A Communion Meditation preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Epiphany 5, February 3, 2002, dedicated to the memory of The Rev. John Long, who for years served the Lord with gladness as a husband, father, grandfather, pastor, teacher, preacher and friend to those who needed him and always dedicated to the glory of God!

"Stairway to the Kingdom of Heaven"

Part I of II

Micah 6:1-8 and Matthew 5:1-12


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 salvation. Amen.


Crowds always moved Jesus. Sometimes he was moved to great compassion by the crowds. At other times, their disbelief aroused his pity. Sometimes their selfishness caused him to wonder if they were following him only for loaves and fishes. Their sickness and illnesses gnawed at his heart. And their lostness and confusion filled him with a desire to show them the way to truth and how to live a truth-full life.

In Matthew, chapters 5-7, Jesus saw the crowds and went up to the mountain and sat down - to teach. He knew that their civilization was sick unto death. He knew that they had been summoned to repent by John the Baptizer. He knew that they had reached the end of their spiritual and economic rope. And so when he began speaking he presented them with a path - a stairway if you will - eight steps on the stairway to the kingdom of heaven.

Today, I will present to you three of the steps. I am sorry, but this is going to be a two-part sermon. I would willingly present all eight to you today, but some of you want to be home in time for the 6:30 kick-off of the Super Bowl. Others of you want to be home for the 6:32 pm kick-off of all the new TV commercials. So, three today and I will finish next week with the final five steps on the stairway to the kingdom of heaven. Please, listen carefully. I encourage you to take notes. Because I believe, if you live these steps in your life, the essence of faith and heaven itself will be revealed and open to you. This is not my promise. This is God's promise.

1. "The poor in spirit are partakers in the kingdom of the divine blessing, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Jordan, Clarence, The Sermon on the Mount, A Koinonia Publication from Judson Press, Valley Forge, PA, fourth printing, 1973, p. 20). The poor in spirit are opposite of the proud in spirit. Whether economically poor, or spiritually poor, Jesus says those who are aware of their need for spiritual resources from above are the ones who will receive God's kingdom. They desperately need the kingdom of heaven and they get it. No one else gets it, for the simple reason they don't want it. To take the first step into the realm of God, you need to want to go there. God never forces His kingdom on anybody. But God gladly gives the kingdom to all who approach with humble and honest hearts.

My friends, the kingdom of God is not something you can read about, or learn about in a book. It is something you experience when you approach God in spiritual poverty. When you are empty, then God is able to come in and fill you up. The proud need not apply for this position, because they have not reached the point of humility where God has a chance to enter into their hearts and minds. I know. I have been there, plenty of times.

25 years ago, on a cold winter night, my life bottomed out. After living for 19 years with a big ego and everything that accompanies a proud heart, I was laid low. In my absolute agony and emptiness I cried out to God, "Where are you?! I need you! If you are there, show yourself to me!" In the moments that followed, I saw no less than the light of God and heard the voice of God say, "I am love . . . and, I love you." I don't recommend the pits of despair. But, when you are there, only God can save you. Humility after all means, "out of the humus," or "out of the deepest despair." Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.

With one's pride gone, and with one's trust in oneself and one's intellect and one's possessions gone, now one is ready to take the second step into the kingdom of God. 2. The mourners are the ones who are partakers of the divine blessing, for they are the ones who will be strengthened. As a rabbi and as the son of the living God, Jesus knew the significance of mourning. In each service of worship in Judaism, The Mourner's Kaddesh (Ka-dish) is an essential element of worship. In this prayer, those have lost loved ones and are grieving, stand in the midst of community and pray. They come to worship so that they are not alone. They stand in the heart of the community to feel the power and presence of love from others. The prayer itself does not speak of death. Rather it lifts up the greatness of God and magnifies God's holiness, for after all - our God is God who reigns over the living and the dead!

We must remember, to mourn is not necessarily to shed tears - although weeping is a part of mourning. To mourn is to feel deep concern and to express it in prayer. To mourn in community acknowledges that those around us have also experienced the pain of loss. They know what it feels like to mourn. In community, mourners come to know they are loved, embraced by prayer, strengthened and encouraged. Jesus understood this!

Mourning is always about death, but it not always about the dying of a person. You may mourn a relationship that has ended; a job that has ended; the end of your physical strength; or perhaps the death of a dream about the way you imagined life would be for you - in marriage, in faith, in vocation, even in parenting.

But, the mourner in the kingdom sense is one who ultimately has a deep concern which leads to the point of action. Jesus did not want to leave the mourners in the pit of despair. He said, "they shall be comforted," which translates more fully as "Strengthened," or "Encouraged." Keep your eye on a comforted mourner. When they feel the power and strength of comfort returning, their energy returns. The lost strength from grieving gets powerfully channeled into action. Mothers Against Drunk Drivers are an excellent example! They channel grief into action! In Argentina, the Mothers of the Disappeared became the organizing force for which toppled the government who stole their children! Once comforted by the power of God, the mourners may make the comfortable who have created their pain very uncomfortable!

Having said, in effect, that those feel deep concern and loss, then come to know the strength and encouragement of God and put this into action, Jesus now leads us to the third step in the kingdom - (actually my favorite!) - 3. The meek are partakers of the divine blessing, for they shall inherit the land."

"In English the word "meek" has come to be about the same as "weak," or "Harmless" or "spiritless." A meek person in the predominant culture of our day sees a meek person as a doormat upon which everyone wipes their shoes, a timid soul who lives in mortal fear of offending his fellow creatures. But nothing could be more foreign to the biblical use of the word. The word meek is used in particular to describe two persons - Moses (in Numbers 12:3) and Jesus (in Matthew 11:29). One of them defied the might of Egypt and through the power of God led an entire nation out of slavery into freedom! The other one couldn't be broken by the power of the Roman authorities, torture, and even execution! Neither one of them showed the slightest signs of being weak or harmless or spiritless. Both of them seemed absolutely fearless in the face of men and surrendered to the will of God. Are we to call them "Meek?" Absolutely! (Drawn from Clarence Jordan's Sermon on the Mount, p. 24).

People may be called "meek" to the extent that they have surrendered their wills to God and have learned to do God's will. The meek won't attempt to explain away God's word. They won't apologize for God. They will (sometimes) be polite in listening to the influential words of men, but they will not compromise or disobey their Master's voice! My favorite definition of meekness in scripture is the scene in which Peter and the other apostles have been arrested for preaching about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. When questioned about this Peter says in Acts 5:29: "It is our duty to obey God rather than men." Shortly after Peter says this, Gamaliel, a leader of the Sanhedrin, stood up and advised the other members to "Stay away from these fellows and leave them alone, because if what they are doing is man's will, it will fail. But if it is God's will, we won't be able to stop them. In fact, we will be fighting against God!" (Acts 5:38-39).

It is clear that meekness is the stuff of martyrs! Meekness is the clear ingredient that baffles the high and mighty of the world. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was meek, but a woman of iron will - God's will. Teresa showed up in Lebanon during the 1980's bombing of Beirut. She had a heard that an orphanage was in the middle of bombing. So, she flew to Beirut, got off the plane and announced, "I am going in to save those children." Officials on both sides and even the UN Secretary General - told her to stop. She said, "No, you stop! Those children must be saved. I am taking a transport into the orphanage at dawn. Whether bombs are flying or not, I am going in! It is God's will for these children to live." The next morning, the war - at its height - ceased, as meek, diminutive woman crossed the border and saved the children. When asked how she felt about possibly dying for the action she took, Mother Teresa said, "If I died, so be it. But, I could not go on living knowing that the children of God were in peril." True meekness - in the eyes of God!

You see, we are truly meek when the will of God becomes our Will! That is why the meek inherit the earth! It is because they can't be stopped! They become God's workhorses on earth. They inherit the promised land. They inherit the kingdom of God! It's theirs, because its God's! And they are doing God's will!

To take action out of our deep concern and out of our "meekness" or oneness with God's will is to live the triadic challenge of the prophet and poet, Micah. Micah tells his generation and ours to do justice, to love kindness, and walk humbly with God - another way to approach the steps to the kingdom.

To Do Justice means to be actively engaged in the redistribution of power in the world, to correct the systemic inequalities that marginalize some for the excessive enhancement of others. To Love Kindness is better interpreted to "Love Covenant Loyalty." Walter Brueggemann in writing on this passage says: "The translation of `kindness' is disastrously weak. The word is Hesed. The word Hesed means to reorder life into an enduring community of enduring relations of fidelity." (Brueggemann, in Texts for Preaching, p. 120). And finally, To Walk Humbly With God means to abandon all self-sufficiency, to acknowledge in daily attitude and act in a way that shows life is indeed derived from the reality of God!

Humility, Mourning, Meekness, Justice, Covenant Loyalty, and once again humility. All words, all actions with enduring qualities which when lived as followers of Jesus Christ will lead us up the steps to the kingdom of God. Next week, I will close with reflections on righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and finally what it takes to close the threshold to God's new order. I hope to see all of you (and all your friends!) Next Sunday morning. Amen.

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