More than Just the Be Happy Attitudes: a sermon for Epiphany 4A

jesusThe beatitudes, from the Gospel According to Matthew have become  so very familiar to us that they have almost lost their ability to touch us. “Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”  Blessed, blessed, blessed, yeah, yeah, yeah, we know, we know, we’ve heard all before. So, tell us something we don’t know.

These twelve verses are from the introduction to what’s known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. A sermon that strikes fear and trembling into the hearts of any preacher worth her salt. I remember hearing that it’s insane to try to preach on Jesus’ sermon, after all it is the greatest sermon ever written. It has been said that preachers shouldn’t even try to preach on this, because it is in and of itself a sermon. We should simply read it and then sit down. Jesus is the preacher; he has said it all. He has said it like no has ever said it before or since. This sermon is the heart of the Christian message. It is what Jesus is all about. Blessed be the name of Jesus. Hallelujah! Pass the bread and wine and we’re ready to face the world as followers of Jesus.

Now, I’ve got to admit, I was sorely tempted to just read the entire Sermon on the Mount and then just sit down. Especially, as we have our Agape Meal to get to after the service and there’s so much we need to talk about there. This congregation has some serious challenges to deal with and the temptation to cut the worship service short and just get down to business is a strong one. So, even though I will keep it short, I do believe that the words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount have become so familiar to us that those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, we are in danger of missing the point of this whole enterprise in which we are involved. So, this morning, we’ll scratch the surface of the Sermon on the Mount, with a quick look at the introduction to the sermon, otherwise known as the Beatitudes and then next Sunday we are going to dive right into the heart of this sermon, which runs through chapters 5, 6, and 7 of the Gospel we call Matthew. A version of the sermon also appears in the Gospel we call Luke, but we’re going to stick to Matthew for now.

Before we begin with the beginning, let me clear something up. The very best New Testament scholars tell us that what has been handed down to us in the gospels according to Matthew and Luke isn’t actually a sermon that Jesus actually gave. What has been handed down to us is a collection of Jesus core teachings that the gospel-writer has assembled into a sermon. What we have in the so-called sermon on the mount, is not a transcript of a sermon the historical Jesus preached one afternoon up on a mountain top. It is indeed the greatest sermon ever written, but it is a sermon that was never actually preached.

By the time the anonymous-gospel-storyteller of the Gospel we call Matthew sat down to write his book, the contents of the sermon were well known to the followers of Jesus. Jesus was in the habit of saying these things. He said them so often that people remembered them. When Jesus said these things they had such an impact on the people who heard him, that they remembered what Jesus said, and they passed on what Jesus said to others. The Sermon on the Mount, is a distillation of the very best that Jesus had to offer. The Sermon on the Mount is the core of Jesus teaching and it lies at the very heart of Christianity. Jesus’ teachings were so powerful that they helped to get him executed by the state. Jesus’ teachings were so revolutionary that they threatened the stability of the Empire. Jesus’ teachings were so amazing that people not only remembered them, they told others about them. Jesus’ teachings were so earth shattering that they gave birth to a movement that has lasted for some 2000 years. Jesus’ teachings were so life-changing that people stopped what they were doing and decided to follow Jesus.

Now, I know a thing or two about writing sermons and I can tell you that one of the most difficult things about writing a sermon is the introduction. Those first few lines of a sermon can make or break the whole thing. You’ve got to get it just right. You’ve got to capture the hearts and minds of your listeners in the first few lines or you’re done for. Oh, sure they’ll keep listening, and maybe they’ll even look like their still interested, some might even nod their heads and smile. But if you don’t capture the imagination of your listeners in the first few lines, you might just as well read the phone book for all the good your preaching will do. There are sermons that are stillborn simply because they died in the opening sentence. Some days, and many more nights, I’ve sat staring at a blank computer screen agonizing over how best to begin.  So, I can imagine that the writer of the Sermon on the Mount must have been tortured about how to begin the sermon of his life. As I preacher, I marvel at his opening line. Sadly, we’ve heard it so many times that it has sorta, kinda, lost its zing. “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain and sat down; and his disciples came to him.” Do you get it! Boom, right out of the gate, the writer of the Gospel we call Matthew, sets us up for the greatest sermon ever written. “When Jesus saw the crowds.”  There you go, Jesus was a rock-star capable of generating crowds. People followed him out into the wilderness….wait for it…the writer is just about to give you an even bigger hint as to who Jesus was just like. Jesus wasn’t just any preacher, he was just like that other guy that the people followed out into the wilderness, you know the superstar he’s talking about, the one who went up to the mountain top with his disciples and heard the voice of God. That’s right, it took you a moment, but it wouldn’t have take more than a few seconds for the early followers of Jesus to get who the writer of this sermon of sermons is talking about. Jesus is a big a star as, you guessed it Moses no less. And just as you realize that were talking mega-star here, the writer hits you with it!!! That Moses fellow, he went up the Mountain and he heard the voice of God; well Jesus, Jesus he’s much more important that Moses, he didn’t go up the Mountain to take instruction from God, no not Jesus, Jesus went up the Mountain and he did all the talking.

Who needs God with his ten commandments, which no one can actually follow anyway, no who needs that when you’ve got Jesus? Jesus, who doesn’t give you a bunch of unfollow-able rules like Moses did, but Jesus who simply tells you were it’s at.

Oh, and there’s one other important detail that the writer of the Sermon on the Mount manages to fit in, this powerful opening sentence. “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain and sat down” and then as if that isn’t enough of a mouthful for the opening line, the writer ads this gem of a detail: “and his disciples came to him.” Wow, so the writer of the Sermon on the Mount, makes it clear to his listeners, that what their about to hear are the special teachings of Jesus, not the stuff that he preached to the crowds. But rather, the stuff that Jesus told his disciples. This is inner circle stuff. This is stuff for the students of Jesus.

So, gather close because our writer is about to begin at the beginning. “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit:  the kindom of heaven is theirs. Blessed are those who are mourning:  they will be consoled. Blessed are those who are gentle:  they will inherit the land. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice: they will have their fill. Blessed are those who show mercy to others:  they will be shown mercy. Blessed are those whose heart are clean: they will see God. Blessed are those who work for peace:  they will be called the children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of their struggle for justice: the kindom of heaven is theirs. You are fortunate when others insult you and persecute you, and utter every kind of slander against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward in heaven is great; they persecuted the prophets before you in the very same way.”

Woe, wait just a minute! This Matthew guy, whoever he was, has got to be kidding. If Jesus really said this, he’s surly not offering us a recipe for how best to be a follower of his. No one, I mean no one would sign up for this. Who wants to be poor in sprit, mourning, meek, or hungry and thirsty for righteousness? Merciful, well maybe, not that it will get you very far. Pure in heart, who can pull that off? A peacemaker, have you heard of the Romans!  They’ll nail you to a tree if you cross them! Persecuted for righteousness sake, I don’t think so. And why on earth would anyone want to be reviled and persecuted, and have people uttering against them? Rejoice and be glad, for what? Some reward in heaven, please? Is this any way to live? Blessed, blessed, bless, save me from this kind of blessedness. There must be some kind of mistake, this is worse than the ten commandments. I mean, at least with the Ten Commandments if you work hard at them, people will respect you. Sure, nobody gets it just right, but the whole point is to try because it not only pleases God, but the rules make sense. Your Jesus fella is going to have to do better than that if he wants to hold a candle to Moses.

Wait a minute, wait just a moment… Blessed, blessed, what does this mean? Well the writer was using Greek and the word he used is sometimes translated as “blessed,” which means to enjoy God’s favour. Sometimes, it is translated as “happy.” Like the “be happy attitudes”, as if all we need to do is adopt these attitudes and we’ll be happy. The trouble with these translations is not just that they are inaccurate, but that they turn these blessings into a prescription. A prescription that according to some of the followers of Jesus, won’t cure what ails you until you get to some far off heaven. But when you read the rest of the Sermon on the Mount it sure doesn’t sound like the writer wanted anyone to put the reign of God off until some sort of afterlife in some far-off heaven. When you read the rest of the sermon, it ought to be enough to send you back to your Greek lexicon to see if maybe you might have missed something. And sure enough there is a way of translating the Greek that opens this introduction up to our modern ears. The Greek word that is all too often translated as “blessed” or “happy” can also be translated as “honoured.”

Think about it. You are living in first century Palestine and you are being persecuted within an inch of your life. Would you like to live in a world where the oppressed, poor, hungry, justice, seeking peacemakers are honoured.

Honoured are the poor in spirit, for they will be comforted.

Honoured are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Honoured are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Honoured are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Honoured are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Honoured are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

Honoured are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kindom of heaven; right here, right now.

Honoured are you, even when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 

Rejoice and be glad, because your reward is great in this heaven that we are building right here in the same way as the prophets before us ushered in the reign of God.

That’s the kind of world I want to live in!  A world where the downtrodden are honoured, the meek get what they deserve, where mercy, goodness and peace open us to visions of God. That’s the kind of world Martin Luther King was talking about when he said, “I have been to the mountaintop!” The vision of a world where honour, blessing, and happiness belong to those who work for peace through justice, now that’s the kind of world I want to know more about. That’s the kind of world; I’m willing to follow Jesus for. That’s the kind of world where I can rejoice and be glad.

The writer of the Sermon on the Mount has given us a glimpse of the world that Jesus taught was possible. The beatitudes are not a prescription for life, they are the description of the kind of world that nurtures life in all its God given splendor. The beatitudes offer us a glimpse of the kindom of God and describe a life that I want to be a part of ushering in to this world, right here and right now. Let those who have ears hear and those who have eyes capture the vision. That vision is what Jesus’ is all about.

So, I’ll sit down now. Now it’s time for our Halleluiahs and our Amens!!! Now is the time to move beyond the introduction and on to the heart of the matter. Now is the time to follow Jesus so that the vision can become a reality. Can I get an Amen?


The beatitudes offer us a glimpse

of the kindom of God

and describe a life that honours

those who seek justice, peace, mercy and righteousness.

Let those who have ears hear

and those who have eyes capture the vision.

That vision is what Jesus’ is all about.

Now is the time to follow Jesus

so that the vision can become a reality.

For blessed are you.

Honoured by God.

Treasured by Christ.

Delighted in by the Holy Spirit.

Now and always. Amen.


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