The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A, 2017 – Micah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
This is the charter of a kingdom, the kingdom of God.
Jesus speaks it to his disciples, on the mountain, as God spoke the commandments to Moses on the mountain long ago. Jesus speaks of God’s coming reign, and he says,
Blessed are the poor in spirit;
Blessed are the humble;
Blessed are the merciful;
Blessed are the pure in heart.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Contrast this with what we heard last week from the kingdom to the south.
“From this day forward its going to be only America first, America first…
America will start winning again, winning like never before…Together, we will make America strong again. We will make America wealthy again. We will make America proud again.”
Blessed are the humble, Jesus says, for they will inherit the earth.
The US President is not alone in his vision. Listen to Caesar Augustus, ruler of the Roman empire when Jesus was born:
“The deeds of the divine Augustus, by which he subjected the whole wide earth to the rule of the Roman people, and of the money which he spent for the state and Roman people. In my 19th year I raised an army with which I set free the state…I often waged war,…and 21 times I was named emperor…In my triumphs kings and nine children of kings were led before my chariot.” And so it goes on, for 35 paragraphs.
Strong, wealthy, proud and great: that is what leaders say they are. That is what leaders say the kingdom is. That is what leaders promise their people, because they believe it is what people want to be. President Trump is merely articulating, one might say, the hope of the world.
Jesus says something different.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, the humble, the peacemakers, the persecuted. Blessed are they, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Do you hear how radical these words are? Jesus is throwing down a gauntlet before all kingdoms and powers of the world, before us and our hope—strong, wealthy, proud and great.
Why? What is wrong with strong and wealthy and proud and great? I served for many years a parish filled with the strong and wealthy and proud and great, and I can tell you that there were among them more-or-less good and more-or-less bad people in the same proportion and to the same degree as anywhere else. Karl Barth asserts that a rich man as well as a poor man may be the servant of Christ.
But I am not sure. My father asks whether it is possible to lead a comfortable middle class life and really be a Christian/live the gospel, and it is a question that sits uncomfortably in my thoughts. Jesus, I think, asks for a more radical allegiance. Jesus announces a kingdom that is different from the kingdoms of this world.
And it is different because it finds its centre, its beginning and end and purpose and shape, in God.
Who are the pure in heart? They are the people of the psalm:
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts—
Those who seek the face of God. (Psalm 24:4-6)
The pure in heart are those who, before and behind and in and through everything else in this world, seek the face of God.
They seek his face, and they mourn when they do not find it. They mourn with the prophet at a people turned away from the Lord. “O my people,” God says through the prophet Micah, “What have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!”
Can I forget the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked?
Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights?
Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies.
The pure in heart mourn because the people turn away, because they do what is ungodly even while the name of God is on their lips. Your wealthy are full of violence; to be wealthy at all in this world where many are poor: how is it possible with a clear heart, in the face of the gaze of the child who was born in a stable?
The pure in heart are those who live with a necessary grief in this world, because it is not yet the kingdom of God. The pure in heart are those who long for the day when it will be the kingdom of God. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
And how is this to be? How shall we see the kingdom of our God?
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?
We know what to do: we have known since ancient days; we have known since our birth; we have known since the prophets cried out over Israel. And still the bombs fall over the ancient city and the borders of safe and wealthy nations are closed to those who flee, and I walk by the man without a home on the corner of the street every day.
O my people, what have I done to you?
There is a darkness at the heart of the world, haunting the promises of presidents and kings, [haunting] the strong and the wealthy and the great. Still, [in this year 2017, 2700 years after God’s prophet told us what is good, still] we hunger and thirst for righteousness. Where is our help?
CHECK he has said…
And so I come.
The promise is hidden in the beatitudes, foreshadowed, still to come.
St. Paul speaks it out. We proclaim Christ crucified, to the Jews a scandal; folly to the gentiles; but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power and the wisdom of God.
Our help is in the Lord. Our help is in the Lord Jesus, who is the love of God among us, to do justice and to love kindness and to walk with God. Our help is in the Lord Jesus, who is the good God with us. And the help he brings, this deliverance for all the suffering world, this justice, this kindness, this godliness; the help he brings has the shape of the cross.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Not on the thrones or in the palaces of the world will we find the kingdom; not in the strong and the great and the wealthy. We will find it in Christ and him crucified. This is the reign/victory of God.
This is what the real kingdom looks like, the real strength and wealth and glory. It looks like a cross.
It looks like the one who does not grasp after greatness, but gives up all power in love. It looks like the one who does not close the borders, but reaches out where the darkness is greatest and there, right there, takes our hand. There in the place of persecution, in the place of mourning, in the place of humility: there is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus says. Our hope is not in strength and wealth and greatness; in the palaces of kings. It is given to the small ones to be God’s people, those who walk in the strange power of the cross.