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?
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then 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.
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.
3 “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
4 “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.
5 “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.
6 “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.
7 “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
8 “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
9 “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.