Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Because We're Blessed

Because We’re Blessed
Matthew 5:1-12[1]
I’m not sure we can hear much when we listen to Jesus preaching the Beatitudes. For one thing, I think it’s hard for some of us to hear them because we cannot possibly accept that we are “blessed” in any real way. Life is hard, and it disappoints us in many ways. Beyond that, it can feel at times like life crushes us beyond our ability to bear. Some of us have been so thoroughly broken by life that we may not even be able to get out of bed in the morning. Being told that we’re “blessed” sounds like someone speaking a completely foreign language at us. We can see that they’re talking, and we know they’re saying something, but we simply cannot grasp it
On another level, it’s hard for us to appreciate how radically different the Beatitudes are from our perspective on life. We believe that the “first” come first and the “last” have to go last. Jesus said, “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16). And in the Beatitudes he painted a picture of what that looks like. But we are people who believe in pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, so talk about being “poor in spirit,” or “meek” doesn’t really compute. We’re too busy out there working harder to achieve more, because it’s the only way to get ahead. That’s the way life works.
Despite these very real obstacles to our understanding, there Jesus is, declaring that we are blessed. I think Jesus knew that all who would try to follow him would desperately need those words. I think he knew that those of us who find it impossible to think of ourselves as “blessed” would need to hear that we are supported and surrounded by God’s grace every hour of every day of our lives. And I think he knew that those of us who feel like we’re doing just fine on our own, thank you very much, would need to hear that the only source we have for a life worth living is the God who loves us.
And so it is that in our gospel lesson for today, Jesus makes clear the gift of God’s amazing grace because he knows how overwhelming his call to follow him is going to be. Make no mistake about it; his call to follow him demands a great deal of us. That’s why Jesus starts his most famous sermon with a striking reminder of how much we truly are blessed. He was spelling out for us the many ways in which we benefit from the gift of God’s grace. He was describing the blessings we find when we align ourselves with God’s purposes in this world: the blessings of a life that finds all we need in God and God alone.
It might not be obvious that the Beatitudes are even addressing us at first glance. The kind of reality that they describe is so very different from anything we know it may seem like Jesus is talking about an impossible dream. We just cannot relate to what he’s saying in any meaningful way. And yet this is part of what makes the Beatitudes so powerful for all who hear them: Jesus turns the world upside down![2] He says that those whom this world deems unfortunate are the ones who benefit from God’s gift of grace. He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). I like the way the Message translation puts it: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”
Immediately after the Beatitudes, Jesus is going to tell us how very demanding it is to actually put his teachings into practice. But there’s a pattern runs throughout the Bible: before the demand comes grace. Before the call to obedience on Mt. Sinai, God was moved to compassion and acted out of his great love to set his people free from slavery in Egypt. Before there even was a people of Israel, God made a promise to Abraham, a promise that came from grace and from grace alone. And before Jesus taught his disciples to follow him by loving their “enemies” as well as their neighbors, he “went throughout Galilee, … proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and sickness among the people” (Matt. 4:23). [3] That good news is that God blesses us all with his grace.
And yet, while the Beatitudes are filled with the grace that God freely offers, there’s a subtle shift that focuses on our response. Jesus also says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. …Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt. 5:7, 9). These statements imply action. The Beatitudes shift from describing the blessing for those who know how much they need God’s grace to describing the blessing for those who put God’s grace into action. That is also a pattern that runs throughout the Bible. Those who receive the blessing of God’s grace are called to put that grace to work in the way they live their lives.[4]
We have plenty of obstacles that keep us from recognizing that we are the ones who are in need of God’s grace. It can be hard to believe that there is any grace in a life that can be as difficult as this one. It can be hard to admit that we are the “poor in spirit” who have nothing apart from God. And most of us prefer that our faith not make demands that challenge us the way Jesus does. Yet gift of grace brings with it a clear demand: we are called to extend God’s mercy to the left out and beat down in this world. We are called to seek to establish God’s peace and justice for those whom the world despises and rejects. We are called to share God’s grace with those in our world who need it the most precisely because we are blessed with that grace.

[1] © 2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/29/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Patricia Farris, “Be Happy (Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12),” The Christian Century (January 26, 2005):18.  She says that “the Beatitudes turn the world upside down with their shocking promise of hope to the hopeless, comfort to the bereaved, power to the powerless.” 
[3] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, “Hearing God’s Blessing (Matt. 5:1-12)” The Christian Century (January 24, 1990): 74: “If the blessings were only for the deserving, very likely they would be stated at the end of the sermon, probably prefaced with the conditional clause, ‘If you have done all these things.’ But appearing at the beginning, they say that God’s favor precedes all our endeavors. In fact, all our efforts at kingdom living are in response to divine grace.” Cf. also W. D. Davis and Dale C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 440, where they argue that the function of the Beatitudes in the structure of the Sermon on the Mount is “to put grace before imperative, greeting before confrontation, blessing before demand.”
[4] Stephen Shoemaker, in GodStories, 217–18, says, “There are only two ways you can enter the kingdom and experience its joy.  One is to be among the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted; those to whom God comes as healing, comfort, justice, and freedom.  The other way is to be among God’s people who are going to the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted and bringing God’s healing, comfort, justice, and freedom.”

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