This morning we’re going to talk about what are traditionally known as The Beatitudes, this list of blessings Jesus speaks as the first words of his most well-known sermon; specifically, we’re going to talk about how these blessings contrast to most other messages we hear in life, other voices that speak loudly inside of us and that you might call curses.

Since Christmas, we’ve been following a couple of themes in worship, and I want to begin with a little reminder of that broader context that sets up today’s message:

After the birth of Jesus at Christmas, we spent several Sundays looking at his early life in a series called “Becoming Jesus.”  We looked at stories from his childhood, spiritual training he intentionally sought out, and the way he surrounded himself with others for the start of his ministry.

Then Lent came along, and we have been talking about a next phase in the story of Jesus.  We’ve been asking a soul-seaching question: “What was I made for?”  The question is appropriate for Lent because in this season, we are called to a time of spiritual self-examination, checking in about the health and growth of our relationship with God.  So as we invite you to ask the question, “What was I made for?” we’ve been looking at what kind of answers Jesus gives to that question.  This week’s passage—this collection of blessings—this is one of the ways Jesus tells us what we were made for.

As we get into our sacred text for today, I want you to imagine yourself there in the moment, hearing these words for the first time.  Imagine that you’re living in the time of Jesus, in the land where he taught and traveled, or maybe imagine that he’s living in our time, and one morning you find yourself with the opportunity to hear him speak to you, directly.  On that day, word has spread that Jesus would be teaching on a hillside nearby—hundreds, maybe thousands, have left aside the other demands of the day to go and hear this great teacher, and you have decided to go as well, to see what all the fuss is about.

Jesus arrives quietly and humbly, and walks to the hilltop, and there he sits down to teach, for that was the tradition of his ancestors.  The crowd becomes quiet, and then he begins to speak, and the first thing he says is this:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you…

Jesus’ voice is calming…and the words are mysteriously challenging, and you find yourself at peace; and suddenly you realize that what Jesus is saying is totally different than what you hear everyplace else in life.  Brian McLaren, who I’ve cited here before, teaches that these blessings are what Christians should aspire to be.  The problem is that we spend so much of our lives absorbing messages that are quite the opposite, messages that are curses, and not blessings.

The voices we usually hear say sound more like this:

“Do everything you can to be rich and powerful.”  “Toughen up and harden yourself against feelings of loss.”  “Be independent and aggressive, hungry and thirsty for higher status in the social pecking order.”  “Strike back quickly when others strike you, and guard your image so you’ll always be popular.”  (McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, 127-8)

These are the voices we most often here, but Jesus’ message is different, and Jesus’ purpose is clear.  Not the curses you hear so often, but his blessings—the blessings are what you were made for.

It is a real challenge to live by these blessing from Jesus instead of the curses we hear most of the time—but it is the purpose of the church to rise to that challenge, and speak the blessings.  I recently read another pastor’s account of a Bible study he has led in his congregation for many years—many congregations have one like it, but I liked his simple way of putting it.  He wrote, “Over the years, we have been part of each other’s diseases, divorces, jobs, weddings, marriages, and struggles with work and parenting.  In spite of the seriousness of these issues, when the group started most of the men would comment only on how wonderfully they were doing with life.  This is what they had learned to do in all the informal conversations they had in their workplace.  If they dared to confess the truth, it could and probably would be used against them.  But in time they discovered that this group could be the much-yearned-for sanctuary where they were free to confess weakness and limitation.” (Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet, 62)

That is the definition of church.  This idea of living honestly, according to truths that much of the culture does not value, but being drawn into this different and beautiful way of life.  I can think of places where it happens here at Knox, in study groups and among informal friendships, in our Lenten Journey small groups going on now, and in one-on-one conversations in Jana’s office, or David’s, or mine; it happens anywhere where we talk about grief or mistakes, the challenges of parenting or caring for an aging parent, the frustrations in life we can’t make sense of, the stories of the ways we’ve tried to follow Christ, and the ways that we have failed.  These are moments that are rarely glorified in the wider culture, but where we grow closer to a real relationship with God.

New Elders and Deacons ordained today:  what I am describing is the way of life to which you have been called, and it is the kind of community you have been asked to lead.  Your task for this season of leadership is to help our community of faith live in this contrary and challenging and vulnerable way; to grow in Christ, to seek to be faithful, to fail at some things and to try again, to receive forgiveness in your own life, and offer grace to others.  To help us find ways to do this work here at Knox, in our worship and music, education, mission, and even in the operations of the church, so that everyone we know gets to receive the blessings Jesus has spoken, and so that you can receive those blessings into your own life as well.

It is a way of life that everyone wants, and yet it is surprisingly hard to embrace—I know I find that true in my own life.  In the past several weeks as I was taking some time for renewal, I was reminded yet again that it is sabbath time with God that makes me a better pastor.  I had to be reminded of it, because much of the time, I am deluded by a different voice; a voice that tells me my value comes from doing a lot of work.  A part of my spiritual journey is trying to let the power of that voice die, so that I can hear the voice of blessing instead.

It’s my hunch that inside many of you, there are unhelpful voices that speak too loudly.  What does the unhelpful voice say to you?  Our challenge is to keep those voices quiet enough so that we can hear Jesus when he speaks a message no one else is saying.

Jesus lived a life that was radically counter to the voices of his time—and ours:  he chose peace over violence, poverty over wealth, humility over personal glorification, God over country.  People flocked to his way of life, so much so that he threatened the kings of his day, and so in order to kill his movement, they killed him.  But his wisdom could not be put to death; his wisdom lives.  Jesus is the model; Jesus lived a whole life of calling out all the harmful voices, and offering blessings in their place.  We are called to follow him by putting to death in our own lives, the voices that are killing us by a thousand little paper cuts, and to hear the word of God that is calling us to a life of peace, joy, and love.

The story of Lent is that the only way to salvation is through death.  In the dying and rising of Jesus, we see a story that can be lived everyday in all of our lives.  Life, real life, joyful life, is found by naming those things in life that are killing us:  greed, lust, addiction, pride…what is it for you?  We must find these curses and put them to death so that they cannot smother the presence of God—so that we can hear the blessings Jesus wants for us.  Blessed are the humble, the grieving, the meek, the pure and heart, those who hunger and thirst for life with God—for they will be filled.  May we lay aside the curses and hear the blessings of truth—this is what we were made for.  Amen.