“A Different Blessing”
This Lent we are offering six part series on the Sermon on the Mount. This section of scripture from Matthew 5 through 7 is perhaps Jesus’ definitive teaching. The sermon was delivered early in Jesus’ ministry after his baptism and his temptation in the wilderness which is often lifted up as Lent begins.
In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus calls all who would be his disciples to strive for something different than business as usual – a new set of values, attitudes and practices which would bring out their most positive selves and preview the kingdom of heaven. Let us pray.
Loving and ever present God, we begin Lent knowing something is different and yet unsure where a new path might lead us. Open us to the wisdom of your word and to the power of your guiding Spirit. Amen.
The story is told of a young man who went to his father and asked: “Dad, I would like you to buy me a car for my birthday.” His dad responded, “Son, I will buy you a car on three conditions, if you come to church, raise your grades, and shave that bread.” The young man agreed. He started going to church every week. The next month, the young man brought home a report card showing that he had raised his grades from c’s to a’s. His father looked happy, and the young man began to tell his dad about the kind of car he wanted, a convertible. But his father said, “Son, you still haven’t shaved yet.” The young man replied, “Well, Dad, I’ve been thinking about that condition as I’ve been sitting at church, and I noticed that Moses had a beard, the disciples had beards, and even Jesus had a beard.” His father looked at him and said, “Yes, and they walked everywhere they went!”
This young man came seeking his father’s blessing for a car. It’s an ancient Biblical idea, a father’s blessing. You might remember Jacob pretending to be a hairy man to trick his father Isaac into giving him his brother Esau’s blessing. Jacob later gathers his sons to predict their future and gives Joseph in particular a series of blessings. In the story of the prodigal son, the older son is jealous of the father’s blessings for his brother.
Before Jesus was born, his mother Mary visits Elizabeth who famously exclaims how blessed she is for being chosen by God the father.
Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus healed all sorts of people near the beginning of his ministry so crowds followed him seeking his healing blessing.
Yet as he seemed to have decided to focus his early ministry on small groups, Jesus went away from the crowds to a mountain, called his newly formed 12 disciples to him, and delivered his sermon. Over the next six weeks we’ll be covering parts of it, but it’s so rich with learning we could spend the whole year on it.
The first section contains eight statements called Beatitudes, meaning “blessings.” They summarize much of Jesus’ broader teaching and frame much of what will follow in worship here throughout Lent. This is the first lesson the disciples hear from Jesus. Some have called this the disciples’ “ordination address.”[i] Scholars argue about whether the ideas come in one “sermon” or whether the sermon on the mount is a summary of teachings, for example the imperfect tense in Greek here describes Jesus teaching these values over and over, as they could come from several sources, but there is no doubt Jesus shared that blessings would come to those who adopted his new values.[ii]
These beatitudes describe a kind of blessedness which so many seek.
These beatitudes have patterns to them. Jesus states a person is blessed and then describes why. The first four beatitudes describe a person’s relationship with God and the last four their relationship with the world. The first four are internal, our need, and the last four more external, our response to God.
In 380 a.d., Gregory of Nyssa suggested that the Beatitudes were like a staircase ascending to God. The eight individual beatitudes each led to one another. They are connected. For example, they suggest the poor in spirit are compelled to mourn, the meek hunger for righteousness and the pure in heart are merciful.[iii] All are connected to Jesus who embodied the beatitudes and detailed their blessings.
The blessed values Jesus offers looked like very different values from what the disciples were used to.[iv] Matthew in particular wrote his Gospel for a Jewish audience. Around the time of Jesus’ sermon, around 30 A.D., there were four basic groups of Jewish leaders, Pharisees and Sadducees, who strictly interpreted the Torah, though differed on resurrection and oral tradition, but agreed on strict interpretation of Torah. Then there were Essenes and Zealots, who were concerned with the kingdom of God. They wanted a Messiah to free them from oppression and restore the homeland. In common, these groups focused on Ten Commandments with “thou shall not” statements, evils to avoid, and a powerful leader who would defeat their enemies.
By contrast, in his beatitudes Jesus offers positive descriptions of how to be blessed and they are surprising values for a new kingdom. Charles Cook said of the beatitudes that he was “struck by their beauty and overwhelmed by their impracticability in our world.”[v] Who else but Jesus would suggest that blessedness would be for the poor in spirit? That is different from what the Pharisees or Essenes expected for a new kingdom or from the way we are usually taught to live.
We don’t seem to get ahead in Montgomery County by being poor in anything. Economic progress in Washington D.C. doesn’t come through passivity. The merciful don’t seem to get anywhere in this world, the aggressive do. Peacemakers have had little success in Ukraine or Syria or Iraq. No one advertises themselves as meek on a blind date. Or describes themselves in a job interview as pure in heart. When we hear graduation speeches, watch motivational speakers or read books the recipes for success don’t sound like the beatitudes.
However, Jesus was not suggesting a prescription to get ahead, but describing the values of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus told his followers to repent, meaning to turn around and change their values as Jesus turned around the broader values of the world. The values Jesus offered looked different from those expected in his time and ours.[vi]
At our last family connectional lunch here, one church member suggested that this year some of the families of the church participate in Random Acts of Kindness Day. A week ago Tuesday was a national day devoted to doing random acts of charity and goodwill for no reason other than the meaning which comes from helping someone. Inspired by some of you, our kids decided to participate and chose to make and deliver cookies along with dog biscuits to several houses on our street. What a foolishly satisfying time we had watching those who will eventually inherit the earth, the little children, the most meek, poor in spirit or dependent, lead us.
From Jesus’ values comes a different attitude. That is why in the section before the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew describes Jesus’ attitude of resilience. Faced with 40 days of hunger, thirst, and the temptations of the devil, Jesus is able to maintain a positive, loyal, attitude. Through his wilderness experience Jesus resisted the temptations of aggression, fullness, power and splendor that threatened to pull him away from relationship with God. Out of that experience Jesus articulated in his sermon a series of values which help us maintain a positive attitude in the face of disappointment and challenge.
The pattern which Jesus experienced in the wilderness continued as he developed his values and as they translate forward into our Lenten attitudes and practices which emerge from these values. In the wilderness Jesus did without. He fasted from food and water, said no to great offers from the Devil and resisted temptations. Instead he focused on relationship with God by focusing on the Word of God, through loyal commitment and through worship. All this helped him maintain a resilient attitude during such a rough situation. From this experience, the values of the beatitudes followed a similar pattern. They suggest doing without, mourning, being poor in spirit, meekness, for example. Instead they suggest an emphasis on relationships, with others through peacemaking and mercy and with God through the kingdom of heaven. What emerges is the promise of being positive, even rejoicing, even in the face of persecution, for the relationship with God and others reflects the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus then describes in his sermon the attitude which results from these values. He says those who hold them are “blessed.” The Hebrew word for blessed, used more than 30 times in the Psalms and other books, describes the happiness for receiving a blessing. The New Testament word for blessed, makarios, similar means one who happily received good news. In the New Testament, the good news, the Gospel, is the blessing our heavenly father offers through what Christ brings. Such a blessing is a gift.[vii] Jesus comes through a wilderness time and describes how a resilient, positive attitude is the fruit his new values.
At Bradley Hills this Lent we seek an attitude and practices which reflect this pattern. It’s Lent, a time of doing without, fasting so we might be filled. Instead we hope we focus on relationship with God and each other through small groups to focus on the word of God, following our weekly sermons, loyal commitment, the more we put in the more we get out of them, and worship, especially through prayer this season. Out of it all can come a happy, positive attitude of appreciation, of God, each other and of what we have.
There is a story of a woman going through treatment who looked in the mirror one morning, noticed she had only three hairs on her head and said, “Well, I think I’ll braid my hair today.” She did and had a good day. The next day she woke up, looked in the mirror and saw she had only two hairs on her head and said “Hmm, I think I’ll part my hair down the middle today.” She did and had a great day. The next day she woke up, looked and noticed she had only one hair on her head. Well, she said, today I’m going to wear my hair in a ponytail.” So she did and had a wonderful day.
We have now begun the season of Lent. Traditionally a time of preparation for baptism at Easter. 40 days of reflection and preparation which mirrors Jesus’ 40 days of reflection and preparation for ministry in the wilderness. Lent is a time to let our hair down and show that we are different too. We are now in a season which looks different from the others on the church calendar. A time of introspection, fasting, and renewal of the spiritual. Things can look different because we are different. During these 40 days of Lent we have a chance to reexamine our assumptions about what makes a good life and recommit to learning and living the values of Jesus Christ. Let these beatitudes be a starting place for you. Meditate on them and see where the spirit leads.
While at first they appear counterintuitive, when we think deeply about them we realize the beatitudes are true. We might look around us and wonder at the state of the world. The Syrian Christians abducted and the Egyptian Coptic Christians beheaded last week, the thousands of Syrians being starved, victims of terror in Copenhagen, Nigeria and Iraq and the struggle for economic mobility here and we wonder where the kingdom is.
While cruelty, inhumanity, brutality and genocide occur, God’s justice will come eventually. Those who cut corners temporarily advance, but fate will catch up with them. While people are divided by differences of class, race and religion, eventually connection and equality will prevail over intolerance. Even when people are subjugated and suppressed, eventually freedom will win.
As we begin Lent, we put our faith in the values Jesus not only taught but demonstrated as he resisted temptations, healed the suffering and eventually gave his life for. With meekness, not weakness, with forgiveness, not malice, with righteousness, not revenge, seeking peace over violence, and in doing so demonstrated the power of his values to the world.[viii]
In a world where we feel powerless in the face of snow storms and flu, let alone the challenges of affording college, saving for retirement or the late night in the hospital when we think about life and death, Jesus tells us that those who mourn will be comforted, who hunger and thirst as he did, filled, who are merciful, given mercy, who are poor in spirit, prepared to receive the blessing of the kingdom of God.
The attitudes and practices of Lent look different from other times of the year because the values which emerged from Jesus’ 40 days looked different too. May we find blessing in the difference those values can make in our journey. May it be so. Amen.
[i] William Barclay. Matthew. New Daily Study Bible. p. 97.
[iii] James Howell. The Beatitudes for Today. Westminster John Knox Press. 2006. p. 16.
[iv] Ibid. p. 19.
[v] Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 1, p.308.
[vi] James Howell. The Beatitudes for Today. Westminster John Knox Press. 2006. P. 17
[vii][vii] Howell p. 29.
[viii] John Stott. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press. 1978. P. 18.