The 4th Sunday after the Epiphany: A Sermon


Each of these readings deserves its own sermon. This time around let’s wonder about three things. First, the Beatitudes as a rereading of that last verse in Micah. Second, Paul on wisdom and folly. Third, that phrase in Paul’s letter, “the message of the cross.”

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah’s audience (Isaiah’s audience—they were contemporaries) was justly very proud of the temple. Solomon had built it, had spared no expense in building it, and it was breathtaking. And as long as the multiple sacrifices and festivals stayed on schedule, it was easy to assume that the Lord found it breathtaking. So prophets like Micah had the thankless task of reminding the people that while worship (including prayer) was essential, it was not the only essential thing. In characteristic prophetic hyperbole: “what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” And over the centuries we’ve periodically needed this reminder: worship is essential; it’s not the only essential thing.

(Parenthetically, we might hear today’s psalm, Psalm 15, as a reminder, in the temple, to remember the prophets’ teaching.)

Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God: we can hear Jesus’ Beatitudes as sketching out what, with Jesus’ coming, that looks like.

The Beatitudes, the beginning of what we refer to as the Sermon on the Mount, are set just after the calling of Peter, Andrew, James, and John that we heard last week. Matthew sets the stage: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (4:23-25)—and then our text.

Why’s that important? Coming at the Beatitudes cold (“Happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn…”) one might be tempted to call the local asylum: one of your patients is loose. But after that long list of folk Jesus has touched, it’s possible that he knows what he’s talking about. That’s important for us as hearers. We’re not meant to come to the Beatitudes cold. If Jesus hasn’t touched me in some important way, they’re not the place to start.

Micah set up his summary with “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you.” Jesus sets it up with “Blessed/Happy are…” Translation of the Greek makarios is a challenge, the English versions opting for ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’, both of which have drawbacks. ‘Blessed’ can suggest something disconnected from real life; ‘happy’ can suggest something fleeting. It helps to notice that it’s the opening word in the Book of Psalms: “Happy are they who have not walked…” We might say it’s about describing a truly human life.

Most of the beatitudes focus on character as seen in conduct, the merciful, the peacemakers, etc. The beginning and ending beatitudes focus also on the vulnerability tied to that character. While in a perfect world good character would produce good fortune, we’re not in a perfect world, so good character carries risks. As Ben Sira put it “My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing” (2:1). So “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” not because that’s how the world works, but because, as Jesus has been proclaiming, “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” As Jesus has been proclaiming, underlined in the last beatitude which shifts from “Blessed are the…” to “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” So the Beatitudes are news, tied to Jesus’ arrival, rather than timeless truths.

And the thing about news (worthy of the name) is that it guides the conduct of the wise. Snow’s in the forecast—so leave the sand and shovel in the trunk. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”—so that’s the character we want to encourage. Parenthetically, here, as in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, the focus is first on the community (the congregation), then on the individual. What sort of community are we? What sort of community are we becoming?

And the community/congregation is integral to when/how these futures happen (“they will be comforted…will inherit the earth…will be filled”). Only in heaven? That would make “inherit the earth” meaningless. “They will receive mercy” only from God? Jesus’ teaching seeks to mold us into congregations in which the Beatitudes are experienced to be true in our dealings with each other. (“Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’” (Matt. 18:21-22). The Beatitudes are news; let’s respond wisely.

Paul, as we heard, pays attention to what the message about the cross does to words like ‘wise’, ‘foolish’, ‘strong’, and ‘weak’. The way of the Beatitudes, executed supremely by Jesus, looks foolish and weak to the world, then and now. The meek will inherit the earth? Or, as Stalin put it, “The pope! How many divisions has he got?” So the Corinthians need to realize that being baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection overhauls the meaning of ‘wise’, ‘foolish’, ‘strong’, and ‘weak’. These “I belong to Paul/Apollos/Cephas/Christ” games need a second look.

That’s something we have trouble hearing. We categorize: there’s culture, economics, politics, religion, etc. “Christian” goes in the religion box, so leaves the other boxes undisturbed, leaves the meaning of ‘wise’, ‘strong’ etc. in these other boxes undisturbed. Or, worse, ‘Christian’ becomes another argument for whatever cultural, economic, or political positions I already hold. It’s easiest to see this in others. Putin invades Ukraine; the Russian Orthodox Patriarch declares that it’s God’s will. No. To be baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection means a mental asterisk on words like ‘wise’, ‘foolish’, ‘strong’, and ‘weak’ as I learn from Jesus how to use them.

So much—too briefly—for Paul. But what of “the message of the cross”? In today’s reading Paul focuses on what it does to words like ‘wise’, ‘foolish’, ‘strong’, and ‘weak’. But that’s not all, or even primarily, what the cross is about. So let’s pull back the camera. Micah: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Well, why is that good, why does the LORD require that? Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God: that’s what reflects God’s character, that’s what fits with God’s creation. And that, combined with the suffering it often attracts (think the Beatitudes, Jesus’ performance of the Beatitudes, “the message of the cross”) is how the LORD heals this world.

But that’s not the end of the story. Toward the end Paul writes “He [God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” That’s more than Jesus messing with our use of ‘wise’, ‘foolish’, ‘strong’, and ‘weak’. That’s our walking in the way of the Beatitudes, the way of the Cross, to participate in the healing of our world. We keep remembering Jesus’ story not because he’s back there and we’re here, but so that his story becomes our story.

Bottom line:

  • When we come to receive the Body and Blood we’re asking God to work in us so that we—and others—experience the Beatitudes in our common life.
  • When we come to the receive the Body and Blood it’s to receive Jesus as gift and to become the Jesus-like gift for others.

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