August 10, 2003

Mount of Beatitudes: The Place of Direction
Matthew 5:1-12

Christina Sainato and Pat McCullough were married here at the church yesterday. The ceremony was scheduled to begin at 4:00 p.m., but it started 15-20 minutes late. The delay, I was told, resulted from the inability of some of the guests to get to the church on time. There was an accident somewhere on Rt. 15 that blocked traffic, but there was also a problem with the directions that Christina and Pat had included in the wedding invitations. Those directions instructed people to turn at the traffic light at the intersection of Rt. 15 and Grantham Road, a traffic light that we locals know no longer exists. Equipped with faulty directions, people looking for the Grantham Church did not know exactly where to go.

Good directions are, of course, crucial in virtually every area of life. Directions help us find our desired destinations, assemble new bicycles and swing sets, prepare exquisite meals, use new computer software, and fill out endless financial forms. Directions even help us celebrate communion together is a timely and orderly fashion. Good directions prevent aimless wandering, and they generally keep us on track. We all need good directions at one time or another.

Here in Matthew 5, Jesus gives a crowd of people good directions. The scene is yet another of the Bible's mountains, the Mount of Beatitudes. The Mount of Beatitudes is actually a sprawling and largely grass-covered hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Today one finds a simple but beautiful church situated there to commemorate this occasion referred to here in Matthew 5. As was the custom of the day, Jesus, the master, is seated, and a crowd of people gathers around him to hear what he has to say.

It was always a highlight for me growing up when special visitors came to stay in our home. On many occasions when guest speakers came to our church, for example, our home served as their resting place. I remember gathering in the living room with many such people, listening with open ears to every word our guests shared. These were very formative moments for me, times when I learned a great deal about following Jesus.

It was with similar expectations that these people gather around Jesus, eagerly awaiting what he has to say. He begins:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for
they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for
theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people 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 in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

In looking at these words briefly and reflecting on what Jesus says and, I suspect what he’s feeling on this moving occasion, it seems that he begins by trying to clarify the destination for his listeners. The immediate destination that he has in mind is blessedness – experiencing the blessing of God in our lives.

Sometimes, perhaps unfortunately, this word “blessed”, the common thread through all the beatitudes, is translated as “happy.” The word “happiness” is one that we like to throw around with some frequency. In her most recent hit song, Michelle Branch asks, “Can you look me in the eye, and tell me that you’re happy now?” As she asks that question, she no doubt has the experiences and the occurrences of life in mind. Can whatever happened to you today or in recent weeks lead you to tell me that you’re happy now? The problem with happiness is that it’s totally dependent upon chance and circumstances. It’s totally dependent upon what may or may not happen to us on any particular day of the week. If something good happens to us – we find a job, we get a raise, we hear good news, we make it to our appointments on time – we are happy.

But what happens if the inverse takes place in our lives? What happens if we don’t make it to our appointment on time? What happens if the phone call we receive isn’t what we had hoped for? What happens if the news doesn’t strike us as being good news? What happens if there is loss and pain – and our happiness quickly fades?

Jesus isn’t talking here about a happiness that’s dependent upon the unpredictable ups and downs of life. Instead, he is trying to get our focus away from this almost obsessive craving for happiness and for high feelings and for emotional releases. He’s trying to get our attention away from our obsession with happiness and to transfer it to blessedness – so that even when the bottom falls out, we experience the sense of his presence.

I was sitting in this room over here this past Friday with Alvin and Thata Book’s extended family as we were talking about the memorial service we will have next week. Priscilla, one of their daughters, who happens to be a nurse, shared with me – and she didn’t do this in any flippant or naïve way – the joy of the occasion. She said to me, “If my mom and dad could have planned the place where they would die, it would be Zimbabwe.” She said, “If they could have planned the place where they would be buried, it would be Zimbabwe.” “If they could choose to go and to leave this life together, it would have been a no-brainer. In fact,” Priscilla said, “my father was so desperately dependent on my mother that we couldn’t begin to figure out how he’d survive had she died first.” She said, “My parents lived a wonderful life – a life of service and mission, spared of so many of the pains of aging, of Alzheimer’s, of cancer, of who knows what. This is a gift to us.”

Happiness? No, I didn’t sense a whole of it in the room. Grief? It was there. But there was an overwhelming sense of being blessed, of God’s presence in our lives no matter what.

Jesus clarifies the destination. Stop being so obsessed with happiness and focus on experiencing God’s blessings in your lives.

But describing blessedness and helping people to actually experience it is, as you know, a far different thing. Jesus goes on and provides some directions on how one can actually experience God’s blessing in their lives. How is it that that happens? How is it that we can experience this overwhelming sense of God’s presence and his blessing in all of life’s experiences? That’s what he proceeds to tell us.
By being self sufficient and resting in our own capabilities as the world would repeatedly remind us? No, but by realizing that we are the end of our own rope, the way Eugene Peterson phrases it. At that point, we’ll experience more of God and his rules.
By surrounding ourselves with all the pleasures and comforts of the world? No, but by grieving in the midst of genuine loss. When we grieve we’ll discover what compassion God really has.
By exerting our strength and stepping on others until we get exactly what we want? No, but by being content with who we are. In our contentedness, we gain what we could never buy.
By thinking that we’ve arrived by resting in our own religious traditions and practices? No, but by desiring, craving, more and more and more of God every day. As we do that, we realize just how limitless his resources are.
By being harsh and unforgiving? No, but by being merciful and hospitable. As we extend grace to others, we ourselves experience the grace that God extends to us.
By concentrating our thoughts on the fanciful wishes and sidekicks of the world? No, but by being genuinely devoted to God through and through.
By being divisive and causing trouble? No, but by promoting peace in all areas of life.
By preserving our own safety and security at all costs? No, but by accepting the harsh treatment that following Jesus might some day bring.

Jesus, when he climbs the Mount of Beatitudes, shifts or reorients our focus from happiness to blessedness. In so doing, he invites us to experience a manner of living that is in total contrast to virtually everything that the world would encourage us to do. That, after all, is the kind of life that Jesus modeled in Philippians, chapter 2, the kind of life that we reflect on and seek to follow as we share in this memorial of his death and of his life.