Text: Matthew 5:1-12, Revelation 7:9-17 X All Saints’ Day
The Blessèd Saints
In the name of the Lamb whose blood washes our robes and makes them white, dear friends in Christ: You probably recognize today’s Gospel reading as the opening of our Lord’s famous Sermon on the Mount. Known as the nine Beatitudes, these short sentences are considered some of the most sublime and inspiring words ever spoken. They’ve given immeasurable comfort and hope to countless Christians throughout the ages. And yet … and yet I can’t help thinking that at least some of the people who were there and actually heard Jesus first speak these words must have thought he was completely out of his mind.
Why do I say that? It’s because these sayings of Jesus run counter to just about everything we think is good and right and fair. And I think it may be that we’ve heard them so many times that we fail to appreciate how startling and opposed to common sense they really are. And so if you’ll indulge me, I’ve taken the liberty of updating the first part of each one of the Beatitudes in order to help convey the full shocking impact of what Jesus is saying to us. Doing that, they might sound something like this:
“Blessed are those with low self-esteem, who are filled with a sense of self hatred. Blessed are those whose hearts are overflowing with sorrow on account of the losses they’ve suffered, who feel crushed with grief. Blessed are the poor schmucks who allow themselves to be pushed around, who let others rob them of their rights. Blessed are those are overcome with the sense that no matter how hard they try, they can never do anything right – and who feel guilty, spiritually unclean, and ashamed of themselves. Blessed are the soft-hearted saps who refuse to hold others accountable for their evil actions and who never think to get even with the people who sin against them. Blessed are the naïve, the folks we call dupes and suckers, because they’re so guileless themselves that they never suspect that unscrupulous people are trying to take advantage of them. Blessed are the fools who don’t know enough to stay out of other people’s fights – who interpose themselves between parties in conflict and end up getting hit from both sides. Blessed are those who are always being punished for doing what is right – and who are so dumb that they keep doing it despite abuse they receive. And blessed are you when others belittle and insult you, when they afflict you and make your life miserable, and when they slander your reputation with all kinds of lies because you’re a follower of Jesus.”
Hmm … somehow I don’t think that if one of us were found in any or all of those circumstances, he or she would be feeling particularly blessed. I suspect too that if you were undergoing some of the afflictions described in the beatitudes, and if I, as your pastor, tried to comfort you by saying, “Aw, c’mon. Cheer up. You’re not looking at this right. Jesus says that you’re really being blessed”, the response I’d get (right before you threw me out on my head) would be something like, “Yeah? You call this a blessing? Well do me a favor and ask the Lord to stop blessing me so much! This kind of blessing I can do without!” And that only makes sense. None of us wants to be miserable, or feel bad, or appear stupid, or be punished unjustly or for simply believing in Jesus.
So what exactly does Jesus mean, then? How can he call upon us to rejoice and be glad in such appalling circumstances? In answer, it’s important to note that the afflictions he describes are not blessings in and of themselves; rather they are part of a pathway that leads to the blessings he names. In other words, the bad or difficult circumstances are the preconditions that set you up for receiving the real blessings of the Lord. Take the first one for example. Who gets the kingdom of God? Not the proud and mighty. Not those who imagine that their spirits are invincible, and who think they can do it all by themselves. No, the person who inherits the kingdom is the one who knows that he is spiritually destitute, that he has nothing to offer God. He has nothing of his own to claim as worthy or meritorious. All he has is sin—and he knows it and it terrifies him; and therefore he’s prepared to trust in the salvation that God has provided for sinners through Jesus Christ, his Son, who gave himself to death in order to save sinners.
Or take the second: Who receives comfort? Not the person who avoids thinking of death and who refuses to confront and deal with it when it comes to someone who is close; rather it’s the person who is genuinely heartbroken by his losses and who therefore seeks the answers to the really important questions: the ones that ask about life, and death, and life in the hereafter – and who by such searching comes to know Jesus, the Lord of life who conquered death, and the true comfort only he can give.
Or let’s look at a couple of the others: Who is filled with righteousness? Not the person who thinks he’s doing pretty well on his own, who considers the reading on his righteousness gauge to be around ninety-five percent full—because he’s just fooling himself. Rather it’s the person who realizes that his rusty righteousness tank is completely empty and full of holes. That’s the person ready to be filled with the righteousness of Christ that comes by faith. And who will be called a son of God? Not the guy who’s only looking out for number one and who builds a protective wall of isolation and security around himself so that he never acts to do good for others and try to improve their relationships. No, the person who will be called a son of God is the one who acts like God’s Son who gave himself to suffering and death in order to bring peace to the greatest broken relationship of all: the shattered relationship of the holy God with lost and rebellious mankind.
The same is true of all the statements of the Beatitudes: something we would consider negative – something we would normally wish to avoid at all costs – ends up leading to an extremely positive outcome. It’s the Lord’s way of doing his gracious will in this fallen world of ours. And though on the surface it strikes us as counter-intuitive, when you think about it, it really does make a lot of sense. I mean as a general rule, if everything were just fine and dandy all the time, if everything in this world just kept on coming up roses for you even in your sinful and fallen state, why would you ever desire something different? Why seek the Lord and his righteousness if there were nothing to be gained by it? Seen in this light, we understand that one of the kindest things the Lord ever did was to place his curse upon the earth on account of fallen man. He did it so that we would see that life without a proper relationship with him is no life at all. He did it to lead us back to him – just as the afflictions the prodigal son suffered eventually led him back to the security and comfort of his father’s house. People often ask why it is, if God is both good and all powerful, does he allow such suffering to go on in this world? This is a big part of the answer.
And with this in mind, we who have this understanding should look at our lives in this world in this life in a completely different way. First, we’ll want to reject altogether the notion that pervades our culture that the sole purpose of this present life is to squeeze every possible bit of pleasure out of it. It’s the overarching imperative that says to live it up while you can. Grab for the gusto. Do what makes you happy with whomever it is that makes you happy at the moment – changing the latter as often as necessary to maximize your enjoyment. And when, due to age or disability, the quality of your life becomes disagreeable, end it. Though appealing for the short term, perhaps, the long term consequences of living with such a philosophy are disastrous. And forever is a long time to regret one’s foolish mistakes.
Second, seeing things in this light, we’ll accept the truth that the hardships and trials of this present age are part of God’s gracious plan to rescue us from sin, bring us back to him, and keep us there with him where we ought to be. And so, while we certainly won’t enjoy the hardships and afflictions when they come – for they’ll still hurt and make life difficult – we won’t allow them to fill us with anger and resentment. Instead, we’ll humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand, accepting his good and gracious will, and trust that he knows what is best for us.
And we’ll also see that there’s more going on here than the Lord just preserving us by means of trial and tribulation. He’s actually shaping us and preparing us for the life to come. You might think of it sort of like the grueling practice and drill football coaches use to make the members of their teams better ball players. It takes long weary, hours, and hard and often painful work; but the result is stronger, more disciplined, and more qualified players. In the same way the Lord uses difficult circumstances to shape and enhance our spirits. Each one of you can probably point to a painful episode in your life that made you a better or more compassionate person. The point is that the Lord is doing that to us all the time, even when we’re not aware of it. And his goal is to conform us to the image of his Son – an image we will bear for all eternity. This work is underway even now. So he must give us opportunities to suffer unjustly and to turn the other cheek; because that what Jesus did for us. And he must put us in circumstances in which we’re able to do what’s kind and good even though people may take advantage of us, and to show love and forgiveness even to our enemies, and to play the role of peacemaker, and in general to repay good for evil; because that what Jesus does for us every day. And to the extent that we fail to be Christ-like when such circumstances arise, we can see how far short we are of the perfection he has in mind for us, and how much farther we have to go. And to the extent that we succeed (hopefully they’ll be some of that), we’re able to show the world the love and forgiveness that Christ has worked in us – and that in turn may help change others, or at least make them more receptive to hearing Christ’s Word.
And that’s important because, finally, this age in which the Lord is using trial and tribulation to serve his greater purposes is only temporary. It will come to an end. And while we may take comfort in that and look forward to the day that it does end, we should also be cognizant of the need to use the time we have wisely. The more Christ-like we are made now, the more effective witnesses we will be for him. And that in turn will result in more people coming to know the saving truths of Christ our Lord. So, in a sense, we ought really to welcome and embrace the hardships God sends now in this brief age, for by them we become better tools in his hands to do the work of his kingdom – and that will be a blessing for others as well.
To summarize, then, the Beatitudes of Jesus describe the Christian life as what might be thought of as the ultimate case of delayed gratification. Today’s afflictions result in tomorrow’s blessings. Not that there isn’t pleasure and joy to be had in this life; but even at their best they are only poor pathetic shadows of what is to come. So we endure the tribulations of this life in faith and hope knowing that by them the Lord is accomplishing his will. And we set our hearts on the true and lasting blessings that are above – a brief a glimpse of which we get in today’s reading from St. John’s Revelation. There the white robed saints stand around the throne of the Lamb. They’ve come out of the great tribulation. For them suffering of this world is but a distant memory. They finished their courses in faith. And now they sing the endless praise of him who redeemed them with his blood. They are truly the blessèd saints of God. And one day you will stand among them by abiding in faith and hope in Christ Jesus, to whom be all praise, honor, and glory, now and forever. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!