January 30, 2011

"The Gospel Now and Then”


Micah 6:1-8

Matthew 5:1-12


It’s said that the most dangerous passages in the Bible are the familiar ones, because we do not really listen to them.[1] If that is the case, then we have been walking in dangerous territory for over a month now. First, Christmas and those well-know stories of the birth of Jesus. And starting this morning we will wander around the Sermon on the Mount until the end of February.

Familiar stories. Familiar words.

Listen for what might be new and unfamiliar.

Blessed are you, Jesus says. You are blessed when:

     You are poor in spirit.

     You mourn.

     You are meek.

     You hunger and thirst.

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


     Pure in heart.



To those who will listen, Jesus speaks of the present—of our lives as we find them now.

Life is, he says, “Blessed.”

“Blessed” is an especially religious word, isn’t it? And like a lot of religious words, it can be used without really thinking about what it means. In fact, like a lot of religious words, it can be used without really meaning a thing. You sneeze and I say, “Bless you.”

In the Bible we find the word “blessed” used as a good 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.” Some have suggested that the best translation might be “Happy.”

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

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

Happy are you!

When we listen to such translations, we might get a better sense of what Jesus was getting at.

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

As I tried to listen 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. He is not asking that we change it or that we ignore the shadow places in our lives. Indeed, he points us to the parts of life that we might ignore in order that we would discover in our situations that there is indeed something “fortunate,” something “blessed” about simply living.

The great twentieth century rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, put it this way: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.” As the first century rabbi Jesus begins to teach, he calls us into the joy of being alive with all of the difficulties and possibilities that come to us.

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.

Listen. Listen carefully. Jesus does not tell us to go out and try to become pure in heart or poor in spirit. 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.

Jesus speaks to those in such diverse situations—speaks to you and your neighbor—as members of a community. No one finds themselves 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, the peacemakers—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.

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

As we keep listening, we start to sense that Jesus is speaking of the way in which God works to redeem our lives—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 is said that the various English translations of the New Testament Greek do not do justice to this 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 for those who are merciful.” [2]

Tomorrow has become today. It is now that Jesus calls us “blessed.” And there's that religious language again. 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. If you set out only to be happy, chances are you'll end up miserable. But if you are fully engaged—body, mind, and soul—in other efforts, you 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 find happiness.

More than that, we hear the good news that God is breaking into this world with mercy, comfort. The promise can be trusted and so 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.

God's favor is toward those who live under God's rule. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. They are part of something new that is happening.

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.” Salvation—wholeness in life is not about doing more things but following the way that is known.

And this is where God is leading us, I think. Transforming us that we might do what is just, kind, and humble—and in so doing find the happiness that is a blessing to our neighbors, a blessing to the hurting world, and a blessing even to ourselves.



Let us pray:

Bless us God, now, in these days. Be with us and all who are dear to us. Keep us in the spirit of the Beatitudes: joyful, simple, merciful. Amen.

[1] John Meier, Interpretation, July 1990, pg. 281

[2] Peter Gomes, Sermons, pg. 116.