We see glimpses of that in the first 3 passages read, and then in Matthew 5, we see Jesus himself explain this for us. Leading up to this point in Matthew, Jesus has been baptized by John, declared “beloved Son” from the heavens, walked through the wilderness and been attended by angels. He has begun to call for repentance, collected his disciples, and has been doing miraculous things, healing many people. Needless to say, Jesus has drawn some attention at this point!
It seems that while there are crowds of people around, Jesus moves up onto a mountain (which around here we’d likely call a big hill) and his disciples gather around. From what I have learned about the area where they are, being on this “mountain”, means that Jesus and his disciples would have a great view of this and surrounding areas. Matthew places this story early in Jesus’s ministry and we can imagine that those listening are eager to hear what he says.
This word that Jesus starts with- “Blessed”. What does it mean? Happy, fortunate? Made holy, consecrated?
When I think about what makes me feel blessed, it’s being truly seen and loved, being surprised in a way that I didn’t expect but realize that I really desired, being known for all of who I am- the outward and the inward, the delightful and the difficult, the comforting and the challenging- experiencing a knowing which makes me feel understood on a deep level.
So, let’s look at these folks who Jesus calls blessed and to whom he wants to bring the disciples’ attention:
The Poor in Spirit.
These are people who know that they are empty and have experienced that the world can not and does not fill them up. They know their place as broken humans, hurt by other broken humans, but in seeking God they discover that they are also a part of a beautiful family made by a loving Creator.
What can help them get there? Perhaps, other broken, beautiful humans acting as reminders of their belovedness through their care and compassion, giving them a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven that is theirs.
Those Who Mourn.
These are people who allow themselves to feel, to be vulnerable and affected by what is happening around them and to them. Mourning is an act that takes time and space, they are in it. When they are open to this mourning, they also open themselves up to being seen, to being healed and comforted.
Jesus doesn’t say who will do this comforting, and I have to think that’s on purpose. It leaves it open for all of us to be comforters, to sit with those who mourn, to preserve the space that they need and allow them ALL the time it takes, both in the immediate and the long-term mourning.
Meek people don’t over-value, and sometimes don’t even know, their own power. Those who are meek are not going to fill a need simply because “someone has to do it”, they allow space for others to come through and do what they are gifted to do. They are NOT powerless. But, they understand that any privilege or power they have is not because of what they have done, but rather a gift, and that they are not more deserving than anyone else.
Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness.
This word “Righteousness” can be tricky. It seems pretty clear, even with the limited amount that we have learned from Matthew up to this point in Jesus’ life, and given this context, that Jesus is not talking about individual righteousness, self-righteousness or piety. In looking at this word in the original Greek- dikaiosynē (de-kay-ah-soon-Aye) and in its context here and later in this chapter Dr Nicholas Woterstorff argues that the word that should be used here is justice, not righteousness. In this context, justice which is pursued on a corporate/community level, makes much more sense than personal uprightness. The pursuit of righteousness leads us to focus on ourselves and our own right- or upright-ness. And I can’t imagine that this is what Jesus is talking about Hungering and Thirsting for.
Those who hunger and thirst for justice are not satisfied with the world as it is now. They see justice as an essential need for all, not something to take for ourselves and hope for for others. When you hunger and thirst, you DO something about it. Those who act out of this great, deep need for justice know that their work is ESSENTIAL and will be filled by it.
Those who do not judge, but give mercy. The merciful consider, they acknowledge humanity and they don’t condemn. When people are seen as generous with mercy, when it flows out of them, it will come back to them, from God, from themselves and also from others.
The Pure in Heart.
These people are not seeking gain, they are content in their position as beautiful, created children of God and value others in the same way. In this, they see and know their Creator.
Notice that Jesus says, peaceMAKERS, not peacekeepers. These folks are actively involved in making and creating peace- they work for it. They are not avoiding conflict or putting up a good front so that it looks like everything is fine. They are creating peace where it wasn’t before. They see their role in this human family, in God’s family, honoring their Creator and working together with their siblings and those of older and younger generations.
Those who are Persecuted for Righteousness Sake.
Here, again, there is a strong argument for using the word Justice instead of Righteousness. Do we know of people who are persecuted for being personally upright? Perhaps not, but there are countless people who are persecuted for doing what is right, for standing in a different place than everyone else, for asking the questions that no one wants to hear, for going against the trend. These folks are walking with God, hearing from God and are willing to take a stand for Justice, and they are those whom God includes in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are YOU.
I’m going to pause here, as I want to notice that Jesus is getting specific and personal here, drawing in his disciples and focusing on them specifically.
Blessed are you, when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Ugh. My guess is this is not the kind of “Blessing” they were hoping for.
But what is Jesus telling them? He is letting them know that he is with them and that they can trust him. They are not free from hardship, difficulty or persecution, and they will receive consequences that they likely don’t deserve, but they are now part of something different.
Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way, they persecuted the prophets before you.
Once again, we are seeing that in Jesus’ work things are different. His disciples are not to seek protection from scrutiny, or to try to coast along. They are to listen, and be led and let themselves be compelled by what they are learning. They are to act on these things, to challenge the status quo and not be afraid to stand up for things/people/justice in ways that others don’t understand.
It seems to me that Jesus is calling them to be prophets. What does that mean? To take time and space to see what is happening around them? To see and raise up that which the world looks down upon? I think for a while, this could be seen by many as a good thing, but I wonder- if they are truly prophets- would it also mean doing often the thing that others would look at as “just too far, too different, or too much”?
We know that prophets are generally not welcomed by their community, they are known for saying the things that nobody really wants to hear…BUT, what about when we all live into this call and do it together? What if we lean into the “prophet-ness” of walking with and learning from this Jesus we follow?
What if we resist pushing away that voice that says, “pay attention, pause here, notice this?” What if we reprioritize and make space in our agendas to be led, to be open, to be moved? What if, after seeing a need in our community we bravely bring forward that idea that we are sure no one will go for?
If we are all tuning in and staying close to God, it seems pretty likely that we’re going to be hearing, seeing and noticing similar things and that we’re not going to be shocked when we hear someone else voice them too.
All the folks that Jesus says are “Blessed”, that he says are “to be envied” have experienced and/or are acknowledging the limits of their human-ness and thus opening themselves up to the blessings of God. As we move through our days, let us consider how God might be asking us to look at things in a different way, to see something through a different lens, to move away from “us” and “them”. And in ALL that we do, let us consider, who is missing? Whose perspective don’t we have and how do we make sure they know they are welcome here?
This isn’t about doing more, serving more, or reaching more, but about being present and invested, with God and each other, and allowing ourselves to be known/seen/affected by what’s happening around us and being compelled to speak up and do what we are called to do. When we stay close to and walk with God together, we know the blessing is in seeing through the eyes of God and one another, truly knowing each other, building a community together, holding space for each other, and seeking to respect and understand that which we don’t experience ourselves.
I hunger and thirst for that, do you?
Merriam Webster Dictionary
Working Preacher Podcasts
Video: Righteousness or Justice, Nicholas Woterstorff- https://youtu.be/jdcIkbAMWKA
This 2nd Sunday after Epiphany is a good time to think about discipleship. We hear about it in Isaiah’s 2nd “Servant Song” and in John’s version of the call of Jesus’ first disciples.
Both the real prophet we know as Isaiah and those who wrote in his name (for the sixty-six chapters of the book we know as “Isaiah” were not all produced by the same voice) lived during the difficult years before, during, and after Israel’s conquest and captivity in Babylon.
Today’s passage gives us a glimpse of the frustrations and difficulties of being a prophet (or, for our purposes, a disciple), in a dialogue between the prophet and the Almighty.
Isaiah is very sure of his having been called by God, in fact, from before he was born! “While I was in my mother’s womb God named me.” (Is 49:1)
And yet, Isaiah doesn’t feel that he has been able to exercise the calling for which he was born. He has been “hidden away” “like a polished arrow in the quiver”, his mouth silenced behind the “shadow of God’s hand”. (Is 49:2)
Isaiah, it turns out, is not shy about expressing his frustration to God: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing!”, he exclaims. (Is 49:4)
God’s response is that Isaiah has been called for an even broader and more important mission than that of teaching and restoring Israel: God’s servant is to be “a light to the nations”, that God’s salvation “may reach to the ends of the earth”.
It seems to me that it’s probably not unusual that there is a difference between the calling that a prophet or a disciple may envision for themselves and the work that it turns out really needs to be done. I think that for many of us, the plans we make fall by the wayside when different and unexpected options open up. Scripture is full of accounts of reluctant servants who need serious re-direction before they are ready to accept the role they are called to in God’s vision: Moses and Jonah are two that spring immediately to mind.
Turning to this morning’s gospel account of the call of Jesus’ first disciples, we first need to observe how different it is from the better-know story we hear in the other gospels, of Jesus calling the fishers from their work on the lakeshore (which we will hear next week).
Today’s narrative takes place in Bethany, across the Jordan where John is encamped with his disciples, baptizing and proclaiming the approach of God’s reign.
The reading begins with John’s account of Jesus’ baptism and John’s identification of Jesus as “the Lamb of God” (Jn 1:29)
As John testifies to Jesus’ identity to his followers, as Jesus is passing by, two of his disciples begin to follow after Jesus, and he turns and asks them: “What are you looking for?”.
The two don’t seem to have an answer ready, and reply with a question of their own: “Rabbi, where are you staying?”
Jesus, in turn – in a manner we will, of course, see many times – himself does not answer, but issues an invitation, an opportunity: “Come and see.” (Jn. 1:37-39)
Just as our text from Isaiah reminds us that the work to which God calls us is not necessarily what we plan, this story of the call of Jesus’ first disciples provides two simple and fundamental questions that can (and probably should) shape our lives as disciples:
What are we looking for? And
Are we looking to see what God in Christ is up to?
Did the disciples know what they were looking for? Probably not. Like us, they were undoubtedly searching for meaning and direction in their lives. What any of us is
looking for is complicated, and varies from day to day and year to year, depending on the issues, hopes, and challenges of the different times and circumstances in our lives.
This weekend we commemorate the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because of his leadership in movement for civil rights for all persons. While most of his life was spent in the southern states, King spent some of his formative years here in Massachusetts. You may have seen or read about the new statue that was unveiled in Boston on Friday, paying tribute.
For us as Christians, King provides a powerful witness and model of a life of discipleship, a life lived in response to the gospel.
Like Isaiah, King was a servant of God, a “light to the nations” and an initiator of transformation not only in own parish and community, but a speaker of truth to a nation divided by deep-seated racial bias and legalized injustice, bias and injustice that we have still not eradicated today, as we all know.
Pastor King’s call to discipleship, like Isaiah, Andrew, and Simon, probably seemed simpler, as he set out on the journey, than it turned out to be.
Pastor King came to experience the cost of discipleship to a new degree during the boycott: four local churches and the homes of both King and Ralph Abernathy were firebombed.
The eventual success of boycott – the determination of federal district court that Montgomery’s laws regarding bus segregation were unconstitutional - sparked the more widespread movement for civil rights. Martin Luther King was increasingly called on to organize and provide leadership.
The leadership he offered, and which we celebrate this weekend, was grounded in King’s investment in the principle of nonviolent resistance to unjust law, which was born during his graduate studies in Boston, and further nurtured when he traveled to India to study the work of Gandhi. His understanding was based on belief in the “network of mutuality”, the idea that destiny of all persons is connected, that no one can be free if another is not free.
King is frequently seen as civil leader and organizer, but all his work was based in his commitment to Jesus, to the call to serve God, to be “a light to the nations” so that salvation might reach “to the ends of the earth.”
We know that he often faced violence in his life as a disciple: Martin was jailed, physically assaulted, and threatened on regular basis, and of course, he was eventually assassinated. His relationship with Jesus sustained him.
King often told of a critical incident that occurred during the most difficult days of the bus boycott. He recounted it in several sermons and in his autobiography. Here’s one version of the story, taken from Charles Marsh and John Perkins’ Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community:
“In January 1956, Martin Luther King Jr. returned home around midnight after a long day of organizational meetings. His wife and young daughter were already in bed, and King was eager to join them. But a threatening call—the kind of call he was getting as many as 30 to 40 times a day—interrupted his attempt to get some much-needed rest. When he tried to go back to bed, he could not shake the menacing voice that kept repeating the hateful words in his head.
King got up, made a pot of coffee, and sat down at his kitchen table. With his head buried in his hands, he cried out to God. There in his kitchen in the middle of the night, when he had come to the end of strength, King met the living Christ in an experience that would carry him through the remainder of his life. "I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on," King later recalled. "He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone … He promised never to leave me, no never alone."
In the stillness of the Alabama night, the voice of Jesus proved more convincing than the threatening voice of the anonymous caller. The voice of Jesus gave him the courage to press through the tumultuous year of 1956 to the victorious end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. More than that, it gave him a vision for ministry that would drive him for the rest of his life.”
(cited on preachingtoday.com)
The life of Martin Luther King Jr illustrates the fact that when we “come and see” the ministry of Jesus, when we take on the ministry of Jesus, we can be summoned to places we would really rather not go.
King’s witness reminds us that bringing light to the nations is not always welcome. It reminds us that preaching the gospel involves not just caring for those in need, but challenging the unjust structures in our common life.
But, as King was promised, we will never be left alone.
As we, in our own time and living with the particular challenges and opportunities of OUR lives, strive to follow Jesus, let us continue to ask ourselves:
What are we looking for?
Let us pray for the courage to really “come and see”, regardless of where the journey takes us.
Let us give thanks for the commitment and sacrifice of those who have gone before us in working for justice and peace.
There are some similarities between Herod’s choices and behaviors, and those we’ve seen in recent history on the news, and to a lesser extent, experience in our lives and within ourselves.
How do we respond to the Herod-like figures in our lives?
Or the Herod-like behaviors within ourselves?
But first, let’s begin with Herod.
Biographers describe Herod the Great as a complicated figure.* The Roman Empire appointed him to govern the region of Judea on their behalf, promoting Hellenistic culture, better known to us as Greek culture. He worked well under Caesar, Cassius, Antony, and Octavian Augustus, quickly shifting allegiances with every change in leadership. Yet Herod was not from a Roman background himself. He was an aristocratic outsider who advanced the Roman agenda.
In actuality, Herod had been raised a practicing Jew. To improve his social standing, he married into a family long connected to the high priesthood, but he did not have the correct ancestry to claim that role for himself. Acting on behalf of Rome, wearing a false title as their king, he was rejected by the Jewish community. Here again, Herod was an aristocratic outsider.
Herod seemed to earnestly walk the line between these two communities, never quite making his way into either one. He promoted the Greek way of life, which ensured the region's stabilization and Rome’s protection. Walking this line even helped preserve some aspects of Jewish culture, but not enough to earn him any respect.
In some ways, Herod presents as an unscrupulous figure that no one likes, but everyone seems to need. Rome and Herod used one another for their mutual benefit. Herod and powerful people within Judea used each other in the same way. It was a cycle of selfish behaviors, most of which were rooted in chasing after the allusion of power and control.
Biographers report that during his tenure as king of Judea, Herod:
“...brought his kingdom considerable prosperity. He stabilized the economy
and reduced taxes. He encouraged trade and built the splendid port city of
He also led a troubled personal life, murdering his wife and some of his children. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that when the wise men took another road home, Herod ordered every male infant near Bethlehem killed. And while there is no historical proof this happened, based on his family life, it’s clear that Herod had the capacity for such evil.
As one biographer put it,
“Like many people with a strong will to power, Herod could not face the idea of losing it.”*
When Herod was made aware that wise men were searching for a child born king of the Jews, the text describes him as being frightened (Matthew 2:3). Out of fear he uses his power and authority to gather all the chief priests and scribes seeking an explanation as to who this king might be. They advise Herod that the prophet Micah foretold of a ruler who would shepherd the people of Israel (Matthew 2:1-12 & Micah 5:2).
Herod then called for the wise men, interviewed them, and charged them with returning to Herod to share the child’s location. Instead, the wise men are warned in a dream to return home another way. Similarly, Joseph is warned in a dream to take his family and escape to Egypt, where they live as refugees until Herod’s death.
It would be easy to hear about Herod’s behaviors, particularly in light of Matthew’s story of Herod ordering the massacre of the innocents, and labeling him as evil (Matthew 2:16-18). The antagonist; the villain of this story. As though only truly horrible people have the capacity for such evil.
That would be nice, wouldn’t it? If things were so simple and binary as there being good people and bad people. In reality, we are all complicated.
Herod is no exception. Yes, he is a privileged person, who lived a very comfortable life, yet also never quite fit in. Meaning Herod may have never felt seen, known, genuinely loved, or accepted. We’ll never know with any certainty, but I can’t help but wonder if he coped with his fears by emulating others who seemed to have it all; grabbing power and influence. Then he could ensure he was ‘seen’ in this powerful role, even if he was never truly known. I have to believe that behind some of these horrific choices and behaviors is a desperate and deeply broken person, who has learned to survive by forgoing any and all care of others, choosing instead to preserve the self at all costs.
Herod chose to make himself the center, when God, in the form of this child in Bethlehem, will grow up to tell us Love is the Way. Self-sacrificial love of God and neighbor is the Way. Yet Herod’s fear drives his selfishness and leaves a wake of destruction in its path.
I was reminded earlier this week that the anniversary of the Capital Riot will always happen on Epiphany. Which means for the rest of our lives we will celebrate the unfolding revelation of Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One, while also remembering another outsider, who went to unnerving lengths to cling to his own power and position. For many of us, this anniversary touches a raw nerve that we’re still processing two years later.
Behind the events of that day is another Herod-like figure, someone with a strong will to power who could not face the idea of losing it. Someone who chose to make himself the center, instead of the country he was called to serve, and the global community he was called to partake in on our behalf.
We witness Herod-like figures far more often than we would care to admit. Watch the news, read a book, or stream a tv show and we can see these same behavioral patterns, insecurities and fears that corrupt our best selves. At times we also can discover our own Herod-like moments when we see these same patterns and insecurities within ourselves. Whenever we choose to serve our own fear over the well being of the community - whether that be a neighborhood, faith community, school, workplace, or family. And while it’s tempting to want to fix all that is wrong out in the world, maybe our best next step is examining our own behaviors, choices, insecurities, and motivations.
There are many different kinds of fears that can motivate our actions. Fears that we are bad, unwanted, worthless, defective, incapable; fears of being alone, trapped in pain; fears of being controlled or in conflict with others.**
What matters is not that we ‘fix’ our fear, but that we make space for it, get curious about it, and offer ourselves compassion. By engaging in this dance, we are better able to offer ourselves compassion and discover some inner healing. This empowers us to offer compassion to the people in our lives. It is an act of sharing God’s love and healing in a broken world. It is how we begin to walk the Way of Love that the child in Bethlehem calls us into.
What if this Epiphany season when we feel insecure, broken, or afraid like Herod, we choose not to react, but instead to intentionally offer ourselves compassion? How might it reveal God’s Love for us, in us, and through us?
Is it possible that offering ourselves more compassion will give us a greater capacity to offer others compassion? Those we live and work beside? Those who challenge and frighten us? Those we are convinced will quite literally drive us bonkers? How might all of this help us make God’s Love manifest in our world? I challenge us each to embrace compassion this month, and I hope next month you’ll let me know what your experience with intentional compassion has been like.
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