Sunday, January 30, 2011
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (January 30, 2011)
“Life in the Kingdom” (Matthew 5:1-12)
Today’s Gospel reading is the first portion of what has become known as our Lord’s “Sermon on the Mount.” It is called “The Beatitudes” … nine statements that begin with the words “Blessed are…” The word “blessed” here actually means something closer to “happy.” In English that sort of falls flat. But if we think about the promises that Jesus gives in these nine declarations, how could you not be happy? It’s more than just a smile on your face. It’s recognizing that God’s approval rests upon you and therefore you can rest in God’s love. However, the complete fulfillment of all that Jesus promises in the Beatitudes is delayed.
You and I have become accustomed to instant gratification. There’s not much we have to wait for any longer. With one click of the mouse we have instant information and entertainment right before our eyes. Products are shipped to your house and on your doorstep the very next day. Want to know the score in the big game? Just click on a website or an app on your smartphone. In fact, you may even be able to watch the game on your smartphone. Are you going to have to miss an episode of your favorite TV show? No problem, just record it on your DVR or TiVo … or on VHS if you are one of those “old-fashioned” people. Before the days of recording devices, you used to have to wait until the episodes were rerun at the end of the season. No money to buy that new appliance or those great looking designer shoes? Who needs to save money? Just charge it on your credit card! Instant gratification!
When it comes to life in the kingdom of heaven, we will have to set aside our desire for instant gratification and know that eternal satisfaction awaits us in the life to come. That’s one of the reasons why the Beatitudes are always read on All Saints’ Day. On that day we reflect upon the eternal blessedness or happiness of the saints who have gone before us into heaven and who await the resurrection on the Last Day.
Last week we heard about the start of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee. The light of Christ was manifested to a “people dwelling in darkness” and “in the shadow of death.” His message was this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And if the people in the great crowds who followed Jesus had also heard John the Baptist, they would have heard the very same message from the prophet who came to prepare the way of the Lord.
Like Moses, who climbed a mountain to receive the Law, Jesus goes up on a mountain. But at Sinai, no one was allowed to approach, only Moses. At Sinai there was thunder and lightning. A thick cloud and a sound like a trumpet blast. The people of Israel trembled in fear. The Lord came down on the mountain. Moses came up to receive the Law and became God’s mouthpiece, delivering the Law to the people below. And when you are in the presence of the holy God, with his Law that points out your utter unholiness, then you better tremble in fear. You better repent.
Here, we have Jesus going up on a mountain. Here, he invites his disciples to come to him. The crowds that follow him are near enough to hear, too. No thunder and lightning. No trumpet blast. After this sermon on the mountain, Matthew records that “the crowds were astonished at his teachings.” No trembling in fear. But this is still God come down from heaven, that’s for sure. The kingdom of heaven is near in the flesh of Jesus. He needs no mouthpiece. God himself “opened his mouth and taught them.” He teaches us.
He teaches us about life in the kingdom of heaven. Life in the kingdom is a blessed life. And this blessed life begins (and continues, I might add) with repentance. Recognizing your spiritual poverty. Mourning over your disobedience to God. Humbling yourself before the Lord. Daily turning to Jesus in faith, trusting in the comfort he gives to you because your sins are forgiven through his blessed death on the cross and his blessed resurrection from the tomb.
Life in the kingdom of heaven is a righteous life. Note well, however, that it’s not a self-righteous life. We already established that a moment ago. No human being can boast in God’s presence, to paraphrase St. Paul (1 Cor. 1:29). And so we hunger and thirst for a righteousness that’s not our own. We don’t have it inside of us. It’s a righteousness that exists outside of us, found only in Christ. And only in Christ will we be satisfied, filled with God’s life and peace. Christ Jesus is our “righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:30).
Only then, empowered by the Holy Spirit, can we begin to live as we heard from the prophet Micah today: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It’s not about appeasing God with your good works or your offerings. As the recipients of God’s steadfast love in Christ, we can now love kindness and be merciful to others. God has created a clean heart and renewed a right spirit within us. We can seek to be peacemakers, living at peace with one another, because God in Christ is at peace with us.
Be aware, however, that living in the kingdom of heaven may mean that you will be rejected. Jesus says, “Blessed are you when men 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 so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12). People often have the wrong idea that living as a Christian will make your life easier and you will be happier because God is on your side. In Christ, God is indeed on your side. But living in this fallen world, you and I have the same struggles and problems as people who do not believe in Christ. In fact, your life may become more challenging, because when you publicly take a stand for something you firmly believe in, don’t be surprised when ridicule and rejection come your way. If it happened to the prophets, it will happen to you. If it happened to Jesus, it will happen to you (See John 15:18-20). Now, maybe you have never faced any real personal opposition because of your confession of faith in Christ. But I’m sure you are offended when you hear people ridicule the Christian Church, whether in print or on television. It should bother us when the Holy Bride of Christ, of which you are a member through Holy Baptism, is slandered, because when you insult the Bride, you insult the Bridegroom, too.
Nevertheless, listen again to Jesus as he assures you that, in spite of all this, you are still “blessed.” “Blessed are you when men 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.” Life in the kingdom of heaven is a rewarding life. No one can take away from you the joy and gladness of Christ.
Your reward is great in heaven. It is a reward not earned by you, but earned by Christ and given by grace. It’s by grace because you and I are not always merciful. Our hearts are not pure. Instead of being peacemakers, we create conflict and hold grudges. Thanks be to God that the blessedness that Jesus describes in the Beatitudes is all about him and given to us by grace. Jesus was all this and more for us. He became poor and meek so we can be rich with heavenly blessings. Jesus mourned over our sin and the consequences of sin in the world. Jesus was rejected for us and for our salvation. The justice of God over our sin was placed upon him. His steadfast love and kindness will never be taken away from us. Jesus walked humbly here on earth all the way to the cross. The Son of God became a peacemaker for us with God the Father so we can be called sons of God. In baptism we are adopted into God’s family and called his sons. And one day, we will gaze on the face of our Blessed Savior and see God.
This is life in the kingdom of heaven … a life that is yours in Christ Jesus. A blessed life. A repentant life. A righteous life because of Christ’s righteousness. A life rewarded by grace. A life that rejoices in the mercy and peace of Christ as a present possession. A life that looks forward to the complete comfort and satisfaction promised to us when this sinful world is done away with, and we inhabit the new heaven and new earth that is our inheritance in Christ.