Saturday, November 6, 2010

Matthew 5.1-12 - Sermon for 11/7/10 - All Saints’ Day (Observed) “Blessed Are You . . . “

Let us pray.
Lord, purify our minds. Purify my lips that I may speak your truth clearly and lovingly. Conform us into your image as we receive your word. Amen.

We almost caused a traffic accident one Sunday a few years ago while driving to church. I usually try to read church signs and see what they say. Frankly, it's pretty rare to see something worth posting on a sign. But when I saw this one sign, I almost laid on the brakes in surprise.  "Feeling bad? Take two tablets, the Ten Commandments."  Did you ever take this view toward God's Commandments? Maybe so. Yet, when you study them you see ultimately you can't keep the commands of God, so you end up feeling worse. This is why Luther put the commandments at the beginning of his catechism. By the time we have worked through the commandments we are ready to see what a good God we have as we confess in the Apostles' Creed, how our Lord teaches us to pray, and how the Lord has provided forgiveness for us in baptism, communion, and confession and absolution. We hear how we are not doing too well, then we hear how our Lord has done what we need on our behalf.

Today's Gospel passage is one that we often think of as opposites of the Commandments. Yet when we look at these "beatitudes" we can confuse ourselves quite easily. Even looking at what people might tell us about that word, "beatitudes," can show our disorientation.  Really. Have you ever heard someone say that these are the "be attitudes" meaning that you need to work really hard to develop these character qualities so you will be blessed by God? This is a misunderstanding of the word used in Scripture. It is also a fundamental confusion of Law and Gospel, which attempts to tie our receiving blessing from God with the merit we earn through developing character qualities in our lives. Let's try to clear that up very briefly, then look very clearly at the blessed ones.

The term "beatitude" is applied to this passage of Scripture because of the Latin word, "beatus," meaning "blessed."  It simply observes that in this passage we have a repetitive use of that "blessed" word. Though some of the character qualities seem to be attitudinal, some are not purely so. Some of them, such as showing mercy, making peace, and receiving persecution don't have as much to do with our attitude as with our actions, especially receiving persecution. Jesus isn't talking about our attitudes here and he is not making any command. In fact, the first command that comes up in the passage is in verse 12, "Rejoice and be glad." Yes, there is our attitude which is commanded, and it is commanded when we are reviled and persecuted, when people bear false testimony about us for Jesus' sake.

Now, who is Jesus addressing in this passage? He's speaking to his disciples. As Matthew uses the word "disciples" this would be more than the twelve Jesus called apostles, but not just everyone. These are the people who are showing a pretty intense interest in Jesus and his teaching.

What of the language Jesus uses? I said a moment ago that the first command Jesus uses here shows up in verse 12. Did you notice the third person verbs? I expect you did, but like most people, I think you could probably use a little review of the grammar to be sure you know what's happening here. The first person is "I" or "we." The second person is "you." The third person is "he, she, it," or "they." This passage is all in the third person. It's talking about "them." Jesus looks at his disciples and talks about people in general. He doesn't talk specifically about the disciples. He talks about more people. Unfortunately, some modern Bible translations have watered this passage down by putting it into the second person. They suggest that Jesus is really only talking to his disciples, saying "You are blessed if . . . " This simply isn't what our Lord says. He's talking about people other than the disciples who were standing around him listening. He's talking in the third person. If the shoe fits, wear it.

Let's see if the shoe fits, then.  How about the poor in spirit? I know once I start thinking about my poverty of spirit I generally become proud of myself. Hmm, maybe some other people are truly poor in spirit. But I certainly have a lot of trouble embracing it in myself.  But do we know anyone who is truly poor in spirit? How about the one who in Philippians chapter 2 who didn't "count equality with God a thing to be grasped" (2.6, ESV)? What about Jesus, who took on the form of a servant and humbled himself even to death? Unlike all of us, Jesus doesn't think too highly of himself. He's the truly poor in spirit person.  

What about mourning? I think we all mourn at times. Do we mourn for the right things? Are we sorrowful that the world is rejecting God in Christ and that sinful man has been turned over to his own imaginations (Romans 1)? Do we weep over Jerusalem who has rejected the prophets and has crucified the true Son of God (Luke 13.34)? We don't, but Jesus does.

What about being meek? Again, we take pride in our meekness and humility. It certainly seems backwards. But that's what we do. There was a time in the early twentieth century when the pastors in the early neo-pentecostal movement made sure they didn't wear neckties. The neo-pentecostals sprang mostly from Methodists and Baptists. They tried to avoid the idea of "clerical" dress, preferring to look like everyday people. But neckties, they said, are proud and arrogant. The women also very self-consciously wore no makeup. They intended it to be a sign of humility, meekness. But what happens when we do that? It eventually becomes proud. No, we don't do meek very well. But Jesus does. We go back to Philippians 2 and see that Jesus, who could claim his heavenly right, became as nothing.

How about hungering and thirsting for righteousness? Really, what's our true hunger? Where are our true desires? Would many of us find meditating for a few hours on God's Word kind of like eating gravel? Would many of us find watching a sporting event, playing a game, or doing other primarily temporal activities the same way? I don't want to say anything negative about watching the football game or spending time putting up decorations for a Thanksgiving celebration. Those are perfectly good things. And there are ways of showing a hunger and thirst for righteousness through all of our daily affairs, including work and leisure. But what is our hunger? When it comes right down to it, we often hunger for our own desires, not for God's righteousness. Who hungers for righteousness? Jesus does, not only for righteousness evidenced in his life, but for righteousness in our lives. Why else would he come to suffer on our behalf? Why else would he provide means of grace by which he imparts his righteousness to us? That's hungering and thirsting for righteousness.

What of being merciful? Are we merciful? Do we truly want people to receive mercy from God? Do we really want to nurture people and care for them in every way? Or do we want to be just merciful enough that we won't get into trouble and that people will do what we want them to do? Aren't you glad when you see the stranded motorist talking cheerfully on a cell phone? Or when the homeless person goes to ask someone else for money? And we're not so much glad that the motorist has a cell phone or that the homeless person might get a dollar from someone. We're glad that we don't have to choose between inconveniencing ourselves and leaving another person without help. Who is the truly merciful one? That would be Jesus, who gave himself for our sin while we were yet sinners. That would be Jesus, who is shown to be the savior of the world, who has shown mercy on even those who despise and reject him.

What of the pure in heart? I'll just give you a challenge. Try it this afternoon or imagine it now. Take a clean piece of paper and a pencil. Then spend ten minutes writing all the things you have done from a pure, unmixed motive, in the last day, week, or month if you need to think back that far. Make sure you did it without mixed motives. No desire for revenge, no desire for self profit, no desire for self glory, no desire to be seen as friendly, Godly, faithful, nothing like that. These are good things you have done and that you would have done regardless of the consequences, regardless of what anyone would think of you, and regardless of what God would think of you. Find purely good things you have done out of purely good motives. There's a reason pencils have erasers. Once we figure out we have done something good we immediately start praising ourselves. Time to erase what we just wrote down. No, we are not pure in heart. Who is? Only the man who has no sin, Jesus. Jesus is the only one in the world who is pure in heart. He is the one who sees God.

How about being a peacemaker? Once in a while we get this one pretty well. But many times we end up being what one influential Christian conciliation specialist calls "peace fakers."  What's a peace faker? That's the person who says, "Oh, it's all right that you sinned against me and ruined my life. I've overlooked it, though I'll take every opportunity I have to get back at you." While we don't say it this way, this is all too often what we are thinking when we have had a conflict. We are afraid of those wonderful steps of conflict resolution we find in Matthew 18. We short-circuit the system and don't make peace. Once again, we look to Jesus, who has made peace with God for us through his life, death, and resurrection.

Finally we see the idea of being persecuted for righteousness. Yes, this happens. Yet very often when we hear of people in the Western world being persecuted these days, it is not because of righteousness. Rather, it's because of their own personal offenses, or maybe their associations with hateful teachings and practices. People are very rarely persecuted because they have been living a righteous life. People are very rarely persecuted because they have been honest and diligent. We can look at the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 and we see that people showing those character qualities are accepted in pretty much every situation. Can you think of an employer who wouldn't want employees who are loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled? What if the whole society were that way? Well, toy and game manufacturers might have to change their marketing tactics, but we can't say it would be a bad thing. Who is persecuted for righteousnes? Jesus is persecuted for righteousness. He tells the truth and says he is true God. He tells the truth, that he is the only one who can forgive sins. He is persecuted on that account.

Now, finally, at verses eleven and twelve, Jesus starts talking directly to his disciples. He shifts from talking about "those people" to "you." And since we're now talking about grammar again, I want to point out something that I glossed over gently earlier. Notice that Jesus is talking about plural people earlier in the passage? He is not talking only about himself, though in our experience we see he is the only one who fits these descriptions. But he is, in fact, talking about a vast multitude of believers in every age. He is talking about those people who have believed on him. He is talking about those people to whom he has imparted righteousness, faith, and everlasting life. Jesus is talking about all Christians in all times. Yes, if you look in faith to Jesus, knowing that he has redeemed you and adopted you into his heavenly kingdom, he is talking about you. Maybe you don't feel poor in spirit. Maybe you aren't mourning aright. Maybe you are proud of yourself. Maybe you are more interested in lunch than in righteousness. Maybe you are not merciful. Maybe you see that your motives are not pure. Maybe you are a peacebreaker or a peacefaker. But in Jesus Christ you have received a new nature. You have become the righteousness of God in Christ. You are no longer the old creation. You are the new creation. And you are the new creation because our God has said you are a new creation and because you believe what he said, even despite all evidence to the contrary.

Are you in this great number of believers? Are you a partaker of that divine nature our Lord has placed upon his people? Then you are indeed blessed.

Let us rise and pray before we confess the Nicene Creed.

Our Father, you have granted these great means of grace - baptism and communion - to place upon your people the forgiveness and cleansing they need. You have given us of your Spirit. You wash and confirm us by Your Word, telling us what we are, even when with our eyes we see something quite different. Continue to confirm us in the faith, now and forever, that we may join that great band of heavenly saints, praising you and confessing your glory. We pray this by faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Dave Spotts
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