A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Alice Lawhead on 5th November 2023
Blessed. Today’s gospel lesson is probably a familiar one to you. It’s the beatitudes, those beautiful, comforting, and provocative statements that begin what is known as The Sermon on the Mount – the greatest and most famous sermon ever preached.
As Matthew records them, these words of Jesus were spoken early in his ministry. In the Gospel of Matthew so far, we have learned about Jesus’ heritage and his birth, we’ve met John the Baptist who lives in the wilderness and preaches a message of repentance, we’ve seen Jesus baptised, and then tempted by the Devil in the wilderness. And then Jesus sets up his home, his base of operation, in a seaside town and begins also to preach repentance. He meets up with some fishermen there and asks them to be his disciples. And he starts teaching, and healing, and ‘great crowds’ follow him around.
So begins our reading: When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and his disciples came to him.
Mountains have resonance throughout the Bible.
Think of Moses going to up Mt. Sinai, to meet God, to receive the 10 Commandments.
Think of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, having it out in a sort of Battle of the Gods at the top of Mt. Carmel.
Mt. Moriah, where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac, and where Solomon built God’s temple.
Mountaintops are where you meet God. That’s where he speaks to special people; that’s where significant things happen.
So Jesus goes up the mountain – now called the Mt. of the Beatitudes – near the sea of Galilee. Trudging up a mountain is difficult, and by doing it you’re bound to lose the casual hangers-on. When he got to his destination, Jesus sat down, and Matthew says his disciples came to him. The serious ones. The ones who were willing to expend effort to follow him.
And Jesus, the Son of God, begins to speak, and we call this the Sermon on the Mount. But it isn’t really a sermon. For a start, he’s given more than 10 minutes to develop his point! No, I wouldn’t call this a sermon. He has a small group of people around him, people who are going to be with him pretty much 24/7 for the next 3 years, who are going to support him in good times and bad, who are going to see him killed and eventually be killed themselves for his sake, and he’s not delivering a sermon. This is an orientation session for new disciples. This is a prospectus for investors in the Kingdom of God. He’s telling this small group, whom he’s chosen, about a new reality. He’s explaining that the religion that has dominated their lives up until now has been remade, and if they’re going to be part of it they need to understand what’s coming down the road.
Buckle up! He’s saying. Strap in, this is going to be one wild ride. You could more accurately call this Manifesto on the Mount.
Jesus begins with the beatitudes, these statements that all begin ‘Blessed are …’ which might also be read ‘Happy are …’ or even ‘Lucky are ….’ As I read them, I wonder if, with a small group of followers around him – new friends — he might have meant them as very personal statements.
‘You, Matthew – I know you feel that you’re not worthy of this new adventure, but you are going to inherit the kingdom of heaven. John, you are a meek, self-effacing man and I love that about you; you are going to inherit the earth! Thomas, you have been an observant Jew, working all your life to be a righteous man; well, your wish has come true. That longing you have to be counted worthy in the eyes of God — it’s happening, right here, right now.’
By the time Jesus says, ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account,’ I am more convinced than ever that these are statements that would have had particular and personal meaning to the small group of people who had followed him to the top of the mountain.
Things are going to change utterly. This is a new truth.
I hope you will forgive me a very homely illustration at this point. We all know that the world needs to find new ways to power our lives, ways that don’t brutalise the planet the way oil and gas have done. At our house, getting rid of our old gas hob seems a sensible thing to do, so we have researched alternatives and decided that the way to go is to get an electric induction hob. Now, an induction hob operates very differently than what I’m used to. The electric heat source makes magnetic contact with a pan, and at that point it becomes the pan itself that heats up and cooks your food. The hob isn’t hot, the pan is.
You need pans that can make magnetic contact. After we’d ordered our hob I went through my cupboard and tested all my pans with a frig magnet to see if they’d work on my new hob. The deep kettle that has cooked countless pots of chilli and triple batches of soup. The little copper-bottomed milk pan with useful measures on the inside surface. The aluminum popper that we use every Sunday night, that makes such delicious pop corn. I tested them all and, you guessed it, none of them were going to work on the new hob.
And that’s not all. When the installation crew came to install our new hob, I learned that the electrical feed powering the ignition and cooker hood for our old gas hob are now inadequate. ** We need 7.5 kilowatts minimum. We also need a dedicated cooker circuit with thicker cabling. And the worktop needs alteration. It’s a big deal!
Because this is a new system of cooking. A new power source. A new means of transferring heat to food. It’s the modern-day equivalent of what Jesus was talking about when he warned of putting new wine into old wine skins. Which, interestingly, comes right before Luke’s account of the Beatitudes in his gospel.
And I think this is what Jesus was telling his disciples, the message he was going to have to get across: things are going to change, and it’s not just fiddling around the edges. They’re going to change at their very core. To men and women who were steeped in the belief that God blesses the good people, and you can tell who the good people are because they have land and businesses and happy families with lots of children … he begins with these beatitudes, which upend their thinking. If you are poor in spirit, if you’re overcome with grief, if you lack self-confidence, if you’re just ‘too nice’, or innocent – the kind that’s always getting cheated and scammed – and so on – you’re going to be a winner here. Because there’s a new regime, and you’re a vital part of it.
Now, by the end of his sermon-which-I’m-not-actually-calling-a-sermon, Matthew says that Jesus had drawn a crowd – because he always did. We begin with Jesus pulling away, climbing up, talking to just his disciples ….. and finish with crowds who were astounded at his teaching.
There’s so much more to say about this, but my 10 minutes is almost up, so let’s end by reflecting on where we might be as Jesus delivers these statements of blessedness.
- Part of the inner circle that left home and hearth, who were called by him, who followed Jesus up the mountain, with perhaps one of the statements directed exactly at you, and your situation?
- Part of the crowd that slowly gathered around, astounded at his teaching which was so counter to what they’d previously been taught?
- Amongst those who stayed at the bottom of the Mount of Blessedness, who didn’t spend their energy on the climb, who never heard what Jesus had to say that day?
If we are following Jesus, on 5 November 2023, we are part of something that still goes counter to our culture, counter to our intuition, even. This is still new, challenging, difficult – new technology, with a new power source! We are aligning ourselves with a movement that gives more honour to the poor than to the rich, where the trappings of success are, well, a trap to be avoided. A movement where sadness and grief are not something to be got over as quickly as possible, but a place where we meet our Lord who was a man of many sorrows. A place where purity and innocence of thought and action challenge a cynical world that has seen it all and done it all. From the mountaintop, where God speaks, we hear that respect and status in this world is nothing worth having, but rather that we should concentrate on being good citizens in the Kingdom of God where the last are first and the first are last.
This is what it means to follow Christ. This is what it means to walk beside him to the top of the mountain, to sit at his feet, to hear his manifesto and join his kingdom. This is what it means to be Blessed.