Does Jesus know what it means? Read this earlier version of last Sunday’s sermon to find out!
4th Sunday after Epiphany (Year A) – February 2, 2014 – Matthew 5:1-12
St. Jacob’s-Spaders and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Harrisonburg, Virginia
Pastor Evan Davis
Can you imagine your pastor as a college kid? Well, maybe you can, since I’m told I look not a day older than 17, despite my rapid graying… But I was not all that long ago. There are things that were hard about being a college student – midterms, all-nighters, balancing work and class…but I have to tell you, I had it pretty good. I got to spend most of my time learning from some of the best scholars in the world, and that was my job. Now I fit in reading around the edges of my job. I could eat pretty much whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, by walking into a massive dining hall, swiping a card, and choosing from any of the evening’s 20 or so different meals available. I got to sleep in most days. I could go to the best gym in town for free. Best of all, I lived and spent almost all my time with the best friends I have ever had in my life. I focused most of my time on my goals, my needs, and my vision of my life. I got a little self-absorbed. It was hard for me to see just how blessed I was.
I remember the first time I publicly used the word “blessed” in a long time. It was in the early days of facebook, around the end of my senior year. And I posted something about just how blessed I was. And a friend of mine who was a sincere follower of Jesus, whose faith I admired very much, she posted back how interesting it was that I used the word, “blessed.” It was a shift for me. That was one part of the beginning of my journey back into the church, any church, and it ended up being the Lutheran church. I said I was blessed, and by that I meant the enormity of God’s generosity toward me, a generosity I knew I didn’t deserve in any way.
And that’s what we mean most of the time we talk about being blessed, right? You tell me about a wonderful spiritual experience in your life, and I’ll say back, “ah, what a blessing.” Or we’ll give thanks to God for the blessing of this day, of our congregation, of all we have. Or you’ll tell me how blessed you feel about your home, your family, your job, whatever. We use this word to acknowledge that God has given us more than we could ever earn or deserve, but that means to you have to have stuff! …to be blessed.
At the beginning of his long Sermon on the Mount, which he delivers to his disciples, Jesus uses that word in a series of eight very simple parallel statements that we call the Beatitudes. Blessed are these folks, blessed are those folks. But if we were to name our own list of Beatitudes, maybe they would go like this: First, obviously, Blessed are the rich. Blessed are the skinny, the beautiful, the young, and the white. Blessed are men. Blessed are those who work hard. Blessed are those who can help themselves. Blessed are those who grew up in a safe neighborhood or a good school district. Blessed are those who haven’t screwed up. Blessed are the college kids. Blessed are those perfect women who can somehow juggle family and work and school too. It’s a pretty exclusive list and you may have to work yourself to death to ever be counted among the blessed as we see them. But Jesus seems to have a different definition of that word, “blessed.” For the second time in a sermon recently, I will shamelessly quote from the movie The Princess Bride, “you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” 🙂 Jesus thinks it means something else!
Not only does Jesus have a different list, his list works differently. You see, Jesus isn’t establishing criteria for how to become blessed, he isn’t saying what you have to have to feel blessed, no Jesus is actively blessing, and declaring blessed, people like “the poor in spirit” – the downtrodden, the crushed, those in the crowds following him who were suffering from so many sicknesses and diseases. He’s not saying you must go home today and figure out how to become poor in spirit…most of you know how that happens all too well. But it’s shocking. If you say to me, Pastor, I just lost my job. Pastor, I have cancer….I’m sure not going to reply, “oh how blessed you are.” Well, Jesus is. Blessed are those who mourn – really Jesus? the meek? the pure in heart? the peacemakers – blessed are those UN envoys to Syria?
Jesus is going to those who were and are excluded from the circle of blessing, and he’s saying, guess what? The kingdom’s yours forever. He is delivering to them the entirely unearned and unconditional love and favor of God. Jesus’ words create the reality of which they speak. These are the people for whom Jesus has come. Jesus turns the world and its understanding of blessing upside down.
So, for Jesus, Blessed are the people who slept at Open Doors last night, for theirs is the kingdom. Blessed are those Syrian mothers and fathers mourning their children who have been bombed, burned, and gassed to death, for they will be comforted. Blessed are those whose voice we can barely hear – the immigrants, the victims of domestic abuse – for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those people of faith – people like you – who so hunger and thirst for righteousness that every plate of food, every prayer prayed, every dollar given to World Hunger matters, for they will be filled. It’s not that the rich and powerful and famous, and even the college kids, aren’t blessed. It’s that Jesus is declaring a new order, God’s order, God’s reign, the kingdom of heaven, in which everyone has a place, and a voice.
St. Paul also knew that God is up to something we never could’ve expected, and we surely do not understand through our own wisdom. I want you to hear this and so I’m going to read most of this section again. Just listen:
18For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
26Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
What has become of our wisdom? When we bless strength, Jesus has already embraced weakness. When we bless our wisdom and understanding, Jesus blesses the world with the foolishness of his cross. Wherever in our lives or in our society we draw a line, close a door, or build a wall, we can be absolutely certain that Jesus is already on the other side. Jesus has cast his lot with whomever our world is nailing to a cross, and he goes to the cross with them. And the point is not that you have to find a way over that wall but that Jesus will cross any barrier and break any rule to bless YOU.
Over the next three weeks, we’re going to hear much of the rest of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Just as Moses climbed the mount of Sinai to receive the Torah, the law, from God, so Jesus climbed a mountain to teach his disciples its very beating heart. But as you hear it, remember what Jesus is doing here. Jesus has come to you with a blessing, to remind you that the kingdom is yours. And Jesus invites you who belong to him into a life of pursuing his Wisdom in the freedom of the gospel. He invites us to be a city on a hill, the salt of the earth, a light shining for the world. A new community of people who are blessed to be a blessing, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God, to walk in the Way of Jesus.
But it’s hard to be the light of the world when all you can see is darkness. When God seems so very far away. When you do not feel blessed. And so today when you receive communion, know that you are receiving a blessing from your Lord. You are being welcomed into the kingdom…today. Right now. Come and be blessed, not by me, but by Christ. Amen.