But if we walk in the light, just as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

The Feast of All Saints – 2023

Romans 8:23b-25

Please listen with me to these words from the 8th chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, beginning in the 23rd verse:

“We also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.”

So far our text.

The Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 1908. For the next 108 years, Cubs fans hoped for their team to win another World Series. Those who finally saw and experienced that long-awaited victory in 2016 were very much aware of the fact that their generation was not the only generation that had been waiting for this.

In the days that followed the Cubs’ World Series triumph, thousands of names of long-deceased Cubs fans were written in chalk on the brick walls of the Wrigley Field stadium. Chicagoans were writing the names of their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents on these walls, as a way of connecting their deceased family members to a sports achievement which they had longed to see in life, but which they had not been able to see before their life’s end.

I can remember this well. There appeared to be a feeling among their descendants that this sentimental gesture, in some way, was allowing them to be a part of that victory anyway, even after their deaths.

The most poignant story of this nature that I read at the time, described a 68-year-old man from North Carolina, who grew up in the Chicago area. As a boy and as a young man, he and his father enjoyed many a Cubs game together.

They had made a “pact,” that if the Cubs ever got into the World Series, they would listen to the games together. Their common love for baseball, and for the Cubs, was a bonding agent of sorts, for their own deeper love for each other.

In 1980, when the father was only 53 years old, he died of cancer. An opportunity for father and son to keep that pact had never come, before this Dad was so prematurely wrenched from his boy.

But for the last game of the series, this son drove for ten hours, from his home to the cemetery in Indiana where his father is buried. And at his father’s grave, he listened to the game, and, with his father, heard the Cubs win in the tenth inning.

If the experience of Cubs fans waiting for a World Series victory for more than a century, can stir up these kinds of deep-seated emotions, how much more can the experience of the church, waiting for many centuries for the final fulfillment of Christ’s promises, stir up even deeper feelings?

Of course, the importance of several generations of Cubs fans waiting together for a sports triumph, is as nothing, when compared to the importance of scores and scores of generations of Christians waiting together for the second coming of Christ, and for the resurrection of their bodies on the Last Day. It is therefore to our shame, if we do not long for those things to come to pass, with the level of devotion and seriousness that should characterize such waiting.

Our Lord’s future visible return to this world, and everything that is now preparing the way for that profound event – and preparing us for that event – are of eternal significance. And the thoughts on our minds today, on All Saints Sunday, should be appropriately serious and sober thoughts: as we remember all those who, through the many centuries of Christian history, have waited for these things to unfold, and who with us are still waiting.

One of the verses in the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation” says this, in regard to the church of Jesus Christ:

Yet she on earth hath union with God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.
O happy ones and holy! Lord, give us grace that we
Like them, the meek and lowly, on high may dwell with thee.

In 2016, many Cubs fans had a sentimental feeling that they were somehow united with other Cubs fans, even beyond the grave. But for Christians, as we ponder our “mystic sweet communion” with the Saints of God who have come and gone before us, this is not merely a sentimental feeling.

This is reality. It is the reality of Christ, who is our Lord and theirs, our Savior and theirs, our eternal hope and theirs. What it is that made them to be saints, was the saving work of Christ on their behalf.

He took their place on the cross, and suffered for their transgressions. He also rose again for them, and in their stead was justified and vindicated by God the Father – who fully accepted his Son’s sacrifice for their sins, and for the sins of the world.

And while the now-departed saints of God still lived on earth, they, in their humility and penitence, were allowed to take Christ’s place, in their standing before God. Believing the promises of the gospel, they were justified by this faith, and were covered with the holiness of Christ.

All of this is what makes us to be saints, too. This is what gives us the confidence to stand before God, and to pray to God, without the fear that he will condemn us and destroy us. This is what gives us the hope that when we pass from this world, we will join the saints of old in the very presence of Christ.

We do not have a direct link to those who have already departed in the faith, and who are now with Christ on the other side of death. We do not seek to communicate directly with these saints, through prayers, seances, or other clairvoyant means. God’s Word actually forbids us to try to do this.

The connection that we have with them because of Christ, is a connection that is mediated by Christ. We are all mutually connected to him, from both sides of the grave.

Through our participation in the gospel and sacraments of Christ, on this side of the grave, we are united with Christ himself. Christ’s words of grace and pardon do not simply remind us of an absent Lord.

Rather, they are the means by which Jesus himself invisibly comes to us, unites himself to us, and keeps his promise that he will be with his church always, even to the end of the age.

This is also why, when Jesus does return in visible glory on the Last Day, he will not be a stranger to his church – because he has been discreetly visiting us and coming among us, by his Word and Spirit, all along.

We have been cleansed and renewed by his washing of regeneration all along. We have been sacramentally nurtured in our resurrection hope by his now-living body, and forgiven through the application of his shed blood, all along.

In this way we have an ongoing fellowship with Christ while still in this world. The departed saints – who on earth had likewise believed in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins, and who had trusted in his Word for eternal life – are enjoying their fellowship with Christ in the next world.

For them, this fellowship is no longer mediated to them through the earthly elements of water, bread, and wine. It is direct, because their sin is now gone. The Book of Revelation describes this as their being clothed in white robes – all the time.

The saints in heaven do still look forward to the ultimate conclusion of all things. They are, at present, lacking their physical bodies. But they know that someday they will get their bodies back, in the general resurrection.

They are waiting for this. We are waiting for this. We are all waiting for this together, in and through Christ. And someday, we will all receive what we are waiting for.

There will be new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. The dwelling place of God will be with men forever. The lion will lay down with the lamb, forever.

Cubs fans had to wait patiently for 108 years, for a World Series victory. In the context of baseball history, that was a long time. But what they waited for, happened.

The church has been waiting patiently for the Lord’s return for about 1,990 years. That seems to be a very long time. And that wait is not yet over.

But from God’s perspective, it is not long. And when all things do finally come to their fulfillment and culmination, it will have been worth the wait.

The saints of yesterday, the saints of today, and the saints of tomorrow, will be fully one in Christ, rejoicing in eternity with each other, and rejoicing together with Christ. What we are all waiting for – on both sides of the grave – will have come. What we are all hoping for – in this world and in the next world – will have been fulfilled.

“We also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.”


12 November 2023 – Trinity 23 – Matthew 22:15-22

“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

These words of our Lord, in today’s text from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, have always been seen as one of the chief proof passages in Scripture for the distinction we make as Christians – and as Lutherans – between the spiritual and the civil kingdoms; and for our belief that a Christian is a citizen not only of God’s realm, but also of the civil realm in which he lives, with an obligation to respect and obey the civil authorities.

Just yesterday, on our civil calendar, we remembered an important aspect of the duty to their earthly nation that many have understood themselves to have, in their service in the armed forces. Others have served sacrificially in other ways, likewise out of a sense of duty to their country and to its government in this world.

Christian moral teaching has, of course, always qualified our obligation to obey our earthly government, on the basis of what the apostles told the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, when they were ordered by them to stop preaching. They replied: “We must obey God rather than men.”

So, when the civil authorities would presume to command something that God’s Word forbids, or to forbid something that God’s Word commands, a Christian will not obey.

But otherwise – such as in the matter of paying or not paying taxes – a believer will comply with the legal mandates of the earthly government under which he lives. Our citizenship in heaven is a higher citizenship, but it is not our only citizenship.

It is no doubt easier for people to obey their government when the structure of that government is built on the principle of “government by the consent of the governed.”

When a country’s lawmakers are in power by virtue having won fair and free elections, there would be few if any excuses for disobeying the laws that they pass – except, of course, if those laws are inherently sinful. It’s interesting to see that in the sixteenth century – long before the time of Thomas Jefferson or James Madison – Martin Luther already saw this.

During the time of the Exodus, when Moses felt overwhelmed by all the responsibilities that were placed upon him as the leader of the people of Israel, he arranged for the election of elders in every tribe, to carry out some of the governmental duties that he had been carrying out by himself. Luther commented on this:

“Beasts are managed by power and skill. Men should be ruled by wisdom and understanding, since man thrives on reason… Here you see that the magistrates should be chosen by the votes of the people, as reason also demands. … For to thrust government upon a people against its will is dangerous or destructive.”

It is a great blessing for us in America to be able to live under a government that receives its authorization to rule through the democratic system that we have. But this democratic system – which involves all of us – also lays a great responsibility upon all of us.

The citizens of the United States are themselves ultimately responsible for the actions – or inactions – of the government of the United States. Each of us has the ongoing opportunity – and duty – to work toward making our government to be more efficient, and making our laws to be more just: by what we advocate, and by how we vote.

For us, this is also a part of what we are to render to Caesar. But even when the government of a country lacks this kind of direct accountability to those who are governed, and even when a government is deeply flawed in many ways, its authority is still to be respected, and its laws are still to be obeyed.

The Jews of Palestine had certainly not elected the pagan Tiberius Caesar to be their emperor. Still, Jesus told them to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.

And in his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul went so far as to say that, for law-abiding people, the one in authority is “God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.”

But all of this represents only half of Jesus’ teaching today. Some men who had been sent from the Pharisees, and some Herodians, had asked him this question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

In response, Jesus did not only tell his listeners to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but he also told them to render to God the things that are God’s.

There are a lot more people in this world who pay their taxes, than who honor and trust in God as they should. So, this second aspect of what Jesus teaches should certainly be noted, and listened to.

The specific coin that was being talked about in today’s account was a denarius. It was the most common Roman coin of that time.

On one side was the portrait of the Emperor. And on the other side was a Latin inscription, which translates as: “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus.”

This coin was a testimony to the idolatry of the Romans, and was itself an idol. On the coin was an image of a mere man, who was insolently declared to be a divine son of a divine father.

The Herodians – who openly collaborated with the Romans – did not mind this. Their answer to the question that was posed to Jesus – Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? – would have been an unqualified Yes.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, certainly did mind the idolatry that was concretely embodied in the coin. They would no doubt have preferred never to have to use such a coin – for paying taxes, or for any other purpose.

So, their honest answer to the question would have been No – it is not in keeping with God’s law – especially the First Commandment – to associate yourself with Roman idolatry, and to make personal use of a Roman idol – which is what handling such a coin would be in their minds.

But, the Pharisees generally kept this scruple to themselves, and did not openly criticize the Romans in this respect. They knew that if they expressed this conviction, they would get in big trouble with the Romans.

Most Jews agreed with the Pharisees on this point. They really did not like having to use these coins.

But, most Jews also agreed with the Pharisees that being open and honest about their views was not worth the grief that would come as a result. Yet there was an attempt on this day to force Jesus to be open and honest about it.

The Pharisees and the Herodians generally had very little in common with each other. But in their temporary collaboration, in trying to trick Jesus into saying something that would get him in trouble – either with the authorities, or with the crowd – they told Jesus this:

“Teacher, we know that You are true and teach the way of God truthfully.”

They were hypocrites in saying this. They were not expressing their honest convictions. But because what they said about Jesus was accurate, they were – with their own words – condemning their actual refusal to believe what Jesus was teaching.

The First Commandment, with its “You shall have no other gods before me” prohibition, does indeed condemn idolatry – whether it is the flagrant idolatry of the Romans, or the hidden idolatry that resides in the hearts of all sinful people. But implicit in this prohibition, is also a positive requirement: “You shall have me as your only God.”

The denarius that Jesus and the others were discussing, falsely claimed that Tiberius was divine. But the true Son of God – through whom the God of the Old Testament could be truly known – was right there, speaking to them, and inviting them to faith.

And according to their own words, the Pharisees and the Herodians should have been willing to heed that invitation. If they really did think that Jesus was “true,” they would have accepted his teaching, when he later said:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

If they really did think that Jesus taught “the way of God truthfully,” they would have accepted the validity of his assurance – spoken elsewhere – that “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

And they would have staked everything – in time and in eternity – on his words. But is that what happened? This is what we are told:

“So they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, ‘Whose image and inscription is this?’ They said to Him, ‘Caesar’s.’ And He said to them, ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way.”

They marveled. But they didn’t marvel, and then stay to hear more. They marveled, and then they left him, and went away.

I suppose it can be assumed that all of us are here – in this Christian sanctuary – because we “marvel” at Jesus and his words. And we might say to someone who asks why we come to church, that it is because we know that Jesus is “true,” and teaches “the way of God truthfully.”

But does this translate into a life of rendering to God the things that are God’s – all the things that are God’s – once we leave this place of worship? We sing in a familiar hymn:

“Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a tribute far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

But is that what God gets from us? Is that even a fraction of what he gets? Hear again what our Lord’s inquisitors said to him:

“Teacher, we know that You are true and teach the way of God truthfully.”

Now, they were not sincere when they said this. But they were right. They should have listened to themselves, and so listened to Jesus.

And as you listen today to their correct description of Jesus and of his teaching, God will help you to listen to your Savior.

When I am tempted to leave Christ, and go away from him, he pulls me in. And if I have left, he calls me back. Jesus teaches me: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

I often feel polluted and contaminated by my sins. I know myself to be spiritually sick. And I fear that God is disgusted with me, and may want to isolate me from himself. But Jesus teaches me:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the presence and power of sin in my life. I sometimes feel trapped, like there is no escape from the devil’s clutches. Is there a way for me to be liberated from this? Jesus teaches me:

“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

I know that there is forgiveness for people in general, in the cross, and in God. But can I be assured that God is willing to forgive me personally?

Is Jesus really here, for me? In his Holy Supper, Jesus teaches me: “this cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins.”

But it is sometimes hard to believe this. In my weakness, I struggle to trust in something that I cannot see with my own eyes.

Does the Lord notice me in this struggle? Will he help me in my weakness? Jesus teaches me:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Jesus – who literally, word-for-word, said all these things – is indeed “true.” Jesus, who says all these things to you, is to be believed, because he teaches “the way of God truthfully.”

And as Jesus teaches the way of God truthfully to you, you learn from him how to render to Caesar, and to God, what is due to them.

All of these things are now possible for us, because Jesus himself – in the profoundest of ways – truly did render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s, on our behalf, and for our salvation.

He paid his taxes, to be sure. But he also obeyed the Jewish and Roman civil authorities, even to the point of paying with his own blood, for his “crime” of being the Son of God, and the ruler of God’s kingdom.

And in the process, he was – at a deeper level – obeying his Father in heaven, who had actually set all this in motion, so that the sins of the world would thereby be atoned for.

In the sermon that St. Peter preached to the people of Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, he explained to them that “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”

Under the decree both of Caesar’s court and of God’s, Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” He died for you, to save you, and to give you the hope of eternal life.

Therefore, as a grateful citizen of your country, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. And, as a grateful child of God, and a citizen of his kingdom under Christ – to whom you now belong – render to God the things that are God’s: with his help doing what he commands; but even more so, believing what he promises, and by faith receiving what he gives. Amen.