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November 6, 2005 (All Saints Sunday)—“Blessed Are Those Who Are Left Behind”
Pastor David Barber
Matthew 5:1-12; Revelation 7:9-17
Sisters and brothers--fellow saints of God--grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
During the last several years, a number of books have been written concerning the final days of our world. Among the most popular for a certain segment of society are the novels in The Left Behind series written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.
In fact, just recently a one-day site license was issued to some evangelical churches so that they might show the most recent movie edition in this series--World At War.
Last week at our Professional Leader's Conference in California, we heard Dr. Barbara Rossing deliver a stinging indictment against this movement. She refers to it as "The Rapture Racquet," which we studied last year during our Sunday morning adult class.
This is big business. 20 million books have been sold--some of them on a best-seller list for weeks with 100 million dollars in annual revenue. The message, however, is terribly frightening, and it gives an image of Jesus that is contrary and destructive to almost everything we preach and teach.
Jesus will return as an avenging warrior to attack his enemies so that their eyes melt in their heads, their tongues disintegrate, and their flesh drops off. This is what will happen to the ones "left-behind"--to the unbelievers.
But the righteous and those "born-again" will be snatched away and escape all of this tribulation and horrific suffering, and they will be saved. More than likely--according to their criteria--we are not among the righteous and the "born-again." So we, too, will be left behind to experience the wrath and the destruction of the avenging warrior Jesus.
Dr. Rossing mentioned an editorial by Nicholas Kristoff, which said in part, "If this were a Muslim saying these things about non-believers or non-Muslims, we'd be all over them." But instead we're buying these books by the millions--and this is scary.
What we're dealing with here is two very different, distinct, and competing Christian narratives--although it's difficult for me to even call the one a Christian narrative.
On the one hand, we have a narrative that describes Jesus as a militant and vindictive warrior and the world as God's nightmare. We have a narrative that has highjacked Jesus as a messenger of hope to an angry Jesus who will slay the enemy with the sword.
On the other hand, we have a narrative that tells us that God is coming not to leave the world and the undesirables behind but to heal the world. God is not coming to crucify the world, for he was crucified on a tree for the sake of the world.
God points us to the earth, to the events of daily life with all its sin, sorrow, and pain. Love and healing--not Armageddon and war--is the message that people of faith must keep lifting up. God loves the world and God never leaves the world or the people of this world behind. This is God's vision and God's dream.
This is certainly true in our Gospel reading for today. It's the familiar words that come to us in the form of the Beatitudes. God's favor is granted not to the born-again or the ones that society considers upright and successful.
God's favor is granted to those whom society regards as the ones left behind: the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourners, the merciful, those hungering for justice, the purehearted, the makers of peace, and those mistreated for the sake of justice.
In this narrative, God is not off in some far-away place with those who have been snatched away. God is in the midst of us--in the lives of the left behind--interceding with overflowing grace. In fact, if we want to see the face of God we need to stoop low where we will see God in the faces of the needy ones.
In a Jewish story the old rabbi said, "In olden days there were men who saw the face of God."
"Why don't they any more?" a young student asked.
And the old rabbi replied, "Because, nowadays no one stoops so low."
According to this rabbi, it is the lowly--those stooped low and the left-behind ones who see the face of God. And according to Jesus in the Beatitudes, it is the lowly--those stooped low--who are blessed by God.
In antiquity the word for blessed had a number of different meanings. It could refer to the gods who had achieved a state of happiness and contentment in life. They lived in some other world away from the cares and problems and worries of ordinary people.
The word for blessed could also refer to the "dead." The blessed ones were humans, who, through death, had reached the other world of the gods. They, too, did not have to endure the tribulations of this life.
Finally, in Greek usage, the word for blessed came to refer to the wealthy and the upper crust of society. Their status in life helped them to "leave behind" all the cares and the problems of the lesser folks and those who were stooped low.
However, when the word for blessed was used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it took on another meaning. It referred to the results of right living. If you lived right, you were blessed in terms of earthly, material things--a good wife, many children, abundant crops, and many of the things we associate with the "good life."
But Matthew uses this word in a totally different way. It's not the elite who are blessed. It's not the rich and powerful who are blessed by God. Rather, Jesus pronounces God's blessings on the lowly, on those stooped low, and all those "left-behind" in our society.*
Jesus is not an avenging warrior, but as the gentle lamb who was slain, he turns it all upside-down. The blessed ones in God's kingdom are those who are at the bottom of the heap of humanity.
These are not intended to be entrance requirements for the kingdom of God. The exhortation for this morning is not, "All right everybody, let's get those tears a-flowing," or "let's all become meek, then God will let us in."
But rather, they describe the nature of God's rule. The people who benefit when God rules are those who have no cause for hope or joy. The people who benefit when God rules are those who have been denied their share of God's blessings in this world.
God is for all these folks. Jesus lifts up the worth of those who feel valueless and have no place to turn. For those at the end of their rope, God is their only hope.
Often times, this hope from God in Jesus Christ, comes through you and through me. It comes through the people of God. Indeed the last Beatitudes declare that the blessed ones are those who partner with God to bring to reality the blessings promised to others.
Blessed are the merciful--the pure in heart--the peacemakers--and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness. These folks participate with God in the work of justice and righteousness for those who have been denied.
What is ironical, if this becomes a way of life for us, we may find ourselves in the same position as the meek, the sorrowful, and the poor in spirit. But this is who we are--and this is what we're called to do.
You may have heard this story about a quiet man who would pray in the Ganges River every morning. One day after praying, he saw a poisonous spider struggling in the water and cupped his hands to carry it ashore. As he placed the spider on the ground, it stung him.
The next day the same thing happened. On the third day, the kind man was knee deep in the river, and sure enough, there was the spider, legs frantic in the water.
As the man went to lift the creature yet again, the spider said, "Why do you keep lifting me? Can't you see I will sting you every time because this is what I do?" And the kind man cupped his hands about the spider and he replied, "But this is what I do."
And so it is with us. This is what we do as followers of Jesus. We work for mercy. We work for peace. We are filled with single-hearted passion for God and the ways of God.
The cross of Jesus tells us that suffering and pain are part of the very nature of God. The cross tells us not to run away or to be raptured away from the hurt and pain in the lives of others or even in our own lives.
Look squarely at your own poverty and helplessness. Don't turn your face from the poverty and helplessness of your neighbor. See it as a means through which God is blessing you and bringing you salvation.
Don't be afraid to enter into the burdens of others--sharing their hurt in time of need. Let yourself feel with those who suffer from oppression, and let yourself respond with compassion and help.
As we open ourselves to the agonies of death that fill our lives and the lives of those around us, Jesus comes to us and calls us blessed.
As we face our own fear, our failures, and the helplessness that is within each of our lives--and as we stand with others and feel their poverty, their sorrow, and their emptiness--Jesus comes to us with God's abundant and overflowing goodness.
In Jesus we are never left behind, but gathered together with all the saints of God in God's loving and gracious arms forever.
*Discussion of ancient usage of the word "blessed" comes from Brian Stoffregen, "Exegetical Notes." (Return to text)
Copyright © 2005 David Barber
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