Psalm 25:1-10, Matthew 5:1-12
September 30, 2012
A couple of years ago, I was reading a book about the most famous speeches in history. And it was interesting just reading the table of contents, and seeing what the author thought were the most famous speeches ever. Among them were, John F. Kennedy’s speech at the Berlin Wall, Roosevelt’s Pearl Harbor speech, Martin Luther Kings “I have a dream,” Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and many others. But there, right near the top of the list, was this speech of Jesus of Nazareth called “The Sermon on the Mount.”
Think about it. This is among the greatest speeches ever given. These are words spoken when God himself stepped into history and lived among us. At the very least, this is certainly the most widely read sermon of all times. And many of its words and phrases have become part of the normal expressions of human language ever since! You might remember that Simon and Garfunkel wrote a song based on this called “Blessed.” (1966)
Well, today we’re looking at what is probably the most recognizable part of this famous speech, the part called “The Beatitudes.” But first I want us to notice first how this whole thing begins. Matthew tells us, Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”
Now, that’s not just an intro. Those opening words contain a reference, not just to Jesus’ teaching, but to the Jewish rabbinical style of teaching. If you remember, Matthew was writing his Gospel to a Jewish audience. His goal was to convince the Jewish people that Jesus was the Messiah foretold in their scriptures. So when it says, “He sat down” his readers would have recognized that. They would have understood from this that Jesus teaching his disciples as a rabbi would teach. They would have seen it that way, so that can’t be lost on us.
So “Rabbi Jesus” taught them, saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Of course the most recognizable part of the Beatitudes is this word “Blessed.” Jesus uses it over and over again. And its a difficult word to translate. Like other words in the Greek language, it doesn’t have a simple English equivalent. In the RSV its translated as “Blessed.” In some other versions its translated as “Happy.” I’m not as “happy” with that one. But for a moment I want you to think about both of those words.
The word “Blessed” usually has to do with a state where a person is blessed by someone. We are blessed because God blesses us. Happy can easily mean that a person is glad about something that has happened to them or something they’ve done. A person can be happy on their own, without necessarily having that happiness given to them by someone else. Do you see that difference?
Well, I’ve always liked the word “Blessed,” here. But I think somehow Jesus may have meant both. His intent may have been to say, “You will be blessed by God if you do these things, because these are the things God knows will make you happy.” In other words, you will be blessed when you do blessed things. Do you see? Now there’s a little more nuance to it, but I don’t want to make it any more confusing. Let’s just say that God wants us to be blessed/happy. He knows what things will make us so. And he wants us to do them. And when we do those things, we will have this state of blessedness. I hope you see how close those things are!
Ok, so how do we do that? How do we achieve that state of blessedness? Well, let me just say that we would easily spend an entire morning on each one of these beatitudes! And maybe some day we will. But for now, I want you to notice the kinds of things Jesus said here. And I want you to see that some of these are easy to hear, and some of them are not so easy. But all of them, I believe, give us insight into the mind and the heart of God! Think about that as we highlight a few of these.
Some of these Beatitudes were things the people might have expected to hear. For example, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” I think the people would have expected Jesus to say that. That just makes sense. They believed that when their hearts were pure, they could approach God better. The Psalmist wrote, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart!” (Psalm 24:3-4) The listeners would have been fine with that!
Some of these. the people should have known, but were a little harder for them to hear. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” Ok, so they probably should have known that, or maybe they had even heard something like it before from their scriptures. But they were living under a military occupation which nobody liked! And there were those who were ready to start the revolution at any moment! They would not have been happy with those words at that time!
Then there were some of these beatitudes that probably made the people stop and look around at each other. “Blessed are the poor in spirit?” What does that mean? I thought we were to be rich in spirit? “Blessed are the meek?” Many thought they had been meek too long! Many felt it was time “to be bold and stand strong!” “Blessed are you when you are persecuted for righteousness sake.” “Is he kidding?” “I thought God loved us!” “Why would he allow the persecution to happen in the first place?” The Psalms are full of laments over that question! “How long, O Lord, will you let my enemies triumph over me?” (Psalm 13:2) To all that Jesus said, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you…”
Personally, I think by the time Jesus got to the end of this list, these people would have been not so enamored with its beauty and wisdom. I think they would have had a lot of questions. I think they might even have been angry! And it wasn’t to be the last time Jesus challenges made them so!
So let me ask you. “Do we ever feel those things?” “Do we ever feel meek, persecuted, or poor in spirit?” It’s no fun to be those things, is it? It’s difficult sometimes to be the things God calls us to be. And it’s hard to imagine that he would say that such things were good. I remember over the years having a hard time teaching young people the virtue of humility. We think that’s important. (Or we used to!) But to young people it sounds too much like the word “humiliation.” And that’s a word that’s abhorrent to them!
So this isn’t easy hearing Jesus tell his people that those who are meek, persecuted, and poor in spirit are blessed! But as I said before, these beatitudes are a glimpse into the mind and heart of God. And it’s important to remember that the things that are important to God are different than the things that are important to people. People value things like prestige, personal strength, and power. But Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek.” And maybe that’s because the meek are more apt to rely on God! Maybe that’s because the meek aren’t as forceful in seeing things their way and they are more open to seeking God! You see, we could spend a week on each of these!
For now, though, let us remember that later in this sermon Jesus would say, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God Then all the other things will be added unto you.” At other times he would say, “In my kingdom, the first will be last, and the last first.” What’s important to God is different than what is important to us.
When they tried to trap him with a question about paying taxes, he answered, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars and to God the things that are God’s.” Maybe that wasn’t such a clever answer, as we usually think. Maybe it was very easy for Jesus because he understood that the things of value in Gods kingdom are simply not the same as what are of value in this world.
I said a few months ago, it isn’t that God has anything against money. Its more that he just isn’t all that impressed by it. It’s not that big a deal to one who created the entire universe! God is much more concerned with what money does to people! And he’s more impressed by what people do with it!
It’s hard, though, to take on God’s understanding of things, isn’t it? It isn’t always easy to see the things that are important to God. It isn’t always easy to be God’s people when the things that are important to God are not the same as the things that are important to us. It’s not easy to do those things, even though we know that they are the things that will help us achieve that state of blessedness!!
So, do you think it would help if we made a nice printout of the these beatitudes and put them on our refrigerators so we could see them every day and think about them? Do you think that might change us a little? Well, I’ve done that. And I encourage you to take them home, get a magnet, and put them up there where you can see them. And ask God to help you to orient your lives toward those things that are important to him. And may you feel and know Gods blessing!
Eternal God, help us to know and to be the kind of people you want us to be. Help us to stand back from our own little world, and to try to see your kingdom. Teach us, like Jesus taught, the kinds of things that are important to you, that we may know your blessing. For this we pray in his name, Amen.