January 30, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when He sat down, His disciples came to Him. And He opened His mouth and taught them.”
The beginning of the Sermon on the Mount forms today’s Gospel Reading. Jesus starts to teach authoritatively, beginning with a number of statements about blessedness: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus’ words lay out the characteristics of those who possess a blessed status from the Lord. But the criteria are not possible for humanity to meet. In fact, even the Twelve who first heard these words from Jesus’ mouth could not fulfill them.
Jesus’ words lay out the identity of those who have a privileged status before the Lord. But the failure to meet these criteria puts people outside of that status. This is what faced the Israelites to whom the Prophet Micah spoke. Listen to how the prophet begins his words: Hear what the Lord says: Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for the Lord has an indictment against His people, and He will contend with Israel.” The statements will be directed against the people who had belonged to the Lord. They will be indicted for their sin of apostasy, their falling away from the faith and not putting that faith into actions.
So the Lord speaks: “O My people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer Me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O My people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.” The Lord reminds the people of His actions done for them. He had taken them out of Egypt and made them a great nation. He had defended them and fought for them as they entered Canaan and took the land as their possession. As the Lord did these things for the Israelites, He gave them a Covenant. The instructions were clear: abide by it and you will live.
But what did the people do? They forsook the Covenant that the Lord made with them. They forgot that it was the Lord who brought them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Instead, they thought of these events as their own acts of conquest. Rather than delighting in the identity that the Lord had given them and the promises He had made, the Israelites chased after other gods, seeking out what was pleasing to them, looking for different prizes. This wearied the Lord. It was the basis for His indictment against His people.
So what should be done to rectify the situation? The Prophet Micah lists possible solutions that the people came up with to assuage the Lord’s anger: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
The ideas show the desperation of the people. Clearly the Lord would want some sort of sacrifice, since that was the solution that all other gods demanded. But what should the sacrifice be? Will a year old calf do? Maybe the Lord would be pleased with a massive volume of sacrifices: thousands of animals offered. Or would child sacrifice be better? That was the way to appease Molech, one of the gods of the other peoples. But this is not what the Lord demands. He is not looking for the busyness of sacrifices to make Him forget the people’s sins. No, He is looking for faithfulness.
Hear what the Lord says to the people who think that they could present their works before Him: “He has told you, O man, 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?” The people’s way out of their predicament is not a myriad of sacrifices. It isn’t even really their efforts at all. Instead, it is a return to the Covenant that the Lord had made with them and believing it: to do what is just in His sight, to love the kindness that He has shown to them, and to walk in humility in His ways. These actions are really faith: belief in the work that the Lord has done for them and trusting that the Covenant He has established with them is good, right, and salutary. Salvation is not found in what is presented to God, but in what He has accomplished for them.
That great truth is stated by the Apostle Paul: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” The source of life—the wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption that sinful humanity needs—is Christ Jesus and His actions. Boasting is not in what the Christian does, but what Christ has done for His people.
So it is for you. The source of blessedness that Christ describes is not found in you. Every statement of blessing that Jesus made in the Beatitudes is prefaced by a criterion: “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . those who mourn . . . the meek . . . those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . the merciful . . . the pure in heart . . . the peacemakers . . . those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” But these statements do not accurately describe you. No, there are sins that you commit that break those statements: pride, joy in others’ misery, arrogance, desire for evil, selfishness, treachery, quarreling, persecution of others.
Jesus’ criteria are similar to the Psalmist’s statements about those who can dwell in the Lord’s presence: “He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart; who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend; in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the Lord; who swears to his own hurt and does not change; who does not put out his money at interest and does not take a bribe against the innocent.” You don’t meet these criteria either.
So what should be done? Should you find a calf to offer to the Lord? Perhaps putting thousands of dollars in the offering plate would be the chosen option? Would you dare consider a sacrifice of your children to atone for you? None of this would work. None would acquire the blessed status that you lack.
No, the only solution for you is the actions that the Lord does for you, not what you do for Him. That is what makes you blessed. You don’t meet the criteria that were listed. But Jesus does. Remember the words spoken about Him that you have heard during the past several Sundays: “This is My Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. . . . Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. . . . On those who dwelt in the region of the shadow of death, a great light has shined.” These statements testify about Jesus, the Blessed One who was poor in spirit, who mourned, who was meek, who desired righteousness, who showed mercy, who was pure in heart, who made peace, and who was persecuted because of it.
Micah’s statements indicated that people would offer anything to appease the Lord: “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” The answer to that question is No. Instead, the Lord answers that He has offered His firstborn for your transgressions, the fruit of His substance for your sins. That is what makes you blessed, what gives you life. That divine action is the Lord’s doing what He has promised for you, to make you His own, and to give you His righteousness.
As you have been united with Christ who atones for you in Holy Baptism, you are made blessed. You do not meet the requirements, but Jesus’ meeting them is credited to you. The Lord sees you through the prism of His Son’s work. He doesn’t see your faults, but sees the result of what His Son has done instead. His characteristics become yours, so that you are “the poor in spirit . . . those who mourn . . . the meek . . . those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . the merciful . . . the pure in heart . . . the peacemakers . . . those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Taking these characteristics of Jesus upon you, as you believe in what has been accomplished for you, then you receive the promises that come with each of the Beatitudes. It is what comes with the new way of life that Jesus establishes for you.
This is the fullness of the statement that the Apostle Paul made: “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” The boasting is not in yourselves, but in the Lord’s actions for you. And so, you keep the statement that He makes: “He has told you, O man, 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?” Abide in His Word and walk humbly in the new life He gives you, trusting in what He has done, and then you will truly be called blessed.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.