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SERMON: The Beatitudes
We began our series on The Sermon on the Mount last week with a simple statement:
"The essence of the Sermon on the Mount is a restatement of Torah and a renewed vision of the type of people God created us to be."
In The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reestablished the standard of God's righteousness and calls us to measure up. God loves us, even when we fall short – which is most of the time – yet, as we strive for the righteousness of God we experience the fullness of God's grace and love.
That's what the Beatitudes have in store for us this morning: God bestows his richest blessings on those who are poor; on those who mourn; on the meek; on those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; on the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and all those who are persecuted because of their faithful witness. So, let's take a closer look at the Beatitudes and listen for how they speak to us today. They begin,
"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." (Matthew 5:3)
There are two words for poor in the Greek language. One refers to those who work hard to make a living but never quite have enough; the other refers to those who are totally destitute. The first have nothing luxurious; the latter have nothing at all. What we're talking in this beatitude is the latter. Whether physically or spiritually impoverished, God's richest blessings fall on those who are absolutely and totally dependent on God.
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As we've seen in our daily Bible readings, the people of Israel were strongest when they had nothing else to rely on except the strength of God's blessing. For example, in 2nd Chronicles, we read this week how, during the reign of Jehoshaphat, three neighboring kingdoms formed a coalition to wage war on Judah. Jehoshaphat knew they were in trouble, so he summoned the people to come to Jerusalem for a meeting. They gathered in the courtyard of the temple and he prayed:
"Our God, will you not judge them?
For we have no might against this great company
that comes against us;
neither know we what to do,
but our eyes are on you." (2 Chronicles 20:12)
To cut to the chase, God gave them the victory. The warring factions turned on each other before they ever got to Jerusalem, and there was a great slaughter. The people of Judah didn't have to lift a finger. God alone was their salvation.
It's ironic, but true: Those who have nothing have all they need when they rely on God. That's the story of David and Goliath in a nutshell. David faced the great Philistine giant and said,
"You come to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a javelin:
but I come to you in the name of Yahweh of Armies,
the God of the armies of Israel,
whom you have defied." (1 Samuel 17:45)
And the rest is history. Let's move on to the next beatitude.
"Blessed are those who mourn,
for they shall be comforted."
We all know what it's like to grieve over the loss of a loved one, to experience the emptiness of a broken heart. To those who know the pain of grief, this beatitude is a promise: "Don't despair, you shall be comforted." But there's more to it than that, for it also contains a word of hope for those who grieve over the pain and injustices of life itself.
Have you ever cringed to see the sullen faces of starving children on T.V.? Or felt sick at your stomach when you heard of an innocent child being abducted and raped and murdered? Or had your heart go out to those who were victimized by the cold, cruel barriers of prejudice? If so, you can take comfort in knowing that our God is a jealous God who hears the cries of his children and will, one day, deliver them from their oppressors. In the meantime, to mourn is to be on their side. It's also to be a friend of Jesus, who said, "Most certainly I tell you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." (Matthew 25:40) The next Beatitude is one of our least favorites:
"Blessed are the gentle,
for they shall inherit the earth."
I don't have to tell you there's not a great market for gentleness in the United States. Ours is a nation founded on the principle of rugged individualism. Meekness in our culture connotes submissiveness, cowardice, a lack of strength and resolve.
It was different in Jesus' day. Meekness was no sign of weakness. The word had to do with inner strength, humility and self-control. It was used to describe an animal like a horse or mule harnessed for work, where all of its power and energy was focused on getting the job done.
One of my favorite symbols of ordained ministry is the clergy stole. It reminds us of the scene in the upper room where Jesus girded himself with a towel and washed the disciples' feet. It also reminds us of a yoke and how we're called to serve, not to be served; that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we are to follow the leading of his Spirit.
This not only goes for ministers, but for everyone baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. We call it the priesthood of all believers. Each of us is called to check our impulses and surrender our wills to God's will and serve others, to the glory of God. When we do, we inherit a greater legacy than the world has ever known. The next beatitude reads,
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,
for they shall be filled."
If meekness is a hard concept for us to stomach, this Beatitude may even be harder. That's because we're not accustomed to being hungry and thirsty. We're used to eating three meals a day – on time – with snacks in between. We're seldom far from a water fountain or a Coke machine. It's hard enough for us to know what it's like to hunger and thirst for food and drink, much less for righteousness.
I used to lead elementary church camps in the summer. We'd be outdoors most of the day, usually in late June or July. We'd spend the day doing Bible study and crafts, singing and swimming and playing softball in the late afternoons. It was great fun.
One summer we tried something new. We agreed to go all day without eating or drinking anything. No water, no Cokes, nothing. It was a miserable experience, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. By the end of the day our throats were parched, and we were exhausted.
We met for worship down by the lake. We sat in a circle around a big water jug and a plate of peanut and butter sandwiches. One of the adults read this Beatitude and asked, "Now, do you know what it's like to be hungry and thirsty?" We all nodded our heads. She read the verse once more, this time emphasizing the key words: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled." Then she gave us all a big drink of water and a sandwich. I'll never forget how sweet and succulent that water tasted. Ever since then I've thought what a better world this would be if we all felt the same sense of urgency about doing what's right. The next Beatitude reads,
"Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy."
We don't like to admit it, but the Bible is pretty clear on this point: The way we treat others is the way we can expect to be treated. That's what Jesus said in the Lord's Prayer, when he taught his disciples to pray, "Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors." The extent of your forgiveness depends on how forgiving you are. The same is true of mercy. The more merciful you are to others, the more likely you are to experience others being merciful to you.
The Greek word for mercy has to do with feeling another person's pain and identifying with another person's need. This is sympathy in the best sense of the word – to experience something in common.
We see this illustrated in music. When two strings of a piano are tuned to the same frequency, they'll both vibrate, even if only one is struck. We call this, "sympathetic vibration." That's the way it is when our hearts are one in Christ. As Paul told the Corinthians, "When one member suffers, all the members suffer with it. Or when one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it." (1 Corinthians 12:26) In this way, to be merciful to others is to reap the benefit of God's mercy for us all. Let's move on. The next beatitude reads,
"Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they shall see God."
Purity is a term that speaks for itself. Pure metals don't contain alloys. Pure water is free of contaminants. Pure motives are untainted by self-interest. None of the Beatitudes is more difficult to attain that this, for seldom are our motives entirely pure. For example, you might refrain from actually doing something sinful, but in your heart you may still want to do it. You might do a good deed to help a neighbor only to enjoy the recognition of others who see you doing it.
The implication is that only the pure in heart will be able to see God. Here's what that means to me: When you were a kid, did you ever used to say, "It takes one to know one?" Say, someone called you a name, and you called back, "Oh yeah? Well, it takes one to know one!" It's a sure-fire defense for being called stupid, or a sissy, or a liar. It throws the accusation back on the accuser.
The Good News is that it also works in the positive: It takes one who's pure in heart to recognize others who are pure in heart, so that the purer in heart you are, the closer you come to recognizing the purest in heart, who is God. The next beatitude is another hard one to swallow:
"Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called children of God."
We all know that the Hebrew word for peace is Shalom. What we need to know is that shalom does not mean simply an absence of conflict, but the mutual pursuit of good. To put it another way: Peace is not a passive, inert state of being; but an active, vital relationship of people working together for the common good. To seek peace is not to minimize our differences, but to take each other seriously and to seek God's Will over our individual wants and wishes.
This is why the beatitude refers to the peacemakers, as opposed to those who are simply at peace. Almost everyone wants to enjoy peaceful relations; it takes an intentional effort to actively work for peace. The Psalmist writes:
"Depart from evil, and do good.
seek peace, and pursue it." (Psalms 34:14)
Peacemakers are those who are willing to take the initiative, to make the first move, to enter into a conflict for the sake of finding a resolution and restoring a friendship. I don't have to tell you this takes courage. When there's a conflict, most of us avoid it like The Plague. A peacemaker is one who goes into the fray with the confidence of God's peace within. Listen: The world is full of troublemakers; God calls us to be peacemakers, and when we answer God's call in this way, we know ourselves to be children of God. Let's move on. The Beatitudes end with this:
"Blessed are those who have been persecuted for righteousness' sake,
for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."
There's no way to compare the discomforts and polite ridicule we experience as Christians to the persecutions of the early church where Christians were burned at the stake, thrown to the lions and tortured in unspeakable ways. Hopefully, we'll never know the horrors of that kind of persecution, but we needn't expect to go through life unscathed, because the world we live in is a battlefield, and the more you speak and act in Christ's name, the more likely you are to come under attack.
To speak and act in the name of Jesus is to set yourself up as a target for criticism: "Who does he think he is?" "Mind your own business!" "What are you, some sort of wide-eyed, tree-huggin' liberal … right-wing Christian fundamentalist?" If you've never taken a few hits because of your faith, perhaps you haven't been faithful enough.
Let's wrap it up. Throughout the Heritage Lectures, Lewie Donalson made it clear that, even though Jesus reset the standard of God's righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount, we seldom measure up. "But sometimes we do," Lewie kept saying. "Sometimes we're meek and merciful. Sometimes we mourn for those who suffer." I think what Lewie would have us know is this:
• When the Lord is your strength, and not the things of this world;
• When you share the pain of others, even those you don't know personally;
• When you humbly put on the yoke of Christ and follow his Spirit in faithful obedience;
• When you hunger and thirst for righteousness, as if your life depended on it;
• When you're as merciful and forgiving of others, as God is merciful and forgiving of you;
• When your thoughts and motives are pure and free of self-interest;
• When you use your strengths and resources to effect peace and reconciliation;
• When you're willing to endure personal attacks for the sake of the Gospel,
… then you will enjoy the fullness of God's favor and taste the first fruits of eternal life.
I can't think of an individual who came closer to living the Beatitudes than Pope John Paul II. He exuded compassion for all people, was a tireless advocate for the poor and oppressed, and did as much to promote peace among the nations of the world as anyone. He showed mercy to sinners – once sitting knee-to-knee in a prison cell praying for the man who tried to assassinate him. We knew him as a modest man from humble origins, but with a singular focus – the kingdom of God. And so, I thought it would be fitting to close the sermon by hearing The Beatitudes in his own voice.
Beati i poveri in spirito, perché di essi è il regno dei cieli.
Beati gli afflitti, perché saranno consolati.
Beati i miti, perché erediteranno la terra.
Beati quelli che hanno fame e sete di giustizia, perché saranno saziati.
Beati i misericordiosi, perché troveranno misericordia.
Beati i puri di cuore, perché vedranno Dio.
Beati gli operatori di pace, perché saranno chiamati figli di Dio.
Beati i perseguitati per causa della giustizia, perché di essi è il regno dei cieli.
Beati voi quando vi insulteranno, vi perseguiteranno, e, mentendo, diranno ogni sorta di male contro di voi a causa mia.
Rallegratevi ed esultate, perché grande è la vostra ricompensa nei cieli.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2010, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.