Shining the Light

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
February 5, 2017

Matthew 5: 1-16 (NIV)
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2and he began to teach them.

He said: 3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

13“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

On October 14, 1947, General Chuck Yeager became the first human to break the sound barrier. For years, various test pilots with multiple agencies had been working to achieve this feat only to be met with constant disappointment. Many believed it was an impossible challenge to overcome. It seemed that every time a pilot would near Mach-1 speed, that magic number of 735mph, the aircraft would begin to fall apart, almost disintegrating, or it would crash. The force of such speed seemed too much, and it was like the controls refused to work properly once the plane came to the sound barrier.

In the climax of the 1983 movie, The Right Stuff, which centers on Yeager’s historic flight, the test pilots working to break the sound barrier figured out what to do. It seemed that when the plane broke the sound barrier the controls actually began working backwards. Pulling the stick back to bring the nose of the plane up would actually send it plunging downwards instead. So on that day in 1947, as Yeager piloted the Bell X-1 to higher and higher speeds, at the critical moment, instead of pulling the stick back, he pushed it forward. The hunch was correct; rather than diving into a tailspin, the nose of the plane came up. At the air base below, anxious observers heard the explosive boom of the sound barrier being breached, and high above Yeager piloted the plane faster than anyone had ever travelled before.

This story gives us a very graphic illustration of what Jesus is doing in these beautiful and seemingly simple words that begin his Sermon on the Mount. He is taking the controls and making them work backwards. And really, the only explanation is that Christ knows he is taking God’s people through the sound barrier in essence, piloting them somewhere they’ve never been before.

Through the month of February, we are going to spend time in Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon on the Mount. These words contained in chapters five through seven of Matthew’s gospel represent the most basic and complete teachings of Christ. But as we really delve into these words, I think what we will find over and over again is that Christ is defying our worldly ways and our worldly expectations over and over again. He is taking everything we know, all the structures we depend upon, and he is turning them on their head, making them work differently, even the opposite of what we would expect.

Because Christ’s audience were Jews living under the Law, I think it’s easy for us to try and soften Christ’s teachings; to sort of dismiss the radical nature of what Christ is saying. “Sure,” we say, “For folks living under the Law, everything was changing; Christ was altering their whole world order.” So we read the Beatitudes, and we think to ourselves along these lines, “Everything’s okay because God’s with me when I’m sad. I need to always be humble, and always strive to live like Christ. I need to be forgiving and merciful, and work for peace in the world. Then, I need to share the good news of Christ by shining Christ’s light.” And all of that is true! We do need to live in these ways, always! But this is not just a checklist; there’s more to it than just that. Christ’s words are as radical and world-changing today as they were 2,000 years ago!

Indeed, Christ has come. Through his life, ministry, death, and resurrection, Christ has inaugurated God’s kingdom. Because of that, we don’t live under the old Law anymore. But even apart from the Law, the ways of this world have significant and often very negative influence in our lives. We need to hear these Beatitudes with that understanding. When God delivered the people out of slavery in Egypt, Moses climbed Mount Sinai and received the Law of God to guide the life of the God’s people. 2,000 years ago, Jesus climbed a mountainside in Galilee to teach the people about a new covenant to guide the life of God’s people. Amid the chaos and turmoil of our world today, we need to hear these words with fresh ears, and understand the radical ways of God’s kingdom! Friends, Christ changes things, not only in our lives, but in our whole world, and we cannot pretend that he doesn’t!

Here’s the first thing to know about the Beatitudes and about the new work God is doing through Jesus Christ: this is not a “to-do” list. Jesus is not simply instructing us on how to behave. This is the gospel, good news, not just good advice. And our world needs good news—everyday and in every era. Any peace seems to grow more and more fragile. Mourners often go uncomforted. The meek don’t inherit the earth. Those who long and fight for justice often take that longing to the grave. But now, Christ says, that’s all changing! Jesus proclaims that those who already ARE like this are blessed, they are in good shape, they should rejoice! Can you imagine hearing such news? Jesus was standing on a hillside preaching to a bunch of “nobodies,” and he was telling them the best news they could possibly hear; that they are actually blessed, they are somebody!

For as long as humans have existed, we have been measuring ourselves and our systems according to worldly standards. In the world, success comes with prominence. But faithful disciples are meek, found even in the forgotten corners of the world. Value is measured in dollar signs. But Christ teaches that the truly blessed are the poor in spirit and the pure of heart. The world assigns worth based on power and prominence. But Christ proclaims the faithful disciples are the persecuted, those who strive after peace rather than power, and those who are quick to offer mercy. Our blessedness in life does not depend on our worldly achievements, and if such achievement is our life’s work, then we are striving after the wrong goal.

Now, here’s the second thing to know about the Beatitudes; they are not only about the blessedness of individuals, but of the entire world. Everything that applies on an individual level also applies on a systemic level. Christ inaugurates God’s kingdom, a kingdom not of this world, a kingdom that operates entirely differently from our worldly kingdoms. “Politics as usual” doesn’t stand in God’s kingdom. Our human structures and institutions—churches, businesses, communities, countries, everything—they cannot continue to pursue wealth, pride, power, and prominence above all else, especially when such pursuits lead to war and the trampling of human life and dignity. Blessing comes through humility, compassion, mercy, and peace. These should be our highest endeavors in every facet of life—as a people who are blessed by God in Christ Jesus, we have to be salt and light, bringing the kingdom of God to bear in a dark world. But even more than that, being salt and light means blessing the people that God blesses.

So let’s take Christ’s words to us as he opens his Sermon on the Mount and think for a minute about what they mean in our world today. Because the truth is, if we really want the world to change, it begins by listening to Christ. The problem we all face, though, is that listening to Christ is really inconvenient, especially when we are completely enmeshed in a certain way of life; when our lives are tied up in the well-being of our worldly structures. But friends, the time is now. We have to stop perpetuating useless systems that drain life, and we need to understand that in God’s kingdom, things work differently—the lowly are exalted, the nobodies are really somebodies. The world is dark and we need to shine God’s light.

Each of us has our own struggles, but I know collectively what is on our minds this morning, and we can’t pretend like Christ’s words are empty in the face of life circumstances. Our world is made up of a whole lot of broken systems and weighty institutions that have got it all wrong—they’ve been built on all the classic worldly standards, and they’re all failing, even the church. I won’t pretend to have any idea how to fix the mess that is our lives, our churches, our communities, our country, or our world. But I do know this—continuing to try and control things in our natural human way is only going to send us into a further nose dive. God’s ways are not our ways. Blessing comes not through wealth and domination, but through pure faithfulness and humble service. God in Christ Jesus has already blessed the “nobodies,” and though the Beatitudes are not a check-list to a blessed life, if we, too, bless the people God blesses then we will be living the Beatitudes; we will be shining God’s light.

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