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The text that I would like to use as the basis for our sermon this morning is from John’s gospel, chapter 5:24-29. It is printed in your worship folder on page 11. Can we read this aloud together.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”
This morning we gather around the cross of Jesus Christ and His holy Word and holy Supper as we do every Sunday. But today, on this “Commemoration of All Saints,” we do something that we do not normally do. We name the names of the faithful departed.
Some of these we never knew. Some we knew quite well. Some were husbands, some were wives. Some were fathers, some were mothers. Some were sons, some were friends. For some, enough time has passed and the anguish of the grave has faded and death has lost its sting. And we give thanks to God for that. For others, the grief and pain are still fresh and much more time will be needed before the stench of death dissipates and the dark clouds lift and joy returns.
But why do we do this? Why do we remember those who died in the Lord? Why do we name our dead before the Lord?
It’s not unusual for us name names before the Lord. Very often, we name the LIVING before the Lord, those who are ill or injured or who have a particular need, and we ask the Lord to come to their aid and help them with the help that they need in either body or soul.
But that’s certainly not why we name our DEAD before the Lord. Their souls are in heaven and they are at perfect peace and lack nothing. Their bodies are in the grave, in a restful sleep, awaiting the resurrection of all flesh on the Last Day.
So why do we do this? The answer is, we are COUNTING THE SPOILS OF VICTORY. For Christ our Lord has gone to war for these souls. He has done battle with the devil who held them in captivity to sin and death. And Jesus has won the victory. “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them.” (Col.2:15) “He has set the prisoners free.” (Psalm 146:7)
Jesus described the strategy for the battle for their life like this. “When a strong man fully armed, guards his own palace, his possessions are safe. But when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.” (Luke 11:21-22).
The devil is the strong man. As we sang last Sunday, “No strength of ours can match his might. We would be lost, rejected. But now a champion comes to fight, whom God himself elected. You ask who this may be. The Lord of Hosts is He – Christ Jesus, mighty Lord, God’s only Son adored. He holds the field victorious.” The strong man has been overpowered by a stronger man, the God/Man, Jesus Christ.
So we name our dead before the Lord to mock the devil and to praise our mighty Lord, the God of Sabbaoth. These whom we have named are the holy plunder of God.
But as we name our dead before the Lord here this morning, we can’t help doing so with the sober realization that one day, our name will be in that list of names that are named before the Lord. It may be on next year’s list, or two or five or ten.
And so we also name those who have died, as a poignant reminder that we too shall one day die. “Just as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, so death spread to ALL men because ALL sin.” (Rom.5:12).
It is not wrong or bad to think about our own mortality and death. In fact, Jesus recommends it as a way to keep the things of this world and our life in its proper perspective.
But for the believer, all thoughts of his own mortality and that of others is always seasoned with a heavy dose of the eternal life and immortality that is ours in Christ.
“As the Father has LIFE in Himself, so He has granted the Son also to have LIFE in Himself.” Jesus is not only the giver of life, He IS the life of the world.
In the beginning, God gave His LIFE through the nostrils. “The Lord God formed the man of dust of the ground and breathed into his NOSTRILS the BREATH OF LIFE, and the man became a LIVING BEING.” (Gen.2:7)
But now, He breathes His life-giving breath into our ears. “Truly, truly I say to you, whoever HEARS my word and BELIEVES him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into the judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
Literally, it says, “he does not come into the CRISIS but has PASSED OVER from THE death to THE life.”
“THE DEATH” as in “the unquenchable fire where their worm does not die.”
“THE CRISIS” as in the day that we must stand before almighty God and give an account of our life. The 4th century church father, Gregory of Nazianzus, describes “THE CRISIS” like this:
“But then, in the judgment what advocate shall we have? What word shall we speak on our behalf? What excuses will we present before the judge to change His mind, to prove He was wrong about us? On the one side of the scale He places our entire life, all of our actions, words and thoughts, and over against this He places all that is good and right and true, until that which preponderates wins the day, after which there is no appeal, no higher court, no defense on the ground of subsequent improvement, no oil obtained from the wise virgins, no repentance of the rich man wasting away in the flame, no statute of limitations; but only that fearful judgment seat, more just even than fearful; or rather more fearful because is it also just. What will you appeal to? What grounds will you build your defense upon? Your lamp is out of oil, your wealth is worth nothing, your works are filthy rags.”
Now, HEAR the word of the Lord. “Truly, truly I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. And what does this mean? He does not come into THE CRISIS BUT HAS PASSED OVER FROM THE DEATH TO THE LIFE.”
“PASSED OVER” as in the angel of death PASSED OVER all those who were hidden under the blood of the lamb.
“PASSED OVER FROM THE DEATH TO THE LIFE” as in “A great multitude that no one could number… standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!” (Rev.7:9-10)
The Psalmist sings the victory song of all who have passed over from the crisis into the life. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name. Who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with steadfast love and mercy.” “He does not deal with us according our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities…” He deals with us according to the cross of Christ and His precious blood shed for you and His death died for you and His victory over the grave won for you. (Ps.103:1,4. 10)
“Truly, truly I say to you, an hour is coming and is now here, when the dead will HEAR the voice of the Son of God, and those who HEAR will live.”
“An hour is coming and is now here,” Jesus says. It is future but it is also present. It is not yet but it is already now.
The final hour of the devil’s kingdom has already come. And yet there is still a final hour that is still to come. The ruler of this world has been cast down. His house has been destroyed and his head has been crushed by the offspring of the woman.
And yet the foul smell of his breath still lingers in the air that we breathe.
STILL there is sin.
STILL there are ears that refuse to believe what they hear.
And STILL there is death and mourning and sorrow and tears.
And, STILL there is an hour that is coming when the air will be cleared of the stench of death, and every breathe we breathe will be pure and undefiled.
STILL there is an hour that is coming when the Son of Man will appear in the sky and the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised, incorruptible.
FOR NOW, we believe what we hear and live by faith in what is unseen.
BUT THEN “we will see Him as He is.” (1John 3:2)
FOR NOW, we feebly struggle with fear and doubt and we sin daily.
BUT THEN we will be free of “the sin that so easily ensnares us.”
FOR NOW, we fight the good fight with the church militant,
BUT THEN we will lay down all of the weapons of the Spirit and take our place in the church triumphant.
“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment/ crisis.”
Already NOW, the souls of the departed saints enjoy the “resurrection of life,” Yet STILL their bodies remain in the grave. Even the dead in Christ live in the GLORIFIED NOW and NOT YET. Even for them, there is a glorious reunion yet to come, when their own body will be reunited to their own soul, in one, holy, perfect union of body and soul. What man by his sin has rent asunder, God in His mercy and power will join together.
From their prophetic watchtower, the prophets see that day that is still to come. Isaiah declares, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!” (Is.26:19). And Ezekiel preaches. “Thus says the Lord, ‘I will open your graves, O my people. And you shall know that I am the Lord your God when I open your graves and raise you from your graves.” (Ez.37:13)
When Jesus stood at Lazarus’ tomb and called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out,” He gave us a foretaste of the feast to come.
St. Matthew reports that when Christ breathed His last on the cross, “the earth shook so violently that the temple curtain was torn in two and the tombs broke open, and many BODIES of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”
That was enough to convince the centurion and those who were with him to say, “Truly this was the Son of God.” What about you?
Listen to Gregory once again. “When the thrones are set, and the Ancient of Days takes His seat, and the books are opened, and the fiery steam comes forth, and the light that radiates out from Him turns everything black as outer darkness, they that have done good shall go to the resurrection of life – which is hidden in Christ; and they that have done evil into the resurrection of judgment.
Some will be welcomed by unspeakable light and the vision of the holy and royal Trinity, which shines upon them with greater brilliancy and purity and unites itself wholly with the soul of man. Others are cast out from God, from the light, into darkness, wholly separated from God.” (Gregory of Nazianzen – “Of His Father’s Silence”)
St. John sees “a great multitude that no one could number…” These are they who have passed over the crisis into the resurrection of life. Each one was a prisoner to sin, each one has been set free from captivity. And even though they cannot be numbered, still we can single out a few who we know by name. Brendan, Jim, Hedi, George.
They are the holy plunder that the Son proudly presents to His Father. They are the spoils victory.