Fourth Weekend After Epiphany (A/RCL)
January 28-29, 2017
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
Think of the happiest person you know – or have ever known. Why are (or were) they so happy?
The beginning phrase of the beatitudes we heard in today’s Gospel is “Blessed are….” Another possible translation is “Happy are….” But I don’t think “happy” really cuts it. Happy can sound happy-clappy. It can hint at surface satisfaction, passing pleasure. The root of our English word happy is hap (as in happenstance); it means chance. When Jesus talks about being blessed He’s talking about a sure thing, not a matter of dumb luck. He’s talking about being solidly rooted in God’s love, not adrift and rudderless on a changing sea.
The word beatitude comes from the Latin word beatus, meaning blessed. When I say, “I’m blessed to have a daughter,” “I’m blessed to have a husband,” “I’m blessed to have a job,” “I’m blessed to have my health,” my choice of words lets you know that I believe God is the Source of those gifts. I’m not just fortunate, I’m blessed to be a US citizen. The fact that I was born here and not elsewhere isn’t a matter of “the luck of the draw” – it’s a blessing from on high.
The beatitudes are really important. Martin Luther says we don’t pay them enough attention or give them enough honor or follow them faithfully: “… we grow sated [become too full too soon] and neglect it [the Sermon on the Mount , including the Beatitudes), as if it had been spoken by some shoemaker rather than the High Majesty of heaven.”1 The Sermon on the Mount is important because Jesus spoke it and especially because it is Jesus’ inaugural address in St. Matthew’s Gospel. (If you check out chapter 4 of St. Matthew’s Gospel in your Bible, you’ll see that Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the desert come right before He preaches the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the beatitudes.) The inaugural address of a president tells us what’s on the president’s agenda, what’s in store for the nation for the next four years. Jesus’ inaugural address, His first sermon, tells us what’s on God’s agenda, what the kingdom of heaven that draws near in Jesus Christ is going to look like. The picture Jesus paints is unexpected and a little crazy. He says the people who will benefit the most from His “administration,” so to speak, include:
· The destitute
· The broken-hearted
· The non-movers-and-shakers, least apt to advance themselves
· The starving and thirsty
· Those who are beat up because they’re standing up for others.
Who would imagine that any of those folks would be described as blessed? As “happy as a human can be”? As “experiencing divine joy”? Jesus says, for instance, “Blessed are those who mourn”; not even the legendary gods on Mt. Olympus are leaping any higher with joy than those who grieve. WHAT can He possibly mean??
Honestly, I don’t know all of what He means and even if I did I couldn’t summarize it in 15 minutes. The dozen verses of today’s Gospel would have to be divied up over 12 weeks, one verse a week, for me to begin to open up what Jesus might mean by it all. (Of course, you could also come to the Matthew Bible study on Feb. 6, a week from this coming Tuesday – when we discuss the Beatitudes for an hour and a half. And to stay out of trouble further, you could even join us at 7 a.m. on Wednesdays, when we’ll be looking at the beatitudes one-by-one in upcoming weeks.)
Jesus turns things upside down and inside out in the Sermon on the Mount and the beatitudes. He announces a Great Reversal like the one Mary sings about in her song of praise, the Magnificat in St. Luke’s Gospel, the holy announcement that the powers-that-be are going to be has-beens:
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush in the Sermon on the Mount: when the kingdom of heaven draws near in Jesus Christ it’s the end of “business as usual.” Jesus comes not just to save individuals but to save the world. But how does God save the world? God saves the world through God’s Son and through the faithful individuals who follow the Son, members of the Body of Christ, the Church:
· People who are poor in spirit, who know their need of God and realize they are lost apart from God’s grace.
· People who mourn their own sin and others’ suffering.
· People who are humble and trusting, seeking God’s will instead of imposing their own.
· People who are so hungry for God’s goodness to reign that it hurts.
· People who forgive others simply because they themselves have been forgiven.
· People who are less concerned that God is on their side than that they are on God’s side.
· People who put what’s precious on the line for peace, even when making peace involves struggle.
· People who get beat up because they stand up for others.
Our synod is offering a workshop on “Becoming an Active Bystander” in E. Brunswick this coming week. It’s about standing up and being counted, teaching how to helpfully and wisely intervene when others’ dignity is under attack.
A man struggles with English at the checkout counter and the clerk jokes with a colleague about immigrants.
A young man is followed by security while looking for a present for his mother's birthday.
A Muslim girl has her hijab snatched off by a stranger in a crowd.
At baptism, Lutheran Christians promise publicly to “love all people following the example of Jesus' and to 'strive for justice and peace in all the earth”. Other major religions also value protecting others from harm. When we observe threatening or harassing behavior, how do we respond? What would you do? This training gives participants tools to build confidence in speaking up and acting to protect others, and promotes positive ways to impact our communities.
That devout student of Scripture, William Barclay, put it this way: Christ “still needs his witnesses; he needs those who are prepared, not so much to die for him, as to live for him.”2 Blessed, outrageously happy, divinely joyful, are those wholisten to His words and do them. Amen
1Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 21, p. 10.
2William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 (rev. ed., The Daily Study Bible Series, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975, p. 118.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham