Saints and their source
For all the saints in your congregation, today is a crucial moment to
name both the importance of the saints--that great cloud of
witnesses--and the source of saintliness, our “one instructor, the
Messiah” (Matt. 23:10).
At first glance, Jesus’ teaching in
Matthew doesn’t look very promising. He begins with the warning that we
should do what the scribes and Pharisees teach, but not what they do.
Preacher, beware the temptation to excoriate hypocrisy: it makes for
good pulpit theater, but it doesn’t minister grace. A warning can be a
word well spoken, but you must follow Jesus’ logic through.
logic comes in his radical claim to be the one teacher, the one
messianic instructor, the incarnate agent of God our Father (8-10). So
when Jesus says that “the greatest among you will be your servant,” he
isn’t inaugurating a reality-TV servanthood contest. The one speaking
is himself already the greatest servant, the servant of Yahweh (see
Isa. 53). He is the one who perfectly teaches what he does and does
what he teaches (Matt. 23:3); he is the one who lifts our heavy burdens
(4, see Matt. 11:28), lays them on his own shoulders and bears them all
the way to Golgotha.
Having seen Jesus at the center of this
gospel, we cannot see him alone—for he isn’t. His exaltation
by God (Phil. 2:9) includes all who serve in his name. It embraces all
who humble themselves in his spirit and exalts all who are his saints
(Matt. 23:12). We see around Jesus an exalted company of those who have
obeyed his teaching, followed his example and lived in humble service
of God and neighbor. So if you preach Matthew, don’t excoriate the
hypocrites. Instead, exalt the great servant and his serving saints.
track for today focuses on the final verse of the epistle, in which
Paul makes a bold three-fold claim about the word of God: it is
received from God, it is heard through others and it works in us. Each
of these is crucial for saints.
First, the word is received.
We’ve had trouble with this one from the beginning. God freely offered
a saving word to Adam and Eve, but they wouldn’t trust God and receive
the gift. Instead, they tried to sneak over when God wasn’t looking and
snatch it from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Why receive
a free and invaluable gift when you can try to steal a cheap imitation
instead? The saints show us a different way: they are receivers, not
Second, the word of God is always heard from others.
We don’t like this notion—we’d rather be Moses, having
face-to-face conversations with God at the burning bush and on the
mountaintop. Instead, we’re like the disciples on that first Easter,
forced to hear the resurrection gospel told by Mary and Joanna but not
liking it much. We want direct access to God; we don’t much want to
depend on our neighbor’s witnessing word.
The saints hear the
gospel from the lips of human witnesses, but they receive it “as what
it really is, God’s word” (13). (Like Saint Augustine, who received the
gospel word through the lived witness of Saint Monica and the preaching
witness of Saint Ambrose.) Saints are not originators; they are links
in a great chain of witness.
Finally, the word of God works in
us. Here is the place for the preacher to kindle confidence that the
Word—that is, Jesus Christ—actually empowers us to
“lead a life worthy of God” (12). How better to do that than to tell
the stories of the saints—including local saints whose lives
made your church, like Thessalonica, “an example to all the
believers...not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place” (1