Shedding Some Light on Death
Black is the liturgical color historically appointed only for Good Friday. Since 1982 it's an alternative to purple on Ash Wednesday. Other than that black is not an acceptable liturgical color - even for funerals. But what's with the All Saints banner from 1963 on your bulletin? The left side is all black. Is this to symbolize the blackness of despair that follows death? Not hardly. The black is part of the comfort of All Saints Day. The black is there to shed some light on death.
The black on the left side of the shield stands for the darkness that those who've died in Christ have passed out of. It doesn't stand for our mourning or their suffering; it stands for the world we're now in. Look around you; this is the darkness. Listen to the hymns we sing. We call this the "darkness drear", "the great affliction." "Brief sorrow, short-lived care." Our hymns say this so often because our world says the opposite: "This life is the light." The goal is to stay in this life as long as possible and live this life as fully and happily as you can. The greatest tragedy is the loss of this life; the 2nd greatest tragedy is an unhappy life here.
In the world's view, the colors on the shield should be reversed. Instead of the black on the left indicating this present darkness and the silver on the right indicating the light and life Christians pass into, the world would have the silver be this life and the black be the death we pass into. But this goes with neither the hymns we sing nor the Bible we read. Hear a few verses: I Chron. 29:15: "Our days on the earth are as a shadow." Job 14:1: "Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble." Is. 40:6: "All flesh is grass, and all their beauty like the flower of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fade." This is not the light; this is the darkness because we are confronted with death no matter where we turn. Death stalks us no matter our age, our health, our wealth. Death is there through crime, disease, age, or accident. Because death dogs are steps, this life is the darkness. But there's more.
In this present darkness we're surrounded by sin. Sinful people plague us as our own sins do. Everywhere we turn we're confronted with the wickedness of fallen humanity and with our being far from what we should be. And though death and sin are constant companions we still feel all alone in this darkness. God doesn't walk with us in the cool of the evening; God doesn't invite us to Mt. Sinai to party in His presence. God doesn't speak to us in a still small voice. In this present darkness we can't see anyone else with us.
The left side of the shield is the darkness now. Those who've died in Christ have passed out of darkness into the silver light of heaven. This is why Ps. 116:15 says, "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints." It does not say,. "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the life of His saints." No, it's their death that is precious to God. The death which may have been so painful, so bitter, so dark to us, is precious to our Lord. Why? Our Lord values the death of His saints because by it they are passing out of darkness and into His glorious light.
When you heard our text, didn't light strike you too? The place where those who've died in Christ are shines with God's glory unimaginable in this present darkness. Their city "does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp." There's no night there, so they don't need the light of a lamp or that of the sun. And you know how death stalked your friends, your relatives, your loved ones in this darkness? Well in the light of the next world, there is no more death. The Water of Life and the Tree of Life which if a person eats or drinks from he lives forever are there in abundance. It's not just a fountain or a spring of life; it's an entire river of life. And the Tree of Life doesn't just produce fruit once a year. It produces life every single month.
There's more. You know how sin troubled those who died in Christ while they were in this present darkness? You know how the sinfulness of others made their life painful? You know what a mess their own sinfulness made for them at times? Well that was in this darkness; it's not that way in heaven's light. The gates of heaven never close because there's no crime, no criminals; nothing to need protection from. There is nothing impure, shameful, or deceitful in heaven. All is holy. Why? because only people who were holy on earth are let in? No, because the only people in heaven are those washed in the holy blood of Christ and dressed in His holy good works.
And those in heaven's light are never alone. They are in a city full of fellow forgiven sinners, and they are in constant contact with God. They see His face and His name is on their foreheads. There is no temple in heaven because as John says, "The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple." God walks with them, not in the cool of the evening as He did with Adam, because there is no evening. No, the Lord walks with them always. God doesn't invite them up to a dinner on Mt. Sinai. The throne of God is right there with them in the city; they eat and drink in His presence all the time. And God's voice isn't still or small to them; it's always loud, clear, and comforting.
Those in heaven are in light; we're in darkness. Your loved ones, your not so loved ones, all those who've died in Christ are in the light that knows no dimming let alone darkness. You and I are not, and this is where our sadness comes from over death. It doesn't come from where our dead in Christ are but from where we are. It doesn't come from our loved ones being in bright light but from our being in thick darkness. While we get a measure of comfort from knowing the saints are in light, still this darkness consumes us sometimes. That's why we celebrate All Saints' Day. It's not to shed light on the saints in heaven (They have plenty already.), but to shed it on us still in this present darkness. For this, our Lord gives us His Word which He says is a lamp for our feet and a light for our path (Ps. 119:105). 1 Peter 2:9 says that we've been called out of darkness into His glorious light. 1Thessalonians 5:4 assures us, "You brothers, are not in darkness."
Only by the Lord's light can we see in this darkness. The light of the Lord puts a spotlight on that baptismal font back there, and reminds you that you've been born again to a living hope. Your baptism is a washing of regeneration, a rebirth by the Holy Spirit. God's light tells you that in your baptism you died and were buried with Christ, and with Him you've already risen. Death may be stalking you, but it can't swallow you. When death tries to swallow you, your baptism won't let it. Death will have to spit you out into life everlasting even as it did Christ.
Look at the shield; see the crown of gold? It stands for everlasting life. The crown is on both sides of the shield. The crown of everlasting life is yours today! But what about my sins! I see them in every move I make, every breath I take, every promise I break! There's a Word piercing this present darkness for you too, sinner: A Word of pardon. It's not just saints in heaven that are holy. It's the saints on earth too because we're holy the same way they are: by Christ. God put away their sins and ours because Jesus kept the Laws condemning us and paid the penalty owed for our breaking them. The forgiveness I give in absolution is not inferior to what the saints have in heaven. Absolution sends your sins away so that God can't see them anymore than He can see the sins of those in heaven. All the sins of all saints in heaven and on earth are hidden by Jesus' blood. The 3 "Sanctus" or "Holy's" are on both sides and in color they are red. The only way any sinner is holy is in Jesus' blood.
There is light from God for us still in this darkness. His Word of life in Baptism; His Word of forgiveness in Absolution, and His Word made flesh and blood in Communion. Here's the answer to the loneliness we sinners know in this darkness. Over 4,000 years ago, He invited Moses up to Mt. Sinai to eat and drink in His presence. He still invites people today, not just to eat and drink in His presence but to eat and drink His presence: His body and blood. Our God doesn't leave us alone in this darkness to grope for and hopefully touch Him now and then. No He promises to meet us right here at this altar in the elements of bread and wine. He says, "Here I am in the flesh and with My blood to forgive you, to strengthen you, to assure you: you're not alone here." The triple holy on both sides of the shield not only refers to being forgiven but to the Holy Trinity who is not only present in heaven's light but with us in earth's darkness through Holy Communion.
But there's more: where God is there heaven is. So when God the Son comes down in the Holy Communion, the angels, the archangels and all the saints in heaven come with Him. In this darkness, we are joined by all those who dwell in light. For a time, the saints in heaven join with us saints on earth to sing: "Holy, Holy, Holy...blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord."
Have you guessed by now whose death I am really shedding light on? Not that of saints who've died but of us who haven't; I have tried to give you Luther's viewpoint. In his day the popular saying was, "In life we are surrounded by death." Luther turned it around saying, "in death we are surrounded by life." All around those in Christ is the life of the world to come. The saints in darkness now don't pass away; they pass into that Day which knows no darkness. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Saints' Sunday (20191103); Revelation 21:9-11, 22-27; 22:1-5