by Elaine Maust
Matthew 5: 1-12
February 3, 2008
Today we begin a new sermon series at Jubilee. It is called Red Letter Edition. If you happen to have one of those Bibles called a Red Letter Edition, all the words Jesus said are written in red type. Like the Bible up here on the table. For the next ten Sundays we will have sermons based on words of Jesus. All through Lent and Easter we will focus on the words Jesus taught. What did Jesus have to say? What would he want us to know? Our children’s stories in the upcoming weeks will feature a person Jesus met whose encounter with him illustrates the sermon text. So get ready, here comes the Red Letter Edition. If you would like to know what texts and stories to look forward to, check out the bulletin board or ask for your own copy of the series outline. This is one time reading ahead is allowed.
We begin the Red-Letter Edition series with the Beatitudes. It is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7. This section of the Bible has always been a special treasure for Mennonites. From the time of our spiritual ancestors, the Anabaptist, until today, Mennonites have loved the Sermon on the Mount and turned to it for direction. Join me as we explore these important words of Jesus. But before we begin with chapter 5, take a quick look with me at what comes before it. Jesus is baptized in Matthew 3:13-17. Then in Matthew 4 Jesus is led off by the Spirit into the desert where he is tempted. In Matthew 4:12-17, Jesus begins to preach. “Repent,” he says, “the kingdom of heaven is near.” Get ready. Then he calls the first of his teammates, Peter, Andrew, James and John. Then in 23-25 we discover that the Jesus is teaching, preaching and healing and news is spreading about him like crazy. Large crowds are flocking to him and following him everywhere.
Matthew 5:1-2… What will he say? What will he teach? Can you feel the people holding their breaths? Was this miracle worker the one who would lead the people in a revolution from the occupying forces of the Romans? Would this be a campaign speech filled with promises for their struggling economy?
“Blessed.” Happy. Fortunate. To be envied. That’s what blessed meant. And that, by the way, is what I am hoping for you all whenever I say, “God bless you.” But back to the story.
Jesus is beginning this address in the customary way. Preachers these days typically walk up on a platform when they began to teach or preach. In Jesus’ time, speakers sat down. And the Old Testament had a tradition of blessing, so they were familiar with Jesus posture and his style, but what was that he was saying?
Get ready for a real surprise. Can you imagine their astonishment when Jesus said this:
1) “Blessed (happy, fortunate, to be envied) are the poor in spirit. What was that? Isn’t it the rich, the powerful, the popular who are blessed? What was that he’s saying? Was he smiling? Lean forward with the crowd and hear it again.
“Blessed are the poor in Spirit. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” I made quite a discovery on Tuesday. I was rummaging around in the giant class notebook from the class I took during our first sabbatical. There was an outline by Pastor Duane Beck, a Mennonite minister from North Carolina. It was a chart comparing the eight Beatitudes to the 12 steps used by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step groups. It was a goose bumps moment for me, because I had already begun to wonder a bit over this first beatitude, “blessed are the poor in spirit” and Step #1, “we admit we are powerless over alcohol.”
You see, I don’t think that the poor in Matthew 5:3 is referring to a check book balance issue. I think it means, “blessed are those who know they need God.” I think it is saying, the person who realizes they are powerless to make life come out on their own, is fortunate. The Message says it like this, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.” Now that’s what I’m talking about.
How appropriate for us to begin this series with this passage on the week preceeding Ash Wednesday. During Lent the fourty days before Easter, Christians reflect on their need for God and repent of their sins.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”
Blessed are those who know they need God,
God’s whole program (the kingdom) belongs to them.
2) “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted” (v4) The King James Version is my first language when it comes to these beautiful words of Jesus, so I am using my great grandmother’s Bible today.
Fortunate are those who are sorry for their sins, for the things they’ve done wrong. There are those who believe, Clarence Jordan for one, that the listing of the blessed has an order to it. He refers to it as a ladder (hence the outline this morning). Those who believe this way would say that each beatitude builds on the next. This makes sense when we consider the first two together. When I realize how hopeless I am, when I am poor in spirit, I feel terrible, I mourn.
This week a friend who is struggling with recovery told me, “when you work through a layer, you don’t get a prize like a car. You get another layer.” She is grieving. But she is also being comforted.
Beck compares this to the Step 2, “We came to believe a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
“Blessed are they that mourn,
for they shall be comforted.”
Blessed are those who are truly sorry for their sins
they will discover God’s comfort.
3) “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit it earth.” The meek person is the one who is not self-sufficient. In Jesus typical upside down to life as we know it, it isn’t the self made man or the super independent woman who gets the nod. It is the person who that he or she needs help, asks for help and accepts help. It is the meek. In today’s children’s story from Luke 18, we discover that it is not the super religious person who gets Jesus attention, it is the meek person. The one who prays, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.” “Those that humble themselves,” Jesus says, “will be exalted…”
Step 3 is something like this, “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God…”
“Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.”
Fortunate are the folks who are humble enough to admit they need help
for they will discover the resources of the whole world to be theirs.
4) “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.”
What is it that you want more than anything else in the world? Jesus promises satisfaction to those who want to do the right thing more than anything else in the world. They want to do right so much they can taste it. As if they are as hungry for God’s ways as they can be for a cheeseburger, fries, and coke.
Brian told our Believers Class on Sunday, “I made a promise to seek God this year. And as I do, I have those empty days, less and less often.” Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.”
Maybe I should clarify that all of this blessedness (by the way that’s what beatitude means), that all this blessedness is some kind of litmus test for believers. These words of Jesus are not to be understood as, if you don’t measure up to all of this, then you can’t get in. Notice again what we are talking about here! It is not model behavior, but humility. What a relief to know that what God is looking for is a person who knows they need help, not a person who is perfect. Brothers and sisters, I have a chance! Thanks be to God! This is truely the “Good News.” Jesus doesn’t bless the ones who do everything right.
Instead he blesses the ones who admit they need God. Those of us with a healthy consept of how far we have to go, may be God’s favorites. Glory! Step 4, “We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Now that is courage.
“Blessed are they that do hunger and thirst after righteousness
for they shall be filled.”
Happy are those who want what is right more than anything,
for they will be satisfied.
5) “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” (v.7) The first four, poor in spirit, mourn, meek and hungry, seem to refer to attitudes or are inner focused. The final four in the list are more outward focused. Like this one, “Blessed are the merciful.”
It stands to reason that once we have looked our own need for God in the eye and owned that, we are more apt to cut others a bit of slack. Holding ourselves to impossible standards motivates us to do the same to others. The merciful person says, “I have needed a break in my life, and now, so does she, I will forgive her.”
Step 6, “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
Edward Broadhead in his book on the Sermon on the Mount, Demand and Grace, reminds us that the beatitudes are not magic formulas. As in, if you are merciful, then nothing bad will never happen to you. He invites us to look ahead to the end of this list, where the meek may become the persecuted.
But, Broadhead says, this is a new law of return, in which it is not just the wealthy and powerful who attract God’s favor and attention. In fact those who may be most favored are the most needy for God.
Surprise! Even these folks will succeed. In fact, it is only those who are poor, meek, hungry, etc. who will succeed with God.
What good news to the persecuted or belittled people around the world! In congregations where Christians who are oppressed and live under prejudice gather, imagine how these verses of blessing bring comfort. When we sing, “May injustice bow to Jesus,” this is what we are singing the heart of the beatitudes.
“Blessed are the merciful
for they shall obtain mercy.”
To be envied are those who give others slack.
they will find that allowances are also made for them.
6) “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
This is the one that captured my attention this week. I think it means, “Blessed are the honest.” And, if it is in our hearts that we see God, then it makes sense that those whose hearts are clear can see God better.
Ronald Rolheiser, in his book The Holy Longing, writes about being honest with ourselves. “Simple honesty…,” he says, “It alone, can take one to God.” Interestingly, he also quotes Alcoholics Anonymous that: sobriety is only 10% about alcohol; it is 90% about honesty. “If we are honest,” he writes, “eventually God, truth and love will find us.”
But it is not only those who are tempted to drink that have a problem with honesty. Is it? It is all of us. A friend wrote me wise advice recently. On a scrap of paper she wrote, “Always speak the truth.” I stuck it in the front of my date book. I pray for the Holy Spirit, by whose power alone we live out any of these blessings, to help me. Steps 6 & 7, “We are entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.”
“Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they shall see God.”
Blessed are those who are honest,
for they will know God face to face.
7) “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall inherit the earth.” (v9) Comments I read about this blessing emphasized that it is the person who makes peace that is blessed. I wonder how this might have sounded to the ears of those who sat in that multitude that day, who were hoping Jesus would lead military conquest. But Broadhead points out that this blessing assumes a situation of violence or injustice “that is transformed by the creative intervention of the peacemaker.”
Can we be honest here? We are the “pure in heart” after all, right? We are more naturally inclined in the face of violence and injustice to flip the cowardice coin and come up with either, heads, fight, or tails, avoid conflict. Neither of these choices is “peace making.”
Instead we are powered by the Spirit to move into conflict situations with the tools of humility, honesty and mercy, and the others we just listed and we are going to go out and “make us some peace.”
Want to know what peacemaking looks like? Here are Steps 8 & 9 “Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, expect when to do so would injure them or others.”
Peacemakers are easy to recognize. Folks notice immediately the family resemblance. “They shall be called, the children of God.”
Recently friends were over at our house. They saw the picture of our missionary friends in Ecuador, Clayton and Thelma Nisly, on our refrigerator. “They are Mennonites, aren’t they?,” they asked. “Yes,” I said, wondering how they could know. Seeing the question in my eyes they said, “You can tell, they are humble people.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called the children of God.
To be envied are those who make peace.
they will be recognized everywhere as belonging to God.
8) “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (verses 11-12)
It is probable, that those who live lives for God as we’ve described them this morning, will find themselves misunderstood, at least sometimes. Please notice what the persecution is about though, it is “for righteousness sake,” not for doing something stupid or wrong or illegal. It means when you do the right thing and you are punished for it. Sound familiar? Some of you have been there.
Well, good news for you too. You are blessed. In fact, you are right up there with the saints. (v10-11)
And notice the second phrase again, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Where have we heard that before? It is the same one mentioned in verse 3, the first beatitude. The kingdom belonged to Jesus. He could give it to whomever he pleased. And he gave it to those who admit they need God and those who suffer because of it.
Duane Beck pairs Step 10 with the 8th beatitude, “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”
“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Blessed are those who are punished for doing what’s right
for they will be identified with the saints.
This morning as I look out over you, my dear brothers and sisters, I know with all my heart that you are blessed. You are not perfect, but good news, perfect wasn’t on the list. The blessed know they need God, they are sorry for their sins, they humbly ask for help, they want what’s right, they forgive others, they are honest and they make peace. And that’s you! You are the happy, the fortunate and folks most to be envied.
God bless you. Ahhh, God already has.