Ever wish you could have heard Jesus preach in person? That would have been an amazing thing to hear, wouldn’t it? Wonder what he would have sounded like. Would he have spoken loudly, passionately, softly; would you have to strain to hear him or would he have shouted so people could have heard for miles and miles? While we do not have any particular description of what Jesus’ teaching and preaching style was, we do have a few clear ideas of what he said when he taught. In his early ministry, the Gospels tell us that Jesus’ message centered around this phrase: “repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” Around the time that he begins to call his first few disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John, this is the phrase we hear that he has proclaimed.
If Jesus was beginning his ministry today, maybe that would be one of the bumper stickers on his car: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!
Repent, Metanoia, turn around. Turn around and see!! The kingdom of heaven is standing right in front of you! Not a bad starting sermon, particularly since immediately after this, Jesus goes about the business of showing, teaching and telling stories about what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like and what it actually is. One of the ways he does it is with the text we heard today from the gospel of Matthew. This is one of Jesus’ sermons. The sermon on the mount or as it is sometimes called the Beatitudes.
I’m sure many of us have heard these words before. We find them on wall plaques, greeting cards and other Christian paraphernalia. Bumper stickers, too. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. They are probably only slightly less familiar words than the other often quoted verses of the 23rd psalm, John 3:16 and that bit about love being patient and kind we hear at weddings all the time.
Every time I read or study this text, I cannot help but think of the Monty Python movie, The Life of Brian, and the crowd of people who misunderstand or mishear the phrase ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ and think it is ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers’. Aha, what’s so special about the cheesemakers? Well obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufactures of dairy products. Part of the reason this is so funny to me is because honestly, it sure would have been easier if our Lord had said blessed are the cheesemakers. Or the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers for that matter. Then, we would all know what to do in order to be blessed. We would all become dairy farmers. That’s the solution then. If the cheesemakers are blessed, then let’s go be purveyors of dairy products! If Jesus had just said these specific people are blessed, then we could all go do that thing, whatever it was, and we would be blessed, too.
In so many ways we Christians are like the people who kept asking Jesus about how to inherit eternal life. That’s how he got around to preaching about the blesseds. It is what we want to know, isn’t it? What’s the formula, the rules, the process, the steps, the way to live so that we can get to heaven? Just point me the way, Jesus, and I’m there! That is, after all, why the self-help and spirituality shelves of the book store are two of the most active and growing sections. We want to know how to get to nirvana, personal peace, and the perfect life. We want to know the right mantras, prayers and plans, the right questions to ask ourselves, the right financial and life goals to get ourselves to get to happiness.
We want to know how to get to heaven, whether that is heaven on earth or the afterlife. We want to know what to do so that God will let us into heaven when we get there. We want a roadmap for the successful eternal life. We want to know how to be cheesemakers! And what better place to look for such a map than the bible and, in that bible, the red letter sections! A sermon of Jesus himself! Telling us who God blesses so we can go become just like them so God will love us, bless us and let us in! Yes!
What incredible disappointment we find! Jesus does not say blessed are the cheesemakers! Instead, he says: blessed are the poor in spirit. What? Blessed are those who mourn, the meek, those who are hungry and thirsty and crave the end of injustice, the merciful, pure peacemakers, the reviled and persecuted.
Oh, that is not at all what I wanted to hear.
There is much to dislike in this list and much that could leave us disheartened. There is a whole lot that we could see as undoable or, at the very least, a great deal we do not want anything to do with. Who wants to crave the end of injustice so much that at the sight of it we feel like we are dying of thirst and hunger? Who wants to respond to that hunger and thirst with mercy and making peace? Who wants to be persecuted for just these things? Who wants to be despised? Who wants to mourn?
And perhaps most of all is the place where Jesus starts his sermon. Who wants to be poor in spirit? Really? I don’t know about you but that is the last thing I want to be! Who has ever heard anyone say, ‘Poor in spirit! Sign me up for that!’
Biblical scholars debate over what this actually means. The word used for “spirit” here is the same one used for the Holy Spirit. Some say it means the faithful who are poor and some say it is those who are poor in their faith; poor in their spirit or in THE Spirit. Whichever one it is, I really don’t want that and I can’t imagine anyone else who would want that, either.
I want to be mighty in spirit and faith! Like that widow who put in her last two coins. I want to be mighty in spirit so I can say to a mountain “move” and it be moved, to a tree “be uprooted and put into the sea” and it happens. After all, that’s the way Jesus describes strong faith in other places in scripture. And if poor in spirit actually means faithful and still financially poor, well, I sure don’t want to be that either.
Which brings us to something else: does God want us to be among those on this list? Does God wish for us to be poor, in mourning, experience injustice and witness unjust actions toward those we love? Does God want us to be reviled, despised and persecuted SO THAT he can love us and bless us? Is that the path to the kingdom of heaven that Jesus is laying out for us?
Somehow, that just doesn’t fit the God we know. There are countless places in scripture where God says something to us like this: I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future of hope. (Jeremiah 29:11, just to name a single one of many)
Let’s look back at the scriptures for a minute. Jesus has recently begun his earthly ministry and his bumper sticker, his great mantra, his recurrent theme in preaching and teaching is “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near”. Turn around and look because the Kingdom of Heaven has come near to you—is standing right in front of you. The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t something we need a road map to get to, and that may be a central part of Jesus’ point when he is saying that phrase. God isn’t somewhere in the high and mighty heavens above sitting on a cloud saying—follow the signs! I’ll be waiting for you when you figure out how to get here! Jesus isn’t saying: here’s how to get to heaven. Jesus IS saying: Heaven has come to you.
So in his sermons, Jesus is not giving his disciples and us a plan of action to win our way to heaven or giving a list of characteristics or tasks we must accomplish like some Greek hero so that we may receive the gracious blessings of God. He is telling us that God already loves us. He isn’t giving us a who’s who of people to emulate in order to get into heaven or a set of life struggles we must conquer before getting to be with God. In fact, Jesus may indeed be saying quite the opposite.
In spite of our poverty, be it financial, emotional or spiritual, God blesses and loves us and when we see others who suffer in this way and all the other ways on Jesus’ list, we should love them as God loves us, too. In spite of our times of mourning and sadness, God blesses and loves us. Even when it seems the world is full of loss and justice is no where to be found, even when we ourselves are the ones who have committed injustice, God still loves us and brings healing and justice to us. Even when it seems we are all alone and everyone is against us, God still blesses and loves us. God does not wait for us to be strong enough, good enough, righteous enough, brave enough, merciful and peaceful enough to make it to him. God has come to us.
Blessed are the cheesemakers. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who are hungry and thirsty and crave the end of injustice, the merciful, pure peacemakers, the reviled and persecuted. Blessed are we who live in this world that is broken and being made new again. Blessed are we who are sometimes afraid of the unknown future, who want to do the work of God but are not sure how to do it. Blessed are we who struggle with our faith, seeking to step out into it but still unsure, and we who are poor in ways we might not have ever imagined.
Look! Turn around and see! The Kingdom of Heaven has come to us all!