Sunday, January 29, 2017

Fourth Sunday of Epiphany
Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.

St. Chromatius of Aquileia preached, “If you can see how great the merit of the peacemakers is, when they are no longer called servants but children of God. This reward is fully justified, since the love of peace loves Christ, the author of peace, to whom Paul the Apostle even gives ‘peace’ as a name: ‘He is our peace,’ he says. Someone who does not love peace goes in pursuit of discord, for he loves its author the devil. In the beginning the devil caused discord between God and the human race by leading the first man to violate God’s precept. The reason why the Son of God came down from heaven was to condemn the devil, the author of discord, and to make peace between God and the human race by reconciling its members to God and making God propitious to them. We must therefore become peacemakers so that we may deserve to be called children of God. Without peace, we lose the name not only of children, but even of servants, since the apostle says to us: ‘Love peace, for without it none of us can be pleasing to God.’”

“We must become peacemakers.” I know this seems like an impossible demand. There are a million reasons why we should fight, many of the worthwhile. The world is unfair, we should fight for fairness. We must fight for justice. We have the right to fight for what is ours. We should fight for the truth and for what is right. We believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We believe that if we don’t fight back, then we’ll be nothing but a doormat and the world will take advantage of us.

“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

We fight because we do not want to suffer. We don’t deserve to suffer. We are afraid to suffer. It is not right for us to suffer. Yet Jesus tells us that we are blessed when we suffer for doing what He asks us to do. We must become peacemakers. There’s something very absurd about a person screaming love from a podium with a clenched fist. It is amazing how much more is accomplished with a quiet voice and a soft touch.

We don’t see it, though, do we? The news is filled with the moments of conflict and anger, but ignore the quiet moments when two people find a way to listen and respect one another. I read an article recently that we have become a people that are constantly angry. We are angry because we spend so much of our time “connected” and we can’t avoid the things that make us want to fight. The author of the article talked about a discussion led by Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs. They didn’t come to any conclusions, but Dr. Gibbs was inclined to say “that righteous anger is only a pious myth, a self-justification. Christians find themselves angry all the time and need a theological framework for justifying it lest they have to repent and deal with it. Yes, God can be angry in the Bible, that doesn’t mean we can properly be angry. We, after all, aren’t righteous. Christians are called to repent of anger and certainly not let the sun set on it.”

We disagree with at least half of what we see and hear as we scroll through our Facebook timelines and listen to the media. We disagree because we see the world in a different way and we expect the others to see it as we do. We demand our way without even listening to the other. We expect the world to bend to our opinion or our point of view and we become angry when it doesn’t. Yet, we haven’t even taken the time to listen to the other point of view. I’m guilty of this, but we all have to admit that it is often difficult to listen when everything is confrontational. We’d rather fight than be a peacemaker.

Peacemakers don’t win. As a matter of fact, Jesus promised that the peacemakers will be persecuted.

One of the great themes of the Christmas season is “Peace on Earth.” I got at least a few Christmas cards with that sentiment, but what does that mean? Peace is very hard to come by. There is always some country or regime in international relations that is threatening violence against another nation or their own people. War is a constant factor in the lives of many people around the world. Even in America, we are faced with the possibility of our men and women on active duty will be deployed to one place or another for some reason.

We also see a lack of peace in our daily relations with people in our own neighborhoods and families. Violence and crime are an ever-growing danger in our cities and our towns. People are quick to sue a friend or a neighbor to get what they want. Divorce is rampant. Our children are facing the most difficult issues that have ever been put before young people: drugs, sexual disease, bullying, and single parent families. These things are not only found in the inner city, but also in rural areas. Reality TV producers provide the most popular television programs, shows that pit neighbor against neighbor in battles for power, money or fame. How can one person possibly make peace in our society today?

Charles Spurgeon once asked, “Do you know what it is, when you are tossed on the waves, to go down into the depths of Godhead, there rejoicing that not a wave of trouble ruffles your spirit, but that you are serenely at home with God your own Almighty Father?” This is peace. We live in a world of violence, hatred and war, yet we have a peace within our souls that is beyond understanding. We may never be able to bring peace to our world, cities, neighborhoods or even our families, but we can share the peace of Christ.

We make peace, not necessarily by stopping the conflict, but in showing people that true peace comes in living the life which Christ calls us to live. We won’t do that by screaming love from a podium with a clenched fist but with a quiet word of hope and a hand of help.

Jesus had a way of turning the world upside down; He made 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.

As we look at the Beatitudes, we can see that there are eight listed together which are book ended with the phrase “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Yet, we see blessedness from two different perspectives in these eight verses. In the first four, blessedness is found in suffering because God will overcome our difficulties. In the second four, blessedness is found in participating in God’s work to overcome.

None of the eight 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.

Should be become poor in spirit that we might be blessed? Should we reject joy that we might mourn? Should we become a doormat so that God can lift us above our enemy? Should we starve ourselves as we wait for the righteousness of God to come to us? No, because if we seek suffering we will miss out on the blessedness that comes from sharing in the work of God.

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.

Sometimes God satisfies the pain and suffering by calling us to their aid. We can be merciful to those who are poor in spirit, shine God’s love to the mourning when we are pure in heart, and act as peacemakers to lift the meek. When we are persecuted, we can stand strong on faith in God and show those with a hunger and thirst a right and true relationship with God.

Ironically, our activity in God’s work of overcoming might just lead us to be one who faces the same difficulty. Persecution can easily lead to poverty in spirit, mourning, meekness and hunger. Thus is the circle of faith: we move from helpless to helper to helpless again as we journey in this life. We aren’t always strong, we aren’t always weak. Through it all, God remains steadfast. He calls us to be peacemakers through all our ups and downs, to share Christ in the midst of our suffering and satisfaction, so that the world will see true peace and blessedness.

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 want to answer these questions with wisdom that comes from the tradition of their faith, and the Greeks want answers that can be studied philosophically.

Paul wrote, “The foolishness of God is wiser than men.”

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 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 asked 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 on Himself and asked His beloved what He had 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 their 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 answered that He had 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.

Blessed are the peacemakers. We must become peacemakers. We must risk everything to follow Jesus, to share His Word and to touch the hearts of our neighbors. It won’t be easy. As a matter of fact, it will be very, very hard. We are likely to suffer persecution. We won’t get what is fair or just. We might just lose what is ours. We will struggle because we’ll see that the world just isn’t how God intends it to be. We will become doormats for those who want to take advantage of us. But we can rest in the promises of God; He sent His Son to be a doormat for our sakes, to turn the world upside down, and in doing so He made everything right.

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 on to 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 and His peace will shine through our weakness; through our poverty, mourning, meekness, hunger, thirst, mercy, suffering, humility and rejection He will be glorified and perhaps one tiny corner of the world will be saved.

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