Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
If you want to have a Savior, you’ve got to go where the Savior is to be found. That’s the lesson of the opening of today’s Gospel lesson, from chapter 5 of Matthew’s account. According to the verses which precede this text, Jesus had been traveling throughout Galilee, preaching and teaching and healing, and had become quite widely known, even outside the region where He was performing His ministry.
Large numbers of people were following Him, but there’s a distinction between those who merely tagged along to be associated with Jesus physically or intellectually, and those who were truly connected with Him spiritually.
In the scriptures, we read that “great crowds followed Him,” but that it was when He went up onto the mountain that His disciples came to Him. It’s no different today, really. A vast-but-shrinking majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians, yet only a small segment of those who do so actually come to Him on His mountain each Sunday.
Yet it’s on the mountain, in His holy presence, that the Lord gives His people the gifts they need to truly be His disciples. On a mountain, He gave them His Law—an understanding of what sort of obedience is necessary for a man or woman to be considered righteous in His sight. It was on a mountain that He instructed His apostles to go and make disciples of all nations, and there He gave them the gift of Holy Baptism and the preaching and teaching office through which He was to be made known.
It was in Jerusalem, on the earthly Mount Zion, that He gave them His Holy Supper for the forgiveness of sins, and later gave them the Office of the Keys to declare forgiveness to repentant sinners and to withhold it from the unrepentant. And, of course, it was on the mountain that He was lifted up on the cross; His bloody and agonizing death being the ultimate gift—the sacrifice to atone for the sins of the whole world.
So it is here on the mountain, in the presence of Almighty God, that we gather each week to receive His teaching and His gifts, to be refreshed and renewed and cleansed before we join the rest of the crowd down on the plains of despair, where they dwell all the time, even on Sunday mornings.
The record which Matthew brings us today is the first documented sermon of Jesus. Although we have some general idea from earlier sections of the gospel that Jesus was preaching about the coming kingdom of God, it is here in chapter 5 that we see the first real detail.
This discourse establishes the tone and framework for the rest of Jesus’ earthly ministry. It’s therefore worthy of our attention and our understanding.
In discussing this text, Martin Luther said that it is the duty of all preachers to do as Christ did: To open his mouth and teach his people. Luther wrote:
“He should also open his mouth vigorously and confidently, to preach the truth that has been entrusted to him. He should not be silent or mumble, but testify without being frightened or bashful. He should speak out candidly without regarding or sparing anyone, let it strike whomever or whatever it will. It is a great hindrance to a preacher if he looks around and worries about what people like or do not like to hear, or what might make him unpopular or bring harm or danger upon him.”
Luther went on to say that the preaching office Christ established was not to provide for worldly gain or popularity, but to speak the truth, rebuke evil, and teach what is beneficial to souls. “It is,” Luther wrote, “intended to teach how we are to come to that other life.”
And it’s certainly another sort of life that Jesus describes in those Beatitudes which follow, isn’t it? The nine blessings of which Jesus speaks run against almost all prevailing worldly wisdom, some appearing completely foolish to most and even making believers wonder sometimes. Yet here, at the very beginning, Jesus establishes the underlying foundation of what we now call the Theology of the Cross. He makes these fundamental statements and puts a stake in the ground, a sharp line in the sand.
Look at the Beatitudes, one after another. Each one clearly proclaims the attributes of a humble servant. Each one describes an individual who seeks not his own advantage, but rather surrenders himself for the sake of others. In other words, each Beatitude describes Jesus Christ and therefore describes how a faithful follower, a dedicated disciple, ought to behave also.
It’s not the sort of message that much of Christianity is comfortable with anymore. In increasing numbers, believers are told that in following Jesus, much good will come to them on the road ahead:
“Don’t be poor in spirit,” they are told. “You have to be bubbling over with Spirit-driven energy and excitement.”
“Don’t mourn,” they hear. “Be happy. Put on a happy face and show the world how Jesus has changed your life for the better.”
“Don’t be meek. Name it; claim it; grab life by the horns—prosperity, health, and popularity will come your way.”
“Don’t hunger and thirst for righteousness. Show everyone how righteous you are. Avoid this sin and that sin… Oh, and especially this other sin. If you do any of those sins, then it means you aren’t really saved.”
“Be merciful, but only to those who are like you—with your religion, your ethnicity, your politics. Don’t be merciful to those who don’t look like, act like, or think like you.”
In teaching and accepting such lies, these misguided souls and those who lead them are playing right into Satan’s hands. He’d like nothing more that to convince all Christians that unless your life is smooth and picture-perfect, God is angry with you. He loves it when people’s faith is hitched to their emotions, their prosperity, their health, their satisfaction with their lives. Satan rejoices when trouble is a wedge between God and His saints.
But both experience and—more importantly—God’s holy word teaches us that this isn’t the case. Our road ahead will be filled with potholes, treacherous turns, dangers of every kind, and a great deal of pain and suffering. It’s only at our final destination, before the throne of God, that all these things will be taken away. It is there to which we turn our eyes—keeping them fixed on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. It is there where all the Beatitudes of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount come to their full, rich realization.
We believe, teach, and confess the Theology of the Cross because we live the Theology of the Cross. Anything else is merely the siren song of temptation, wanting to lead us to things we will find pleasant and comfortable and unoffensive. But that’s not what our Lord and Savior experienced, and so it is not what we experience, either. We are so bound, so connected to Him that we must also share in His sufferings.
Not that our sufferings work atonement or redemption for us; His sufferings alone did that. We share in His sufferings because in going through such trials, we realize that our eternal destiny is hopeless apart from the crucified Savior. We deal with tragedy, and heartache, and pain, and sometimes even despair because we must be convinced over and over again that only through repentance and restoration does the fabric of our faith become woven stronger and stronger.
Today we observe All Saints Day, a day set aside each year for us to remember the faithful departed and also to rejoice in our eternal connection to them, to saints past and present and yet to come, and especially our connection as the saints purchased with the precious blood of Jesus. As I told the school children in chapel this past Wednesday, it isn’t known as “Dead Saints’ Day” or “Past Saints’ Day.” It’s All Saints’ Day. Like our salvation and eternal joy, it is our present, sure possession, too.
We’ve had 14 saints among us depart from our midst in the past 12 months. One need only look as far as their lives and their final days to be reminded once again that being a believer in Jesus Christ as your Savior in no way grants you a guarantee of smooth sailing. As St. Paul wrote, “all who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death.” And His death, just like ours, began its inevitable march at the very moment of His conception, when He was “made man” in the womb of His virgin mother.
The key connection between His death and ours, of course is that our death is a result of our sin. Yet in God’s unfathomable, mysterious way—His death is a result of our sin, too.
That’s where the similarity ends, though. Although the Scriptures tell us that the death of God’s saints is precious in His sight, our deaths are quite meaningless beyond that. Our earthly deaths may be precious, but they accomplish nothing at all in the eternal scheme of things. It is Christ’s death alone that absorbed God’s wrath against the sin that kills us, so that in spite all the consequences of sin we experience in life, and all the suffering and pain we may go through, we don’t have to bear the punishment for our sins.
Jesus took that. He made Himself poor in spirit, mournful, and meek because He hungered and thirsted for us to receive His righteousness. He was merciful and pure in heart to become our peacemaker with God when we continued to wage war against Him.
We will be persecuted for righteousness sake, but on account of His righteousness—the righteousness He gives us that is not our own. For our confession and witness to that righteousness, the world reviles, rejects, insults, and lies against you. On Christ’s account, and not your own. And, on account of that righteousness, the kingdom of heaven and all its rewards are yours indeed.
May your hunger and thirst for righteousness bring you to font, pulpit, and altar where He alone can satisfy you. May His rich spirit, righteousness, and mercy be your ever-present comfort and sustenance against the troubles and persecutions of life. The Great Peacemaker, Jesus Christ, has overcome the world, reconciled you to the Father, and given you His heavenly kingdom.
Rejoice and be glad, all you saints of the Lord. Amen.