Micah 6:1-8 | Matthew 5:1-12
Last week I spoke about the importance of the word ‘disciples’ in the life of the follower of Jesus, reflecting on the sense that it carries with it – or ought to carry with it – of a lifelong process of being incrementally trained in the way of Jesus, the way of the reign of God.
In fact, if you read Matthew’s gospel, his account of Jesus’ three years or so of ministry is bookended by that word, “disciples”. Jesus’ ministry begins, as we heard in the reading last week last week, with the calling of the fishermen to be Jesus’ first disciples, and it ends with the words of the great commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you”.
In between, Matthew’s gospel sets out, in a far more systematic way than the other gospel writers, the content of that teaching: what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ, with five distinct blocks of teaching, forming about a third of the whole of the gospel.
Matthew, it seems, really wants his readers to know what it means to be disciples of Jesus.
Indeed, there is a sense in which the whole of the Christian life, from our first experiences of God, to the day we die, is the same: an exploration of what it means for us to be Jesus’ disciples.
How, if we name ourselves followers of Jesus, should we live.
Life throws many other things at us; we spend much – if not most – of our lives puzzling over other issues; what we want to study, what career we want to persue, who we might choose to love and live with, how we will handle our finances, where we will live, where to send the kids to school, these and a thousand other, important questions.
But lying behind all of these concerns and questions lies just one: how should we live. What constitutes a good life.
And of course this isn’t a question that originated with Jesus. It was a question that deeply troubled the ancient philosophers – indeed, in a sense it was the single question that Socrates spent his life wrestling with – and which has troubled those who have taken the time to take it seriously throughout history.
And often, when those thinkers and philosophers, prophets and theologians, have honestly asked the question “what makes a good life?”, the answers they found shook the societies they lived within.
Of Socrates it was written:
By searching for true justice, true beauty, or true friendship, he inevitably called into question what was widely believed to be justice, beauty, friendship, and so forth. He could not teach without casting serious doubt on traditional wisdom and on what was then common sense. With every question he raised he had to shake deeply held convictions. He had to cast doubt on the authority of fathers, the viability of tradition, the soundness of popular beliefs, the wisdom of established authorities, and the validity of long-standing conventions.
And if we genuinely live as disciples of Jesus, being incrementally changed; if we hear the words of Jesus recorded in the gospels and pay attention to them, surely we will find the same. For they are words that reflect and explain his life – a life that shakes our assumptions, challenges our cultural wisdom, casts doubt on our certainties.
In this, Jesus stood in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets who had, each in their own context, challenged those around them with their answer to the question “how should we live”.
Micah lived in a society, a culture, that had remembered the trappings of their religion, but forgotten the point. Their sacrifices at the Temple were faultless, but their lives were anything but. Believing that in their religious observance lay the heart of the good life, they brought their burnt offerings, their rams, their oil – as the law of Moses demanded that they should.
But Micah mocks their offerings: “will a thousand rams please God? Or ten thousand rivers of oil?” Does God need your gifts? Or does God desire something else of you?
And then he offers his own answer, the vision he has seen of what God really wants from the people: “God has already told you what is needed: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.”
For Micah, the answer is simple – you don’t need to rack your brains to work out what God wants – for you’ve already been told.
And seven centuries later, in a different land, amongst a very different people, Jesus brings his answers from the same tradition.
Matthew tells us that Jesus has been “proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God” everywhere he went, and here we have the first place in the gospel where that good news is spelled out. And a very strange sort of Good News it turns out to be. For in almost every line it takes those things that we so easily judge as blessings, and turn them upside down and inside out.
For the things that Jesus names as blessings, and the things we place value on, hardly even seem to overlap.
And the easiest thing to do at this point in a sermon (along with an obligatory nod to “blessed are the cheesemakers”) is to pick a few things that the world seems to place great value on, and notice that Jesus did not name them as blessings of God. There’s no “blessed are the wealthy” or “blessed are the beautiful” or “blessed are the successful”. No “blessed are the talented”. No “blessed are the social media influencers”.
Easy and entertaining, but pretty much missing the point. For whenever you hear someone do that, one thing to notice – that they are probably picking the things that they already don’t consider important, the phrases that don’t describe them, to critique.
It’s all too easy to see the places that Jesus’ words challenge others.
Much harder to read them and hear in them a challenge to ourselves.
So I’m just going to take a few moments on each of the eight lines, and invite you to ask yourself: which of these is Jesus’ challenge to me? Which of these eight “blessed are’s” is it that I need to hear if I am to take the next step along the road of discipleship. Maybe several of them ring a challenging note for you – but I’d encourage you to choose just one.
Blessed are the poor in spirit – do we really value that poverty of spirit which aknowledges we do not have any right, or any way to earn the right, to stand before our God, to be part of the kingdom of God? Do we need to feel we have something to offer, something God needs?
Blessed are those who mourn – can we know that mourning is a gift of God; for those who mourn are those who have loved?
Blessed are the meek – really? Those who don’t put themselves forward, those who don’t seize the day, who await the instruction of others rather than taking the initiative? Had this guy never written a job application?
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – sure we all want righteousness, right relationships with one another and with God, but with the intensity that drives the thirsty man to want nothing more than water? To give anything for a drink? Do we care that much for reconciliation?
Blessed are those who are merciful – is it truly a blessing, to be able to have mercy; to place aside our right of retaliation, of reply, of revenge?
Blessed are the pure in heart – those who live lives of deep integrity, consistency; those who are who they say they are, whose lives have nothing to hide. Is that us? Do we even want it to be?
Blessed are the peacemakers – surely we would all want that? But those who want peace and those who make peace are very different; for to make peace is to be willing to pay the cost, to face conflict and not bury it, deny it, or flee from it.
And blessed are the persecuted – perhaps the most obvious anti-blessing of them all. There is surely no call to seek out persecution; but to accept it, to allow others to speak evil of us, to face the slander of the powerful when justice demands that we speak against them.
Any one of these would be a sermon for itself; in fact, there need to be as many sermons preached as there are people here today. I hope one of Jesus’ blesseds has spoken to you, and that you will take it away with you, and allow to work.
And I hope you haven’t picked the easiest one.