The following sermon was preached by Dr Thomas Winger in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service on All Saints’ Day, 1 November 2022.
Dear children of God: How blessed are you? That’s a question that echoes many sermons preached a few weeks ago at Thanksgiving, “what are you thankful for?” It’s a question we should be able to answer confidently, and if we struggle to make a list we need only turn to Luther’s explanation of the First Article: God has blessed me with health and strength in my body, with riches beyond what most people in the world can hope for; He’s given house and home, wife and children, and so on. He’s put me in a peaceful land, where we have freedom to live and worship. And all this without any merit or worthiness on my part—that’s what it means to be blessed. If it’s deserved, it’s not a blessing. But what if these things are taken away from us? If house and home, food and clothing are divine blessings, then is the man living in a bus shelter on Glenridge Ave abandoned by God? If a man is blessed who has children around his table like shoots on an olive tree (Ps. 128:3), then what of the man whose son is taken away by a drug overdose or suicide? If it’s a blessing for a woman to have a fruitful womb, then what’s she to think when the child growing within her dies before seeing the light of day? Our instinct is to say that such people aren’t blessed, because we measure blessing by what we see and feel. And when these tragedies happen, the danger is that we turn away from God and blame Him—forgetting that we never deserved the blessings in the first place, forgetting that only God can give them again. That’s what the devil sought when he suggested to God the trials of Job: this man whom God had blessed with ten children and massive riches, what will he do if it’s all taken away? Job, as we know, endured the trials with his faith intact, though certainly not with patience. And he stoically proclaimed, “ ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (Job 1:21–22).
Blessings come and blessings go. Those who have are blessed; those who have not aren’t. That’s our natural way of thinking. But as Jesus opens the Sermon on the Mount, he completely reverses this. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3). Could it be that we’ve got it all wrong, that it’s not riches that are God’s gift to us but poverty? If so, then it’s a bitter pill to swallow, but medicine we might be willing to take if we knew it would deliver eternal health and wellbeing. Poverty of possessions can teach us meekness and lead to spiritual blessing. Even poverty in spirit—the opposite of pride—can bring the blessings of forgiveness and reconciliation. But what of the rest of the beatitudes? Does God bless us by making us mourn? By taking righteousness away from us and making us hunger for it? Perhaps. Discipline has its place, but this strikes us as a harsh kind of divine Fatherhood. No, I think that Jesus reverses our natural thinking in a different way. The Beatitudes don’t teach us a process we go through in order to come into a higher form of blessedness. Rather they describe the blessedness that’s already ours, that remains ours even when by earthly measure we don’t seem to be blessed at all. The Beatitudes uncover the deeper blessedness that we have as God’s gift in the midst of our weakness, our suffering, our loss, our mourning. To be blessed in the way Jesus promises is not simply to find the hidden blessing in tragedies, but rather to have God’s blessings delivered to us in such a way that the tragedies are overcome. The Christian view of blessings is therefore entirely different from the world’s view. To be blessed by God is tantamount to being saved. It’s not simply to receive good things that outweigh the bad, but to be rescued from our suffering, to have it brought to an end, to be delivered from darkness into the light of day.
Of course, this isn’t our experience. We don’t see the way out, or perhaps it’s little more than a glimmer of light at the end of a very long tunnel. But Jesus’ promise is that we are blessed already now. Blessing comes to us precisely in our suffering, when we’re suffering, to relieve our suffering. It comes in the certainty of delivery. That’s the way the verb tenses work: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Mt. 5:3–4). The blessing is ours already now, the kingdom of heaven comes to us already now, even though the comfort, the delivery, remains in the future. Certainly we know that mourning can’t be defeated by common platitudes about our loved ones living on in our memory. But for us Christians who mourn, it’s not even enough to know that their souls are with God. This doesn’t change the reality of death, pain, loss, loneliness, and grief. We must know and cling firmly to the promise expressed by Martha: “I know that [my brother] will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (Jn 11:24). We hunger and thirst for this. The resurrection of the dead is the righteousness we seek; it’s the justice sought by the importunate widow of last Sunday’s Gospel. Justice is overturning what has gone wrong. And so only resurrection can erase mourning.
To be blessed in the midst of grief is to cling to the promise with Martha’s confidence. God delivers that confidence through another set of biblical beatitudes, the seven perfect blessings spoken through John’s Revelation that serve as a kind of fulfilment to the unseen promises of Matthew five.
“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labours.” (Rev. 14:13)
On this All Saints’ Day God delivers blessing to us who mourn by showing us the blessedness enjoyed already by those we’ve lost. Though they’ve died, they rest from their labours. They already enjoy a heavenly life that’s immeasurably better than what they suffered here below. They’ve joined the company of heaven singing praises before God’s throne, as we heard in the first reading today. And then:
“Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (Rev. 19:9)
They’ve come through the doors into the banqueting hall. They’re eating the hors-d’oeuvres.
Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power. (Rev. 20:6)
They’re blessed because they’re baptised. The death of their bodies couldn’t hurt them, because they’d already died and risen with Jesus. There is no eternal death in their future, because they’ve already been rescued from it by Christ. And now they simply cry out at the heavenly altar, “O Lord, how long?” (Rev. 6:10).
And so do we. But even as we continue in our impatient longing, in our hungering and thirsting for vindication, Christ promises that we’re blessed. And that’s the beatitude of Revelation that supports you in your mourning:
Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book. (Rev. 22:7)
Don’t keep them between closed covers, but keep them in your heart. Treasure them. Trust them. When you grieve, you’re blessed to have this vision of heaven, these words of promise, this knowledge of what’s hidden now but will be revealed on the Last Day. And if you hold on to the gifts of this book, then the final beatitude of Revelation is yours, too:
Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. (Rev. 22:14)