Sermon: "Our Desires or God's Desires"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Micah 6.1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1.18-31; Matthew 5.1-12
Today’s readings invite us to wrestle with these questions: What pleases God? What does God desire for us? How would God have us live? The answers we find in these readings run contrary to the wisdom of the world. When commenting on the Sermon on the Mount, Brian McClaren characterizes the rules by which we typically live as follows:
Do everything you can to be rich and powerful.
Toughen up and harden yourself against all feelings of loss.
Measure your success by how much of the time you are thinking only of yourself and your own happiness.
Be independent and aggressive, hungry and thirsty for higher status in the social pecking order.
Strike back quickly when others strike you, and guard your image so you’ll always be popular (We Make the Road by Walking: http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/epiphany4a/).
However, people who live by these rules generally find themselves unhappy and unfulfilled. At some point, they begin to wonder, “Is this all there is?” Such emptiness and despair often lead people to engage in negative or addictive behaviors; sometimes even to suicide.
There is an answer, but it seems foolishness to the worldly wise. As St Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 1.18-19: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart’” (NRSVUE). Let’s look more closely at today’s readings.
In Micah 6, the Lord tells the people to plead their case before the mountains, and in turn, God will state God’s case – remember what the Lord has done for you: “I brought you up from the Land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (Vs.1-4; NRSVUE). In response, the people ask with what sacrifices they should come before the Lord, i.e., what would please God. Yearling calves, thousands of rams, rivers of oil, or my firstborn for my transgressions as is done in other nations and cultures? Then Micah proclaims: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God” (Vs. 6; NRSVUE)? It is not about our worship and sacrifices – it is about the lives we lead!
In Psalm 15, the psalmist begins by asking, “Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle?” In other words, who is welcome in your presence? What are the qualities, the characteristics of such a person? The answer: “Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, who speaks the truth from his heart.” (Vs. 2) The psalmist then considers our actions and our speech. Concerning actions, one who is blameless does no evil to his friend; he rejects the wicked and honors those who fear the Lord; he renounces what is wrong; he keeps his word; he gives to others expecting nothing in return, and he rejects bribes against the innocent. Concerning speech, the blameless speaks the truth from her heart – there is no guile or deceit; she does not degrade or slander her neighbor. Again, it is about the life we lead.
Now, we come to the beatitudes in Matthew 5. It helps to place the beatitudes in context. Immediately after his baptism, Jesus was led into the wilderness to be tempted. After fasting forty days and forty nights, Jesus rejected three temptations – the first two began with the phrase, “If you are the Son of God…” The character of Jesus’ messiahship was at stake.
In response to the temptation to turn stones to bread and satisfy his hunger, Jesus replied, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4.4; NRSVUE). In response to the temptation to test God by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, Jesus replied, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matthew 4.7; NRSVUE). In response to the tempter’s promise for dominion over all the kingdoms of the world if he would worship him, Jesus replied, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’” (Matthew 4.10; NRSVUE). As one biblical scholar has put it, Jesus rejected materialism, ecclesiasticism, and militarism – the three mightiest ideas to bid for the hearts and minds of man (Clarence Jordan).
Jesus’ messiahship was not to be grounded in the glories of this world; it was to be grounded in God’s word and will. Having endured these temptations, Jesus began to call his disciples. As noted last week, when Jesus said, “Follow me,” he was inviting the disciples to join the kingdom movement, to come along behind him.
Having called his disciples, it was time to begin their instruction. Hence, the Sermon on the Mount. Karoline Lewis holds the sermon may be divided into four sections:
Matthew 5:1-12 Who are the Disciples
Matthew 5:13-20 The Responsibilities of Discipleship
Matthew 5:21-37 Discipleship in Community
Matthew 5:38-48 Discipleship in the World
(https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-51-12-4). We will examine these section more fully over the next two weeks.
So who are the disciples? What are, or what should be, the characteristics of Jesus’ disciples – then and now? These characteristics are set forth in the beatitudes.
We are poor in spirit.
We mourn over what is as opposed to what could be.
We are meek fin that we do not always seek our own advantage or resort to violence to gain advantage – we are concerned for the welfare of our neighbor.
We hunger and thirst for righteousness, for right relationships with God, our neighbor, and creation.
We are merciful.
We are pure in heart.
We are peacemakers.
We are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.
In effect, Jesus was telling his disciples these are the characteristics of the community to which you belong. When we display these characteristics in community, we are blessed – we are happy!
Living out of the beatitudes is not easy! If we are honest with ourselves, we must confess, “Nope, I didn’t do so well on that one, or on that one!” God would have us be happy, would have us lean into the beatitudes. Permit me to share two things I have increasingly come to realize:
First, from a spiritual perspective, people are often unaware of what they do. As Jesus said, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” From the perspective of this world’s values, they may know perfectly well what they do, but from the perspective of the kingdom of God, they are unaware. As such, they are to be pitied. Even on the cross, Jesus was filled with compassion!
Second, when I witness behavior which I would condemn, I try to remember to ask myself, ”What has this person experienced which may have caused him or her to act in this manner?” What hurt? Might it be the absence of love? How has their spirit been crushed or violated? How can I promote healing?
I suspect the beatitudes shocked people, for this mode of living is the exception, not the norm. But these are the characteristics of God’s kingdom movement and the community which lives in this manner is happy.
We come back to the questions: What pleases God? What does God desire for us? How would God have us live? Let us remember the words of King David’s prayer for repentance: “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51.16-17).
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.