Over the last few months Duncan’s sermons have focussed on Jesus’ teaching on loving God and loving those around us as we love ourselves. (Mark 12:29-31) That theme will continue for a few months yet, but Duncan thought it would be helpful to reflect on other important pieces of teaching Jesus gave. Hence, today, and for the next two weeks Duncan is preaching, we will be reflecting on the ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ beginning today with the ‘Beatitudes’ – the ‘Blessings’ promised by Jesus.
Duncan read Matthew 4:23 – 5:12:
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and illness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralysed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
A key lesson to draw from the Beatitudes is that we, knowing ourselves blessed by God, are to be God’s blessing to others! As we have been blessed, so we will bless, and in our blessing of others, something of God will reach them.
The passage is very rich – you could easily preach a sermon about each of the ‘blesseds’, Duncan said. But today, he gave us a ‘broad-brush stroke’, ‘big picture’ overview.
Two preliminary points
Jesus went up the mountain
Jesus went up a mountain to deliver this sermon. (Matthew 5:1)
Now what does thar remind us of? Moses in the Old Testament. He was leading the Israelites, after their escape from Egypt, across the desert to the Promised Land. And he went up a mountain, Sinai, where he received from God the ‘ten commandments’ for the pilgrim people.
And here Jesus goes up a mountain and teaches his new commandments to his disciples and the crowd, showing them what is entailed in being part of the family of God.
In perhaps consciously echoing Moses revelatory mountain-climb, was Jesus reminding his followers that they were part of a bigger story?
And exactly the same is true of us today – we are assured by Jesus that we are part of the same big story, a story stretching back to Exodus, and further, back to the very beginning of creation. That’s why the Bible stories are important. They remind us that we are part of a story of God’s presence and faithfulness which has been seen and experienced down through the generations.
‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’
Teaching and experience.
Duncan pointed out that, although this is the first public teaching of Jesus recorded by Matthew, Jesus had been busy before this. In the end of Chapter 4 (23-25) we read that Jesus was proclaiming good news, and healing people. It was only after Matthew recorded Jesus’ activity in these ways that he presents Jesus’ teaching.
Duncan’s point is this: sustained teaching by Jesus was preceded and accompanied by visible evidence of the difference the Kingdom of Heaven makes in people’s lives. People see the reality; Jesus in his teaching helps them understand what they’re experiencing.
Duncan mentioned two young women who were fellow students of his when he was studying law. They had previous experience of working in a lawyers’ office: they knew all the issues involved in applying the law to everyday situations. Duncan and the other students were dutifully cramming their heads with legal knowledge. But the young women did much better in their studies, Duncan said, because they combined the things they were learning with their knowledge of the reality of everyday legal practice.
There’s a significant (and important) focus on words in our church tradition, Duncan said. But teaching and experience, intimately related, are both vital to us. Teaching helps us understand our day-to-day experience as Christians, and helps shape the way we live. Experience helps us ask questions, the answers to which we seek through receiving teaching.
We have come to learn about what the life of following Jesus day by day is all about. Jesus teaches us how we can make a difference in the world, how we can be a blessing.
We are blessed
The first set of blessings (v3-6) refer to those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
The experiences of which Jesus speaks describe the day-to-day reality of Jesus’s listeners, under an oppressive Roman regime. Duncan mentioned the Chinese doctor who back in December was censured by the State for highlighting the emergence of the new coronavirus. (Tragically, he died of the virus in Wuhan this week.) That silencing of inconvenient truth is what happens in oppressive regimes. In the Roman Empire, if you stepped out of line you were very likely to find yourself punished.
Against this background, Jesus is speaking about an upside-down, liberating kingdom where those who are oppressed and mourn and hunger for truth are blessed.
And what Jesus is teaching is that the default position for us as his followers, no matter how good our lives may be at times, is a continuing experience of struggle, of hungering and thirsting, of longing, of living with frustrations, of experiencing barriers and hurdles to where we would love to be in our lives, and the perennial challenges of relationships with other people. We will never get beyond these struggles in our lives.
Jesus knew similar pain and frustration. For instance, at one point he agonised:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)
But, said Duncan, ‘Even in these hardships, God will be there with us, and we will see God’s kingdom at work in all kinds of different ways………..The promise of Jesus in the Beatitudes is that Jesus will meet us and bless us even in our struggles. Those who mourn will be comforted, those who hunger and thirst will be filled. There are no barriers in terms of circumstances to God’s grace and blessing breaking through in our lives.
Blessed, we bless others
The second set of blessings (7-12) are blessings which flow from the reality of the blessings with which we are blessed. Blessed, we are set free to be merciful, pure, peacemakers.
Jesus is teaching that his blessing makes a difference in our lives here and now. We are to be agents of God’s blessing. We bless others, we are merciful, we are peacemakers and in doing do we are agents of Jesus himself. His blessing reaches through us and touches other people’s lives.
This comes as a powerful challenge at the start of a new week. What will it mean to be merciful, to be a peacemaker? How can each of us bless the world this week?