Righteousness is Empowerment - Sermon 1 of 4 - Matthew 5:1-12

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 5:1-12

"When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

So, how many of you have heard today’s gospel message before?

Pretty much everyone, right? Yes, that’s how I felt too, until I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a week at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia studying Matthew’s gospel as a whole…. not as individual, disconnected speeches and stories, but as one unified narrative that tells the story of God showing up, in a particular time and place, to change the world.

I left that week of study wanting to somehow draw all of you into a similar encounter with the power of Jesus’ message told through the gospel of Matthew. And so, I am going to try something a little different today, and for the next three weeks, by preaching not individual sermons, but a sermon series.

The four gospel readings from these weeks form the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, which is important because this is the first of the five “discourses” (or sermons) that form the organizing structure of Matthew’s gospel. And the very fact that this gospel is structured according to teaching episodes reflects Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as a TEACHER.

Specifically, Matthew presents Jesus as a teacher of RIGHTEOUSNESS.[1]

Righteousness is a loaded word. It can be heavy with the baggage of legalism, and self-righteousness, and all kinds of destructive associations we might link to a facade of public-facing piety. Which is why we are going to spend these four weeks reexamining what the fifth chapter of Matthew teaches us about what righteousness actually is – and why it matters deeply to us.

And I hope you can recognize just how much this does matter, to us, today. In a few minutes we will be receiving two new members into the life and ministry of this congregation. Alexis and Jackie will be affirming their commitment to share in the mission of God, including the call to “serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth,” and WE will all be promising to support and pray for them in this commitment. Then, at the end of the service, we will all participate in our annual congregational meeting, where we will reflect on the past year of our life together, and also look forward to where God is leading us.

In these reflections and commitments, Jesus’s teachings about righteousness MATTER.

They matter so that we understand what we are committing to when we make these promises about “sharing in God’s mission,” and they matter so that the plans we make for the coming year really reflect that mission.

And they matter particularly at this moment in history, when our baptismal call to serve all people requires us to decide where our loyalties lie.

Because this call requires us to decide which kingdom we belong to. The understanding of righteousness that pervades the Gospel of Matthew is interwoven with another central theme: that of the Kingdom of the Heavens.

Those of you who were here last week might remember my promise to explain why I changed this term slightly from the reading: not “Kingdom of Heaven,” but “Kingdom of the Heavens” I made that change, because Kingdom of the Heavens is what the original Greek actually says, and while there is no clear reason for this odd phrasing from a perspective of Greek scholarship, there is a very compelling reason from Hebrew thought – the worldview with which Jesus grew up.

According to the ancient Jewish worldview, there are two orders of reality:

The created order of heaven and earth, which reflects the brokenness of the world,

and God’s order, the Kingdom of the Heavens, which is the perfect expression of God’s will, God’s way of doing things.

Understood this way, Jesus’ repeated proclamations in Matthew of the coming of the Kingdom of the Heavens is a profound statement that God is breaking into the world as we know it and calling people to participate in God’s kingdom – a reign that dramatically contrasts with the life of the world.

Both this call, and this contrast, are clearly invoked by today’s gospel reading: As one commentator puts it in reflecting on a key phrase from the reading “we need to hunger and thirst for righteousness because our world actively works against it, overrides it, sidelines it, monetizes it, limits it, and assumes that it’s overrated and overstated.”[2]

We need to understand Jesus’s teaching about righteousness, because righteousness is not just an add-on to our lives. Righteousness is what happens when God’s Kingdom, God’s way of doing things breaks into our world and disrupts all of our priorities, because we realize that God’s ways are NOT our ways, and being part of God’s way is so much better.[3]

So, for the next four weeks, we are going to be exploring this understanding of Kingdom righteousness – trying to understand what Jesus has to teach us, and how it makes a transformative difference in our lives.

We start with the Beattitudes. The start of Jesus’s ministry-defining Sermon on the Mount begins with a series of blessings.

Blessing is, perhaps, not exactly what we expect at the beginning of a sermon on the righteousness of God’s kingdom into which we are called. It seems like reward should come after we hear what we are expected to do.

Now, the righteousness and the kingdom are all over this reading as well.

In fact, the kingdom of the heavens is discussed twice in just ten verses, and “the heavens” (οὐρανός) shows up a third time. The first and last promised blessings in the reading are included in these three mentions of the heavens – a framing that signifies the special importance of this idea.

And the other instance is the blessing of those who are persecuted for righteousness sake… because righteousness might very well bring persecution, but that does not negate the blessing of being part of God’s kingdom.

And that connection between righteousness and persecution is, I think, why Jesus starts with blessing.

Because his disciples needed to know, and we need to know, that however challenging, or even frightening it might be to hear what is expected of us, participating in God’s kingdom – in God’s way of doing thing that is so different from the powers of this world – that participation is in and of itself a blessing. And that blessing starts now - at the very beginning of the life of the kingdom.

For most of the beatitudes Jesus talks about a future promised blessing:

  • The mourners will be comforted;

  • The meek with inherit the earth;

  • Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled;

  • The merciful will receive mercy;

  • The pure in heart will see God;

  • The peacemakers will be called children of God.

These are all wonderful, comforting promises, even though they look ahead to a future fulfillment.

But two promises are in the present tense:

  • The poor in spirit – those who understand the truth that they are fully dependent on God – theirs IS the kingdom of the heavens.

  • Those who are persecuted for righteousness sake – those whose commitment to God’s way of doing things costs them dearly – theirs IS the kingdom of the heavens as well.

Participating in God’s kingdom way is its own blessing.

The other beatitudes are important – they describe the way of the Kingdom: mercy, and righteousness, and meekness… these sound a lot like God’s instruction to the people in our first reading today:

what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

But the framing for this opening to Jesus’s introductory sermon in Matthew is to promise BLESSING, here and now, to those who commit to righteousness, those who commit to the life of God’s kingdom.

And that is why our first answer to the question of what righteousness is and why it matters to us is that Righteousness is Empowerment.

Lutheran scholar David Rhoads writes of the beatitudes that “The words of Jesus bring empowerment, for the transition to integrity begins with blessing. We tend to think of blessings as kindly affirmations, but biblical blessings are powerful words granting the capacity to carry out what is spoken. The blessings announce a vision of excellence in human righteousness. They empower the possibilities of this vision.”[4]

Jesus does not begin with blessings as a way to dangle a carrot before his followers – “do everything I tell you do to, and you will get a reward” – No! He tells us that the righteousness he calls us into, the righteousness that demands sacrifice, and stands against the ways of this world, and looks like meekness, and mourning, and hunger, and mercy… this righteousness is a sign that we are part of God’s kingdom of the heavens, breaking through to our broken world.

And there is no greater blessing.

Church: blessed are you, for yours is the kingdom of the heavens. AMEN

[1] See Mary Hinkle Edin, “Learning What Righteousness Means: Hosea 6:6 and the Ethic of Mercy in Matthew’s Gospel,” Word & World, Volume XVIII, Number 4, Fall 1998.

[2] Karoline Lewis, “Righteous Living,” from www.workingpreacher.org, downloaded 1/23/17.

[3] In his article on Righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount (“Doers of the Greater Righteousness: The ‘Righteous’ in the Sermon on the Mount,” The Reformed Theological Review, Vol XLIX, No. 1, January-April 1990) Michael Raiter explains that “In Jewish writings the righteous are those in relationship with God, a relationship established by God’s gracious invitation. Within this relationship the righteous express their loyalty to God by obedience…Living righteously, then, is living a life of heartfelt obedience to God.” (p. 2.)

[4] David Rhoads, “The Gospel of Matthew. The Two Ways: Hypocrisy or Righteousness.”

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