Epiphany 4A/Lectionary 4A
January 29, 2023
Today we get to hear a whole lineup of great texts. First, from Micah. You likely have heard somewhere or other the final verse of our passage: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” But maybe you are less familiar with the lead up. Picture this: it is the 8th century BCE, and Israel is in a tough spot – not only is the Assyrian army about to attack, but the leaders of Israel have strayed, trampling the poor rather than leading with justice and mercy. But, Micah says, it’s not too late to change your ways! The passage begins with God saying, “What more could I have done for you, people? Answer me!” Caught in their own mess, the people respond by offering God all manner of outrageous and extravagant offerings. And Micah says that what God has wanted all along from them is not stuff, but rather, to live a life of justice, mercy, and humility, not only when they are in trouble, but every day.
The Gospel reading brings us the beloved Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This is Jesus’ first sermon, first teaching, in Matthew’s Gospel, and he’s really laying out his mission and purpose, showing us what that kingdom of heaven he’s been proclaiming really looks like. And it’s not what we think! The message of the Beatitudes is completely counterintuitive, blessing those who we would not ordinarily think of as blessed.
Micah, Matthew, and maybe even 1 Corinthians are texts that will be familiar to many. But as you listen today, try to hear them anew. We all come here each week with particular joys and celebrations, pains and struggles, and this word can speak differently to us depending on what we bring. Let God’s word speak to you where you are today. Let’s listen.
|Sermon on the Mount, Persian miniature|
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I had a hard time this week deciding what to preach on! Just as soon as I decided one direction, something else would speak to me, and I’d go down that rabbit hole. And then something else, and something else. There is so much richness in these texts! So many preachable moments.
And yet, there are also some hidden traps in them. Take the Beatitudes, for example. These are so well known, used as weddings and funerals, embroidered on pillows, satirized in Monty Python (blessed are the cheesemakers, anyone?). But as is often the case with the Living Word of God, a closer look at some of these well-known and beloved texts can reveal things familiarity might have kept hidden.
Here is the trap I notice in the Beatitudes. For me, my first inclination with the Beatitudes is to see them as conditions for blessing. As in, “if you want to be blessed, do this: be meeker, commit yourself to seeking peace, be purer of heart, humble yourself and be poor in spirit.” This trap morphs them from the blessings they are intended to be, into a sort of spiritual to-do list.
Why do we fall so easily into this trap? I wonder if it is because we can’t believe God would bless us just exactly where and how we are? Maybe we see God as the stern law-giver with high expectations, and we have a hard time believing that God would freely give blessing without us having to do anything to earn it. That’s not the picture that scripture paints of God, but it is likely a message we have received at some point in life, and maybe even about God. It’s certainly a message we receive from the world: you must do something to earn, to deserve, your blessing.
Or maybe the problem isn’t with our view of God’s character, but with our view of our own. We simply don’t see ourselves as worthy of blessing, worthy of grace. Again, the world often sends us this message: you ought to be smart enough, accomplished enough, thin enough, attractive enough, healthy enough, old or young enough, before you can get what you want in life – even, before you are deserving of God’s mercy, grace, and blessing. Wherever we are hearing that message, it is one I think many of us have internalized, such that we often hear it in our own voice or the voice of someone close to us.
And yet, here Jesus is shelling out blessings even upon those who may be seen as undeserving of blessing, even upon the underdogs, those on the lowest rung of the ladder, even those the world may not take a second look at. Not the strong, but the meek. Not the winners, but the peacemakers. Not the celebrating, but the grieving. Not the rich, but the poor.
It undermines what we know about how the world works.
So, what can we take from that?
For starters, we can see that God – and God’s grace and mercy – show up where we do not expect them to. The way we tend to use that word, “blessed,” in our day-to-day life is usually in reference to something that has gone well. Here’s a picture of me with my kids or grandkids – blessed! We got to go on this wonderful vacation – I’m so blessed! My cancer is in remission – God has blessed me! A stranger paid for my coffee at Starbucks – #blessed! But in these strange blessings Jesus offers as the opening to his very first teaching in Matthew, Jesus’ list is the opposite:
I’m lonely and sad. Blessed!
I’m too weak to go on our family vacation this year – I’m so blessed!
My loved one died of cancer – God has blessed me.
I can’t afford to buy coffee at Starbucks – #blessed.
“How could these be considered blessings?” we wonder. And here’s why: because in all those situations, and in whatever disheartening thing going on in the news or in our lives, God promises to come near. Remember that Matthew’s special name for Jesus is “Emmanuel” – God with us. And so here, in starting Jesus’ teaching ministry with this unlikely list of blessings, Matthew is hitting home the point: God has come near to us in Jesus, and God comes especially near to us when we are suffering, when things aren’t going well. And by God’s nearness, God’s presence, we are blessed.
Knowing this, we can start to look for God in all the places of brokenness, weakness, and vulnerability we come across – in a kid struggling at school, in that person for whom you just don’t have any patience, in your mentally ill loved one, in the injustice we see too often, in the sadness and despair of loss.
Jesus shows us, again and again, that these are the places God shows up. This is Jesus’ first teaching, but do you remember his last teaching in Matthew, right before the passion? It’s the parable of the sheep and the goats, in which he famously says, “As you did it to one of the least of these [who were hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, in prison] you did it unto me.” Because there, in the suffering, there is where Jesus is. And most profoundly of all, Jesus shows us this on the cross – if ever there was a place we don’t expect to see God, it is hanging on a cross, and yet there he is: present in the suffering, joining us there, blessing us there. Blessed are we.
But it doesn’t stop with our receiving a blessing, my friends. We don’t take our blessing and go home, as if we are unchanged by this act. There is a charge within these blessings. God comes close to us, blessing us, healing us, comforting us, and assuring us – so that we might go and be such a blessing to others. As Martin Luther writes, so that we might go and “be a Christ to our neighbor,” bringing to them the mercy and blessing we have received. That is the mission of Christ’s Church: to be God’s merciful, compassionate, justice-seeking, loving, gracious presence in this world, to embody God’s blessing for all who are in need.
Let us pray… To be your presence is our mission here, O God: to show compassion’s face and listening ear, to be your heart of mercy, ever near. Alleluia. Amen.