Reading: Matthew 5:1-12
At Sunday School they were learning how God created everything, including human beings. Johnny was especially intent when the teacher told him how Eve was created out of one of Adam’s ribs. Later in the week his mother noticed him lying down as though he were ill, and said, “Johnny, what is the matter?” Johnny responded, “I have pain in my side. I think I’m going to have a wife.”
Teaching Children about Who they are
To state the obvious: children are very impressionable. Lauren and I have kids that are on the more sensitive end of the spectrum, and so we take particularly seriously the studies that state that for every negative comment a child receives, she or he needs 10 positive affirmations to regain the previous level of self-esteem. A child’s development hinges greatly on the messages received during these formative years.
Chances are, if a child grows up hearing over and again that they are bad and worthless, they are likely to learn behaviour to reflect that identity. Conversely, if we receive regular positive messages about ourselves growing up, we are more likely to take on healthy behaviours/attitudes. Generally speaking, we become what we are named and as we grow into our identities, coinciding behaviour follows.
Epiphany: Learning who we are in the Light of Christ
During this season of Epiphany, Christ is revealed to us in many and varied ways, beginning with the Magi laying their gifts at the feet of the young King, and culminating with the disciples’ vision of the Transfigured Christ (which we’ll get to in a few weeks). But in Epiphany we are also provided the opportunity to explore who we truly are in the light of Christ.
Over a few Sunday’s, including today, the gospel readings contain a portion of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. There is much to say about these teachings, but I think they can be distilled into straight-forward pronouncements of who we truly are at the core of our being. In the beatitudes, Jesus pronounces blessings upon the meek and lowly, the poor and grieving, in other words, all of us. He doesn’t tell his audience what they need to do in order to receive blessings, Christ sees our vulnerability and speaks God’s words of life into each and every situation.
The Blessedness of the Beatitudes
He teaches about ‘blessedness’, a word that means happiness, fortunate, and privileged. He identifies those that are so blessed – those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, and are persecuted – people that we would not readily think are happy or privileged. It doesn’t make sense that people enduring these hard human experiences are actually ‘blessed’. And that’s kind of the point. It isn’t logical, and it certainly isn’t what our culture tells us about happiness. Rather, it is the upside-down way the kingdom of God works.
Jesus’ sermon begins and ends (verses 3 & 10) talking about the kingdom of God. Jesus had just proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven has come near (4:17) and now he describes the citizens of that kingdom and pronounces them ‘blessed’. “Within God’s kingdom ‘blessedness’ does not depend on wealth or health or status. It is not a reward for righteousness or duty. Rather, blessedness is God’s sheer gift.” (Oden)
Blessings for the Broken
Jesus’ audience was surely mostly composed of those who knew hardship. Many were ill or disabled, desperate for healing, most worked extremely hard for very little reward. I’m sure many were hungry, impoverished, or even just longing for a change to their difficult circumstances. Jesus pronounces that they were the ones to make up God’s kingdom and that they were the ones most able to receive the promises of God. They were not entangled with worldly pursuits, they did not live under the illusion that happiness could be achieved through acquiring possessions or avoiding pain. They were humble and open, empty vessels that could receive the filling of God’s Spirit.
A ‘Lowly’ Mountain?
Furthermore, the setting of this teaching also illustrates how God’s Kingdom is both high and holy, and low and earthy. The mountain believed to be site of this famous sermon is just north-west of the sea of Galilea, between Capernaum and Gennesaret, on the southern slopes of the Korazim Plateau. What I find particularly interesting about it is that while its summit is nearly 200 metres above the Sea of Galilea, it still has a negative altitude of 25 metres below sea level. This makes it one of the lowest summits in all the world!
Mountains are famous throughout Scripture as being places where God visits God’s people. People looking to the skies for the Divine saw mountains as a logical middle-ground. Mount Sinai, for example, where Moses received the Law, is over 2200 metres high and a prominent sight to behold. Jesus, the new Moses, brings God’s Word on a mountain as well, but this location is both grand and humble. One of the lowest summits on earth becomes the site of God’s Word proclaimed. God meets God’s people where they are and makes the Divine presence known in the people of God, the people of the earth. Those who weep and mourn, and are poor and sick, are also the salt and light that changes the world around them (more about this idea next week).
Beatitudes for Today
What does Jesus’ message of the beatitudes have to say to us today, we who live in a world where churches are brazenly robbed, dictators wage war, and men are killed simply due to the colour of their skin?
I believe the beatitudes teach us about ourselves and something of the value of suffering. I’m not saying that hardships are good things in and of themselves, but rather difficult circumstances carry the potential to shape us more and more into the image of Jesus. Time and again in my ministry I’ve encountered people who allowed the trials they faced to humble them and teach them compassion for others.
Examples of Beatitudes in Action
I could tell you of Gino, who was a recovering drug addict living in downtown Toronto, who faithfully invited his friends and anyone he knew to come with him to church to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. I could tell you of Bob, a long-time churchwarden, that endured health challenges and struggles with his business but who never failed to have a positive outlook on life. Whenever I asked him how he was doing, he would always say, ‘Better than I was, not as good as I’m gonna be.’ I could tell you of a single mother who, while enduring a bitter and painful custody battle over her daughter, came to church each week, embraced anyone she could with a hug and a kind word, and laid her heart open toward God in our prayer circle. I shared with some of you about Susan, who, when facing her impending death due to cancer, beamed with the light of Christ and told all she could just how grateful she was for the life she was privileged to have.
The ‘Be’ and ‘Attitude’ of Beatitude
I heard one person explain that the beatitudes have two parts: be and attitude. The beatitudes are ways that we can be and attitudes that we can have. We can be merciful to people, being kind when they’re hurting. We can be peacemakers when people are fighting. We can have a humble disposition and an attitude inclined toward doing the right thing. The people I just told you about are prime examples of the beatitudes being lived out. They are folks who allowed their difficulties to soften rather than harden their hearts. They are those who embraced their vulnerability and could find God in their suffering. They are the beloved of God who embraced their blessedness.
They are people like you and like me.