February 2, 2014

Matthew 5:1-12

“Receive God’s Blessing”

When someone says that you’re getting “preachy” they usually don’t mean it as a compliment. They probably mean that you’re telling them what to do or what to think. They might mean that you’re moralizing or laying on a guilt trip to get them to do what you believe is right. Preaching is not generally thought of as particularly positive, and sermons are assumed to be long and boring at best, and guilt-inducing lists of things you should be doing at worst.

But out of habit, or determination, or perhaps an alternate vision of what preaching can be, here you are again this Sunday morning to listen to yet another sermon. And today you don’t just get a sermon from me, but you get at least a portion of a sermon from Jesus himself. Traditionally known as the Sermon on the Mount, today’s Gospel passage from Matthew is the first twelve verses of something Jesus preached to a crowd of followers in the early part of his ministry.

Now, there’s an interesting thing that happens in the Gospel of Matthew, a version of the story of Jesus that was written primarily for a Jewish Christian community. To put it simply, Jesus is portrayed as the “new Moses.” You might notice that the sequence of events in the first in the first chapters of Matthew mirrors the sequence in Exodus: both narratives tell the stories of slaughter of infants, the return of the hero, the passing through water, and a temptation in the wilderness, followed by the lawgiving on the mountain.

So here, before Jesus’ sermon begins, he goes up a mountain. Just as Moses went up a mountain to receive God’s laws and then to proclaim them to the Hebrew people, Jesus goes up a mountain to teach his disciples and the crowds who gathered to hear him.

Jesus’ sermon goes on through all 48 verses of chapter five, as well as chapters six and seven, and as the sermon continues there are numerous instructions on how to live righteously as God’s children: Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works… do not be angry with a brother or sister… do not look at anyone with lust… do not swear at all… give to everyone who begs from you… love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

But this morning’s opening verses are different. Oftentimes I think we don’t notice that they’re different… Jesus is giving a sermon, and we assume that sermons are about telling us what to do and how to live, and maybe also scolding us for not doing as well as we should have or could have done.

In Jesus’ opening words, we may hear that we should be more humble, more merciful, and more pure in heart. We may conclude that we should work harder at being peacemakers and we should put more energy into doing what is right. When we read the passage in this way, we may get baffled by the instruction to be poor in spirit, to mourn, and to be persecuted. If we don’t happen to be suffering from persecution for our faith, we may just end up feeling like lesser Christians who can’t seem to live up to Jesus’ expectations of us.

But these opening words of Jesus’ sermon are not instructions that we have a hard time living up to. For those of you who like grammar, these are statements in the indicative mood rather than the imperative. They are not direct calls to action, to become poor in spirit, to mourn, to be meek, and so forth. Rather, they are promises. They are promises from God.

These first twelve verses of Matthew chapter five are often referred to as the Beatitudes. The word comes from the Latin adjective beatus, which means blissful or happy. The original Greek word was makarios meaning the same thing. So Jesus is saying that those who are poor in spirit, or meek, or merciful, or persecuted are blessed. They are happy or blissful. On one level, it doesn’t make any sense. How can those who are mourning be happy? How can those who are being persecuted be blissful?

In a reflection on this text, Ronald Allen explains that for the author of Matthew’s Gospel, history is divided into two ages: the present evil era that God will soon end, and the coming kingdom when all things will take place according to God’s purposes of love and justice. God will bring about the final transition from the old age to the new by means of the second coming of Jesus, an apocalypse that will interrupt history.

This context is the key for understanding the first word of each beatitude: “Blessed.” To be blessed is not simply to be happy, but it is to know that one is included in the coming kingdom of God. Through the Beatitudes, Matthew assures the community that while life may be difficult now, those who faithfully endure can look forward to the kingdom of God. When the Beatitudes say that the community is blessed, they do not mean that everyone is bubbly, but that in the midst of turmoil, the congregation can live with confidence because they know they are secure.

Have you ever met a Christian, who when asked, “How are you?” regularly responds by saying, “I am blessed” rather than “I’m fine, thanks,” or “I’m well”? I have known a few people over the years who liked to answer in that way, “I am blessed.”

And it wasn’t people who were particularly rich, or comfortable, or who had perfect families, or all their dreams and plans had come to fruition. Those who described their state of being as “blessed” were people who had made their lives about following the way of Jesus and who had a strong sense that no matter what might happen to them that their lives were in God’s hands.

They weren’t the richest people, or the smartest people, or the most successful people. They were people who had lost loved ones, people who had been ill, people who had been hurt by people they loved, or their own failures, or the circumstances of life. But they knew that God loved them and that in the end (even if not today or tomorrow) that all would be well.

A good deal of the time, in scripture and in sermons, we hear the call and the challenge of God to live more and more in ways of goodness and righteousness. In this morning’s Old Testament passage, for example, the prophet Micah encourages us to live according to God’s very clear commandments: What does the Lord require of us… but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God?

But today Jesus does not speak more words of challenge to us. Instead, he offers us blessings and promises. Can you imagine him sitting up on that hill with all the poor people of the area gathered around? Maybe he stretched out his arms in blessing as he spoke. Certainly, he must have looked around at the people with love in his eyes as he gave them this assurance.

It was as if he was saying, “I know… I know that your lives are very difficult. Life in this present world is very difficult. There is conflict and violence, injustice and cruelty, and so many people seeking power over one another. As God’s people, I am calling you to live within this world as people of peace, and compassion, and hope, and I know that’s not going to be easy.

“But I want you to know that the kingdom of God is coming, and you’re going to be a part of it. You have nothing to fear, because in the end you will be comforted and filled. You will receive mercy, and you will see God face to face. Even here, even now, in this present age God’s kingdom is breaking into our world, and there are glimpses of God’s goodness and love. Indeed, God’s blessing is being poured out on you, even in the midst of the challenges of this age, as you seek to follow God with your life.”

And Jesus knew what he was talking about. He knew what it was like to be poor in spirit and to mourn. When he looked around at the troubles of the world, his heart must have ached for God’s children to live together in love and peace. With humility and mercy, more than anyone, Jesus longed for righteousness and goodness. And although he was challenged and rejected, persecuted and eventually killed, he stayed faithful because of the assurance that God would prevail and God’s kingdom would come.

Today, the encouragement of the Beatitudes is for us. In the midst of the challenges and struggles that we face each day, Jesus assures us that God’s kingdom will come and that we will be a part of it. When we feel overwhelmed by the needs of the people around us, and wonder how so many hungry and hurting people can be helped… when our hearts are breaking because of the violence and war that continues to tear families and communities apart… when stories of hatred and cruelty lead in the news, and we long for a world of compassion and love… when we strive to make peace between neighbours or family members… or when our faith or our way of life is questioned or ridiculed… Jesus encourages us to rejoice and be glad, for our reward is great in heaven.

Those who keep reading through the rest of Jesus’ sermon will find that he includes plenty of challenging instructions for those who would follow his lead in their lives. But here, at the beginning, he simply assures us of God’s love and God’s blessing.  When we choose to follow the way of Jesus, we can be sure that challenges and trials will come, but we can be even more sure that God’s blessing will be upon us, and our future will be in God’s hands.