Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Sermon for 30 January 2011, Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

The Rev. Paul J Cain, Jr.

Matthew 5:1-12

Blessed Are You
30 January 2011, Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

Always remember, Blessed are you in Christ!
We have lots of “gray” days, even in Wyoming with its large number of sunny days. Life gets us down. Circumstances threaten to overwhelm us. We wonder why we’re even here—and we wonder where everybody else is on a Sunday morning. Finances are always of concern—personal, family, congregational, and business-related. Will I have enough for tuition this semester? How will our family make ends meet? What about Christianity in an age of Terrorism?
We need precisely what our Lord gives us in today’s Gospel:           
Seeing the crowds, he [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
The verses to come begin Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ teaching is found in Matthew in several great discourses. This is the first.

We worry about funds. And then we see the poor in their poverty at home and abroad. And we get some perspective. We know from experience that it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God—too many things distract them. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. One cannot serve both God and money. We also know from experience that the financially poor often have more to do with God than the wealthy. Jesus here, speaks to all, rich or poor, who can confess that they are poor in spirit, poor, miserable sinners.
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
We may not have treasure in this life, but we are promised greater treasures than we can imagine in the life to come.

Many in our congregation mourn this morning. We mourn the loss of loved ones, family, and friends. We mourn the loss of hopes and dreams. We mourn the loss of a good job, or even a home of many years. And we mourn, just like a death, the end of one relationship or another. We mourn.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
We mourn, but not as those who have no hope. We mourn, but mourn differently than the world. We have a Savior. We have the promise of heaven. Resurrection is our baptismal rebirthright. Our tears are here now, but one day the Lord Himself will wipe every tear from your eyes.

Bullies harrass the weak from playgrounds to boardrooms. Brute force has put entire nations under a boot and many people are oppressed yet today. Christians are often considered weak when they turn the other cheek or when they love their enemies instead of taking revenge.
"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. One day, the Lord will personally dwell with you, His people, in the new heaven and new earth.

We complain about what’s on the menu at home, in our lunchboxes, or at the cafeteria. But our refrigerators are full. We actually have something called a pantry. Grocery store shelves are stocked. There are no lines for bread. Our Lord gives us our daily bread—daily. And, we are well-reminded that man does not live on bread alone.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Our daily bread includes the Word of God and the Visible Word of the Sacraments. American Christians have never been fond of “fasting” in the traditional sense. Yet, many who call themselves Christians fast in other ways, ways the Lord would not approve of. Some declare a fast from Him, His people gathered on His day, and from His Word and Sacrament. Blessed are you—not merely because you are here—but because of what you, by faith, receive today!

From youth we are taught the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Not a bad paraphrase of what comes later in this Sermon on the Mount. But how often is it followed? We usually see this maxim in practice: I’m gonna do unto others before they do unto me! Instead, Jesus tells us:
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
As we forgive, so will we be forgiven. A nice preview of the Lord’s Prayer.

Christians growing up face a lot of peer pressure to try the ways of the world: underage drinking, illegal drugs, speeding, experimentation with sex—and if we don’t participate, we feel socially awkward, uncool. It’s no easier for adults. Even substances that are legal can be abused. Sex outside of marriage and abuses of it within marriage are outside of God’s will. Drugs thwart jobseekers everywhere. But there is forgiveness for the repentant sinner. Jesus calls such a forgiven sinner a saint. And there’s more:
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
The forgiven are purified in Jesus’ blood—no matter what happened before. We will often have to deal with temporal consequences of our sin—consequences in our life now. But we are white, spotless lambs in the Lord’s eyes because of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

War is a topic that has been on our minds since September 11th. We have loved ones in the service and overseas. Surely, the Scriptures commend good Christian citizenship as an extension of the Fourth Commandment’s teaching to honor father and mother. But there is more. Citizen and government each have responsibility to one another and to the Lord. In Romans 12, the Lord says, “Vengeance is Mine!” Listen to how that plays out before Judgment Day, THE Day of Vengeance:

Romans 13 reads: Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  2Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,  4for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. 
Before Judgment Day, it is been given to civil government to avenge wrongdoing, with the Lord’s guidance and authorization--that’s when government works for the good of the governed. We honor God by being subject to and obeying our government authorities and by being active participants through voting, etc. “But what about men like Hitler? What if I lived in Afghanistan under the Taliban?” Well, Acts 5:29 (ESV) makes it clear that "We must obey God rather than men.” We are not to be subservient robots. We honor and respect the government as an agent of the Lord, placed there by Him, but we are free to disobey if it commands things contrary to the Lord’s Word.
The government has responsibility for its citizens. It takes up the sword, according to the Lord’s Word. This may be for capital punishment, or a “just war.”
(Veith, Terrorism, pp. 119-121) According to Augustine, there are five criteria for a “just war.” First, the cause must be just. Wars are justified in cases of self-defense and should not be waged for conquest, plunder, or [for the purpose of] political oppression. Second, a just war must be initiated by a proper authority. Nations with lawful governments, legitimate leadership, and duly organized and disciplined militaries have the authority to wage war. Irregular bands of fighters and unorganized mobs, bent only on plunder and mayhem, are not fighting a just war. They lack the vocation for it. Third, a just war must be fought with the right intention. That is, the purpose of the war should be peace. Waging war out of bad intentions—to slaughter the innocent, to scapegoat an enemy as a political distraction, to seek power for its own sake—is immoral. Fourth, a just war must have a reasonable chance of success. Hopeless causes make people kill and die in vain. A tiny army against the Roman Empire, Augustine would say, would do best to surrender and accept terms rather than fight to the death. Even a powerful army, for various reasons such as political limitations, may not enjoy a reasonable chance of success—think of the Vietnam War. Fifth, a just war must use means proportional to the end. Slaughtering a whole population because of a trade dispute is wildly out of proportion. If the end, the purpose of the war, is to liberate an oppressed people, it makes no sense to bring them under further subjugation…
[By these criteria, it is evident that each of the requirements for just war is met in the response of the Allies in WW2. Conversely, the terrorists of 9-11 were not waging a just war…]
(Veith, Terrorism, p.129) Implicit in what Dr. [Martin] Luther says [about war, according to Paul Althaus] is that he recognizes only a defensive war which is forced upon us by an aggressor. War is right only when it is “our only miserable way of defending ourselves.” Luther knows that most wars are waged for [a] quite different reason: selfish motives of princes and lords, lust for the property and possessions of others, desire for glory, the feeling that our honor has been insulted, wrath, and the desire for revenge. However, a Christian prince is forbidden to wage war for such reasons. The one and only purpose of a war must be to protect his subjects against attack. In this sense, the decision to go to war and the decisions about how war is to be waged must be quite “simple” [by comparison.]
To summarize, lawfully instituted government authorities rule as God’s instrument. (AC XVI says:) “Christians owe obedience to their magistrates and laws except when commanded to sin. For then they owe greater obedience to God than to human beings.” The common thread? God. The authority of all government comes from God. The authority to wage a just war comes from God. Christians obey government in obedience to God. Ultimately, we must trust Him, especially when government seems to fail us, or allows things contrary to His commands.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
The purpose of any war should be peace. A just war is the ultimate manifestation of self-defense. Christians have peace with God because of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. As recipients of peace, we are then called to be peacemakers in our homes and communities, wherever we live, learn, and work. And we ought to be peacemakers among ourselves.

Persecution was the common experience of the Old Testament Prophets. Jesus faced it. So did Christians who spoke the truth. Peter was crucified—upside down. Paul was beheaded because one could not legally crucify a Roman citizen. Others were made gladiators, or fed to lions. And that’s just the first three centuries of Christianity. Christians around the globe today are being hounded because of their faith. Some are killed for the name of Jesus. And sometimes we buckle under just because somebody made a disparaging comment. Fear not. Be encouraged. Be bold in your faith. Be not ashamed of the Gospel, the very power of salvation!
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
It is said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. We know that blood, human or otherwise, is not a good fertilizer, but there is something powerful about seeing the passion of one who would die for the faith. And we are reminded of the famous Confirmation Bible Verse: Be ye faithful unto death and ye shall receive the crown of life.

Christians ought not hide behind this next and last “Blessed” when we have done wrong—when we have succumbed to the evil one and have done evil. No, on such occasions we should repent, confess our sin to those we have wronged, be forgiven, and move on with our lives. But sometimes, false accusations dog us. The unscrupulous will try anything to discredit Christians, pastors, congregations, and church bodies. We are not alone. And contrary to common sense, we are blessed.
"Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Many groups claim persecution—some have a good case. Other claimants don’t have legitimate claims. Just because one is being persecuted does not mean that one speaks divine truth—sometimes it’s just human wisdom or folly with the name of Jesus slapped on as an afterthought.

We all face gray days, times of sorrow or pain, times when our own sins make us ashamed.  When circumstances beyond your control oppress you, when the law of God has convicted you, when you have nowhere else to turn—when Your Day Is Gray….Remember…Blessed Are You in Christ!

Do you have a good Bible of your own at home in a faithful translation that you can understand? I recommend the English Standard Version, New King James, or the New American Standard. All are very faithful, scholarly, literal translations. The King James has served the Church well, but one almost needs a dictionary to understand some of the archaic words and others that have changed meanings since 1611. For example, “Suffer the little children,” has a much different impact now. The New International Version is extremely common in the LCMS. While common, the Self Study Bible from Concordia often has to take issue with a vague or even incorrect translation in the NIV—and that’s if one reads the study notes.
Biblical paraphrases are another animal entirely. Consider the Living Bible or now, The Message. Paraphrases are like a two-edged knife—they cut both ways. They transparently show the theological bias of the author. Yet, paraphrases can add incredible insight by transforming the Word into the word on the street. But the problem is that they reword the Word. This isn’t precisely what the Greek or Hebrew said. While we may get specific, contemporary application, a paraphrase can focus so much on minor applications and parochial issues that the larger sense is missing.
Here is how Eugene Peterson, author of the Message, reinterprets the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-12:
When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:
"You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
"You're blessed when you feel you've lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
"You're blessed when you're content with just who you are—no more, no less. That's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought.
"You're blessed when you've worked up a good appetite for God. He's food and drink in the best meal you'll ever eat.
"You're blessed when you care. At the moment of being 'care-full,' you find yourselves cared for.
"You're blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
"You're blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That's when you discover who you really are, and your place in God's family.
"You're blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God's kingdom.
"Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don't like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble. Matthew 5:1-12 (Msg)
Neat insights, right? But the contemporary insights don’t unpack all that the Lord gives in the Greek. What Rev. Peterson says isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s just incomplete. The Lord has more to give. Personally, that didn’t sound much like the Beatitudes. Give me a good, faithful, literal, word-for-word translation any day. Let’s leave the contemporary application to good sermons and one-on-one pastoral care.

Always remember…Blessed Are You in Christ!
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Always remember, Blessed are you in Christ! Amen.

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.