4 Epiphany Proper A4                     
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 5:1-12 Sermon                                          
January 30, 2011

Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):

Note:  Whenever there is a 5th Sunday in the month, we have "pick your own hymn" Sunday where the hymns are chosen randomly by members of the congregation.  The hymns listed below were the ones chosen by them.

39 "Praise To The Lord"
568 "We Praise Thee, O God Our Redeemer Creator"
15 "From All That Dwell Below The Skies"
36 "Now Thank We All Our God"
457 "What A Friend We Have In Jesus"
270 "Jesus Calls Us O'er The Tumult"
442 "Lord Of Glory, Who Hast Bought Us"
473 "The Church's One Foundation" 


TEXT (vs. 1-2; 7):  “1Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain; and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.  2And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:  7’Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.’” 

            About halfway between Clay Center and Hastings sits a little town by the name of Glenvil.  Several miles to the west on the highway to Hastings you’ll find St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and Cemetery.  In the cemetery, on the far west side closest to the church, there are three graves in a row, each with a granite slab that covers the entire grave.  Jeff Volzke tells me this is called a “ledger” type of gravestone.

            These graves belong to my grandparents and great grandparents.  The one on the left is that of my great grandmother and great grandfather.  He was cremated, so the two share one grave.  The one in the middle belongs to my grandfather, and on the right is my grandmother.

            Each of these gravestones is engraved with a Bible passage, which in a few words describes each person’s walk of faith.  Great grandmother and great grandfather’s grave has the words of the last part of Revelation chapter 2 verse 10, which reads:  “Sei getrost bis an den Tod, so will ich dir die Krone des Lebens geben.”  For those of you who cannot understand my attempt at German, the English translation is:  “…be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”

            My grandfather would have chosen those words for a couple of reasons.  First, she couldn’t speak or understand a word of English.  Second, this describes the reward she has received at the end of her rather difficult life.  This is certainly an appropriate passage for her.

            My grandfather’s grave is next.  On his gravestone is engraved the words of Galatians chapter 6 verse 2, which reads:  “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”  My grandmother and the rest of the family chose these words because of my grandfather’s work amongst the refugees, and his readiness to help his fellow man.

            The third grave, which is my Grandmother’s grave is the most recent.  She died in 1978.  As she was lying in the hospital during her last days on earth, my dad asked her what she would like on her gravestone.  She picked the last part of Luke chapter 18 verse 13, which simply reads:  “God be merciful unto me, a sinner.”  And of course from a theological perspective, that verse was as appropriate for her as it would be for any of us.

            Instead of that however, the family decided that a verse from our Gospel lesson for this morning would be a more appropriate tribute.  And so if you look at her gravestone, you’ll see the words of Matthew chapter 5 verse 7, which read:  “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.”    

            Now I’m fairly certain that none of you here today ever met my grandmother.  She was quite a lady indeed.  We called her “Nannie” because that was her occupation in her younger years.  She was one of the nannies in the house of Kaiser Frederich Wilhelm in Germany.

            You’d love having her as a member of our congregation.  If she were here today, she’d be sitting the third row back on the pulpit side, right on the aisle.  Oh, she’d sit elsewhere if she needed to, but that was her favorite seat—and don’t ask me why.

            She would sing loud too, and she had a singing voice that sounded a lot like an air raid siren—you should have heard her sing “Holy, Holy, Holy!”  Even though she lost her sight in later years due to macular degeneration, she still knew all the hymns.

            She was very opinionated, and about as subtle as the front of a bus.  She could be downright rude sometimes, and my dad used to have to put her in her place once in awhile.  But all in all, you couldn’t have found a more caring, loving, and giving person.  The neighborhood children adored her, and she always had a cookie or something for them.  And if anybody needed anything, she’d be first in line to make sure they were taken care of.  My dad used to say, “She’s got a heart as big as a pumpkin.”      

            She was a great match for my grandfather, and there are so many stories about how they gave unselfishly to those in need.  Their big old house in Lincoln at 1614 D Street (which is still there, by the way) became a haven for many refugees.

            All things considered, the words of Matthew chapter 5 verse 7 are most appropriate for her: “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.”

            I can’t help but think of her every time I read our Gospel lesson for today, which are the words of the Beatitudes.  These are the words Jesus uses as he begins his famous discourse known as “The Sermon on the Mount.” 

            It’s one thing for our family to have chosen the mercy Beatitude for my grandmother.  But could you imagine how completely different it would have been, had my dad asked her what Bible passage she wanted on her gravestone, and she would have told him the one that’s there now?  What kind of person would she have been if she would have said, “You know, I think that the words ‘blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy’ best describe my life?” 

            Those words would then have been very inappropriate for her.  That’s because the words of the Beatitudes are not things we produce ourselves.  Rather, these words describe what God in his mercy does for us.  And that’s where we need to clear up some rather common misunderstandings about our Gospel lesson for today.

            The words of the Beatitudes are familiar ones to us.  They are simple, yet profound.  They have almost a musical ring to them, something like the words describing love in 1 Corinthians 13.  But as nice as they sound, do we really stop and consider what they actually mean?

            One of the biggest misunderstandings with regard to the Beatitudes is the way we look at them.  We have the impression that if we do all these things, then God will bless us.  And so, we resolve ourselves to become meek and merciful, and so forth.  The Beatitudes become like sort of a “laundry list” of what it takes to obtain God’s blessings.

            What makes this even worse, is the unfortunate similarity with two English words, namely “be” and “attitude.”  Various authors have even written things as a result of this unfortunate similarity.  And so we think of the Beatitudes as God giving us some sort of reward for a job well done, almost like a child getting a lollipop from the doctor for behaving while getting an injection.

            Remember, we are human beings, and this type of thing appeals to our sinful nature.  So when we hear the Beatitudes, we like to see it as a way to take charge of our own life; all we have to do is follow these steps, and we’ll be successful.  Our attitude is that we can achieve whatever goal we want, as long as we take charge, buck up, and get the job done.

            But this is a lie.  And if we think this way, then we are only frustrating ourselves.  It’s terribly sad to see what happens to people who have believed this lie.  They’ll say to me, “You know Pastor, I’ve tried to be meek and merciful.  I’ve hungered and thirsted after righteousness, but I’m not feeling satisfied.  I’ve mourned, but I don’t feel comforted.  I’ve tried to be pure in heart, but I just can’t seem to get it right.”  They have believed this false teaching, and they can’t figure out why it isn’t working for them.

            What has happened, is that somebody has taken the beautiful message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and turned it into a type of law.  And the result of this, is that people are left frustrated and discouraged.  It’s heart-breaking actually, because people are missing the blessings of the Gospel that the Beatitudes actually teach us.

            The Beatitudes promise us the kingdom of heaven, and that is where we focus our hope.  But we know all too well that heaven is not obtained by anything we have done or by anything we have produced within ourselves.  Heaven is ours only by God’s grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ our Saviour.

            This promise of heaven is the first thing in the Beatitudes, given to those who are poor in spirit.  That describes each and every one of us.  We’re poor in spirit because of our infection with the disease of sin.  Satan has battered us time and time again.  We have no spiritual resources of our own.  We are born with the debt of sin on our records, and on our own we can only sink further and further into that debt.

            We know that Jesus is a blessing for all sinners because He took the sin debt of the world to the cross and there he paid it all.  We who were deep in the debt of sin are now rich in Jesus Christ who is the kingdom of heaven.  Our wealth in Christ was made sure when Jesus rose from the dead.  The beatitude, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," means that sinners the likes of you and me are blessed because Jesus has earned salvation for us.

            If we skip now to the end of the Beatitudes, we get a good dose of reality.  Jesus talks about those who are reviled, persecuted, lied about, and falsely accused.  No one enjoys being an outcast, but how else can we expect the sinful world to treat those whose sins have been forgiven?  When people in this world make us miserable because of our faith in our Saviour, because we trust in Christ, we have the promise of blessing from Jesus himself.  We have the promise of an eternal reward in heaven.

            So what about all those Beatitudes in the middle?  These are not things we do ourselves, but things God does within us.  When we mourn, we do so because through the work of the Holy Spirit, we have come to the knowledge of our sin, and lament our condition.  We are comforted with the forgiving words of the Gospel.

            We are meek, because as sinners that’s all we can be.  We’re helpless on our own.  But through faith in Christ, we will inherit a new life in a new home when this sinful world passes away forever.

            As Christians, we have experienced the righteousness of Christ in our lives.  We hunger and thirst for more, as we deepen our relationship with him.  Our sinfulness has been exchanged for the righteousness Jesus won for us on the cross.

            As Christians, we have also experienced the mercy of God.  That mercy not only works in us, but through us as we show mercy to others.  As God has blessed us, we can now be a blessing to others out of a thankful heart for what he has done for us.

            What about a pure heart?  That’s something else that we have received from God.  One commentator describes the function of the Holy Spirit as a “heart transplant” of sorts.  When we come to faith in Christ, our dead and unbelieving heart is replaced with a heart turned toward God.  In the Lutheran Liturgy, the words of Psalm 51 are often used:  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”  Because of what Christ has done for us during our life on earth, we shall certainly be with God in eternity.

            And finally, there are the peacemakers.  God gives us this peace, which passes all human understanding.  It’s the peace that comes from the forgiveness of sins and the new life we have through faith in Christ Jesus our Saviour.

            As I think back to my sainted grandmother, the words on her gravestone “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” are most fitting for her.  The words she wanted in the first place, “God be merciful unto me, a sinner” are also appropriate.  The reason both passages are appropriate, is that both are talking about the same thing.  The key here is centered in the word “mercy.”

            You see, my grandmother didn’t set out to be this merciful person as some sort of personal goal to placate God.  She was merciful, because she had received mercy from God’s hand.  She was forgiven through faith in Christ alone, and she responded in the same way God had treated her.  For her, it was a natural reaction.

            For us, God doesn’t give us a checklist of what it takes to be blest by him.  He blesses us just the way we are.  But what he does within us and for us must then lead us to be a blessing for others.  The Beatitudes are all things that God does, and not we by ourselves.  We have come to him poor in spirit, and are promised the kingdom of God.  We have mourned over our sins, and have received comfort from him.  Our sins have humbled us, and we are promised a glorious inheritance.  We have hungered and thirsted for righteousness, and God satisfies us through his Word.  We have pleaded for God’s mercy, and he has been merciful because of what Jesus has done for us.  We have a pure heart because Christ has replaced our sinful heart with a clean and righteous one.  We are messengers and advocates of peace, because God has given us his peace that passes all understanding.

            And finally, when the going gets rough, we know that he will never leave us nor forsake us.  Our heavenly reward is always awaiting us in the end, and that is our continual hope.