October 17, 2017

Sermon: Epiphany IV – It’s All About Blessing

Man on the Hill. Photo by Lachlan Paterson

SERMON: It’s All About Blessing

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

• Matthew 5:1-12

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INTRODUCTION
Several years ago, Gail and I were given the opportunity to go to a Marriage Encounter weekend, a retreat where couples go to enrich their marriages. When you arrive at the hotel, a group of people meets you. They open your car door and welcome you. They ask for your suitcases. They insist on carrying everything, and won’t take no for an answer. (Made me kind of mad at the time. I’ll carry my own suitcases, thank you!)

Other folks greet you, walk you in, direct you to registration, answer your questions, and give you the schedule. They escort you to your room and make sure you are settled. They do everything for you and try their best at every moment to make you feel welcome and cared for.

The whole weekend is like that. The staff takes care of every detail so that you can focus on each other. From the moment they greet you to the end of the weekend, when they gather around you and bless you, pray for you, and send you off, it’s all about welcome. It’s all about hospitality. It’s all about friendship, and help, and encouragement. It’s all about BLESSING.

Today in our Gospel reading, we learn that Jesus began his ministry by blessing people. In fact, the first word Jesus is recorded speaking in a sermon is the word “blessed.”  Chapters 5-7 of Matthew are presented as Jesus’ first sermon, the “Sermon on the Mount,” and he introduces it with 8 words of blessing. We call them the Beatitudes. They are pronouncements of God’s blessings to the most unlikely people. In the Beatitudes, Jesus proclaims that the blessings of God’s Kingdom have invaded the world and are available to everyone.

These words are similar to other pronouncements recorded in the Gospels which describe what Jesus came to do for people in this world of sin, corruption, and death.

For example, there Mary’s song that we call, “The Magnificat” in Luke 1:46-55—

“My soul exalts the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
“He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.
“He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
And has exalted those who were humble.
“HE HAS FILLED THE HUNGRY WITH GOOD THINGS;
And sent away the rich empty-handed.”

Mary’s song is about what some have called The Great Reversal. This sinful world has a system by which it identifies “winners” and “losers”:

  • The rich, the powerful, the proud, and the popular seem to be the “winners” in the game of life. They get the perks, no matter how corrupt they might be in getting to the top, no matter how many people they step on to lift themselves up.
  • On the other hand, the poor, the humble, the meek and ordinary folks are the “losers.” More often than not, they get taken for a ride, cheated out of their hard-earned wages and kept in their place by powerful people and oppressive systems.

But notice Mary’s song. She sees what has happened to her as a sign of what’s to come when Messiah takes over. She’s one of those poor, humble, meek, and ordinary folks. Yet God exalted her and she became the Mother of God’s Son. Mary proclaims that what happened to her will one day happen everywhere—the proud will be humbled, the mighty will fall, the rich will become poor, while the hungry will be filled and the lowly lifted up. That is the Great Reversal.

Do you see it? Jesus came to turn the world upside down, or we should say, right side up. All that the world exalts, Money, Sex, Power, Pride, will be cast down. Those who fight their way to the front of the line will go to the back. The poor, the hungry, the mourners, the persecuted and oppressed will be invited to the front. The first will be last, and the last will be first.

This was the announcement Israel had been waiting for. The hope of this lowly, oppressed people was that Messiah would bring the blessings of the age to come. They were waiting for a new exodus , a reversal that would release them from bondage to their enemies.

And that’s the good news Jesus brings. The Beatitudes are not ethical demands. The Beatitudes are not character qualities that he is instructing us to develop in our lives. Rather, in the Beatitudes, Jesus is pronouncing the Kingdom’s blessing upon downtrodden people. This is his way of telling us that these blessings are not for a few but for everyone.

There are 8 Beatitudes, and they break down into two groups of four.

First Group: JESUS WILL REVERSE THE FORTUNES OF THE OPPRESSED

• Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The poor in spirit are people who are spiritually bankrupt. These are people with no spiritual resources. They’re empty, they have no spiritual gas in the tank. It’s not good to be poor in spirit. Jesus is talking about people who are in the sad condition of having no spiritual resources, no faith. They don’t seem to have any interest or even capacity for spiritual life..

Now you might think that Jesus would bring God’s blessings to those who are spiritually vibrant and strong in faith, people who know their Bibles and who are intent on serving the Lord. But in order for us to know that the Kingdom is about God’s grace and not anything we earn or achieve, Jesus says that he has come to bless those who don’t even have the least bit of spiritual capacity. Even the poor in spirit, the spiritually bankrupt, those who have absolutely nothing to offer spiritually are blessed by Jesus.

• Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
The second group Jesus gives his blessing to are those whose lives are overcome with sorrow. Jesus blesses people who are in the condition of sadness, mourning, and grief. This is not a virtue he is commending, but a circumstance in life that we all dread. We long to be happy. We dread sorrow and loss. We don’t like to cry. We hate the feeling of despair. There is nothing blessed at all about being in mourning. But Jesus promises to reverse this condition.

As a hospice chaplain, I visit sad, grieving people each week. In their sadness, they have little strength or ability to give much to others. They often withdraw from the world and become isolated and invisible. Even their churches forget them, for we often define the Christian life in terms of activism and service. But if that’s what the faith is all about, they get left out. Jesus, however, includes them. He blesses the sorrowful, and promises them God’s comfort.

• Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
The meek are people in the world who have no power. Jesus’ words here are from Psalm 37, a psalm that describes folks who are tempted to envy the prosperous and powerful people who seem to get all the breaks. They are under the thumb of those in power. They lack connections. They don’t have any clout. Without deep pockets they can’t buy favors. They get ripped off and taken advantage of easily and often. The meek always feel insecure because they know the real movers and shakers in this world might make a decision that could rock their world. And they don’t have much recourse because they are easily intimidated and don’t feel comfortable standing up for themselves. Jesus is describing people who the world considers “losers.” They are at the end of the line, the bottom of the pile.

You might think that Jesus would want to work with powerful people, those who have influence, who can get things done. Instead he gives his blessing to the meek and promises them favor. He will reverse their condition and give them the earth as their inheritance.

• Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
The final group of people described in the first set of Beatitudes is often misunderstood. Many have taught that these words describe those who are serious about their faith. They interpret “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” as meaning that these folks have an intense desire for holiness and personal piety. I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying at all. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are those who long for God to make things right. These people have suffered because the world is unfair and unjust. Life has ripped them off. And they are yearning for justice, for fairness and equity to triumph.

All four of these first Beatitudes depict people who are suffering under this world’s system. This sinful, corrupt world has impoverished them, bereaved them, intimidated them, and treated them unfairly. Yet Jesus says to them: “Bless you.” He says I’ve come to turn things around. I’m announcing today that you who have been under the pile are going to come out on top. This upside down world will be turned right side up again. And you will share in it.

Second Group: JESUS WILL REWARD THOSE WHOM THE WORLD REJECTS

The second four Beatitudes describe people who are out there, trying to do something about the pain and suffering in the world. The world by and large does not recognize their efforts; in fact the world thinks they may be foolish to think they can change the world by doing what they do. The world thinks change comes through having power and influence and leverage. But look at these folks, and they way they go about trying to make the world better:

• Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

These folks quietly serve others, taking pity on people in pain. That’s not much of a plan.

• Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

These folks think the best way to help the world is to start with themselves. So they focus on purifying their own hearts first. That’s silly, the world says. You don’t need religion, you need power.

• Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Peacemakers mediate disputes and try to bring reconciliation to broken relationships. The world thinks bringing our enemies to their knees through force is more effective.

• Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This final category describes all those who try to do good in the world and get in trouble for it. Jesus would have pointed to the prophets as an example of this. Of course, he became the greatest example when the world crucified him when all he did was work to make things right.

Being a servant can be thankless work, hard going, and you often don’t end up with much to show for your efforts. Your wages aren’t very high, you don’t get a lot of applause, and even if you can help things change, they don’t change quickly or easily. Few appreciate what you are doing. Many think what you are doing is worthless in the long run. Our world prefers fast change, innovation, technology, efficiency, results, profits. It doesn’t put a lot of stock in the daily, plodding, hidden work of faithfulness.

But Jesus notices. And he says, “Bless you.” What the world despises now will one day be honored. The quiet, unassuming work of the servant will be exalted above the highly praised works of those who are applauded in public for their great achievements.

CONCLUSION

And so here is Jesus, pronouncing God’s blessings. He is telling us that the Kingdom has dawned and that life in the Kingdom of God is based upon completely different values and estimations than life in this age. There are no “winners” and “losers,” no people with power on top ruling over folks without power on the bottom.

Instead, everyone is a winner because Jesus has brought God’s blessing to all — even the most unlikely people, even the ones that are currently not valued or esteemed highly.

Jesus comes along and says,

“It’s yours. I am bringing God’s blessings to you. No strings attached. No requirements. Simply trust me and pull up a chair to the table. Everyone is welcome. It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from. It doesn’t matter what you look like. It doesn’t matter what you have in your wallet. I don’t care about your race, your nationality, your class, or your status in society. No matter what the world or religion thinks of you—no matter what you think of yourself—none of these things disqualifies you from receiving the benefits of the Kingdom.”

Remember, this is Jesus’ first word! Before any teaching, before any instruction, before any commandment, he tells us that the Kingdom has come and we are blessed. No matter who you are or where you come from, this is the very first thing he wants you to hear: this word of absolute grace: Blessed are you. No matter who you are. No matter what the world thinks of you. Even if you feel like you are on the outside looking in, come to the head of the line and hold out your hands.

Just like that Marriage Encounter group Gail and I attended, it’s all about welcome. It’s all about hospitality. It’s all about friendship, and help, and encouragement. It’s all about BLESSING.

May the Lord bless you.

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Photo by Lachlan Paterson at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Comments

  1. Paul McGuire says:

    Great writing today CM and very encouraging. I don’t find anything better than this site.

  2. William H. Martin Jr says:

    Quite right…..quite right ….and this is just a start…..Imagine what love can do that doesn’t require a wage….Hug no F bombs ….Sorry just lost it in a reverse discrimination thing that I am sorry for now because it never furthers…… This is some of the best stuff I have read here. Having been the poorest of and now old and looking at the poorest of again I wish for an ending soon. The little puff balls I had privilege to feed tonight and bless are what keeps me going thru it all. Can’t swim the Tiber or any other river for that matter. Cross over on dry land now that might peek my interest. This Son of Man now He turns me upside down all the time and the humility is beyond anything I could ever imagine and is the strongest thing I have ever encounter which is quite the opposite of myself when I lose it.

    Loving mercy married with forgiveness and knowing he is acquainted with our sorrows and beings. If nothing else this is enough. I’d hang on the timber a millions times over …………to see only light

  3. Thank you, CM.