Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Blessed Life: Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12

Their world wasn't so unlike our world. Haughty looks. Genteel compromise. Religious hypocrisy. Injustice, oppression, anger, revolution, violence. But that's just life – isn't it? Or is it? 

What road should we take? How do we navigate a world like that, like this? Is there such a thing as living right? What kind of life is the good life? What kind of life does God favor; what style of living did he make us for? And if God were to take over the world, I mean really take over the world, what kind of life would be ready for him? What kind of life do we call the blessed life, the life things go well with in the end, the life God favors and approves and embraces?

Even today, there are so many answers, just like then. Some will tell you there is no 'blessed' life. Maybe there isn't anybody to bless it – maybe this is the upper story of the universe right here. Or maybe the Fella Upstairs moved out long ago or just ignores the knock at the door. That's what some will tell you. They'll say there is no 'blessed' life. There's no such thing as a good life. It's all about surviving and trying not to suffer too much until you die. It's all about distracting yourself from the fundamental pointlessness of existence. There's no bigger story, no story at all. It just is. A cold, brute fact for a nasty, brutish world – but that's what it is.

But suppose that's not true. Suppose there is such a thing as a good life. What's that look like? Is it the American Dream – a beautiful wife, a white-collar job, two cars, 2.5 kids, the white picket fence in suburbia, and all that? Or, or try this description on for size: The good life means being a good person, going to church, doing the right things down to the letter, looking the right way, earning a good reputation, and enjoying it. How does that sound for the good life? That's pretty popular. That sounds like being a decent person; a good and upstanding citizen; an admirable example. Is that the good life, the blessed life? 

We'll call that the Pharisee answer. But notice who doesn't fit. All the chronic screw-ups, the people who can't seem to get their life together, can't stay on the straight and narrow – they're left out. The people who don't look right, who don't fit the mold, who just don't have good optics, who don't get good press – they're left out. The average Joe, the blue-collar guy who works with his hands but doesn't have much – the Pharisee calls his life less good, less blessed. And the same goes for all those who don't live in privilege – born to the wrong race or gender, the wrong family, the wrong social class, the wrong country or school district. Tough luck to them – the Pharisees' good life is for those who look and sound just right.

Well, here's another stab at the good life: The good life means making friends in high places. It means being well-connected. It means being upwardly-mobile. It means being a success and hobnobbing with the rich. It means having a big house, taking vacations, dining with Hollywood stars and DC insiders, wielding the influence of political sway or just money to remake the world just a little bit more in your image. That's sort of popular, too. Who doesn't dream of being rich – of having no cares – of buying up beachfront property, of bidding the world's cares goodbye? Is that the good life, the blessed life? 

We'll call this one the Sadducee answer. Again, notice who doesn't fit. All the lonely people (where do we all come from?). Those without connections, without friends, let alone friends in high places. All the poor, even all the middle-class. All those on society's margins – tough luck, the Sadducees' good life isn't for you.

Let's take a third approach: The good life means being right. It means, even if they chase you into the desert, even if nobody listens, at least you've got the satisfaction of knowing that you were right and they were wrong. You've got the courage the satisfaction of your convictions, so hunker down and enjoy. It sounds a bit silly, I know, but it's still an option today, prevalent in some parts of the church but also in society. And if there's one thing these people look forward to, it's hearing God say, “Congratulations – your opinions were all the right ones! Now come forth, and enter into your glory.” So is that the good life, the blessed life? 

We'll call this one the Essene answer. In the first century, the Essenes couldn't stand the corrupt temple establishment, so they withdrew to their desert compound, set up a cloistered little society of their own, blocked out the outside world, and waited in their own little utopia for history, or the end times, to prove them right. Ephrata, the town where I live, was founded by just such people. But notice who doesn't fit. Ordinary men and women – anybody without the refined smarts and the right knowledge-base to formulate the exact right opinions and outlook. Anybody who isn't so finely 'enlightened.' Nor does anybody who values opining right less than seeing right, less than doing right, less than unity and love and mercy. If you're that kind – tough luck, the Essenes' good life isn't for you.

How about one more approach: The good life means taking up the heroic struggle. It means fighting for justice – maybe fighting literally. It means toppling the oppressors. Viva la revolución! It means gaining victory in life, or else raging against the machine, railing against 'The Man.' Is that the good life, the blessed life? 

We'll call this one the Zealot answer. It's popular today. It used to be the good life as defined by Lenin and Stalin, by Che and Castro. It's the good life as defined by terrorists the world over – all struggling for their cause, to overthrow the dominance of the Western world and come out on top. But it's familiar closer to home, too. It's the good life as defined by our political parties today. For one, the fight is against Wall Street, against traditional religion, against a vast host of -isms and -phobias; justice means equality, justice means solidarity in marginality. For the other, the fight is against the 'politically correct' top dogs, against foreigners and outsiders and critics, and the good life just means winning at all costs and being 'great.' But they're all variants of the same approach to life. And who gets left out? The peaceful, the meek, the principled – tough luck, the Zealots' good life isn't for you.

Our world is dreadfully confused about what the blessed life is. And first-century Judea and Galilee were no different. And into that world strides a man like no other, a man who was truly a man but more than a man. A man named Jesus. And he shook the world with his message and his wonders. In all he said and all he did, he went from village to village, announcing that people needed to change; people needed to get ready, or they'd miss out; because God was about to grab hold of the world in a new way, a way we hadn't seen before. And God grabbing the world like that is called the kingdom of God. And when it came, as it came, nothing would be the same. But what kind of life is ready for that?

We're all so confused – and so were the Jews of Jesus' day. They longed for the days when everything was clear – when Moses sat on Mount Sinai and gave them a pipeline to God, passed down to them all his instructions, the Torah, the Law. If only we could listen to Moses, we'd get it right! 

And so Jesus came. He came as the New and Greater Moses. He sat down on the mountain, with his twelve disciples and the crowds gathered around (Matthew 5:1). He was shaping a new Israel, giving them a new Law, a new plan for how to be God's people. The old Law closed with blessings and curses, but Jesus opened his message with blessings, just blessings. He tells the crowds who lives the good life, who God favors, who things are going well for, from an eternal point of view. And he paints a picture for them, and for us, of what God's kingdom-ready people look like. And here's what he has to say to us today (Matthew 5:2-12).

Maybe you're sitting here this morning and you feel like a spiritual failure. You've got no gusto deep down in your heart. You try and try to change, but you fall into the same rut over and over. You look at all those happy, smiling people in the pews every morning, and you feel like a fraud, sitting there like that – so maybe it's hard to even get up and come. You think to yourself, “I don't have a religious bone in my body. It comes so naturally to some people. Never to me. I'll never make it on my own. I need help.” So all you can do is drop to your knees and call out to God, “Please help, please help!” And let me tell you something, you who have nothing to your name but empty hands reaching out for grace: God's kingdom embraces the likes of you! Rejoice: your transgression is forgiven, your sin is covered, my Father counts no fault against you (cf. Psalm 32:1-2).

Or maybe you're struggling to make ends meet. You try and you try, but the debt collectors are knocking at your door. You've taken out a second mortgage. You miss the days when you were helping others, giving without thought of return. But something happened. Your health took a turn, you got in a bad place. And you're being weighed down, held down, and the burden of it all seems crushing. You know the stress isn't good for you. You lie awake at night, wondering if you can keep the house, keep the car. Wondering if you'll ever be redeemed from this bondage to debt. Those who promised to help you – they're slow in coming; they're gumming up the gears, taking advantage of you, maybe. No one seems interested in helping, so you turn to God, you lean on him, you cry out day and night. But you wonder if it does any good. You look around at your neighbors, taking fancy vacations, buying new things, when you can't afford to fix the roof when it rains, when you sweat out the heat because keeping cool's a luxury you don't have, when you ration the food to make it stretch. You wonder if there's a place in the world for you. Sometimes you wonder if God's listening, but he's all you've got, so you cling tenaciously to hope, you trust him to make it right some way, some how.... and let me tell you something: you're living the good life! The Spirit sent me to bring good news to the likes of you – yes, you – to assure you that your hope is not in vain (Isaiah 61:1). Because my Father is holding onto you; his kingdom embraces you; he's a defender of the poor, the struggling, the outcast; his kingdom embraces the likes of you – and you won't be second-class any more.

Or maybe you look at yourself, and you look at your neighbors, and you look at your nation, and you say, “Where have we all gone wrong?” And you get on your knees day and night, and you ask God to forgive you. You lament, and you mourn your sin. When you take a wrong step and you see it, it cuts you deep; it hurts you to sin, it hurts you to see your neighbors give in to sin, and yet here you all are. And you cry out to God, you call on his name, and you beg for forgiveness. And let me tell you something: you're on the right track, not the self-satisfied, self-righteous.

Or maybe you feel a deep sadness inside today. Maybe you feel far from home. Maybe you wonder if you'll ever fit in. But you feel mismatched, born out of time, in the wrong place. You live in exile, and all you want is to be home again, home again, if home you've ever been. Or maybe you're grieving in the face of tragedy. You hear the latest news – another bomb, another gun, another knife; another child beaten, another puppy neglected, another unspeakable wrong. Or the grief hits close to home. A parent died. A spouse, a child, buried before their time. And the sense of loss feels like your heart is torn in pieces, and you're tempted to envy those who seem oblivious to the hurts and pains of life. But let me tell you: God's favor, God's care, is on you. The Spirit sent me here today “to comfort all who mourn” (Isaiah 61:2). Oh yes – you will not grieve forever. And you will have your grief tended and ended, your comfort supplied, by my Father himself. Laments are for a season, to those who believe.

But maybe you're sitting here, and you feel helpless. The world's a rat race, and you can't compete. You always come out the loser. They take your house, they take your car, they take your land, they take your business away. You get pushed around, you fall behind. Their lawyers harass you, stonewall you, belittle you, trick you. If history's written by the winners, you've got nothing to add. And you've given up trying to compete. You've resolved not to fight back. There's no point. You've resigned yourself to insignificance in this world. But you wonder what God could possibly want with somebody like you, who never comes out ahead. But let me tell you something: yours is the good life, yours is the important one in God's sight. He favors you; God is on your side! His kingdom embraces you, and the day is coming – just hold on tight – when all that's taken from you will be given back, and then some. And on that day, you'll call the whole earth yours, and when my Father's angel tell its story, people like you will get top billing.

But maybe you're sitting here, and you feel worse than helpless. You've been wronged. Someone's hurt you, actively hurt you. The rules didn't apply to them, but you get hammered; or they got protected, but you got left out in the cold. All you want is to be treated well, and they can't even give you that. Instead you get nailed to the wall. The world isn't fair, and it seems like the unfairness never tilts in your favor. And so you call out to God. You ask, “How long, O Lord?” And your ears don't pick up an answer. And so you watch as they take and take, as they push you around and betray you, and they get a slap on the wrist. And you feel it burn in your bones. But you won't take matters into your own hands. You just keep hammering on God's door, asking for justice, asking him to fix this broken place. And let me tell you something: my Father will set everything right – I guarantee it. Your prayer, your outcry, has never been ignored, nor will it ever be. You ask for justice, and it's coming – of that you can be sure. God's kingdom embraces the likes of you.

But maybe that troubles you, because you're not so sure which side of justice you're on, some days. Maybe you yearn to do what's right, and you can't seem to muster up the strength. Maybe you don't even know what's right; maybe this world is too confusing, and you're like a ship lost in fog, unsure which way is land and which is the open sea. And you feel so useless, stuck in this place. But you're not content there. You don't want this moral paralysis; and when you plumb the depths of your soul and come up empty, you know this isn't the way you're meant to be. So you call out to God day and night, and you ask him to fix you, and let me tell you something: he hears you! And though you wonder if your wavering, faltering, meandering steps can ever stick to the strait and narrow road, God's kingdom embraces the likes of you. Yours are the promises of God – and he promises that he'll supply all that missing righteousness. You will be set right.

Or maybe when you plumb the depths of your soul, you feel an emptiness inside. Maybe once upon a time, you tried to fill it with money, power, fame, sex, drugs, rock 'n roll, friends, family, work, play, toys, good times, morality, religiousness... and none tasted right, none hit the spot. And you've learned that if you've got a void inside that nothing in this world can satisfy, maybe you were made for more than this world. And you look around at all the happy people, all the people who seem satisfied, their hungers met, their thirsts quenched, but that's not your story. Your desires go deep, your longings are stronger, and you know it, and once you know it, there's no turning back. And you wonder if you'll hurt and ache and yearn forever. And let me tell you something: yours is the good life, this life of longing you lead. Because your desires run too deep to be satisfied by lesser things; that hole in your heart is the shape of God's love. And my promise to you is this: my Father won't just let you sample it; you'll be filled to overflowing, and on that day, the day of God's kingdom, you will be satisfied forever by what's best.

But maybe what troubles you this morning is something else. You're the type who sees a beggar and starts scratching your pockets to the bottom. Freely you give. You're the type who sees a problem and volunteers to do something, do anything. You spend your time, your money, your energy, your health, your life in taking care of those in need. People tell you you're a fool. They say you're being taken advantage of. When you have a chance to get ahead, you fritter it all away. You give what's yours to be what's theirs. Sometimes you wonder if the critics are right, though. You wonder if it's all pointless. You look around at the suffering and poverty of the world, and you're not making a dent. But still you live by mercy. Still you care for the sick, you give to the needy, you help your neighbors with what you can. And let me tell you something: what a life, what a good life! God's kingdom celebrates the likes of you! And you may wonder if it's pointless, but let me tell you: my Father will fritter away his treasure on you gladly! As you've forgiven, he'll forgive you; as you've given mercy, he'll give you mercy. What a good, worthwhile life – don't doubt that God favors you!

But maybe people doubt your good intentions. Maybe you're not one for showy displays. What you do, you do on the down-low. No one watches as you do your good deeds. Nobody gives you credit. They even think you're stingy, selfish. No, maybe you don't have a good reputation. You can't keep up with all the minutiae of the rules: do this like this, do that just so, keep your hands clean and your shirt unstained. That's not you. But on the inside, you've handed your heart to God; he's scrubbed it clean; and your devotion is honest, sincere. It's not for show, it's not for credit; it's for character; it's for God. And let me tell you something: God favors you! God's kingdom embraces and celebrates the likes of you! What your neighbors don't see, my Father sees; and the One who sees will be the One you see. Yes, there's a promise for you: keep your heart in God's hand, keep desiring nothing on earth besides him, and he'll be the strength of your heart and your portion forever – and oh, how good it is to be near God, to live in his presence, and yes, yes, you will! You live the good life – look where it leads!

Or maybe you're battered and bruised because you can't bear to fight, you can't bear to see people fight, you can't bear to see nations fight, so when they raise their wounding words or their weapons of war, you stand between and implore them to be reconciled. And whether they listen or not, you tried. Maybe all you're saying is, “Give peace a chance.” And for it, the Zealots of the world call you a traitor, a loser; you stand in the way of progress; you're risking yourself for nothing, they say. So you've heard it said. But I say to you, God's kingdom embraces and celebrates the likes of you! So much so, my Father is your Father; he calls you his sons and daughters; and he whispers from the heavens to all the world, “Can't you see these are mine? Just look at that family resemblance!” You peacemakers are the children of your God – and in the kingdom, you'll live in peace at last.

Or maybe you've done everything right, you've lived by the values of the kingdom, and you expected it all to go so well – but it didn't. The world slanders you. The world makes fun of you, tells you to get with the times, join the program. They attack you, they persecute you; they take you to court, they put you in prison, they say the world would be better off without the likes of you. So you've heard it said; but I say to you, you should celebrate when they honor you in heaven by their dishonor on earth! Haven't all the prophets been persecuted? And look, here you are, ready for the kingdom – how much greater are you than the prophets of old, and how great is the reward that waits for you when the kingdom of heaven rules on earth! God's kingdom embraces you who embrace the King at a cost.

Maybe you recognize yourself in these words. O you poor in spirit, you mourners, you meek of the earth, you hungry and thirsty and longing, you merciful, you pure in heart, you peacemakers, you persecuted and slandered – yours is the good life. Yours is the life made ready for the kingdom that's coming (Matthew 5:2-12). 

Woe to those who aren't ready on that day; but if this is you, you belong! You kingdom-ready people have hearts like God's heart. You live by prayer, and you trust the Father. You don't live by strength, you don't live by what's 'practical,' you cling ferociously to faith and hope and love. You'd never dream of forcing his will – or your will – on an unwilling world. No, but you wait patiently – painfully, but patiently – for that long-awaited day, the great day of God's kingdom, not in part but in full. And that day is coming. And that day will make your blessing plain. 

Take heart! Take heart, and know that the King overcomes the world. Go in peace, you blessed of the Father, and live the good life – the blessed life – for the kingdom is at hand. Amen and amen.

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