The opening verses of chapter 5 are likely the best-known verses in Matthew’s gospel. Why? Probably because Jesus announces blessing for those who endure doubt, grief, persecution, and any number of other things which the world often curses. It’s encouraging to know that God is with us in times like these. These blessings are not good news because everything is already going well, as we so often talk about blessing. Rather, Jesus’ blessings serve as a constant assurance that God is actively at work during the all-too-present struggles in life.
Yet, this isn’t always how we think of blessings functioning, at least in an American context. I often hear people talk about being blessed when they have things that make them more comfortable or secure – like strong family or friend support, or enough money in their bank accounts, or opportunities and privileges that enable them to advance a career.
The Sermon on the Mount casts faint echoes of Moses ascending Sinai for revelation. Jesus sees the crowds assembling, but rather than address all of them he gathers his new disciples together for some teaching, anticipating that they will take the message and the blessing to the masses. You can visualize Jesus looking intently at his disciples while occasionally casting a glance toward the crowds in the background, as if to say, “You see all these people here – the hurting, the destitute, the hopeless? God’s kingdom is for them. Teach this. Show this. Live like this. And you will experience what the kingdom of heaven is all about.”
A year ago, I traveled to Ethiopia and South Sudan with a couple of pastors to visit leaders of a cluster of new Lutheran churches. These churches were growing in refugee camps, led by people who had been displaced by violent civil wars and economic hardship. Our hosts lost children, parents, spouses and friends in these wars. Despite external evidence, these were the people Jesus taught to see blessing in – the poor in spirit, the mourning, the persecuted.
In preparation for the visit, we were told that we would meet with about 40-50 leaders for a couple of days. The first person we met was our host, Pastor Wal. He took us to the guest house, and told us to hurry get going because the people were waiting for us at the church down the street. As we made the fifteen-minute walk toward the church we asked Pastor Wal how many people had come. It wasn’t 50 as we expected, but 550 people. Many of them had taken buses from the refugee camps to come and meet us. We quickly realized that this was not going to be a quiet leaders meeting; it was a celebration of the kingdom of God coming near!
When we turned on to a small path off the main street that led to the church, we heard loud, joyful singing. In the distance a line of deacons and evangelists dressed in robes waited to greet us. They shook our hands and welcomed us with broad smiles. At the end of the receiving line, four chairs on a bright blue tarp awaited us; one for each of us. They gestured for us to sit down and take off our shoes. Then women came with pans of water and washed our feet with great care and love. When we looked in their eyes, we could see God’s blessedness emanating from their weathered, weary, merciful faces. They didn’t have many of the marks of blessing we consider in the west, but they had the blessing that matters more; the blessing of Jesus leading them to persevere in hope, struggle forward for peace, and witness to the world that the kingdom of heaven indeed comes near. So Why Jesus? Because Jesus is blessing.
Questions to ponder for sermon preparation or Bible Study
- How might our communities be different if we measured blessing by Jesus’ definitions?
- Which of Jesus’ blessings are most evident in your community? What do you think God has to teach us through them?
- In whom have you witnessed or experienced Jesus’ blessing recently?
- Where is the kingdom of heaven coming near your communities and churches? Where has the church lost its “saltiness?”
What is the Why Jesus Project? Check out the FAQ on Why Jesus? Home Page.