(a sermon for January 29, 2017, the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, based on Matthew 5:1-12)
Can I make a confession to you this morning? It’s that I’ve always had something of a problem with the Beatitudes.
It’s not that I have any fundamental disagreement with these words of Jesus we’ve shared this morning; indeed, in their utter simplicity and the beauty of the words themselves, they stand among the most powerful of Jesus’ teachings, a rich description of the blessings available to those who would trust God. It’s just that every time I encounter these twelve verses, I’m left with the same impression: that as wonderful as all these blessings are, they don’t bear a whole lot of resemblance to the world and life as we know it!
I mean, think about it: Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but in truth there’s not a whole lot of us who would aspire to that kind of poverty (or any other kind, for that matter!), even if the Kingdom of Heaven is involved. In fact, if anything, this culture tends to equate blessing with things like wealth, achievement, fulfillment and a happy life. Poor in spirit? I don’t think so! And when Jesus says that “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” we want that to be true; but history has revealed time and time again that fortune usually favors the bold and the meek are left are left holding the bag! Likewise, it’s good – and blessed – for us to be merciful, but that’s no guarantee that we will receive mercy in return (what’s that old saying… oftentimes we cast our bread upon the waters, and all we get back is soggy bread!). And, “Blessed are the pure in heart?” Well, it sounds great, but let’s be honest; in this world it’s those with the purest of hearts who get dismissed as naïve and out of touch! Rather than to “see God,” as Jesus promises us here, these are the ones who get chewed up and spit out by the world as we know it!
So do you see my problem here with this text?
But understand, it’s not simply that Jesus’ words don’t match up with the reality of our world view; it’s also that, as much as I would like to think otherwise, neither do I! I mean, I hear Jesus’ exhortation to “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” and I have to wonder whether in my life I’ve really done that in a way that will leave me “filled,” having earned that blessing that Jesus offers. Have I truly been a peacemaker? Or can I say to you here this morning that in my life I’ve ever been “persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” or have had people “utter all kinds of evil against [me] falsely on [Jesus’] account?” Perhaps; but the real question is whether I experienced that persecution as a blessing, or if it was merely an anger-inducing stumbling block of life? What I have to confess is that as beautiful and as inspiring as are Jesus’ words, there is nonetheless a disconnect between the blessedness that Jesus describes, and the way that I honestly live my life… and that is, to say the very least, troubling.
And unless I miss my guess, I suspect it’s troubling for you as well… so what do we do about it? How do we find this true blessedness that God is promising?
Perhaps our answer to this question can be found by going back to the beginning; because I will tell you that all of us who fall short of the mark where the Beatitudes are concerned are in good company; as even those who first heard Jesus speak these words were likely as conflicted about them as we are! In that regard, it’s important to note here that while these beatitudes are included in both the gospels of Luke and Matthew, it’s Matthew who makes a point of saying that these teachings were addressed to the disciples as opposed to having been spoken to a “great multitude of people” as Luke tells the story (6:17) (Matthew, by the way, also is the only one who refers to this as Jesus’ “sermon on the mount” – Luke speaks of it happening on “a level place” – and moreover, Matthew has Jesus actually sitting with the disciples rather than standing over them and preaching!).
But what’s even more interesting is that the use of beatitudes, or “blessings and woes,” as they’re also referred to in scripture, was not uncommon at the time; they’re found all throughout the Old Testament, and were even found in the Greek literature of the time. And here’s the thing: generally, these blessings were depicted as rich, joyful and even material in nature; then, as now, there was this accepted idea that to be blessed was to be given the good life. So now, for Jesus to begin his teaching by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are those are mourn… blessed are the meek… blessed are those who are persecuted…” well, those disciples were likely as flummoxed as we could ever be! None of what Jesus was talking about here bore any resemblance to the kind of blessedness that they might anticipate in a walk with God; there was no promise at all of good fortune or emotional bliss for a select chosen few; in fact, if anything, Jesus seemed to be suggesting that God’s favor seemed to lean toward those who were in the midst of poverty, struggle and suffering!
And perhaps therein lies the mistake we’ve been making; perhaps, like those disciples before us, we’ve misunderstood what Jesus had been saying all along.
You see, these verses we’ve shared today were never meant to be taken as a checklist of “thou shalts” that lead to blessedness; rather it was Jesus’ way of teaching us how to recognize the radical nature of God’s blessedness that’s already out in the world and extended to those whom God favors! You see, we tend to look toward those who have achieved worldly success as having been blessed, but here’s Jesus turning this whole notion upside down as he lets us know that “God calls blessed those who are down and out, [those who are] distressed by their circumstances, [as well as those who are] passionate about promoting righteousness and working for peace, or [who have been] persecuted for doing the right thing.” (David Lose) The first thing that Jesus wants us to know about his Heavenly Father is that he will always bring blessing to those whom the world refuses to bless; that He will ever love what the world deems unlovable; and that He will offer salvation and life to those whom have been written off completely. This is true blessedness… and in the end, it’s not something that you and I can gain or earn or achieve; it’s by the pleasure and intent and grace of God who loves those who stand below!
Actually, maybe part of our problem with fully understanding this text comes in the language that we use in translating it. The Greek word that we use for “blessed” is makarioi, which refers to “God’s favor.” Now, sometimes the word gets translated as “honored,” or more commonly, “happy” (remember that book from some years ago – by Robert Schuller, I believe – about the “Be-Happy Attitudes?”) and there’s even a French translation of scripture that uses the word “debonair,” as in “Debonair are the poor in spirit!” (I’m sorry, but that just loses something in the translation!) I’ve even seen a translation in which it reads, “O, the blessedness of being meek!” But ultimately, you see, even that cannot fully express the depths of what God has done and continues to do in our world.
As we’ve said before, it is never our first response to associate blessing or honor with being poor, or meek, or in the midst of grief. But in the reign of God, favor is always upon those who have been left behind; just as blessing will always be bestowed upon the least, the lost, and the lonely in life. Now, at long last, those who have been marginalized by the world will find the blessedness that brings comfort, and fullness, and mercy; for “theirs,” you see, “is the kingdom of heaven.”
And when we know this, friends; well, then, it cannot help but shift our approach to what Jesus is teaching with these beatitudes. It’s not so much that in order to be blessed we are required to work to become peacemakers, or that we have to succeed in our hunger and thirst for righteousness; it is, however, about the importance of knowing that God will favor those involved in such endeavors! It is not the anticipation that we will need to suffer through everything in life in order to obtain blessing; but it is an understanding that in amidst the pain of grief and sorrow, God’s intent is ever and always to give us his comfort in the midst of our mourning. And it’s not poverty – spiritual or otherwise, per se – that makes the difference; but it is the fact that we’ve somehow managed to put our whole dependence on something other than ourselves or our personal resources, but rather on God himself that brings us the experience the kingdom of heaven within us and around us.
Looking at these blessings in this way offers us a unique challenge, both as believers and as the whole church of Jesus Christ, to bring the same kinds of blessing to the places where we dwell as we do the work of the kingdom in offering up the same kind of mercy, peace and love with which God has favored us. To quote David Lose here, “Jesus points us to recognize that God’s kingdom isn’t a place far away but is found whenever we honor each other as God’s children, bear each other’s burdens, bind each other’s wounds, and meet each other’s needs.”
Good words, those; which serve to remind us of who and whose we are in these tumultuous times in which we live. What would it be, I ask you, if we were to share with others the kinds of blessings that these beatitudes proclaim and we aspire to receive? How would it go, quoting Alyce McKenzie now, if we “embrace[d] meekness, not as passivity, but as productive humility that is a key ingredient of leadership,” or if our mourning not only included our own loss and personal sorrow but also embraced the suffering of “all who are subjected to injustice,” to the point that we were each moved to do something about it? I wonder what would happen if we truly did develop an appetite for God’s righteousness in the comings and goings of our daily lives, or what would become of things if we chose to truly embrace true peace, deep compassion and forgiveness in our dealings with one another, or dare I say it, as a nation? What if, today, we were to ask for that purity of heart required to see God?
It seems to me that then, in every way that matters in this life we live, you and I would truly be disciples of Jesus Christ… and, in the process, become the recipients of all blessedness!
You know, as I’ve been looking at this passage over these past few days, I’ve been reminded again of just how very blessed I am in my life; and, yes, in the more traditional sense of the word. I mean, I have the breath of life in my lungs; I am clothed and sheltered and well-fed; and despite all current appearances to the contrary, I have my heath! Yes, even given all the hobbling around I’ve been doing and the challenges that both Lisa and I are facing these days, there is a plan that we trust will bring us soon to health, and that is a blessing indeed! I have family, I have friends and I have the love of God that touches every avenue of my life; and this is what makes life truly good!
I will say to you in utter joy and with great humility that I feel honored by God, beloved; but it occurs to me that so much of that honor comes in part because of those who have embraced the true blessedness of a faithful life, and who have been willing to share it with me. I speak of the communion of saints, dear friends; it’s the church, and it’s you, the children of God living day in and day out in a way that brings forth the kingdom of heaven even in what might seem to be the smallest of circumstances.
And the thing is, our mission continues today and in every tomorrow that comes. So let us get to it; for we are the people of true blessedness, beloved; so let us “rejoice and be glad, for our reward is great in heaven,” and on earth as well.
Thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry