Good News first, THEN teaching

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on July 20, 2014)

Mauri Macy used to have us sing familiar hymns, but we would sing them to an alternate tune.

Years ago, I had developed this elaborate picture in my mind of how he did this. I pictured him in the sanctuary at night. Candles were all around the piano. He sat there, playing a familiar hymn, and then he would close his eyes, look heavenward…and then it would just come to him! A completely new tune that fit perfectly and beautifully with he words!

Reality was so much less exciting than my beautiful picture. Come to find out, every hymn is broken down by the number of syllables in each line, like 7/7/7/8. And then there is a resource where you can look up that metre and rhythm and find all the hymn tunes that work with that lyric pattern. Effective, but so not the picture I had. 

Some of you know the actual answer to this question, so if you do, I’d like to ask you to sit this one out.

For the rest of you…any guesses as to how we decide about the topics that will get our attention on Sunday mornings? Do you have any imagined pictures of what that’s like? What things do you think we consider? How would you do it? [ASK]

I sometimes wish I could walk up a mountain somewhere, have a cloud descend, and then God would just write on stone tablets what we’re supposed to say. The stone tablets haven’t ever happened for me. But even so, I am looking forward to this coming series.

We recognize people relate to different ways of presenting information. Some like topical, some like working through a book of the bible verse by verse. Most desire something that could make a difference on a Monday morning in whatever “regular life” looks like.

We’ve just finished a series on worship and the purpose of the church-and rather than just have it be topical, we also rooted it in the book of Ephesians as well. Before that, we had a brief series working through the book of 1 John. Before that, we spent several months on the “Cloud of Witnesses” series, looking at lots of people who show us how to live with our eyes fixed on Jesus.

So what next?

We wanted something practical. Worship philosophy is kind of “up here”, we wanted to bring it down to more the nuts and bolts level. We wanted also to spend some extended time in a book or section of the bible. As we thought of different possibilities, we also realized it’s been awhile since we’ve focused our attention on the gospels, and it seemed important to change that.

All of that thinking and praying led us to this: Jesus himself is famous for his ability to teach. We want to model our lives after Jesus. So we will spend some extended time focusing on just what Jesus taught, and wrestle with how to apply it to our lives today.

We’ll be spending time studying the sermon on the mount for 6 months or so, with a few breaks in there. The sermon on the mount is found in the book of Matthew, and it’s one of the biggest collections of the practical teaching of Jesus. We’ll work through Matthew chapter 5, and then take a break for 5 weeks to look at our church’s vision statement. Then we’ll work through Matthew chapter 6, before taking a break for Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas. After the first of the year, we’ll finish the sermon on the mount by studying Matthew chapter 7.

We encourage you to read along as we go! Our challenge when we gather, our challenge as we read on our own is this: how do we take these words that Jesus spoke 2000 years ago, and apply them to day to day life in Oregon in 2014?

Practical teaching is the reason we chose this series…but the way Matthew has arranged this long block of teaching goes against our goal a little bit.

The very first thing is not teaching on what to do, or how to live, or giving direction on how to determine right from wrong. It doesn’t begin with how to treat others, or what I do when I’m depressed, or what job I should choose, or how I should spend my money.

The very first thing is Jesus giving good news to the people whom society of that time thought of as the losers.

The verses Elizabeth read for us earlier have come to be known as the Beatitudes. As Jesus begins teaching, I think it is significant that he does not begin with what people should do. Instead, he begins with what God is doing for those who seem to be on the losing end of society.

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.
He said:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘ Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:1-12, TNIV)

Each of these 9 sayings follows a pattern. Well, the first 8 follow it very closely, and then the ninth is a little different. They begin with the word “blessed”, at least in the translation that Elizabeth read. Does anyone have a different word than blessed in the translation you are looking at? [ASK]

It’s a unique Greek word that’s used here, one that is difficult to translate. Blessed isn’t quite right-mainly because there is another more common word for blessedness that is not used here. One scholar said happy is “the least inadequate option in current English.” I love what one scholar, R.T. France, wrote: “‘Fortunate’ gets closer to the sense [of the word], but has inappropriate connotations of luck. ‘Congratulations to…’ would convey much of the impact of [the word], but perhaps sounds too colloquial. The Australian idiom ‘Good on yer’ is perhaps as close as any to the sense, but would not communicate in the rest of the English-speaking world!”

I kinda like that!

“Good on yer” if you mourn, if you are meek, if you hunger and thirst for righteousness. Good on yer!

Whatever word we use, it’s clear that there is something really strange going on in Jesus’ words. The pattern of these beatitudes goes like this: “Good on yer” if you are _________ (insert a difficult thing), because you will ____________ (have some good result).

We would all probably say being poor, and mourning, and being persecuted and insulted…these are all negative things. Being meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, being merciful, pure in heart, being peacemakers…these may be things we strive for, but I don’t know many who would say that they are easy or are often rewarded in life.

But Matthew has Jesus begin this long series of teaching by reassuring people who are in negative circumstances, people who are doing the hard work of living in pursuit of God but being pushed aside by the world. Jesus begins by highlighting and speaking good news to the ones who aren’t the Pharisees and Sadducees, who aren’t the religious leaders, in fact who are the oppressed and the ones on the outskirts of society.

Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians: “Think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong…” Evidently the early church as well as these ones who listened to Jesus teach were the rejected outsiders.

This realization does some weird things inside of me.

I’m almost finished with a novel about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, called Saints and Villains. The author takes the facts of the life of this radical pastor in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, and fills in and creates some details to make a compelling, full story of what his life might have been like. Bonhoeffer wrote what most consider a Christian classic, “The Cost of Discipleship”. He was someone who lived and called others to live a radical faith. He tried to get others in the church to go against Hitler and the Nazi party early in the 1930’s, dangerously speaking his mind when others thought he was being way too dramatic and seeing evil where there wasn’t.

He struggled, struggled to find the best way to live faithfully to Jesus and radically against the way Germany was going. He got to the point where, almost against his will, he became convinced that he had to commit a sin against what he thought was right for the sake of the greater good. He became part of a plot to assassinate Hitler, and he was arrested and put to death for the conspiracy just before the war ended.

The sermon on the mount, and in particular this section, causes a crisis for Bonhoeffer… at least in the novel. It’s the same sort of weird thing I feel going on in me, when I’m reading a person who is trying to live radically for Jesus, when I read Jesus’ words for myself. Let me quote from the book to give you an idea:

“On what points do you wrestle with the Sermon on the Mount?” said Eliot. 

“Well. I had been thinking of the Sermon as a call to action. A proclamation that turns the world upside down. It is the poor, after all, who are blessed, not the rich. It is the meek who shall be rewarded, not the grasping and coarse. The weak who are to be championed, not the powerful…Of course, I have been relating all this to the situation in Germany. For months I have been talking, writing letters, trying to get the church in Germany to be the church of the Sermon.”

“With little success,” Eliot guessed…

[Bonhoeffer went on.] “I read the passage again. I was stricken with terror. The text offered nothing. No call to action, none, only a call to refuse resistance. I began to search elsewhere in the Gospels. Nothing. Whenever I thought I had found some call to act on behalf of the oppressed agains an oppressor, it turned out to be God who would do the acting. Not [us]. God says He has filled the hungry with good things…God says He has brought good news to the poor and proclaimed release to the oppressed…”

“[But] he hasn’t!” Dietrich flung his arms wide. “Look at the persecution, the starvation, the injustice throughout the world! God has done nothing! Yet only suffer, the Gospel says. We are to be a pack of impotent bystanders. I can’t bear it.”

Perhaps you’re like me.

I have a part of me very much like Bonhoeffer. There are times where I want to do. There are times when it feels as if that is supposed to be my response to Jesus, to do, to fight injustice. I read these words of blessing and hope to the poor, and my first instinct is to want to act, to do…but I am caught by the words.

The blessed ones suffer. The blessed ones are persecuted. I read it and want to act on behalf of the oppressed as my act of discipleship and faith. But to do so, to take the bull by the horns and fight injustice, goes against the truth of the passage that it is God’s work, not mine.

This is a dilemma. It is a dilemma that shows what is often today called “privilege”.

The reality is, as much as I would like to identify with these words of hope, they are not directed primarily at me. I have position and privilege and choices which allow me to act. It causes for me this double struggle with how Jesus begins the sermon on the mount.

I have to remember that in many ways, I’m not one of the poor and oppressed and persecuted ones Jesus is talking about here. That’s the first struggle. Then comes the second struggle: when I want to join in, when I want to identify, when I want to be one of these ones Jesus says are blessed…I so often focus on what to do, how to act, how to battle, how to be a crusader.

These verses are not telling you and me to “do” anything.

These verses are simply words of description of what God does and who God values.

We can infer some things about how we ought to be-but almost all of them are passive. Almost all of them are hard.

This is how the teaching starts, and it’s a challenging reminder that even when Jesus is going to get practical and challenging and teach us, life is not ultimately about what we do. It is about what God does.

Let me try to be more plain. I often read these statements: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are the meek…blessed are the merciful” and I think, “How can I be more poor/meek/merciful? Or I think, “What can I do to help the poor/meek/merciful?”

Either way, the primary way I respond to what Jesus says here is to try and do something. I either feel like I fail to be poor or meek enough, or I feel frustrated and and a failure at my attempts to work for justice in our difficult world.

Words of blessing become instead words that announce my failure to do enough for God.

It’s helped me to realize that isn’t what the original people gathered around Jesus would have thought about.

Instead, these words would have brought in them a hope in God’s work and a longing for God to follow through. These words would have pointed them in hope and anticipation toward God, not directed them to try harder and be frustrated in the attempt.

I’m sure I’m guilty of once again seeing in the bible the same lesson God’s Holy Spirit has been pounding into me since I came back from sabbatical…but I can only speak what God’s Holy Spirit is putting on my mind and heart.

I’m seeing again in Jesus’ words that the good news of God is NOT about what I do and how hard I try, or my call to save the world from injustice. The good news of God is what GOD has done and will do! The good news of God is the kingdom of heaven, the rule and reign of God, which is spreading and one day will define the entire universe!

In weeks ahead, where we struggle to figure out how we can possibly live out what Jesus teaches…we can remember this beginning, this reminder, these words of blessing to those who felt poor and meek and persecuted and oppressed.

Even as we head into this series of practicalities, even as we try to live in keeping with what Jesus taught…we can remember that ultimately it is God’s blessing, God’s grace, God’s “Good on yer” that makes all the difference in the world!

We are in good hands as followers of Jesus!

We are in God’s good hands, and that is why…regardless of what others think of us, regardless of what we feel are our failures, regardless of our place or impact in the world…we are in God’s good hands, and we can rejoice and be glad!

Happy and blessed are those who mourn…because, as Donald Hagner wrote, “Those who mourn do so because of the seeming slowness of God’s justice. But they are now to rejoice, even in their troubled circumstances, because their salvation has found its beginning!”

Good on yer if you’re meek and oppressed. Hagner writes that this isn’t “persons who are submissive, mild and unassertive, but those who are humble in the sense of being oppressed, [who] ‘have been humbled’. [They are] bent over by the injustice of the ungodly, but…are soon to realize their reward.”

God is at work in our world! Be glad and rejoice!

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