Tuesday, January 31, 2017

3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, the Beatitudes

The pronouncements that form the Gospel this morning are usually called the beatitudes from the Latin word beatus, blessed. It is a portion of Scripture that I never tire of hearing. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Beatitudes are a fixed portion of the Divine Liturgy, and are said every Sunday. This morning I want to think about what these words of Scripture mean. To many these words of Scripture are familiar, but also enigmatic. They seem to turn the world upside down from our usual way of thinking.

The first thing that needs to be said about the beatitudes is that Jesus is not commending a delusional view of the world. He is not simply saying what is bad is good, what is cold is hot. Contrary to popular misconception, Christians are not be Don Quixote figures who refuse to accept the plain facts under the force of a driving religious impulse. The problem with a lot of schools and educational programs that are called Christian is that they so want to impart the faith that they malign, suppress, or obscure anything that would challenge that faith. I think that this is a spirit that is foreign to true Christianity, which is not afraid to say, as St. Augustine said, all truth is God's truth. Our Lord is not advocating a disposition that would deny worldly realities.

Rather, in the beatitudes our Lord pronounces a blessing on human weakness and brokenness. He says that in mourning and meekness and poverty are found blessing. Why is this the case? We don't willingly seek to be poor in spirit, or to mourn, or be hungry? What our Lord tells us is that these are the attitudes and dispositions that make us open to the kingdom of God. In our human pride and desire to be self-sufficient, when we are full and happy and feel rich in spirit, we don't think that we need God or spiritual things. This is part of the fallenness of the world, that the material world becomes a distraction from the spiritual realm. When we are satisfied with the good things of this world, we don’t think we need the one from that goodness comes who is goodness itself and our highest good. The truth that the poor, hungry and morning are open to receiving the kingdom of God is illustrated again and again in the Gospels. Witness the people to whom our Lord ministers: he doesn't come to reach out to the powerful, the accomplished or the learned. He comes to restore the deaf, the oppressed, and the outcast. God in Christ was working in the shadows of their lives to bring about new life and redemption.

But we have to say something more about these beatitudes. Yes, they are about people whom our Lord meets, and they are even about ourselves if we can embrace our inner poverty and hunger for righteousness. But in a very real and tangible sense our Lord spoke these beatitudes, these declarations of blessing, over his own life. He was poor in spirit. He emptied himself, taking upon himself the form of a servant, being found in human likeness. He was hungry, as he wrestled with the devil in the 40 days wilderness temptation, and later tasted the emptiness of sin crying from the cross, I thirst, and, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? He was mournful and he was meek; the prophets say of the messiah, is there any sorrow like his sorrow? And Isaiah writes of the suffering servant, He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. In short, the blessing of the beatitudes is most clearly seen in our Lord's passion and crucifixion. He is blessed in his sorrow, poverty and hunger, because on the cross, we see the kingdom of God breaking in, as he crucifies sin in the flesh and then rises triumphant over that sin and death in his resurrection. We do not need any more evidence that God works in tragedy and defeat, than to see how God brings redemption through our Lord's innocent suffering. The path to resurrection is through death. We should not, then, be afraid to face that which is painful, difficult or overwhelming. Though we might not always feel it, the proclamation and witness of Jesus Christ is that God is working in those shadows too, and that somehow these shadows are blessed. We are made ready for the kingdom though poverty, mourning, and meekness.

Our great high priest has gone before us in this poverty of spirit, and mourning, and meekness.  He gave himself into the hands of sinful men and conquered the guilt, sin, and anxiety that continually assault our earthly existence. The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth, said this about our high priest who has known our weakness and need.

It is not merely that He was once "touched with the feeling of our infirmities"; He is so still. It is not merely that He was once tempted as we are ; He is with us and before us, "tempted as we are" (Heb. 4:15). And when it says that "in the days of his flesh ... he offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death" (Heb. 5:7), this is more than recollection, for it speaks of His presence here to-day among us in all our confusion, aberration and abandonment, before all our locked prison doors, at all our sick-beds and gravesides. . . in all our genuine or less genuine triumphs. He is still the Friend of publicans and sinners. (CD IV.3 395)

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