I must admit, I cannot quite figure out the Beatitudes (I am not alone, judging by the variety of opinions about them among scholars). At times they seem like words of comfort and encouragement. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Other times they sound like commands. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Which are they? Law or Gospel? Promise or command? Warning or encouragement? Just about the time I think I have them figured out, the next one throws me for a loop and leaves me scratching my head.
One thing is certain, however, the Beatitudes are about being “blessed.” And there is enough confusion on that in our culture for an entire sermon.
In these verses, Jesus challenges the conventional understanding of what it means to be blessed. A sermon on this familiar text might do the same. It could proclaim Jesus’ redefinition of the blessed life, which would require clear proclamation of the promises of Christ and encouragement toward living with and rejoicing in the blessings of God.
You could begin the sermon by asking the hearers to make a mental list of the various things that would characterize a blessed life. Each list would be unique. But I imagine some things would appear regularly. I am thinking of things like good health, a loving family, safety from danger, and financial security. Maybe they would include a thriving congregation, a strong nation, and plenty of vacation time. These are the things which make life “blessed,” right?
The season of Epiphany is a time for revelation. It is a time during which we pay attention to what God has made known to us through His Jesus. Among the first things Jesus made known during His earthly ministry was our Gospel reading for this week. Matthew 5 records the first sermon Jesus preached in Matthew’s Gospel. How did it begin? Jesus started with an account of what it means to be blessed. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit... blessed are those who mourn... blessed are the meek... blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness... blessed are the merciful... blessed are the peacemakers... blessed are the pure in heart... blessed are those who are persecuted... blessed are you when you are reviled...”
Shortly before our reading Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James, and John (Matthew 4:18-22). Imagine how they must have heard these things. They had just left everything to follow this itinerant rabbi. Like us, they were probably interested in living a blessed life. The first thing Jesus tells them is how the blessed life involves spiritual poverty, mourning, meekness, persecution, and being reviled. The disciples must have wondered what they had signed up for.
Jesus’ conception of blessedness seems backwards. He seems to have things upside down, inside out. He seems downright foolish. We all know what the blessed life entails. It is a life of ease, a life of security, a life that never wants, never cries, never worries, never hurts.
No, says Jesus. That is not blessed.
We should not be surprised when Jesus says something that seems backwards to us. In the Epistle reading from 1 Corinthians, Paul describes God’s wisdom as foolishness. Which suggests we should not try to make sense of the wisdom of the Beatitudes, but rather proclaim their divine foolishness, trusting the One who spoke them knows what He is talking about.
While the Beatitudes are hard to pin down collectively, a few themes arise which could help you proclaim the promises of God in Christ.
First, notice the tense of the verbs. Many people imagine the blessed life by thinking about the present. They think about what would have to change right now for life to be considered blessed. That is not how Jesus describes it. The second half of each of the Beatitudes (with two exceptions) involve a tense change. Jesus calls people blessed in the present on the basis of what will happen in the future. “You are blessed,” says Jesus, “for you will be comforted… you will inherit the earth… you will be satisfied… you will receive mercy… you will see God… you will be called sons of God.”
Our first mistake in thinking about the blessed life is we expect to experience it fully in this life. The fact is, we live in a broken and sinful world. No one—neither Christians nor non-Christians—will completely escape the tragedy of a fallen creation. For that we must wait until Christ returns. This is a central part of His promise, which is why the Beatitudes lead us to long for Christ’s return. They lead us to look forward to the new Heaven and the new Earth, when there will be no more mourning and no more pain, when we will be fully and finally blessed for eternity.
But the Beatitudes are not just about life eternal. They also have something to say about our lives here and now. This is the second theme. If you ask your hearers to consider the blessed life, I imagine they would be thinking about their own lives—what it would take for them to be blessed. It is true that some of the Beatitudes seem directed to us as individuals, but a number of them direct us toward others. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted like the prophets were persecuted for speaking the Word of God to others. The blessed life is not focused exclusively on ourselves and how God blesses us. The Beatitudes open our eyes to see the ways in which our life in Christ blesses others.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 5:1-12.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 5:1-12.
Lectionary Podcasts-Prof. Ryan Tietz of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 5:1-12.
Alternative Reading Resources for the Festival of the Purification of Mary and Presentation of Our Lord:
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 2:22-32 (33-40).
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 2:22-32 (33-40).