Today, I conclude this summer series on the Beatitudes. As you know, these eight steps on the stairway to the kingdom of heaven represent Jesus' preamble to The Sermon on the Mount. Jesus goes on to speak to us as his followers on reconciling differences instead of killing others; treating others with dignity and not committing adultery; working through marital struggles and not divorce (particularly he addresses why it is wrong that men were the only ones who could write a divorce notice); turning one's cheek instead of practicing eye for eye justice; loving and praying for the outsider and not just folks in your family. To these five, he added nine other ways to transformation in chapters 5-7. In my August series in 2007, I will return to these texts and finish the sermon on the mount. For today, the beatitudes....
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
Finally, we arrive at the last step on the stairway to heaven:
"Blessed are they who have been persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets before you" (Matthew 5:10-12).
The truth is, if we live the first seven beatitudes, we will not only be different from the rest of the world, we will be persecuted. If we live the blessedness of poverty of spirit, we will be persecuted by the proud in spirit. If we live the blessedness of true mourning, we will be resisted by those who want only to see a happy face and joy all the time. If we are meek and humble of heart, we will be persecuted by the powerful and the proud. If we hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice, we will be persecuted by the unrighteousness and those who profit from injustice. If we are merciful, we will be persecuted by the cruel and unmerciful. And if we have pure hearts, there are those who will try to break our hearts. And if we try to bring peace on earth and good will among all people, we will be persecuted by those who prosper and gain by keeping the world at war and violate human beings. To live in the way of Jesus is to face persecution. I say this not to scare you, but as a reality check on the heavenward way.
Here at the end of the beatitudes, we come to realize that Jesus never promised us a rose garden - that came from someone else! He did say, through it all, we would "be blessed" - which is no small thing.
Consider these seven blessings: The Blessing for poverty of spirit is the Kingdom of Heaven! The Blessing for mourning is comfort! The Blessing for meekness is inheriting the earth! The Blessing for hunger and thirsting for righteousness is being filled! The Blessing for being merciful is receiving mercy! The Blessing for a pure heart is seeing God! The Blessing for peacemaking is being called a son of God or a daughter of God! Blessings abound for those who follow this pathway to heaven. Blessings are yours...but not without hardships . . .
Did you ever move to a new neighborhood? Were you ever "the new kid on the block?" When you first arrived, were you tested or questioned? Perhaps you were persecuted - laughed at, ignored, or looked at funny. People make fun of things they don't understand. People mock those who are different. In school, they may call names like "nerd" or "freak." Such mocking can all too easily turn to persecution.
Jesus knew all about this. When Jesus stepped out of the carpenter's shop onto the world scene he was the new kid on the block. He was the new rabbi from a backward, poor town called Nazareth - which was not a great place from which to come. People in the Bible asked, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Our rabbi of Nazareth was mocked, resisted, and laughed at by the powerful religious leaders of his day ("Look at Jesus, he can only get 12 men in his church (or `schull' since he was Jewish). Where are all the women and children? "). In the end, he was even persecuted unto death.
As Christians, we may face a similar fate. If people take seriously what we are saying and doing in His name, we might expect resistance, mockery, and even persecution for our faithfulness to his word and way. Some of our old friends may treat us like the "new kid on the block" if we get serious about these beatitudes.
Of course, the opposite could happen. We could try to blend into our social settings and cultural milieu. Like the "new kid on the block" who quietly blends in, we could walk away from these "blessings" of Matthew 5:1-12. That way, we could become passively accepted and be politely treated as acceptable members of society. This choice could make our lives easier. It is a choice. But, it is a choice which also means walking away from Jesus.
Here is Jesus - at the beginning of his ministry - speaking to his mostly Jewish followers about the chooses they could make to follow him. It reminds me of Moses on the edge of the Promised Land in Deuteronomy 30 laying the chooses between "life and death, blessings and curses, good and evil" before his people. He called them to choose life - knowing full well that they might not to so! In the same way, Jesus wants us choose blessings - knowing full well that we might not.
I can't tell you what choices to make as we come to the end of the Beatitudes, today. But, I will remind you that walking away from these beatitudes because of the hardship they may bring also means walking away from the blessings as well. Don't walk away from this too easily. You may regret the choice. Before you choose, give Jesus one more moment. Listen to Jesus one more time.
Jesus knew full well that following him would be hard. He was saying, "Look my friends, you've already been through a lot. But, you're just getting started. As you walked up these steps and came into my kingdom I made it clear that you were making an all out commitment. So, you need to be faithful to your commitment, cost what it may. But, don't let anybody scare you, or cause you to drop back down. I am with you through it all. You are in the company of the prophets whose glorious past stretches back to the beginning of time and whose future has no end. So go to it. I am with you, always!" (Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount, p. 39).
In his book The Sermon on the Mount, E.T. Thompson tells the story of Dr. Turner, the pastor of the American Church in Berlin during WWII. Dr. Turner visited Pastor Heinrich Niemoeller, the aging father of Martin Niemoeller, who defied Hitler and spent most of the war in a concentration camp. When the visit ended, Heinrich said to Dr. Turner:
When you go back to America, do not let anyone pity me or my wife or the seven children of our son, Martin. Only pity any follower of Christ who does not know the joy that is set before those who endure the cross despising the shame. Yes, it is a terrible thing to have our son in a concentration camp. But there would be something more terrible to us: if God had needed a faithful martyr and our son Martin had been unwilling.
Martin Niemoeller didn't walk away from the blessings. As a result, he faced persecution and peril. In Heinrich's words, though persecution is a terrible thing, unfaithfulness is far worse.
What will you and I do in our time? Will we, like the Apostle Paul and Martin Niemoeller, know the joy that is set before us - enduring the cross, despising the shame? Or will we walk away from the blessings?
Friends, the Kingdom of Heaven is ever before us. Let us start climbing the steps on the stairway to heaven - to live a life worthy of calling as disciples of Christ. As we go to the top step and look out the beauty of life before us, let us remember how Jesus sees us. In Matthew 5:13-14, Jesus says,"You are the salt of the earth . But if salt has lost it's flavor, it isn't any good . . You are the light of the world . . . So, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in Heaven." Salt and Light! Blessed are you light shiners! Blessed are you when your little shines for the whole world to see!
May God bless and sanctify each of your lives as you choose to labor in love for our Lord of Life, today and always! Blessed are you, people of God! Amen.
Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church