February 9, 2013 - Matthew 5.1-12

“Verses of Reversal”

Matthew 5:1-12

February 9, 2014

 

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

 

One of the more interesting phenomena of our world that has been replaced by a more technological version is the bumper sticker.  As a kid, I loved bumper stickers.  Some people put their philosophy of living of the back of their car.  Today, the bumper sticker has been replaced by the Facebook status update and the tweet.  Those little things that we used to be limited to bumper stickers, those pithy little statements about reality, and now we tweet, actually are confessions of ours about how we see the world and how we wish the world was.  It infuses our whole society with these sound bites of conventional wisdom.  Some have been around for a long time; others are fairly new.  Some are new, some are old, some are ancient.  But all say something about our lives and us.

Yesterday, I cherry picked some good ones:

  • “God helps those who help themselves.” (Not in scripture; Aesop’s Fables & Ben Franklin.)

  • It's tough being Chubby and It's tough being Skinny.

  • Don’t be in love with your phone; be in love with your spouse.

  • A happily married man is one who understands every word his wife didn’t say.

  • Enough is enough!

  • You have to WANT it.

  • What Susie says about Sally, says more about Susie than it says about Sally.

  • Find something to smile about every day!

  • We all have burdens that can steal our joy. But if you want to live life happy, keep a grateful spirit.

  • Today, expect the difficulties you're facing to turn around. Expect good breaks to track you down.

  • If you feel like you never get any good breaks, change what you’re saying, and you’ll change what you’re seeing.

  • The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

  • Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

  • There’s a sucker born every minute.

  • Look out for number one.

  • Better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

  • Bigger is better.

  • And my favorite: #Blessed!

     

    None of these are scripture, but they are modern day beatitudes.  The beatitude was not something that was originated by Jesus; it was a form of proverb.  They didn’t have bumpers, remember, so they developed these little sayings to convey conventional wisdom.  “Blessed are the rich, for they will always have what they need.” “Blessed are the powerful, for they are subject to no one.”  “Blessed are the winners, for they never know the agony of defeat.”  A beatitude was a way of agreeing to common sense reality.

    Imagine now that you are a person in the first century and you see a big crowd gathered listening to a man speak.  You aren’t sure but you think you just heard him say “Blessed are the poor.”  What I couldn’t have heard that right.  But sure enough, he did say just that.  He goes on to say things like blessed are “Blessed are those who mourn.”  I wonder if some people didn’t snicker or giggle in amazement at some of these things, possibly thinking that this man was an idiot.  He was saying things that were completely outside the realm of common sense.  In fact, his statements were bordering on the edge of insane.  No doubt, some of them there went home that day completely dismissing Jesus as a babbling fool.  You and I know that Jesus was not, but we need to understand WHY Jesus was not saying something foolish.

    Jesus’ beatitudes are not practical advice for successful living, but prophetic declarations made on the conviction of the coming-and-already-present kingdom of God.  The beatitudes declare an objective reality as the result of a divine act, not subjective feelings, and thus must be translated as “Blessed” and not “Happy.”  One is subjective, on is objective.  The opposite of “blessed” is not “unhappy,” but “cursed.” 

    “Blessed are those who,” it gives a blessing, it is not an urging or an exhortation to be this or that.  I do not want to give the impression that Jesus said “We ought to be poor in spirit” or “Let us be meek.”  He pronounces his blessing, and the speaking of it is the performance; Jesus gives his blessing in the saying of it.

    The background of blessing in Judaism is one we really do not have an equivalent to today.  There is a powerful dynamic of saying the blessing and in the receiving of it.  Remember the story of  Isaac, Jacob and Esau?  Jacob put on animal furs to fool his blind father into blessing him instead of his older twin.  Esau comes back a little later to receive his blessing, only to find that it has already been given away.  Isaac mourns because he can only give his blessing once, even if it was to the wrong person.  There is power in a blessing.  It carries meaning.  Hebrews can’t say “You take that back.”  It is out there and has a life of its own.

    Notice that these blessings that Jesus gives are in complete reverse fashion of the blessings of most societies, including our own.  No doubt many of the hearers in Jesus’ audience, zealous to take the kingdom into their own hands, were infuriated by these beatitudes and the behavior called for in the teachings that followed in verses 12- 48 and chapters 6 and 7.

    The blessings are eschatological, and yet they are not entirely future-oriented.  They carry a measure of realization in the present.  Each beatitude begins in the present tense – “blessed are” – and moves to the future tense – “for they will…”  The present tense indicates that the beatitudes are expressions of what is already true about the Christian community.  They are not something that is required for salvation, but are instead the markings of the church.  They are not entrance requirements, but a description of life on the inside.  They are gospel, not law.  Among every authentic Christian congregation can be found persons of meekness, ministers of mercy, and workers for peace.

    They do not merely describe the condition of the world or the reality in which we live, but rather, they bring into existence the reality that they declare.  Jesus is not saying “If you will x, then you will be y,” or “Whoever is x, will be y.”  What Jesus is doing is, unconditionally and with great power, declaring that whoever is meek WILL inherit the earth, and whoever mourns WILL be comforted, etc.

    The beatitudes are not observations about reality that others of lesser insight have simply overlooked, such as the truths of science or mathematics.  No, quite the contrary.  They are true simply based upon the authority of the person speaking them.  Just as God spoke the universe into being, Jesus is speaking the reality of these statements into being.

    Unfortunately, many of the world’s ideas make their way into the church and quietly begin to supplant what God has called us to live out.  Will Willimon says

    “When I was elected as a bishop, at the orientation session I was given a lapel pin with the episcopal seal. I was told that this was a very special pin, that I should guard it carefully and always wear it whenever I was out and about.

     I was unimpressed. That little lapel pin is supposed to give me authority? People will listen to me, respond to my words, follow my directives because of that lapel pin?

     In my experience, whenever the church calls upon or leans upon the world’s forms of authority, something is lost, and what is lost may often be quite painful.”[1]

    Willimon tells the story of the time that he was driving down the highway with a friend of his.  “She was really one of the finest students I have ever taught,” he said to his friend.  Willimon had mentioned to his friend that one of his favorite students was now serving a little church near where they were driving. “I can still remember the wonderful paper that she wrote on a theology of the Trinity. And I not only remember her as very bright, but also someone with a pleasing personality. She was launched on a great career in banking, and then God called her into the pastoral ministry. She walked off that job, and came to seminary, where she had a great run.”
         His friend and said, “Well if her church is near here, why don’t we drop by and see if she might be there.”
         They took the very next exit off the highway and we drove three or four miles into the countryside. Sure enough, just as he remembered, there was a little brick church, at the end of a narrow road. They pulled in to the little gravel parking lot and sat there looking at the church. The church had obviously seen better days. The sign out front was peeling and in need of repair. There on the sign was printed, “The Rev. Julie Jones, pastor.” The church looked forlorn, remote, and small.
         After a moment of silence, his friend said to him, “That’s a shame - what a waste.”
         To know why Julie’s ministry was not a waste, one would have to know a story about a Savior who died for sinners, “wasting” his life on the cross.[2]

 

Imagine now that you are back on that hill in the first century.  Some of the people are walking away and dismissing Jesus as an idiot.  And yet, others are now staring at him, with their jaws dropped slightly, as if they have just realized something very profound.  What has dawned on them is the reality that Jesus is not talking about the way things are; he is talking about the way things are going to be, that something big is about to happen and somehow they sense that all this is going to come to pass because HE WANTS IT THAT WAY.  Jesus is reversing the way that the world is going to run.

In the first words of the Sermon on the Mount, we are not given words about how life is in general or even common sense advice.  We are not given something that we can investigate on our own terms, with our own criteria, but rather we are faced with a person making a profound theological claim about who he is, not just the content of what he is saying.  In other words, the beatitudes tell us more about who Jesus is than what our lives are like.

There is a huge difference in Jesus extending his blessing to the victims in society and in Jesus calling persons to be victims.  Jesus is not calling us to be victims, and he was not doing it then.  He blesses the victims of an uncaring society, but does not wish any of us to fall into that category.  One thing that he wants us to realize is that even victims do not need to have a victim mentality.  Victims hear these words of Jesus and then can take the initiative to claim a life appropriate to that beatitude. 

The future tense of the beatitudes resists all notions that Christianity is a “Philosophy of life” designed to make people successful and calm today, in the present moment.  Christianity is not a scheme to reduce stress, lose weight, advance in one’s career, or keep us healthy.  Christian faith is instead a way of living based upon the firm belief that the way of God will prevail, that the cross of Christ is stronger than any corporation or army, and that the King of Kings is mightier than any Dictator, Parliament or Terrorist.  So blessed are those who live this life now, even when such a way seems foolish, for they will, in the end, be vindicated by God.  Those who are hungry, mourning, meek, downtrodden, persecuted, robbed, oppressed, love their enemies, have the courage to forgive, have the courage not to fight back with violence, who go the second mile are no longer victims.  They are honored citizens of the kingdom of God.

 

[1] Willimon, William; Pulpit Resource, February 9, 2014.

[2] Willimon, William; Pulpit Resource, February 2, 2014.

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