Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth Jehovah require of thee, but to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God?
On this fourth Sunday after the Epiphany of our Lord, we are directed to look at the beginning words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. As we consider the texts for this day, I’m taken by the number of ways we can understand them. There are perhaps dozens of different ways through which the Beatitudes might be preached. Some may seem them as a purely social gospel understanding, others might consider the spiritual implications. There are those who consider these words a call to a certain type of behavior and others might think they are an unattainable ideal.
In the past few years I have referenced the Beatitudes several times, each devotional approaching the text from a different angle. I don’t think any one of these is necessarily right or wrong. Each one simply fit the circumstances of our time and our needs. Take, for instance, the first beatitude. Should a pastor preach exactly the same sermon to the victims of the tsunami as he would to a congregation of wealthy businessmen in a large American city? No, because in one sermon he would need to project a message of hope to a people who have none and in the other he would need to speak to the congregation about their role in helping make a difference. One sermon would be about how God overcomes our tragedy and the other would be about how we respond and participate in God’s work.
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.
It would do us well to consider what it means to be blessed. According to the world, blessedness is visible to others. It is seen in our happiness, our wealth and our health. This attitude is even found in the church. When someone sees the goodness of our life, we answer with “I have been so blessed.” But are we so quick to say we are blessed when we are suffering from a terminal disease or we can’t pay our bills because we are unemployed? 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.
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, “Jehovah, who shall sojourn in thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell in thy 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.
Rather, Jesus had a way of turning the world upside down, or at least our understanding of the world. Blessedness is not necessarily found in our happiness or in our visible prosperity. Blessedness is an attitude that looks to God for its fulfillment. The blessed are not those who deserve to be rewarded, but rather the blessed are 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.
Are these attributes we should seek? 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. Sometimes all we have left is to fall into the arms of God’s grace and let Him fix our ills, like a child who runs to a mother with a skinned knee. Yet, there are other times when we do not face that type of suffering when God calls us to act in His stead for the sake of others. In these times we find another kind of blessedness. 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.
If we go back and ask the question “Jehovah, who shall sojourn in thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell in thy holy hill?” can we find an answer in the text of the beatitudes? No, because we are all fallen human beings unable to be righteous by our own power and might. There is One, however, on whom we can stand, One who can dwell in the house of God. It is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But even that message is one that defies our understanding of blessedness. How could One who was crucified on a cross, rejected by men even after He was raised from the dead, be so blessed?
Paul writes, “For the word of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us who are saved it is the power of God.” We looked at this verse last week in the context of our mission in this world. This week we look at it from a slightly different perspective. We see it through the lens of blessedness from God. Again, blessedness is not defined by God as it is through the world.
St. Paul writes, “Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom knew not God, it was God's good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save them that believe. Seeing that Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto Jews a stumblingblock, and unto Gentiles foolishness; but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.”
We see God in hope and faith, but those divine attitudes are often invisible in the lives of those who are poor in spirit, mourning, meek and hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Strength and power are not expected to be found in those who are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers or persecuted. God turned the world upside down and brought blessedness into the lives of those whom the world has rejected. He is the foundation of our faith, the source of our blessings and the only One deserving of the glory. Paul continues, “But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who was made unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption: that, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.”
The Old Testament lesson for this day is a condemnation of the people of Israel by God. Before the witness of mountains and hills, God proclaims His case against His people. Despite the gracious mercy of the LORD, Israel has been unfaithful. When confronted by their sin, Israel wondered as to what they might give to the Lord to earn redemption. “Wherewith shall I come before Jehovah, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? will Jehovah be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” They were seeing reconciliation as the world sees it and not through the eyes of grace.
The LORD answers through the prophet, “He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth Jehovah require of thee, but to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God?” The LORD does not require us to offer sacrifice to atone for our sin because He Himself has taken care of it through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. But Jesus calls us to live with the divine attitude, looking at the world through His eyes, seeing blessedness where it seems invisible. For God is with us in our pain and in our prosperity that we might give and receive grace according to His good and perfect word.
Thanks be to God.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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