This morning, and for the next few Sundays remaining in this season of Epiphany, I want us to spend our time looking at what has been called the great manifesto of the kingdom of God. It is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In some ways the title “sermon” is a little misleading. For what I believe we are reading in these three chapters of Matthew’s gospel is a very concise summary of teachings that Jesus gave over a period of days. So we might be better advised to call it the sermons on the mount, or perhaps the retreat on the mount; and this morning I want us to look at just the first sixteen verses. Even at that, I think we will find that we do not have time even to begin to give them justice, but only to skim the surface.
A teaching for disciples
As we open Matthew 5 and begin to read, is there anything that strikes you as odd? “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain.” Right away we realize that Jesus is not your typical preacher. Most preachers would welcome a crowd. We dream of our congregations becoming megachurches like Willow Creek or Saddleback, with thousands of people filling the seats and so many cars you have to have traffic directors and parking lot attendants. But not so with Jesus: when he saw the crowds, he went in the opposite direction, to a remote spot on a mountainside.
What does this tell us? Not that Jesus hated crowds. We know that there were times when he addressed large crowds, so large that on one occasion at least there was no room for him to stand, so he had to climb into a boat and preach from the water. We know too, as Mark tells us, that the crowds that gathered listened to him with delight.
This time, however, what he was about to share was not for the world, but specifically for disciples. For the world these words could only lead to confusion, misunderstanding and derision. For disciples, for those who had committed themselves to following Jesus, they would be life giving. And so Jesus takes his disciples up a mountain—and Matthew’s readers would instinctively think of another mountain. While we will not see the smoke and thunderings of Sinai, we will be exposed to teachings that are earthshaking, life-changing.
Once they arrive at their destination, Matthew tells us that Jesus sat down. This was not just for comfort; it was the posture that all rabbis took to teach, with their pupils gathered around them. We are learning that Jesus has something very deliberate and important to say. This is further indicated by the phrase that in our Bibles is rendered, “Then he began to speak…” Literally translated it would sound more like, “Opening his mouth, he taught them…” It is a very specific choice of words on Matthew’s part, of which William Barclay wrote,
The use of this phrase indicates that the material … is no chance piece of teaching. It is the grave and solemn utterance of central things; it is the opening of Jesus’ heart and mind to the men who were to be his right-hand men in his task.
And so the stage has been set. Our ears are perked. What is Jesus going to say to us?
Jesus’ opening word is “blessed”. It was a familiar term to the disciples. We find it peppered all through the Old Testament. “Blessed are those … whose delight is in the law of the Lord.” “Blessed are those whose sins are forgiven.” “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on the pilgrim’s way.” The word in Greek is makarios; in Hebrew ’ashar, and both are notoriously difficult to put into the English language. Thus you will find that some contemporary English versions have substituted the word “happy”, which really doesn’t bring us any closer to the original meaning. “’Ashar,” the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament informs us, “is a word of envious desire, ‘to be envied with desire is the one who trusts the Lord.’ ”
For this reason David Buttrick at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School chooses to use the word “congratulations”: “Congratulations to the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens. Congratulations to those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Congratulations to the meek, for they will inherit the earth…” My own preference would be for something more like this: “You ought to envy the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. You ought to envy those who mourn, for they will be comforted. You ought to envy the meek, for they will inherit the earth…” Already we begin to understand why Jesus took his disciples away for these teachings. For us their thoroughly paradoxical nature has been lost through familiarity. Yet how deeply puzzling, how shocking, these words must have been even for those disciples, not to mention the confusion they would have brought to the crowds.
For the few moments that remain to us, I’d like to make an attempt to tease the beatitudes out a little, but I am afraid we won’t even be scratching surface of them. Who are the poor in spirit? “They are those,” writes David Buttrick,
who have embraced the essential poverty of the human condition, namely a basic dependency not only on one another but on God. To be human is to be profoundly needy. These days, advertising appeals to having something, being somebody, and getting somewhere. Above all, advertising encourages us to seek self-justification by means of social approval. The ‘poor in spirit’ are those quite untouched by such appeals… [They] are not out to make a buck, nor do they attempt to ease their insecurity by acquiring things, property, or blue-chip investments.
That poorness in spirit is summed up for us in the third verse of the hymn “Rock of Ages”:
Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to thy cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress,
helpless, look to thee for grace…
simply to thy cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress,
helpless, look to thee for grace…
It is the attitude of the tax collector in Jesus’ parable who, when he prayed, did not even dare look up to heaven but beat his breast and cried out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:9-14).
Who are the mourners? They represent a condition from which none of us is exempt. For who among us has not been deeply pained by the loss of a mother, a father, a spouse, a child or a dear friend? Yet at another level we need to recognize that Jesus lived in a nation of mourners, men and women who grieved at living in a land that once had been theirs but was no longer, who every day were reminded that they were a captive people. Again, David Buttrick moves this mourning into the twenty-first century as he writes of those
who mourn their captivity in a world ruled by power and greed and heartless human exploitation. They are grieved because God’s new age has not yet arrived…, because they have some vision of the world God intends—a world set free for exchanges of love, a world for glad partying among all the children of God—but they suffer because God’s will is not done and we are all captive to our alienations. Weep, for the world is not as it should be.
Meekness is a characteristic that we associate in these days with weakness, perhaps because the two words rhyme. Yet to be meek is to be anything but weak. The Bible tells us that Moses was meek, “more so than anyone else on the face of the earth”. But Moses was anything but weak. He was a formidable leader who stood up to the most powerful ruler on earth. No, meekness does not mean weakness but something more like controlled strength. Think of leaders in our own time like Martin Luther King Jr or Nelson Mandela, whose commitment to non-violence even in the face of terrible injustice changed the course of whole nations. To quote David Buttrick one last time, to be meek is to be “strong with the unassuming power of God”.
What about those who hunger and thirst for righteousness? Martin Luther wrote of “a hunger and thirst for righteousness that can never be curbed or stopped or sated, one that looks for nothing and cares for nothing except the accomplishment and maintenance of the right, despising everything that hinders this end.” Then he added, “If you cannot make the world completely pious, then do what you can.” To hunger and thirst for righteousness, he said, “is not to crawl into a corner or into the desert, but to run out, if that is where you have been, and to offer your hands and your feet and your whole body and to wager everything you have and can do.”
Blessed are the merciful. Mercy is a willingness to open our eyes to the needs around us, and then to open our hearts as well. Mercy was the quality shown by the good Samaritan, who could not pass by the wounded man at the side of the road without stopping and stooping down and binding his wounds and taking him to the inn. Mercy means breaking through the busyness of our lives and the preoccupation of our own needs to give attention to others. Mercy also means forgiveness, even if it is to the seventieth times seventh time.
Blessed are the pure in heart. When Samuel was commissioned to find a new king for Israel, he could easily have picked any one of Jesse’s seven older sons. Yet the God told him, “The Lord does not see as people see. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Martin Luther wrote, “He wants to have the heart pure, though outwardly the person may be a drudge in the kitchen, black, sooty, and grimy, doing all sorts of dirty work… Therefore, though a common laborer, a shoemaker, or a blacksmith may be dirty and sooty or may smell because he is covered with dirt and pitch, still … though he stinks outwardly, inwardly he is pure incense before God.” In an age that gives so much attention to outward appearances, Jesus tells us that it is what is on the inside that really matters.
“Peacemakers” is a word found only here in all of the Bible. Peacemakers are those who not only long for the coming of God’s shalom. They seek to make it a reality in the here and now, to make the world a better place. That does not mean being an international power broker. What it does mean is taking the opportunities God gives me within my own sphere of influence to show forth and to touch the lives of others with something of his beauty, his goodness, his healing power.
Finally there are the persecuted. Within a generation that category would come to include all of Jesus’ hearers. Many of them would be put to death because of their allegiance to him. But what Jesus was saying was that, terrifying though it is, there are some things that are worth suffering even unimaginable pain for. It was Tertullian who observed that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
Salt and light
Now I want you to take just a moment to imagine a community of people who were living in just this way. It would be like those few sprinkles of salt that are able to preserve a whole side of meat. It would be like opening a door into a shuttered room. A shaft of light pours through and pierces the darkness. It would be the kingdom of God breaking into this world. It would be what Jesus is calling you and me to be as his body in the world.
 The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1, 87
 Speaking Jesus: Homiletic Theology and the Sermon on the Mount, Westminster John Knox Press, 2002. 65,66
 Speaking Jesus, 67
 Speaking Jesus, 68
 The Sermon on the Mount, 1521, in vol. 21 of Luther’s Works, Concordia, 1956. 27
 The Sermon on the Mount, 32