January 29, 2017
4th Sunday after Epiphany, Commissioning Sunday
“Why Would Anyone Seriously Consider Following Christ?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
He said: 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 be shown 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 because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Thank you, Lauren. I confess that this is one of the more confounding passages - for me - in the Bible. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Who wants to be an Eeyore? Blessed are the mourners. Who wants to be a habitual funeral junky? I’m not keen on becoming a farmer, so I’m not so sure about the meek inheriting the earth business. And righteousness? Any one of us could probably come up with folks that are puffed up with their own self-righteousness, why would any of us want to walk that fine line of righteous vs. self-righteous? We all could contribute to this vein of thought until the cows come home, but it probably won’t get us any ice cream in the end - cows - milk.
Sometimes this list of character traits is described as the Be-Attitudes, as in “be” this “attitude” of merciful and pure in heart and all the others. But when you back away from the list a little, and knowing what we know about Jesus, I don’t think that attitude was his target, either. Like so many things, I think that Jesus was not only asking us to live our lives in this heaven-bound way, but that these “traits” become goals that will eventually bubble up through our very beings.
I never dawned on me to look into how the Beatitudes would explained to children, but while I was doing some study on the passage, I discovered a lot of online sites that do just that. I’m not sure exactly if dltk-bible.org is a homeschooling website or just what, but I think that whoever wrote the page on the Beatitudes had rather “right on.”
“Jesus starts off with blessed are those who are poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Being poor in spirit means that we aren't attached to all the stuff that we have. That you understand that God has given you all the great things or blessings and we should be very thankful and even willing to give them up or share them with others. All our things on earth doesn't matter because we can't take it with us to heaven which will be more amazing than we can imagine.” My question is, why didn’t Jesus just say that?
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Mourning is when we're really sad. Maybe you've cried because you got hurt or someone you knew died but this is different than that. This is being very upset about those people that haven't heard about God or even about the (bad things in life we call evil. (sin in your life.) You might not think about these things very much yet but as you get closer to God this will bother you and that's okay. God promises to comfort us when we need it.” Note to self: Do I really feel badly about those who haven’t heard about God? Second note to self: What am I doing about that negative thing in my life - that evil - that seems to follow me wherever I go?
“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. Being meek is being patient, not easily angered and not thinking of yourself too highly. A bad example of this in the Bible were the Pharisees. They would make sure people knew that they were fasting and praying and seemed proud about what they were doing for God. Except God is looking for us to do these things without putting on a show for others but doing it just for God, not for approval from others.” Note to self: cancel the bragging I was going to sneak into discussion about cleaning up my office a week ago - not that anyone could tell today.
“Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Being righteous is impossible on our own. Can we always do right by God? No, and God knows that. We can try our best to do the right thing and if we don't, we can ask for forgiveness and the forgiveness erases all the bad.” Erases all the bad. It’s as good a line as one of my favorite Facebook comedians says, “I’m not as growed up in God as I thought I was.”
“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. To have mercy is to be loving and kind to others. This doesn't mean just being loving and kind to your family and friends but also to those who you might not know and even those you don't like.” Ooo, Lord, there are a lot of us that are needing reminding about this mercy piece. A lot of us.
“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Jesus is talking about the place where we think and make decisions, why we do things, and our thoughts. If we keep our mind, thoughts and decisions full of good, God says we'll understand God more.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. The simplest way to explain this is someone who makes peace. Helping others to get along would be a big part of it.” Note for later contemplation: What am I saying - or writing - that is disturbing the peace? Not in terms of party music volume, but things that if they were said to me by someone from an opposing viewpoint, might make my hackles rise?
While all these simplified explanations are good and perhaps even something that was meant for your heart today, it is the last explanation that brings us to the point of this morning’s message.
“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. God knows that being who God wants (us to be) is not the way the world acts. By doing the opposite of the world, we will be made fun of or worse, because people don't understand why we don't do things only for ourselves. By living a life of doing things for others confuses the way the world thinks. A lot of people in the world want beauty, money, and don't care about others as long as they get what they want. This is opposite to the life God wants us to lead. Doing the right thing isn't easy but God wants us to know that the kingdom of heaven is waiting for us if (when) we can get through the tough times in this life.”
When you put all this Beatitude stuff together, that’s a lot of work! It means we have to be a little more on our toes and make more of an effort to not only think before we speak, but to be willing to ask for forgiveness when we’ve said something that is “less than” what we would rather have said. And besides, there is the Old Testament passage of Ecclesiastes that tells us that there are times in life when we need to speak and act contrary to the life that Jesus is describing in Matthew 5.
But that is the difference, that “there are times” versus “being.” At the end of all these ways that Jesus tells us to be, he said, “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Granted, none of us would necessarily sign up for religious persecution. But persecution for the sake of persecution isn’t the point. Great will be our “reward in heaven” is the point.
None of us, obviously, knows what heaven is like. But isn’t it better to place our bets on there being a heaven, a heaven of infinite blessing and reward, than to discover a place of infinite condemnation or even infinite nothing? And if, while we are waiting for that place of infinite blessing, we are able to help others see that goal, and at the same time, create lives of blessing, ours as well as anyone else, then why would we walk away from that? Why, then, would anyone NOT seriously follow Christ?
Holy God of all grace, you know that we sometimes get it wrong. You know that sometimes we get tired and are ready to throw the baby out with the bath water. For those times, we ask for your forgiveness. And we also ask for extra measures of patience, and courage and wisdom, that we may think better before we speak, ask for forgiveness when we fail, and the smarts to help us from continuing those things that drag us all down. Tip our chins up when our heads fall in despair, straighten our backs when we feel defeated and aimless. Help us to see the path you have designed for us, the path that ultimately leads to you and home. And all your people say, Amen.