September 28, 2014
“The Blessing of Kingdom Character”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
This morning we find ourselves in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life. And here is what has happened so far: Jesus is born, his family is forced to flee into Egypt where they live for a time as refugees, they return and settle in Nazareth, Jesus grows up, John the Baptist starts preaching and baptizing, Jesus comes to be baptized and then goes out into the desert and faces temptations, John is arrested and Jesus begins to preach. And the first words he starts preaching, in Matthew, are, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.”
So if you remember back to the first Sunday of this sermon series we looked at the first recorded words of Jesus in the earliest account we have of his life in Mark’s gospel, this was the essence of the message.
That language about the kingdom of God points back to the traditions and stories of God’s people who believed with all their hearts that one day God would rule and his kingdom would be one of peace and justice, and evil would be wiped out.
When God’s kingdom came, the whole world would see the salvation of God. Everyone was waiting for this to happen, waiting for God’s rule to overtake the earth. And we talked before that, in Jesus Christ, God’s feet were touching the earth, the kingdom had arrived.
And remember we talked about how that word for repent in the Greek, metanoia, means to turn around, not spiritually or emotionally, but physically.
It implies action, literally moving in a new direction. “Repent” in the poetry of exile in Old Testament meant going home.
So in other words, Jesus preaches, turn around and come home; God’s kingdom is come.
In Matthews’ biography of Jesus’ life, the kingdom of heaven or kingdom of God is the single most encompassing image he has for understanding what God is up to.
The kingdom connects John the Baptist, and Jesus, the disciples, and Easter, and after Easter, and the church. Matthew uses kingdom language more than any other New Testament author, seventy-seven times. If you read through the whole book you’ll notice that Matthew uses kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven interchangeably.
This is Matthew’s mythology – and when we use with word myth when talking about the Bible it does not mean a fairytale or fiction; myth is the way that we think about what is most real – so the “kingdom” is the whole meaning of life – it is the meaning of everything – that is what Matthew is trying to tell us through his biography of Jesus.
What is this kingdom? It is really challenging to pin down, in the same way it is hard to describe the trinity, one God but three persons, or heaven.
The kingdom is not located in one place or time. It doesn’t exist as an abstract idea, it is God’s action and it is dynamic – it is in the past, present and future. In the preaching of Jesus and John the kingdom has come, but the disciples also pray that it will come. In Jesus’ teachings, people may or may not enter into the kingdom, people can inherit it, be heirs to it, be children of it, belong to it. In the future people will eat and drink in it with Jesus.
We are never told in Matthew’s account exactly what the kingdom is and that is because kingdom-talk is a kind of God-talk, where we sometimes struggle to find the right words. Jesus often tells us what the kingdom is “like” through stories.
The Kingdom come means that God’s will is done – that the world looks completely different, and if we look at it through kingdom-eyes we see a different meaning in the world, which means that our actions and lives must change. What we were told mattered, doesn’t in the kingdom.
Which brings us to the Beatitudes, which are these series of blessings that Jesus begins proclaiming to his disciples and to the crowds that gather.
I have to admit I have struggled a long time with the beatitudes because I didn’t understand what Jesus was trying to say. Each line starts with the word, makarios in the Greek, translated “blessed” or “fortunate” or “privileged” or sometimes even “happy.”
Jesus didn’t invent this way of talking – they occur in a lot of ancient literature, and often spoken by prophets. But how are we supposed to hear these words? Are these characteristics that we should strive for in order to be blessed or happy?
One of my favorite preacher bloggers Dr. David Lose sums up my problem: “There is a trap hidden in the Beatitudes that I know I have fallen into countless times, and perhaps you have, too. The trap is a simple as it is subtle: believing that Jesus is setting up the conditions of blessing, rather than actually blessing his hearers. When I hear the Beatitudes, it’s hard for me not to hear Jesus as stating the terms under which I might be blessed. For instance, when I hear ‘Blessed are the pure in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,’ I tend to think, ‘Am I pure enough in spirit?’ or ‘I should try to be more pure in spirit.’ Or, when I hear ‘blessed are the peacemakers…,’ I think, ‘Yes, I really should be more committed to making peace.’”
But that is not how these beatitudes are written. They are in the indicative rather than the imperative, meaning that they state what is already true rather than telling us what we need to become. Jesus is saying, because the kingdom has come, here is what is true.
And scholars think that most of these sayings came from the earliest written record of things Jesus preached – so imagine him with a gathering of people. And these people are not the affluent or powerful or successful. They are the lost and broken – the ones who have made mistakes, the poor, the sick, those who have had sorrow heaped upon them, the ones who have been persecuted, the weak, the ones who have not fought back.
So to these real people who gathered around him Jesus says, in essence, that in this world you have been told that because you are poor, because you are weak, because bad things have happened to you, that you are cursed, but it is not so in God’s kingdom – so hear now God tell you, you are loved, you belong, you matter, you are favored. Your identity is not “cursed” but “blessed.”
And this is profoundly radical because Jesus words are not commands – these statements are not things for us to work on – he is not encouraging us to become blessed.
They describe instead a world turned upside down, where, as one commentator puts it, “those who mourn are comforted rather than abandoned or merely pitied, where those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are satisfied, not ignored or shouted down, where the meek inherit the earth rather than being ground into the dust.”
And this only makes sense in light of God’s kingdom come and only makes sense in light of the person offering the blessing. These words could sound so trite coming from my mouth or your mouth to someone who is suffering or lonely or who is facing great loss. “God blesses you” sounds so hollow, except if it is spoken by God himself.
Only Jesus can offer this kind of blessing, because only Jesus is God with us, and with us in our pain and agony and worry and fears. And I’ll say it again, only because God’s kingdom has come do these blessings make any sense.
Theologican Frederick Buechner points out that we would expect Jesus to lift up and bless the exceptional people, the pillars of faith, the best examples of humankind, the people to be like, but Buechner writes that the ones Jesus chooses to bless “are not the spiritual giants, but the “poor in spirit,” as he called them, the ones who, spiritually speaking, have absolutely nothing to give and absolutely everything to receive. . . .Not the ones who are righteous, but the ones who hope they will be someday and in the meantime are well aware that the distance they still have to go is even greater than the distance they’ve already come . . . Not the winners of great victories over evil in the world, but the ones who, seeing [evil] . . in themselves every time they comb their hair in front of the bathroom mirror, are merciful when they find [evil] in others and maybe that way win the greater victory . . . Not the ones who have necessarily found peace in its fullness, but the ones who, just for that reason, try to bring it about wherever and however they can—peace with their neighbors and God, [and] peace with themselves.”
I know many of you are carrying burdens that feel too heavy to bear. You are mourning, you are weary, you feel poor in spirit. You do not want to hear Jesus say that you are happy, because you are not. But when there are parts of our lives that feel like a curse, maybe that is most when we need to hear words of blessing. I hope and pray that you hear these beatitudes as full of God’s grace for you.
You are embraced by God when you all you feel is pain and loneliness.
You belong when you feel like there are parts of you that are unloveable.
You are graced when you feel guilt and remorse and regret.
You are never beyond the reach of hope, even when you think you are, because you are never beyond the reach of God’s kingdom.