4 Epiphany – January 29, 2023
See if you can finish this sentence: “I’ll be happy when….”
There must be a thousand possible endings for that sentence. “I’ll be happy when….”
o I’ll be happy when I grow up and move away from home.
o I’ll be happy when summer comes and I don’t have to go to school.
o I’ll be happy when I fall in love and get married.
o I’ll be happy when I can buy a new car.
o I’ll be happy when I get promoted.
o I’ll be happy when I retire.
o I’ll be happy–when they lay me to rest.
So, when will you be happy? What will it take? What are the chances that it’s going to happen? How long will it be? One year? Five years? Fifty years? When will you be happy?
Jesus has some wisdom on the subject. And what he has to say today may not make much sense to us. Let’s look at it. Jesus went up the mountain and he began to speak to his disciples…Matthew says that he taught them. Jesus teaches them how to recognize blessedness – not happiness, but blessedness. In Matthew’s gospel, the Sermon on the Mount inaugurates Jesus’ public ministry, and the first word out of his mouth is the word “blessed.”
We often talk about being blessed as if it is a reward, as if good fortune comes to us as just desserts. Much of Christian culture equates blessing with prosperity, with health, with satisfaction and obvious abundance. Material things. Things that supposedly make us happy.
While it’s tempting to equate these gifts with the favor of God, this notion comes with a corresponding fallacy that says that those who are sick, those who are not prosperous, those whom misfortune has visited: that these are not blessed.
With the beatitudes, Jesus utterly disrupts this line of thinking. Being blessed is not a reward for a job well done or for the accident of being born into fortunate circumstances. It is also not an accomplishment, an end goal, or a state of completion that allows us to coast along.
In the beatitudes, Jesus meets people where they are. The audience for this first sermon sat at his feet like a bunch of broken toys; they yearned to be made whole again. Jesus meets them where they are, because that’s where he is—and that’s where we are too.
The words themselves begin a transformation. This speech is not simply descriptive; it’s performative. In other words, when we say “I promise…,” as we do when we marry or pledge allegiance, we don’t deliver the goods then and there. Instead, we commit to becoming the kind of people who can deliver on the promise over the course of a lifetime. Promising points us in the right direction. Like promising, blessing begins a transformation.
Here in the beatitudes and throughout his ministry, Jesus proclaims that blessing happens in seeing the presence of Christ, in hearing him, in receiving him, in responding to him. And because Christ so often chooses places of desperate lack—those spaces where people are without comfort or health or strength or freedom, those places where they hunger for food or mercy or peace or safety—it is when we go into those places, when we seek and serve those who dwell there, that we find the presence of Christ. And, finding him, we then carry him with us. Perhaps the ability to recognize blessing is easier when we are not wrapped up in the material things of this world.
Have you ever heard of a bird called a nuthatch. A nuthatch is a small bird that is about as long as the spoon you use to eat your cereal. There are different types of nuthatches, but they all have one interesting thing in common. Instead of climbing up the trunk of a tree, like other birds, a nuthatch can climb up and also down. When it climbs down a tree it goes headfirst. The nuthatch can also move around on the underside of a branch rather than walk on the top of the branch like other birds do. So, we might call the nuthatch an “upside down” kind of bird. The nuthatch moves around on a tree in this unusual manner looking for insects, nuts, and seeds to eat. And because they move in an upside down way they find food that other birds miss.
There is a lesson to be learned from the nuthatch. Sometimes certain things in our world seem upside down. We see people who are sad, people who are hurt, people who are weak, people who are hungry, people who have difficult lives. We may even be one of those people. Yet, we want everyone to be happy and well and we may question the fairness of it all. But, sometimes the difficulties people experience allow them to see blessings that more fortunate people miss.
And in in the Beatitudes, Jesus turns everything upside down. If we were to write the Beatitudes, we would say:
Blessed are the wealthy,
because they can buy anything they want.
Blessed are the powerful,
because they can have things their way.
Blessed are the beautiful,
because everybody wants to be their friend.
Blessed are the retired,
because they don’t have to punch a clock.
But Jesus turns it all around. He says:
Blessed are the poor in spirit…
Blessed are those who mourn…
Blessed are the meek…
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…
Blessed are the merciful…
Blessed are the pure in heart…
Blessed are the peacemakers…
Blessed are those who are persecuted…
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you….
It isn’t easy to believe the Beatitudes, because they turn our world upside down. Jesus tells us that the world has it all wrong — and that the world has us badly fooled. In the Beatitudes, Jesus calls us to love things that we hate and to hate things that we love. It isn’t surprising that many people imagine the Beatitudes to be a bit crazy. But, like the nuthatch, if we open our eyes and look at the world with a different perspective, we may just find things that many others overlook.
The Beatitudes are language of “pure promise”. The promise is this. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice that Jesus does not say, “theirs will be the kingdom of heaven.” He says, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” We do not have to wait for the kingdom. Jesus says that it has come near. We can enter it now. We aren’t able to see all that God can see. But, God promises that in the kingdom of heaven all will be made right. And Jesus is saying to us all, today, Blessed are you! Blessed are you! Blessed are you! Amen.