November 1, 2020

Matthew 5:1-12

“Blessed Are You”

What are sermons for? That’s a good question for preachers to ask ourselves once in a while, and a good question for those who listen as well. One good answer is that sermons aim to open up, explain, and interpret the Scriptures for our community today – helping Christians to be attentive to what God might say to us. But very often, both preachers and listeners default to looking in the Bible just for what God wants us to do or how Jesus teaches us to live.

In recent weeks, the topic of commandments has come up a few times. And whether it’s the Big Ten from the laws of Moses or the greatest commandments that Jesus identifies, we get focussed (especially when teaching our children or grandchildren) on what we must do. What must we do to have a good life? What must we do to be saved? What must we do to gain God’s blessing?

One commentary explains that “In the biggest picture, theistic religion – both in the ancient world and in our own – is often centrally concerned with blessing: how to get it, how to keep it, what to do in order to inherit it, and so on. And so when a religious figure outlines his or her key teachings, we might well expect the heart of the presentation to address this fundamental topic – and sure enough, right out of the gates, Jesus begins his first major sermon [the Sermon on the Mount, as we know it] with a teaching on ‘blessing.’”

But instead of teaching the people what to do or what to say or what to believe in order to get God’s blessing, Jesus tells them that they’ve already got it.

In our online Sunday School right now, we’re slowly working our way through the Beatitudes when we gather with the children by Zoom on Sunday afternoons. And over the last few weeks, I’ve become aware that the curriculum is not guiding us to a lot of conclusions about how to be good little Christian boys and girls.

Each time, we imagine ourselves hiking up the mountain to see Jesus and listen to his teaching. And after learning and exploring one of the Beatitudes, we invite the children to receive a blessing.

We say, “A blessing is something you receive. So open your hands like you are ready to receive a gift. I will speak a blessing. And if you receive it, take the blessing and put it in your heart.

“May God bless you when you laugh and when you cry. God understands all your feelings.” So now, take that blessing and put it in your heart.

Of course, if you’ve read the whole Sermon on the Mount that begins with today’s passage and continues through chapters 5, 6, & 7 of Matthew’s Gospel, you know that Jesus does teach the people what to do and how to live as his followers.

He asks them and us to do hard things like loving our enemies and forgiving people who hurt or insult us. He teaches a way of love that includes generosity to the poor, honesty, humility, and trust in God. We must not judge others, but focus on our own call to do the best we can. We should treat others as we would want to be treated, and put our faith into action by living in love each day.

But Jesus does not begin his sermon with commandments, he begins with blessings. Many of us have come to know these verses as “the Beatitudes.” That’s the word in Latin. Or they can be called “the Makarisms.” That’s the word in Greek, the original language of the New Testament.

Makarios, translated in the New Revised Standard Version as “blessed,” means something like privileged, fortunate, well-off, or even happy. And in each verse, Jesus makes a statement about people who are blessed, promising them good things to come.

Neither Jesus nor Matthew invented the beatitude form, however. Before it shows up in Jesus’ sermon, a similar pattern appears in the Old Testament and in both Jewish and pagan literature.

In the Book of Proverbs and other pieces of Wisdom literature, beatitudes declare the blessing of those in fortunate circumstances. Based on wisdom and experience, the authors declare the present reward and future happiness of those who have behaved uprightly, worked hard, or been wise in their decisions.

When beatitudes show up in the writings of the prophets though, they do something new. Rather than subtly encouraging folks to act in certain ways so that they will be blessed, the prophets use beatitudes to offer hope to those who are in trouble.

The prophetic beatitudes declare the future blessedness of those who are presently in dire circumstances. Although things are bad now, the prophet assures the people that they will be vindicated at the eschatological coming of God’s kingdom.

The Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel are more like the prophets’ than the wisdom authors’, but they are different again. They are not practical advice for successful living. Neither are they just encouragement to hang on through your suffering because one day God’s gonna do something to change things for the better.

Instead, Jesus’ Beatitudes are prophetic declarations made on the conviction of the coming – and already present – kingdom of God.

Although some Bible translations do use the English word “happy” for “Makarios,” most agree that it gives us the wrong idea. What Jesus is declaring is not about how we will feel. He’s not saying that we’ll stop feeling sad and start feeling happy. He’s saying that we are blessed by God, and that’s an objective reality, not just a feeling that comes and goes.

When Jesus first preached this sermon, he was speaking to crowds primarily constituted by the sick, the afflicted, and those who cared for them.

When Matthew shared Jesus’ words with the late 1st century church, that community was struggling too – with exclusion, with persecution, and likely with discouragement and fear at times.

As we listen to the Beatitudes today, we bring all our daily struggles too – our worry about the ongoing pandemic, our sorrow and grief at the loss of loved ones and things we hold dear, our disillusionment about the state of the world and our human communities, and our longing for a world free from violence, hatred, manipulation, and greed.

In the midst of the hard realities of life in this broken and hurting world, Jesus says to us: “Blessed are you.”

For all the grammar nerds among us, one commentary points out that “the grammatical mood of Jesus’ language here is indicative, not imperative: he’s describing how the world actually is, not issuing instructions.”

In Matthew’s Gospel, in particular, Jesus comes across as a kind of ‘new Moses,’ so its early readers might have expected him to deliver a list of ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots’ akin to the commandments Moses delivers at Mount Sinai. And yet, that is precisely what Jesus does not do.

Instead, he begins with blessing, with good news for the poor, the downtrodden, the ridiculed, the supposedly ‘weak’ – and only then, later in the sermon, does he move on to instructions for living.

The blessing comes first. We receive it. And only then are we invited to respond with grateful devotion as we seek to follow Jesus’ way.

Making sure that we are careful not to turn the Beatitudes into commandments is an important first step, but another commentary suggests that there’s something else we should notice: “The Beatitudes are in unconditional performative language. They do not merely describe something that already is, but they bring into being the reality they declare.”

When I read that, it made me think of the first story of the Creation in the Book of Genesis. That’s where God speaks and the world is created. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

Likewise, Jesus speaks to the poor and the struggling, the sad and the discouraged, and he says to us: “Blessed are you,” and WE ARE.

The truth of Jesus’ pronouncements is dependent on the speaker, on his authority as an authentic spokesperson for God. They are not observations about reality, but they are authoritative pronouncements of what will be, and indeed, what IS because Jesus has made it so.

First and foremost, these are words of consolation and encouragement, good news for the poor, mourning, gentle, and so on. But these are also words of declaration for all to hear, announcing the fact that the dawning “Kingdom of Heaven” involves an overturning of the world’s hierarchies of status and privilege.

There will be many more sermons to preach and to hear, and some of those will call us to renew our efforts towards living by the commandments, especially that greatest commandment of love.

But today, please just hear from Jesus that you are a child of God and deeply loved. Open your hands to receive God’s blessing. Open your ears to hear him say, “Blessed are you.” And take that blessing and put it in your heart.