To Be in That Number
When it comes to the Beatitudes, these famous opening lines of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, the risk is not so much that familiarity will breed contempt, as that it will breed boredom. When we hear this string of "blesseds" good church folks like us are not likely to catch each other rolling our eyes at having to hear this again. We're much more likely to find ourselves giving earnest nods of approval (even if we're somewhat confused and a little skeptical), before carrying on as though none of it were really true. Because if it's true, we wouldn't nod politely at this charming vision that Jesus has. No, if it's true and we believe as much we're going to want to hold on for dear life.
If we're going to let Jesus' words do their work on us, if we'll risk allowing the Holy Spirit to sink these words deep in our hearts, we need to allow ourselves to be surprised, even shocked by them, again or for the first time. Matthew certainly intends to catch us off guard. He's been telling the story in such a way that it's abundantly clear that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel (which he says in the first verse). Jesus is the king after God's own heart, who will set things right. He's the One who's come to vanquish the enemies, and establish righteousness in the land.
He's got the right pedigree--King David's genes. The exotic star-gazers who showed up from across the world to celebrate his birth, confirmed that the baby born in a backwoods town, was a king who would rival every other throne. John the Baptist, the wild-eyed, desert-dwelling, bug-eating prophet of repentance, had promised that this is the One who will baptize with fire and Spirit and power. Jesus is the wilderness-tested, devil defeating One who will establish God's will, God's rule and reign, on earth as it is in heaven.
And so he climbs a mountain, which is always a good biblical sign that God is about to do something, and sits down and gathers his disciples--folks who have bought in (he's not trying to make converts here)--and he begins to teach. And miles away from the kinds of things we've begun to expect him to say, seemingly a long way from the One John preached who was going to walk around with an ax and a winnowing fork, ready to cut down deadwood and burn up chaff, he says if you want to know what God is like, what God is up to, here's what you need to know: blessed are the spirit-poor, the mourners, the meek, the ones desperate for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. Those are the pathetic stones the kingdom of God is built out of. The ones in the dust are closer to the throne of heaven than you can imagine.
Let's pray: Holy God, do what you will in this time and space. Open our hearts to your stirring; convict and comfort. Call us anew. May my words and the meditations of all of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight, true to who you are. In the name of Jesus, our Rock and Redeemer, we pray: amen.
I suppose if we've been paying attention we shouldn't be all that surprised when Jesus walks up a mountain, or strolls into church and says that if you want to understand anything about God you need to know that in the economy of heaven's kingdom it's the poor, the mourners, the meek, the ones desperate for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted who are on the right track.
The Old Testament prophets have been saying similar sorts of things for just about ever. They've been singing and warning that the way things are is not the way they will always be--that the world will not always bend towards the rich and the violent, the satisfied and the self-indulgent. The psalmists seemed to know that God has an incurable affection for the wretched; that for reasons that defy logic, the God who made the heavens and the earth is quite prepared to sit in the ash heap with the broken hearted. The story tellers of our faith have never shied away from the fact that the God of gods has a habit of choosing the unlikely and ill-equipped and even the ungodly to get God's work done. Mary danced to the tune of an upside-down and holy kingdom when the baby in her belly kicked and turned.
We shouldn't be that surprised. But if we're listening, I think most of us probably can't help it. When Jesus begins his kingdom manifesto this way the Church's response has often been to say, "It's a nice idea Jesus, but the committee has decided that we should put some more attractive people on the poster. We're going to want smiles and quite a bit less persecution in the promotional material. Folks are going to want to know what they're going to get if they come to you, how they're going to be made better, stronger and faster, how they'll get the things they believe they deserve. They want to know how this kingdom stuff will improve their marriages and their business decisions. This is good stuff, Jesus, all these 'blesseds.' But let's not start there. Who's going to buy that?"
But Jesus starts here. He's kind of relentless about it. Even though we'd rather have a kingdom built on powerful people, with good bodies and secure bank accounts and successful smiles, he starts with the mourners and the merciful and the meek. And I think there's something remarkable about the fact that he doesn't explain himself. He doesn't say, "Blessed are the poor in spirit because they will really appreciate when things are better." I have to believe that he doesn't explain it, because he's not appealing to our logic.
Instead, he's insisting that this is how God is--God, whose ways and thoughts aren't our ways and thoughts, if this list is anything to go by. This isn't something we're going to understand by explanation and reason. We're only going to understand this upside-down or right-side up kingdom by following him into it, by releasing our grasp on the way things are and following him into the way they will be.
And when we follow him, we see that the new world that starts to be visible in Jesus' words is the new world that will take shape in his life. We're going to see that he's right. He lives these words and ultimately dies for them. He's prepared to give his life to witness to the truth that this is how God is. If we follow him, we see him doing these things at every turn.
We see him as the downwardly mobile one;
the one who weeps over the brokenness of the world and the loss of a friend; the king who comes meekly, gently, on a donkey;
who forgives with a recklessness that makes the self-satisfied deeply uncomfortable;
who satisfies the spiritual hungers of those whose souls are nearly starved to death by religious empty calories;
who shows mercy, touching the untouchable and loving the unlovable;
who sees God's will and way with impossible clarity, even when it means the Cross;
who brings a Jewish mercenary (Simon the Zealot) and a Roman sell-out (Matthew the Tax-collector) together and makes them frontline witnesses to the peacemaking love of God;
who will be falsely accused, beaten and tortured and killed, for insisting that the way things are is not the way they will be, because God is going to mess things up and make them right.
And if we're paying attention we'll see that this ridiculous kingdom that begins with the lowly and the least is, astonishingly, the hope of the world. And we'll see that no matter how violent the powers that be get at the thought of a world that prizes the poor and the peacemakers and the ones persecuted for love's sake--and heaven knows there will be violence--God will pursue this dream relentlessly; God will pursue a new, redeemed and restored heaven and earth even into the grave. And we'll see that not even death will have a say in the way things will be. We will see that the One who stakes his life on the witness that heaven's kingdom is of justice and hope, righteousness and love, peace and mercy and joy, where every tear is wiped away and every hungry belly filled, is raised up to be its king. The unblessable will be blessed, because that's how God is.
Jesus gathers his disciples around him and says, "This is how it is," which is nothing short of a call for us to live as though it's true. And here's the thing, Jesus isn't calling us to save the world. For one reason or another, the Church has often got this confused. Jesus isn't asking us to save the world, but to live in the world as witnesses to the fact that in him it has been and is being saved.
It's telling that Jesus gets his tenses all mixed up. He says again and again, "Blessed are...for they will be." In other words, something of what's to come is already here. The present and the future are all mixed up. And we're being called to get in on the confusion. When Jesus gathers us together and speaks these words into our time and space he's calling us to live in the world as witnesses to the fact that these things are as true now as they will be. He's calling us to use our time and energy and resources in ways that reveal what we know to be true: that God is even now making all things new; that Jesus is raised from the dead--confirmation that his unexpected way really is how God is in and for the world.
I think he's calling us to let ourselves be surprised again by this strange and wonderful good news, this truth that frees us from self-satisfaction and invites us to be satisfied by nothing less than God;
that frees us from vengefulness and power-grabbing and opens us up for mercy and newness and love;
that frees us from the junk that sullies our hearts and makes another world seem impossible;
that frees us from the fear of persecution and even death, and sets us loose for life that is truly life--death-conquering, world-loving, soul-satisfying life.
One commentator on the Beatitudes makes this devastating observation: "That the behaviour of Christians so often fails to conform to [the pattern of] the Beatitudes is not a sign of moral weakness, but a lack of faith...We simply don't think it's sensible to live in the way that Jesus did because we don't believe that God is really the way that he describes." The good news is that the history of the Church is littered with folks who did and who do believe it. We're not called to make this up as we go along. From the get-go people have been living into the resurrection truth that the way Jesus lived and moved and lives again is much more than sensible. Sensible sounds kind of dull. But this is the way God is--the God in whose company even the dead won't stay dead, who has made a mockery of the world's manic, self-preserving violence, in the body of a donkey-riding, outcast-loving, sacrificial lamb of a King. If we hope that we can deal with this God and have things stay more or less the same, we're in for a surprise.
On the other hand, when we deal with this God, we are perfectly free to join hands and hearts with the great cloud of witnesses that has made up the mustard weed of the Church in every generation, turning the world upside down, as the book of Acts puts it. We're invited, as we gather around Jesus this morning to join him in his holy mischief making--to be downwardly mobile in a world hollowed out by the pursuit of so-called success;
to cry alongside the broken-hearted and downtrodden, when we're supposed to be as happy as we possibly can be, according to the commercials;
free to stand with the vulnerable; to live gladly and generously;
to love freely and forgive wildly;
to do what the One who makes all things new is doing;
to look weird enough now that when the kingdom comes in its fullness, we'll fit right in.
On All Saints, we celebrate the folks who have done that, who have imperfectly and in their own peculiar ways testified to the truth a new heaven and a new earth are coming and are here. We celebrate the folks who have given us a glimpse of another way, a cross-shaped, resurrection kind of way. Some of those stories have made it into the pages of Scripture (have a read through Acts this week), and some have made it into the history books. But most didn't and won't. Most will be the sorts of saints we meet in coffee shops and checkout lines, in classrooms and church pews, in kitchens and playgrounds, who bear witness with whatever they've got to the truth that the way of Jesus may not be sensible, but it's true. Folks who are living here and now, into the way the Living God is, now and forever.
I want to be in that number.