The Rev. Helen Havlik
4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 2, 2020
When I was in Israel many years ago, we visited the Mount of the Beatitudes—traditional site of what we call the Sermon on the Mount. A church has been built on a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee to commemorate this key teaching event in the life of Jesus and the church. Matthew tells us that one day Jesus speaks to his disciples about what it means to live a godly life, while the crowds listen in. He asks us to think about our lives as disciples. I’m reading from Matthew, Ch. 5, beginning with vs. 1. Listen with me to God’s holy word.
Go to any bookstore and there’s usually a whole section devoted to self-improvement, with books on diet and nutrition and meditation, relationships and retirement planning—name the issue, there’s help available from experts like Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil and Dr. Atkins. And because they have “Dr.” in front of their names, we listen to them! And what’s the chief end of all this self-improvement? It seems to boil down to one thing, personal happiness, the measure by which we judge our relationships, our work, our play. Advertising sells products by telling us how much happier we’ll feel if we buy that particular item. Our Declaration of Independence promises us life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—it’s ingrained in us that life’s main purpose is for us to be happy.
Many people read this text from Matthew as Jesus’ prescription for happiness. Like a David Letterman Top 10 list, this list of blessings is offered as the Top 10 Secrets to a Happy Life or as Robert Schuller called them, The Be Happy Attitudes. I’m not sure what Schuller was thinking, but Jesus seems to have more in mind than helping us feel good. Some scholars think that by going up the mountain, Jesus was making a connection between the Ten Commandments Moses receives on Mt. Sinai and the Beatitudes Jesus himself offers. Most scholars agree the Ten Commandments can be split in two—the first five are about our relationship with God and the rest our relationship with people. Likewise with the Beatitudes—four are about God and us, and four are about human relationships. And it appears Jesus is laying out the qualifications of discipleship and the blessings that come to those who answer his call.
This is disciple talk because to most people what Jesus says sounds foolish, hopelessly naïve and just plan upside down. In fact, one scholar, John Stott (The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p. 37-38) says each beatitude describes all disciples. Jesus isn’t teaching the crowds—nor is he just another self-improvement guru. Stott says, “the whole Sermon … presupposes an acceptance of the gospel… an experience of conversion and new birth, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It describes the kind of people reborn Christians are (or should be). So the beatitudes set forth the blessings which God bestows (not as a reward for merit but as a gift of grace) upon those in whom [God] is working such a character.” So everyone who follows Jesus can be described as poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Jesus calls each disciple to be merciful, pure in heart, a maker of peace, someone who challenges the status quo by word and action, risking criticism and even persecution.
This is way beyond self-improvement; for most of us, it’s “extreme makeover.” The goal here isn’t our personal happiness, at least not the way we usually think of it. No wonder Jesus ends each blessing by pointing to the promises of God! What he asks is demanding, challenging, impossible to do on our own. But notice he’s speaking in the present tense, describing his disciples as they already are. The qualities he seeks aren’t an impossible demand, but already evident in the disciples’ lives—even in our lives. John Stott sees a progression in the Beatitudes, as Jesus outlines what disciples go through as they learn under his care and teaching.
So being poor in spirit means knowing we need God’s forgiveness and mercy. Mourning means feeling grief for our sins even as we are comforted or strengthened for our new life in Christ. To be meek means to be humble, living as forgiving and merciful people, trusting Jesus and depending on his power. To hunger and thirst for righteousness means yearning for right relationships with God, ourselves and other people, putting God before anything else and filling ourselves with what is spiritually satisfying. Righteousness has to do with justice and integrity toward other people. To be merciful means having compassion for people. Walking in their shoes and remembering that as God shows us compassion and forgiveness, so we are to be compassionate and forgiving toward others. To be pure in heart means living with integrity—who we are and what we do are the same, the opposite of being two-faced. To be a peacemaker, Stott says, follows naturally from the others: if we have compassion for people and live with integrity, then we can’t help but make peace. We’re willing to do what it takes to stay in relationship with others.
To follow Christ as described above won’t win us popularity contests. We may not be thanked for our efforts—in fact, the opposite may happen, since what Jesus asks of his followers is, as John Stott says, “in direct conflict with the commonly accepted values and standards of the world. The world judges the rich to be blessed, not the poor…; the happy-go-lucky and carefree, not those who take evil so seriously they mourn over it; the strong and the brash, not the meek and the gentle; the full not the hungry; those who mind their own business, not those who meddle in other [people’s] matters and occupy their time in do-goodery like ‘showing mercy’ and ‘making peace’; those who attain their ends even if necessary by devious means, not the pure in heart who refuse to compromise their integrity; those who are secure and popular, and live at ease, not those who have to suffer persecution.” (Stott, p. 54)
What it comes down to is this: the church is meant to be a living demonstration of God’s purposes—where we can find peace and forgiveness, where mercy is practiced and justice is longed for. Living out what God intends for us may not lead to happiness the way the world defines it, and it requires perseverance because most of the world doesn’t value the way of life Jesus teaches. Following Jesus means practicing forgiveness, seeking justice and righteousness, even if it costs us something. And it means leaning on God for our security.
Yet Jesus still asks us to be a people of genuine forgiveness and peace, who make a place where dependence on God is supported and encouraged, where people can mourn for themselves and the world, knowing they will be comforted by some very real arms. Instead of a happy life Jesus has promised a joyful life, lived within a community of faithful disciples attempting to really love each other even as they offer love to the world. Given this, how can we settle for mere happiness when blessing already is ours? This is what we celebrate as we gather at this table—the gifts of God for the people of God—and no one leaves without a blessing.