Artwork: Yoram Raanan, Wedding Night.
I speak to you in the Name of Jesus Christ, who is glorious in His saints. Amen.
I hope you had a Happy Halloween despite the restrictions this year. In our house, we still carved a few pumpkins and the girls dressed up in costumes and ate way too much candy.
Like them, I also enjoy Halloween for the chocolate, but more so because it is the beginning of our great celebration here today: All Saints’ Day, one of my favourite festivals in the entire Christian year.
As you may know, ‘Halloween’ is simply a contraction of ‘All Hallows’ Eve.’ The word ‘hallow’ means ‘saint,’ in that ‘hallow’ is just an alternative form of the word ‘holy’ (like in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘hallowed be Thy Name’). All Saints’ is the celebration of those who have been set apart and made holy in union with Christ Jesus by the work of the Holy Spirit within them.
In the Bible the day begins with the preceding evening, and so both in Jewish practice and in the Church calendar, the eve of a day is the actual beginning of the festival. Christmas Eve is most familiar one of these to us, but it is true for this occasion as well: All Hallows Eve precedes All Saints’ Day.
And it’s important that we be reminded of this basic structure of biblical and Christian time: the eve comes before the day, the darkness comes before the light. So that sense of hope is woven into the very fabric of how we keep time.
In our reading today from the Book of Revelation, we see the ultimate fulfilment of this hope: the triumphant saints celebrating their victory. Victory over what? Well it may seem strange and off-putting to us, but it is the Christian victory over the devil, the evil forces of the world, human sin and ultimately Death itself, the last enemy - and the way that all of these forces drag us down to live in fear and despair.
This is the reason behind all of the Halloween imagery of ghosts and demons and its customs of fun and frivolity: the demonic realm tries one last time to achieve victory, but is defeated, banished and mocked by the joy of the Kingdom.
Friends, I think it’s particularly important that we recover this sense of joy and victory especially in this year of pandemic, as we head into what our Prime Minister and others have said will be a ‘tough winter.’ In these cold, dark months, with the isolation and social distancing measures, our temptation will be to despair. That is why we need to be reminded that we are part of the communion of saints – the great company of those who have endured suffering in union with Christ and with Him have emerged victorious. Today we are assured that with all the saints in heaven and on earth - through faith, prayer, and obedience - we will be victorious in our struggle against despair. That is God’s promise to you.
The saints are those who have become lanterns of the light of Christ – a light which they shine forth into this dark world through their faith, hope and love. So today we do not eulogize the saints for their good character and great achievements. No, today we celebrate the fact that God’s promises were fulfilled in their lives; and if that was true for them, then it can be true for you too.
We tend to think of the saints as being larger-than-life figures – spiritual super-heroes who worked great miracles. And while it’s true that some of the saints did in fact do wondrous deeds through the power of God at work in them, to focus only on the extraordinary would be misleading and unhelpful, and maybe discouraging for us. It might even tempt us to despair a bit.
The saints were ordinary folks like you and me. They were simply people who had faith in God and held on to His promises. That’s all it takes to be a saint, because that’s all there really is in the end: God and His promises, which are fulfilled in Jesus. All the promises of God find their ‘yes’ in Him (2 Cor. 1:20).
Jesus makes some of those promises to you in today’s Gospel. He promises you nothing less than:
The saints are those who live according to these promises. They take hold of these things through their faith. The Bible says that Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1). So even though these promised blessings are not yet fully realized, faith clings to them now and lives in the certainty of their fulfillment. But it’s not only a future hope. We receive God’s blessings here and now.
And that is the word that occurs most frequently in today’s Gospel, the Beatitudes: Blessed. To be blessed means to have a deep and abiding joy and peace in your heart, which is based entirely on the assurance that you are loved and favoured by God.
The unique joy and peace of blessedness is not to be confused with mere happiness - it’s so much more than that. Happiness is a feeling that comes and goes depending on your life circumstances, whereas the joy and peace of blessedness remains regardless of whatever your life situation may be. So then it is certainly possible - and in fact normal - to have the joy and peace of blessedness without actually feeling happy – and without having the things the world tells us we need in order to be happy.
Take a look at the list of the kinds of people Jesus describes as being blessed here: the feeling of unhappiness is a familiar one for them, their life circumstances are difficult.
So let’s examine this list to find out why such people are blessed and how you can receive these blessings too.
First, Blessed are the poor in spirit. In other words, happy are those who know their need of God. That’s the first and most basic requirement to be a saint, to be a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. To be poor in spirit means that you acknowledge your need for God’s grace and help.
Second, Blessed are those who mourn. We usually associate mourning with death; and certainly those who grieve the death of a loved one are comforted by the good news of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead. But this Beatitude also refers to mourning more generally: it’s about acknowledging that you, other people and the world are hurting. It’s about carrying this suffering honestly. It’s about bearing with prayer and compassion the need of your neighbour as your own. It may seem strange to say this, but this kind of mourning and bearing others’ burdens is part of what it means to be free and fully alive, to see things from God’s point of view. Think of the opposite: to fail to mourn in this way is be closed off and callous and to pretend that the human condition is something it’s not.
So friends, say to God in prayer: Yes, I acknowledge my pain, the pain of others, the pain of the word - and I bring it to you, Lord, and trust that you will bring comfort.
Third, Blessed are the meek. The word 'meek' is an unfortunate translation. The very word sounds feeble, weak and wimpy. It most certainly does not mean that. To see what it means, we need to look to the person of Jesus because ‘meek’ is a word that He applies to Himself: I am meek and lowly of heart (Matt 11:29). Jesus says this as He invites people to come and lay their burdens upon Him. His meekness is where people will find rest. So true Christ-like meekness, it would seem, is the willingness to be open to others, not to push them away, but to share their suffering and vulnerability. Such a person is poor in spirit, not proud or self-centered, but centered on God, not anxious to keep control, willing to share suffering and bring comfort. That kind of welcoming stillness is what we’re talking about here – it allows others to find rest in your presence. This kind of meekness will inherit the earth because it welcomes the neighbour and the world.
Fourth, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness or justice. Deep down, we are hungry and thirsty not simply for our own survival, but for the wellbeing of the world God has made. What we need to be truly ourselves and truly human, as much as we need air and food, is the wellbeing of our neighbours. This has always been true, but hopefully it’s been driven home for us during this pandemic, when someone else’s illness can easily become your own! What we need to dwell securely and flourish is the wellbeing of our neighbours. Those who are poor in spirit; those who mourn over their own brokenness and that of the world; those who serve and receive others in Christ-like meekness, they are consumed with longing for the wellbeing of the neighbour.
Fifth, Blessed are the merciful – those who know they are forgiven by God and extend that forgiveness to others. Jesus illustrates this point by way of contrast in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35), where a man who is forgiven an astronomical debt refuses to forgive the small debts others owe him. It’s meant to be shocking, but how often do we do the same thing, harbouring bitterness and resentment and refusing to show mercy to others even though we have received incalculable mercy from God in Christ.
Sixth, Blessed are the pure in heart. Those whose hearts are singularly devoted to God and yearn to see Him and reflect His glory, they will indeed join that great company of the saints, stand before the throne and see God face to face.
Seventh, Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who receive God’s peace and share it with the world. They will dwell in peace and security under the shelter of God’s presence.
All of this so far sounds very nice. You can image Jesus’ audience at the Sermon on the Mount nodding along with everything He’s said thus far … and then He pauses and says: Blessed are the persecuted, those on whom suffering is inflicted. It’s like He hits the brakes and the tires squeal. Jesus doesn’t want to leave us with a deceptive happiness. This may seem to be a surprising conclusion, but it’s not so surprising when read in the context of Christ’s whole life, ministry, suffering, rejection, and death on the cross.
Those who suffer with Christ and for His sake are blessed in Him. Those who cling to God’s promises in the face of all world can throw at them demonstrate that there is another point of view. Our limited and often bleak and despairing human point of view is not the last word. Your own self-critical view, the view of your enemy, persecutor and slanderer, is not the last word. The person who can endure these things knows that God’s point of view is what matters. And we see God’s point of view in our wonderful reading from the Book of Revelation today: the saints triumphant bask in the glorious presence of the God who sees, who loves, who holds, and who will wipe away every year from our eyes.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus does not guarantee us an easy life. He guarantees us nothing but Himself and His promises which are ours in Christ Jesus, together with all His saints. For that, thanks be to God. Amen.
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24-25).