Sunday 29th January 2017: ‘In the cross of Christ, I glory!’

 Scripture: 

Micah 6:1-8

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Matthew 5:1-12

 

May I speak, and may we listen, in the name of God who is Father Son and Holy Spirit.

Amen.  

‘For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the very power of God.’

It’s easy to hear those words from St Paul and become an elitist, because it sounds as though those of us who are being saved – have heard and responded to the Gospel – have got the message are in, but those who see the message of the cross as insignificant and false are foolish and going to perish. In other words – those of us who don’t put the message of the cross in the foolishness box are safe, and well, all the others have to suffer for their folly.

As it happens I don’t think that that’s what St Paul is trying to say – but instead I think he is accepting that for some folk there are just some things they will never budge on, and the message of the cross – the cross which proclaims the defeat of death by Jesus, is one of those things.

 This morning, in our Gospel reading we heard Jesus giving what is known as the ‘Sermon on the Mount’…..also called the Beatitudes. It’s a fairly well-known part of Jesus’ life. A long list of sayings, not typical of a sermon really, in which Jesus repeats the words: ‘Blessed are the’…insert blank.

Now remember at the beginning of our reading from Matthew, we are told that ‘when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain’.

So in other words, Jesus sees a mass of people coming his way, and he tries to get away….this sermon on the mount wasn’t something he was necessarily planning to give. He wanted to pray, or simply to talk in private with his disciples. And once Jesus sits down, then the disciples gather around him and he begins to speak to them and to the crowds – possibly the first teaching that the disciples are getting since being summoned to follow Jesus in chapter 4 of Matthew.

So this sermon is pretty important to the disciples, it’s important because it’s all they are about to get at this point, it’s important because it seems to be quite spontaneous, it’s important because Jesus, the one whom they have left everything to follow, is the one giving it. And like Moses going up Mount Sinai to find out what the will of God was for the people in the wilderness, and for us – so too, Jesus goes up the mountain to inform his disciples of his view for this part of their life.

 

And what does he say?

‘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 pure in heart,

Blessed are the peacemakers,

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.’

 

And in Jesus time, it isn’t uncommon or unknown to find comparable lists of those who are ‘blessed’, and he certainly didn’t invent this type of way of speaking. The ‘beatitudes’ are a way of expressing the generally accepted values that underlie particular moral commands….deep down we all want to be blessed, usually in the sense of “things” – such as money, health, close friends, our employment and a happy home life. We know the kind of conduct needed to contribute to these ends – and if the ends are not achieved in this life, it has often seemed reasonable to believe that there will be just compensation after death….

In other words whatever I don’t get this side of heaven – I will get on the other side. And so we imply that in order to be really blessed, we have to be dead first….

But the form of a beatitude can also be used to present a value that is not generally accepted in relation to certain things or people, but which should be. So those with which the sermon begins are by no means the accepted normal understandings of blessed people in that day and age – infact, they are really radical.

Blessed are the poor in spirit – it almost sounds unnatural.

Blessed are those who mourn – how can you be mourning and be blessed?

Blessed are the meek – how can you be patient, and submissive and still be blessed?

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – well, is there any blessing in being hungry and thirsty – even if for the right thing?

Blessed are the pure in heart –  who wants to be pure?!

Blessed are the peacemakers – even when there’s no profit in peace….and our world leaders know it too!

Blessed are those who are persecuted…..well that is really the last straw, or so you’d think.

 

To that small group of disciples who had left everything that they had known to follow Jesus – and to the crowds gathered all around them, what kind of message is Jesus sending?

 

It’s one which allows them to grasp something of what God will do to the world through the cross.

It’s one which allows them to make no mistake, that this man, Jesus, has in his mind and in his heart a very different vision of the kind of Kingdom they are currently in.

The vision that Jesus has in his mind and his heart – is the vision of the Kingdom from which he came – the Kingdom of heaven. That kingdom that he longs to see built on earth – and it is a Kingdom in which every accepted norm is turned on its head.

Jesus knows deep down, exactly who and what the crowds around him and his disciples considered to be blessed in their own minds.

In a culture where wealth, and power, and success speak of blessing – it might remind us of our own day.

In a culture where being blessed, means having a smooth life – where you are in charge and in control, and where your cupboards are full and you are driving the car you want, and you have won the race that society deems important to win.

 

But Jesus says, not only that all of those whom he lists are blessed, but he also tells us why they are blessed.

‘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 for 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 God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 

Then the language becomes much more personal, as the broad statements of Blessed are they and those – becomes ‘Blessed are you’….

And blessed are you: not when all things are going your way, or when the Church you belong to is growing, or when the money is coming in, or when you are comfortable, or when life is easy, or when you have good health, or when you have all that you think you need….

But – ‘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.’

It was probably too early on in the ministry of the disciples for them to really hear what it was Jesus was saying when he said ‘they will persecute you in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you’ – but as we know, as soon as the resurrection had happened, the persecution of the Church went ahead full force. And these very same disciples gathered around Jesus in today’s Gospel – are the very same group who face the challenge of following him to the end. Judas being the exception….!

 

If ever we needed people who took the beatitudes seriously it is now.

If ever we needed people who understood the message of the cross, it is now.

If ever we needed people who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice it is now….

If ever we needed people who were willing to follow in the footsteps of the prophets it is now.

Micah reminds us that God doesn’t want things from us, so much as he longs for hearts and lives changed in response to his love:

‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
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?’ 

 

And when it comes to the Lord changing lives, I don’t think that anyone else in scripture that gets all of this is better qualified than St Paul. St Paul knew what the cross was about, he knew what the paradox was all about – when he talks of dying in order to rise, in being born and clothed anew in Christ, in finding weakness in strength…he gets it! It was Paul who wrote that: suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not let us down….

We cannot avoid the cross – but we must go through the cross with Jesus, into eternal life.

And in the same way in which there is something about the beatitudes which is paradoxical, so too is there something paradoxical about the cross being the central feature in a faith which is all about life, and health and peace.

 

But I see that paradox make sense so often!

 

I see the paradox make sense every time I hear of a Christian doing the right thing because the power of the cross is at work in their lives.

I see the paradox make sense every time I sit at the bedside of a dying person and make the sign of the cross in oil on their forehead and watch peace radiate through their body.

I see the paradox make sense every time I break bread and share wine with folk from every corner of God’s kingdom – who find wholeness in the broken body of Jesus.

I see the paradox make sense every time a newborn child is baptized into God’s Kingdom and they receive the gift of God in Jesus sacrificed upon the cross before they could know anything of it.

I see the paradox make sense when people who call themselves broken, ruined, messed up and lost – find a God who has drawn near to them in their despair through the wounded Saviour, Jesus Christ.

And when I hear people describe themselves to me as broken, and ruined, and messed up and lost – it is the image of the cross in my mind that helps me to see the potential that God sees in them.

Because of the cross – there is the potential of a new beginning in every circle of human life, for every human being, and every situation, and every circumstance in the universe.

Because of the cross – there is salvation for all who believe.

Because of the cross – there is always a reason to hope.

St Paul says that if we are to boast in anything – let us boast in the Lord….not in our own successes and the things that we have done right and done well….but in the Lord!

In other words, let our hearts rejoice in God.

Let us be thankful and proud of what God has done.

Let us boast in what God has wrought in us and through us – in the power of his grace.

Let us boast in the victory of the cross.

 

I was asked the other day, coming out of a Church – ‘Why are you Christians so happy, and why do you sing all the time?’ And I said, I can assure you we’re not always as happy as we seem…you should see us on our bad days! But in all seriousness, we sing because we are people of hope – and our hope is in Jesus, who we believe to have conquered death, and crazy as it may seem we believe that he will come back to us and will take us to ourselves, and will call us to our side…and so we sing, and we rejoice.

But it’s possible that not all of us are people of hope…! Some of you today might not have much hope or joy in you at all. Maybe for some of us the message of the cross is foolishness – maybe the cross of Jesus doesn’t really mean that much to us, maybe we are yet to be convinced and maybe some of us don’t care if we are perishing or not. Perhaps for us, Jesus is just one very important figure amongst others, we might not really be convinced that he is the Son of God or that there is any power in his name or in his cross – perhaps today is the day when we dare to put our hope and trust in him because we long to know him and to know that we are saved.

Or Maybe we are those who have long put our trust in Jesus, but in the world today we find it hard to find hope, or to find our reason for rejoicing wondering whether we have made the right choice. Perhaps today is the day when in our hearts and souls we re-commit ourselves to the saving power of God in Jesus Christ….perhaps today is the day when we trust in Jesus and in Jesus alone for our salvation.

So often I hear people say that they are close to believing in God, but they are looking and waiting for a sign….waiting for affirmation. And I suppose in God’s mind the question is probably: what more of a sign can I give, than sending my son to die upon the cross and rise to new life? If we are looking for a sign beyond the ministry and life of Jesus, then we are looking for something we may never find.

‘For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.’  ‘God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption’

 

God says, blessed are those whom no-one else considers 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 pure in heart,

Blessed are the peacemakers,

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,

Blessed are you today, who put your trust in Jesus and long to live like him and for him – for the Kingdom of heaven is yours also.

Fundamentally the message of the cross that is foolishness to many, is a simple message – it is the message which in every age the Church has proclaimed anew to each generation – it is the message we will need to hang onto if we are to remain faithful to our hope – it is the message of the Gospel, the only good news we have to share with the world, the news which will continue to change hearts and minds and souls not just today but always – the simple but profound message:

Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ shall come again.

That is why we sing, That is why we hope, That is why we cling to the cross and its power and its message.

Might we not only know it, but might we live it too – that both us and the world might trust, hope and believe in Christ, and in his cross, and in him alone for salvation – that all might be blessed and one day, see the glory of the Lord and his Kingdom.

Amen.

redeemer

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