Eternal Happiness 2

This is the text of the message I prepared for Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 9th February 2020.  It is modified from the message I prepared for Kaniva in that Serviceton was having its Sunday School picnic, an outside event with lots of children present.  This message was in no way dumbed-down, but it has been childed-up.

Psalm 112:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1:-12; Matthew 5:13-20

A lot of the Bible is made up of what people who speak Hebrew call “Midrashim” (eww, that sounds like a red and sore tummy!) and in English we call commentary or interpretation. Usually this is a bit like a sermon where a teacher (rabbi) takes a Bible reading and then explains what it means and gives an example about its usefulness for his or her disciples. So maybe Psalm 112 which we looked at today is a midrash of Psalm 111:10 where it says [t]he fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice them have a good understanding, because we read in Psalm 112:1, [h]appy is [the one] who fears the LORD, the one who delights in his commandments. We can ask what is so happy about these people and what blessings come on them, and then we hear the answer that their children will be winners, happy and shiny for starters. In other words the children of God’s people have good reputations. But even in their own lives the people who respect God will have God’s grace and compassion, because even in darkness light dawns says Psalm 112:4. Things are good if you behave like God behaves and you stick with God even in the hard times. People who do this will be generous and other people will think and say good things about them.

Well that sounds good, but what exactly are these nice people doing? How is their religion helping them to be good people? I don’t think it’s actually about trying to obey the Ten Commandments like rules, but about realising that they are good advice: so it’s not about trying very hard to obey God because you’ll get a smack if you don’t, but about being grown up about it and thinking that these rules are actually good anyway. If you are polite and friendly then people will treat you well and you’ll have lots of friends; if you’re a bully or a sneaky person then people won’t like you and you’ll be left out, whether you are religious or not. Try to act like Jesus, behave kindly, and you will be popular with the people who like kindness, and hopefully people will think nice things about you. That doesn’t mean that you can just be nice and ignore God’s word, but it means if you focus on being nice and acting like Jesus acted then you’ll be following God anyway. So it’s not about trying not to be naughty, because you should try, but it’s more about always trying to be good, because if you focus on being good all the time then you won’t be naughty anyway.

In the next few weeks we’re going to be reading about Paul and how he tried to gently teach the Christians in Corinth to act more like Jesus, less like snobby religious people or puffed up smarty-pantses. If you look at 1 Corinthians 2:1-3 you can see that Paul says, “you all know that I am actually quite clever, but I tried not to act like a smarty-pants when I visited you. My whole message was about Christ who lives the same way God lives, even though Jesus was a real man, and so the best way for Christians to live is to try to live like Jesus, and that’s it.” I really hope you’ve heard me say that too. I know I’ve told you that I went to four university degrees, but I told you that not because I’m a snob about being clever but because when I lived my life I spent a lot of time at school, so that’s part of my story and who I am. But my sermons aren’t supposed to be about how clever Damien is, no what I want you to learn is that Jesus is nice, God is like Jesus, and God wants us to act like Jesus in the world. Be nice: that’s the midrash for you about the whole Bible. It’s true that the Bible says other things, my midrash doesn’t include the message about salvation, but I have just told you everything you need to know about being a disciple. Act like Jesus, because when you look at Jesus you is actually see what God is like.

So, let’s see what Paul actually says here. We jump in at 1 Corinthians 2:6 where Paul begins to use the wisdom he has to speak to clever people on their level. The message of the gospel is very simple, God loves you and you should love each other. It sounds easy, but those words are wiser than anything Professor Wisey McWiseface ever wrote or said. “Clever as they are,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:8, “they don’t get it.” Jesus, who was God as a person, taught that people who want to be most like God should be loving and generous, and the world’s leaders killed him because he said it. There is a word for that sort of behaviour and “wise” is its opposite, says Paul.

When we look at 1 Corinthians 2:9-10 we can see that God has such brilliance in store for the people who are like Jesus that it makes the Wisey McWisefaces upset. But Paul keeps going and he says in 1 Corinthians 2:11 that they are the foolish ones, because God says in 1 Corinthians 2:11b-12 “let me tell you who you really are and what you are really like.”

In the words of Jesus which are in Matthew 5:1-12 Jesus describes eight groups of people that he calls “blessed”. In one church, I used to belong to our pastor used to define “blessed” as “happy and to be envied”; I think that fits very well. People who follow Jesus and act like him are happy, and they are to be envied. We can read in Matthew 5:13-16 where Jesus said his disciples are like salt and light on the earth, in a looking and tasting example of God. Our job as disciples, like it was for Jesus personal friends 2000 years ago, is to live a life that reminds people what God is really like. When we think about the people Jesus was talking about we can see that God responded to them by recognising how they were:

Matthew 5:3 declaring their need for spiritual insight;

Matthew 5:4 declaring their need for spiritual comfort;

Matthew 5:5 declaring their need for spiritual strength;

Matthew 5:6 declaring their desire to see the way of God become universal in the world;

Matthew 5:7-11 declaring their love for God and the ways of God even when they are actively and viciously opposed.

Jesus promised that Heaven would come to you (and you would go to Heaven) because if you are being treated like the prophets of old then you’re probably showing people God’s life like they did, and also making the world think about its lack of goodness. Keep bringing up God-colour and God-flavour wherever your life is: talk about how the Ten Commandments are promises that God ill lift you up and keep you safe. We can say that Jesus is teaching a midrash about religion here: “everything is valid” he says, “as long as you think about it in the right way.” And what is the right way? Well behave like God does, with kindness and love. In Genesis 1 it says that all people were created in the image and likeness of God, so just go back to being normal like God made you with your behaviour and your attitude. Be generous, be wise about God, act with righteousness because if you’re being attacked it’s only because your example is making the wicked upset about their own wickedness. The way the world does things is not normal says the Bible: it’s not normal to the stingy, conceited, or self-interested, it’s normal to be like Jesus. So, be yourself, the person God made you to be.

Amen.

Carna Saints! (All Saints’ Day A)

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 4:18-22Matthew 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.

Amen.