A Homily for Septuagesima
February 9, 2020
All Saints Anglican Church, Prescott, AZ
Text: Matthew 5:1-12
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
When you think of humanity what comes to mind? Perhaps the great love stories, or the noble war stories, or perhaps the terror of the cruelty of man as we’ve seen in the modern age? Or perhaps you think of flesh and blood and sinew, or the beauty of your first love, or the distinct smell of you care deeply for who has now gone to their rest.
But what about of statues? As westerners this could be a rather foreign concept to us, but if we lived in the ancient Near East this description might peek our interest.
Let me explain, perhaps you might remember the fall of Sadam Hussain about twenty years ago. I still have this vivid image of liberated Iraqis pulling down the statues that Sadam has erected in towns throughout his country. This act of ripping down the statues wasn’t just an act of rebellion, it wasn’t just an act of anger at Sadam, though those were undoubtedly a part of the motive, the action of destruction said something very poignant. It said – this man no longer rules us, this country no longer belongs to this dictator, we are removing his image from our land.
Statues in the ancient, and not so ancient Near East act as symbols of who is in charge, symbols of who the lands belong to.
And so when I say, do you think of humanity as being statues? This is no mistake – for when we read the wording of the creation of mankind we hear that “male and female are created in the image and likeness of God.” The early readers of Genesis 1 would have known – humanity was placed on earth as a visual and outward reminder that the earth is the Lord’s. Humanity, male and female are visual reminders, statues in the center of town, if you will, that the earth belongs to God.
This basic fact may help us to worship God better – and to love even our enemies better. How would your perspective change if when you saw a your best friend and recalled the creative power of our Lord?
Or what about when you saw your spouse or your child?
Or your annoying co-work or neighbor?
Or someone who has hurt you deeply or someone who hates you?
How does recognizing that God created the person sitting next to you change how you approach them?
But then returning to creation – something terrible happened. Perhaps it was an hour or ten years – we do not know, and it does not matter, but the first statues, the first people, did what they were forbidden to do. They ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and rebelled against God, they rejected their ruler, they rejected the one whom they were created in the image of and in this act the image was not lost, but became tarnished.
Sin entered into the world and it’s horrible grime covered and marred that image.
And immediately God, the creator enacted his plan for the restoration of those image bearers, He enacted His plan for our restoration his plan for the salvation of humanity.
First came the Law. Moses went up into the mountain – and he was given the law from God, there he communed with God and God spelled out what he expected from His chosen people, God spelled out a pathway to restoration for them.
But even this pathway did not free them from sin, did not free them from the dreadful and deadly tarnishing that entered with the first image bearers’ rebellion.
But then another took on the image – took on the image, became the perfect image of God and He too went into the mountain but He did not communion with God on that mountain, but rather He was God, and He taught as one with authority, He taught as one who had the right to say what He said. And this teaching is where we pick up this morning in the story of Christ and the story of our salvation.
When Christ goes up the mountain and teaches what we know as “the sermon on the mount” – St. Matthew uses the exact same phrase at the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible uses for when Moses ascends Mt. Sinai, inextricably linking that moment of Moses’s life and Christ’s life, and marking the difference in that Christ does not receive, nor does he need to receive from God the new ethics of the new covenant, for Christ was God incarnate.
And now the beatitudes, as they are commonly called are the gateway into Christ’s teaching, the disposition that we are called to have as Christians, the disposition of our hearts when Christ takes them and molds them and restores them. In this molding and restoration we see the beginning of the restoration of the images of God, we see God sanctifying us, and renewing that image that was all but lost by sin.
And Christ declares – blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
What does it mean to be blessed? In our Christianized world perhaps we have exhausted the word “blessed,” we speak of getting a fancy new car as being a blessing, we speak of friendships, possessions and other things as blessings. We say “father, your sermon was a real blessing to me” when we like the sermon, and sometimes more tech savvy folks uses the hashtag “blessed” when they’re pleased with how things have gone. This may not be a bad thing – for our lives are rich when we see the hand of God working in them.
But I wonder if we know what it means here. Some translations prefer “happy,” but when we get to “blessed are those who mourn,” we might make it seem as though Christ is not declaring something good and beautiful – but rather being a bit insensitive, for how could he say “happy are those who mourn!” We might think – what cruel language.
A modern paraphrase prefers “in-luck,” and this is an interesting take and not all that farfetched – when we understand the translator’s rationale – if Christ is who he says he is – if Christ is God – then the poor, the mourning, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteous, those who are merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted, then and only then are they indeed in luck, but if he is not – then, my, how unfortunate we are, how unlucky we are. For our hope for the future rests in Christ being who he says. (And he is who he says he is).
But, still, as I contemplate these phrases I find myself coming back to the word Happy, there’s something about “happy” that is so simple and attractive – happy if we have a right definition of it. Happy as the fulfilment of our eternal hope, happy as finally, fully having communion with God, happy as I heard it defined this past week – as that emotion when we see a friend from afar and know you will soon be with him.
We know that feeling – our hearts jump a little bit, we become joy-filled, we think at long last my friend is here! I see him over there, we will hug, we will laugh, we will talk of our joys and sorrows, and bear each other’s burdens and delight in each other’s joys, though it is weary, my soul can rest easy now.
Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Happy are we, for we know Christ is restoring His image in us.
But now we take note – these nine saying take on a tension of already – but not yet – they take on a tone of an end of times promise that we are to rejoice in even though they are not yet fulfilled. Notice the tension throughout the entire beatitudes – tied together by the word “shall,” when we see this here – we should think: already – but not yet. Already – the poor are happy – but it is not yet fulfilled completely. Already are you restored in Christ – but not yet fully.
Some have hypothesized that we should read this first saying as:
“bless in the spirit are the poor, for theirs is the king of heaven.”
This would not change our understanding of the poor, but those who are proponents for it say that it clarifies that it is God who will do the blessings, it is because of God’s incarnation that we are in-luck, it is because of God working in Christ that we are called to let our hearts skip with joy. It is God who makes the weary heart happy.
God makes his people happy – God is the one doing the work. I think, as long as we know where our blessing, our joy, our happiness, our fortune comes from – and it comes from God – reading it as blessed are the poor in spirit, is a fine way to read it.
But what does it mean to be poor? There is a difference between not having much, and having nothing. Not having much, your car may be crummy, you may only be able to eat beans and rice, you may have cheap clothes with holes in them, but you get by. But this is not what it means to be poor here. To be poor in this context means to be destitute – to have nothing at all.
Plutarch a secular author who lived half a century or so after Jesus walked on the earth wrote “for the life of a beggar that you describe means existence with nothing, but that of the poor means sparse living and sticking to the job.” This distinction should help us to grasp the difference between being poor and being destitute. Without Christ we are beggars with nothing.
I suspect that most, if not all of us have experienced some form of being poor, wondering how we’ll pay our bills or get food to eat – but few of us have ever been destitute, have ever had nothing at all.
And with this in mind – I think here we get a hint at he first reason why some people don’t come to Christ – to come to Christ means to give up your right to everything it means becoming destitute for the sake of Christ – to come to Christ, God must become the sovereign of your life, God asks you give him all, all your sin, all your virtue, all your shame, and all your joy – everything that makes you – you he asks for – and then to make Him your king – make Him your all, but to come to God, to inherit the kingdom of heaven – first we must become destitute, must like Christ empty ourselves, to empty ourselves of all our earth bound glory – so what we can experience His heavenly glory.
Happy are the destitute for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
I spent a fair amount of time breaking down the first beatitude because each will follow a similar formula. We start with the already – not yet statement of blessed, happy, in luck are the people, and then the promise of what the fulfilment of this status will look like.
The next fortunate group is those who mourn. I cannot imagine that anyone makes it through this life without a significant number of tears, a significant number of pains – we have all experienced loss of ones we love, we have all experienced heart ache, we have all experienced so much pain, and mourn so deeply.
Perhaps my favorite modern musician Andrew Peterson summarizes this guarantee of woundedness in a ballad to his son as he sings of lost hope:
Your first kiss, your first crush
The first time you know you’re not enough
The first time there’s no one there to hold you.
I know few over the age of 20 who have not experienced these things and the hurt that comes with them. For sin entered into the world and tarnished the images we were created in, mutilated the goodness that we were meant to enjoy – and so we mourn – mourn for our brokenness, mourn for our wounds, mourn for what has been lost.
But – in Christ we are fortunate, we are happy for He is our comforted.
I have dealt with anxiety habitually throughout my life – I don’t shout this from the roof top – but it’s not a secret to those who know me well. It can be painful at times but one place I’ve found so much comfort is the 23 Psalm – “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want… (the Lord’s) rod and staff – they comfort me.” And what a good guide he is, exhorting me to repentance, guiding me away from pitfalls, holding me close in my fear and pain when I rest in him, the anxiety diminishes.
My friends – in this sinful world – you will mourn, you will hurt – you will not get away from it – do not numb your pain with cheep entertainment, with shallow promises, with sinful pleasures – but lean all the more into Christ – because happy are you when you mourn because there is a savior who loves you, who wants to hold you – who will comfort you who will be a balm for you pain. Christ is restoring in you His image.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
The meek are the next to receive hope – we are called to not trust in ourselves. Yet we’ve seen this habitually throughout the history of salvation and of mankind. In Babble they tried to build a tower so they could get to God. Moses struck the rock and In modern times it’s the triumph of the human spirit that has lead to two world wars, to genocide, and to at least 50 million abortions since Row verses Wade. We slaughter each other because we must prove our strength.
But happy are those who are meek – happy are the humble – happy are those who do not find their strength in themselves – for when the culmination of all things come – then the earth shall be theirs – and the image of God shall be restored in them to perfection.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
We live in a time and a country that places a high value on justice and here Justice and righteousness can be used interchangeable, I think but they mean different things. Yet if we are remotely astute we know that there are those who will be denied justice. This does not mean that we should be satisfied with meager justice, but cry out to God – “how long O Lord, how long until you supply us with perfect justice and righteousness.”
Like our longing for justice, until Christ returns – we will struggle with sin – we will pray St. Paul’s prayer “why do I do the thing that I know I ought not to do! While I do not do the things that I know I ought to do!” We will know this struggle – but in our desire to glorify Christ – our entire being will long – will hunger and thirst – that God’s righteousness be returned to us – and we will long for justice to be poured out when we feel to crippled.
But we are happy – we count ourselves fortunate for we know the promise of the end – God will pour out mercy and justice – God will restore in us a heart of His righteousness – God is restoring us – and will restore his image in us and in that last day – we will be satisfied for eternity.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
As Christians we are called to be merciful, called to forgive, called to make our enemy list our prayer list. This can be hard – and yet God is merciful, and poured out upon us a deep mercy that we cannot but desire to pour out a mercy upon those who desire it.
Happy are we when we are merciful – because we know the incredible mercy of God.
Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.
The irony is rich here for as Christ preaches, God incarnate is opening his mouth – is asking his hearers – do you know who I am or are your hearts so corrupt, so tainted that you can’t even see that?
For us – we pray that God would continue to restore in us His image – restore in us a purity of heart – we pray he would restore in us the desire to see him always and in everything. For me a part of this goes back to praying the 23rd Psalm – to resting in His good guiding hand – to purify my heart – to help me see his hand in all things – so when I die – I may behold and enjoy that beatific vision – that I may see Him face to face and feel his warm embrace.
My friends – do not be dismayed if you feel as though your heart is too dark, too grim, too dismal to ever see God – for it is not you who purifies your heart – but the Holy Spirit and so let Him purify you – let him restore in you a new heart – a pure heart – a clean heart – so we can gaze upon Christ.
Happy are the pure in heart – because they experience God now and will know God as their Father in eternity.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.
One of the attractions of Anglicanism is its peaceable co-existence with other Christians – we seek to be one with many, to break bread with our brothers and sisters, and this is good. And as Christians this is our call – to restore harmony between enemies. But this can be a difficult task, but we seek that road – seek to show those who are disturbed, angry, and lost that true peace is found in Christ.
Happy are the peacemakers, for we have been adopted by God.
The last two promise us not for a peaceful life if we seek these things, if we are poor, meek, mournful, longing for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, and longing for peace – but rather that we will face turmoil – that the world will mock us and scorn us.
We long so much for a worldly reward – that we find ourselves lost. Christ promises that we will face adversity in the here and now if we follow after Him, but this adversity will sanctify us – usher us into the kingdom of heaven – and we will behold the face of God – and our eternal reward shall be great and good.
The cost of restoration – the cost of being sanctified – the cost of Christ wiping away the mire and dirt of sin from His image in us – is turmoil now – but joy in eternity.
Happy are we when we face persecution.
This is Septuagesima Sunday – which means that it is 70 days before Easter, and the season of preparing our hearts and minds for Lent has come upon us. Lent is a season of praying that God would open our hearts to recognize the places we need restoration, the places we need to repent, the places we need to depend upon Him all the more. As we draw near to Lent, I am going to be challenging you all to pray that the Holy Spirit would reveal in your heart your own brokenness, so you can delve deeper into the restoration that Christ promises us.
I have included the following questions in your bulletin, and this week I want to challenge you to ask God the following – you can pick one or two and pray about them or you can go through each question each day. I realize that this can be a scary task – but I think the fruit of it, will be great and worthwhile so as we draw near to Lent, and perhaps even throughout Lent ask yourselves:
Are you destitute outside of Christ? Is he your all in all, your everything? Or are there things that you cling to for your salvation outside of him?
When you mourn is your only comfort found in Christ? Or are there things that you use to numb the pain? Television? Gossip? Alcohol? Food? Pornography?
Are you meek and humble? Or are you trusting in your own strength to save yourself?
Do you long for God’s righteousness and justice? Or do you dismay and trust in your own righteousness?
Are you willing to be merciful to all people? Or do you hold grudges, and let bitterness persist in your heart?
Is your heart pure? Or do you chase after sin, after strife, after the false promises of the world?
Do you long for peace and strive to bring peace to those around you? Or does turmoil and strife rule your heart, and do you stir up dissension in the world?
Do you rejoice in persecution? Or do we see it as a chance to grumble?
I hope you join with me in praying through these questions – and in this you find the deep and unending joy that Christ has promised us today – that in this you see how Christ – takes our spiritual poverty and makes us inextricably rich, that you may see Christ’s hand of mercy restoring in you the image of God.
A writing from the first or second century of the church summarizes its teaching on the Sermon on the Mount in the following: “for if you can bear all the yoke of the Lord you shall be perfect, but if you cannot, do that which you can.” My dear Friends – do what you can and let the Holy Spirit work richly in you.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.