It’s an idolatrous world out there. The good news of the Gospel is that when we go out into that world as a blessed people, we bring God’s blessings with us.
Matthew 5:1-12 (The Message)
1-2 When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:
3"You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
4"You're blessed when you feel you've lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
5"You're blessed when you're content with just who you are—no more, no less. That's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought.
6"You're blessed when you've worked up a good appetite for God. He's food and drink in the best meal you'll ever eat.
7"You're blessed when you care. At the moment of being 'care-full,' you find yourselves cared for.
8"You're blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
9"You're blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That's when you discover who you really are, and your place in God's family.
10"You're blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God's kingdom.
11-12"Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don't like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.
A Blessed Life
What does it mean to live a blessed life? I usually think of being blessed as being fortunate. Sometimes the Greek word Matthew uses in today’s passage is translated “Happy.”
I have a friend back in Texas who is pastor of a missionary Baptist church, and every time I see him and ask, “Charles, how are you doing?” his answer is, “Blessed. I am blessed, Brother.”
And maybe Charles means it in the sense of “happy.” He almost always wears a huge grin, and his voice, as resonant as James Earl Jones’ baritone (but not at all like Darth Vader), exudes joy in such a way that you just know he has something wonderful to tell you, some good news.
When I think of the times I am most aware of living a blessed life, I would have to say it is in those moments of deep joy and happiness. To love and be loved, to have all the necessities of life that I need and more, to have fun, make music, and to laugh with friends and family, all that points to a high correlation between feeling blessed and feeling happy.
These two scripture passages, Micah 6 in the Old Testament and the Beatitudes in the Gospel according to Matthew, point to blessings deeper than happiness alone. Jesus tells the people of blessings far deeper than joy, even.
Micah 6:8, “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” makes a great needlepoint for a wall-hanging or a pillow. It’s a wonderful chorus for a song.
Sometimes, when I hear this passage, or sing the words to it, it feels like an easy thing. It feels like, “forget all the details of the law, the finer points of theology, the challenging life of discipleship; all that God requires are these three simple things: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
That’s a great summary of what it looks like to be faithful, to live a blessed life.
We make a mistake, however, if we think of it as easy.
When we read Micah 6:8 in context, it turns out to be the declaration of judgment in a contentious court room scene. Micah’s prophetic vision puts us, the people of God, in the defendant’s seat and God in the place of judge and prosecutor. When God asks the defendant, “What does the Lord require of you?” the question hangs in the air as a word of judgment because by the time it is asked, it is clear that the people of God have failed to live up to the things that God has required.
Justice, mercy, and humility, as a summary of our part of God’s covenant with us, have very specific meanings in Scripture. Holding them all together at the same time is no easy feat.
Os Guinness wrote about the queen of the Belgians visiting Poland while Poland was still under communist rule. Everywhere she went she was accompanied by a guard of the secret police. Since she was a Catholic, she often attended mass. On one occasion while she was kneeling in prayer, she noticed that the guard standing beside her was moving his lips and saying the prayers. She was surprised and asked him, "Oh, are you a Catholic?" to which he responded, "I believe but I don't practice." She asked, "Then are you a Communist?" to which he answered, "I practice, but I don't believe."
We saw, in Poland, what happened when the believers began to practice what they believed. It brought down the communist regime.
Throughout the last century, in the civil rights movement, in South Africa, in the Philippines, in the Eastern bloc, we saw the turmoil that arises, the trouble that ensues, when people who believe they are free begin to act as free people.
In this context, Micah’s needlepoint passage becomes a justice-seeking trouble-maker’s call to take to the streets.
In Bible study, one observation I hear often is that God gets really angry in the Old Testament, killing, smiting, and demanding things. There is, in fact, a lot of judgment and condemnation from God throughout the Old Testament story of God calling the people of Israel to faithfulness and the people of Israel trying, struggling, and then giving up because it is so hard.
And what is it that is so hard, and that gets God into the smiting mood? Two things: serving other Gods and neglecting the poor. That’s it.
Serving God and God alone grew increasingly difficult for the people to whom Micah preached because they were surrounded by people who served other Gods. The psalmist and the prophets kept telling the people, if you carve out material gods of wood, stone, gold or silver, if you worship ephemeral values such as wealth, power, or status, you worship dead things. When you worship dead things, your soul dies. When you worship the living God, you find life.
When the Gospel according to Matthew was written, the Romans had just obliterated the temple. The worship of temple sacrifice, practiced by Jews for hundreds of years, came to an end. Jews and Jewish Christians alike sharpened their swords and conspired against the Romans, looking for a way to shake off the yoke of oppression.
Into this temptation toward violence, not just justice, but revenge, Matthew inserts Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This vision of radical obedience to God proclaims that, no matter what the situation, we find ourselves blessed by radical obedience to God and radical love for our neighbors.
Those two things will change the world.
Here is a statistic that surprised me. In the past hour, the number of Christians in the Northern hemisphere has decreased by 3000 people. In the same hour, the number of Christians in the global south, including Asia, Africa, India, and South America, has increased by 18,000 people.
Faithfulness is not a numbers game, and yet we can see that there is something different going on in the church in the global south. Perhaps it is just their time; or, perhaps there is a discomfort in less wealthy nations that creates more openness to abandoning artificial gods and embracing the God of justice, mercy, and humility.
Whatever it is, we can see that embracing humility here in the global North will be required for us to exercise faithfulness. Only in humility can we learn from our sisters and brothers in Africa, Asia, and the rest of the global south what they have to teach us about faithfulness.
What is required to live in response to a God who has already acted on our behalf? When we come to believe and understand what God has done for us, we want to live a life in which belief and practice are integrated. We want to escape from that cognitive dissonance of the Polish soldier who believed in Christ and practiced communism. We want to begin living in the Kingdom of God now; we do not want to wait until this world is past and the next has begun.
My friend Charles lives a blessed life, and he will gladly tell you all about it with his huge smile and joyful baritone. I haven’t spoken to him in a couple of years now, but I can still hear his voice telling me, “I am blessed, Brother, so blessed.”
What makes that response so extraordinary is that the last few years have not been particularly easy for him. A few years ago his beloved wife Wanda, his partner in ministry, the mother of their children, and the love of his life, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died a few weeks later.
I attended her funeral in one of the largest sanctuaries available in Sherman, Texas. There was an overflow crowd. We were part of a local ministers’ alliance that included about 15 regular members, and Charles had some close life-long friends in the group. I expected that one of them would lead the service. I slipped into the back of the sanctuary just before the service began, looked at the bulletin, and saw that Charles was listed as the preacher.
I couldn’t imagine how he would make it through the sermon.
But he did. He preached one of the most moving and faith-filled sermons I have ever heard on the blessings of God in Wanda’s life, and the promise of eternal life through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
He wept, and we wept with him. He told us stories of Wanda’s strength and humor and we laughed with him. Mostly, he stood in the pulpit and showed us all what a blessed life looks like.
In his gratitude for Wanda, and his unshakeable faith in the resurrection, I understood for the first time, perhaps, what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are you who mourn,” or, as the paraphrase in The Message translates it, “You're blessed when you feel you've lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.”
I don’t have to tell you, friends, it’s an idolatrous world out there. The good news of the Gospel is that when we go out into that world as a blessed people, we bring God’s blessings with us.
And there, at least for a moment at a time, we have done what is required. And there we find ourselves through the grace of Jesus Christ, right smack in the middle of the Kingdom of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.