Good News or not?

February 2, 2020

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15:1-5
Matthew 5:1-12

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 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 receive 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 for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Let us pray: God our deliverer, you walk with the meek and the poor, the compassionate and those who mourn, and you call us to walk humbly with you. When we are foolish, be our wisdom; when we are weak, be our strength; that, as we learn to do justice and to love mercy, your will may come as blessing. Amen.

I can’t decide whether the Gospel passage is good news or not.  Of course, I know that everything in the Bible is “Good News,” but I am looking at on a much more personal level.  Is this good news for us modern day Christians?  We are not really hungry and thirsty people in the grand scheme of things.  I don’t think any of us are blocking the entrance to military bases, you might have decades ago but not so much today. We are more likely to promote peace by going green and at the ballot box.  Is that enough to be really considered a peacemaker.  Call me cynical but I hate to break it to you, none of us are really pure in heart.  Now some of us mourn, sometimes we are meek, occasionally we might be poor in spirit.  But overall, these descriptions don’t fit us.  So, it makes me wonder, how is this good news for us today?   Does this mean we don’t receive God’s blessing?  It is so, hard to know whether we read it as good news or bad news, but one thing is certain is that it is confusing.

So many of us in our modern-day world want quick fixes and easy answers- give us the facts.   Tell me exactly what to do to be a Christian, to be saved, to be blessed.  What do you want from me God?  Just cut to the essentials and tell me.

Keep this in mind as we explore the familiar beatitudes.  I think part of the problem with the beatitudes, as they are called, is that we misunderstand them.  We underestimate their power.  Even more important for understanding Matthew 5:1-12 is an understanding of what a beatitude is.  A beatitude is a blessing or announcement of God’s favor. This is where the sayings of Jesus get difficult for us.   Jesus is not commanding or demanding his listeners to do something: “We ought to be poor in spirit” or “Let us be meek” or “We must hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  It is such a temptation when Jesus says something to react by doing an action, changing behavior, transforming our lives.  The beatitudes or blessings are not something we can earn— they are not a spiritual merit badge to be earned or a higher level of spiritual awareness to achieve— they are a pure gift.  

They also give us an insight into the nature of God and God’s preferential treatment of the poor, the least, the last and the lost.  Which further shows how much more difficult to hear and receive a blessing than to attempt to achieve one.[1]

You may have heard these translated happy instead of blessed.  “Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Happy are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”  But that translation diminishes what Jesus was saying.  Happy seems so trite and superficial.  We have also turned these beatitudes into platitudes, pithy little sayings, like a self-help guide for spiritual happiness.  As if we can all go home and clear out our closets and our bank accounts and sit in the corner and cry and that will give us spiritual happiness and contentment. I wish it was that easy.  But it isn’t and the beatitudes don’t work like that. 

Instead of seeing these saying of Jesus (the beatitudes) as challenges to live up to or spiritual merit badges to earn.  The beatitudes are not commandments that we must obey.  It does not say, “Blessed are those who become a certain way”, or “You should strive to be a certain way.”  The beatitudes are statements about the dichotomy between the values of the world and the values of God.  While we place high value on success, achievement, winning and triumph instead Jesus is pointing out that God has a very different perspective.  Diametrically opposed from ours!

This is Jesus’ sermon on the mount, and it comes at the beginning of his ministry.  He has just finished calling his first disciples.  He has just started going out in the countryside curing disease, teaching and preaching in the synagogues.  Of course, when you start healing every disease and illness you get a following, which is what happened to Jesus.  People were naturally flocking to see him and to touch him and to be healed by him.   Jesus has their attention.  His followers are listening to his teaching and following his lead.  You can almost imagine the people listening, feeling pretty good at this point.  They had just left their difficult jobs of fishing and were with this exciting teacher, who did some amazing things, miracles, curing people, water into wine.  Who wouldn’t want to be with this guy?   But then he starts preaching about what God’s kingdom is really like.   You can imagine the disciples cutting eyes at each other, whispering to themselves, “What is he saying?   I didn’t sign up for this progressive, socialist, propaganda!  I am not following him because I want to be poor and meek and mourn.  I want a better life not a loser life.  I want happiness and peace and joy.  I wish he would shut up!  He is going off script, messing things up.  We had something good started here.” 

But Jesus is fully aware of what he is saying.  He is the son of God and he knows the very mind of God and he knows how God works.  He is here to tell people how God sees the people of the world.  It is almost as if Jesus is lifting the veil, showing what God is really like and who is important to God.[2]  

In God’s world, the ones who truly experience God’s kingdom are not those viewed as successful in our worldly terms.  Rather:

  • God’s kingdom is known and experienced by those who are poor – not just financially, but also in ‘spirit’, in themselves, in their humanity, in their lack of dignity and lack of compassion from the rest of the world. They may not have two cents to rub together, they may be ignored and marginalized. Blessed are they.
  • God’s comforting presence is felt by those who know true grief, who lament not just for themselves and their own loss, but for the world’s loss of compassion, grace, love and respect for life. Blessed are they.
  • Those who reject coercion and force and violence but seek to engage the world with gentleness. Blessed are they.
  • Those who long for justice and work for it, those who stand up for what is right in God’s eyes, who give themselves to bringing this justice to reality. Blessed are they.
  • Those who respond to others with compassion instead of demanding an eye for eye, those who extend grace to others rather than hold onto grace so tightly as if there is not enough to go around. Blessed are they.
  • Those who don’t spend their time using language of “us” and “them”, those who view all people as God’s children, those who work for peace and reconciliation even though it seems like a pipe dream. Blessed are they.[3] 

According to Jesus this is God’s way of looking at the world, of blessing the world, and it is very different than our ways.  God blesses people that the world does not.  God simply shows favor to all kinds of people, especially the vulnerable, the least, the last and the lost.  Those that we often place at the bottom of the ladder of people, God moves to the top.

If we stop and think about it, this is the way that God has worked from the very beginning.  God called and blessed people like David, who was the runt, the little one of the family;  He called Jeremiah who thought he couldn’t speak for God because he was only a boy; throughout the Gospel God called and blessed stutterers who couldn’t speak eloquently, sinful people who had done awful things, shady women shunned by society.  And then God showed up in the form of Jesus born to a poor teenage girl in a barn out in the middle of nowhere land.  And that son of God did not ride into a town on a chariot but rode into town on a donkey with poor people lining the streets and placing their worn-out coats along the road for his path.  That son of God ended up not with a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns hanging from a cross.  The perfect image of defeat and suffering death.  But that image was transformed into victory and forgiveness and life.  God regularly shows up in mercy and blessing just where we would least expect God to be, with the poor rather than the rich, with those who are mourning rather than those who are celebrating, with the meek and the peacemakers rather than the victorious and the strong.  It is the way God works; it is how God has always worked.  It is the way God sees the world and the way God invites us to see the world. If we only have ears to hear.

[1] Reverend Dr. Fred Craddock, Matthew 5:1-12, Hearing God’s Blessing, The Christian Century, Living by the Word, 1990.

[2] Some of these ideas and thoughts taken from Sacredise website, John van de Laar, Jan. 24, 2011

[3] Some of these ideas and thoughts taken from Sacredise website, John van de Laar, Jan. 24, 2011