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Blessings for the Upside Down

December 7th, 2012 No comments

“Blessings for the Upside Down” (Matthew 5:1-12)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
September 16, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

No transcript is available for this sermon. The audio is available here.

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Blessed Are. . .

August 26th, 2011 No comments

“Blessed are. . .” (Matthew 5:1-12)
By Pastor Katherine Goerzen
June 19, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

When Jesus ascended and took his place upon the mountain side, you knew something momentous and earth-changing was going to happen. In Matthew’s Gospel, mountains are the places of some of the most significant moments in Jesus’ life, the places of revelation. It is upon a high mountain peak that Jesus experienced the “third temptation,” where he was promised all of the kingdoms of the world if he would bow down to the devil, yet he passed the test. It is upon a mountain peak where Jesus is transfigured to shine like the sun, and where a voice from the clouds proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” It is upon a mountain where Jesus commissions his followers to go and make disciples of all nations and where he promises that he will be with us always. And here, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, it is upon a mountain where Jesus gives one of his longest discourses with teachings about the Kingdom of God. This testifies to what Jesus and his calling are all about. With this mountain top revelation, one hears echoes of Moses ascending to Mt Sinai and giving God’s people the Holy Law; for here, Jesus proclaims the fulfillment of the Law, the true intentions of the Law given on Sinai.

Anabaptists throughout the centuries have found deep meaning in the Sermon on the Mount, for we take Jesus and his life and teachings very seriously. We do not believe that these words preached from the mountain are only meant for some future age yet to come, but that they are also profoundly relevant for Jesus’ followers in the present. We believe that Jesus meant what he said and that he was talking to all of his followers. And the same is certainly true for the beautiful introduction to this “sermon”, this series of blessings, or beatitudes, upon those who the world itself does not consider to be so blessed: the meek, the poor in spirit, the mourning, the peacemakers, the persecuted.

This passage is certainly beautiful, but what did Jesus mean when he said it? Are these the entrance requirements to get into God’s kingdom? Will we be blessed only when we hunger and thirst for righteousness, or we are merciful, or pure in heart, or persecuted? Are these the ideals that we need to strive for? Would good things start happening if only more people would act according to these ideals? If these are the ideals we need to live by, then who could possibly fulfill them all besides Christ himself? If this is indeed how Christ meant the Beatitudes, I wonder if this focuses more on our own good works rather than on God’s abounding grace. If this is how Christ meant them, I wonder if they cause more feelings of guilt or futility since we cannot live up to these standards, rather than causing feelings of joy and blessedness.1

So what did Jesus mean? “Is Jesus saying, ‘Happy are those who mourn, because mourning makes them virtuous and they will get the reward that virtuous people deserve?’ Or is he saying, ‘Congratulations to those who mourn, because God is gracious and God is acting to deliver us from our sorrows?’”2

Now I certainly believe that Jesus does care about how we live, and that he was trying to teach his disciples and the crowds who had gathered what the lifestyle of one whose citizenship is in the Kingdom of God looks like. But I believe here, at the beginning of his “sermon,” he is focusing more on God’s deep and abounding grace. Jesus is emphasizing God’s saving action: what God has done, what God is presently doing, and what God will do in the future. Before we act, we are already experiencing God’s blessing. Just as before the Ten Commandments were given on Mt Sinai, God spoke through Moses to say, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”3 before the commandments were read; so also Jesus is reminding the people of God’s grace, that God is already working to deliver us, before he goes on to speak of what faithfulness to God’s kingdom looks like. God’s grace and mercy come first, even before we act in ways that “deserve” it.

If Jesus had meant that these blessings were only for those who most deserved it, he probably would have waited to give these blessings at the end of the sermon, saying, “If you have done all these things… then blessed are you.” But instead, he has chosen to use these blessings to introduce the teachings that are to follow, as if to say that God’s grace precedes all that we do. We respond to God’s grace by living in ways that are in keeping with the kingdom, not because we have to in order to be blessed, but we respond because we are already blessed.4

God is already acting to save creation, and that is indeed reason to be joyful. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Congratulations to you, because God will see to it that all that you hope for will happen, and that it is happening already through my life, ‘at least in mustard-seed size.’5” God’s grace goes before all that we do.

While Jesus is emphasizing God’s grace at the beginning of the “sermon,” these blessings still give us a glimpse of what it means to respond to God’s grace, what the lifestyle of the citizens of the Kingdom of God look like:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven6

Now the poor in spirit “are those who experience poverty in many forms.”7 It refers to those who are economically poor, “those who are pushed to the edges of society, … those whose lives have come apart”8, as well as the spiritually humble, those who acknowledge their complete dependence on God. For who realizes their dependence on God better than those who have very little? For many of those who own a great deal of possessions believe that they have come by these either through their own doing, or because they have deserved them. And for those of us who have more possessions than most of the world, this is a good reminder that we should hold them lightly, to remember humbly that we are completely dependent on God, and not upon our own doing or upon our possessions.

The poor in spirit are not blessed because they are virtuous, but because God especially wishes to rescue the poor. God’s deep compassion for the poor was shown through the way that Jesus cared for them, how he fed them, and healed them, and made them his disciples. Jesus is indeed bringing good news to the poor because God is already seeking to deliver the poor, the humble, the lowly. And because God is already doing this, we can participate in this deliverance.

The poor in spirit are those who acknowledge their complete dependence on God, who surrender themselves to God, and thus participate in God’s deliverance in caring for the poor and the humble. They do not focus on their own humility and virtue, but upon God’s grace and redemption, both now and in the future. Our humility should not call attention to us, but to God’s grace in our own lives and in the lives of others.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted

Mourning means the grief of those who have lost someone or something that they care about deeply, those for whom the power of death is very present and very real. And mourning also means the grief of those who see that the world is not as God has intended it to be. Those who mourn are those who see and feel the deep pain and the brokenness of the world, those who cry out, “God, do not let your creation hurt like this forever!” But God has promised that every tear will be wiped away, and that death and mourning will end, and that all who grieve will be comforted. Indeed, God has already begun to accomplish this through the deliverance brought through Jesus, and the promise given through his resurrection.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth

Often those described as “meek” are thought to be passive doormats, those who let others walk all over them. Yet nothing could be further from the way that the Bible uses this word. There are two people in particular who are described as “meek”: Moses9 and Jesus.10 “One of them defied the might of Egypt and the other couldn’t be cowed by a powerful Roman official. … Both … seemed absolutely fearless … and completely surrendered to the will of God.”11

To be meek is to be humble, or to completely surrender to God’s will. Or as the early Anabaptists liked to talk about this using the word “gelassenheit” which refers to one who is “yielded” to God, or one who places his or her life completely into God’s hands. Those who are meek patiently trust that God will act, and who “surrender their will to God so completely that God’s will becomes their will.”12

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled

This refers both to those who literally hunger and thirst, as well as to those who hunger and thirst for God’s delivering justice in the world so that hunger and thirst might be no more. God’s righteousness was shown to us first through acts of saving deliverance, and we respond by participating in God’s righteousness. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are those who are generous with what they have, who speak out on behalf of God’s saving justice whenever possible, and who seek to do good to those around them.13

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy

We are called to be merciful, just as God is merciful.14 the merciful are those who show kindness and love to others, those who are more eager to forgive than to punish or take revenge, and those who show compassion rather than seek first for their own good. Our mercy grows out of the deep awareness that God’s own self is merciful. It is God who first showed us mercy, thus citizens of God’s kingdom are themselves merciful in response.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God

Jesus said, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles,”15 which suggests that a person’s whole being can be defiled, or that the heart can be corrupted. The way to purity is to surrender ourselves to the One who is pure. Those who are pure in heart are those whose faith is genuine, those whose outward deeds match their inner commitments, those who desire to do God’s will above all else.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God

During Jesus’ day, there were those who thought of themselves as the “sons of God” who sought to bring about God’s kingdom by violently overthrowing their oppressors or eliminating anyone who they saw as opposed to God’s will. But Jesus proclaims that it is those who actively seek peace who will be called God’s children. Citizens of God’s kingdom “abandon the effort to get our needs met through the destruction of enemies.”16 Those who are peacemakers are not just those who live in peace, but who actively seek that there will be peace in every corner of creation, those who imitate the God of peace 17by seeking reconciliation and by loving even our enemies and persecutors. “Being a peacemaker is part of being surrendered to God, for [it is] God who [ultimately] brings peace.”18

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

The world will not understand the ways of God’s kingdom, for the world preaches a different set of beatitudes. Instead of “Blessed are the meek,” the world proclaims, “Powerful are the self-assertive, for they will get their own way!” Instead of “Blessed are the merciful,” the world proclaims, “Advantaged are the ruthless, for nobody will get in their way!” Instead of “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” the world proclaims, “Safe are those who do not stir the waters, for their lives will remain convenient.”19 I was struck this past week during a class session in Bible School when, after telling a number of stories where people from the Bible followed the way of the cross rather than the way of the world, one of the second graders responded by saying, “These people are weird.” But he’s only expressing what we’re taught by the world; for we have two conflicting and completely different kingdoms vying for our attention and allegiance. But as all of the beatitudes testify to, we are called to ultimately surrender ourselves to God and to God’s kingdom and to God’s justice. And the world won’t always understand the way that we are living, and so there will be times when the world will lash out at us. And we will be in good company when that happens, with all of the other prophets who have gone before us, including THE Prophet himself, the One so committed to God’s kingdom that he died for it.

So blessed are you. And because you are blessed, you are empowered to be poor in spirit, to mourn when the world is not as God intended it to be, to be meek and surrender your will completely to God, to hunger and thirst for righteousness and God’s justice to be done, to be merciful, to be pure in heart and purpose, to be active peacemakers, and even to be persecuted for righteousness sake. It is ultimately God’s grace that all of these things point to, for God’s grace goes before us in all that we do. And because of this grace, we joyfully respond to God. We are blessed so that we can participate in the deliverance that God is bringing in Jesus Christ.20 “We love because God first loved us.”21

May God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.

Notes:
1. Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context.
2. Ibid., page 34.
3. Exodus 20:2, NRSV.
4. Fred Craddock, “Hearing God’s Blessing” from www.christiancentury.org
5. Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, page 34.
6. Ideas for this section, and all the following sections on the Beatitudes come from Stassen and Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics, and Thomas Long’s commentary on Matthew (Westminster Bible Companion).
7. Long, Matthew, page 48.
8. Ibid.
9. Numbers 12:3 (the word translated “humble” in the NRSV is the same word for “meek”)
10. Matthew 11:29 (the word translated “humble” in the NRSV is the same Greek word used here)
11. Clarence Jordan quoted in Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, page 40.
12. Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, page 40.
13. Long, Matthew.
14. Luke 6:36.
15. Matthew 15:11, NRSV.
16. Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, page 45.
17. Romans 15:33, Philippians 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrews 13:20.
18. Ibid.
19. Written by Jessica Schrock-Ringenberg, and taken from Words for Worship 2, edited by Diane Zaerr Brenneman.
20. Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics.
21. 1 John 4:19.