The Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany
February 12-13, 2011
Text: Matthew 5:1-12
Dear Friends in Christ,
In the rare book collection owned by Yale University is a very fancy leather bound book called the Voynich Manuscript. The book is in good condition and even has metal clasps to hold the book shut when not in use. It has been dated to about 1400-1450 - just before the introduction of movable type and books produced by the printing press. The book was sold, along with whole trunk of other old books, to an Italian used book dealer by the Jesuits in 1912. None of this makes the book of special interest. What is inside is most curious. The pages are covered with drawings, letters and symbols. The symbols are not from any known language. It is believed to have been written in some form of cipher or code. But no one has been able to decode it. Even powerful decryption computers have been stumped. It is thought that perhaps the original author had a template and that only the letters that were in the holes of the template had meaning. This would have been a common code device of the time. Before copyrights and patents, many scholars wrote their work down in code. So the Voynich manuscript was probably just the journal of a renaissance scholar. It is likely that we will never know.
For many Christians, the Beatitudes are as obscure as some ancient manuscript written in an obscure code. Part of this is that it is a difficult section of the Scriptures to translate. You can’t quite get the right accent to the ideas Christ is discussing in English. But secondly, many people lose site of the key to all of Scripture. What is this key you might ask? The Cross of Jesus Christ. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. This becomes like that templet sheet with certain spots cut out, so that we can decode the text. Secondly, another templet is needed. That templet is the Old Testament. There is some very deliberate imagery that ties into the Old Testament.
Verse 1 is a bit curious, but important for us to picture the setting. Jesus sees the crowds, but then goes up the mountain. This was not some little hill that He could use as a pulpit. He is moving away from the crowds and speaking only to His disciples. This may have been more than the twelve, but this is a sermon not given to the general public. So what does this have to do with the Old Testament? Who went up mountains in the Old Testament? Moses, Elijah, Abraham, and numerous others. But who spoke from the mountain top? Who particularly spoke from the top of Mount Sinai? How many of you think it was Moses? Wrong. It was God. It was Christ who spoke to both Moses and Elijah from the top of Mount Sinai. So Christ is not pulling a Moses. He’s speaking from the mountain top as He did before. The disciples play the role of Moses receiving the mountain top revelation from God. This is the New Testament version of the giving of the stone tablets. And just like in Exodus where the people are kept back from the mountain and God speaks to His prophet, so now He speaks to His disciples.
If we get the first of the Beatitudes correct, the rest will likely fall into place. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Christ here is talking about the spiritually poor. He is talking about those who understand that they are beggars before God. He talking about those who can do nothing for themselves to change their status before God. He’s talking about those who see that they are hopelessly trapped in their sins. Theirs in the kingdom of heaven. This turns everything on its head, from the Pharisees of Christ’s day to the prosperity preachers of today. The Pharisees, like the prosperity preachers today, taught that you can have your best life now. They taught that if you just follow the law and do all the right rituals, you can call down blessings from heaven. The power is within you. Christ stands that on its head. There is no power within us. We are poor in spirit. We have no spiritual power, no spiritual discernment. What happens when a person realizes their spiritual poverty? What happens when a person realizes that they can do nothing to help themselves? Then they must rely upon another to save them. And what does Christ say? Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. They have abject spiritual poverty, but yet they have the deed to heaven. Why? Because Christ gives it to Him. He does that when He dies on the cross for our salvation.
This is a key concept to understanding the Beatitudes. The word that we translate as “blessed” carries a lot of freight. First, these blessings come from outside ourselves. Someone has to bless us for us to be blessed. We don’t make ourselves blessed. So here Christ is defining the blessings that He is giving His disciples, including us. Second, this word carries with it the idea of being saved. The blessings that Christ is talking about are not temporal. They are eternal. To be blessed is to be saved. Again, it is the idea of someone else saving us. The blessings, the salvation, the eternal life, come to us from outside of ourselves. Christ blesses us, saves us, and gives us eternal life. All this weight of meaning is included in that one word, “blessed.”
The other eight statements of blessing follow after the first. Mourning is our sorrow over our spiritual poverty. The meekness follows from this as well. A beggar does not boast or claim anything by right. The beggar meekly holds out his hand to be filled. Those who know the poverty of sin, hunger for righteousness. Those who claim nothing by right, impose nothing upon others. They do not condemn the sins of others. They give mercy as God gives mercy to them. The pure in heart are those made pure by Christ. For if we are spiritually blind and dead, only Christ can make us pure in heart. Having received the peace of God, we share God’s peace with others. This is not talking about earthly peacemakers, but heavenly peacemakers. That peace can only come through faith in Christ.
In the end, having received all these blessings from Christ, the world hates us. No one hates us more than those who think themselves spiritually rich and powerful. They lash out against Christ’s blessed ones. But even this is a blessing. For if they lash out against us, it is because of what Christ has done for us and in us.
Christ sat down on the mountain top and taught His disciples, just as He had taught Moses, some fourteen hundred years earlier. The Beatitudes are often quoted, but rarely understood. Many would make them into a set of laws for us to follow. But that would not be a blessing, would it? If we’ve earned these things, it is a wage not a blessing. But here Christ assures us that He has come to bless us. He has blessed us who have nothing to offer Him, but the empty hands of beggars. Christ gives us His gifts of forgiveness and life. He makes us to be His blessed ones.