At the end of Matthew chapter four,
we read that “large crowds from Galilee,
the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea,
and the region across the Jordan followed Jesus” (Matthew 4:25).
This in response to Jesus
going “throughout Galilee,
teaching in their synagogues,
proclaiming the the good news of the kingdom,
and healing every disease and sickness among the people”
But the crowds followed him,
bringing “all who were ill with various diseases,
those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed,
those having seizures, and the paralyzed” (Matthew 4:24).
You get that?
Jesus went about Galilee
teaching, proclaiming and healing,
but the crowds followed him
only because of the healing.
That’s what it says.
I mean, you have to think about it for a minute,
but that is what it says.
And so when Jesus saw the crowds,
he tried to run away.
He was tired. He was frustrated.
He was questioning his mission—his effectiveness.
What it says in our text is that he went up the mountain,
but that’s so obviously a euphemism!
He tried to get away.
Maybe you’ve heard that “he went up the mountain”
is a phrase used frequently in reference to Moses,
that Matthew wants to draw parallels between Jesus and Moses,
the great prophet and lawgiver of history and faith tradition and Jesus,
that the sermon on the mount parallels the law given on Mount Sinai.
He went up the mountain to get away—
to make it difficult for the people following him—
to get away from people who weren’t hearing him but watching him,
from people who saw only the impressive and not the important,
from people transfixed not transformed.
He tried to get away,
but he couldn’t.
Couldn’t get away.
They followed him.
They followed him relentlessly,
even up the mountain,
wanting some of his magic for themselves.
Wanting to be part of an extraordinary escape
from their circumstances.
So when he finally sat down in exhaustion—
ah, see, now some of you’ve probably heard
something like: as authorities,
rabbis sat down to teach …?
When he sat down in exhaustion—
from going up a mountain—
from trying to get away,
the crowds caught up.
Now it says here in our text it was his disciples
who came up to him after he sat down,
but it was the crowds
who chased him up the mountain.
Why would he run from his disciples, right?
I mean there might be reason to run from them later,
but not yet!
And by the end of the Sermon on the Mount,
it’s explicitly the crowds again, isn’t it?
The crowds astounded at his teaching,
we read in Matthew 7:28.
So what I’m thinking
is that at this point—
remember the disciples are simply those who responded
to his call to follow him,
so I’m thinking at this point,
that’s our working definition of disciple:
anyone who follows Jesus—
which certainly applies to any crowds
who followed him up the mountain!
But what Jesus is going to make clear
up on that mountain
in his exhaustion and his frustration
and his deep deep love,
is that discipleship has more to do than with just physically following—
has more to do than with just being impressed with Jesus—
has something to do with those
who having heard what he had to say
follow him into his teachings—
into his perspectives and his prioritizing—
his way of being—
of living and loving.
So maybe we can hear Jesus,
his words echoing through the years,
and still addressing us
gathered here in this sanctuary—
those of us gathered in sanctuaries around the world,
“Alright, so you followed me this far—
followed me to this place.
So let’s see—let’s find out
just how serious you are—
how serious you are about following me.
Because it’s not just about physically following me
even if it was up a mountain—
even if it was across town on a Sunday morning
when you could’ve just stayed in bed.
And it’s really not just about the healing
that intrigues you so—
the possibility of some extraordinary escape
from whatever circumstances you don’t like.
It is, rather, about the healing
that can’t be separated from the good news—
that can’t be separated from the teaching—
that can’t be separated from who I am,
present to and with you.
For it is precisely who I am,
present to and with you,
that informs all of what I say and do.”
And he gave them—he gives us—
the Sermon on the Mount.
Our text this morning includes the beatitudes—
often thought of as introduction to the Sermon on the Mount—
and, as such, often thought of as part
of the distillation of the teaching of Jesus.
Yet the beatitudes are a series of blessings, right?
Less teaching than good news—
or teaching that can’t be separated from good news.
The beatitudes consist of nine blessings to be specific—
three sets of three.
Though trying to think about them structurally, I have discovered,
is guaranteed to give you a headache!
The ninth stands alone—separate—distinct from the others.
It’s more pointed, more detailed, more personal—
the only one in the second person
blessed are you ….
which was an unusual form for a blessing—
for which there was a standard form,
which was in the third person—
like the other eight.
Blessed are … and then some—some demographic—
some group—some characteristic—
blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers.
In each of the nine beatitudes
blessing is pronounced
and the blessing is, each time, in the present tense
blessed are ….
And the word we translate “blessed”
encompasses elements of joyful, of deeply happy
of well-being and of peace.
Jesus’ pronouncement of blessing is then followed, each time,
by the reason—the justification for the blessing offered.
So, an example: blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Now did you notice?
The blessing is pronounced in the present,
so the meek are already joyful, at peace, happy, blessed,
but the reason for all that comes in the future.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Now we noted that the ninth blessing was separate, remember?
Leaving eight, clearly presented as two sets of four—
the first four blessings and the second four
have the same number of words in each blessing
(Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew
[Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1977] 82).
How about that?!
And the first and the eighth blessings
have the same reason—the same justification, word for word,
and they’re the only two blessings all in the present tense.
First, blessed are the poor in spirit,
and eighth, blessed are those persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of God.
So not only is the ninth blessing set apart,
the eight are drawn together
by the repetition of “theirs is the kingdom of God.”
So we have a blending of time past, present, and future
(long before Eliot, http://www.artofeurope.com/eliot/eli5.htm),
and in this blend of past promise (what Jesus said),
present blessing and justification,
and justification yet to come,
we find ourselves in Paul Tillich’s “eternal now”—
moving “towards something that is not yet,”
even as “we come from something that is no more”
(Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now
[New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963) 126].
It’s wonderfully, deliciously confusing!
Now real quick,
I want to think about these blessings.
More particularly about who’s blessed—
because it’s the poor in spirit, right?
The mournful, the meek,
those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—
and I should point out here
that scholars are pretty much in agreement
that Luke’s version of the beatitudes
is presumed to be the more historically accurate—
that Jesus much more likely said “Blessed are the poor”
than “Blessed are the poor in spirit,”
and “Blessed are those who hunger”
than “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”
So we start off with four blessings that name conditions
we would deem rather negative—undesirable.
And then move onto blessed are the merciful,
the pure in heart, the peacemakers,
and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
Three desirable, good traits and one you wouldn’t want,
but would want to be able to claim if it ever came down to it—
pray to God it doesn’t!
And what we have here, apparently,
is a combination of circumstances (the poor, the mourning)—
a combination of circumstances and values or priorities—
which is to say, a combination
of both the givens and the chosens of life.
Givens we wouldn’t choose,
and chosens we might not either!
Or at least chosens our culture doesn’t choose—
doesn’t bless or prioritize.
So I think it’s fair to say,
we tend to think of these blessings
as gospel inversion, right?
The tospy turvy turning upside downness of the good news in Jesus.
Which is really just true for the first four, right?
If the second four are desirable to begin with,
you don’t need or want Jesus going all topsy turvy on them.
But today, I want to wonder with you,
if it’s not, in fact, people Jesus is talking about—
talking to—in those first eight beatitudes—
if it’s not different groups of people—
the meek, the peacemakers—
if it’s not people Jesus is talking about or to,
but rather, Jesus talking about himself—
Jesus talking from his own personal knowledge and experience.
Have you ever thought about the beatitudes before,
not as identifying certain people
to bless them,
but as blessings Jesus himself knew—
and, because he knew them,
And then it’s interesting. That business of givens and chosens?
Dad and I were talking this week,
there are a number of scholars who claim that if Joseph was a carpenter,
a craftsman, or a builder, an architect,
that Jesus’ family would not have been poor.
So that Jesus’ poverty was not a given for Jesus, but a chosen.
He chose not to have a place to lay his head.
And what are the other conditions we would not choose?
To hunger? Also maybe not a given for Jesus, but a chosen.
To mourn? Hmmm. If you don’t love, you won’t mourn, right?
So it’s not circumstances of loss that lead to mourning,
but having chosen to love.
Persecution? All he had to do was stop being who he was, right?
And he always chose not to—not to stop being who and as he was.
And maybe what we have here is less gospel inversion,
as gospel truth—
as much testimony and witness as blessing—
testimony and witness to who Jesus is
that is, in and of itself, blessing.
And then the beatitudes don’t represent some kind of progression
from what you don’t like to what you do,
as from what you have to learn in order to get to.
Can you be a peacemaker and not know poverty—
not be invested in wealth?
Can you be pure in heart
and not know deep hunger?
Can you show mercy if you have not mourned?
Because I have thought before
that not just anyone can offer these blessings.
And it’s not just that there aren’t many who would be believed,
it’s also that most would come across as offensively arrogant.
Jesus had to have been speaking from a shared perspective,
don’t you think?
So they could hear, blessed are you poor,
from someone who had no more money than they did,
and yet knew joy and peace and blessing.
Jesus blessed out of his own sense of blessing,
and few of us can extend the beatitudes—
can teach them and preach them.
Most of us can just teach and preach Jesus,
and, through Jesus, the beatitudes.
So what’s it to us?
What are they to us?
Too many, I’m afraid, are still just after the magic—
the magic for themselves.
We talk about it now it terms of redemption—
in terms of salvation,
but still need to hear words echoing through the years,
“It’s not about following me up the mountain.
It’s about knowing me,
and knowing me, about being like I am—
living like I did—
loving like I did.”
We are shaped by a past—
some of which is given,
some of which is chosen,
some of which is genetics
and family and education and gifts and resources and luck,
and some of which is faith heritage, tradition and history.
And thus shaped, we live in our eternal now,
risking living into the kind of tomorrow we want to see.
And that is blessing.
Or we don’t.
We live based on our fears today,
and we will never get to the tomorrow we want.
So in closing, consider the ninth beatitude’s justification.
Take a close look,
blessed are you—reviled, persecuted, falsely accused
for Jesus’ sake, for your reward is great in heaven.
Back to the present tense—your reward is great,
but it’s in heaven.
And we tend to think of heaven as future reward.
So maybe we think of great reward being stored up for us?
Your reward is great in heaven—
the kingdom of heaven, come so close to you—
present with and to you—
in who Jesus is.
That one’s ours.
If we are as Jesus was, that one’s ours.
Second person. Pointed. Personal.
So imagine saying to a Jesus
tired of those who follow for all the wrong reasons,
“I’m not following you because I’ve heard you heal,
because I want some of your magic,
to get out of circumstances I don’t like.
I’m not following you because I admire you—
or at least not just because I admire you!
I’m not following because I expect rewards in heaven.
I’m following because of who you are—
because I want to be with you—
because with you I feel blessed, joyful, happy, at peace—
because with you I’m who I want to be.
And so I need to stick with you
so I can be consistent in who and how I want to be.
Because the way our world is, I can’t do it without you.
And it’s going to be hard even with you.
So “be near me Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
close by me forever and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
and make with us Heaven to live with Thee there”
(John Thomas McFarland, “Away in a Manger,” [third stanza]
in The Baptist Hymnal, Wesley L. Forbis, ed.
[Nashville: Convention Press, 1991] 103. Fourth line adapted by me).