“Jesus’ Beatitudes 1 of 4: God Blesses You” Matthew 5: 1-12; Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook; Northwood United Church; January 29, 2017 <
Ahhh….choo> I was wondering what people might do after my sneeze. Some might be surprised that I sneezed amidst our holy time together in worship and send me a grimmace. Some might duck, seeking to avoid any flu bugs being propelled their way. And some, perhaps a few, might say “God bless you”. This pronouncement of a blessing upon the sneezer, of course, goes back all the way to the Middle ages, when people feared that the person might have the plague and would offer a quick blessing over the person as a way to ward off evil, disease and perhaps even death. God blesses you. Have you ever considered how God blesses you today? Perhaps you might feel that God does not bless you, but that rather God is absent? Or that God does not bless you but rather seems to be cursing you? Or perhaps, with the unfolding of your life’s events ‘God blesses you’ doesn’t make any sense at all. This is an interesting time in history and culture when it might seem that blessings in this world are so often being given at the expense of others amidst a culture that is grounded in fear. With those myriad of considerations before us, I am going to invite people to ponder how God blesses them individually and how God blesses us communally. And, perhaps even into the deeper consideration of what a real blessing from God is.
A little background on our scripture…this morning, we begin a four week exploration into Jesus’ longest recorded sermon in the gospel cannon. Scholars call this text “The Sermon on the Mount” ~ a reference to Jesus coming down from the mountain that we read in the first verse. In this text, Matthew seeks to show how Jesus can be viewed in the New Testament as the ‘new Moses’. Just like Moses in the Old Testament descended down from Mount Sinai with the 10 commandments, Jesus now offers God’s words for life in this text. Matthew 5 is also called “The Beatitudes” ~ a reference to the eight blessings that are contained in the text: “Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger…” and so forth. Scholars note how so many of the sayings and teachings throughout the other gospels have been carefully gathered here in what forms the largest single collection of Jesus’ sayings ~ the Sermon on the Mount / The Beatitudes in one place. It is really quite a humbling and awesome task for us, every three years when the lectionary comes around to Matthew 5, to begin spending time reflecting and pondering this section over the later half of Epiphany. Countless books have been written on this one chapter of scripture and we have but only four weeks to consider its meaning. And so, as we seek ‘enlightenment’ during the Epiphany season of light, may God bless us in our living and in our serving as we consider this powerful section of our faith story of how God blesses us.
I am going to break our reflection down into three sections this morning ~ simplicity, hopefulness and compassion ~ as being the lenses to view these first twelve verses of the Sermon on the Mount. There is so much going on in each and every one of the Beatitudes of how God blesses us that it would be appropriate for us to spend our entire time on one specific beatitude ~ “blessed are the poor” or “blessed are the meek” for example. And that would be a good approach, I would suggest, in Bible study. What I am going to suggest; in our setting however, is that we look at the beatitudes from a holistic perspective, rather than as independent sections. An approach of simplicity, I would suggest, rather than complexity is a key to uncovering the depth of the beatitudes. Soren Kierkegaard, in this area, encourages the listener to engage the gospel in what he calls the “primitive way” that is stripped away of all the refinements, prejudices and preconceptions that we so often bring to it. Seen in this comprehensive light, the beatitudes build upon one another and can become a deeper blessing in our life. So…those who are “meek”, meaning humble, are more likely to hunger and thirst for righteousness because they are open to the continued knowledge of God and ultimately find blessing from God. It is so important to note as we begin to view this text is not prescriptive. Jesus is not encouraging us to change and become “poor in spirit” or “meek” or to go and be “in mourning” in order to receive God’s blessing. It is not an ‘if you become one way, then God will bless you’ type of prescription. The text is speaking to those who already are in these situations. Jesus is reassuring those who are already in those dark and difficult places in life, that God IS with them; that God IS on their side; that indeed God WILL bless them. From the time of the composition of the Psalms, the references to “the poor in spirit” were more than just a reference to financially challenged people living in poverty. It was a reference to how one in poverty completely is dependent upon God. All of these eight beatitudes that describe how God will bless them are ones who, in their particular situation have necessarily become entirely dependent on God. And in that dependence, God will bless them. In their historical context, Jesus’ followers were facing horrible persecution from Imperial Rome who ruled with an iron fist and the religious authorities ~ the Sadducees and Pharisees of the day. Jesus’ followers had friends who were persecuted for their beliefs, who lay in prison, who had been crucified for their faith and Jesus concludes proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom ~ the rule of someone greater than the Emperor ~ the Christ saying “rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you”. How is your life mirrored in that text? How are you entirely dependent upon God? In that time of struggle; in your dependence; God will bless you! “Blessed are the poor; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who hunger and thirst; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the pure in heart; blessed are the peacemakers; blessed are the persecuted”. God blesses you!
The second lens to viewing the beatitudes is with an eye to Christological hopefulness. Last Sunday, many of us gathered for our covenanting service, officially celebrating the ministry of Kerry and I here at Northwood. Presbytery provided a speaker, the Rev. Cari Copeman-Hanes (Lead minister at Crossroads and incoming President of BC Conference). She preached a powerful sermon entitled “Jesus and Sinatra” and we were inspired for the journey that lies ahead. (and some of us even did a little singing at the end do-be-do-be-do). These are our beginnings of the ministry that lies ahead. Cari’s covenanting sermon, some of my first sermons. In the gospel of Matthew, this was Jesus’ first sermon as Matthew proceeds to lay out the gospel as we find ourselves in the fifth chapter of the text. We have had the genealogy, Matthew’s Christmas story, the baptism, the temptation, the calling of the disciples, and now we come to Jesus’ first sermon. Jesus’ sermon was, and is, meant to inspire hopefulness to its listeners in their situations. Sometimes we really need hope. Theologian Jurgen Moltmen says that “a death sentence to a church is found when the overall attitude moves from anger to cynicism”. Cynicism, of course, accepts whatever is, as what will be ~ end of story. Yet anger has passion and conviction and anger can be transformed. And the opposite point of view of anger is hopefulness. A church needs to be a place that is filled with hope, and passion and conviction. Your church should offer hope to those who come in its doors and it should emulate hope as an organization in the way it does its day to day business and ministry. Are you cynical? And we all are from time to time. If you are, then you should be paying attention to Jesus’ words here, because these are words of deep promise and hope: “Blessed are the poor; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who hunger and thirst; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the pure in heart; blessed are the peacemakers; blessed are the persecuted”. God blesses you!
Finally, the third lens through which to view the beatitudes is that of compassion. Compassion is a good word for our day. It is not about pity, where we feel sorry for the person. Compassion is not about sympathy where we have an understanding of what the person is experiencing. Compassion is much deeper. Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen writes: “compassion grows with the inner recognition that your neighbour shares your humanity with you. This partnership cuts through all walls which might have kept you separate. Across all barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, we are one, created from the same dust, subject to the same laws, destined for the same end”. In the beatitudes is a promise, an understanding, that God blesses us in the challenging portions of our journey. That God shares the journey with you. That you do not walk alone. I so love the sacred moment that (sometimes) occurs at graveside when I offer the comforting words of the 23rd Psalm and I hear people reciting them along with me. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he restores my soul. Even though I walk through valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff they comfort me…” I love that people can ‘own’ these words in their soul; that they can recite them from their hearts; that they know God is with them in their deepest suffering ~ not just in their moments of joy; but rather in these deepest moments of pain and loss. The beatitudes remind us that our God is a God of compassion, who blesses us in those deep moments of pain. That even then God blesses us. “Blessed are the poor; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who hunger and thirst; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the pure in heart; blessed are the peacemakers; blessed are the persecuted”. God blesses you!
A friend of mine just completed her doctorate in ministry. She shared a story that I would like to close with. When she was in graduate school, one of her professors would regularly address her as “Dr”. She said, “but professor, I have not earned my doctorate yet”. The professor, an African American man countered, “in the African-American church we are not content to call you what you are, but instead we call you what we believe you will be!” The teacher saw the potential in his student and he called her what she was becoming. And so this morning, in this powerful teaching of Jesus, we are reminded ~ whether we feel it in our heart, mind and soul or not ~ that we are blessed! That God loves and adores you; that God wants the very best for you; that God knows that you are worthy of not just God's attention but you are worthy of God's blessing. So, let us hear these words of Jesus one last time, that they may mark us forever: “Blessed are the poor; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who hunger and thirst; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the pure in heart; blessed are the peacemakers; blessed are the persecuted”. God blesses you!