Happy New Year! It’s a joy to be starting out the New Year with you in worship this morning. As we begin each new year, we often work to come up with resolutions – decisions to alter something about our lives that will lead us to have a better coming year than perhaps we experienced in the past. In working on this list, we each must decide for ourselves what is it that will make our life in the future better – is it the personality traits, the business skills, the physical attributes, the educational achievements, or perhaps the relationships we have with family and friends. We expect the resolutions we make will make a difference in our lives, but it only makes a difference if we follow through.
Do you remember a couple years back about the story of Ted Williams – the man with the “golden voice?”
Williams was homeless, living on the streets in Columbus, Ohio. He was interviewed while on the street by a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch. He was holding up a sign advertising his voice. Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Williams had always dreamed of being a radio announcer. He had attended school for voice acting, and had worked the night shift for a Columbus radio station. But some arrests for theft, robbery, and drug possession in the 90s and early 2000s left him with little to live on.
The interview on the side of the road was published on the Dispatch’s website on January 3, 2011 and went viral. His ‘golden voice’ was published for the world to hear. Within days he had a jobs doing voiceovers for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kraft Foods, and MSNBC.
In an interview with the CBS Early Show that first week of January in 2011, Williams was reflecting on the changes that had happened in his life – how he was discovered on the streets and how he had been given multiple job offers to use his voice. He says in that interview, “In the year 2010, on this datebook somebody gave me, I was going to write on there, well, another year wasted, but it was the year I found God in my life.”
As we go into 2016, I wonder – will the resolutions you make be forgotten and passed by – will this be another year wasted – or could this be a time when you find God in your life? Perhaps you’ll find God for the first time – perhaps you’ll rediscover God, and rediscover yourself.
This month of January we will be learning how to live a better life, considering what kinds of resolutions in 2016 will make the biggest impact on your life and on the world around you. We will consider what it means to live a better life by living a life Upside Down – using Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount as our guide.
Jesus’ arrival was a bit upside down from expected. The devout Jews expected a Messiah who would come and would rule with power and might – who would enter the world with a great announcement and all the pomp and circumstance due a king. They expected a ruling military leader who would conquer the Romans. They expected someone to lift up the Jewish faithful above the rest of the world.
Yet Jesus was none of these things – he arrived as a humble infant. He ruled through love, not military power – saying love your enemy as yourself. He turned the teachings of the Jewish leaders upside down. He took no throne, but that of a cross.
His life was not lived in the expected mold of a Messiah. While believers may have expected Jesus to come and make them feel comfortable in the way they lived their lives, as believers in God, Christ was not sent by God simply to affirm the life of believers. Christ was sent to teach us how to live as God intended, to offer instruction on the life we should be living. And Christ was sent, that in our failure to live as God intended, we may be forgiven, and invited to try again.
The life Christ invites his disciples to live is not one of simply fitting in to the cultural context in which we live. The decision to follow Jesus – a decision made by the early disciples and those in the early church – was not a safe decision. To live such a life brought about the risk of persecution – it brought about the possibility of harm, even death, due the willingness to speak out against the ways of the world in favor of the ways of God.
When you’re ready to take that risk – to step into the unsafe realm – to make the decision to follow Jesus, you’re not just making one decision. The resolution to follow Jesus is about much more than a simple cognitive shift in allegiance.
When we make New Year’s resolutions, we tend to fall back on the simple question, what will make me feel best about myself in the coming year? How can I alter my life so that I will feel better about who I am.
The problem with this deductive reasoning is that it is based on faulty criteria. The decision to make a resolution to alter some lifestyle trait that will make one feel better is flawed in that the decision is generally based on cultural standards about what should make a person feel better about him or herself. Among the top resolutions for any new you will find the resolution to: lose weight, get fit, save money, get a better job, get a better education, travel more, manage stress, manage debt, quit smoking and eat healthier foods.
These are all great resolutions to be made – but for many of us they focus on an outward shift that makes us feel better for a time, while never really addressing the things on the inside that are causing the most pain.
In this month we are going to focus not just on choosing to follow the Jesus we want, one who affirms our lives as they are, but to see Jesus as he reveals himself. And my hope is that in learning about the real Jesus, you’ll come to desire Jesus in the New Year in a new way, even if it is unsafe, even if it turns your world upside down.
The text we will use comes from Matthew’s retelling of the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is equated by many scholars to the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament as it lays out God’s vision of how creation should live. Not to be confused, the sermon offered by Jesus is not a replacement for the Ten Commandments, this is not a ‘new law’ by which to live, the Sermon on the Mount is more like a Christological statement that is providing proper interpretation of the law.[i] The first 12 verses are like the introduction to the sermon – they are the preamble. Verses 3 through 12, which will be our focus today (the “blessed” verses, if you will) are known as the Beatitudes.
There is some great debate over the way in which the Beatitudes should be read and understood. There is little debate that the rest of the sermon is offered in the imperative voice – that is, the rest of the sermon is offered to define how one must live to be living according to the will of God. But there is a lack of agreement with these nine “blessed” statements. The tense in which they are written is not the imperative – naming entrance requirements for the realm of God – instead, these are written in the indicative tense, seeming to offer eschatological blessings, or offering words of consolation from Christ to those who find themselves in these situations.[ii]
To put into context how these blessings should be understood, it’s helpful to know that many of them are echoes of the prophet Isaiah, who spoke to the people of Israel in preparation for and following the exile. The people of Israel during that time were hopeful and expectant of a return to their homeland. You find in the related verses of Isaiah words of hope and jubilee to a people who were uncertain about their future. Thus, the words spoken by Jesus in this Gospel text should be understood as offering the same kind of hope to the disciples and crowds who had gathered around Christ.
Matthew was writing to a community with many internal and external issues. They were dealing with division within the Jewish community – leaders who seemingly did not abide faithfully by their own teachings. They also were dealing with external pressures from Rome – with local roman lords and a watchful roman military.
The word in the Greek translated in our text this morning as blessed is makarioi (mah-kah-ree-oye). It is translated in different ways depending on the Biblical translation you read. It is offered as ‘happy,’ ‘how fortunate,’ and even ‘congratulations.’[iii]
But Jesus isn’t saying, “look how happy the poor are;” he’s not saying congratulations on having little material wealth; what Jesus is saying is that the poor will joyfully participate in the “grand reversal that will occur when God’s rule finally arrives.”[iv] The indicative is not about what one must do – but how one will be. However you want to translate the text, whichever word you want to use, the emphasis is that the joy of which Jesus is speaking can only exist when one is in right relationship with God, which is perhaps why blessed comes across as such an appropriate word.
The focus of Jesus’ opening words in the Beatitudes is how life should be and will be when God’s rule is in full effect. God’s rule – or God’s realm – will be experienced only in totality at the final coming of Christ. While we will wait to experience God’s rule in full in the realized kingdom of God of heaven, God’s rule is experienced today in part when God’s love is exemplified by God’s creation.
So, if the Beatitudes are offering a glimpse of what will be and should be, let us consider how they are teaching us to live today, and how they fit into Christ’s upside down world.
If we list just the descriptors of those Jesus calls blessed, we get this list: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek – or the humble, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
These words of blessing – these words of assurance – are offered to those who the culture in which we live today does not offer a blessing.
Matthew adds to Luke’s account of the Beatitudes the poor in spirit, not leaving it just as the poor. It’s not about material wealth for Matthew, it’s about those who have been offered no place in the community around them. It’s about those who are told they are weak-willed or who don’t have the gusto to achieve for themselves – it’s about those who are meek enough – humble enough – to realize that the only appropriate attitude is one in which there is a named dependence upon God. Blessed are those who don’t think they have all the right answers, who are willing to admit their brokenness.
These blessings are about a willingness to not just name our own brokenness, but the brokenness in the world around us. Blessed are those who mourn, Jesus says. Yes, blessed are those who mourn over the loss of loved ones – but also for those who mourn for the lack of justice in the world today. Mourning for Matthew was about more than personal loss, it was about the loss of the world from God’s intended purposes. We mourn for the loss of innocence of young men and women; we mourn for the racial divide that tears apart families, communities, and the nation; we mourn for the fear felt on both sides of the line between law enforcement and the communities they are called to serve and protect; we mourn that violence is seen as the only solution to fight injustice; we mourn for the religious animosity that leads to profiling and war; we mourn that anyone would be apprehensive about being in public because of racial, religious, or political differences; we mourn for the refugees who are swept up off the coasts of Greece from freezing waters, fleeing a home land that is not longer safe. And Christ says we are blessed to mourn such things – blessed are the peacemakers – blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – blessed are the pure in heart – blessed because to oppose these things is what is right, for these things are not of God.
And Jesus says those who are persecuted for righteousness sake – those who are reviled and have evil uttered against them for the sake of Christ – these will be the ones who inherit the kingdom of heaven – these will be the blessed – these are the ones who will receive the great reward of heaven. For these are the ones – those who risk their lives for the sake of the lives of others – these are the ones – those who oppose the self-righteous ways of the world – these are the ones – those who focus on the love of God – these are the blessed.
As you seek to find the best resolution to be your goal in life this year, I invite you to consider making a resolution to seek change not just in your life, but also a change in the broken world. Name a resolution that will focus on Christ’s message and understanding of what it means to be blessed. In 2016, may you be someone who is not focused on the safety and temporary nature of this life, but who earnestly, humbly, and repentantly understands that happiness must be redefined – we must turn the patterns of the world upside down and let the true love of God become the norm, not the exception.