All Saints Sunday A November 2, 2014
As the disciples followed Jesus up the Mount of Olives, after leaving the Temple where he had silenced the Pharisees and Sadducees, I wonder if any of them were remembering another mountain, only a couple of years before, where Jesus had also climbed to a place where he could teach them. As much as we’d like to follow them, and hear what Jesus has to say, we’re going to take an All Saints detour today. But it isn’t so much a detour as a flashback to that earlier sermon on that other mountain.
In movies, flashbacks give us necessary background and character development. They take us back to an earlier event that helps explain how we got to this point in the story. This week, we’re flashing back from the final sermon Jesus will preach in Matthew’s story, to the very beginning of his ministry, to that familiar passage we now call The Sermon on the Mount. In this first and longest sermon from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus lays out the foundation for his entire ministry. Just as in chapter 24, where we would be reading if we stayed on track, Jesus climbs up on a mountain with his disciples nearby, and other followers listening behind them. Then, Jesus sits down to speak, showing his authority as a reliable teacher of God’s ways. But instead of words about the last days, which we will hear over the next few weeks, let us go back to that first sermon, and hear words of blessing.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:1-12)
Chunking is a term used in learning theory to describe how the human brain handles information. We tend to learn and remember better when we can compile new information into larger “chunks” because we can only handle about 7-9 pieces of information at a time. That’s why your 10-digit phone number is grouped into three segments – an area code, a local prefix, and your 4-digit personal number. Three chunks are easier to remember than 10. And it’s why your credit card number is so long – even when chunked, it’s harder to remember, both for you, and for anyone who happens to see your card while you’re using it. Another tool for remembering information is to look for repeating patterns. Patterns help us remember important learning, because they help us group small bits of information into larger chunks. The pattern of the beatitudes follows a three-part formula: First the blessing, always in present tense. Then the description of those who are blessed, and finally, the reason they are blessed.
Here we have nine beatitudes, the introduction to Jesus’ very first act of teaching. Let’s see if we can chunk them in ways that will make them easier to remember.
The first three beatitudes focus on those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, and those who are meek. Jesus begins by addressing us in our weakest, most vulnerable state. These three beatitudes seem to contradict what we think of as “blessing.” How can such negative attributes as spiritual poverty, mourning and meekness be blessed?
I once asked a friend how he was doing, and instead of the usual “fine” or “great” he smiled and said, “I am at the end of myself.” My friend had exhausted all his own resources, he had used up all his own spiritual strength. You would think this would have been cause for despair, but here he was, completely at peace, smiling as he said, “I am at the end of myself.” He knew what it is to be blessed when poor in spirit, because at the end of himself, he was finally able to depend completely on God.
Mourning is something we’ve experienced extensively in this congregation over the past year. In eight months, we have grieved the loss of six of our own saints. So much sorrow takes a toll. It drains us of energy and makes our hearts heavy. Yet, in our sorrow, God blesses us with hope, and reminds us that we have a future in Christ Jesus that the world cannot see. Our hope is in the resurrection of our Lord and Savior, and in the promise he has given us that where he is, there we may be also.
And what about meekness? We don’t often use the word “meek” in today’s society, because this world sees meekness as a liability. Meek rhymes with weak, after all, and no one wants to be seen as weak. Those who are weak don’t stand a chance in this world, where personal power is considered a premium virtue. But theologian Thomas Long writes, “’Meekness’ is not timidity or passivity but rather a patient trusting that God will act in due time, an insistence on being nonviolent even in the midst of a violent society, a contentment with the basic necessities of life even in a possession-hungry world, and taking delight in the gifts of God and the many comforts of faith (Psalm 37:3-5, 7-8 14-17).”
When we are at our weakest and most vulnerable, Jesus tells us, the kingdom of heaven will be ours, we will find comfort in our sorrow, and we will inherit the earth. We may see our present condition in a negative light, but our future is filled with great promise.
The fourth beatitude starts out sounding like it might belong to this group that includes spiritual poverty, sorrow, and meekness. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst,” Jesus says. But what do they hunger and thirst for? Righteousness. And this puts the fourth beatitude in a category by itself. For those who seek righteousness will be satisfied. They will be filled. In this one promise, Jesus turns our attention away from what we lack, and toward what we eagerly seek – the righteousness of God. Though the fulfillment of this promise is still in the future, it gives us great hope. Instead of focusing on our deep need, Jesus turns our attention to God’s great provision for us.
And this brings us to the next three beatitudes. As we are filled with God’s righteousness, we are transformed into those who bring mercy, purity of heart, and peace to a broken world. If the first three beatitudes could be seen in a negative light, these next three must surely be seen in a positive way. Those who offer mercy, whose hearts are pure, who make peace in every corner of creation are given an amazing promise. They will receive mercy. They will see God. They will be called the children of God. These blessings are easy to identify as true ‘blessings’!
So we have three ‘negative’ means of blessing, a pivotal blessing, and three ‘positive’ means of blessing. Now comes the hard part.
Beatitudes eight and nine are so similar, it makes sense to chunk them together, but that doesn’t make them easier to accept. If we started out at our most vulnerable, came through a desire for righteousness to the strength of mercy, purity, and peacemaking, you’d think Jesus would be building us up for the grand finale, the blessing to top all blessings. Instead of “Blessed are those who finally attain the perfection God intended, for they shall live eternally with God in glory,” Jesus says,
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake ...”
and I don’t know about you, but those words make me pretty uncomfortable. I don’t want to be persecuted. Many people suffer persecution throughout the world because of their faith in Christ, and I pray for them daily, but I don’t want to be one of them. For example, you may have followed the story last summer of Meriam Ibrahim, the woman who was sentenced to death in Sudan because she was a Christian.
On May 15, a Sudanese court sentenced Ibrahim, who was pregnant at the time, to 100 lashes and to be executed by hanging for refusing to identify herself as a Muslim. She was accused of converting to Christianity from Islam and of marrying a Christian, Daniel Wani, who is Sudanese-American. Ibrahim was raised by her Orthodox Christian mother after her Muslim father abandoned the family, and she denied ever being a Muslim and refused to renounce her faith. Her child was born while she was in prison. The couple’s other child, who was less than two years old, had to live in the prison cell with her.
International outcry led the Sudanese Supreme Court to release Ibrahim on June 23. However, security forces detained her at the airport three days later when she and her family tried to travel to the United States. The Sudanese forces accused her of using a forged passport. She lived at the American embassy in Khartoum with her family for a month before she was finally allowed to leave Sudan.
That’s persecution. And while Meriam Ibrahim’s story made international news, other stories like Meriam’s go unwritten every day somewhere in the world.
But look at what Jesus says about those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness: theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This is identical to the first beatitude, and notice that Jesus doesn’t put it in future tense, but the present. Right now, both those who are poor in spirit, and those who are persecuted, receive the kingdom of heaven.
And then Jesus gets really personal. For the first time, he isn’t talking about some hypothetical “they”. Now he looks us each in the eye and says, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” Not “if” but “when” people revile and persecute you and say awful things about you because of your faith in Jesus Christ, he says,“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Biblical scholar Earl F. Palmer notes that the Sermon on the Mount is structured much like Psalm 1. Among their common features, they both begin with blessings, and they both end with a parable. Palmer tells us that there are two Hebrew words that translate as “blessing.” One is barak, and it means to bow or stoop. This is the word used in Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord O my soul, and all that is within me.” But it’s also the word used in Numbers 6:22 – “The Lord bless you and keep you…” In this case, it means “The Lord stoop down to you.” But in Psalm 1, the word used for “blessing” is ‘ashar, which means “to find the right road.” Palmer writes, “’ashar in Psalm 1 means ‘you are on the right road when you walk not in the way of unrighteousness but in the way of the Law of God.” This is the meaning of ‘ashar in the nine uses of “blessed” that we find in the beatitudes. You are on the right road when you are spiritually poor, when you are meek, when you show mercy, when you make peace, when you are persecuted for the sake of the gospel.
Rejoice, and be glad! You are on the right path! Yours is the kingdom of God!
But there’s one more thing you need to know about these beatitudes. The beatitudes aren’t a prescription, or a “how to” lesson. They aren’t commands, like the two we heard last week, to love God and love our neighbor. Jesus isn’t telling us to get busy and become poor in spirit or start mourning or get out there and make some peace. And Jesus also isn’t saying, “if you will do these things, this is what your payment will be.”
Jesus is telling us that, no matter what circumstances we experience, whether good or bad, he is with us on the right road. Things may look bleak, or they may look great, but no matter how things look, we are on the right road if we are on it with Jesus. And that road leads straight to the kingdom of God, a kingdom that is already here among us, even as we wait for its fulfillment. But to be on that road with Jesus means we have to trust him, we have to name him as Lord. we have to believe that he is the Son of God, who died to save us, who rose from the dead, and who reigns with God the Father through all eternity.
Scripture tells us that many will come from east and west, and north and south, to sit at table in the kingdom of God (Luke13:29). That table is waiting for you to claim your place at it. Will you come to this feast that Christ our Lord has prepared for you? You are blessed. The Kingdom is yours. Will you come to this Table?
 Thomas Long, Matthew, 49
 Earl F. Palmer, Feasting on the Word Year A, volume 4, 238.