University Congregational Church
Nov. 8, 2020
Matt. 5: 1-12
What a week! So much has been up in the air. Our hotly contested Presidential election and a few local elections and COVID numbers are higher than ever. I picked one sermon topic and then another. I thought I had settled on the topic of self-care during times like these, and then came the announcement that the election was called and the speeches last night.
Finally, it was Sunday morning and I had to choose a topic. Nothing quite hit the nail on the head. The stress level we are all feeling is high – even if we are happy about the election. What will happen next? So, I turned to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, commonly called the Beatitudes. I like to separate the word into two words – and call them the Be – Attitudes… because they challenge us on how to be.
First, let me set the stage. In the Charlton Hesston movie, Moses is old, white-bearded, bent-over, with a walking stick. Moses climbs the mountain slowly and disappears into the clouds. In the ancient world, it was thought that the earth was flat and the since the sky was above the earth, heaven must be above the sky. So, to get close to God, one must climb a mountain. That is why Moses went to the mountain – to talk with God.
When Moses came down, he came with God’s laws for good living. They were simple, really. Any sociologist could have written them. They were not rocket science, only plain old-fashioned rules for clean living: do not steal, do not lie, do not cheat, do not murder, be nice to your parents, worship God.
For thousands of years, those were the guiding principles of life. Those were the laws. Simple. Clear. Fair. Godly. Not like our extensive laws today: sometimes confusing. Sometimes need interpretation. Lengthy with lots of big fancy words. Sometimes even unjust.
They had 10 rules – ways to live and get along with one another. But they got more sophisticated. And they wanted to split hairs; ask questions; make more laws to confine and restrict greed, dishonesty, and injustice. So, another man, with a zest for life and a passion for people, headed up to the mountain to proclaim the words of God to the people.
Matthew is the only gospel writer who tells us about the Sermon on the Mount. Luke credits Jesus with some of the same words, only Jesus does it from the plain in Luke. But Matthew knew how important mountains were in the eyes of the people. In fact, Matthew places all the important God-events on a mountain. First, the Sermon on the Mount, which happens early in his gospel. The, after Jesus was crucified and resurrected, he ascends into heaven from a mountaintop, and finally, he gives his last words of instruction to the disciples standing on the mountain. Matthew undoubtedly understood the mountaintop to be a significant place for God-type activity.
The people were anxious to hear what Jesus had to say. Would he contradict the laws of Moses? Would he add to them or clarify them? Maybe he would talk about brand new laws. This was a speech the people were waiting to hear from their new leader – not unlike many gathered around their TVs last night.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“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. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matt. 5:1-12
As usual, Jesus surprised them. He started in a way they did not expect. He began his teaching from the mountain with a list of blessings instead of a list of rules or laws. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
This is not what they expected at all. It was not a law. It was a blessing. They could not take this home and hang it on the wall. They could not shout this at their neighbors. They could not put this in the church rule books. They could not even bot on it as a rule to live by. Jesus sure did not know how to hand down the word of God like Moses. He gave blessings instead of laws, for heaven’s sake.
The Greek word translated “blessed” refers to the fortunate, happy condition of a person blessed by God. It is about as far as you can get from a person who is working hard to follow a law. It is the inverse. Jesus turned law-keeping on its head and talked about ways to live happily. Blessed people are blessed because of something beyond their work or effort. Blessed people are that way because of God – not because of something they have accomplished. Blessed people are not DOING something – they are BEING. All they must do is sit back and enjoy the blessing, be happy and count themselves joyful. Go figure. Jesus started his mountain speech from God with talk about enjoying the blessing of God – not with a list of rules to post.
What would it be like if all the Christians in the world started out this way? What if we all started focusing on the blessing and the grace of God instead of pushing God’s rules in front of others? What if we went around saying, “I believe you have been blessed by God” instead of “Here’s what God wants you to do or say”? What if we spoke up about all the wonderful aspects of being fortunate, happy, and blessed instead of talking about all the work we must do on God’s behalf? What if we were able to bask and enjoy God’s blessings, counting ourselves lucky just to be alive in the world?
The gospel of Matthew is the first book in the New Testament, not because it was the first written, but because it was found to be the most useful of all the texts for the church’s use through the centuries. It is very much a “church book”, written specifically to meet the needs of the church as a developing organization. Matthew provides a basis on which the church should build its life.
If you read the book of Matthew starting at the beginning, you will find that this is the first public teaching of Jesus, immediately after he called the disciples to “follow me”. So, this text is the first of the first of the first of the foremost. You get the impression that the “blesseds” are significant.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
Not what they people were expecting, after a trip to the mountain. Not fire and smoke and loud words. Just blessings. Why were these Godly mountain words nicknamed the beatitudes? What does that mean? Webster says that “beatitude” means supreme blessedness or happiness. While we are just be-ing, God blesses us. We do not have to do anything.
I would like to close with a story which I think parallels the be-ing attitude I am working on myself…
Once there was a wise woman who was traveling in the mountains. As she was walking along a mountain stream, she found a precious stone. She knew it was unbelievably valuable, and she admired its beauty. The next day, the woman met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman if he could have it.
She gave it to him without hesitation. The other traveler left the wise woman, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. But a few days later, he came back to return the stone to the wise woman.
“I’ve been thinking….” He said.
“I know how valuable this stone is, but I’m giving it back in hopes that you will give me something even more precious. Tell me what you have within you that enabled you to give away this precious stone. That is what is most valuable of all.”