The Epistle to the Hebrews gives us the best summary of the Feast of All Saints: “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, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2). Today the Christian Church remembers all of those faithful who have gone before us, those who rejoice with us in heaven, who live in greater light than we, that multitude which no one can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, who died in the faith, and who live before the throne of God and praise Him each day in His temple.
Today we commemorate Luther’s posting of his Ninety-five Theses, his formal request for an academic debate over the topic of indulgences and the sale of forgiveness. As we celebrate the 501st anniversary of the Reformation, perhaps we hear the words of Ronald Reagan in our head: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.” We replace the references to America and freedom with references to the Church and the Gospel: ‘The Gospel is never more than one generation away from extinction…it must be fought for, protected, and handed on…or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children…what it was like when we had the Church and the Gospel.”
Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a king twice. Today’s Gospel is the first, and the second we heard a few weeks ago when a king gave a wedding feast for his son. In both of these parables we see that the Lord is no ordinary king. He is not out to get what is His. He is not out to make things right, because making things right would put us in eternal debt that we could not pay. Instead we see that He is a King who wishes to be merciful, to give to those who in no way deserve it.
Today’s Gospel is one of the most relatable accounts in Holy Scripture. We can sympathize with the difficult situation of the official. He needed something badly. He wanted the reassurance that Jesus heard him, cared, and would do something about his son’s deadly illness. He pleads with Jesus twice to come with him, but He will not. He sends the official home with only a word in his pocket. He doesn’t have Jesus in tow, he does not have an antidote for death. He has only a word. Through this official, Jesus teaches us to have faith in His unfailing Word. He is faithful and He will do what He says.
Today’s Gospel follows on the heels of Jesus’ triumphal entry on Palm Sunday. After entering Jerusalem, He began to teach. More specifically, He began to confront the Pharisees for their rejection of the Kingdom of God. They had been graciously invited, gave the façade of belief, but rejected the invitation. It’s damning because it’s not as if they were on the fence about who Jesus was and why He came. They knew exactly who He was. They proved that in John 1 when they sent a delegation to interview John the Baptist. They knew what was going on, but they didn’t like it. So they spent the next three years trying to trap Him, trying to eliminate Him. When today’s Parable was first preached, they thought they were finally on the verge of winning, but Jesus knew it was the opposite. That’s why, just a few verses before today’s Parable began, Jesus said: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (Mt. 21:43). What Jesus shows is that His Kingdom isn’t concerned about appearances, but the condition of the heart. While this condition may not be visible to everyone at first glance, Our Lord knows those who are His, whom He has clothed with the garments of salvation.
Christmas is coming. Think back to your childhood Christmases, when grandma bought you socks. She loved you. She didn’t want you to have cold, wet feet. She didn’t want you to catch pneumonia. At least, that’s what my grandma always told me when, I opened the package intentionally forgotten, hoping I wouldn’t have to open it in front of everyone. Socks are practical. But at Christmas, who wants practical gifts? We want fun gifts—electronics, money, big-ticket items that can impress. But how long after Christmas morning are those gifts forgotten? Socks you wear every day. But that bag of socks is still disappointing.
St. Luke records quite a spectacle. As the Gospel was read you could see the painfully awkward situation play out in your head. The Pharisees are all busy jockeying for the best seat at the arch-Pharisee’s table, all while hoping to catch Jesus in a sin. And then the test subject is trotted out—a poor man with dropsy, or as we know it today, congestive heart failure. The Pharisees do not invite him out of compassion or a desire to see him healed, but parade him in front of Jesus to see if He will break the man-made Sabbath laws.
Death and Life meet at Nain. The boy is carried off in fulfillment of the Genesis curse: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. To be sure, it’s a tragic scene, and one the mother knows too well. She was a widow, so she has walked this path before, wept behind the casket as it is carried to the cemetery. Each of us knows the pain of that walk. We have all been there, weeping in that somber procession from church to hearse, hearse to grave. We mourn family and friend, one taken away from us. But we also walk that path knowing that one day we will be the one carried. We will breathe our last, be committed to God’s acre, and await the Day of the Resurrection of the Dead. It’s not a pleasant thing to ponder. It’s a reminder that, as much as we try to avoid it, creation just doesn’t work the way it was supposed to. Gone is God’s declaration of “very good.” In its place is death and decay, sin and evil. But into this deathward drift from futile birth steps Our Lord Jesus Christ. In Him the ancient curse is reversed. He gives us the promise that one day He will say to all of us, to all who believe in Christ: “I say to you, arise!”
Do not worry, Jesus says. If you’re worrying about anything right now—and you’re human, so chances are you’re probably worrying about something—a phrase like that can sound flippant, entirely dismissive of your concern. Don’t worry. Let me get right on that, Jesus. It sounds as uncaring as telling someone battling depression “Just think happy thoughts” or telling someone with stage four cancer “keep your chin up!” It sounds like a canned phrase, a sentiment just tossed out there when someone doesn’t know what else to say.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.