I’m not sure whether I’ve drawn your attention to the fact that the Gospel of the year is Matthew. Two weeks ago we read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism, and last week we looked at the start of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee from Matthew’s perspective – that Jesus is the light seen by people who sit in great darkness.
For the next four Sundays we will be taking a look at a section of Matthew called the Sermon on the Mount. These are teachings Jesus gave to the disciples on the mountain so I’m calling this little sermon series “Jesus Said.”
Before launching into the verses and my sermon for today it will be helpful for us to get clear about who Matthew is and what he was trying to do when he wrote his account of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. The most important thing to know about Matthew is that he was Jewish. He was raised Jewish and he was one of the followers of Jesus who never gave up living as a Jew. As a Jewish Christian, Matthew was very keen on showing that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Prophets. These Prophets were predicting the coming of an anointed one, a Messiah, a Christ who would take over the throne of King David and rule according to God’s laws handed down to Moses. It is in Matthew – just a little further in chapter 5, that Jesus says “I have not come to abolish the Law of Moses, but to fulfill it.”
To this point it is not a coincidence that Jesus gave his sermon on a mountain. When Moses led the people of God out of slavery in Egypt to live in the Promised Land, God called him to a mountain where he received God’s instructions for living in the land. When the Disciples climbed the mountain to meet Jesus, they received a continuation and clarification of the same instructions. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ “program for action” (Pinchas Lapide) for those who have heard the good news that the kingdom of God is very near.
Knowing that Matthew is Jewish helps to clarify another point of confusion. If you count you will find the phrase “kingdom of heaven” 31 times in Matthew. If you didn’t know that Matthew is Jewish you’d think that he is talking about the afterlife – the place we go when we die. But knowing Matthew is Jewish, we remember that faithful Jews are very careful not to use God’s name very much. Jewish prayers are to "the Master of the Universe," or they talk about "ha-Shem" – the name – never saying Jahweh, each time they see the name for God, but substituting Adonai - Lord, and rarely even saying God. When we put Matthew and Luke side by side we see many verses that are almost the same but where Matthew says "Kingdom of Heaven", Luke (who was a gentile like us) says "Kingdom of God." These are two ways of describing the same reality – Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven, not a place but God’s total and visible dominion on this earth. Those who would live in this Promised Land, whether Jew or Christian, look to God as our supreme ruler above any human ruler.
I really hope you will remember these things about Matthew in the coming weeks. It would really help you understand if you remember this every time you read Matthew’s gospel. Matthew is Jewish. The Sermon on the Mount is further teaching from Jesus – God incarnate – picking up where the teachings given to Moses left off. The purpose of these teachings is to prepare God’s people, now including the disciples of Jesus, for life in God’s kingdom which is very near.
The first section of the Sermon on the Mount is called the Beatitudes. They are nine sayings of Jesus that start with the word blessed. I want to make two observations and ask two questions about this list.
Observation #1 - God does the blessing. We pick up on this when we pay attention to the grammar. “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek.” In Christian and Jewish understanding all blessings come from God, and only God. God chooses to bless us because God loves us. If you turn to Exodus 20 and read the 10 Commandments you will see it starts with God saying “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Beatitudes work in a similar way at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, to remind God’s people of God’s saving action in our lives. God chooses us, comes to us in the midst of our darkness, comforts us, fills us, calls us his children, God saves us and God chooses to bless us. Blessing is the work of God.
Observation #2 is closely related. Notice that those who are blessed don’t do anything to get the blessing. God simply looks with compassion on these people and blesses them. They are blessed. Jesus is not asking the crowd to become poor in spirit, or mourners, or persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Sometimes Christians have gotten this wrong. Like those who have called this teaching the Be-Attitudes – insisting that if we only get our attitudes straight then we will be blessed. Or like the professor of worship at a liturgy conference a few weeks ago who insisted that truly righteous pastors should boldly preach the truth of God’s judgement in politics even when to do so will likely result in the congregation demanding a new pastor. But turning the beatitudes into a list of “shoulds” is trying to make the teachings of Jesus fit the world’s point of view – when Jesus is doing exactly the opposite.
In the world we are offered a contract or given a command, then our performance is evaluated and this determines our payment or reward. If you conform to an ideal of beauty you get your picture in the glamor magazines. If you can’t get your curly hair to be straight, or turn your torso into a six-pack, then [buzz] you lose. If you fulfill the expectations of the boss, then your contract is renewed. If you can’t satisfy her she’ll give you the pink slip.
But God’s kingdom is completely upside-down from the world. First God blesses us, the reception of God’s blessing inspires us to commit ourselves to God and by God’s help we are able to offer a return gift. We see this in action with the story of Jesus and a tax collector. When Jesus was walking along and saw Zacchaeus the tax collector up in the tree he didn’t go up to him, wagging a finger and say “you greedy sinner, you’d better change your ways or there’ll be weeping and gnashing of teeth for you!” No instead he arranged to spend time with him, over dinner. In response to Jesus’ gift of forgiving love, Zacchaeus, of his own accord offered to pay back four times anything he acquired through cheating, and give half of what he had earned to the poor.
The world tells everyone what they should do, using guilt and shame to compel certain behavior. But the kingdom of God is full of free gifts that feed our natural desire to give freely to others. The world is propelled by force, God’s kingdom is governed by gentleness. The world is fueled by brutality and hate, God’s kingdom is fueled by righteousness and love. The world uses violence and warfare to get what it wants. Jesus Christ is the prince of peace and his kingdom is one of shalom.
This leads me to my first question. What does Jesus mean by “blessed” anyway? How can those who cry tears of mourning be blessed? How can the meek teenager, who keeps getting beat up and doesn’t fight back, “inherit the earth?”
The Psalms give us some insight into what it means to be blessed. Those who regularly pray the psalms will hear echoes in the Beatitudes.
1:1 Blessed is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the godless.
41:1 Blessed is the one who cares for the weak.
106:3 Blessed are those who keep the commandments and do justice at all times
112:5 Blessed is the one who is charitable and gladly lends and conducts his affairs with the just.
119:1 Blessed are those who live without blame, who walk in the law of the Lord.
When we read "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Matt 5:4) it reminds us of Psalm 34:19 “The Lord is near to those whose heart is bruised, and he helps those whose spirit is crushed
And Psalm 126:5 “Those who so in tears will reap in joy.
As Martin Buber observes, this is not a wish or a promise. This is a joyful cry and an enthusiastic declaration: How fortunate indeed is this child of God! It is a secret good fortune…that counterbalances and outbalances all misfortune. Even if you don’t see it, it is true. Indeed it is the only true happiness of life.
Unlike the teachings of the Roman Empire, or the religious Zealots of his time, Jesus gives no divine blessing on violence. Indeed it is the peacemakers who are blessed. As Pinchas Lapide notes, “Peacemaking takes great effort – dismantling walls of distrust and building bridges between people take great effort.” Yet it is an effort that will be blessed by God.
Being blessed is about being in right relationship with self, with God and with others. It comes of the knowledge that God is carrying us, leading us to his kingdom. This kindles a fire of happiness that cannot sit still, cannot find fulfillment even in prayer. It makes us want to do something to express the joy we feel. It gives us a thirst for action. We want to serve God and do what we can to increase his kingdom, to contribute to the work of God breaking in to bless the world.
Now we come to the final question. Are these nine kinds of people the only ones who are blessed? What if I am not mourning, not used to being meek, don’t consider myself a particularly merciful peacemaker, and if I know all too well that my heart is impure? What if I can’t find myself on the list, can I be blessed too?
This has been an age old question ever since the Holy Roman Empire when state and church united in a way that privileged the rich, strong, beautiful winners. This was the motivation for the development of monasticism. Christians who separated from the world to dedicate themselves to voluntary poverty, obedience to God’s word, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. The unfortunate side effect was that people began to think only the “religious” could live this way, not ordinary Christians.
When Protestants came along they called the attempt of anyone to live according to the Sermon on the Mount an “impossible ideal.” Even monks and nuns sin and fall short of God’s intent for us. But John Wesley came along to offer a method for ordinary people to enter into life in the kingdom now, by first experiencing the blessing, receiving God’s gifts of grace and love, and then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, responding to these gifts by committing ourselves to God’s service and seeking to contribute to the work of God by extending that blessing to others.
Today I hope that everyone will leave here having felt God’s blessing. Through the music and the prayers, the message and also through a special time of blessing. During the offering we will set up some chairs and some blessers will stand behind them, and you will be invited to come forward and we will pray God’s blessing on you. May every soul leave this sanctuary saying Alleluia, Blessed are we this day!