(Sermon preached at Leytonstone, 30/10/2016 – All Saints Day)
Daniel 7:1-3,15-18 and Luke 6:20-31
Tuesday is All Saints day, and our readings today take that as our theme. The Daniel reading tells us that the saints will receive the kingdom and possess it for ever. But what is a saint? And what is this kingdom? And what has our New Testament reading go to say about it?
First, what is a saint?
Someone who is especially good and religious?
Someone who has been recognised by the church as a saint – such as Mother Teresa, who was recognised by the pope as a saint last month?
Someone who has died and gone to heaven?
That’s not the way the Bible uses the word ‘saint’. In Daniel’s time the word ‘saint’ meant the true people of God – all those who were faithful to God. In the New Testament it meant the same – though those who were faithful to God were also faithful to Jesus. A saint in the New Testament is anyone who believed in Jesus and followed him.
Literally the word ‘saint’ means a ‘holy person’. ‘Holy’ means ‘set apart for God’. A holy place was somewhere set apart for God, where people met with God; a holy thing was something set apart for use in worshipping or serving God; a holy person is someone who has decided not to follow the crowd but to devote themselves to following Jesus and living for God.
This means that everyone who has decided to follow Jesus is a saint. They have set themselves apart from going the way of the world, and from going their own way, and are learning from Jesus how to live and what God wants them to do. They have come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died and rose again to open the way for them to live with God now and for ever. They are forgiven and accepted by God, and welcomed into his family. They are now people of God, whatever they were like before. They are not yet perfect; but they belong to God, and are already holy. They are saints. In the New Testament, every Christian is called a saint. When Paul wrote his letters to new churches, he would sometimes begin by saying, ‘From Paul, to the saints who are in Philippi’ (or wherever). If he was writing to this church, he would say, From Paul, to the saints who are in Leytonstone.’ He would be writing to all of you who follow Jesus, whether you’re a new Christian or someone who’s been following him for years and years. You’re all saints! Listen to what Peter says to us in his first letter: ‘You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.’ He’s saying that to all of us!
Back to Daniel. Daniel tells us that the saints will receive the kingdom and possess it for ever and ever. What kingdom is he talking about? What does he mean? If we are saints, what does that mean for us?
Daniel had received a vision from God that showed God’s plan for the future. There would be all sorts of empires; but the time would come when God would step in to history, and set up a king who would reign over the whole world, bringing peace and harmony for ever. The passage we read said that the saints, God’s people, would receive the kingdom – which probably means that they would be involved in governing and looking after it all, under God’s king. The New Testament tells us more. The king has already come – Jesus. He already has all authority in heaven and on earth. His kingdom at the moment is where he is reigning; and that kingdom is growing as more and more people acknowledge him as Lord, and choose to obey him and to make a difference by his Spirit to the people and communities around. There is terrible evil going on in the world, as we see in the news – Jesus warned us it would happen. But in spite of this, the good we do in Jesus’ name is worth while and his plans are working out. One day, when the time is right, he will come back, and all the prophecies that haven’t already been fulfilled will be fulfilled. The kingdom will come in all its fulness. God will deal with all evil, and make a brand new creation where all will be perfect, and there’ll be no suffering or death. We will reign with Christ – we will be raised up to the highest places! We don’t have to worry about letting God down – Jesus will be in charge, the Holy Spirit will be working through us, and no doubt there’ll be lots of angels around! We don’t know the details about when all this will happen; but we know it will happen one day.
Jesus mentions the kingdom of God in the second reading we had, from Luke’s gospel – the sermon on the plain, a shorter version of the sermon on the mount which we find in Matthew’s gospel. Here, as there, the sermon begins with beatitudes – ‘Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, weeping, persecuted.’ There are differences between the two sermons; the sermon on the mount in Matthew has eight beatitudes, whereas Luke has four beatitudes followed by four woes. In Luke the teaching is short and simple; Matthew tends to explain things a little more. So in this first beatitude, Luke says, ‘Blessed are the poor, because yours is the kingdom of God.’ Matthew explains it: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ Luke is not saying that everyone who is poor is going to receive the kingdom of God. Jesus is talking to the disciples, who had left everything to follow him; they were poor, as far as people could see; yet they were blessed, because the kingdom of God was theirs.
Notice how this compares with the verse in Daniel. Daniel told us the saints will receive the kingdom; Jesus tells us that his disciples, poor as they were, already had received the kingdom – yours is the kingdom of God. Daniel’s prophecy was already beginning to be fulfilled in the time of Jesus.
The other beatitudes in Luke have a similar message. Are we hungry? Are we sad? Are people mean to us because we are Christians? Jesus says we are blessed – we will be satisfied, we will be happy, we will be greatly rewarded for suffering for his sake. We can’t ignore the pain we experience here and now; but we mustn’t shut our eyes to the big picture, and fail to see the amazing blessings God has in store for us – blessings which far more than make up for all we may suffer on earth.
Luke goes on to show us the other side of the coin. ‘Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.’ This isn’t a threat, it is a wail of sadness – How dreadful for you who are rich! Jesus wasn’t condemning people for having wealth or food or happiness or popularity. After all, he was supported by well off people, he enjoyed a feast, he was full of joy, at times he was popular. The problem comes when we make those things our aim in life. If your aim in life is to get rich, or to be happy or popular, and you succeed, well, you’ve achieved your aim. That’s the end of it. You’ve had your reward; don’t expect any more from God. If you live for the good things of this world, don’t expect good things in the next.
You see, it matters what we choose to make our priority in life. Jesus said, “Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Why should we seek first God’s kingdom?
Not to get the blessings, but because we love God and want his kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth as in heaven.
How do we seek first God’s kingdom?
First, by making it our aim to get into it. Look at the risks asylum seekers and economic migrants are taking to try and enter the United Kingdom. They have risked their lives, and all for the sake of becoming citizens of a very imperfect country. There is a far better kingdom that we need to enter – the kingdom of God; and we need to be absolutely certain that we are in it, and we need to encourage as many others as we can to make the journey with us.
Second, we seek first God’s kingdom by learning to be good citizens of it here and now, making his will our priority in life. Jesus is Lord, above all human authorities. So our first priority is to let him, starting with ourselves and our relationship with him. It is easy to put other things first – wealth, security, happiness for us or our families. They can be good in themselves, and are to be enjoyed with thankfulness as gifts from God; but they must never be our priorities in life. They are side effects, not aims!
This is where I have a problem with the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’, which teaches Christians to expect these things from God: if we’re right with God, he will bless us, he will prosper us. The attraction is to use godliness as a means of gain – if you seek God’s kingdom he’ll bless you with wealth and health and happiness. Paul condemned the false teachers who taught such things, in his first letter to Timothy (6:5). Do you see why? They want the gifts more than the Giver! They are seeking God’s blessings first, and see God’s kingdom as a way to get those blessings. Jesus in this passage is saying, ‘How dreadful for you, if this is your attitude! Make God your number one priority, not yourself and your creature comforts!’
A saint is a disciple of Jesus. He is our Lord, our teacher, the model for our behaviour and attitudes. His Spirit is in our hearts, and we are to let his light shine through us. A little girl was asked what a saint was. She looked up at a stained glass window depicting various saints, and said, ‘A saint is someone the light shines through.’ May Jesus’ light shine through all of us.