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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Epiphany 02/02/2020

In my Christmas season sermons I talked some about how Matthew quite clearly was drawing parallels between Jesus and Moses as he wrote his gospel; for example… Moses escaped Pharaoh’s order to kill all the Hebrew baby boys, Jesus escaped Herod’s order to kill all the children two years old and younger in and around Bethlehem. For different reasons, both Moses and Jesus spent time in Egypt. Both returned from a time away to lead their people into freedom, albeit different kinds of freedom. There are other parallels and they continue in today’s reading as Jesus goes up on a mountain to deliver what we know as the Sermon on the Mount similar to how Moses went up on a mountain to receive the Ten Commandments.

There are parallels here, but there are also differences. When Moses was called to ascend Mt. Sinai, the mountain was wrapped in clouds and smoke. The whole mountain trembled with thunder and lightning, the presence of the Lord descending in fire with the voice of the Lord coming from the midst of it all. There was also the warning that no one else was to go up on the mountain with Moses except for his brother Aaron. All in all, a scene intended to evoke awe and mystery along with fear and trembling.

In the case of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, the Mt. Sinai special effects are lacking. You picture a more peaceful setting, maybe green grass and sunshine, doesn’t that sound nice, and Jesus doesn’t go alone; the crowds follow as in a gentler fashion, he himself becomes the voice of God on the mountain. So, while Matthew clearly wants Jesus/Moses connections to be made, he’s also making it equally clear that Jesus is not just a new Moses, he’s not just a new law giver, he’s more than that. To be sure, in parts of the sermon he does reinterpret various aspects of the law, but more significantly he offers a different vision of the world, a different vision of what it is to be human, a challenge to begin to see things in a new way.

That vision and that challenge represent another difference between Jesus and Moses. If you think about the Ten Commandments Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai, for the most part they don’t offer anything particularly new or surprising. They pretty much told the people what they already knew, natural law as it’s sometimes called, but now with the Lord’s stamp of approval added and that approval is significant. Still, Moses didn’t have to climb a mysterious mountain to hear from the Lord that thou shalt not kill or steal or lie or commit adultery. He and those he addressed when he came down from the mountain already knew that all those things were wrong. People of any religion would have known about the importance of honoring and worshiping their God; they would have known about the importance of honoring their parents.

The most radical of the Ten Commandments is actually “Remember the Sabbath day.” Following Luther, we interpret that as having to do with worship, but in its original context which was the people about the enter the Promised Land, it was about having one day on which no work was done unlike what they had experienced in Pharaoh’s Egypt. It was about rest and trusting in God which was somewhat radical but still, much of what’s in the Ten Commandments could be classified as conventional wisdom.

That is not the case with Jesus’ sermon, especially beginning as it does with what we call the Beatitudes. As we talk about what Jesus says here, keep in mind that it’s unlikely that he delivered this sermon all at once, more likely that Matthew wove together things Jesus said in a variety of settings and then presents it as one long sermon. Understood that way, Matthew would have had choices in how he organized his material and he chose to lead with the Beatitudes. In no way do they represent conventional wisdom and I suspect that Matthew leads with them for that very reason. They reflect what he believed about Jesus and what he wanted those who read his gospel to believe about Jesus and his vision of the Kingdom of God.

You know that Jesus was often about turning the expectations of conventional wisdom upside down and that’s very much what is going on in shocking fashion with the Beatitudes. They turn the world upside down with the promise of hope to the hopeless, comfort to the bereaved, power to the powerless. They are not law or practical advice and to try and interpret them that way pretty much gets you nowhere apart from inducing guilt because to be poor or meek or to mourn or to be reviled and persecuted is not the goal of any of us. From a Lutheran perspective such guilt could have the effect of pointing us to Christ and our need for grace which was one of Luther’s uses of the law, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on with the Beatitudes

In this part of the sermon, Jesus wasn’t acting as a law giver like Moses; he was acting more as a prophet, speaking words that are more de-scriptive than pre-scriptive. He wasn’t dispensing advice as, for the most part, Jesus wasn’t in the habit of dispensing advice, not directly anyway. Instead, he was about trying to get people to look at things differently. He created images or told stories that challenged conventional wisdom and opened new possibilities.

Think about how often when he was asked a question, rather than giving a straight answer, he told a parable from which people could draw their own conclusions. You would assume that some people just walked away scratching their heads, wondering what he was talking about. Some would have just rejected what he said as impractical nonsense. But there would have been others who would have found themselves convicted by Jesus’ words and their failure to embrace his vision. Conviction however was not the goal for Jesus; the goal was that people would begin to look at things differently, that they would begin to see the world the way he did, that they would begin to imagine the kingdom that he imagined.

The kingdom Jesus imagined, the world Jesus saw, included the poor and the meek. It included those who mourned. It included those who were reviled and persecuted. Conventional wisdom said that such people were getting what they deserved. Conventional wisdom said that the good were rewarded, the bad were punished. But…contrary to conventional wisdom, Jesus said that those who suffered these things were blessed. It wouldn’t have made any more sense to those who first heard it than it does to us. How then do we make sense of these counter intuitive statements about those Jesus calls blessed?

It perhaps starts with again saying what the statements are not. The Beatitudes are not a list of requirements or recommendations. Jesus isn’t asking anyone to go out and try to be poor or poor in spirit, to mourn or to be meek or to be persecuted. As I said, the Beatitudes are more descriptive than prescriptive and what is described is the life of a people gathered by and gathered around Jesus, and among those people, we shouldn’t be surprised to find those who conventional wisdom would say are cursed, not blessed. In his usual indirect fashion, the question Jesus leaves his hearers to consider is how does one live a life of beatitude, a life of blessing in the kingdom he talks about.

Any answer to that begins with simply recognizing those who Jesus describes. It begins with recognizing that they exist and that they are not the wretched of the earth abandoned by God. They are fellow children of God, part of the kingdom of God, in need of the light that we talk about during this season of Epiphany. As the community gathered around Jesus, as the church, we are called to be that light and, with our words and our actions to witness to the light of the world, Jesus himself.

I was struggling with how to end this sermon and then on Thursday as I was eating breakfast, I read Bishop Katherine’s article in the latest synod newsletter. She wrote about have been at the Gettysburg seminary in early January to preside at the ordination of one of our new pastors. While there, she visited the Gettysburg battlefield including the original seminary building, now a museum, that is located on what is called Seminary Ridge. It was a strategic location during the battle as from there one could see the entire battlefield.

As often happens these days among we clergy types, as she visited this site her thoughts couldn’t help but move toward thinking about the future of the church and with that she writes: “I learned that the seminary building was both a strategic asset and a place of refuge. It struck me that the church today could serve much the same purpose. With the Spirit of Christ at work in us, I hope and pray that we are able to see the larger picture, maintain a helpful distance, and adopt positions where we can be of good use; providing refuge, safety, comfort and assistance to those most in need, whatever side they’re on.”

Reading that, I thought, that’s it; providing refuge, safety, comfort and assistance to those most in need, whatever side they’re on. That’s a life of beatitude; that’s a life of blessing. I thought, I can end my sermon with that; and that’s what I’m going to do.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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