A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on February 2, 2014 (Fourth Sunday after Epiphany/Communion Sunday)
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. – Matthew 5:1-12
Tonight is the Big Game – Super Bowl XLVIII – the annual contest to determine which is the greatest pro football team this season (I’ve even worn my Denver Broncos shirt for the occasion), and also who can make the cleverest commercial and sell the most cars, beer, chips, etc.
Actually, this seems to be the season for contests and shows to determine who is the greatest in many areas. Last Sunday night was the Grammy awards (for the best musical performances and recordings of the past year). Those awards are much more subjective, and I’m sure there was a lot of debate over whether the winners on that night were truly “the best” of this year. Next week will be the Winter Olympics; coming soon will be the Academy Awards, etc.
You won’t see anyone going up a mountain to teach to the crowds and the cameras, but you will hear plenty of sermons in the days and weeks to come – in interviews and analysis shows. The sermon we will hear is that the goal of life is to be successful – to be the best. We will learn who are the winners and losers, and what it takes to make it to the top.
And the lesson we will learn is, “Successful are the talented.” There is nothing like natural ability. But we will also learn that, many times, talent alone isn’t enough. Successful are the hard-working, the tough, the ones who don’t quit. And maybe that would be a good sermon, if it were always true, and if the only goal of life were success. But sometimes we discover that successful are the richest, and the most beautiful, and sometimes just the most outrageous. Successful are the ones who will push the limits and bend the rules to get an advantage. Sometimes the successful are the ruthless, who let nothing and no one get in the way. Sometimes success just comes down to luck. Which somehow just doesn’t seem fair.
Success is not necessarily a bad thing. If we care about something, we want to do it well. Striving for success can push us to be better. But perhaps life is more than success. Because no one can be successful at everything. And success is fleeting – the best football team of last year isn’t even playing in the big game today.
And we eventually learn that successful people aren’t always happy. Some are driven and obsessed. Their lives can be a mess.
Jesus went up on a mountain to teach. What he had to teach – as recorded in Matthew 5-7 – has come to be known as his “Sermon on the Mount.” And in this sermon, he points us to an alternative vision of what life could be about – should be about. It is about being “blessed.” And it is such an odd concept in our culture that many people would wonder what the heck he was talking about.
I mean, who wants to be poor – in spirit, or in anything? Who wants to be in mourning? Who wants to be meek, or persecuted? These are things we try hard to avoid!
Many folks over the centuries have dismissed Jesus’ teachings at “unrealistic.” They don’t work in the real world of competition. They don’t work in a dangerous world. Maybe they don’t lead to success. But look deeper – perhaps they lead to life, at least human life as God intended it to be.
To better understand what Jesus was talking about, I have found it helpful to get some insights into exactly what he meant by being “blessed,” and what he meant by these words he used like “poor in spirit,” “meek,” and so on. One way of trying to get a better picture of what Jesus was teaching about is to hear these familiar words in an unfamiliar way. These are the words in the contemporary paraphrase of the Bible known as the “The Message,” by Eugene H. Peterson:
When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed up a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving in a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:
“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 your 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.
Matthew 5:1-12, from “The Message” by Eugene H. Peterson
What do you think? What insights do these words give you about what Jesus was talking about? (Allow some time for responses and discussion)
Let me end with this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and pastor who lived during the time that the Nazis controlled Germany – a time that brought about WWII in Europe. He had a chance to leave Germany to live safely in the United States, but he chose instead to stay in Germany to resist the evils he saw taking hold there, and to try to build a church community that refused to go along with the Nazis. I guess you could he was successful, in that he got arrested and imprisoned for his teachings, and was eventually executed just before Germany was defeated.
“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.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
I don’t think Jesus was an unrealistic crackpot when he taught about being blessed. I think he was on to something. Maybe we should start to take him seriously.
Robert J. von Trebra