The Beatitudes

We continue this week in our series on the Sermon on the Mount, entitled, “At the Feet of the Rabbi.” If you weren’t here last week or don’t remember, we introduced the idea that it was no accident Jesus chose to operate out of the role of the Jewish Rabbi. Remember, Rabbi means “my great one” because these guys were the best of the best, and the most honored in society. We also talked about the “yoke” of a Rabbi being the body of knowledge and work that the Rabbi had soaked up over the course of his life, and that he then passed on through teaching and experience. Each Rabbi wanted his yoke to live on in his disciples, so disciples were expected to follow the Rabbi, word for word, move by move, step by step, all over the countryside to soak it all in. That’s why the ancient blessing was: “May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi.” It meant following so closely in his wake, or sitting so near his mud-caked sandals, that you lived and breathed your Rabbi and his yoke. THAT was discipleship, and isn’t it a good deal deeper than spending an hour on a Sunday every now and then? Absolutely.

This Rabbi is important to our series because the Sermon on the Mount is a tricky name. The truth is, WE have given it that name. Bible translators have said, “Hey, this guy is doing a bunch of talking  starting in Matthew 5, and the people are crowded around like a congregation, and he says great, quotable sayings…sounds like a sermon to me!” The problem we have today is that the word sermon doesn’t always carry a lot of weight anymore. A sermon for us can just be a 20-minute pop-off with some good jokes, and a 1-2-3 moral punchline. The first thing many of us think about a sermon is, was it a good one or a bad one. That was not the atmosphere in Matthew 5. If these people were intent on being disciples, of sitting at the feet of a Rabbi, of taking up a new yoke that would utterly direct their entire lives, this time on the mountainside was far more authoritative and substantial and moving than we can even imagine. That’s the attitude I want us to bring to this text too. I want us to sit at the feet of our Rabbi, hear his yoke, and very truly decide if we’re going to take it up or not.  Amen?

Matthew 5:1-12

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.

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. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Is EVERYTHING that seems successful or “winning” really a blessing? Every “good” thing? Look at the hashtag on Twitter at any given moment and see the crazy examples, some appropriate, some a totally false attribution. We’re speaking for God when we claim something is a blessing. Conversely, is every seemingly bad thing a lack of blessing? Aren’t we blessed even when we lose our job or fail in the eyes of the world?

In Jewish culture, failure or poverty or deficiency of any kind was a sign of a lack of blessing, a sign of sinfulness or God’s particular judgment.  Health problems could be traced back to our ancestor’s sinfulness.  For example, if someone were blind or had leprosy, they or their ancestors did something to deserve it.  Jesus is overturning this kind of thinking. He’s not just telling us about these poor downtrodden people groups, so that we’ll be “nice” to them, he is actively blessing them. He’s speaking the blessing into being. Or putting into words the heavenly reality that already is.  And it’s just the “other” people, he’s speaking truth into our lives as well.

He’s taking these seemingly “bad” things and flipping them on their heads and he’s giving us encouragement all the while.  Hear verses 3-12 from The Message version of the Bible.

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

11-12 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

I can definitely relate to some of these.  Being at the end of my rope for one.  But don’t you see, Jesus is flipping the script, knocking the traditional understanding of blessing on its head and lifting up the tired, the poor, the downtrodden.  Not only that, he’s telling us to hunger and thirst after righteousness, be peacemakers, and willingly undergo persecution.  These are all earthly states with a heavenly reward bringing God’s kingdom to earth.

The Beatitudes are not just blessings but a call to action.

In the season of Epiphany, the Beatitudes are a call to action to point out just who Jesus really is.  Who God really is.  The Great God of the Universe.  The Beatitudes are a call to action to be Church, a call to action to make Jesus present and visible and manifest in our lives.  The Church gets the privilege of being on the front lines of these blessings bringing God’s kingdom to Earth.  Martin Luther King Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” writes, “There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society… If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning…”

The Beatitudes are a call to action for the sake of creating the world God imagines.  These days, we need this reminder — when our imagination may be squelched. When our hope for the future might have been dimmed. When we think what we do and what we say and what we believe does not matter.  Jesus calls us to himself and asks us to walk in his ways, to sit at his feet, and put his teachings into action.  Jesus gives us the strength to stand with the voiceless; those he seeks to bless.  But too readily, we give up at the slightest opposition. We give up when we don’t understand or don’t want to do the deep work to know what our neighbor truly faces.

Jimmy Carter writes, “Christians who truly follow the nature, actions and words of Jesus Christ should encompass people who are different from us. It is not easy to do this. It is a natural human inclination to encapsulate ourselves in a superior fashion with people who are just like us — and to assume that we are fulfilling the mandate of our lives if we just confine our love to our own family or to people who are similar and compatible. Breaking through this barrier and reaching out to others is what personifies a Christian and emulates the perfect example that Christ set for us.”

Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness or do I look the other way?

Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness or do I assume someone else will?

Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness or do I explain away my perceived indifference because I don’t want people to think I take sides, because I choose to play it safe?

Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness or keep silent so as not to offend, not to disappoint, in fear of not meeting expectations?

Christ teaches that the greatest joy and happiness is not in the conveniences and pleasures of this life, but it is laid up in heaven for those who willingly to take up their cross and follow him.

I read a story about Mother Teresa when she first began her work among the dying on the streets of Calcutta, India.  She was obstructed at every turn by government officials and orthodox Hindus, who were suspicious of her motives and used their authority to harass her and to frustrate her efforts. She and her fellow sisters were insulted and threatened with physical violence. One day a shower of stones and bricks rained down on the women as they tried to bring the dying to their humble shelter. Eventually Mother Teresa dropped to her knees before the mob. ‘Kill me!’ she cried in Bengali, her arms outstretched in a gesture of crucifixion, ‘And I’ll be in heaven all the sooner.’ The rabble withdrew but soon the harassment increased with even more irrational acts of violence and louder demands were made of officials to expel the foreign nun in her white sari, wearing a cross around the neck.

One morning, Mother Teresa noticed a gathering of people outside the nearby Kali Temple, one of the holy places for Hindus in Calcutta. As she drew closer, she saw a man stretched out on the street with turned-up eyes and a face drained of blood. A triple braid denoted that he was of the Brahmin caste, not of the temple priests. No one dared to touch him, for people recognized he was dying from cholera. Mother Teresa went to him, bent down, took the body of the Brahmin priest in her arms and carried him to her shelter. Day and night she nursed him, and eventually he recovered. Over and over again he would say to the people, ‘For 30 years I have worshipped a Kali of stone. But I have met in this gentle woman a real Kali, a Kali of flesh and blood.’ Never again were stones thrown at Mother Teresa and the other sisters.”

The rocks still hurt.  The grief of losing a loved one is still sometimes raw years later.  Even though we know that God is with us and it’s not a punishment, it’s still hard to receive that diagnosis.  Perhaps we can’t even understand these words until we become poor or meek or contrite or mourning or persecuted. Perhaps we don’t know what they mean until our stomachs ache with a roaring hunger and our tongues stick to the roof of our mouths with thirst. Maybe, maybe we cannot understand the words when we feel the most blessed. Perhaps they only make sense to us when we hit rock-bottom. When we too are persecuted.  When we’re so ashamed of what we did the night before that our lips tremble. When we are about to lose the home  where we were raising our children. When we finally realize that we have no control over our addiction. When we are in such mourning, that we stare at the ground as we walk and we cannot look up.

We can trust in the words of the Beatitudes and in the arms of the One who has the final word.  On earth we may temporarily suffer, but we have the hope of glory.  Just before his death, John Wesley, an ardent abolitionist, wrote a letter to William Wilberforce describing American slavery as the most vile in the world.  Grasping the hands of those who loved him, he repeatedly told them farewell.  At the end, when nearly all his strength was gone, his last words were: “The best of all is, God is with us.”  The best of all God is with us.  Romans 8:31 says,31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?”  Even if we face trials in this life, even if we feel like all hope is gone, when we call on the name of the Lord we will be #Blessed beyond measure.

Discipleship Takes Obedience

Last week, I invited you to “own” your discipleship. To go out in the deeper water and actually follow Jesus. This week we arrive at the very next step, which is the daily decision to keep following Jesus. This is the place where most of us stall out as disciples — somewhere between that first “yes” to Jesus, and the next dozen or hundred “yesses.” After all, at some point down the road Jesus will say, or do, or ask something that makes us slow down in our tracks. Or, we will have something else along the roadside grab our attention. Have you ever seen the movie UP with that dog being so distracted by that squirrel?  I was having dinner with two of my cousins this past week and we were people watching.  Our grandmother used to love to people watch at the State Fair, so it’s in our genes.  Ha!  We observed a couple who were sitting in front of the sunset on their phones.  It was not just a quick glance, it was a whole 5-7 minutes.  Maybe they were texting each other.  They may be texting one another.  I don’t want to judge.  But these smart phones are easy to get distracted by.  Sometimes we will just long to head back to Galilee and that ship full of fish. That would definitely be easier. It’s the struggle to keep following, to keep in step with the Lord. And the word that sums that it all up is obedience. Being in the making as a disciple takes obedience.

It’s hard to wrap our heads around obedience to God, because in human relationships healthy obedience is so rare. How can we obey someone else if even the best make mistakes? And, at worst, human “obedience” can be totally corrupt, based in fear, coercion, control or manipulation. Think about child soldiers in Africa or abusive households. Think about the big ways in history that the people of faith have gone wrong: the Pharisees, the crusades, the inquisition, legalistic fundamentalism, the Jonestown massacre. Because of our fallen human condition, “obedience” can go horribly wrong. If we focus on the “rules” TOO MUCH, we miss the freedom Christ wants to give us. If we focus on getting everything “right,” we miss the beauty of grace. Not a cheap grace, as I said last week, but a costly grace. The grace that comes from a Savior that suffers alongside of us, Emmanuel, and was obedient unto death for you and me.

Philippians 2:5-8 says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Some of you may be thinking of course he was obedient. He was and is Jesus. The perfect one. Need I remind you of his 40 days in the wilderness, of temptation after temptation, or him praying in the Garden of Gethsemane “Take this cup from me.” It’s not easy to be obedient. Not even for Jesus, who was at the same time God and man.

If we own our discipleship and we’re growing more and more like Christ, it’s still going to be hard at times to be obedient, to walk in the way that leads to life. We have a hard time with obedience, because most of our culture rejects it. We want to take the easy way out, get out of things, or be ambivalent. My peers, the millennials and younger, look at all that broken human history and we mistrust human institutions and traditions, especially the Church. We say, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Question everything. Preserve your freedom!” And, culturally, we’ve concluded that there is ultimately only one person who is trustworthy to obey — ourselves. Let that sink in a little bit. Some say the only person you can truly depend on is your self. But the problem with that is my “self” is just as human as everyone else. I operate under the same fallen human condition. If I think obeying only myself is going to solve anything: *newsflash* how has that gone for me so far? I find, sometimes, that myself is an idiot. “I” am just as corrupt and self-centered and off-base as any institution. The Christian faith tells us that our only hope is to be guided by something that exists outside of this broken, fallen system. Something, or rather Someone, who loves us, who understands all the perfection and glory that God meant for us before the fall. Where are we going to find Someone like that? As a matter of fact, he came to find us, and his name is Jesus. It’s totally counter-intuitive, but what it means is that the only way for any of us to be truly free, or to be our truest selves, is to give ourselves over to him. We’ve got to lose our lives to save them. Jesus calls us to live counter-culturally. Obey God alone. Follow Jesus’ instructions. Go where the Spirit leads you. Trust.
I think we get a great glimpse of it in Matthew 10:5-15 today. It’s a great picture, literally, of what comes next right after the disciples have first said “Yes” to begin following Jesus. And it says a lot for proper obedience.
Matthew 10:5-15
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.
All of a sudden for basically the first time in Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples are going to leave the training wheels behind and ride the bikes. Jesus takes them aside for special instructions, and they’re being sent out. Can you put yourselves in the disciples’ shoes? It’s been a sweet deal. They’ve been little tag-alongs, watching Jesus do the fireworks, and being in awe like everybody else. Not only that, but they’re probably starting to be noticed, right? Like, fame by association since they’re his inner circle, like the tv show Entourage. If Jesus is the lead singer of this boy-band that everybody swoons over, sooner or later someone will start to notice the rest of us, his disciples. There’s the bad boy – Judas; the one with the good hair – Philip; the cute one – Bartholomew; the other cute one – Simon the Zealot, and so on. No risk, no effort, no tough decisions, all reward. Until Jesus says, now I’m sending you out, and by the way, I’m not coming with you. And, by the way, you’re still going to be responsible for carrying on my mission in just as powerful a way as you’ve seen me do it. As Scooby Doo would say, *Ruh roh*.
I, personally, may be a little freaked out with this change. Jesus is giving specific instruction about how to go about this mission, but he says he wants us to do these things AND not take practically ANYTHING with us!?!?!?! I admit, I’m a bit of a control freak. You may not fully realize this about me, but I like things a certain way. Some may call it OCD, some may call it organized, whatever. I’ve had to learn the hard lesson of not being so self-reliant and independent that it begins to becomes an idol or a mantra. “I can do it myself.” Just like a kid learning to do something for the first time shouting, “By Myself!!” Thomas Merton writes, “All the good that you do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used for God’s love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.” We need to let go of the need to prove ourselves. We are enough. We are called to be Disciples of the Most High King. We all need not our own ways, but God’s provision for each of us. That God will pick us up and dust us off when we fall from the bike with no training wheels. We may scratch and scrape our knees, but our God works things for good for those who love God, and what is seen is only temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. We have to trust that if we risk ourselves and are obedient, he will give us the power and authority to move mountains.
One of the biggest ways we turn away from obedience is we doubt ourselves. We doubt our abilities. We aren’t comfortable with God’s call. And we, ultimately, secretly say to ourselves: he’ll just get someone else to cover this. Surely it can’t depend on me? There are 12 other disciples, there are millions of other Christians, there are so many better Christians than me. I’d rather just be the one “with the good hair.” But Jesus challenges that here. Jesus wants them to not only hear the Good News but take it to the world. Jesus not only wants them to see miracles, but perform them. Jesus wants them to seek out the lost, the last and the low, not the easy crowds that have gathered to hear a celebrity preacher or a magician. Jesus wants them to seek out the Zacchaeus in the group, the bent over woman, the Samaritan. Karl Barth writes, “The human righteousness required by God and established in obedience — the righteousness which according to Amos 5:24 should pour down as a mighty stream — has necessarily the character of a vindication of right in favor of the threatened innocent, the oppressed poor, widows, orphans, and aliens. For this reason, in the relations and events in the life of his people, God always takes his stand unconditionally and passionately on this side and on this side alone: against the lofty and on behalf of the lowly; against those who already enjoy right and privilege and on behalf of those who are denied and deprived of it.”
What crowd do you think Jesus would hang out with today? Republicans? Democrats? Independents? Green Party? Everything in between? Police officers? Protesters? National Guard? First Responders? Anarchists? Red? Yellow? Black? White? Brown Hair? Purple Hair? Don’t Care. God gives his prevenient grace to all people. God woos us to God’s self before we’re even aware of it. We are ALL created in the image of God. Who would Jesus want to reach? All of us sinners and saints. You. Me. The person on the other side of the political divide, cultural divide, any kind of divide.
I’ll close with these words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Humanly speaking, it is possible to understand the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways. But Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience — not interpreting or applying it, but doing and obeying it. That is the only way to hear his words. He does not mean for us to discuss it as an ideal. He really means for us to get on with it.”
Matthew 5:3-11,
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. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

A Different World

I want to thank all of the volunteers that worked at Point Hope’s Vacation Bible School this past week.  I want to thank each of the parents and children.  It was a blessing to Mike and me because it was the first full VBS our kids have experienced and they LOVED it!  Evy was hesitant to to go to school in the summer until she and Enoch experienced all the fun of Cave Quest and the characters that taught them about Jesus. We celebrated our Cave Quest VBS singing Light of the World and This Little Light of Mine this past Sunday. In the middle we had our children’s sermon, in the mystery box, the little girl who was visiting her grandmother who had been one of the helpers at VBS, put in a rock crystal and a flashlight.  I talked about how we all look like ordinary rocks until you look on the inside and one of the children piped up and said we “sparkle.” The love of Jesus makes us sparkle and we need to share it with others. The flashlight can be used to see our sparkle when we forget Whose we are and we can let others know that they have sparkle inside them too.  I encouraged them if we all shine our lights together then the whole world will sparkle.

During the choir’s beautiful anthem, I started thinking about the kids and how they’re going to grow up in a different world than any of us.  Are they prepared?  Are they prepared with the full armor of God as they go out every day?  Even in our homes are we protecting them from seeing the horrors of the news and if we let them see bits and pieces are we answering their questions resting in God to give us the answers?  Answers that bring more peace and love into the world.  It’s not only scary “out there,” but it’s scary “in here” as we try to answer questions that have hard answers or don’t have any.  And yet, they give me hope each week.  The child-like faith.  We need to have it.  I believe in the South Carolina motto “Dum Spiro Spero” or in English “While I breathe, I hope.”  I’m hopeful that if we DO shine our lights for ALL the world to see and resist hiding it under a bushel and we DO the hard work of putting into PRACTICE the big and small ways of what makes for peace.  As Jesus thought to himself on the way to the cross in Luke 19:42, “42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.”  It comes out not only when we talk about politics, but it comes in the entire fullness of life.  In our conversations with THAT co-worker or THAT family member, in our interactions with gas station clerks or the cashiers at the grocery store, in our day-to-day lives 24*7*365.  I know it’s a struggle with all of the chaos swirling around us.  That’s why I’m careful of what influences and shapes my world view.

My mom and I were going to Isle of Palms and there is a big American flag on the top of the bridge.  I commented the flag has been at half mast a lot lately.  Our world is hurting and grieving and mourning; or their apathetic and over it because they can’t handle anymore heartache.  Jesus promises to be there with us in the mountaintops and the valleys and I think he calls us to do the same.  I’ll leave you what I was led to read this morning.

Matthew 5:1-12

5When 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. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

May we live the light of Christ.  May we shine the light of Christ showing the world they have God’s sparkle inside of them.  May we do the things that make for peace whether it be prayer, responding in love, or being careful in what influences us.  May we get through this TOGETHER because we’re stronger, wiser, and more attuned to the Shepherd’s voice when we are living in Christ-centered community.

Holy and Gracious God,
As we gather here in the harbour of your safety
We thank you for fellowship and family.
We ask that you will strengthen us, restore us and inspire us with your love.
Lord, would you fill us with your peace
So that as we journey onwards
We would pour out your love and grace to others.
We ask that our souls would catch the wind of your spirit
so that we would take your promises to all the earth.
Amen.