Matthew 05:01-12 / All Saints / 06 November 2011 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
In the life of the believer, there is both the now and the not yet. What is seen is now, what is not yet is not yet seen. There is the now of faith and the not yet of sight. All Saints Day is about the now and the not yet. The now of this life and the not yet of the life to come.
In the Revelation, St. John was given to see what is not seen, a kind of sneak peek into the heavenly realms to perceive what no eye has seen and to hear what no ear has heard. What he heard was the number 144,000 – a perfected Israel. Twelve times twelve times a thousand. A perfected 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of an Israel not known in the old testament. The tribe of Dan is missing. The rabbinic tradition held that the anti-messiah would come from Dan. In Dan’s place, the tribe of Joseph. In OT Israel, Joseph is represented by his two grandsons. But in this heavenly Israel, Joseph now takes his place with his brothers. The Israel that John saw is no Israel that ever was or ever will be in this life. That’s what John heard.
What John saw was a great multitude that no one could number. This is how that perfected Israel looked to John. People from every nation, tribe, people, and language of the earth. An inclusive Israel. A catholic Israel. Standing before Christ the Lamb, waving palm branches in an eternal feast of tabernacles, crying out with one voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And with them angels and elders and the four living ones who represent the whole created order worshipping God with the perfected seven-fold praise: “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”
The question that surrounds this vision is “Who are they?” Who is this perfected Israel? Who is this great white-robed multitude of worshippers with palm branches? And the answer: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
For John’s hearers, they were their fellow believers who died confessing Jesus to be Christ and Lord. Members of the seven congregations of Asia Minor who were suffering persecution, hardship, even death for the Name of Jesus. The vision is intended for comfort. They died in great tribulation, but they are fine. Safe. Sheltered by God Himself, shepherded by the Lamb whose blood cleanses them. Every sadness and sorrow is ended for them. Every tear has been wiped away by the hand of God.
And yet for John’s readers, for those who received this strange letter we call The Revelation”, the time of tribulation continues, as it continues for us today. We need only think of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, a 34 year old Christian minister imprisoned in Iran and being pressured to renounce Christ and embrace Islam or face death under Islam’s anti-apostasy laws. His parents are Muslims, making him a de facto Muslim. And he is not alone, especially in the Middle East. And he won’t be the last in a region of the world that forgets its Christians and the fact that our Lord HImself walked on middle eastern soil.
Don’t think we are immune or safe in a secular America. It’s not about personal safety, nor is it about political clout. It’s about the cross of Jesus, and the suffering that necessarily comes with the confession of His Name. When Jesus stood on His mountain to teach His disciples, He was preparing them for the realities of living in the in-between time of the now and the not yet. When he pronounced His nine benedictions over His disciples, they are all couched in the form of now and not yet.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, those who are now poor before God, who have nothing to offer God, who are beggars before Him are blessed. But wait, there’s more: The kingdom of heaven will be theirs. Now they are poor, then they will inherit the kingdom.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Now the disciple mourns, living under the weight of sin, of death, of suffering, of loss. But wait, there’s more. They will be comforted. But not now. Now they must mourn and grieve with hope for the day when God will wipe away every tear from their eye.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Now is the time of meekness, humility, lowliness, of turning the other cheek, of blessing the enemy, of enduring harship. But wait, there’s more: They shall inherit the earth. Not now. Now they must endure.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Why do they hunger and thirst? They don’t have any righteousness. They can’t cook up any righteousness for themselves. This is precisely the same as the “poor in spirit.” They are hunger, thirsty beggars. Now. But wait, there’s more. They will be filled. Their emptiness will be filled, but not now. Now they must feel the pangs of hunger and thirst for a righteousness that only God can supply.
“Blessed are the merciful. Now. Who give without gain. Who look with compassion on the other and not to themselves. But there’s more. They will receive mercy. More than they could have ever given, they will receive. But not yet.
“Blessed are the pure in heart,” who seek God and HIs kingdom which they do not now see with the promise, “they will see God.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” those who stand in the breach and take the crossfire, those who reconcile enemies and bring shalom, they will be called sons of God, just like the Prince of Peace who is blessing them.
“Blessed are the persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Seriously. The persecuted are “blessed.” Now. But wait, there’s more. “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” But not yet.
Then the ninth benediction, and it’s as if Jesus turns His eyes and looks directly at you. This last has you in the crosshairs. “Blessed are you.” Yes, He’s speaking to you. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad.” Yes, you heard that right. Rejoice and be glad when you’re treated like that pastor in Iran. Remember that, Glenn. You’re now a marked man, marked by the cross as one redeemed by Christ the crucified. You can expect trouble.
And I say this to everyone. To the person coming back to church after a long absence. To the curious seeker looking for something that he or she does not know that will fill that empty void. To the person coming to Holy Baptism. You will be blessed. That is sure. But that blessing will come hidden in, with, and under trouble. Just as Christ appears in this world weak and crucified, so His church appears in this world weak, persecuted, deluded losers.
Don’t expect this life to be easy. Don’t expect a divine bailout for your problems. Don’t expect a miracle lurking around every corner. Expect to feel your spiritual poverty, expect to mourn, expect to be treated like a doormat by this world, expect to be persecuted in response to your mercy and peacemaking and purity of heart. They don’t give Nobel Prizes for being a disciple of Jesus. Oh, the world will praise the likes of Mother Theresa for her work among the poor and leprous of India, for her renouncing her rich upbringing and living a life of poverty. But not for her confession of Jesus Christ has Lord and Savior.
The prophets before you were persecuted. Nearly every prophet of the old testament died a martyr’s death, some at the hands of their own people. All but one of the apostles, John, were martyred. Expect trouble, now. In fact, be suspicious when things are going peaceful and well. It’s the quiet before the storm. But know this: “Great is your reward in heaven. Yours is the kingdom of heaven. You will inherit the earth. You will receive the righteousness you hunger and thirst for. You will receive mercy from a merciful God. You will be called sons of God. Yours is the kingdom of heaven.
Those who have gone the way of faith ahead of us, who have died in the faith, now have all this in a way we do not yet have. Their now is our not yet. And yet, in a wonderful and mysterious way, we are united with them in Christ. They and we together worship the Lamb whose blood washes our sins and makes our robes of righteousness white as new fallen snow.
We had joy of a Baptism today. Another martyr has been made by God. Yes, a martyr. Baptism is your death certificate. Or don’t you know that those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized in His death? In Baptism, God declares you dead. Dead to Sin, dead to Death, dead to the Law. But alive to Him in Christ Jesus. Death is simply catching up with your Baptism. And the not yet of faith becomes the eternal now of life in God.
In the name of Jesus,