The Great Cloud of Witnesses

All Saints’ Day is November 1, and our congregation observes this festival on that day or the next Sunday. At our observation of All Saints’ Day, we speak the names of those faithful departed from our family of faith. A verse of Scripture clothes our memory of them. We then toll the bell. This is a time for us to rejoice in the great cloud of witnesses that God has placed in our lives. The faithful departed spoke volumes in their lives by holding dearly onto Jesus Christ.  The way we remember our brothers and sisters in Christ includes remembering the amazing working of God in their lives.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1)

The heroes of the past that serve as witnesses to the truth of God’s mercy do so through their vulnerable and honest lives that remained held by the love of Christ on the cross. As I remember the people of the past I do want to revel in the best and the glad. I like to hear the victorious stories filled with moments of valor. I want to rejoice in the good that a person has accomplished.

I hear the desire for the best and the brightest moments when I am preparing to preach at a funeral. I know when I preach at funerals people desire to hear demonstrations of the departed’s virtue. But I also have learned that the faithful departed witness to the truth of God’s grace is found even more forcefully when I recall their weaknesses. I know that it is not appropriate to reveal a person’s dirty laundry. I don’t enter the pulpit at a funeral seeking for the opportunity to bring shame to a family. I try to navigate the space between celebrating their lives but even more emphasizing the necessary grace of Jesus Christ. I want to be honest with the people gathered in grief because the medicine for a hurting soul does not include placing a person on a false edifice of our own goodness. We are saints, holy ones, through the the work of the holy one.  My identity has been secured through the power, pardon, and presence of God. How we remember all the saints in our past is best shaped by how they were witnesses to the truth of Jesus Christ as our savior.

November-1st-Happy-All-Saints-Day

When I think about the work of God in our saints of the past, I see the creative power of God. I want you to take a moment and think about how God made His creation out of nothing, and He declared it good. I rejoice in the power of God as my creator. I trust that out of nothing He declared light to be present in His creation. I look into my own life, and I know the darkness and nothingness of my own hands.

I have no lasting confidence in my own labors because I know my ability to turn all towards my own pride and selfishness. I am remarkably adept at viewing the world through a lens of my own making. I lie to myself about my certainty about myself and others. I get sure that there is some sliver of me that has accomplished and earned my position. People are either with me or against me. When people enter my life, I find that I quickly size them up. I figure out if I can take them. Intellectually or physically I am always taking measure. Of course in my own system of score keeping I usually am better than you. I don’t like this truth about my personality. I wish I was beyond this, but I have my Jason Bourne moments when I look around a room and figure out where I stand.

In the great cloud witnesses that surround us I discover my measurement system is broken. In the mirror of God’s holy and sacred will for me, my arrogance is shattered. I find my fault, my own grievous and miserable fault is I have claimed the privilege of power in my relationships with people. I view people, and I trust others view me, based on our accomplishments. I earn or lose relationships and so I gain or exhaust my power and position. But from this false and empty and shallow heart God produces in me a new creation. Our Heavenly Father clothes us with the righteousness of his dear son Jesus. From a child of arrogance God’s grace calls me into something new and different. The word of God made flesh in Jesus writes onto my body and soul a new truth. My old self is drowned and a new creation emerges. We are saints because what God has written onto our lives. I give thanks for the great cloud of witnesses that point me to Jesus as my hope and confidence.

So as I look at the story of God at work in the lives of the saints, I find the creating power of God at work in His pardon. I am beloved. I am sacred. I am a child of God because the power of God has brought me pardon. My position and power in relationships is found secure as I trust in God. I can now be vulnerable and weak. I can serve others without a contract of returned favor. I can empty myself for others because I am filled by the endless mercy of God. He will remain my refuge and strength.

When you remember the cloud of witnesses, do you hear their testimony to the power, pardon, and presence of God? I think it will be easier to hear their testimony if you are open to listening to their weaknesses as well as their strength in Christ. Our lives are a living confession of faith in both our sin and our savior.

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What time is it?

Apple is coming out with a new watch that is intended to make the watch accomplish so much more than just tell us the time. What do you want to know when you look at your watch, a clock, or the sun in the sky? I know I am seeking more than just an understanding of what hour, minute, and second it is at that particular time. When I look at my watch, I am often trying to remember what moment is coming up next. Am I late to pick up the kids? Are the Red Wings about to play? Do I have enough time to leave the office to go for a run around Kensington? What opportunity is next? What have I missed?

The ancient Greeks used two words to understand time. Chronos and Kairos. Chronos refers to the the sequential character of time. Kairos refers to the opportunity of a moment. Kairos is used to describe time 81 times in the New Testament. Time in the New Testament usually does not refer to simply a specific moment of time but rather a season or moment of opportunity when God has entered into our world to show us eternity.

When someone asks me what time the services are at St. Paul Lutheran Church, I quickly answer on Sunday morning at 8:30am and 11am. I also find myself thinking that simply offering a time of day is not enough of an answer. Worship in the Church reveals the promises of God. I do not find our worship services defined only by the time of the service, although are two services do have different styles of music. Sometimes I will think of people as the 8:30 crowd or the 11 o’clock crowd. In the midst of the divisions of services and styles, I hope the time of day does not define our worship service. In the Christian church the worship service is defined by finding ourselves at the appointed moments when God’s promises are delivered to us in the Word and the Sacrament.

On the first day of the week we regularly gather to receive the good news of Jesus. The theme for each week at the congregation I serve is developed by using the Christian calendar. Every year we rehearse and realize the reality of the promises of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Year by year we find our salvation in the work of Jesus Christ confirmed as we celebrated the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. We anticipate Christ coming to reveal the kingdom of God for us. We rejoice with the angels and the shepherds that the kingdom of God comes to us in the flesh of the infant Jesus born to the Virgin Mary. We marvel at how this good news is a beacon of light for all the nations. We reflect upon our own steps and find when we have faltered the Lord continues to set His face towards Jerusalem and our cross. At Easter I am jolted away from my self-examination and find myself exclaiming, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” Christ is not dead, He is risen just as He promised. Then between Pentecost and Advent we hear Sunday after Sunday that God has equipped us to be His people. Every year we cycle through these promises to set the pace of our Christian life just as a pacemaker supports the rhythm of a tired heart.

This year we enter the season of Lent on Wednesday, February 18. For centuries, Lent has been a time of preparation for the Church. We gather for the special occasions of worship of this time to prepare ourselves to receive the gift of Christ dying on the cross and rising from the dead in victory. We prepare ourselves to receive the gracious gift of Christ at Easter. Ash Wednesday is a meaningful time of devotion with the ashes placed on the foreheads. The ashes call to mind our mortality and dependence on God for our life and salvation. Each following Wednesday night in Lent is a time for short services that have traditionally focused on themes circling around the cross or the catechism.

Each year we make this movement towards the cross and the tomb and the resurrection. Every time I find myself singing praises to the Lord. Thank God He has found me lost and condemned in the ashes and He has made me a new creation.

A Letter to the Church

The last book in the Bible is The Revelation of Jesus Christ. In the beginning of the book are seven letters addressed to seven churches. The letters are written to real communities of faith, but these letters also speak to the church today as we seek to serve God.

The church in Ephesus received a letter commending them for their work, toil, patient endurance, and how those who are evil have tested them. They were criticized for how they abandoned the love they first had when they have dealt with those who have fallen from the faith. I think congregations may struggle with how to treat those who have fallen. We must not forget the love by which we have been called to believe in Jesus. If you find yourself treating another by any form of love different from the love of Jesus, then you must repent.

The church in Smyrna received in their letter recognition of the troubles and poverties that they faced. Jesus warned them that they will suffer even more as the devil works to test them. The believers of Smyrna were called to be faithful, even to the point of death, and Christ will give them the crown of eternal life. I know that there are moments of terrible suffering in the lives of people. I wish I could make it all go away, but the reality is that the devil is cruelly at work seeking to divide us from God and one another. We will remain faithful because the one in whom we trust is stronger than the devil that seeks to attack us.

The church in Pergamum was cautioned about the terrible danger they were in as long as they permitted religious compromise. Ephesus had been reminded to treat those who have fallen with love. Jesus cautioned Pergamum against permitting religious infidelity. How and where compromise happens in the life of a congregation are difficult questions. The letter to Pergamum reminds me that we must not allow ourselves to hide or minimize our Lord Jesus Christ in order to keep peace.

To the church in Thyatira, a letter was sent that showed Jesus will not ignore false teachers in a congregation. Thyatira permitted a Jezebel to teach and seduce the servants of the Lord to practice sexual immorality and to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols. How was she handled by our Lord? She was given time to repent, but she refused. Jesus warned the church that he is going to punish her and all those who commit adultery with her. Jesus promises those that remain faithful that they will receive the morning star, the privilege of being with Jesus in all his glory through eternity.

The church in Sardis received the fifth letter. They had a reputation of being alive, but in their letter they were called to wake up. Sardis was known as a city of great wealth and fame. Did this church rest on its reputation and get complacent? Not one of us can sit back and relax on what has happened in the history of our congregation. We all must be awake and strengthened by the Lord.

Jesus told the city of Philadelphia that an open door has been set before them, which no one is able to shut. Please trust in your darkest moments that there is no one that can shut the door of God’s promises on you. While we may have little power and there may be those at work in this world trying to make us feel small. We are called to hold fast to the promise of Jesus as our conqueror.

The final letter was to the city of Laodicea. This city had no water supply of its own and so had water piped in from six miles away. When the water arrived in the city, it lost its chill and was lukewarm. In the letter the people of the congregation in this city were warned they are neither cold nor hot. They were indifferent or noncommittal. Jesus said to them, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” If you are indifferent to the works of Jesus, you will miss the opportunity to see Him.

Do you see yourself in one of these letters? Each of these letters end with these words, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” It is time for us to hear the Word of God and not abandon the opportunities that God has given us to be His people.