PRAYER: When you went up that mountain to preach O God, did you see our faces among the crowd? Enable us to hear your voice today, that we may be so blessed to be a blessing to others. Transform us, O Christ, that we may at last be mindful of who and whose we are, called to be your church in the world. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Our Gospel reading today begins in the first verse of Matthew 5, but before we get into that story, I’d like to take you back to the previous chapter – Matthew 4, beginning in verse 8:
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
The story of the temptation of Christ is certainly well-known and we can learn a lot from it. But there’s something in particular about those temptations that I’d like you to hear today: Jesus is offered an opportunity to break his hunger by turning some stones into bread. He is challenged to throw himself off the roof of the temple knowing that God’s angels will save him. And finally, he is taken to the top of a mountain and given an offer that he could have all the kingdoms of the world worship him if he would just worship Satan. All of these things – food security, safety (physical security), and power (the adoration of the world) – are very human desires. They’re each something that we all desire for ourselves to some degree.
But today, while we’re talking about Jesus’ sermon on the mount, we should not miss the fact that right after Satan leads Jesus up to a mountain to tempt him and Jesus rejected him, Jesus then went up the mountain on his own to teach. The mountaintop is turned from a tool for Satan into a tool for God.
Jesus’ lessons here – the beatitudes that he lays out – are so polar opposite from what was offered him, you could almost get whiplash from it if you’re not careful. Satan offered him the opportunity to have all the bread – all that he could possibly want or need – and instead, on the mountainside, Jesus taught, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, Blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, and blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.
These beatitudes only appear in one other Gospel – the gospel of Luke. But in Luke, Jesus’ words are much shorter and to the point. In Luke, Jesus simply says, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” Luke’s words are somewhat simplistic by comparison to Matthew. With Luke, we can define who fits into the category of poor. We could say something simple like if your bank account is below this certain level, you are poor and therefore blessed. In Matthew however, Jesus’ words are not so black and white. Blessed are the poor in spirit… That could go in any number of directions. The poor in spirit doesn’t necessarily take your bank balance into consideration, although it could!
You see, as in most things, we must take culture and context into consideration. Jesus was speaking to a culture that was occupied by a conquering empire. He was speaking to a people who were all poor in the sense that there were little or no assets that one could have. When Jesus says, “Poor in Spirit”, he’s speaking to a people broken from hope. ‘Poor in spirit’ speaks to a poverty much deeper than the balance in your checking account. It speaks to an absence of hope, a deficit of humanity. This was the Roman Empire, but it could just as easily have been any point in history before or after. When peoples’ spirits are crushed, when there are people who live in a poverty of hope… those are the poor in spirit.
Psalm 34:14-18 speaks beautifully to this point: “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry. The face of the Lord is against evildoers, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth. When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and rescues them from all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.”
That’s why I included our Hebrew Bible lesson from today’s lectionary. Micah 6:8 on its own is an often quoted verse that reminds God’s children of their responsibility to seek justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with God. But the book of Micah is a story in which the fundamental issue is a nation of Israel that is turned away from God and then blaming God for all that is wrong in their lives. Chapter 6 is God’s response and it’s important for us to see that in verses 3,5,6, and 8, God asks a bunch of questions reminding the Israelites of how far from God they have turned. And the last question – the one that is so often used – is the culmination for God’s case, “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”
Just as God was reminding the Israelites, Jesus is teaching that our calling to be God’s children is not a passive endeavor, but that as we seek relationship with God, we find that we are living into the blessings that God provides.
Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Likewise, when Jesus said, “Blessed are those mourn, for they will be comforted,” he’s speaking to a people who know all about mourning. They’ve had so much taken from them – including loved ones that might have caught the unfortunate attention of the occupying Romans. And since I mentioned earlier a story that came just before this sermon on the mount, there was another story that happened in chapter 4 that could very well have fed into Jesus’ words here: the arrest of John the Baptist happened at the end of chapter 4 and then immediately following that, Jesus calls his disciples. There’s a very real sense that the reality and brutality of their Roman oppressors hit very close to home as Jesus begins his ministry.
My point is that when he says, “Blessed are the meek,” or “Blessed are the merciful”, when he says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” he is speaking to and about a culture that is being persecuted and beaten down. Ask yourselves: in the culture of the time, who were the poor, the hungry, the ones who mourn, who were the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness? And then ask yourselves who are those people in our culture today? Who are the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness because they don’t have it? He is addressing a hunger far more powerful than a desire for a piece of bread. Righteousness is about being in right relationship with God, and Jesus is recognizing the hunger that exists among the people in that time and in that place.
And that’s really the point in all of these beatitudes. The beatitudes are not statements about how we have to live if we want God to love us. They are God’s invitation to live in such a way that the Kingdom of Heaven is established here today…now. They are statements about how we live because God is in relationship with us. When we give ourselves to God, seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly, we find ourselves being molded into lives that mirror the beatitudes. The beatitudes are, for us, a prescription for how we are to walk with God. They show us how God’s kingdom offers comfort where the kingdoms and cultures of the world do not. They show us a glimpse of a world turned around in which God’s love runs deeper than we can fathom. And that love – deeper than we can fathom – can run through us.
What is the kingdom of God? What does it look like? The Kingdom of God is a world in which shame becomes honor and honor becomes shame. The Kingdom of God is a world in which the physical effects of poverty and food deserts are broken away forever. The Kingdom of God is a world in which those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – right relationship with God – and those who are merciful are lifted up as examples of wholeness. Righteousness becomes the goal of all of us. The kingdom of God is a world in which those who mourn… you know, we’ve all experienced times of mourning in our lives. There is a sense of loneliness, of losing one’s sense of identity, of self. The Kingdom of God ensures that no one is left alone. No one is left behind. The Kingdom of God seeks peace where the kingdoms of this world seek war and violence. Love defeats hatred. Compassion defeats apathy. Promised blessings defeat temptations. Every time.
Ultimately, Jesus’s message today and the reading from Micah are teaching us that if you’re living in a place in which the poor are not blessed, then you’re not living in the Kingdom of Heaven. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek,” he isn’t calling us to be holy doormats; rather he is calling us to know, by how we live these beatitudes, both who and whose we are. He reminds us that we are first and foremost, beloved.
For those of us who long for a genuine encounter with God, we must first recognize that the Gospel is more than just a guidebook of how to get to heaven in the next life. It is a reminder that, as we are wired to want intimacy with God and genuine connection to God’s purposes, our transformation is in how we live here and work to bring God’s kingdom into how we live today and every day. God is found when our lives are overtaken by the Gospel, and when all that we do and think and say is inspired and empowered by the unlimited grace of God. This will inevitably lead us to stand alongside the poor, the excluded and the hurting in our communities and churches, seeking to bring them to the top of our agendas, because it is in them that we encounter God, and it is in working for justice that heaven begins to manifest on earth. The challenge is whether we have the courage to commit to both a real and transforming relationship with God, and a life of loving sacrifice in the service of God’s reign. As we look at the Gospel, we discover that God is found in working for justice, in caring for the least and in opposing forces of violence, destruction, materialism, greed, and power.
I want to invite you into a time of renewal and hope, by living in a sense of expectation through the beatitudes. The famous line from Abraham is informative to us when he said that he is blessed to be a blessing. How are we being a blessing to others? Let this time be one in which you renew your commitment to living into the beatitudes every day and living in such a way that the Kingdom of Heaven comes at last into our world. The church is the gift from God that enables us – as a community to be that blessing, and to serve others. It is through our mutual work and faith that hatred is ultimately turned to love, war is turned into peace, apathy is turned to compassion, swords are turned to plowshares, and we are all reminded of the great truth of whose we are, and how we can ensure the blessings that God offers, today and always.
To God be the glory.