Sunday, January 27, 2019

Learning to Follow: The Great Reversal

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

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

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

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

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

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:1-20 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from the Holy Trinity: God, the Creator; God, the Redeemer; and God, the Sustainer. Amen.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been in the first few chapters of Matthew, focusing on how Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise. At the very end of last week’s reading, if you heard it, we listened to Jesus speak his first words of public ministry. They are the same words we heard John the Baptist speak. “Repent! [Or change your hearts and minds!] For the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Today’s lesson begins with Jesus going up to a mountain top. Sitting down. To teach. A common way of teaching in his time. In Matthew, this is the beginning of three full chapters of teaching by Jesus. It’s what we call the Sermon on the Mount. 

Now, most scholars agree that Jesus was probably not on a mountain when he spoke these words. Again, as we’ve seen before, the author is deliberately making a connection for the Matthew audience. Drawing a line for them between Jesus and Israel and, especially, helping them see that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel. So, just as Moses shared the law with Israel from the mountain - from Mount Sinai - so, too, the writer of Matthew places Jesus on a mountain to, share the law with his followers. Just like Moses.

Now, we know who the followers of Moses were, right? Israel. But, who were the followers of Jesus? If we back up a few more in chapter 4, we see who they are beginning with verse 23. “Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues. He announced the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread throughout Syria. People brought to him all those who had various kinds of diseases, those in pain, those possessed by demons, those with epilepsy, and those who were paralyzed, and he healed them. Large crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from the areas beyond the Jordan River.”

So, the first thing we note from this text is place. That Jesus was in Galilee. He was not in Judea, which was where Jerusalem was. Instead he was in an area that was far north. An area that had historically been the most devastated because it was near the northern border. In an area that had a long history with empire and oppression. An area that had first fallen to the Babylonians, then to the Assyrians and, then, by Jesus’ time, to the Romans. It was an area on the margins. 

The second thing we note is the activity of Jesus. He announces the good news of the kingdom of heaven. But, this is not the good news of a kingdom that is far into the future or in an afterlife, but it is the good news of a kingdom that is being experienced now. That is being lived out now. The good news pronounced by Jesus is connected with activity in the here and now. With the healing of every disease and sickness among the people.

The last thing we note in this text is about the crowd that was following him. This was not a crowd that was made up of the elite: the wealthy, the powerful, the successful. But it was a crowd of people who were diseased, in pain, with mental health issues and epilepsy, and with paralysis and the friends and families who were supporting them. Who were bringing them to be healed by Jesus. It was a crowd of people on the margins. 

So, Jesus’ ministry in Matthew is one of good news bringing healing in the present time to a marginal people in a marginal place. 

Then, we turn to chapter 5 and our reading today. Which begins with the Beatitudes. It is in these statements, each beginning with the words “Blessed are” that we begin to understand what the priorities are for Jesus in the kingdom of God.

To help us better understand this, I have a little activity that I need 3 volunteers for. I need each of you to go to the back of the sanctuary by the front doors. Then, when I say “go,” I want you to run forward as fast as you can to give me a “high five.” Ready? On your mark. Get set. Go.

The person who was in last place is our winner today. Is that a surprise for you? How is this different from what you expected? 

Thanks to all of you for your participation. 

Do you see what just happened? The world has trained us to believe that only the fastest, the smartest, and the best will be the winners. But, this is not so in God’s kingdom. So often we look at this list - at the Beatitudes - as a “to do” list for us. If we will be poor in spirit, we will have the kingdom. If we mourn, we will be comforted. If we are meek, we will inherit the earth. And on and on. 

But, that’s not what Jesus intends. Instead, what Jesus intends is the exact opposite. It’s what we call the great reversal. The radical nature of the gospel. The scandal of the good news. Jesus teaches that those who are poor in spirit, that those who mourn or are meek, that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, that those who are merciful or pure in heart, or who are peacemakers, or who are persecuted and reviled - that all of these people are the priority in God’s kingdom. Jesus isn’t calling us to go and get persecuted, but to honor those who are. As we do this. As we honor and lift up these qualities, we will be transformed. We will realign our own priorities with those of God. We will follow Jesus’ command to repent. To change our hearts. To be transformed.

But, that’s not all. Because this is not the end of our lesson today. Matthew goes on to talk about two things: salt and light.

What does salt do? Yes, it gives flavor to food. It’s a preservative. Before the days of refrigeration, it was the only real way to preserve food. In Jesus’ time, though, salt had a different function. Palestinians in the first century placed flat plates of salt on the bottom of their earthen ovens to activate the fire. Salt was a catalyst that caused the fuel to burn. So, in other words, salt provided the spark for the fire. 

Then, what about light? What does light do? It helps lead us. It guides us in the darkness. Yes, these things. And, have you been in a dark movie theatre and your phone screen turns on? It’s is really hard to hide light. 

So, what is Jesus telling us today in this two-part text? He is telling us that the priority of God's kingdom begins on the margins. That, it consists of people, broken like us, who have been healed and made God’s disciples by grace. But that the discipleship doesn’t end there. It doesn’t end with healing and with salvation, with simply sitting and waiting for that eternal, heavenly kingdom. It exists in the here and now, just as Jesus taught. With us, as his followers, being salt in the the world. Being the spark that gets the fire burning. And being light - not light that is hidden - but light that shines brightly and can be seen for miles.

You see, discipleship is intended to turn our lives upside down, just as God’s kingdom is one of great reversals. Discipleship is intended to change us completely in how we plan our days - both in what we do and in how we do it. This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the here and now. It is to be a leader. To be the salt and the light. To guide the world to a deeper understanding of God's kingdom - a kingdom of great reversals. A kingdom of the here and now. A kingdom for all eternity.

May God guide us in our transformation - in our great reversal - that we might be more fully the salt and light for the kingdom of God. Amen.

Preached January 27, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Epiphany 3
Readings: Matthew 5:1-20, Psalm 1:1-3

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