For those congregations which observe Reformation Sunday, the following week serves as the observance for All Saints Sunday. If you are planning to preach on the assigned epistle for this festival, see Dr. Jason Lane’s wonderful piece on 1 John 3:1-3 from a few years back. In that article, Dr. Lane reminds us that, depending on which text you preach, you will either focus on those saints who are at rest from their labors (the Church Triumphant) or those saints for whom the, “the fight is fierce, the warfare long” (the Church Militant). 1 John 3:1-3 preaches how we who are children of God now are those saints who are purified by our hope in the promises of Christ.
However, Hebrews 9:24-28, the assigned reading for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, still affords you the opportunity to preach on what it means to be a saint in the Church Militant, “Eagerly waiting for Him” (9:28). If you are following the sermon series suggested at the beginning of the Hebrews readings, this week would have you preaching on how Jesus is greater than the sacrifices. This particular chapter of Hebrews discusses how the priests would use the blood from the sacrifices to sanctify God’s people. “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (9:13-14).
Sanctification is a central concept to the Christian life. There is a great deal of discussion over what the term actually means. Though there is much to be said in the New Testament about sanctification as “growing in grace,” here in Hebrews, it has more of the sense of being set apart for God’s purposes. To be sanctified in the blood of Christ means to be cleansed from sin and impurity so you might be brought into the presence of God for faithful worship. “And in the same way [the priest] sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the Law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:21-22).
Hebrews is delivering the wonderful gospel declaration that Christ Jesus is the great high priest and the once-for-all sacrifice whose blood cleanses us from our sins. He is the greater sacrifice because, in His dying, His blood was shed, “...once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (9:26). In the Lord’s Supper, the blood of the sacrifice is promised and put in the wine, and thus sprinkled on all who take and drink. Thus, Christ sprinkles His blood on us and sanctifies us, making us saints. After all, to be a saint is not to be morally superior to everyone else, but it is to be sanctified by the blood, set apart by God’s grace alone for His holy purposes.
In the Lord’s Supper, that blood of the sacrifice is promised and put in the wine, and thus sprinkled on all who take and drink.
The primary focus on All Saints Sunday is not just how we are graciously called saints by virtue of our baptism, but that Christ Jesus sanctifies us. That is to say, the emphasis is not on the saints, but the Sanctifier (in other words, the saint-maker). Hebrews presents Jesus’ sanctifying work by comparing His work with that of Israel’s High Priest on the Day of Atonement. The High Priest would appear, “before the people at the altar to present the bull and a goat as sin offerings, his appearance in God’s presence with their blood by his entry into the inner shrine and his second appearance before the people at the altar for burnt offering in order to cleanse them from impurity.”
These appearances serve as analogies for the work Jesus carries out for His saints; a) First, in His appearance in the flesh when He came to give His life as a sacrifice for sinners, b) Second, in His appearance before the Father in Heaven to present Himself on our behalf, and c) Third, when He appears at His second coming to save those who eagerly await His return. These three “appearances” present a helpful structure for the sermon.
- Appearance in the Flesh (incarnation/crucifixion)-Jesus has come in the flesh to sanctify us. But this work is surprising because He does not come to merely teach us how to conduct ourselves in more sanctified manner. He comes to actually make us holy by His sacrifice on the cross for our sins. “But as it is, He appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (9:26). This sacrifice is greater than all the other sacrifices as it has finally and ultimately (“once for all”) paid the penalty for our sins. Since it is true that, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:22), Jesus shed His blood to do just that: Forgive! By shedding His blood for you, you are sanctified and forgiven.
- Appearance in Heaven (exaltation)-The High Priest would go before God in the “holy places made with hands” (9:24) to present the blood of the sacrifices on behalf of the congregation. Jesus, in a greater fashion, enters God’s presence, not in an earthly temple which serves as a shadow of God’s presence, but in Heaven itself. There, before God, He stands as the representative of His Church. What is more, He is doing this “now” (9:24). This means, as we gather around the altar on Sunday for worship, Christ absolves our sins and sprinkles us with His blood in the Sacrament, so we are ushered into our Father’s presence. The actual body and blood that were sacrificed for us are given to cleanse us from our sins so we might enter God’s presence with our Great High Priest.
- Appearance at the End (second coming)-Just as the High Priest would return to the people to bring them cleansing, Jesus will return to take us into His eternal presence. Though we experience this now by faith in the Divine Service, then it will be by sight. “So, Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him” (9:28). Having finished the purification work for His people, He is coming back to gather His purified saints to Himself. And all we grasp now by faith we will then have by sight.
Christ In the Text
On All Saints Sunday, it is wonderful to remind the saints in your midst what it is Jesus has done, is doing, and will do for them in order to bring about their holiness/sanctification. It is His blood shed on the cross and served to us at the altar which purify us from our sins, so we are forgiven and sanctified. This festival can tempt the preacher to focus so much on the deeds of the saints, that they miss what makes a person a saint in the first place: Christ’s atoning blood. When we focus on Christ instead of the saints, Jesus will actually create saints in our midst, and the sanctified gathering will join the “host arrayed in white” in singing to the sacrificial Lamb who reigns.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Hebrews 9:24-28.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Hebrews 9:24-28.