Preaching the Great Ends of the Church – Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the World
Primary Text – Matthew 4:23-5:12
We started this summer looking at the church as the Body, and its call to be a community of faith, hope, love and witness. The Six Great Ends of the church have offered us a way to explore the purposes to which we are called even more specifically. Today we come to the fifth, penultimate end – the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.
The church is to display, to demonstrate, to show off the Kingdom of God to those in the church and beyond.
There is a strangeness, a foreignness, to these words, partly because we don’t often talk about being citizens of a Kingdom. We’re Americans, after all. It’s only been a few weeks since we set off fireworks in commemoration of our independence from the throne of England.
Maybe if we changed the wording to the “Exhibition of the Nation of Heaven to the world,” it would feel more like us…. It would certainly align with cries that we need to return to be more of a “Christian Nation”
Now – this is where I need to stop and make a disclaimer.
I may or may not say some things today that don’t sit well with your particular view of the world. I may say some things that don’t sit well with what you have come to understand our scriptures to mean because I am going to approach a familiar passage from an angle that may not be familiar or comfortable.
I am not worried about making people uncomfortable. What worries me is doing so from the pulpit. The gravitational force on words changes when they come from up here. They land harder. They have a different sort of authority. I have been wounded by words proclaimed by without regard for those who faithfully disagreed.
I do care for each of you, and about your spiritual growth. As we ponder these things today, if you find yourself disagreeing with me, I hope you’ll pray for me. And I hope that we can talk later and ponder some more together.
I have wrestled and continue to wrestle with the way God speaks to us from a 2000-year-old book that describes the life of our God made flesh, that outlines our Savior’s teachings and the wisdom of our spiritual ancestors.
I have wrestled and continue to wrestle with the way the Church universal and historical has interpreted portions of the Bible in ways that caused rather than cured injustice and oppression.
I have and continue to wrestle with the way nations across the western world today and historically, have cherry-picked some and ignored other teachings from our sacred book.
I have wrestled with and – even as I stand before you now- continue to wrestle with what it means to affirm that God is sovereign over all, to affirm that God is sovereign over my heart and soul, and to pledge allegiance to the flag of my nation.
You see, all of that stuff, that’s what we are reading about in Mark’s and Luke’s gospels when Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God. And what Matthew calls the Kingdom of Heaven, since the Jewish followers of Christ he wrote for avoided using words that named God.
Their consistent use of the word Kingdom, however, tells us that Jesus had something important to say about power. About who had the power on earth. And about how he – as God walking among us – would change that power dynamic
There were some, even among his closest followers, who hoped the Messiah, a descendant from the line of King David, would lead a revolution, restoring the Kingdom of Israel… a human kingdom.
That kind of revolution would turn the world upside down, taking down the tax collectors, the governors, and other representatives of the empire and lifting up Jesus and his representatives to usher in a new regime.
But Jesus kept talking about the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom he was meant to represent, with parables about mustard seeds and things that were not exactly heroic.
And when Jesus talked about life in God’s kingdom, systems were upended, but not in the way his disciples expected or hoped.
Not at the start of his ministry. And certainly not when backing down from those teaching would have saved him from being lifted up and onto the cross.
In Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ life, today’s passage is very near the beginning of his ministry. After enduring the temptations in the wilderness and calling his disciples, Jesus started teaching in synagogues throughout Galilee.
He has been proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, curing people. Great crowds of people with all manner of illnesses followed Jesus from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and from beyond the Jordan.
These were the crowds Jesus saw when he went up to the mountain and began to teach there. Certainly his closest disciples -the twelve we generally think of – were among those listening, but there were many others following him by now- Jesus would have addressed them as well.
This passage is the beginning of what we call the Sermon on the Mount, and it is the first glimpse Matthew gives us of what Jesus must have been teaching in the synagogues. Jesus starts with words of encouragement, welcome and recognition. He doesn’t just see the crowd, he knows them. He understands their struggles. And he has the authority to speak into those struggles.
In his words, we can hear echoes of the prophet Isaiah, particularly the passage Luke provides in his description of Jesus reading from the scroll to start his ministry in Nazareth:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Healing, Freedom, Good news, Favor… These are what you might call Blessings. We know these twelve verses in Matthew as the Beatitudes. That’s because in Latin, the word that opens each of the statements is beatudo. Most English translators will use “blessed” or might put emphasis on the divine with “God blesses”.
Now, living here in the southern United States, you’ve likely heard (used?) a couple of idioms that include the verb “Bless”. Either of which might color the way you hear what Jesus is saying here…
There’s “Bless her heart” – usually delivered in a tone that tells you that it’s not exactly a curse, but not quite calling down a special provision from God, either.
Then there’s the way people use “blessed” to mean fortunate or even lucky. Like the Facebook post that comes up every fall: “Pumpkin Spice Lattes are back! No line at St. Arbucks on the way to work. Feeling blessed”
Certainly God provides for us and we do count those blessings. But sometimes this use of blessings is more about comfort, happiness and prosperity than provision.
In the same way, Matthew’s community would hear the word markarios (blessed) in light of their culture – The Roman culture that placed great emphasis on honor and shame. Honor came by way of status- enhanced by those things that might bring wealth and power, like – your health, or your connections and lineage. And conversely, a lack of these things could bring shame.
To capture the intended meaning in today’s language, we might use esteemed or honored in place of blessed.
Honored are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Honored are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Esteemed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Held in highest regard are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Jesus is speaking to those who are poor, weak, living on the ragged edges of society… And he says to them, You are valuable and valued. You are honored.
This is the point at which some of you may be thinking, “That’s fine, Laura, do your little word thing, but we have done perfectly well saying blessed.”
If that’s you, you’re right. It’s a perfectly good word. But I do want us to hear it with ears attuned to all of the nuances of its meanings.
For instance, in the opening of Psalm 103, we read:
Bless the Lord, Oh my soul and all that is in me,
Bless His holy name.
And then in the closing verses:
20 Bless the Lord, O you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his bidding,
obedient to his spoken word.
21 Bless the Lord, all his hosts,
his ministers that do his will.
22 Bless the Lord, all his works,
in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
And the opening of many traditional Jewish prayers:
Barukh Adonai Elohainu melakh ha olam
Blessed are you oh Lord our God, King of the Universe.
These are proclamations of glory and honor given to the God we love and praise, the God who is three in one, the God who took on flesh, sat on a mountain and spoke to crowds.
If we can hear the echoes of those proclamations, in the beatitudes, then I think we can begin to understand Jesus is speaking with deep compassion for those people, each made in the image of God, just like himself, saying:
Honored are you…
who despite the pain and the poverty
who despite the troubles and the trials you endure…
Honored are you who continue to seek the Lord
Held in highest esteem are you who have waited in eager anticipation of a Messiah.
You are not forgotten, God is for you. God is with you.
As I think about Jesus teaching this way, I can’t help but imagine the response of the leaders and teachers Jesus sparred with throughout his ministry. They had been given, and some had probably even sought out, honor and esteem through their positions in religious circles. And here is Jesus, conferring equal honor on basically anyone! At least anyone with faith enough to persevere and ears to hear.
These women and men were not simply an audience for a sermon on a mountain. They were among the first of our kind. They are our ancestors in the faith. They didn’t expect to gain power or wealth when they came to hear Jesus. They did come expecting to be healed. Expecting to be fed. Expecting to experience something different, even if they couldn’t put the words to it… a hint at what it might be like to live in a world where God ruled instead of a man.
The church, as the Body of Christ, must take up this work that Christ began, this work of showing the world what it will look like when God’s Kingdom really does come. The church must take up the work of turning upside down the world’s understanding of power.
The church – and its many members- must take seriously the call to care for all God’s children especially when our human nations fail to care for the weak, the hungry, the abused and abandoned, the depressed and addicted, the voices too long silenced.
The church – and each of its members must extend the hand of fellowship, to those who hunger for spiritual food and have a deep thirst for community and we must extend the reach of the table where we drink deeply from the cup, eat from the bread of life
Why? Because when the Kingdom of God is on display lives are turned upside down…
Nathan, grew up on a reservation in the midwest among other Native Americans who responded to the crushing weight of poverty and lack of opportunity by turning to alcohol and drugs as a young man.
A family member gave him a chance to start over and loved him through the work of getting clean. I met him as he faced an early death, choosing not to take strong pain medications so that his mind would be clear when he met God. His clarity, gratitude and peace challenged me to consider what keeps me from fully accepting God’s grace over my past.
I think about Tim, who endured chemo and radiation while living in the alley behind a restaurant just blocks from the hospital. His tenacity and trust that God would make a way led to many deep conversations with nurses and other care providers about how faithfully God provides and what that means here and in the life to come. I don’t know who spoke grace to these men- but some citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven offered each of them a glimpse of God’s faithfulness and steadfast love.
Not unlike the friends who saw me going off the rails at twenty-five and reminded me who I was and for whose Kingdom I’d been claimed.
Not unlike the volunteers from various churches who spend time here on Fridays sharing a meal and chatting about Jesus with folks like Anthony and Sheila and Daisy and Ben.
When the church overcomes our human tendencies to turn away, to blame, to be afraid to love, the beauty of the Kingdom of Heaven that shines through our brokenness has the power to change the church. And it reveals the diversity of people already gathered in- and reveals the truth about who we will see when “the roll is called up yonder”.
The truth is, we will see the people our society allowed to live on the ragged edges of society. People written off as too meek or as rabble-rousers. Those who sought peace and advocated on behalf of others in God’s name – even when the church wasn’t ready to advocate.
There will be people who don’t look like us, don’t talk like us, don’t act like us. People who who didn’t ascribe to the same doctrines or dogma we cling to, people who slept outside and smelled of urine.
There will be young people whose lives were cut short by disease and by violence. As well as those who perpetrated violence against them. I don’t like that fact, but it’s true. Because that is the nature of grace.
Because that is the nature of Christ – to sit and speak to us as people who deserve his compassion and his presence in our lives.
It is the nature of Christ – to offer us healing and then to plant deep down in us a hunger for righteousness and for justice.
It is the nature of Christ – to teach us what it means to love and honor both God and neighbor, by offering us love and honor.
That is the nature of God’s Kingdom.
Let us pray…
Let us not grow weary in doing what is right. Whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, feeding your sheep, honoring those the world would leave behind, showing off Your Kingdom, the one to which we truly belong.