Throughout the Scriptures, God’s presence is frequently encountered up on mountains; prophets have exchanges and receive instructions from God on mountains. Ancient people believed that, since the heavens were the locus of God, they could be closer to God on a mountaintop than anywhere else on earth.
And so, it is of no great surprise that when Jesus wants to teach his disciples about the nature of God and the values of the kingdom of God, where does Jesus go? The mountain.
As Jesus leads his disciples up to that high place, we are reminded of the prophetic promise from Isaiah, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths…” (Isaiah 2:2-4).
And it seems that teaching is exactly what Jesus has planned as he leads us up this mountain.
The gospel today begins what we know of as the Sermon on the Mount which, in the gospel of Matthew, goes on for three chapters. I hope you’ll join us in Faith Connections beginning next week, as we look more deeply into this Sermon that Jesus delivers there on the mountain, but here, today, at the very beginning Jesus gives the fundamentals for walking a godly path – he opens with what we know of as the “Beatitudes.”
You may be familiar with The Beatitudes from having heard them over the years. Maybe you even had to memorize some of them when you were in Sunday School.
When we hear these teachings, we might hear the message simply as one of comfort. After all, through this sermon, Jesus delivers affirmation to those who are meek, who mourn, who are desperate for justice and we acknowledge that includes many in our world today. Perhaps we see these affirmations as belonging to us.
We might find consolation in the beatitudes for the blessed assurance they offer those who suffer that they will not be forgotten but will receive ultimate justice. In fact, Jesus goes a step or two beyond comfort. “They won’t just be comforted in the future, but they are blessed, NOW,” he says.
A close reading of the Beatitudes reveals not just a set of promises, but a totally different set of values than we are used to. These values lead us to see God’s desire for the way we should engage in the welfare of our neighbor, conduct our affairs with the other’s welfare in mind, and see ourselves as inter-related children of God, created, valued and loved equally by our maker. The beatitudes call us to a way of life consistent with God’s values, taught by Jesus; shaped by the cross.
The prophet Micah sums up God’s position in our first reading this morning: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
The problem is that we do a lousy job of walking humbly or doing justice. We forget God’s instructions to love kindness, given so that we might live in healthy relationships with God and with each other.
Instead, we create chaos and heartbreak, we perpetrate injustice and oppression by our action, and by our inaction.
To make clear the differences between what God values, and the worldly values under which we so often operate, we have an exercise this morning, for which I have a little help, using the framework of the Beatitudes.
I invite you to listen carefully as, to each point in the Beatitudes, there is a counterpoint, reflecting the worldly values that so often shape our real desires and behaviors. What you are about to hear are the Beatitudes as Jesus taught them, answered by corresponding “Meatitudes”, based on our common experience.
For instance, Jesus says:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The world responds:
Blessed are the rich, for they will control their own fate.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
To which the world answers:
Blessed are those who never mourn, for they will have no need for comfort.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are the arrogant, for they will conquer the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are those who compromise their ideals, for they will never be disappointed.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are those who justifiably retaliate, for they will have no need to receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the psychologically aware, for they will find themselves.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are the warmakers, for they will be called defenders of peace, with justice for all.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who annihilate their attackers in the name of righteousness, for they will have prolonged their days on earth.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Blessed are you when people accept you and honor you because of your willingness to conform to the status quo. Take satisfaction in this, for in the same way the world has applauded its great people in the past. [i]
The point of reading these two, competing sets of values side by side is to illustrate that Jesus is teaching not just a theoretical lesson in niceness but a true way of life shaped by the love of God and the cross of Christ.
When we are so tied up in looking after ourselves first and controlling our own fate that we never mourn, or are arrogant, or compromise our ideals and the values Jesus teaches, we in fact fail to do what God has told us.
The truth is, we fail at these things all the time. Such is the weight of sin. It is what we confessed and sought forgiveness for at the beginning of our service this morning. We need God’s mercy and grace, and the constant reminder of Jesus, to cherish what God cherishes.
God does not desire lip-service, nor extraordinary acts of sacrifice and offering, as Micah points out.
Rather, in Christ God has shown us, Beloved People, what is good:
To do justice,
to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with God.
While the values of the kingdom life into which Jesus calls us reflect the goodness and kindness, generosity and self-giving capacity of God, the values of the world seek to not only preserve but to build up the self at all costs.
Through the beatitudes, Jesus reminds us what we are incapable of remembering for ourselves; the values of the kingdom, those counter-cultural, foolish, naïve values –the values that reflect the cross, which look nothing like our world.
Jesus showed us, by his associations, through his healing work, and by his teaching, that the least among us are among the most favored in the kingdom of God. Within God’s reign, those who have no hope are given hope.
Jesus’ values declare that every single life has value and should be honored, especially the lives of those who are the most at risk; these are the blessed. In ancient times, God names these in the Scriptures as the widow, the alien, and the orphan. Today we name them the poverty-stricken in every land, the disabled, the migrant, the refugee, the immigrant.
My friends, in his letter today, Paul reminds us that by the world’s standards we are fools to subscribe to Jesus’ teachings. We are ignorant to believe in a savior who teaches us that the way to eternal life is to follow the way of the cross. We are ridiculous to confess the name of Jesus Christ as Lord, and to declare that the light and life he gives, which are the hallmarks of his kingdom are worth more than any power the world can bestow.
In a world where power, wealth and status are the marks of success and must be preserved at all costs, Jesus calls foolish, ignorant, ridiculous believers blessed. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake, blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.”
In the Beatitudes, Jesus calls blessed those who dare to speak out against the oppression, injustice and persecution that marks our world.
The Beatitudes are much more than the mushy, sentimental treatise that we have often made of them. Rather, they are Jesus’ own call, his manifesto, if you will, to revolution, to change the world, by doing justice, by loving kindness, and by walking humbly with God.
Jesus declares that in the deep-down hunger that we feel for the oppressed, for the disadvantaged, the ridiculed and spat upon, for the marginalized, for the despised, we who mourn will be comforted as they are comforted.
We will be comforted as we reach out and speak for the vulnerable, as we make phone calls and write letters to protest violations of human rights and dignity. The meek will be blessed as those who follow God’s will to do justice, And to love kindness, And to walk humbly with God seek security for the least of our sisters and brothers in the world. We will be comforted when we use our voices to combat oppression, abandonment, cruelty and injustice.
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Settlement President Linda Hartke said, "It is deeply ingrained in our faith and our understanding of the Bible that we're called to welcome the stranger and love and serve our neighbors," says. "Not the neighbors that we choose, but the neighbors that God gives to us."
Meekness and mercy are lived out in every day acts of kindness. God empowers not the superheroes and gurus but the merciful. The beatitudes aren’t a job description of who’s allowed into the kingdom, rather they offer a description of those who are already here, working in the trenches, humbly serving the one who, emptied of power and dignity on the cross, is raised to new life for the sake of the whole world.