Season after Epiphany 2017
LET US WALK IN THE LIGHT OF THE LORD
Blessed Are… Click here for audio
Micah 6:6-8, Matthew 5:1-12
Pastor Donna Buell
Jesus’ early ministry “was getting great buzz” as they say in Hollywood. He had been traveling around the region, teaching and preaching and healing, he was drawing huge crowds, and his fame was spreading far and wide. If Jesus were on the scene today he’d be swarmed by paparazzi. Media consultants and publicists would be pressuring him into a book deal with movie rights, and describing a mass marketing campaign complete with t-shirts, mugs, and magnets, websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts, as well as visits to all the morning and late night talk shows and even Saturday Night Live.
So what did Jesus do about all this fame? Did he encourage it? Did he build upon his popularity to create a mass movement? Did he lead these crowds straight to Jerusalem, using his power and influence to usher in his kingdom? No. Matthew tells us that Jesus climbed a mountain. And the disciples followed him, though I imagine that at least some of them wondered why Jesus was squandering this opportunity to reach more people, and to build upon this momentum.
Jesus found a quiet place away from all the towns and the crowds. He sat down with his disciples and began to speak, teaching them in words Matthew records in chapters 5-7 of his gospel. This Sermon on the Mount, as it is called, which is the focus of our preaching and our adult Sunday school through the end of February, includes not just the beatitudes, but teachings that have become familiar to us on all kinds of topics. And through the teachings found in these three chapters we begin to get a pretty good idea of the life to which Jesus was calling his disciples. It was a way of life that turned the values of Roman society on its head and also pushed against conventional interpretations of Jewish law. Throughout these teachings Jesus was painting a picture for his disciples of a way of life based on the values of God and of God’s kingdom.
Why did Jesus decide to withdraw from the crowds and spend time teaching his disciples? I think that Jesus looked around at the crowds and saw the very temptations he had faced during the time he spent in the wilderness following his baptism: temptations to use his divine power to take the easy road of popularity and sensationalism. He could see the danger in that, for himself, for the disciples, and for those crowds, for it was giving the wrong impression of who he was and what his purpose was. Jesus resisted and rejected that popular, powerful, success-based approach to ministry in favor of an approach which focused on proclaiming and demonstrating the kingdom of heaven. So he climbed that mountain, and he taught his disciples, in order to refocus their efforts on the mission and the purpose to which he and they had been called.
Sometimes we have to do that. When we find ourselves getting sucked in to the mindset and the values and the methods of our popular culture, sometimes we have to take a step back, and take a hard look at what we are doing. Sometimes we need to refocus our attention on God’s word and on God’s will and on God’s way. And I think that is what Jesus was doing in his Sermon on the Mount, laying out for himself and for his disciples the priorities and values and ways of God and of God’s kingdom which he and they were called to proclaim.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he told them. “Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” These were hard teachings. They were counter-intuitive. They were counter-cultural. One writer has called them sacred paradox.
I can just hear the scorn with which these words would have been received by a popular audience, and with which they are sometimes received today. “What does he mean that the poor and grieving and hungry and persecuted are blessed? They don’t seem very blessed to me! What does he mean that the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers are blessed? That sounds more like an invitation to get walked all over. This wasn’t a message that would play well on Madison Avenue or Wall Street, or in the halls of Congress, or on Facebook, let alone on the streets of Jerusalem.
But we have to remember that Jesus didn’t offer these teachings to the people who were merely curious to see this guy everyone was talking about. He didn’t preach these words to people who were simply drawn to the miraculous signs and wonders he was performing. He didn’t preach these words to the crowds. No, this wasn’t a message for the mass market; this was a message for the disciples, for the ones who had been called to follow him, for the ones who had been traveling with him. Eugene Peterson calls them the committed – Jesus’ traveling companions. And to this day the Sermon on the Mount is not a message for a popular audience. It is a message for those who call themselves followers of Jesus Christ. And you’ll have to decide if it is a message for you.
Blessed are… In Greek the word is makários which is not easily translated into English. It seems the best translations are the ones that continue to use some form of the word bless, for this word maintains an important religious or spiritual sense that isn’t present in some of the other modern translations. One popular religious writer once wrote a book describing them as the “be happy-attitudes.” But Jesus isn’t talking about happiness, at least not as we think of happiness today. And he was talking about more that attributes, as important as they may be. He was talking about a way of life – a way of living.
Apparently it was common in the Greek world to talk about people being blessed if they experienced certain circumstances, such as wealth, health, or good fortune, power, prestige, or popularity. These would all have been commonly thought of as signs of blessing. Even the Hebrew culture saw such things as signs of God’s blessing. But in Jesus’ beatitudes blessing is not about the abundance of one’s possessions. It is not a prosperity gospel as some are preaching and following today. It is not about being happy. It is not about being powerful and prestigious. It is not about being popular or successful. It is about having a deep and abiding sense of God’s presence with us in the midst of a life that is lived according to the values of God’s kingdom, where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the pure in heart, the merciful, the peacemaker, the persecuted are blessed, not because the world has blessed them, but because God has blessed them.
Most of us have heard these beatitudes so many times that we don’t really listen to them anymore. We sort of know what Jesus was getting at, but not really. It’s hard to put the beatitudes into words that make sense, given the wisdom of this world. So let’s listen to them again, remembering that Jesus was trying to shed light on this way of life he and his disciples were being called to live.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. I like what Peterson does with this beatitude. The poor in spirit are those who are not so full of themselves that they have no room for God. When our lives are full – full of self-importance, full of possessions, full of public acclaim, or full of seeking after these things – we are more likely to see these as things that we have earned or that we deserve. When we are at the end of our rope, when we have little, we are more likely to recognize whatever we do have as gift. The poor in spirit are those who are humbly dependent upon God’s grace. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom, not of this world, but of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn. Those who have experienced profound loss in their lives have learned painful lessons about having to let go. But in the midst of that grief they often discover the blessing of God’s comforting presence. Jesus was echoing a promise found in Isaiah that those who mourn will be given a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek. Here Jesus quotes Psalm 37, which promises an inheritance of land to those who have been shoved aside by wicked, powerful, and mighty land grabbers. The meek, by contrast, are humble and gentle in their dealings with others, and that meekness will be rewarded. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth, not grab it by their own ruthlessness, but inherit it by God’s grace.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Jesus isn’t saying here that we are blessed when we are hungry to earn or to proclaim or to prove our own righteousness, convincing others or ourselves to see that we are in the right. Rather he is saying that we are blessed when we yearn for God’s righteousness, when our desire is for God’s will to be made known on earth as it is in heaven. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful. In this beatitude Jesus is talking about people who seek to imitate the mercy and compassion of God in their lives. Mercy is less an attitude than an activity. Mercy is something we do, it is something we show. And we are called to be merciful not in order to attain mercy, but because we desire to imitate God, who is merciful and just, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart. Peterson describes this as having your inside world – your mind and your heart – put right. One commentator has talked about single-mindedness; you aren’t living a divided life, saying one thing and doing another. It isn’t so much about being perfect as it is about seeking to have a single-minded devotion to God’s will. The Christian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, wrote that purity of heart is to will one thing, and that one thing is God’s will. When we will God’s will then we see God in a way that we otherwise wouldn’t. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers. Jesus lived in the days of Pax Romana, a peace brought about by the rule of the Roman Empire. Under the Romans there may have been an absence of war, but Roman peace came at the high cost of the freedom and the independence of the peoples and nations who lived under their powerful and oppressive rule. Peacemakers are those who work for true shalom, true harmonious cooperation aimed at the welfare of all, not just of a powerful few. True peacemakers return good for evil, they love their enemies, they build bridges, and they do the things that make for a lasting and a just peace. And yes, at times their efforts may appear futile in the eyes of this world. Yet their efforts are a living testimony that helps keep the vision of God’s shalom alive, and in their lives we see the resemblance of their heavenly parent. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Jesus warned the disciples that those who are truly living by the values of God’s kingdom that he has been describing – those who are not full of themselves, those who know what it is to mourn, those who are gentle and humble in their dealings with others, those who imitate God’s mercy, those who will God’s will, those who hunger for God’s righteousness and who labor for God’s shalom – are likely to run into resistance. They may even experience persecution. In fact, they should expect it. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. That is the reign under which they live.
And then Jesus expanded on this, speaking directly to his disciples, blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. And he warned them that this reaction to them would come not only from outside the faith but from within as well. He reminded them that the prophets also experienced this kind of resistance when they gave voice to God’s word. And it wasn’t that long ago that John had been arrested because of his call to a baptism of repentance. Jesus was preparing the disciples for what was to come. Their work for God’s kingdom was not always going to be received with the great public acclaim and the kind of popular support they had seen up to that point. They were going to run into tremendous resistance, especially from the religious leaders of their day.
Which I think brings us back to the very reason Jesus walked away from those crowds in the villages and towns that lay at the foot of the mountain. The life to which Jesus and his disciples were being called was not about popularity, it was not about power and prestige, it was not about success, it was not about numbers of people or overflowing coffers, it was not about the abundance of possessions, or feelings of happiness. It was not about blessing as the world understands blessing. It was about God, and it was about choosing a way of living that was closely aligned with the priorities and the values of God’s kingdom.
Jesus knew how easy it was to get distracted from that way of living. He could see how easy it was to be sucked in to focusing on those things that would attract the crowds and the acclaim and the popularity. But he also knew that seeking after those things was not what God had called him to be about. And if we claim to be more than just casual observers of Jesus, attracted only to the wonders of his divine power, then like the disciples we need to be willing to climb that mountain, and listen to these challenging words, and take them to heart as we consider the life to which we are called as followers of Christ.
Micah put it well in those words we sang earlier: “What does the Lord require of us, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.” And the promise of the beatitudes is that as we seek to live humbly, in faithfulness to God and to God’s will, as we seek to live our lives in accordance with the priorities and values and ways of God and of God’s kingdom, a kingdom where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, we will experience a deep and abiding sense of God’s blessing. As Jesus said, Rejoice and be glad for yours is the kingdom of God. Let us pray:
Thou who art over us,
Thou who art one of us,
Thou who art;
Give me a pure heart, that I may see thee;
a humble heart, that I may hear thee;
a heart of love, that I may serve thee;
a heart of faith, that I may abide in thee. Amen.
prayer by Dag Hammarskjold