Primary Text: Matthew 5:1-16
1 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. 13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. - Matthew 5:1-16 (NRSV)
Introduction: Posing the Question
In the introduction to his book “What if Jesus was Serious?”, author and Pastor Sky Jethani asks some rather startling questions, which he then explores through a startling story from his ministry. Reflecting on the rise of the “none’s”, people who claim no religious affiliation whatsoever and all that goes along with that demographic shift, Jethani points out that many Christians believe that it’s all rooted in the fact that Christians take Jesus too seriously, and then asks: “But what if we have it backwards? What if the underlying malady afflicting Christians today isn’t that we take Jesus too seriously, but that we’ve failed to take Him seriously enough? What if much of the culture’s judgment of Christians isn’t the result of obeying Jesus, but the result of Christians ignoring Him?” Another way to ask the question is “Are we a city on a hill or just another neon light?” Those may sound like ludicrous questions; it is easy to say “Of course we take Jesus seriously!” Yet, he follows it up with a story, one which I have to confess resonates with my experience. Jethani tells the story of one day when he was teaching a class on The Sermon on the Mount. On the first day of class, he began by reading the whole sermon, all three chapters aloud and then asking a simple question “How many of you think that Jesus actually intends to lust to live out these commands?” and no one raised their hand.
I have to confess, that was not surprising to read, because there have been many times when I have taught on the Sermon on the Mount and I have hear people push back and say “Well, Jesus didn’t really mean that” and, admittedly, times when I read it and thought to myself “Well, Jesus didn’t really mean that.” You know the responses (dealing with some commands we will get into next week) “Jesus didn’t really mean ‘turn the other check’, he didn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek revenge or try to get even, but that we should only try to get even sometimes” or “Jesus didn’t really mean we should mock and insult people but that we shouldn’t mock insult people unless they are actually idiots, like the people I like to insult.” I remember a conversation once, about Biblical masculinity, where I said that biblical masculinity is humble, and meek, and kind, and the response was so intense that you would have thought that I insulted this person’s mother: “What do you mean? Biblical masculinity isn’t meek or humble, but strong and bold!” But that response assumes that humility and meekness on one hand, and boldness and strength on the other, are contradictories, when – according to Jesus – they are not. For the next couple of weeks we are going to look at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, thing about what he meant and ask what it means for our lives, beginning with the Beatitudes.
What the Beatitudes Are
The Beautitudes is a set of statements about who is blessed, or fortunate (the Greek word more literally means “happy” or “fortunate”). An important thing to keep in mind is that they are descriptions; they are fundamentally announcements, but which contain something deeper. The way N.T. Wright puts it in his Matthew for Everyone commentary is this “This is an announcement, not a philosophical analysis of the world. It’s about something that’s starting to happen, not about a general truth of life. It is gospel: good news, not good advice.” A little bit later on he says “They are a summons to live in the present in the way that will make sense in God’s promised future; because that future has arrived in the present in Jesus of Nazareth.” They are good news about the Kingdom of God and a summons to live in light of that Good news. “Blessed are those who mourn”, for example is a promise to those who mourn, a promise that God is with you in the midst of the mourning and that one day Christ will wipe away every tear and make all things new, and a summons to mourn as one who mourns with hope.
What the Beautitudes mean if we take them seriously
As we read though the Beatitudes, again, think about what they mean if we take them seriously as good news about the Kingdom of God and a summons to live in light of that good news, ready and willing to follow Christ wherever He leads us.
1 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 5:1-11 (NRSV)
Taking these seriously and being ready to follow Christ wherever he leads would challenge common assumptions about what it means to be blessed, or to be successful, about what it means to be great and strong and even what it means to be persecuted for the sake of Christ. If we did that we would not measure success or blessedness or favor by whether someone has it all, but by whether they are poor in spirit: whether they realize how little they actually have and how utterly dependent they are upon God, and whether hunger and thirst for a world that is made new and a life lived well. We would not celebrate vengeance or retaliation, or rejoice with those who get even, but celebrate the merciful, whose mercy reflects the mercy of God. We would not celebrate the jaded, those whose hearts have become dull with apathy, as wise because they do not hope, but see the wisdom, but see the wisdom in the pure of heart – whose hearts are loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle, full of self control – that comes from virtue and hope.
We would see strength in meekness, in gentleness. That’s what meekness is: gentleness not weakness. Gentleness is a sign of strength in much the same way and for much the same reason that humility is a sign of confidence: it means that you have nothing to prove. Several years ago, when I used to practice ringen, which one can think of as like medieval German judo, and longsword fencing, one of the guys in the club was a big warm man with a short grey/white beard and an unbelievably friendly demeanor. He’s the sort of guy who reminds you of Santa Claus sporting his shorter summer beard. George was sometimes called “Baymax” after the super-strong, kindly robot from Disney’s Big Hero Six. He even had a picture of Baymax painted on his fencing mask. The image was fitting, because he was one of the physically strongest people I have ever met, with arms like steel girders. While practicing ringen, he often would knock his sparing partners over even when he didn’t do the moves properly because he was just that strong. Yet, he is one of the kindest, gentlest people I have ever met. That is what meekness is looks like; not weakness, but gentleness.
We would be less interested in fighting than in making peace. Making peace does no mean avoiding conflict and walking on egg shells, but approaching conflict not as an opportunity to win, but an opportunity to learn and grow together. If we are willing to bite whatever bullets Jesus asks us to bite and live into the summons contained in “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God”, that’s how we will handle conflict, and that’s the way of handing conflict that we will celebrate.
We would not jump to the conclusion that anytime someone badmouths us or criticizes us it’s a badge of honor, but would sincerely attempt to understand whether they don’t like us because we are being like Christ or because we deserve their criticism. We would seek to be poor in spirit, utterly acknowledging our dependence on God, and hungering to live up the summons to live as citizens of the kingdom of God, we would ask whether we have been gentle or abrasive, whether we have been a peacemaker or a scoffer and an antagonist and in the event that we have done what is right and are only being ridiculed for that – and that alone – we would extend mercy to those who scoff at us, just as Christ extends mercy to us.
The Sermon on the Mount is a very challenging sermon, and the beatitudes lay the groundwork for that. They are an announcement of the Kingdom of God, a promise that all things will be made new, and a summons to live today in a way that will make sense when Jesus makes all things new. Are we ready? Will we brush them aside, or will we do our best to live into that summons – stumbling as we may along the way – and rise to the standard to which we have been called?
 Jethani, Skye. What If Jesus Was Serious? (p. 10). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.
 Wright, N. T.. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1 (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 36). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
 Wright, N. T.. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1 (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 38). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.