Sermon for All Saints Day 2020.
Rev.7.9-end, 1John 3.1-3, Matthew 5. 1-12
May I speak in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It is a special day for the Church today, a day when we celebrate the whole family of God, those gone before us to enjoy true fellowship with Him, face to face, and those of us who are still on our journey here on earth.
And today a lovely couple from our church family, Rita and Barry, are returning permanently to the UK. Jackie and I saw them to say Goodbye on behalf of you all and we will always remember them as Barry made this beautiful lectern for us. Please keep them in your prayers, as they send their love to all at this church.
Today’s scriptures are wonderful; in Revelation we see the great crowd of believers, clothed in white around the Throne, with Jesus in their midst, in front of the Throne. They sing of their salvation and the angels worship the Father. John says these people have come from the great tribulation and have suffered terrible persecution and death for their faith. This particular tribulation was probably the hateful persecution of Rome but in every era there is, for the people of Jesus, a time of tribulation. And since the last century, the rise in persecution and death for believers is greater than in any other period of history, even Rome. I love how Jesus, usually depicted sitting at the right hand of God, stands to welcome His faithful people, just as He stood to receive Stephen, the first person to die for Him.
Those three verses in John’s letter express his joy and wonder in actually being accepted as God’s very own children, how it is now nothing compared to what it will be when Jesus comes for us. We will be like Him because we will see Him as He really is, and because we believe this, we want to try and stay pure as Christ is pure.
Stay pure as Christ is pure, it seems so difficult for us living in this world. But Jesus wants us to understand that this isn’t a striving on our part, but a sense of being: as we allow the Holy Spirit to work within our hearts we are gaining a family likeness because of our relationship as God’s adopted children.
I worked most of my professional life in adoption and I loved it. I felt such respect and admiration for the people willing to take on the damaged and challenging children, who so desperately needed to belong to a family where they would be shown unconditional love. Remember the saying, “children need love most when they deserve it least!” But it worked both ways, and many of the children I placed and worked with, had few, if any, expectations of what mummy and daddy should be like. Their experiences had given them no positive role models and no understanding of what families are like. I worked for 5 years with a little girl. Her story was heartbreaking; at 7, she delivered her baby sister in the communal toilet, and cleaned up afterwards. A neighbour gave her a Kit Kat saying she was a clever girl. She was given a lot of KitKats.
A new baby is easy to place, an open book with no spoiled pages, ready to be written on. But Sammy was another story altogether and very difficult to place. I fought tooth and nail to keep them together, as separation from her baby sister would have been the final straw of distrust and distress. I worked with Sammy for nearly 18months preparing her for a forever family and worked with a wonderful couple ready to take both children. I asked Sammy what sort of person her new daddy should be, she had never known one male father figure. Her answer, “he must have hairy arms”. That was all, and dear Simon obliged with very hairy arms, although I think he was rather bemused when I asked to see them. For a mummy, someone who didn’t make her eat carrots and whose face she would see in the crowd on sports day, cheering her on. Sammy was very sporty. And Wendy fitted the bill to perfection. Such simple requests and such low expectations. But the placement worked and Sammy is now a mum herself and between her expectations and the acceptance and unconditional love of two people, they became a strong family unit. The girls took on their parents’ values and characteristics, shared memories and endless patience and understanding and they became all their parents would have wanted them to be....after years of hard work and heartache. They wanted to be like their mum and dad and to please them because Sammy, more than Charlene, knew what she had been saved from and how different her life had been before her forever family opened their arms, hearts and home.
Jesus shows us this in the beautiful teachings we call the Beatitudes. These were given to His close disciples in private teaching. To really understand what Jesus is teaching us today, we need a little understanding of what his disciples would have heard. Firstly, and so important, the 2 words Jesus uses for Blessed have a very special meaning. He is referring to a quality of spirituality that is already present. The blessedness is not seeking some reward, it is there, this joy, because it already exists through knowledge of God and His saving grace. Like John saying, we really are His children now.
This is quite hard to grasp! Adopted children have to learn so many new ways of living, thinking and being, attachments and a relationship are built from consistent and trustworthy meeting of their needs. It isn’t easy, the children rebel, they act out, they are very challenging. But the unconditional love offered builds the trust they need to feel a very real sense of belonging in the new family. Family characteristics grow in them and soon the joy of being a member of the family doesn’t need enticements, they belong and the joy is in that. And that is what these Beatitudes are reassuring those who love God and see Him as Father.
With this mind, it is worth a quick look through these familiar sayings. In the first, the disciples would have understood the word used by Jesus to mean the poor in spirit, which is the same word used by Isaiah, “those with a poor and contrite spirit”, humble, seeking and depending on their God. It isn’t the poor in terms of those living in poverty, but those who know within their hearts that their need of God is great. Like Jesus, He sought God humbly in all He said and did. For those who are poor in spirit, the Kingdom of God is already theirs, they don’t have to do or be anything more. They are God’s children, citizens of the Kingdom where God alone reigns as King.
Mourning in the Scriptures refers not only to those who are bereaved of a loved one but whose hearts are so compassionate and touched by the suffering of others, that they mourn the evil around them. It is a state of heart and one which attracts the comfort of their Father. Suffering itself can attract God’s wisdom, if the suffering of others is a source of concern and not for some dark interest in the evil in some people’s minds.
As a prophet, the land Jesus refers to in the third beatitude is the promised land, the inheritance of God’s people, of Israel itself and the disciples would have understood this from Psalm 37, which Jesus quoted. But Paul took this further to mean the world and some even further to mean the whole earth. So meekness is not being wishy washy or weak, Jesus takes the meaning of those who seek God and or neither too bold nor too timid, but who show appropriate anger and action over injustice inflicted on others. Meekness is strength and one wholly in accord with belonging in the Kingdom of God and receiving His promises and inheritance as His children.
The 4th “hungering and thirsting for righteousness” is already met with fullness. In the Middle East in Jesus day real thirst and hunger were commonplace, and to be thirsty with no hope of water is to be totally consumed with the desire to find water....or die. So it must be with seeking righteousness, all consuming. So what is being righteous or good? It is clear from the Lord in Micah, “to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God”. As God has treated us, we are to treat others.
Merciful people receive mercy. For Jesus mercy is the basis of a relationship of compassion and forgiveness. It isn’t a pleading against an unwilling conqueror, it is an exchange of love. We forgive because we are forgiven and that is part of our relationship with our Father. And with others.
The Jewish leaders were obsessed with ritual cleanliness; there are over 200 pages of instructions for pious Jews. Like with this virus, wash your hands! Jesus knew that ritual cleansing was important but He stressed purity of the heart. For Jesus the heart meant feelings, mind and will and with a pure heart, you can know God. Knowing God is to have an intimate relationship with Him.
Peace in the Bible includes the finest of loving relationships , family to community and nations, not just a ceasefire in war. Peace includes good health and the peace of God which passes all understanding is the gift received by peacemakers. They are called Sons of God. Family again, not pacifists or peaceful but peace makers.
In the last two sayings Jesus links persecution with being His follower and reassures His disciples that any sacrifice they are willing to make is because they belong to Him, His spirit is in them and they are part of His kingdom.
These teachings are telling us the characteristics of belonging in God’s adoptive family. Obedience to His rules and bearing His values, doing His will is inclusive to all. In adoption, damaged and broken children with little idea of trusting relationships or what is expected of them, learn from patient parents. It can take years, some break downs and many tears. But when there is commitment on both sides, we can learn new ways, we can learn obedience and compassion. Our dependence on others is fundamental to family life and Jesus is showing His disciples, and us, that this is how to grow as a child of God. He has provided everything we need, just as adoptive parents provide everything needed for their new family. He shows unwavering love and compassion, patience and forgiveness. Sammy learned a whole new way of living, thinking and integrating into not only her new family but her local community. She was accepted and she flourished, with a few hiccoughs! We can do the same. All Saints is about the whole family of God, remembering and caring for each other. This pandemic has made many feel isolated or alone, we aren’t, and never will be as long as we claim the parenthood of God as our own, in this life and the next.