By the Rev. Darren Miner
“All is not as it seems!” That would seem to be the underlying message in each of today’s readings from Holy Scripture.
The prophet Micah narrates a divine lawsuit that God himself is pursuing against the nation of Israel, with the hills and mountains serving as members of the jury. The people of Israel have turned from their God. Oh, yes, they worship the Lord in his Temple. They are willing to sacrifice thousands of rams, rivers of oil. Some are even willing to sacrifice their children. But what they are not willing to do is do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with their God. The people think that their outward piety is enough to gain God’s favor. But they are quite wrong. All is not as it seems!
St. Paul speaks of the foolishness of the message of the Cross to those who insist on their own self-destruction. Paul knows just how hard it is for people to see the truth behind the scandal of the Cross. The Jews want miracles before they will believe. The Greeks demand philosophical argument and mathematical proof. What they get is the Cross. What they get is a Son of God who is shamefully and painfully executed as a troublemaker. To those in power, the God of the Christians is weak and pitiful. He cannot save even his own Son. They are blind to the fact that the death of God’s Son offers the whole world salvation. All is not as it seems!
Then we get to the start of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. Trying to get away from the crowds for a time, Jesus heads up a mountain to teach his disciples. We only find out much later that the crowds followed him and were privy to his teaching. He begins his lengthy discourse with what we know as the Beatitudes, consisting of nine blessings upon his disciples.
Huge tomes have been written on the Beatitudes, hundreds of thousands of pages. I could probably go on for hours—but I won’t! Despite what will be a cursory consideration of the Beatitudes, I hope that the Word of God may be broken open for you.
Let’s begin. Each of the blessings begins with the word blessed. This translation is unfortunate. But it is understandable, for a better translation would require a much longer phrase…something like “happy because of one’s good fortune.” Nine times, Jesus declares his disciples happy and fortunate, despite their difficult circumstances. And each time, we are left with what appears to be a paradox. All is not as it seems!
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The Greek word for poor in this beatitude could just have easily been rendered beggar. My own translation goes like this: “Happy and fortunate are those who are beggars to God’s Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
The next beatitude echoes the words of the prophet Isaiah. My paraphrase is “Happy and fortunate are those who mourn the state of the nation and the world, for they will experience consolation.”
Jesus continues with seven more blessings. “Happy and fortunate are the unimportant little people, for they will inherit the whole earth. Happy and fortunate are those who long for and strive for God’s justice, for they will be satisfied. Happy and fortunate are the merciful, for they will receive God’s mercy. Happy and fortunate are those whose minds are solely dedicated to God’s will, for they will see God. Happy and fortunate are those who actively work for peace and the well-being of the world, for they shall be called children of God. Happy and fortunate are those who are persecuted for the sake of God’s justice, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Happy and fortunate are you who are reviled and slandered for my sake. Rejoice and make merry, for your reward will be great in heaven. For this is how prophets have always been treated.”
On the face of it, none of this makes any sense! More often than not, happiness and good fortune, laughter and abundance are the blessings enjoyed by the filthy rich, by those who wield real political power, by people who will do anything it takes to get ahead in life. That’s just how things are. That’s just the real world—or so we have been led to believe. But all is not as it seems!
Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, speaks to his disciples of another reality, the Kingdom of Heaven, a reality that is trying to break into the world. In this new reality, everything will be topsy-turvy. And the rewards for those who are faithful will be great. Note that Jesus is not issuing commands to his disciples in the Beatitudes. There are no imperatives. No, he is simply stating a fact. They should be happy, because God himself blesses what they are doing on his behalf and will reward them in his Kingdom.
Now, as I just said, there are no imperatives in the Beatitudes, no commandments per se. But these blessings do make ethical demands on us. They give us strong hints about what God wants and rewards. And what God wants and rewards is not rational self-interest. The God of Jesus is not Ayn Rand! What God wants and rewards is not Realpolitik, or pragmatic politics. The God of Jesus is not Machiavelli!
Admittedly, the Beatitudes seem at first glance to be promoting individual spirituality and piety. And so they do, but they do more than that. They are promoting the new community that Jesus was forming. Even more, they are promoting a brand-new world, the Kingdom of Heaven. And even now, while still some distance from the Kingdom, followers of Jesus are asked to live “as if,” as if we were, in fact, already there. Yes, Jesus speaks of inner attitudes, but they are inner attitudes that affect how we live in the world: how we treat strangers, how we deal with refugees, how we take care of the sick, how we support the poor, even what we look for in our political leaders. If the precepts underlying the Beatitudes don’t affect our daily lives, they are no better than the clap-trap one might find in some New Age self-help book.
To summarize, Micah reminded the nation of Israel that all is not as it seems. It is not enough to be outwardly pious in order to please God. One must do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. St. Paul reminded the church in Corinth that all is not as it seems. The message about the Cross, which is just so much foolishness to the world, is in fact the key to the salvation of the world. And Jesus himself, sitting atop the mountain, reminded his followers that all is not as it seems. His disciples, who were striving to live as if they were already in the Kingdom of Heaven, are encouraged to be happy, no matter their worldly circumstances, because God has noticed their efforts and will reward them.
So, to you, the people of Incarnation, I say, “All is not as it seems.” It may sometimes seem that this parish is failing in its mission. The building needs repair. Our attendance is down. We have a deficit budget. And no one is willing to run for vestry. All of this is true, but in the greater scheme of things, none of this really matters a whit. What matters is that, in our own little way, we strive to live in the Kingdom: that we do, in fact, do justice; that we do, in fact, love kindness; that we do, in fact, walk humbly with our God. So, let us be happy at our good fortune, for God notices even the smallest effort to do his will. And if we but persist, we too will abide in the Kingdom of Heaven; we too will see God.
© 2017 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.