From the Pulpit

From the Pulpit 

Sermon on John 5:25-29
3rd Sunday of End Times  |  Saints Triumphant  |  November 11, 2018

This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it! Amen.
The lesson for our meditation is recorded in the Gospel of John 5:25-29.
Dear brothers and sisters, saints looking forward to the triumph of heaven; if you're "into" sports, you might recall, several years ago, when a short referee strike in the NFL required that high school-level officials be hired to referee professional football games. The results were predictable, and in at least one game a bad call changed the outcome of that game. This anecdote occurred to me, because as I was searching for bulletin pictures using the keywords "Saints Triumphant Sunday," naturally, given this country's obsession with football, I was overwhelmed with pictures of the New Orleans Saints, triumphant, of course. (They are having a good year.) Wondering about that, it occurred to me that from a human perspective, we saints of God will be triumphant on the Last Day—because of a bad call. There is no doubt that because of our sins we deserve to go to hell—yet we are going to heaven, because our God has declared us righteous for the sake of his Son. So this Saints Triumphant Sunday, let us consider the Word of our God and its encouragement that we live as saints of God! Not living to get into heaven, but as those who are going to heaven.
  1. We're not living to get into heaven!
Let's make sure we have this straight: we Christians do not live the lives we lead in order to get into heaven. There are many in this world, unbelievers mostly, but even many Christians, who think that heaven is something that must be earned. We've talked about this before, and anyone who's presented or has read our evangelism tract called God's Great Exchange should be familiar with these terms: first, we've got the ladder approach—"I'm getting better, and God will reward my efforts." Harumph—no, you're not, and no, he won't. Where's the top of that ladder? It is perfection, which is forever out of reach.

Next, there's the comparison approach—"Well, I'm not as bad as my neighbor; I mean, look at what he's done. Surely God can tell the difference." But when sinner is compared to sinner, both come up short, because neither is "good enough."

Finally, we have the scales approach—"As long as I do more good than bad, I should get into heaven." This one is very popular—many world religions have that approach. It works like a math problem, or a point system: give a dollar to the needy, +1 point—steal a candy bar, -1 point; help a little old lady carry her groceries, +1 point—swear at a little old lady who's driving too slowly, -1 point; going to church on Sunday (yes, some think this earns points), let's say +5 points—skipping church, then, would be -5 points; rushing into a burning building to rescue a stranger, +200 points—murdering a stranger, -200 points. Now add them all up—how many points do you have? Sit down some time and try to figure it out—and don't focus on just your actions—include every thought you've ever had, too. Now, ask yourself—how many points do I need? Have you earned heaven, yet?
The problem with this particular math equation, this tallying of points, is that we're giving ourselves way too much credit. Does not Scripture teach us, friends, that if we break the Law of God in even the smallest detail, we are guilty of breaking all of it? That means stealing the candy costs you not 1 point, but all of your points, as does swearing at the old lady, despising the worship of your God, or murdering your neighbor. Even the desire to steal, or swear, or kill, whether you act on it or not, is sufficient to bring you back to zero points.

And it gets worse, my friends, because without faith in God, Isaiah the prophet tells us that all your good works are like filthy rags. Without Christ, you don't get any points for your generosity, your helpfulness, your piety or your selfless bravery. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Nicht. But does that even matter, when any points you might have earned are out the window the moment you sin?
Alright, wait a second, pastor! In our gospel today, Jesus himself says that "those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned." And so he does. It is unfortunate—and has led to a lot of works righteousness in the church—that virtually all of the English-language Bibles we have available today translate two very different verbs as simply "do," and so we read "those who have done good" and "those who have done evil." However, the verb that has "evil" as its object refers to a practice, or a lifestyle, that is evil. This is the natural state of humankind—a practice or life of evil. Without Christ, that is all humans can do. So those who will rise to be condemned, those who have done evil, are those without Christ in their lives.

Now, the verb that has "good" as its object refers to the making or producing of good. Good works can only be produced by those who by faith do those works in the name of Jesus. God declares us saints, that is, holy and good, and so we who believe are able to produce good works.

So let's translate that again: "those who believe in Jesus as their Savior and therefore can do works that are good and pleasing to God will rise to live, and those who do not believe and thus can do only evil will rise to be condemned."
But, beloved, make sure you have this right—it's not the work that gets you into heaven—it's the Savior in whom you believe! Because, in point of fact, heaven is something that must be earned! But you cannot earn it. It was earned for you by Jesus Christ. He lived the perfect life you could not. He paid the price of blood demanded for your sins.
And once you understand that, dear Christians, then you can live as the saints your Lord wants you to be, not living as those who are trying to earn heaven, but as those who know they are going to heaven!
  1. We're living as those who are going to heaven!
We know we are going to heaven. We know the depths of the love of our God, that he would send his own Son to live and die and rise again so we could get there. And with that love of God in our hearts, we find the motivation to share that love with others.

It's not a math problem! You give a dollar to the needy man because you have it and he needs it, and you want to help him. You help the old lady because you care for her and want to ease the burden on her frail body. You rush into the fire to save that stranger because loving your neighbor as yourself means you value that person's life as much as your own. You attend worship because you love your God and want to sing his praises and sit at his feet to listen and learn from his Word.
All this and more is the life of one who has learned to love from the one who loves perfectly.
But we're not there, yet, dear friends—the writer to the Hebrews writes "by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy." No problem with that translation—though we have been made perfect in the eyes of God by the shed blood of Jesus, nevertheless while we remain here on this earth, we are still sinners. We are being made holy—a process theologians call sanctification—the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts to make us into the people we ought to be, the saints God wants us to be.

It's a long and difficult process, and it won't be over until that Old Adam inside each of us is finally and forever put to death, and we stand with the rest of the Saints Triumphant in heaven on the Last Day. But until Christ calls us home through death or comes again in glory, we will go on living, and go on loving.
Brothers and sisters, live as Saints of God. You are saints, declared holy by our God, and you know the promise of God—to bring you to heaven. Share that loving, generous message of salvation and eternal joy with others, in the life of love you lead, and the words of love you speak, and may your words, God's words, move many to believe and join you and all the Saints Triumphant in heaven.
The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.