a sermon on Matthew 5:1-12 preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on January 16, 2011
You may have noticed something a little different and strange about the pulpit this morning – there’s a little extra decoration around the base of it. You see, we’re up on the mountain today and over the next seven weeks, working our way through Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, and I figured a little visual reminder of this might help us all to keep this in mind! Chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s gospel recount these famous words spoken by Jesus to his disciples and the crowds who followed him up the mountain, and in these three chapters we find a great deal of what stands at the center of the Christian message. Here on the mountain Jesus offered his disciples what has come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer. Here Jesus laid out the simple and beautiful beatitudes, nine statements of blessing for those we might least expect. Here Jesus called out the hypocrites for giving alms and offering prayers so that they might be seen doing it. Here Jesus conveyed his own version of what we have termed the golden rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” Here Jesus suggested that judgment must be as much about the one making the judgment as it is about the one being judged. And here Jesus responded to different viewpoints on how to follow the law and prophets of the Hebrew scriptures by suggesting that the spirit and the letter of the law matter. Over the next seven weeks, we’ll look at these and other wonderful sayings of Jesus from this sermon that give us a vision of something new from up on the mountain, all concluding on Transfiguration Sunday, when we celebrate how Jesus himself was transformed on another mountain as a sign of the transformation that is possible for us too. And so we revisit these familiar words, hoping that the mountain will strengthen us and hold us fast in our faith, but nonetheless remembering that Jesus offered the Sermon on the Mount not to comfort the people and enshrine their way of life but rather to challenge them by offering a vision of something new.
Jesus opened his sermon up on the mountain with a provocative series of statements of blessing that we heard a few minutes ago, but I want to read them again, this time from that often-helpful paraphrase The Message.
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 ‘carefull,’ 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.
You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution.
The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
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.
While there is something important in each of these statements of blessing, I think that they are best understood when we read them as a whole, because the reality is that none of them are really about God showing particular blessing to those in a particular predicament. Instead, in the Beatitudes Jesus offers a broad stroke against the way the world appears to be and assumes to operate, insisting that God’s blessing is not for the rich and famous and powerful but belongs instead to those in greatest need and proclaiming that God is overturning the supposed wisdom of the world and putting forth a new and different way.
As such, Jesus makes it clear from the beginning of this time on the mountain that things look different here in this place where God’s new way – God’s kingdom – has started to take hold. The poor are the ones who will inherit all good things here. Those who mourn here will not be left alone in their grief. Those who trust God to free and redeem will be set loose from the bonds of injustice here. Those who hunger and thirst here will be filled and their thirst quenched. Those who show mercy and forgiveness will find it shared with them here. Those who live with integrity in body, mind, and spirit will find God at work here. Those who seek reconciliation and wholeness will find it in their life with God here. Those who are threatened because of their behavior that follows in this way will be at home in this place. And those who suffer because of Jesus’ own life and message can rejoice because that suffering is not the final word, just as it was not the final word for Jesus himself. In the end, though, blessing comes less from these individual things being realized and more from justice and peace becoming the norm, love and mercy prevailing always, and a vision of something new taking hold in the world.
Making this vision of wholeness and newness real isn’t as easy as it would seem. At one level, these are incredibly simple practices and moves for living that can seemingly be lived out so easily. It would seem easy to give up everything and be poor, to mourn, to trust God, to remain hungry and thirsty, to show mercy and forgiveness, to live with integrity, to seek reconciliation and wholeness, and all these other things. But if we take these words seriously, we see how difficult all these things really are. We see how hard it is for us to let go of our way of life, to trust that there is something more than what we can directly control, to show others the respect we demand for ourselves, to seek reconciliation rather than furthering brokenness, or to open ourselves to suffering for the sake of others.
The reality is that we will never reach this way of life on our own. No individual can fully embody this way of life. Even the most faithful among us struggle with sin and fall short of the fullness of life that God intends for us and our world. Even the true prophets among us will find it difficult to bring these blessings down from the mountain, and as one commentator puts it, “Even people in churches will regard the Beatitudes as impossible, impractical, and foolish.” (Stanley P. Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew)
The Beatitudes, then, call us to a way of life that we can’t make happen on our own – but that doesn’t make us exempt from trying to live them out, nor does it make it okay to just leave them for a day beyond our grasp. We can’t just pretend like they are some view of some promised land we will never reach or will only find once we are no longer in this world – the way of life Jesus proposed as he began this conversation up on the mountain must always be before us as our goal and hope.
But living the Beatitudes becomes possible, practical, and even wise when we live them together and trust that God will work through us to make all things new. When we seek to discern how to respond to the poor in spirit as a congregation, we are blessed. When we join those who mourn death and darkness and injustice in our world and start working to shine new light into these places, we are blessed. When we trust the wisdom of God above and beyond our own intelligence to guide our life together, we are blessed. When we seek to satisfy the real, deep hungers and thirsts around us, both physical and spiritual, we are blessed. When we show mercy and grace to one another and all the world, we are blessed. When we live integrated, faithful lives that are true to the creation whom God made us to be, we are blessed. When we make wholeness, healing, and peace possible in the relationships around us and demonstrate that in our life together, we are blessed. And when others hurt and persecute us or walk away from our fellowship because we live in these ways of wholeness and faithfulness rather than just checking off obedience to a series of rules and regulations, we are blessed.
Living the Beatitudes together isn’t easy, but it is what God intends – how God intends for us to demonstrate that the world does not have the final word, how God invites us to stand up and live in a new and different way, how God allows us to join in the new thing that Jesus proclaimed from atop the mountain. And so from this mount may we see a vision of the life God intends for us and seek to live in this way together every day even as we open our eyes to what God intends for us and our world and we wait and work for Jesus’ vision to become real through God’s work all around us.
Lord, come quickly! Amen.