jesus is speaking first about Himself. He is the One truly poor in spirit. In His state of humiliation He lived first as an obedient child of His mother and father. In His earthly ministry He relied constantly and consistently on God His Father for all things. He was constantly at prayer and aware of His need of God. “I can do nothing on my own,” He said. “As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30). When He faced His final challenge He prayed in the garden, “Not my will but Thine be done.” Even in His state of humiliation, however, even though He “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil 2:6), used, or bragged about, still the kingdom of heaven was His.
“Blessed are those who mourn.” Surely on more than one occasion, when He saw the crowds around Him coming to Him, “He had compassion for them” (Matt 9:36). He felt it in His guts. “Jesus wept” at the tomb of His friend Lazarus as He saw what the enemy death was doing to His people, “he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (John 11:33, 35). Yet He was comforted by the fact that His own death and resurrection would free people from the fear of death.
“Blessed are the meek.” Jesus said, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart” (Matt 11:28-29 KJV). As the prophet Isaiah said of Him, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3). Satan tempted Him promising to give Him all the kingdoms of the earth and their glory without going to the cross. But this One, who “had nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20) is the One who would inherit the earth and all authority anyway through the cross and His mighty resurrection.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Jesus requested of John the Baptist his baptism in order that they might “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15). In all His ways He sought first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matt 6:33). Again, the prophet Isaiah prophesied of the resurrection, saying, “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11).
“Blessed are the merciful…the pure in heart…the peacemakers.” Jesus is all merciful, sinless and the Prince of Peace. But His greatest achievement was when He became the blessed One reviled and persecuted, spoken evil of, rejected, condemned and crucified. So they persecuted the prophets who were before Him. But His death, His sacrifice was like no other. For He is the very Lamb of God, the substitute who endured all the wrath of God against the sin of the whole world for us, your sin, for you. By His death He has “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim 1:10).
Now, as all these words do speak first and gloriously of our Lord and His earthly ministry of salvation, the reason is that Jesus Christ came to fulfill all the law and all righteousness for you and me and the whole world. Then, as He triumphed over sin, death and the devil, that he also did for you and me and the whole world. Now by faith in Him, as He became what we are in our sin and death, so now we become what He is: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and, yes, also those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. By faith in Christ yours is the kingdom of heaven! You are comforted! You shall inherit the earth. You shall be satisfied in righteousness. You receive mercy. You see God, You are called sons of God. How did we hear St. John say it this morning? “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1).
For all the saints, for all those who have gone before us who have been made righteous (Rom 5:19) by faith and have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14) we give thanks to God this day. And now to all the saints still in the great tribulation of fighting the good fight of the faith, may you remain faithful and live in the confidence that God has blessed you with the new creation (2 Cor 5:17) in Christ Jesus our Lord.
May the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.