Sunday, November 1, 2015

Consider the Generations Long Past: A Sermon for All Saints Day

“Praise be to you, LORD, God of our father Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Yours, LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, LORD, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all” (1 Chronicles 29:10-11). Have any words ever been so beautiful? In all our singing on this holy day, we “ascribe greatness to our God” (Deuteronomy 32:3). And it is a special day, a day of remembrance. Last night was All Hallows' Eve. Today is All Saints' Day, tomorrow is All Souls' Day.

It's a time set aside to focus on one oft-forgotten but core teaching of the gospel: that “we believe … in the communion of saints.” We do! We believe in the communion of saints, in the fellowship of God's holy ones throughout all ages. We believe that history is not dead and gone. History is alive! The people of God are alive, whether they fight the good fight here below among the church militant or whether they breathe the air of angels among the church triumphant! And that isn't just for special super-Christians; it's for all who've been washed clean by Jesus and who've followed the Spirit home – their names are written above from least to greatest, and all are “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23). “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine, / yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.” All, not just today, but in all the yesterdays.

The gospel didn't start in the year 2000. The kingdom of God is not a novelty, a passing fad. The torch has been handed down from generation to generation, and just when the world thinks they've snuffed it out at last, God breathes it back to bright flame. Our God is “a faithful God who does no wrong,” the Creator who “made us and formed us” (Deuteronomy 32:4-6). He's been at work for thousands of years before any of us arrived on the scene, and will be at work long after our bones rest in peace and our spirits rejoice on high. We don't know what form God's work will take in the years, decades, maybe centuries ahead of us – he's a God of new wine, not a God who patches up what's wearing thin – but we do have the benefit of looking back over a long and living history of God's mighty deeds when he “exalted and gave strength to all” (1 Chronicles 29:12). Not just looking back over it – actively holding fellowship with believers of every era. “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past” (Deuteronomy 32:7).

They have plenty to teach us about living in a world that wasn't always friendly to the message they brought. They “endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution,” clinging above all to something the world couldn't take away, a glory “better and more lasting” (Hebrews 10:32-34). They pushed through it with compassion and mercy, not “abandoning their confidence” (Hebrews 10:35). They didn't shrink back; they had faith and so were saved (Hebrews 10:39). They had a conviction that God was at work even in their trials, and that God would bring beauty out of their smallest achievements done in his name (Hebrews 11:1). And that's what faith looks like. It was “by faith” that “our ancestors,” those who ran the race before us, “received approval” in God's eyes (Hebrews 11:2).

Have you ever wondered what the Hebrews 11 Hall of Faith would look like if it got updated for our time and place? If, tacked onto the litany of saints from Abel to the prophets, it covered the last five centuries? The communion of saints includes Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David, but also the saints who gave nearer shape to our faith here today. What's our saintly story? What would our elders tell us (Deuteronomy 32:7)? They'd remind us that by faith, a fire-eyed priest in the early 1500s dared to question the world he saw around him; by faith, this Martin Luther stood firm on Scripture against the corrupted church leaders of his day, defying their sword and fire and sparking the Reformation. In his preface to Romans, he wrote:

Faith is a divine work in us. It changes us and makes us born again from God. It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and it brings with it the Holy Spirit. Oh, it is a living, busy, mighty, active thing, this faith! And so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It doesn't ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question arises, it has already done them and is always doing them. … Faith is a living, daring confidence in God's grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. … Hence a man is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace. It is as impossible to separate works from faith as heat and light from fire.

By faith, in 1738, an unknown Moravian preacher in London read those words aloud where they could fall on the ears of a failed Anglican missionary, once desolate in heart but in that moment suddenly feeling his heart filled and “strangely warmed” by the fiery love of God. By faith, that missionary, John Wesley, witnessed in the fields and foundries, organized a movement of classes and bands to be “all on fire for God,” devoted himself to know “no holiness but social holiness,” preached to set England ablaze and to spread the flame “from village to village.” By faith, his missionaries like Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury traveled to the American colonies so that here, too, the fire of the Spirit could run from heart to heart. “O that the hammer and fire of God's word and love might come down among them!,” faithful Asbury prayed.

By faith, the German evangelist Anton Houtz was filled with the word of God to condemn sin and preach holiness, never holding back. The fire that warmed Wesley's heart blazed in his speech, even amidst the pallor of death. They woke a grieving tilemaker named Jacob Albright from his complacent life of “great sinfulness”; he was cut to the quick by “keen sorrow.” By faith, the farmer Adam Reigel, Jacob's next-door neighbor, opened Jacob's eyes to the truths of Holy Scripture, unfolding the faith delivered once and for all to the saints (cf. Jude 3) – and so the lost Jacob stumbled, now found, into the arms of Jesus and discovered “such a sweet peace … as no pen can describe or mortal tongue can express.” By faith, a Methodist class-leader named Isaac Davis nurtured Jacob in his newfound salvation, shepherding him as he grew from grace to grace.

By faith, this same Jacob Albright sought and found the true Shepherd of his Soul and persevered in prayer with broken heart, yearning to see the light of the Lord dawn on the neglected and benighted Pennsylvania Dutch, for which he daily “implored God with burning tears” to “send them true and exemplary teachers who would preach the gospel in its own power.” By faith, he was commissioned by God to preach the gospel tirelessly all his days: “Go, work in my vineyard; proclaim to my people the gospel in its primitive purity, with energy and power, trusting in my fatherly love that all those who hear and believe shall have part in my grace.” By faith, Albright preached in the open markets to riotous mobs, regarding the salvation of even one lost soul of greater consequence than his own body's safety; and by faith, like Stephen of old he dropped to his knees and prayed for his persecutors when they sought to stone him on the road in Berks County (cf. Acts 7:59-60). By faith, Albright looked forward with prophet's blazing eye beyond the close of his own life and pronounced, “Men will appear among you who will be able to accomplish what I shall not be able to do.” And so by faith he remained steadfast in grace through each trial until, in 1808, he left behind the “seals of his ministry” to seek an incorruptible crown.

By faith, Albright's colleague John Walter became an Apollos in his day, preaching the word of God by the Spirit with force enough to break locks asunder and swing the doors open wide for revival in New Berlin, so the Lord Jesus might “establish his work here in spite of all the opposition of hell and wicked men.” By faith, George Miller, saved and sanctified under Albright and Walter, withstood mockery, persecution, vandalism, beatings and stonings, and cared only to stay walking in the Way of the God of Love. By faith, Moses Dissinger charged headlong into the devil's den and prayed like a prophet of old in the power of the Most High, that the walls trembled and quaked.

By faith, in the 1840s bold itinerants like Frederick Danner, Abraham Schultz, and Davis Hambright stirred hearts in a recently penetrated mission field, men and women who lived up on a lawless mountain among the birds who wing their way across the airy skies. By faith, three of the recent converts – William Dewees, William Boyer, and Watson McAnelly – sought by God's grace a resting place for their conviction, buying land to raise a house to the holiness of the Lord. By faith, William Fairfax Marshall, whose great-great-grandson sits in this room today, hauled stone day after day to bring life and reality to the vision God had set before Watson and the other Williams. By faith, Pastor Hambright and his successors rode between the churches of the newly-formed Chester Circuit, while local preacher Jonathan Kurtz led the young Mt. Airy Church through its earliest years of witness to Jesus Christ and him crucified.

By faith, Benjamin D. Albright, Antietam veteran and Jacob's grandnephew, called down revival's fires from heaven in the year of our Lord 1871, igniting the Welsh Mountain like Elijah at Mount Carmel in days of old (cf. 1 Kings 18:30-39). By faith, revival fire shed its gospel light far and wide through the Pequea Valley for months, illuminating the hearts of many, George Kauffroth among their number. By faith, Rev. Albright gave shape to the flame, binding a few new believers together in the valley schoolhouse as the Millwood Class Meeting for accountability and growth. By faith, Rev. J. N. Metzgar, “afire with the love of God,” rode his steady steed Old Dubbin around the new Conestoga Circuit, preaching every Saturday night and thrice each Sunday to keep the embers of Albright's revival stoked and ablaze to the glory of God.

By faith, under Rev. Metzgar's fiery ministry, sparks blew from the mountainside church and the valley class-meeting to ignire a new church, bringing together Jonathan Kurtz, George Kauffroth, Reuben Martin, Albert Hurst, Jeremiah Futer, Jacob Davidson, Samuel Stilwell, David Doutrich, Samuel Wasson, Daniel Warfel, Josiah March, Thomas Spence, Peter Reeser, Samuel Reiff, John Yoder, David Groff, and Benjamin Keenan. By faith, on April 29, 1874, they chartered their new adventure and named it for their valley: Pequea Evangelical Association Church.

By faith, they bellowed revival fires throughout 1876 and quadrupled their numbers to forty-one. By faith, a year later the newly minted preacher George Sweigert joined the wandering people of Pequea and shepherded them as they planned their new home: they bought a pricey hill from John Kurtz, they dug out a foundation, they laid the cornerstone in August. Just over two months' labors passed and on October 28, by faith the building was “filled from the door to the pulpit” as seven ministers – including one from Pequea Presbyterian – dedicated the whole house to the Lord of the Harvest, the previous night's sermon by the aged Pappy Saylor still singing their ears with the white-hot glory of God. And like David long before them, they asked, “Who is willing to consecrate themselves to the Lord today?” – and the people answered and “gave willingly” (1 Chronicles 29:5-6). One hundred thirty-eight years and four days ago, they confessed to God that “all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your holy name comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you” (1 Chronicles 29:16).

By faith, within a week, the saints of Pequea began a three-month protracted meeting until February 2, watching the mighty hand of God snatch forty-four souls from the haunts of hell to the gates of glory, of whom all but six joined the church – praise God! By faith, when trouble rocked the church eighteen days later, and the Millwood four of the five trustees resigned, the church body remained devoted to her sacred mission in the Pequea Valley. By faith, they committed themselves to the future God had in store for them on that hallowed soil, in which George Kauffroth and Reuben Martin planted the trees that still stand as memorials from 1878.

By faith, when that July saw a desperate bandit dig up the cornerstone to steal the funds deposited in the name of Jesus, the fifty-some saints of Pequea neither grumbled nor cursed, but forgave the culprit without ever learning his name, praying that the God of their salvation would rescue the man from himself through the stolen Bible and hymnal that were also unearthed. By faith, when cruel death intruded into God's green earth to rob the assembly of two of their littlest children, the saints of Pequea refused to rage against their Maker but instead commended their youth to the consecrated earth, unwavering in their hope of resurrection.

By faith, like the Patriarch Jacob of old, son of Isaac, son of Father Abraham, the Pequea saints grasped their Heavenly Shepherd and refused to let him go until he blessed them by stirring up a “great revival” that very December, and the December after it as well, under the faithful ministry of the gifted Pastor Ferdinand Smith (cf. Genesis 32:26). By faith, the Pequea saints, living their days and nights in the Refiner's fire, made generosity and fellowship their watchwords: In 1885, when Pastor James Krause lost his cloak on the road, they pooled their funds and bought him a new one. But they had the attitude of David: “Everything comes from you, and we have given only what comes from your hand” (1 Chronicles 29:14). Such was the saintliness of Pequea – finding and restoring the lost was all their heart.

Nine years later, when dark days descended on the denomination, when the Evangelical Association was cleaved in twain and the majority Esherites stole the title to the church building, then by faith Pastor Erisman and the Pequea saints neither surrendered nor stumbled; but, hoping against hope that the God who called them to this place did not mean to abort their mission before it had run its course, they praised their Divine Teacher in the schoolhouse until they could buy back the temple they'd reared years before.

By faith, in those days George Kauffroth raised his son George from an eight-day-old infant when the church was dedicated to the full stature of manhood in Christ Jesus. By faith, the younger George pledged his life to the service of the good news, pastoring the Evangelical saints of all the countryside, even serving as “a 'prophet with honor' respected and beloved by all” among the saints of Pequea United Evangelical Church in his own native village. Not dissuaded by ill health or Parkinson's, George would run his race, would fight his seventy-six years' good fight, would keep the faith until lowered beneath this hallowed ground to wait until the day when in his own flesh, he'll see his blessed Savior. Under his preaching and care, hundreds received the new birth into the family of God.

By faith, during the days of his ministry, the Pequea saints renovated the church with a bell tower to “send its cheerful welcome across the whole valley” in Jesus' name. By faith, George Schaum prayed: “May the Lord continue to bless his people on Pequea Mission, and may the church increase in influence and power until the glory of the Lord fills the whole house.” By faith, the saints of Pequea labored with the revival flames of the Consuming Fire (cf. Hebrews 12:29), and in the face of the devil's own counterfeit blaze the next year – the Great White Horse Fire of 1913 – their shield of faith refused to yield to any of Satan's fiery darts, but they resisted the devil, and so he fled (Ephesians 6:16; James 4:7). By faith, Pastor Kauffroth won the young Guy Mentzer to the Lord that same year; and by faith, Mentzer would serve the Lord and his saints for decades in this place, leading the Pequea charge to someday become self-supporting for the sake of the kingdom.

By faith, through the struggles of the First World War, the saints of Pequea labored long and waited for warmer days. By faith, as the years passed and a second World War came and went from the globe's great stage, the saints of Pequea opened their arms to the community, providing the church as classroom space for the local students. By faith, in spite of petty membership losses in the decades to come, the holy ones left at Pequea held fast to the work of the Lord, praying to see God's kingdom come to the Pequea Valley as in heaven above. And as revival fire fell again through the keen and joyful ministry of Pastor John Bergman, bearing precious souls into that kingdom, by faith the saints of Pequea gave “all praise and honor and glory” to God alone, the God who “tests the heart and is pleased with integrity” (1 Chronicles 29:17).

“And what more shall I say” (cf. Hebrews 11:32)? There's not time enough to tell about Dwight Baxter and Isaac Todd, Ruth Eicholz and Harry Gossert, Lester Howe and Ross Parmer, Norman Trago and Bill Huyett, Melvin Stehr and Sam Brady – “the world was not worthy of them” (Hebrews 11:38). By faith, they waited quietly upon the Lord; they acted justly, loved mercy, walked humbly with their God (Micah 6:8), and looked forward to the promises of the Lord of the Harvest, which are all yes and amen in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). These men and women, Albright's spiritual sons and daughters, the saints of Pequea, “were all commended for their faith,” but God has so much more in store “so that only together with us would they be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles; and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 11:39—12:2).

Now, we and all those who went before us are “foreigners and strangers in [God's] sight,” whose days on earth are “like a shadow, without hope” in ourselves (1 Chronicles 29:15). That's the lesson of the Reformation: for all our pomp and circumstance, we are and always have been “by nature children of wrath” until seized upon by the free grace of God (Ephesians 2:3). We've got no claim to it: we're foreigners to God. In ourselves, like a shadow appears and vanishes with the rotation of the earth, our generation would come and go and be forgotten. In ourselves, all this history would be dead. But the grace of God in Jesus Christ, apprehended by faith and faith alone, gives hope to the hopeless! And so the “generations long past” are not generations long gone. We and they – now “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven” – are like a brilliantly hopeful bonfire in Christ. That's the communion of saints: Death in the body can't extinguish the flame. They are not gone, only in glory. We have fellowship still with Luther, Wesley, Albright, Hambright, Metzgar, Kauffroth, and all the rest. And beneath the excited gaze of all these witnesses, we're called to run our race just like they ran theirs.

We're the saints of Pequea, standing in the same shoes, with the same mission and the same Shepherd. But do we burn as they burned? Is the Spirit that drove them on, living in us? Or have we forgotten the fire, sidelined the Spirit, meandered from the mission? The best – the only – way to honor the living legacy of all the saints is to stay fervently faithful to that flame, to the grace that raised them up and made them holy, to the power of God igniting them and us to bring the world to Christ and Christ to the world. The faithful God who was gracious to them is no different from the God who endures unchanging now! And that God lights us up “by grace … through faith” (Ephesians 2:8).

“O LORD, God of our ancestors,” God of our spiritual fathers and mothers, God of the saints of Pequea and of all the saints in every time and place, “keep these desires and thoughts in the hearts of your people forever, and keep their hearts loyal to you” (1 Chronicles 29:18). May we hold firm the fiery faith of our fathers and the love of our “Captain in [our] well-fought fight.” May it be said by our children and our children's children that we gathered here “all praised the LORD, the God of [our] fathers” (1 Chronicles 29:20), and that we were all aflame with the blazing love of the kingdom.

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