Sermon for 3 Epiphany Narrative

Matthew 5:1-20

Whenever the Beatitudes come up on a Sunday, I always think of my internship supervisor. The year that I was on internship, there was one week where we got hit with several deaths in the congregation, and we had several funerals to plan. My supervisor, the senior pastor of the congregation, sat down with our deacon to plan out one of the funerals. One of the relatives of the deceased was going to read the Beatitudes at the funeral, but for some reason, the senior pastor thought he was supposed to read them. As they were discussing the funeral, the senior pastor said to the deacon, “OK, and then I get up and read the Beatitudes.” The deacon gently reminded him, “No, pastor, the family member is going to read them.” The pastor said, “Oh, right, OK.” The discussion continued, and again the pastor said, “So, I’m reading the Beatitudes, right?” The deacon again reminded him that the family member was going to read them. Then, right before the funeral began, the pastor once more said to the deacon, “I’m reading the Beatitudes, right?” And the deacon replied once more that the family member was going to read them. The deacon later told me about this, and we both thought it was hilarious, and it became a running joke during my internship year. But as I remembered that this week, I think that’s how we all approach this text from Matthew today: we all love to read the Beatitudes. They’re beautiful poetry, and some of these blessings are very comforting. We see them in embroidery that’s framed and hung up on our walls, and it’s a pretty reminder for us of a gentle and loving Jesus. But rarely do we stop and ask ourselves what these blessings mean and why Jesus said them. So that’s what I would like to do today: examine some of these blessings more closely and ask what they mean.

The first thing we need to do, though, since we’ve had some weather incidents that have prevented us from worshiping the last couple of weeks, is to refresh our memories on the context of these blessings that Jesus speaks, by summarizing Matthew’s story up to this point. Matthew begins his story in chapter 1 with Jesus’ genealogy and an account of how Jesus was born. Then, Matthew tells us in chapter 2, wise men came to honor Jesus, in the process alerting King Herod that a new king had been born. The wise men returned home; Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt; Herod massacred the infants of Bethlehem; Jesus’ family returns to Bethlehem when King Herod has died, and then they go up to Nazareth and settle there. In chapter 3, Matthew tells us about John the Baptist and his ministry, and then how Jesus comes to John to be baptized. In chapter 4, which we would have heard last week if not for the snow, Matthew tells us that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, where he fasted for 40 days, and then was tested by the devil. Jesus then begins his ministry in Galilee with the same message that John spoke: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Next, Jesus calls his disciples from their fishing to follow him and fish for people, and then Jesus goes around and begins to proclaim the good news of the kingdom and to heal people from their diseases.

This sets the stage for the blessings that Jesus speaks. When he sees the crowds, he goes up the mountain and begins to teach. And this is what I think Matthew is doing: Matthew has told us in the opening chapters of his gospel that Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the new king that everyone has been anticipating. Jesus has been baptized and received the affirmation of God the Father that he is God’s Son. He has passed the tests in the wilderness that the devil put in front of him. He has announced that the kingdom is near. He is showing in word and deed that he is a king, but not quite the king that everyone was expecting: not an earthly king at all. The Sermon on the Mount, therefore, is Jesus’ inaugural address, where he tells everyone what this new kingdom of heaven is going to look like. And he begins his inaugural address with a description of the people who are going to be blessed in this new kingdom—and it’s not the people who the world would say are blessed. So as we now turn our attention to these blessings, this is the important thing to remember: Jesus is not telling us that we need to strive to be in these conditions in order to be blessed. Rather, he is saying that when this stuff happens to us, then we can remember that God is with us, God loves us, and God blesses us.

Let’s take a look at the first blessing: the poor in spirit. Have you ever stopped to ask what this means? We understand what poor by itself means, in fact, the Gospel of Luke has Jesus simply saying, “Blessed are the poor.” So, why does Matthew add “in spirit”? Is he saying that a person’s material needs are not as important as spiritual needs? Well, I suppose that’s one interpretation, but here’s one that I like better. The Greek word for spirit, pneuma, also means “breath”. It’s the root of words like pneumonia, which is a disease affecting the lungs, where the breath comes from. So perhaps “poor in spirit” could mean “poor in breath,” or, in other words, having the breath knocked out of you. Think of one of those bad weeks that you’ve had where everything just seems to go wrong, and you feel like you just can’t go on any longer. Or perhaps you’re someone who works for the federal government and, up until this week, you didn’t know when you were going to get paid or how you were going to make rent, and you’re at your wit’s end. That, I think, comes close to what Jesus means by “poor in spirit”. Jesus says those who are at their wit’s end and who think they can’t go on any longer are the ones who are blessed, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.

Some of the beatitudes that Jesus speaks are easier to understand than others, so I’m going to skip over some of them and go to one that may require a little more thought, like the poor in spirit. Let’s look at this one, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” “Meek” is a strange word, one that we don’t use very much, if at all, in our everyday language. It implies quietness, even to the point of letting other people run roughshod all over you. If that is what “meek,” means, then most of us Americans want nothing to do with it. But that’s actually not what the word means in this context. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek,” he is talking about what we as Christians should be modeling to the rest of the world: gentleness, and not returning evil for evil. Nonviolent resistance would fall in this category. This week, as the government shutdown dragged on, air traffic controllers and TSA agents started to call in sick to work because they were not being paid. This was a form of nonviolent resistance that finally clogged the wheels of society enough to get a breakthrough so that the government reopened—even if it is a temporary breakthrough. Blessed are the meek—those who persist in gentleness and nonviolence in spite of the injustices in the world—for they will inherit the earth.

The next beatitude that I want to look at briefly is “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” When I was discussing this particular beatitude with someone this week, he asked me, “What is righteousness, anyway?” And I think that’s a good question. When we say the word “righteous,” that brings to mind moral righteousness, or in other words, what we think we need to do to be a good person: we follow the rules, we don’t drink, we don’t smoke, we don’t sleep around, we help other people who need help. Righteousness can include these things, but I don’t know anyone who actually hungers and thirsts for them. It was St. Augustine who once said, “Give me chastity and give me constancy, but do not give them yet.” Here I think we need to go back to what the Greek word says. The word dikaiosyne can be translated as righteousness, but it can also be translated as justice. So Jesus here might be saying, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.” This makes better sense and fits in better with the other blessings that Jesus speaks. In God’s kingdom, those who are blessed are those whom society doesn’t think are blessed: the ones who have the breath knocked out of them by their circumstances in life; the ones who mourn; the ones who are gentle and nonviolent; the ones who cry out for justice to be done; the ones who are merciful, and so on. The kingdom of heaven is much different from any earthly kingdom.

And after speaking these blessings, Jesus talks about this community being salt and light for the earth. The kingdom of heaven does not yet exist in its fullness here on earth. But the community of those who follow Jesus are a foretaste of that kingdom. Therefore, in communities of people who follow Jesus, that is, our congregations and the wider church expressions, we are called to model these blessings that Jesus speaks. In our Christian communities, we give special care to those who are poor in spirit and to those who mourn. In our Christian communities, we are to hunger and thirst for justice and to do what we can to help bring justice about in our wider society. And so on and so forth with all of these blessings. That is how our Christian communities are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, shining brightly to all of those around us.

This is a description of what the kingdom of heaven looks like. We are not to try to be poor in spirit so that we get blessed, for example. But if we are living anything close to a Christian life, there will be some point in our lives where we will be poor in spirit, where we will be mourning, where we will be meek, and so on and so forth. And when that happens, we will be blessed: loved and cherished by God, and, if our Christian community is acting as followers of Christ should, loved, cherished, and helped by the other people in our Christian community. And then, when we come out of that place, it will be our turn to help those who are in that place. This, Jesus says, is what the kingdom of heaven looks like. This is how we are to be a community that is different from the society around us. And this is how we are to let our light shine before others. Secure in the knowledge that Jesus loves us, let us strive to be that foretaste of the kingdom of heaven. Amen.




Sermon for Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-23

Today is Epiphany, the celebration of the coming of the Wise Men to see the infant Jesus. If you were here on Christmas Eve, you’ll remember that I said that the shepherds and the Wise Men did not both arrive on the night that Jesus was born. In Luke we heard that the angels told the shepherds about Jesus the same night that Jesus was born, and they responded by running to see the child that had been laid in a manger. Today we hear from clues that Matthew gives us that it was some time after Jesus had been born that the Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem, asking where the new King of the Jews had been born. The church has known for a long time that these two things did not happen on the same night, and therefore designated Christmas as the time to celebrate Jesus’ birth and the arrival of the shepherds, and Epiphany, 12 days later, to celebrate the arrival of the Wise Men. It is only in recent times that Epiphany only gets celebrated in the church if it falls on a Sunday, and so Christians have felt the need to squeeze the shepherds and the wise men together in Christmas pageants, in order to make sure that the wise men are included. And so, this year I’m very happy that Epiphany falls on a Sunday, so that we can focus our full attention on the story that the Gospel of Matthew tells.

So, who were these Wise Men from the East? Well, let’s start by talking about some common misconceptions about them. First of all, we don’t know how many wise men there were. Tradition names them as three because they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But Matthew does not give us a number, which means there could have been two wise men bearing the three gifts, or there could have been fifteen of them, each bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Next misconception: the wise men were not kings. They were astrologers/astronomers: the two terms were synonymous in those days. They tracked the movement of the stars and planets as astronomers do today, but they also believed that the movement of those stars and planets influenced the personalities and fortunes of human beings. So, when they say, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage,” it means that the star they saw rising moved in such a way and came to such a position in relation to other stars that it meant a king of the Jews had been born. It’s the equivalent of an astrologer saying today that because a certain star moved to a place relative to a constellation that you were born under that you will have bad luck in the coming year. These wise men were guys who scientifically tracked movement of stars and planets but also, not so scientifically, predicted fortunes based on those movements. The final misconception about the wise men is that they came from the Orient. They didn’t, or at least they didn’t come from what we consider the Orient today. Scripture tells us they came “from the East,” most likely the area of Persia or Babylon, which we know of today as the countries of Iran and Iraq. If you remember from our journey through the prophets, the Jewish community was exiled to this area in 586 BCE, and many stayed there even when they were allowed to return to Jerusalem in 539 BCE. It’s possible that these wise men thus had contact with the Jewish communities there and heard their stories, including their prophecies, and incorporated that into their own astrological lore.

Now that we’ve examined who these wise men were and where they came from, the next question is, what do we do with their story? Because, even though it’s fun to imagine who these guys were and to celebrate their coming to worship Jesus, there is a dark side to their story. And the first question that many of us ask is this: Why, if they were following the star, did the wise men stop in Jerusalem and not go directly to Bethlehem? Well, as Matthew tells us, the wise men were unaware of Micah’s prophecy that a leader of Israel would come from Bethlehem, and they knew from their contact with Jewish people that Jerusalem was the holy city of the Jewish people. So, where else would they find the one who was born King of the Jews? And where else would they inquire about him except at the palace of the current king, Herod? And although that makes sense, in so doing these supposedly “wise” men alerted a very dangerous, paranoid, and cunning king that there was a potential new threat to his power.

Usually on Epiphany, we get only the first part of the story: the Gentiles come to worship Jesus, the newborn king, and they bring him rich gifts. We like this part of the story. We hear sermons on how all the world, symbolized by these strangers, will come to worship Jesus. Or, we hear sermons on how costly the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were, and how we should always give the best that we have to Jesus. Those are good messages to hear, and I believe that I have preached those messages at one time or another. But we almost never hear the aftermath of the visit of the wise men: they go back to their country by another route; an angel warns Joseph in a dream to flee with Mary and Jesus; they run to Egypt; Herod, enraged that he has been tricked by the wise men, orders all of the baby boys 2 years old and younger to be killed. And don’t think that the soldiers only killed the babies; remember that the mothers and fathers would have fought to protect their children and would have gotten themselves killed in the bargain, too. Remember, also, that in this little town of Bethlehem lived many of Joseph’s family. Jesus would probably have had aunts, uncles, and cousins who were killed in this massacre.

The definition of the word “refugee,” is “a person who flees for refuge or safety, especially to a foreign country”. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph become refugees in Egypt. Scripture is not clear on how long the family lived in Egypt. Depending on when in Herod’s reign this happened, it could have been one year or it could have been several. The family may have used the gifts the Wise Men brought to get established in their new country. If Jesus was around two when they ran to Egypt, his earliest memories would have been of that country. His parents would have told him that Egypt was not their home, and when he asked them about their extended family, Mary and Joseph may have just shaken their heads with sadness. And then, just when Jesus would have gotten used to life in Egypt, Joseph takes the family and returns to Bethlehem. Only, when they get there, they find out that another member of Herod’s family is ruling, and, again fearful for their lives, they flee to Nazareth. Think about the effect all of this instability would have on a young child, even one who was the Son of God.

The Gospel of Matthew paints Jesus as the Messiah and as the Son of God, but also paints Jesus as a refugee. Jesus’ family fled violence; they left their extended family behind in Bethlehem to face Herod’s soldiers. As Christians who follow this Messiah who started his life out as a refugee, this should make us mindful of those who are fleeing violence in their own countries, whether it is those on our southern border or those who are fleeing violence in Syria, so close to where Jesus, Joseph and Mary were from, or those who are fleeing violence elsewhere in the world. Most of them do not want to leave their homes, but feel they have no choice if they want to survive. As Christians, we are called to welcome them as we would welcome Jesus, and not to use them as pawns in political games of power.

But more than that: because Jesus knows what it’s like to be a refugee, he can identify with the suffering that we human beings go through. When our children in our schools are shot at, Jesus knows—intimately—the grief that we experience, and he mourns with us. When evil things happen in our lives, Jesus knows what that feels like. He is with us through it all; he mourns with us, he rages with us at the injustice in the world, he knows what it’s like to feel frightened and insecure, and he is there beside us to encourage us to keep going and to give us the vision that one day, the kingdom of heaven will come in its fullness and all will be well once more. Jesus truly is Emmanuel, God with us.

Epiphany is about the revealing of Christ, first to the Wise Men when they found him in his family’s home in Bethlehem, but even more so, to all of those who seek him. It is about seeing Christ not only in the church building (as I talked about with the children this morning), but it is about how Christ reveals himself as being in and with those who are suffering: the hungry, the thirsty, the poor, the stranger, those who are sick, the immigrant, the refugee. Epiphany is also about letting the light of Christ shine from within us as we go about our daily lives. So in all of your interactions, remember that Christ is both within you as well as to be seen in those around you. And remember also, when you are overwhelmed by the bad things that are happening to you, to those you love, or in the world around you, that Jesus is Emmanuel: God with us. Always. Through both the good and the bad. Amen.