The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
How shall I come before Yahweh, and bow myself before the exalted God?
Jesus had a way of turning the world upside down; He makes us look at the world in a whole new way. We think of blessedness as being successful, being a winner. But in today’s Gospel reading Jesus defines blessedness in ways we would never expect. The blessed are not those who deserve to be rewarded, but rather those who see that which God has done and is doing in the world. The poor in spirit do not appear blessed because they seem to have no hope, but they are blessed because God has given them the kingdom of heaven. Those who mourn have no joy, but they are blessed because God will give them comfort. Those who are humiliated will be raised and those who are hungry and thirsty will be fed. They are blessed because God has promised to save those who trust in Him. Blessedness is an attitude that looks to God for its fulfillment.
John Stott wrote of the Beatitudes, “These characteristics do not describe eight separate and distinct groups of disciples. There are not some who are meek, while others are merciful, yet others called upon to endure persecution. These are eight qualities of the same group who at one and the same time are meek and merciful, poor in spirit and pure in heart, mourning and hungry, peacemakers and persecuted. They are the characteristics of the common, everyday Christians.”
The Beatitudes emphasize who we are rather than what we do. The Kingdom is not of this world. The beautiful attitudes and the blessings of the Kingdom are not economic but spiritual. Some may be called to lives of poverty, but the beatitudes refer to spiritual states. The eight blessings are given to every Christian. God favors the humble, those who trust in Him rather than their own strength. These humble people are those who yearn for God above all else. They become wholly dependent on God. Martin Luther wrote, “These eight beatitudes are nothing else than a teaching about the fruits and good works of a Christian, which must be preceeded by faith, as the tree and main body or sum of his righteousness and blessedness, without any work or merit, out of which these beatitudes must all grow and follow.”
None of the eight Beatitudes are highly regarded by the world as being particularly blessed. Poverty, pain, humility, hunger and thirst are not signs of a blessed life; they are more likely to be considered woes or curses. The merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted are more likely to be viewed as foolish rather than as blessed.
The word “bless” means “may God speak well of you.” What is it that God seeks from those He loves? What about our life might He speak well of? It would be easy for us to use the psalm for today to establish the criteria for blessedness. The psalmist writes, “Yahweh, who shall dwell in your sanctuary? Who shall live on your holy hill?” He answers that those who are blameless, righteous and honest, that those who do good works and who fear the Lord are the ones who will be blessed. Yet, the expectation in this psalm is too hard for any human to uphold. Who is blameless? Who is righteous? There is none who would ever be so blessed.
When we are poor in spirit, in mourning, humiliated and hungry, it is difficult to be participants in the overcoming work in God’s world. Sadly, in today’s world it is often used as an excuse to be angry and to fight. We think we are justified in demanding that others make things right. We seek worldly solutions to our pain and suffering and expect our neighbors to save us. Yet the real salvation will only come when we fall into the arms of God’s grace. Blessed are those who look to God in their poverty, mourning, humiliation and hunger because they will be satisfied.
Jesus does not call us to overcome our troubles or wallow in them, but rather He encourages us to live in an attitude of trust and confidence that God is faithful to His promises. The beatitudes are the attitudes of God’s people living in faith. The students for today’s lesson were not the great crowds of people; Jesus was speaking to the disciples. This lesson is not given for those who are trying to earn their way to heaven, but is given to those who believe in the work of God. The lesson is given for us, the Christians who have been saved by the cross of Christ.
It doesn’t seem like a wise lesson, does it? After all, it makes more sense to be strong in spirit, to celebrate life, to be assertive, and to satisfy our own needs. We would much rather be comfortable and happy. We would much prefer a life of wealth, health and popularity. However, Jesus never promised us a rose garden; He promised Himself. We can find blessedness in poverty and in mourning, not because there is anything good about these things but because we turn to grace in our suffering. Physical blessedness is found in pain because the pain makes us look to the One who can heal us. Spiritual blessedness is found in suffering because it makes us look to God.
On the face of it, Christianity is foolishness. Paul is right when he says so in today’s epistle lesson. After all, what good is it to believe in a God who can die on a cross? Why have faith in a system that allows an innocent man to take the consequences of the whole world’s sin upon His own shoulders? Is God so weak that He can’t protect His people from suffering? Is He so incompetent that He can’t save us in some other, more civilized way? The Jews wanted to answer these questions with wisdom that came from the tradition of their faith, and the Greeks wanted answers that could be studied philosophically.
Are you a right-brain or left-brain thinker? This question comes from a theory in psychology that each side of the brain controls certain types of thinking. The right-brained thinker is said to be more intuitive, thoughtful and subjective. The left-brained thinker is said to be more logical, analytical and objective. Right-brained people tend to be more creative and emotional while left-brained people tend to be more methodical. It has been proven that this theory is a myth; people do not have a dominant side of their brain which controls their personality. Sadly, many people use this theory as an excuse for not using more of their brain capacity. “I can’t do anything creative because I’m left-brained.” Or, “I am not good with following directions because I am right-brained.”
The reality is that neither side of the brain is dominant in anyone; as a matter of fact, the two sides are not so divided. There are parts of the brain that are specifically designed to enhance communication between the two hemispheres, and the person experiences problems if that connection is severed. I’m certainly not a brain surgeon, and most of the sites I read about the subject today, though written in simple language, were difficult for me to understand and relate to you.
It doesn’t really matter, but I started thinking about this right-brain/left-brain theory when I was reading through the passage from Paul’s letter to Corinth. A thought struck me: perhaps the Jews were right-brained and the Greeks were left-brained! Really, it is interesting that Paul divided the two nations in this way. The Jews, whose lives and history were built upon their faith, are more spiritual in the way they dealt with wisdom. The Greeks, however, who are more academic in their focus, they wanted to have intellectual answers to their questions. In this text about the foolishness of the cross, Paul has shown us the mistake we so often make.
The Christian message is viewed as foolishness in today’s world. We are called to submit to God, and yet the world claims there is no God. We are called to love our neighbor, and yet the world says that we should love our selves. The Gospel tells us that God in flesh died so that we might have life. What foolishness! Yet, God is wiser and more powerful than anything we can imagine, and we know that He loved His children so much that He did everything necessary to reconcile us to Him.
In the opening lines of the Old Testament passage from Micah, God asks Israel to plead her case before Him. She turned away from her God, walked away from the covenant and was unfaithful. God gave her a chance to defend herself. He called the mountains and the foundations of the earth to be witnesses in this judgment, because they were there when the covenant was made. Then God turned it to Himself and asks His beloved what He has done wrong, defending His own actions by recounting his redemption of Israel out of bondage in Egypt.
Israel responded by trying to find some way to make up for the sin against God, but looked for some act that would earn God’s mercy. They thought that bowing before God or giving some sort of offering would be enough to cover their sins. They even offered to sacrifice their first born sons, an offering God would never accept.
God answers that He has already shown His people what is right and good to do in this world. A right relationship with God means right relationships with other people. He says, “Do justice, be merciful and walk humbly with God.” Humility does not mean bowing or giving with a hard heart. It means recognizing our own sinfulness and submitting ourselves to that which God has already done. Instead of demanding that the people of Israel give their sons on the altar of sacrifice, God sent His own son to take the wrath they deserve. The One who lived out what is right and good also laid down His own life so that we to might be just, merciful and humble before God.
What does it meant to be blessed? According to the world, blessedness is visible to others; it is seen in our happiness, our wealth and our health. Even Christians talk about their good lives by saying, “I have been so blessed.” But we do not see the blessings when we are suffering from a terminal disease or we are unemployed and can’t pay our bills? Blessedness is often thought synonymous with happiness, but the sort of happiness that comes with faith is not necessarily giddy pleasure, but rather a deeper inner joy from God.
That’s what Paul is talking about: God takes our lives and He shines through them. It is easy for God to get lost in the midst of a bright shining star, but He shines brightly in the valley of the shadow of death. In other words, it is hard to see how God’s work when the world sees our successful and happy lives. Even if we answer their questions with “I am so blessed,” they see it not as a gift from God but as a reward for our hard work and perseverance. However, if we can say we are blessed in the midst of pain and loss, then the world will truly see that it is God’s grace that makes us happy. God uses our weakness to show His strength and raises us out of our pits into His Kingdom. Blessedness is seeing ourselves as we truly are and turning to the One who can give us all we need. Blessed are those who humble themselves at the altar of the Lord and give their lives into His hand so that through their weakness He is glorified.
The psalmist tells us that those who are welcome in the Temple of God are an exclusive group. Who can live there? It is a place where only those who walk rightly and do good works, where those who speak truth and do no evil are welcomed. Those who hate evil and love those who love the Lord are those who are invited into the presence of God. We have to honor our oaths even when they are painful, lending our resources to others without expectation and never accepting anything that might hurt another.
I would like to think that I can be welcome in the house of the Lord, but quite frankly the words of my mouth are not always right and my actions are not always just. I take advantage of my neighbor and I do not always do what I should do for their sake. Those who would be welcome are an incredibly exclusive group. As a matter of fact, only one was truly righteous: Jesus Christ our Lord. He is the only one who will never be shaken, the only one who can dwell in the house of the Lord. We simply can’t get an invite to that party on our own. Those who are blessed are the ones that stand firmly on Him.
The Christian faith is foolishness, because it makes no sense in a world that honors the powerful, promotes the strong, encourages the self and puts the great onto pedestals. However, God has chosen to bless those who humble themselves before Him, beginning first with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As we follow His path, and live as He lived, we might seem to have a life that is far from blessed. But God will shine through our weakness; through our poverty, mourning, meekness, hunger, thirst, mercy, suffering, humility and rejection He will be glorified.
In the passage from Micah, the Lord speaks of all the wonderful things that He has done for His people. And how do they responsd? “What must we do?” They list a number of sacrificial measures in the hopes that they will prove to God their faithfulness and earn God’s mercy and grace. They ask what sort of offerings would be suitable? Should the offerings be burnt? How old should they be? How much is enough? Thousands of rams? Tens of thousands of rivers of oil?” Micah even lists sacrifice of the first born, a religious practice among the pagan peoples among whom God’s people had dwelt. Does God require those sacrifices?
Our answer to the question “What must I do?” is not likely to include child sacrifice, but we do have our list of requirements. Do I have to go to church every Sunday? Do I need to serve on a committee? Give a certain amount of money? Volunteer in a certain way or place? Do I need to choose a certain community of believers? Perform certain rituals? What must I do to receive God’s grace?
Isn’t it interesting that in this passage from Micah, it is God who speaks first. “Look at everything I have done for you. Consider all my saving acts.” Yet, the people still ask, “What must I do?” God has proven over and over again that He is merciful and that He loves His people, and yet they still want to control their own salvation.
“What must I do?” is a good question as long as we ask God, because in it we admit that we are His creation and we are responsible to do as God requires. Sadly, we often put our own words in God’s mouth and claim that what we are doing is according to His Word. The scriptures certainly tell us about the sacrifices at the temple, the pilgrimages to take, and the work that needs to be done. Unfortunately, those requirements have been built on years of human interpretation of God’s intentions for His people. The answer to “What must I do?” is not what we choose, but that which has been revealed to us: to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.
God has expectations and He spells them out so that we can try to live up to them. But our salvation is never dependent on our ability to do so. God’s love and mercy does not demand anything from us. God’s love and mercy elicits a response: He has transformed us for a purpose. We are blessed to be a blessing. So, perhaps we should ask a different question: “What does it mean to be blessed?” We see in the Beatitudes that Jesus’ idea of blessedness is counter to our expectations. What must you do? Trust in God, even when it does not seem like you are blessed. Jesus tells us that blessedness does not look like we might expect. Blessedness means that God has raised you out of a world that requires sacrifice and obedience to rules that are different from God’s Word, trusting in human wisdom and expectations. True blessedness triggers a response of thankfulness and praise. In the beautiful attitudes of meekness and mercy, spiritual poverty and purity of heart, mourning and hunger, peacemaking and acceptance of persecution, we trust in God’s faithfulness and live as He has called us to live, blessing the world with His grace.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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