This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 5th November 2017.
Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; Matthew 5:1-12
You know, all was once fine with me and the story beginning at Matthew 5:1, but after I attended theology college and studied the Synoptic Gospels (of which Matthew is the second), it almost makes me want to smirk. Like you, I have heard more than one sermon on “The Sermon on the Mount”, and I have seen more than one film where this episode from Jesus’ life is shown in cinematic form. You know how it rolls, the crowds gather, and Jesus stands atop a mountain declaring “Blessed art thou when…” and so forth. Even Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” features a scene where “blessed are the cheesemakers” is proclaimed to the impatient multitudes. But I ask you, how many people are recorded in Matthew’s gospel as having heard Jesus speak that day? Anyone? C’mon, I know that Matthew does not give an exact number, but it is inferred from the verses immediately before this passage. No? Four. Simon the brother of Andrew, Andrew, James, and John the brother of James, these are the disciples of Jesus as recorded by Matthew in 4:18-22. Matthew 5:1-2 plainly and in NRSV English says that after Jesus saw the crowds he went up the mountain: and after he sat down his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak and taught them… In other words, having seen the crowds Jesus withdraws and sits with his disciples, and of disciples we know of only four so early in the life and ministry of Jesus. Now I’m not here to change your theology, well not until I’ve been here a bit longer anyway, but it does make for an interesting idea. Jesus takes his dearest followers, his disciples, in other words his student-slash-apprentices away from the crowd to begin their lessons where Jesus can speak freely, and he won’t be interrupted.
Is that significant? Does it matter that there were only four men listening that day, or am I just being a smart-alec with my theology degree? Well, it’s probably a bit of both but I hope it’s more about the first. For me it is significant as we speak about the saints today that sometimes saints gather in small groups as well as large. Sometimes, as in Revelation 7 the saints are the whole crowd; sometimes, as in Psalm 34 one saint is alone and isolated; and sometimes, as in Matthew 5 the saints are a small group called aside from the crowd.
From Revelation we read today of the great multitude gathered in Heaven at the end of days (we spoke of that last week). They testify that salvation belongs to The LORD God enthroned, and to the Lamb. Heaven’s company responds by falling face down in worship and crying blessing and honour, according God and the Lamb with everlasting power and might. The one to whom this story is revealed is told that the multitude are the once living who have endured and come through: in other words, their testimony is the story of individual and corporate human lived experience. These are the conquerors, the victorious martyrs, the undefiled witnesses (Revelation 7:14b). Now they are home and safe, never again to be hungry or terrorised, and never again to weep. The fact that this is a multitude can and should encourage us as a small congregation that we are not alone. Like we prayed last week as a cluster for the ones and twos and tens of the persecuted church, so we can be encouraged even as a handful in the Latrobe Valley that we are not alone either. We are the heritage and current expression of two millennia, seven continents, and billions of lives of tradition and praise. Where, according to the commentator I read this week the church in John’s day represented 1 in 625 people in the Roman world, today we are 1 in 3 people in the whole planet. And as Revelation 7:9 assures, the diversity of the Church is our strength.
The solitary singer of today’s selected Psalm declares boldly that The LORD is worthy of praise because The LORD is the one who saved the distressed one when he cried out for salvation. The LORD protects and surrounds, and we can rejoice that it is so and feel safe and held in God’s love and protection. Live into the experience of God, it is all good under God’s hood. Taste and see is a double invitation and an example of God meeting with us as multiple intelligences. (The LORD can be learned of in various ways). No one will be permanently lost, and no one will be left totally and permanently harmed. Psalm 34 speaks about God, but it is addressed to the people hearing it; it is not addressed to God (although we can assume that God is earwigging in on the worship). So, unlike what was read to us from Revelation 7 the section of Psalm 34 set for us today is a testimony of praise and thanksgiving for deliverance, and an invitation to join. This is the testimony of a man who is living in a dark space yet is trusting that God will deliver him. This is the testimony of a man speaking to the shadows around him, “I am not afraid” he says, “because The LORD is faithful and mighty to save”. This Psalm for the alone, the “poor one” (Psalm 34:6) speaks encouragement and understanding to any who are alone and bereft and needing assurance. Again, that scripture records and the lectionary demands that we read the song of one man on the run should encourage us that we are not alone. Like the persecuted ones we can be encouraged that we are not unaided or forgotten even when we are isolated because God knows us each.
Blessed, “happy and to be envied” as one commentator put it, is the true disciple who displays all eight of the characteristics listen in Matthew 5:3-12. This list does not refer to eight different types of people who will be blessed, no, like the fruit of the spirit (which is one fruit with eight characteristics) this short list is to be the biography of every saint.
- Jesus says that when you recognise your need and turn it towards dependence upon God you will be granted all of this and more. Rely on God for provision and you shall lack no good thing, in other words. Does this verse refer only to some people in the Church? No, it is a promise for everyone, even if it is not the primary promise for every time. All Christians, all disciples, are supposed to rely on God and to bring our needs to God.
- When a woman or man of faith laments the state of the world she or he will be assured by God that the end is not “the end”. As we heard from Ecclesiastes 3 last month, everything has a season and mourning will give way to rejoicing over the new thing, and the promise that God’s goodness is everlasting.
- Disciples of today, like Joshua and Caleb of old, who are trustingly humble and submitted to God, but not submissive in the face of hardship, will inhabit the promises of God. All are called to persevere, and all who call on the name of The LORD will be saved.
- Those whose lives are lived fully conformed to the will of God will receive God’s filling response. Is there any Christian woman or man whose life is not required to be lived fully conformed to the will of God? Again no, so this is an expectation and a promise for everyone in the Church.
- Those who are gentle and patient, empathising and quick to render comfort to others will receive the same from God.
- Those who are single-minded in their loyalty towards God will see God, the subject of their desire.
- Those who work for friendship in the world will be recognised as having the nature of God and will be beacons of God’s own character.
- And those who persevere with these characteristics even though the world is against them will be welcomed by the God whom they championed. Jesus said that if the world takes issue with you then you’re probably on the right track as that is what happened to the true prophets of ages past. Today we might add that that is what happened to the Lord Jesus too, so why should we expect any different.
And to set your minds somewhat at rest, it does say in Matthew 7:28 that when Jesus had finished saying these things the crowds were astonished at his teaching, so yes, Jesus probably did speak to more than four men. Or, he spoke directly to four men, but he was overheard by the multitude.
And so, as we move toward the prayer life of the church and into communion this morning what have we heard that is relevant to All Saints Day and to all of you, saints of today? God is with you whether you are one of the majority, one of the minority, or alone and isolated. God desires that your character and life reflect the character and life of Jesus, and of Godself the compassionate and merciful one who is everlasting and entirely faithful. Perfection is not expected, only God is perfect, and even the saints of old and the ones whose names appear on special days or coloured glass had their downtimes. But where God is faithful the saints of God will be upheld, and the story of the welcome of Heaven extended to us and through us will be proclaimed in all the world.
Let the world be on notice: the saints are coming.