4 Epiphany Proper A4
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 5:1-12 Sermon
January 29, 2017
Click here for service internet broadcast/podcast.
(from The Lutheran Hymnal, Hymns for the Family of God, With One Voice, & Lutheran Service Book):
LSB 801 "How Great Thou Art"
TLH 34 "My Soul Now Bless Thy Maker"
HFG 256 "The Old Rugged Cross"
HFG 591 "Just A Closer Walk With Thee"
TLH 252 "We All Believe In One True God"
TLH 135 "'Tis Good Lord To Be Here"
TLH 649 "Jesus Saviour Pilate Me"
WOV 652 "Arise Your Light Has Come"
TLH 657 "Beautiful Saviour"
NOTE: Since this is a "5th Sunday," the hymns for this day were selections from the congregation, and replace portions of the normal liturgy.
CERTAIN UNAILENABLE RIGHTS
TEXT (vs. 1-6): “Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain; and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: 'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.’”
If I mention the phrase "certain unalienable rights," what comes to your mind? I know you've heard those words before. But do you know where they appear in one of our country's official documents?
I'll give you three guesses, and let's see how you do. Is it from the Declaration of Independence? Is it from the Bill of Rights? Or, is it from the United States Constitution?
If you answered "The Declaration of Independence," you are correct. Do you know who wrote it? I'm not going to quiz you again, so I'll give you the answer. It was Thomas Jefferson who gets the credit for this.
The entire quotation, which was edited slightly by an ad hoc committee, reads as follows: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that amongst these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
To properly understand what Thomas Jefferson said, we need to know a bit about him and his philosophy. Certainly he was an incredibly gifted and intelligent man, and he had a lot to do with our country in its infancy.
As most of you may remember, I've talked about Thomas Jefferson on a number of occasions, mainly dealing with his religious orientation. The first thing we need to be clear about is that he was NOT a Christian. This is something many people don't realize, but it's true. Thomas Jefferson was a Deist, which means that he had what could be described as a generic belief in a "higher power," or a "supreme being," but he did not accept the true God as revealed in the Bible. He certainly believed in the Judeo-Christian morals and code of conduct, and he respected the practice of Christianity, but this was not his personal faith. That's why it says in the Declaration of Independence, "...endowed by their Creator..." instead of "endowed by God." Jefferson opted for the more ambiguous term as a reflection of his personal faith, or lack thereof.
Second, is the use of the phrase, "...the pursuit of happiness." Not only wasJefferson a Deist, but he was an Epicurean by his own admission. An Epicurean subscribes to the philosophy that places the highest goal in a person's life as the pursuit of happiness. He also believed in autarchy, which is a self-sufficient type of personal freedom where a person is basically responsible for and accountable only to themselves.
When we understand the thoughts Jeffersonhad when writing these words, I believe that it gives us a bit better insight as to what was going on. Maybe Congress and the ad hoc committee didn't share his philosophy, but the language was ambiguous enough to allow a variety of viewpoints. After all, who would be against "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?" Isn't that what people believe are their certain unalienable rights? Isn't that basically what everybody wants in this life?
Jesus was very well aware of this fact; so much so that he began his famous "Sermon on the Mount" with this group of eight "blessed" statements. Some say there are nine, which is okay too; but if you look at the last two, they're simply two parts of the same thing; so most people agree that there are eight.
Now it's time for some linguistics. The word "Beatitude" is from the Latin word, "Beatitudo," which means "happy, fortunate, or blissful." And the word that begins each of the Beatitudes "blessed, or blest" is the Greek word "makarios," which means "happy." So technically we could replace each instance of "blessed" with the word "happy;" and some translations of the Bible have actually done this.
The first four Beatitudes describe the spirit of the Christian. This isn't to downplay the others, but the first four directly relate to our spiritual health and well-being. And when these are properly understood, the rest fall into place.
The first Beatitude is: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." This means that the Christian, the disciple of Jesus Christ will be poor in spirit. How can that be?
The best way to think of this is to look at the opposite side, those who would not be considered to be poor in spirit. That would describe a person who is self-absorbed, stuck up, proud, haughty, and filled with their own version of self-righteousness. InAustralia, they would say that this type of person is "full of themselves." And when a person is that way, then there is no room for God. The Holy Spirit is crowded out, and Jesus is left standing outside someplace.
But the disciple of Jesus Christ must be "poor in spirit," as Jesus puts it. This means that they will be humble, modest, lowly, and most importantly teachable. To be full of Christ means that a person is poor in spirit as far as the world is concerned. That's why we are warned against pride and haughtiness in the Bible. Proverbs chapter 16 verse 18 says, "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall."
James chapter 4 is a great companion section to this. Readingverses 5-6: "5 Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, 'He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us?' 6 But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, 'God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.'" And continuing on in verse 10: "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you."
One of the lessons that Abraham Lincoln teaches is a lesson in humility. As great of a man as he was, and considering the great things he did, he was still a very humble person. One story I've heard about him happened in the White House the evening before a very important function. President Lincoln was preparing by polishing his shoes. One of his aides scolded him and said, "Mr. President, you shouldn't have to shine your shoes." Mr. Lincoln paused and looked up at the man and said, "Well then, whose shoes do you suggest I shine?"
One of Lincoln's favorite verses goes like this: "Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud? Like a swift-flitting meteor, a fast-flying cloud, a flash of the lightning, a break of the wave, he passes from life to his rest in the grave."
When we think of our sin and God's grace, or think of our weakness and God's power and majesty, what place is there for pride? What are we proud of? Are we proud of our talents? Where did we get these? Aren't these gifts given to us by God? What about our intellect, and knowledge, and education? What about beauty and strength? These can be wiped out by illness or accident. Of what value is pride? It only pushes God further and further out of the picture.
This brings us to the second Beatitude, which tells us that those who follow Jesus will mourn, and that blessing or happiness will result from this mourning. So what causes this mourning?
I will first mention that not all mourners are Christians. Virtually everybody mourns over something. It's the Christian who finds peace and happiness from God when they reach out to him in this state. This is something that nobody else knows.
The Christian who mourns is the one who looks at God's law and the character of Jesus, and then looks at themselves. As Christians, we see everything that God wants us to be, what God's standards are, and then we see what we are in relationship to this. When we see our sin, we are sad. We mourn. And this brings us to our Lord seeking forgiveness. This is where the Holy Spirit has brought us.
Jesus doesn't say that we should be walking around with long faces, all sad and stoic and dejected all the time, nor does he want us to be this way. We've only just celebrated Christmas. Remember the words of the angel choir as they announced the birth of our Saviour to the shepherds? "Fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy, which will be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2)
That's GOOD news, great JOY, for all people! Jesus came to bring people the joy of forgiveness and reconciliation through faith alone. This is a joy that nobody can take away from us. When we mourn and are sad because of our sin, our mourning is turned to gladness, as God says in Jeremiah chapter 31 verse 13: "I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow."
This is a happiness that we don't keep to ourselves either; it's one that has to be shared. Jesus paid the price for the sins of the whole world. He has turned our mourning into gladness and joy. As God's children, we rejoice and sing for joy, glad for the forgiveness and eternal life that Jesus has procured for us.
This leads us into the third Beatitude, "Blessed are the meek." What does the word "meek" mean to you? If you are like most people, you might think of being meek as being weak, or puny, or lacking conviction, or spineless, or wishy-washy. The word "meek" has taken on an unfortunate pejorative meaning.
Now if we look at what the Bible tells us, Moses was a meek man; but we know that Moses could be very courageous and forthright and strong, especially when he was leading those stubborn Israelites for 40 years as they trekked fromEgyptback to the Promised Land. Moses was anything but weak or puny or wishy-washy.
Jesus is also considered to be meek. However, Jesus also exhibited a righteous wrath when he drove the money changers from the temple. He also called the Pharisees a "brood of vipers," or a bunch of snakes. We certainly wouldn't consider Jesus to be puny or weak or lacking character.
To capture the spirit of this Beatitude, words like "unselfish," "considerate," "thoughtful," "kindly" and even "gentle" are much better synonyms for "meek." This is the deportment that Jesus wants to see in us as his children and as his disciples.
The last Beatitude I'm going to address today tells us that the Christian will hunger and thirst for righteousness. I don't think Jesus could have used anything more descript than hunger and thirst, because we've all experienced it.
Hunger and thirst are very powerful drives in a person's life. When people are starving, they will eat almost anything, even things that they would never dream of eating under ordinary conditions. We might feel sick when we see what some of those people on the TV reality show "Survivor" have to eat. But there are horrifying stories that have come from cities that have been besieged for a long time, or even countries where famine has existed for years. You hear about people eating rats and mice and insects and even dogs and cats to stay alive. And if a person is stranded out in the desert without water, they can go completely mad.
If we apply this to our spiritual lives, we are to have this same powerful drive as we hunger and thirst for righteousness. That starts with us and our spirituality. Our spiritual emptiness and our mournful sorrowing is the hunger and thirst that can only be satisfied with Jesus our Saviour. We desperately want the forgiveness of Christ. We want to be dressed in the white robe of righteousness. We want to have this gift of God's grace so we can have eternal fellowship with God and eternal life in our mansion in heaven. This is the desire that comes from the Holy Spirit.
This hunger and thirst is what a true disciple of Christ experiences. We want to do the God-pleasing thing in our lives, and not the self-centered or selfish thing. Those who are not Christian will have absolutely no desire for these things, and will follow the ways of the world instead of Christ.
It's rather obvious that the ways of the world stand in direct opposition to the ways of Christ Jesus. So if we look at things from this point of view, we have a completely different story.
Those who do not look to Christ for salvation are not apt to be humble or modest, but they feel able to get to heaven on their own merits, and feel proud of their personal achievements and potentials in their lives. Such people, if and when they feel any guilt, prefer to ignore their spiritual bankruptcy. They quickly get busy so that they may forget such uncomfortable thoughts. Rather than mourn about their sin, they seek activity that will create a happy superficial feeling within them. If they have committed a crime, they are only sorry that they got caught, and not sorry for what wrong they did. Such people are not sad about sin, but are giddy and mischievously delight in it.
Those who deny the power of Christ will not be unselfish our gentle, but self-centered and hard. Oh, they may experience hunger and thirst, but it will be for material things like good food, nice clothing, a lovely home, a nice car or SUV, and other gadgets and luxuries. Such people do not earnestly seek the righteousness of Christ or desire a godly life of any description.
The change is literally miraculous. The person who comes to faith in Jesus Christ and who love him as their Saviour now find that the Christian spirit we see in the Beatitudes take shape in their life. The ways of the world are seen as shallow and inferior; the way of Jesus is the path of blessing and happiness.
As Christians, we can clearly see sin and its awfulness in our own lives. Working through the Word, the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sinfulness. And this makes us humble and sad. Our souls yearn for forgiveness.
But we believe that our Saviour Jesus Christ has died for us, and now also lives within us. When Christ is within us, then we want to be like him and seek his righteousness.
This is the spirit of the Christian. We who call Jesus our Saviour and Redeemer are humble, modest, and teachable. We are gentle and thoughtful, and we hunger and thirst for righteousness.
And now we pray that the Holy Spirit would continue to nurture this spirit of true happiness in each and every one of us, for Jesus' sake.