It was Lent and the congregation I then served was holding joint midweek worship services with another Lutheran congregation. We were spending forty days talking about why bad things happen to faithful people and how we, as followers of Jesus, cope with that reality. I preached at the first service. But I looked at the pastor of the other congregation and didn’t feel good about our topic.
You see, he had already gone through so much: the untimely deaths of his mother, a daughter, and his wife, amid other sorrows.
“I don’t feel qualified to even talk about this subject,” I said, “because, compared to many of you, I have had little pain or adversity in my life.” The next week, my colleague responded to my confession in his sermon by saying, “Don’t worry. You will.”
Those were wise words. The reality that none of us is exempted from pain and adversity causes many people to give up on trusting in God. What does Jesus say to that?
Our Gospel lesson for this morning, Matthew 5:1-12 contains the opening words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, including the few verses we call the Beatitudes. It’s a bit dangerous to preach on this text. Most Christians are so familiar with these words that they may think they have no need of hearing any more about them and so, are apt to mentally check out before the preacher even starts.
But there’s another danger in looking at the Beatitudes. That’s deciding just exactly what Jesus’ intent was in giving them. Martin Luther said that in these verses, Jesus is laying down a law so formidable that none of us can keep its provisions and so, we will be driven to Jesus in repentance and so receive new life. Some have said that these are ideals for which we’re called to strive as Christians. Others say that these are the principles that Christians must manifest when taking over the reins of political power, striving to bring the kingdom of heaven into the world by the force of our wills. And there are other interpretations of Jesus' intent. Who’s right?
In spite of the danger, let’s take a look at this passage together. Please pull our your Celebrate inserts and turn to Matthew 5:1-12. Now, to get something from an individual passage of Scripture, before we look at its content, we have to look at its context: What happens in the Biblical book before the passage in question appears? And how are some of the key words in the passage usually used?
In Matthew, chapter 4, preceding the verses of our lesson, Jesus begins His ministry, John the Baptizer is arrested, and from that time, Matthew says, “Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” There are two words Jesus uses in that line that can help us make sense of the Beatitudes: Repent and Heaven.
Some people hear the word “repent” and automatically think that they’re being knocked down or judged. The call to repent is a call to all of us to examine ourselves and confess our sins to God, of course. But to repent also means to simply turn to Jesus, away from whatever might be distracting us from Him. When Jesus calls us to repent, He is calling us to turn to Him for the grace and new life only He can give.
Jesus also says that the “kingdom of heaven has come near.” We’re inclined to think of heaven as a place up in the sky where we’ll live in the sweet by-and-by. But that’s not how Jesus or most of the Bible used the word, “heaven.” In the Bible, heaven is the place where God is and God can be with us anywhere, anytime. In Jesus, heaven has invaded our world and He invades our world whenever we call His Name.
Later in Matthew, chapter 4, Jesus calls the first disciples from their fishing nets and then, to show them what the kingdom of heaven looks like, Jesus proclaims the good news and heals people.
Always a great teacher, Jesus begins by showing His students—His disciples—what His kingdom looks like. When we reach chapter 5, where this morning’s lesson is found, Jesus is ready to describe it to them, to help them to better understand not only what they have seen, but also the way of life to which they’ve now been called.
Look at verse 1 of our lesson, please. It says that Jesus went up the mountain and His disciples came to Him. In the Old Testament book of Exodus, God called Moses to the top of Mount Sinai to give Moses the Ten Commandments, the substance of the covenant God was making with His people. The people of Israel didn’t ascend the mountain. Moses was an intermediary between God and His people. But Jesus is the bringer of a new covenant from God. He invites those who want to be in a new and everlasting relationship with God to come to Him. The disciples take Jesus up on His invitation.
Jesus then gives a series of statements about who is “blessed.”
- Blessed are the poor (or humble) in spirit.
- Blessed are those who mourn; they will be comforted.
- Blessed are the meek (that is, those who repudiate the world’s power trips and instead boldly follow Jesus); they will inherit this earth.
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (that is, for a right relationship with God); they will be filled with good things in a feast of love and plenty that Jesus will serve His followers for all eternity.
- Blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, those who bring the reconciliation of God available to all through Jesus Christ—the peacemakers, for they will be in Jesus’ kingdom.
- Blessed are you when you are spurned, rejected, rebuffed for your faith in Christ.
Who wants to be poor in spirit, to mourn, or to experience the world turning against us for our faithfulness to Christ?
And do we have to attain certain heavenly levels of mercifulness, purity, and disciplemaking to get into Jesus’ kingdom?
I have some bad news and some good news for you this morning, what Luther and the Lutheran Confessions might call some law and some gospel.
The bad news is that, yes, these words do have the force of God’s law. God expects us to be merciful, pure in heart, and people intent on enacting reconciliation between God and others. We’re to be God’s middlewomen and middlemen, what the New Testament calls “ambassadors for Christ.” That’s not always a comfortable position. But God wants us to occupy it.
Compounding the bad news is something all of us, in the waning days of January, our New Year’s resolutions likely already a shambles, should be able to understand: We cannot muster enough will power to be the kinds of people Jesus says are the ones who occupy the kingdom of heaven.
But, here’s the good news. Jesus isn’t telling us to shape up and act right. One author asserts that: “[Jesus’] sermon is not a list of requirements, but…a description of the life of people gathered by and around Jesus…”
People who are living the life Jesus describes in the Beatitudes are often the last to know it. I’ve mentioned before my friend, Sig, who passed away some years ago now. Sig was an engineer at Cincinnati Milacron. So was a man who was part of the church in the Cincinnati area that I served for seventeen years, Bill. Their paths crossed just a few times because they worked at different plants, on different projects. But when Sig learned that Bill had joined the congregation I pastored, Sig told me, “He had a major influence on my faith years ago.” When I told Bill, he said, “I have no idea what I might have done.”
I wasn’t surprised by that. In another part of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus talks about the final judgment of humanity. He pictures Himself telling one group of people that they made their choices in this lifetime; when they ignored the needs of others, they were ignoring Jesus. They would live with their choices for eternity. Jesus says He will look at another group of people and say, “When you fed the most overlooked of the world, or clothed the naked, or visited the imprisoned, or gave water to the thirsty, you were serving me. You were paying attention to Me.” This group—the righteous—Jesus says, will be baffled. They won’t remember doing any of the good things Jesus extols.*
Through Jesus, the kingdom of heaven gets inside of us and we hardly know that as we keep returning to Jesus day in and day out, in
- the reading of Scripture,
- receiving the Sacraments, and
- serving and witnessing in Jesus’ Name,
When the kingdom of heaven gets inside of us, we’re not conscious of our mercy, purity, or faithfulness. We’re not making lists. We're not tracking our good deeds.
This fact is hidden in plain sight at the very beginning of our Gospel lesson, verse 1. Look at it again: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him.” You might want to underline the last five words of that verse: His disciples came to Him.
The kingdom of heaven enters us,
- we are changed from the inside out,
- we are fitted for eternity with God,
- we enter the process of transformation to become the people God made us to be,
- we are able to face anything this life brings,
- we are blessed forever by one simple thing:
We all fall short of the glory of God; nevertheless, those who turn to Jesus Christ and who keep turning to Jesus Christ in spite of humiliations, grief, and adversity, are filled with God’s glory, now and in eternity.
A few mornings ago, Sarah told us about an acquaintance, a capable and caring manager, who was downsized out of his job in a large corporation. This was after other major setbacks in his life. Sarah asked if Ann and I would join her in prayer for this man. So there, in her bedroom, huddled together, we did just that. I don’t know how God is going to answer that prayer. But I do know that when we draw close to Jesus, the kingdom of heaven comes to us!
Here's a secret none of you probably know: Life in this world is not fair. Jesus acknowledges as much in the Beatitudes.
But when we keep turning to Jesus, we will be blessed!
And, no matter what happens in your life, you can always believe that!
*The two groups will experience very different ends, too. In Matthew 25:46, Jesus says that those who ignored others and so, ignored Him, "will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." This shouldn't surprise us. In Matthew 10:32-33, Jesus says, "Everyone who acknowledges Me before others, I also will acknowledge before My Father in heaven; but whoever denies Me before others, I will also deny before My Father in heaven."