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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service.
January 22, 2023
Grace to you and peace from God, our Creator, and from our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
One of the neat things about the Narrative Lectionary, is that when we’re in the part of the cycle where the gospel is our primary reading, which is where we are now, we read it more or less in chapter order. It doesn’t skip around a whole lot.
For example, in Advent, we started with Joseph’s dream and then we circled back at Christmas for Jesus’ genealogy. But from that point through the end of Lent, we go in Matthew’s order for the life and ministry of Jesus.
Last week, we heard the story of Jesus in the wilderness. The devil tried to trick him three different times, and each time Jesus said, “no.” He didn’t fall for it. After his 40 days and nights there came to an end, and after the angels tended to him, he tells the people to repent and declared that the kingdom of heaven has come near.
In other words, turn toward God, because God’s kingdom – God’s realm – is near to you now. And then he called Peter and Andrew and James and John. He went throughout Galilee teaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.
And then people came to him, and he cured them. And as his fame spreads, he begins to teach his disciples what it means to turn toward God and experience the reality of God’s realm. And he does this by declaring what already is.
Our reading today is the first part of the Sermon on the Mount. The entire sermon is in chapters 5, 6, and 7 in Matthew’s gospel. Next week, we’ll get part of chapter 6. And in two weeks, we hear part of chapter 7. So, we’ll get the high points of it here in worship.
In what we read today, Jesus describes who is blessed of God and the reality in which they live. His descriptions reflect the deeper meaning of these words that’s often missed in U.S. society.
For us, in our culture, when we think about people who are meek, or merciful, or peacemakers, we often characterize them as being weak or naïve. And we have a completely different interpretation of what it means to be blessed because being “blessed” has become equated with being privileged.
So, a list of “Beatitudes” in the U.S. might read something more like:
Blessed are you when you’re able to vacation on a beach with an umbrella drink in your hand.
Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.
Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.
Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.
This is the way our culture works, but it isn’t the world Jesus is talking about in Matthew’s gospel. The blessed people he describes here aren’t privileged in any way. Many times, they’re overlooked or even ridiculed.
Their blessedness comes from God without minimizing what they’re going through. In other words, Jesus isn’t saying, “Hey – don’t worry if you’re sad, or meek, or living under oppression now because everything’s gonna be okay when you get to heaven.”
If we look back at the end of chapter 4 to the people he had just cured, they weren’t sick or afflicted anymore, but they still weren’t people who were going to be noticed. When Jesus calls them blessed, or bless-ed, he’s telling them they’ve experienced the kingdom of God. That even though the world might not get it, they’re living in God’s kingdom already, they don’t have to wait until they get to heaven because they have it right then.
And as always, Jesus doesn’t stop with describing who already lives in that reality. He goes on to tell the disciples who they are as salt and light – that they don’t have to aspire to be those things because they are already them, and that those qualities are essential for participating in and creating God’s realm here and now.
But why salt and light? What does it mean to be those two particular things in the world? And how do they make God’s realm a reality for humanity?
Light, of course, has been around since the beginning of creation when God spoke it into being, and many living things, including humans, depend on it. It’s tough for us to live without it. And all life depends on the chemical properties of salt to survive.
Both light and salt are an integral part of the world, the created order. We notice it when either of them is absent.
So, when Jesus told the disciples that day that they were/are salt and light, he told them that they are an integral part of God’s realm. That when they understood that, they’d be able to see God’s realm all around them – not just visually but experientially. They’d be able to see who lived there and the type of place it is.
And when they were able to see it, they could then embody it the way Jesus did. And continue to nurture it and help it to grow throughout the world. Remembering that about their identity was critical because Jesus knew what they would face in terms of rejection and persecution as his followers.
The people who first heard these words as Matthew wrote them had just experienced defeat in the First Jewish Revolt against Rome. So, it isn’t a stretch to assume that their faith had been jolted, and they were wondering what to do next as Jesus’ followers.
Hearing that they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world did more than remind them of their identity – it assured them of it. And it gave them the direction they needed for how to live their faith. And as they lived as salt and light they were blessed of God.
As followers of Jesus we, too, are the salt of the earth and the light of the word. What we learn about it from Matthew’s gospel and its historical context, is that being that salt and light is a state of being. It gives us guidance for how to live our faith.
It gives us the capacity to see God’s realm all around us. Not just visually, but experientially. And being able to see it, to experience it, helps us to embody it. Because we aren’t salt and light for our own sake, but for the sake of others.
When we think about God’s realm today – the people who are living in it as Jesus described them, the bless-ed ones, who are they? Who are the people that are blessed of God, the ones that are often ignored or overlooked? Who are the people we don’t see? Or don’t think about?
The ones we called “essential” during lockdown/quarantine. People who have “invisible” illnesses. People who are unemployed or underemployed. People who look different than we do – or who speak a different language. Etc. It’s a long list.
When we live into who Jesus calls us to be as salt and light, we not only see the people who live in God’s realm, we experience life together with them. We experience, and help create and nurture, a world that is compassionate and merciful and loving and grace-filled.
It’s a world where one isn’t better than another because of the job they hold or the vacations they go on. Pastors Eric Fistler and Robb McCoy describe it as a place that’s seasoned with love and illuminated with grace.
It isn’t easy to live this way. In the U.S., we aren’t persecuted for our faith, but we face plenty of other challenges to it. Holding onto Jesus telling us who we are as salt and light keeps us focused and helps us remember that we are already these things.
And in that identity, Jesus shows us how to live and assures us that we, too, are blessed of God. Thanks be to God! Amen.