All Saints in 3D
My generation was snookered when it came to Disney movies. First they sold them to us as VHS tapes, then as DVDs, then as Blue-Ray, and now those same movies are coming out in 3D. But doesn't 3D somehow look realer than real? The picture is cleaner, clearer, more textured then the world around you. I think the Feast of All Saints would benefit from a 3D release.
First see the cloud of witnesses. Hebrews 12:1 says, "We are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses." It comes to this conclusion after chapter 11 goes through the history of the faithful that have gone before. The lives of Able, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are briefly recounted. Then Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets are mentioned. Finally unnamed others are referenced who were tortured, jeered, flogged, chained, imprisoned, sawn in two, and beheaded.
We're surrounded by this cloud; see it in 3D bright, billowed, majestic and all around, but what's this? This doesn't make sense. Hebrews says, "These were all commended for their faith." These all died believing that Christ was their Redeemer, Savior, Forgiver. "Yet," says Hebrews, "none of them received what had been promised." How can that be? Weren't they taken to be with Christ? Weren't they rescued from this valley of tears and taken to the Father in heaven for Jesus' sake? Yes. Then how can it say "none of them received what had been promised?"
Not one of them received the resurrection of the flesh; not one of them entered the new heavens and the new earth; not one of them saw Satan and Death itself cast into the lake of fire. Why not? Because of us. That's what the text says. The NIV translates, "God had planned something better for us," but what it really says is "God foresaw something better concerning us." The focus has changed. It's no longer on the billowing cloud of all saints that surround us. It's on God and His plans for us. All saints that have gone before us are waiting till the full number of the elect is gathered. If God fulfilled all His promises to them, that would be the end. The kingdom would come; the door to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb would be closed and not one more would enter.
Okay so attention has been shifted from All Saints to what God sees for my sake. Now our attention is drawn to the contest lying before us. The NIV translates, "Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us." That pictures a track or perhaps a 3D map of a cross country race with plenty of peaks and valleys. The picture changes when we correctly translate "athletic contest." There is a specific Greek word for "race." The Holy Spirit doesn't use it. He uses one for any physical contest, and I can't help but be moved by the fact the Greek word is agona from which we get "agony." And the Greek emphasizes the agony is particular to us. The agony that lays before each saint on the way to heaven is particular to them.
But what about the cloud, what about the long line of saints Hebrews refers us to? Surely there are lessons to be learned from how they lived and died. Sawyer Brown has it right when he has a father saying to his son, "I took this walk you're walking now Boy,/ I've been in your shoes." The saints that have died in the faith before us have been in our shoes. We Lutherans teach that the saints should be remembered so our faith may be strengthened when we see what grace they received and how they were sustained by faith (AC, XXI,1).
The cloud of witnesses pops vividly into focus again. Some struggled all their days on earth, yet they don't feel cheated now. Others prospered all their days, yet they don't wish they were back here now. But just when you think all saints are about to pop into 3D, Scripture directs us away from them. Hebrews 12:1 draws our attention to the great cloud of witnesses consisting of all the saints that have gone before. Then it draws our attention to the agony marked out for each of us individually, but then the focus changes. Verse 2 says, "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus." We go from seeing the great cloud of witnesses to fixing our eyes on the One who dwelled in the Cloud that led the Old Testament Church.
This is as it should be. What do you think all saints in heaven are focused on right now? On the Lamb of God in the midst of the throne. On the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world. On the Lamb of God who comes to our altar with His Body and Blood. This change of focus is necessary, says our text, "so that you will not grow weary and lose heart."
Something big has just popped into 3D reality. The difference between us and all saints is that they endured unto the end. They might have grown weary and even have lost heart at times, but they endured until the end. The real danger we face is giving out and giving up before the end: despairing of being saved, despairing of going to heaven, despairing of the Faith we so easily believed when we were children.
Along with the problem of despair coming to life in 3D reality, may the saints of old who experienced it also be bright to your eyes. Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, and Paul all got to the point of despairing of life, of thinking they were undone, overcome, and couldn't endure. But all of them did. It's not that they ran "with perseverance" as the NIV translates. That gives a 3D picture of "The Little Engine that Could." They thought they could; they thought they could until they knew they could; they knew they could. The picture changes if we translate "run through by means of perseverance." It's not they thought they could or knew they could. It's that they kept on going. When they reached that moment when they were going to give out and up for good, they kept on going.
What gave them the strength to go, the willingness to go? Jesus. That's why Hebrews goes from showing us that impressive cloud of all saints that have gone before to saying, "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus." What you look at you steer to; you fix your eyes on the side of the bridge rather than the middle of your lane and you will steer toward the side. "Fix your eyes on Jesus as the Author and Perfecter of our faith."
The problem with the NIV translation is that the word "our" isn't there. The Holy Spirit actually calls on us to fix our eyes on Jesus the Author and Perfecter of the Faith." Jesus established what fallen men should believe. They are to believe that God so loved the world that He wouldn't let it perish in its wickedness, in its rebellion. He could have you know. God was under no compulsion, duty, requirement to redeem this fallen creation. But unconditional love moved Him to send a Redeemer, a Savior. This Savior had to be a true Man because it was mankind God wished to redeem, but He had to be more than Man since no ordinary man was a match for Sin, Death, or the Devil, so He sent His only Son.
What we are to believe is that God the Son took on flesh and blood in the womb of the Virgin Mary. He was made Man. Then He lived the perfect life required to go to heaven, but there was still this mountain of sin that had to be paid for. The blood of goats and bulls couldn't pay it off or cover it up. Even the blood of an ordinary man couldn't. It had to be a perfect sacrifice to satisfy God's wrath against all sinners. So Jesus the Man who was true God in flesh and blood offered His own life as a wrath removing sacrifice. Jesus declared from the cross on Good Friday, "It is finished," and God the Father shouted "Amen!" on Easter morning by raising Jesus from the dead.
Fix your eyes on Jesus not on your sins, not on your sinfulness. Fix your eyes on Jesus not on your lame excuses for sinning or your lamer promises to do better next time. Christ and Him crucified is what you are to believe. You are to believe that your sins, all your sins, were on the cross when Jesus was nailed there. You're to believe your sins were paid for, every single one of them, especially those you don't see how anything could ever pay for.
What's that you say? Your faith is weak and wavering. Thanks be to God then that Jesus is not just the Author but the Perfecter of the Faith. You can pray and you will be heard, "Lord I believe; help my unbelief." Fix your eyes on Jesus not on that tiny little mustard seed of faith that Jesus planted in you by Word or Sacrament. Fix your eyes on what Jesus says He does in your Baptism, in your Absolution, in your Communion.
The 3D picture is about to get even sharper, even realer, even better. We started looking at the cloud of all saints; then we looked at the agony set before us to be run through perseverance; then we were turned decisively to Jesus. Now the Holy Spirit says, "Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men." You know "consider" is even more focused than "fix." And this word "consider, think over, ponder, weigh" is an imperative. We might say "lock on to" Jesus who endured such opposition from sinful men so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
All saints of all times have felt like strangers and aliens in the world. All saints of all times have been opposed by sinful men. Right now everyone of you knows what the popular, accepted position is on abortion, gay marriage, homosexuality in general, living together, and divorce. Right now everyone of you knows what the popular view is of anyone who claims that they have the truth; that there God is the only true God; or that only their God is to be worshiped. The popular position has never changed from Old Testament times to ours. But Hebrews doesn't ask you to consider the popular position or even the hatred, malice, strangeness you feel for not holding it; you are only to consider Jesus.
Consider how Jesus endured opposition; fix your eyes on how Jesus endured the cross, and persevere to heaven. The two words for Jesus enduring and our persevering are all the same Greek word. But don't consider your perseverance as equal to Jesus' endurance of opposition and the cross. In All Saints 3D what Jesus endured to save us, to claim us, to bring us home to heaven is big and sharp in the foreground. The endurance, the perseverance of all saints of all times is small and fuzzy in the background. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Saints' Sunday (20121104); Hebrews 11:39 12:3