Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 1 November 2020.
• First Reading: Isaiah 56: 3-8 (And the foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to minister to Him … these I will bring to My Holy Mountain and give them joy in My House of Prayer)
• Psalm 33: 1-5
• Epistle: Hebrews 12: 18-24 (You have come to Mount Zion, to the City of the Loving God, the heavenly Jerusalem)
• Gospel: Matthew 5: 1-12 (The Beatitudes)
Anyone who wants to exercise power makes promises of future prosperity and strength. The vision is of plenty for all and the redress of the claims of those who are sore at their life chances.
Dictators may not be too concerned at the popular vote but they will be aware of the popular mood and will amass great forces of coercion: the police, and army and the bureaucracy.
Keep them sweet and power should be secure.
But the gospel says something else about ultimate power for this is about the Kingdom of God. For Matthew the Sermon on the Mount is like a constitution for the Kingdom that Jesus had come to inaugurate.
And it starts with 9 words of blessing for the weakest and the most powerless in society.
Far from praising and encouraging the arrogant and the self-assured, the go-getters and the movers and shakers, Jesus gives priority to those who know their need for God and the ineffectiveness of their own efforts.
For some, this in itself inspires contempt for the church which is seen as ineffective and useless, a vehicle for permanent victimhood.
But in this we need to look again.
First, Jesus makes a solemn proclamation that those who are poor in spirit, who know their need for God and the irrelevance of their own efforts in the sight of the holiness and majesty of God – these people are ALREADY blessed.
This is the beginning of the beatitudes and the end is similar: that those who allow themselves to be excluded, abused and humiliated for the sake of the gospel and the Kingdom of God are ALREADY blessed in the sight of God.
The beatitudes start and finish with pronouncements of blessing already bestowed on the most vulnerable and yet the most courageous of His disciples.
Then, Jesus blesses those whose lives are touched by personal or social challenges.
Normally those who mourn are left to get on with it and yet Jesus goes out of His way to reverse the proverb ‘Laugh and then world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone.’ Those who are dispossessed, who are struck by tragedy, grief, disappointment or any of the reverses that life throws up are now taken up into the economy of God where nothing is wasted and nothing is in vain and that includes the deepest of sorrows.
Indeed, it is as we offer these reverses to the Lord that they are taken up and turned around for His purposes and our own wounds begin to be healed. We have good reason to pray for our persecutors.
Then He speaks of the meek, the self-effacing, those who are not confident but are rather the convenient target for the abuse and bullying of others. These are the survivors of society, who somehow keep going when it would be so easy to let go and slide into permanent depression and despondency.
And these are promised the inheritance of the earth – an idea of utter derision for those who reject the whole idea. But the Psalmist says, ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it. Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Those with clean hands and a pure heart.’
Then there are those with a social conscience – and by this I mean those who will act personally to right wrongs, as opposed to campaigning for others to do what they will not.
The holiness and righteousness of God will indeed meet them and satisfy them.
Then there are the merciful, who do not exact revenge for their personal slights and who acknowledge the needs of others with their practical help.
The pure in heart who maintain what used to be called the custody of the eyes and the custody of the thoughts – who have a holy control over even what they think and imagine. If this was easy then it would not have to be spoken of.
Then there are the peacemakers – not so much peace-talkers or dreamers but those who put themselves into harm’s way and who are there to resolve conflict rather than inflame it. Again, at some personal cost and risk of abuse. This is not the same as being ready to surrender all that is valuable and honourable.
What Jesus had to say so early in His ministry is still there for us today. It is the stuff of lives lived and earthly pilgrimages completed, the trials and the tests of those who have gone before us in the faith.
We all face the same kinds of challenges and temptations even if the circumstances and the technology, the social and economic landscapes are different in every age.
But the Beatitudes of Jesus are pictures of the character of the fullness of the Kingdom of God. We begin this month celebrating All Saints and we will end it with our thoughts of Jesus as Christ the King. On the way we will visit the battlefields and refugee camps of our time as we observe Remembrance Sunday.
But the battle is the Lord’s even when we find that we are in the middle of it.