Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany – By Br Robert James OHC

Scripture Readings

Br Robert James OHC
Br Robert James OHC

We’re all looking for a way to deal with the challenges, uncertainties, and difficulties of life. We want some assurance that the direction of our life will offer meaning and connect us to something larger than our individual stories. So how do we move forward? Well, our Gospel today points the way.

“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.”

This introduction to today’s Gospel is intended by Matthew to conjure up the image of Moses on Mt. Sinai receiving the Law. Remember Matthew is writing to Jewish Christians. He presents Jesus as the new Moses and the Beatitudes are the new code of kingdom ethics. They’re addressed to a particular people, in a particular situation. Although Israel had returned from Exile it was still occupied and oppressed by the Roman Empire. This community was also in conflict with the Jewish establishment who questioned the degree to which these Jewish Christians were welcome in the synagogue.

Going up the mountain is more about an interior movement than a geographical one. Jesus was raising the disciples’ perspective, giving them a different view, offering a larger vision. He taught them to be occupied by poverty in spirit, mourning, humility, hunger and thirst for righteousness, mercy, singleness of heart, peacemaking, and the willingness to be persecuted for the righteousness of Jesus himself. His teaching is about surrender rather than control, vulnerability rather than risk, searching rather than satisfaction. This new way of being heals the human heart, transforms lives, and reveals the blessing of God.

Most of us have been taught to make our way in life through power, strength, accomplishment, and acquisition. We work to be rich so we can have what we want. We seek power so we can take what we want. We argue to be right so we can have our way. We compete to win so we’ll be respected and admired. We strive to be beautiful, so we’ll be liked and desired. Those attitudes originate in the idea that we are to be self-made men and women. That’s the myth with which many have lived. Jesus’ life and teaching fly in the face of that myth by offering a different way. The beatitudes are not a to do list or eight helpful hints for happy living. They are Jesus’ core values. They define his life and ministry. They’re at the heart of his teaching, his healing, his life and death. Jesus is not telling us what to do but how to be.

It’s not about overcoming circumstances or other people. It is about overcoming ourselves. If we want to know what overcoming yourself looks like, then look at the beatitudes. They are descriptive of God’s mind and Jesus’ heart. They are kingdom values and reveal what kingdom life is like. This is how we meet the challenges, uncertainties, and difficulties of life. This is what we are to teach others. A lifetime of living the beatitudes day after day, year after year, is how we overcome ourselves. They shape and form our lives and longings to be like God’s life and longings. Most of the time we twist and distort God’s longings to fit ours. That’s why the beatitudes are so radical and often seem so out of reach. Whenever we hear them, we are struck by their poetic beauty but at the same time overwhelmed by their impracticality for the world in which we live. We admire the instruction, but we fear the implications of putting it into actual practice because we live in a time when blessings are given to those who succeed, often at the expense of others. To be poor in spirit, peaceful, merciful, and humble will get you nowhere in a culture grounded in competition and fear. Jesus was literally turning the values of the world upside down. The Prophet Micah had done so seven hundred years earlier, when he challenged Israel for their arrogant and uncaring attitude toward the poor, telling them that God requires them to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

Each of the beatitudes is related to the others, and they build on one another. In the trauma and setbacks of life we discover that we cannot do life by ourselves. As we admit our need of God, we cultivate singleness of heart in pursuing that need. The arrogance of self-sufficiency gives way to humility. Those who are humble, are more likely to hunger and thirst for righteousness because they live in the truth of who they are which enables them to remain open to God. We realize that all that we are and have is from God and we begin to know ourselves as poor in spirit. Our own misfortunes awaken and connect us to the pain of the world for which we cannot help but mourn. We think less about ourselves and become merciful to others. We have nowhere else to go and so we turn our gaze back to God. The longer we gaze at God the more we hunger and thirst for righteousness, for God’s life, and we become peacemakers reconciling ourselves to God and our neighbor. You are blessed in this life whenever you demonstrate humility, bring a peaceful presence, open your heart to others, and show mercy to those who cry for it. This is the life for which Christ’s disciples are willing to be persecuted, the life for which Christ died and rose again.

As we hear and consider Jesus’ words it’s easy to look at ourselves and say, “That is not me, that is not the world, that is not even the church.” You’re right, it’s not. We tend to look at what we are not. God, however, focuses on what we can become, who we are called to be. The temptation is to think that the beatitudes are rules or conditions for being blessed or receiving our heavenly reward. They are not that at all. They are not about building up, accomplishing, or acquiring. They are about letting go, surrendering, living with a vulnerable and open heart. That does not mean we run away, back down, or isolate ourselves from the realities of our life and world. It means we engage them in a different way, Jesus’ way. The beatitudes teach us to trust God more than the external circumstances of our lives. They invite dependence on God rather than self-reliance. In today’s world that sounds a lot like weakness and foolishness. That’s what it sounded like in Jesus’ day as well. But to those who are being saved, Paul reminds us, it is the power of God who chose what is foolish to shame the wise and what is weak to shame the strong. The beatitudes are nothing less than the way of the cross. The fullest expression is seen in Jesus’ crucifixion. If we live the beatitudes, they will take us to the cross.

 Paul instructs the church he started in Corinth, which was divided into quarreling factions, by reminding them that their corporate identity springs from their baptism into Jesus’ death and that that Christ takes the ultimate weight of shame on the cross to lift our heaviest and secret burden. Facing into the foolishness of the gospel of the crucified Christ removes the burden of our shameful feelings about ourselves enabling us to see the foolishness of our inclination to shame others and to invite us to a new reality of boundless love. Any boasting among Christians should focus not on our achievements but on what God has accomplished. The power of God is revealed wherever the love of God becomes flesh.

To be blessed is not simply to be happy but to know that one is already living in the coming realm of God. To live the beatitudes is to live as Jesus did—a life of reckless, exuberant, self-abandonment to God and neighbor. We can do that because we know and trust ourselves to have already been blessed by God. Our response to God blessing us, is loving one another making the love of God manifest in the world. +Amen.

Scroll to Top