Matt 5:1-16; Col 4:2-6
4th Sunday of Epiphany
St Barbara’s 02.02.2020
Rev Tulo Raistrick
If you are anything like me, there is a magnetic pull about mountains. Growing up in Suffolk, one of the flattest counties in England, I couldn’t wait for holidays to get away and see mountains. Mountains convey grandeur and wonder – their sheer size leaves us feeling in awe. And climbing to the top of one can leave us feeling exhilarated.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise to us that so many of the key events in the Bible should happen on mountains. After the flood, the ark comes to rest on the top of a mountain, Mount Ararat. Moses goes up to commune with God on Mount Sinai, and it is there that he is given the ten commandments. In Jesus’ time, the transfiguration, the wrestling in the garden of Gethsemane, the crucifixion and the ascension all happen on hills or mountains. And here, today, in our reading, we read: “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down and began to teach”. Like Moses did when proclaiming the ten commandments, Jesus teaches from a mountain. The words to be spoken are as important as those, indeed these are to be the new commandments, a new rule of life. To underline their importance Matthew tells us Jesus sat down to teach, the traditional position of a rabbi when teaching officially, not just the off-the-cuff throw away lines while wandering along. This teaching from the mountainside, this Sermon on the Mount, really matters. Over the next four weeks we will be exploring it in our sermons, and this morning we start with the beatitudes, the list of eight blessings.
On first appearances, Jesus’ sermon on the mount does not start well. What can he possibly mean to say that you are blessed, or happy, to be poor in spirit, or to mourn, or to be hungry and thirsty? If I was to stand up this morning and preach “those of you who are feeling sad or mourning – you’re lucky, you’re blessed”, you would rightly give me short shrift, so what is Jesus saying?
It maybe helpful to understand these beatitudes as the first steps in a radically different way of living. They are not about rules and laws. They are about attitudes and behaviours. They are about how we live and who we are. So let’s jump in.
The first beatitude is: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The poor in spirit was a phrase used throughout the Old Testament to describe those who had come to acknowledge that they were totally in need of God’s help. It is that sense of utter dependence, of acknowledging that only God can meet our need. We are not to rely on our own wealth, or status, or abilities. We are to humbly acknowledge that we need God in every aspect of our lives. Sometimes we only get to that point when all other things that we may rely on have been exhausted, and yet we are still in need. When caring for a sick relative, for example, we may feel we have done everything we can do, and yet, still it is not enough. In such times we may cry out to God: “Help me.” Our reliance on God reminds us of our need of him, draws us into a deeper place of relationship with him. In such circumstances, we are blessed.
That is part of the meaning of the second beatitude too: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” In times of deepest grief we struggle to find consolation other than in God. I am often struck when meeting with bereaved families at their openness to finding hope in God, even when they may not necessarily have believed before. Faith is one of the few things that can make sense of grief, that can bring comfort and hope, in times of loss.
There is another meaning also to this beatitude: to mourn our failings and sinfulness. The words of the Book of Common Prayer bring this out well: “we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness”. We are sorrowful, remorseful, for the way we have hurt others, for the times we have let God down. This does not mean we are to wallow in our inadequacies and failings, but nor are we to simply shrug them off as if they didn’t matter. The place of blessing is when our sorrow, our contrition, for what we have done, leads us to the realisation that despite all of this, God loves us and forgives us. We cannot appreciate the fulness of that if we gloss over our sins.
So its important for us that we view ourselves as totally reliant on God, both for his help and his forgiveness. It is also important that we see ourselves for who we are, as loved by God. When I pray a blessing for adults and children at the communion rail, I will often pray that they will know that they are loved by God. Why? Because knowing we are loved is key to our lives, its what makes us human.
This links in with a third beatitude: “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.” Meekness is not about being an easy push over, a doormat that people can walk all over. Instead, it is about how we view ourselves. If I know I am loved by God, I don’t need to fight and claw my way to the top of the promotion ladder; or to demand justice when my rights are infringed; or to insist I get my way over others; because my worth and value comes from something else – comes from the fact that almighty God should love me and value me. We can be confident and secure in knowing that we are incredibly loved by God. As a result, we don’t need to demand special treatment from others or to put our energies into being treated as equally as everyone else. Meekness is the confidence not to feel we have to assert ourselves to gain value and respect because our value is already affirmed by being loved by God. That sets us free to stand up on behalf of others, because we already know God has stood up on behalf of us.
That leads us into our next set of beatitudes: how we are to act towards others. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”. We are to work for justice for others, we are to thirst after a world where relationships are fair and right. Maybe at work if people are being treated unfairly, or the company is acting badly towards others, or holding back on paying its bills on time. Or maybe in national or international situations.
As we hunger and thirst for righteousness Jesus says we will be filled, we will discover that there is one who is always just, always fair, one who is longing to establish right relationships in his world, and that one day his kingdom, his rule will come.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” One of the meanings of the word mercy is empathy, the ability to get right inside another person’s skin – to see things with their eyes, to think with their mind, and to feel with their feelings. Its a deliberate identification with the other person, to understand someone from their point of view, making the effort to think through what life must be like as experienced by them.
It is much easier to help others without making this effort, to help others on our terms. But mercy involves us taking the time to truly understand, to get into the other’s shoes. Who this day do you need to make the effort to understand? To whom can you show mercy?
Loving others is not just about standing up for their rights; it is about taking the time to truly understand them. And it is about working for peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.”
One of the most important roles we can play, whether at home, at work, amongst the groups we mix with, here in church, is to enable people to properly listen to one another, understand one another, to ensure that where there is conflict people on both sides can hear and understand the other. That requires immense integrity – to be people that are trusted, who are not in it for personal gain or advantage, but simply to help build understanding, to encourage love.
Which leads us to our final set of beatitudes, and our motivations for living in the way Jesus is teaching. For “blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God”. Pure can mean something that has been washed clean; or it can refer to wheat that has been sifted and rid from all the chaff; or it can refer to something that is unadulterated – wine or milk that hasn’t been watered down. In other words, pure is something clean, unmixed – it is its true self. In today’s language we might choose to rephrase the beatitude, blessed, happy are you when you are utterly sincere, when you live a life of honesty and integrity.
God loves us for who we are, not for what we pretend to be, and we will come to see him more clearly as we come before him humbly acknowledging that. Our motivation for service is to be simple and pure, and not for ulterior motives. After all, as the final beatitude makes clear, if we live this kind of life, joy and blessings will come, but so also will persecution. People will respond to us in different ways, some will choose to say false things against us, whilst others will see our good deeds and praise our God in heaven. We cannot control how people will respond to us, but Jesus in his teaching tells us that we can control how we respond to others.
Jesus, on the mountain, urged his disciples to a radical new way of living, a way of living based on:
knowing ourselves: knowing our total need of God’s help and forgiveness, and knowing our value and worth as loved by Him;
loving others: seeking justice, mercy and peace for all
seeking God: for our desires to be about his praise not our gain.
Take time this week to pray through these remarkable beatitudes, these encouragements to living a transformed life, and allow them to shape your daily life.