“God’s Favor Is with You”

January 22, 2017

 

Micah 6:1-8

Matthew 5:1-12

 


“The time for empty talk is over,” President Trump said on Friday. “Now arrives the hour of action.”

But what action? Even before the inauguration on Friday many had asked: how shall we live in the months and years ahead of us? And in the last couple of days we have already seen some of the options available.

On Friday a few turned to violence.

On Saturday hundreds of thousands marched.

This morning countless numbers gather in churches.

At our best, we in the Congregational tradition live out of a conviction that what we believe and how we act make a difference in our lives and in our world. We are people who take to heart and seek to follow the advice of Micah—and find ourselves doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God in a myriad of ways—sometimes well-planned and thought through, sometimes unexpected and unknown until we act.

We recognize that we don’t have all the answers. Still we invite people into the adventure of action and reflection and discovery.  And it is always an occasion of great joy when people join with us in owning our covenant to walk together with us in the ways of Jesus Christ, as eight new members did this morning.

So what kind of people are we becoming as we live out our faith in the world?

Today and for a few more Sunday, the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount speak to us. I encourage you to take some time in the weeks ahead to read over those words in chapters five through seven of Matthew’s Gospel.

Matthew presents Jesus talking with people where they work and where they live—with words they understand. We see him involved with the sick and the sorrowful, with those who are broken and seeking some kind of renewed wholeness in their lives. He is among people that seem a lot like us.

We see Jesus bringing to weary and broken people the good news that God is close at hand to give strength and to heal. He is speaking the same kind of good news that we would want to hear.

Today we hear Jesus bringing a word of blessing. Now, I’ve spoken at length about my dislike and suspicion of that word. But blessing expresses a desire for more life—a hope that the one who is blessed will know well-being, peace, and general success in life’s ventures. It is a sincere wish that another person will prosper. As such it is a form of love.

In scripture the word of blessing is not spoken casually. The word of blessing reminds us that we are created in God’s image. Blessing calls us to live up to our high human potential. And blessing calls us to recognize the divine image in our neighbor as well. Part of our humanity is the active desire to build a world in which all people might live in peace and enjoy their days.

We use the word “blessed” as an approximation for the Greek word makarios, which is difficult to translate. Homer said that the immortals of Mt. Olympus were makarios. In secular contexts the word seems to suggest being fortunate. We might say “How lucky!” or “Congratulations!” to get a feeling for this condition that we call “blessed.”

Congratulations!—you who are poor in spirit, or mourning, or meek.

How lucky!—you who are merciful, or pure in heart, or persecuted.

Certainly as we listen we would also object. Where, we would ask, is the blessing, the good fortune, in being meek or persecuted, in our mourning or hunger?

As I listened more closely to these words in recent weeks, it seemed to me that Jesus is inviting us to take life as it is, to look at it closely and deeply, that we might discover in our situations that there is indeed something “fortunate,” something “blessed” about simply living. The first thing Jesus does as he begins to teach is to call us into the joy of being alive with all of the difficulties and possibilities that come to us.

Blessed are you, Jesus says. More life is coming to you when:

     You are poor in spirit.

     You mourn.

     You are meek.

     You hunger and thirst.

Do you start to recognize yourself as Jesus talks?

Blessed are you, Jesus says. How happy are those who are:

     Merciful.

     Pure in heart.

     Peacemakers

     Persecuted.

Do you find yourself somewhere in those descriptions?

No one individual will find himself or herself described by all these words—but taken together they paint a picture of a Christian congregation.

Those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful—you know people like that. You might even be sitting next to one of them this morning. Or maybe you would number yourself among those who know what sorrow means, who claim nothing, who make peace.

The danger is this: we can hear those words as a command. We can hear those words and think that that we are called to become poor in spirit, or meek, or peacemakers, or merciful, or persecuted. Or we think that if we find ourselves among the crushed, the meek, or those who grieve over injustice that we have some sort of “Christian duty” to remain as such.

Jesus is not telling us to go out and try to become such people. Jesus instead speaks to those who find themselves in these various life situations—and I don’t think that his list is meant to be all inclusive. Some have been active—making peace, pursuing what is right to the point of persecution, showing mercy. Others passively find themselves sorrowing, hungering, or thirsting.

These are living words, speaking still to living people—speaking to you and me. To our situations Jesus speaks words of promise—words that can be trusted. His words seem to look toward the future. He speaks of fulfillment to come. But Jesus speaks as he always does, as one with authority, as one whose word is dependable.

. . .they will be comforted.

. . .they will inherit the earth.

. . . they will be filled.

            . . .they will receive mercy.

This is the promise of good fortune, of happiness, of blessing which might now be lacking in your life. This promise is spoken in the face of deprivation and longing. This promise is spoken in situations that offer no hope in them.

But Jesus speaks of the way in which God is working to redeem our lives and our world—gathering up what falls short.

The message that the realm of God is close at hand is good news indeed because nothing is lost to God. The One who created forgets nothing that has been created.

Your sorrow is not lost.

Your hunger for the good is not forgotten.

Your acts of mercy and peace, even though they seem fruitless are held by God, gathered up and made good.

Redemption is promised by the One whose word can be trusted.

The coming redemption of God redefines our lives today. It’s been said that the various English translations of the New Testament Greek do not do justice to their meaning. The Beatitudes are usually rendered as statements, and so we heard them this morning: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the realm of heaven.” The Greek, however, states them as exclamations, ecstatic utterances of present reality, literally: “Now happiness and the realm of heaven for those poor in spirit!” “Now mercy of those who are merciful.” [i]

Tomorrow has become today. It is now that Jesus calls us “blessed.” Yes, we can say “happy” or “fortunate” instead. But then we wonder if Jesus knows what he’s talking about. Happy? When mourning, hungering and thirsting? When persecuted?

Happiness is never achieved directly—you know that. If you set out only to be happy, chances are you'll end up miserable. If a congregation and its leaders worry about making its members “happy” they will never attain anything like the “blessedness” that Jesus announces. But as we become fully engaged—body, mind, and soul—in other efforts, we discover real happiness—the blessedness, or good fortune Jesus speaks about. If you are engaged in making peace, in showing mercy, even if you are mourning—you might yet find happiness.

More than that, as we engage with the world, we hear the good news that God is breaking into this world with mercy, with comfort, with abundance. The Realm of God is breaking into the world and that reshapes how we understand the present. It is no longer a matter of waiting for good things. The goodness of God is coming toward us even in the most difficult situations.

This is not about taking on added requirements for living, but about being transformed people. Long ago the prophet Micah spoke to the people: “God has told you what is good—do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.” These are the actions to which this hour calls us.

 Salvation—wholeness in life—is not about doing more things. Salvation—wholeness of life—is found as we follow the way that is known.

This is where God is leading us, I think. Transforming us that we might do what is just, kind, and humble. Let us recognize that this is not the way that all people will choose. This is not the path on which all people will walk.

But it is our path. It is the way of Jesus Christ, known and to be made known to us as we walk with one another—and in so doing we might find the happiness that is a blessing to our neighbors, a blessing to the hurting world, and a blessing even to ourselves.



[i] Peter Gomes, Sermons, pg. 116