In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The book of Matthew is divided up into five discourses, or extended teachings, of Jesus, interspersed with narratives the reveal who Jesus is. The five discourses echo the five books of Moses—the Penteteuch—which is to say that Jesus is a new but better Moses, who brings not the Law of condemnation, but the Good News of God’s grace and salvation.
Matthew’s Gospel was one of, if not the first book of the New Testament, written as a catechism for new believers in Jesus to introduce them to the new life of faith in Christ through Holy Baptism. The book begins with Jesus’ lineage and birth narratives to connect Him to the promise of the Old Testament. Then He is introduced as the Christ at His baptism, when the Father identifies Him as His beloved Son. Following His baptism, He endures His temptation in the wilderness as a foreshadowing of His final victory over Satan at the cross. After His temptation, there is a short interlude where Jesus calls His first disciples and a summary of the beginning of His public ministry of healing and teaching.
Today’s Gospel is the beginning of the first discourse, the first real encounter with an in-depth teaching of Jesus. Most of us here, if we’ve even approached Matthew’s Gospel other than in decontextualized snippets and disembodied proof texts, haven’t done so with fresh eyes. So if you will, put yourself in the shoes of a first-century Jew or pagan for a moment, who’s reading this Gospel for the first time. You’re first met with the radical claim that this man from Nazareth is the fulfillment of thousands of years of messianic prophecy, that He’s the Son of God, and that He’s come to do battle with Satan and thus deliver salvation to mankind.
And the first thing He says when He opens His mouth to teach turns on its head everything you ever thought you knew about religion and spirituality.
Today is All Saints’ Day, when we often turn our attention to those who have died in the faith. It’s good to give thanks for those who have preceded us in the faith. But not all saints are dead. You are a saint, having been washed by the water of regeneration and renewal. And
The Blessing for All the Saints Is Hidden Under the Cross But Revealed by the Word of Jesus
The healings and miracles Jesus performed at the outset of His public ministry drew quite a crowd, which is probably why He retreated into the mountains for His first lecture series. But it’s His disciples that He’s talking to. Beholding the crowds, He went up into the mountains, and when He sat down His disciples came to Him (v 1). What Jesus is about to say is for the disciples. In other words, it’s for the saints—those who have been washed with water and the Spirit, who are sanctified and cleansed and set on the path that follows Jesus.
The first part of the so-called Sermon on the Mount is a reprogramming of the natural man’s religion. From birth, man’s pursuit of God and religion is a strategy by which he attempts improve his life immediately. If you need any proof, take a listen to a sermon in one of those stadium style churches. You’ll most likely hear as the main thesis of the sermon, a method or a technique by which you can make your life just a little bit better. Hence, your blessings. But Jesus teaches the true disciple that blessings don’t work that way in the Christian faith. The blessing for all the saints is hidden under the cross.
I’m going to omit the second part of each beatitude, so that you can listen to the list of who is blessed according to Jesus. And opening His mouth, He began teaching them, saying, “Blessed be the poor in spirit…Blessed be the mourners…Blessed be the meek…Blessed be they who are hungering and thirsting for righteousness…Blessed be merciful…Blessed be the pure in heart…Blessed be those who do peace…Blessed be those who have been persecuted on account of righteousness…Blessed are you whenever they should insult you, and persecute and speak every evil upon you falsely on account of Me” (vv 2-11).
Poor in spirit, mourners, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, those who do peace, those who have been persecuted, you whenever you’re insulted. There’s a couple of nice sounding ones in there, but in general this sounds like the complete opposite of what it means to be blessed. The natural religion of man is the find blessings in being rich in spirit (and in pocket), in happiness, in power, in getting things their own way, in rising to the top, through conflict, in squashing any opponents who would hinder his blessings.
Steven Furtick is a preacher of the prosperity gospel in Charlotte, NC, which just happens to be down the street from my friend’s LCMS church. Recently, he’s come under scrutiny for the $1.7 million mansion he’s building. In response, here’s what he had to say: “In his comments, he thanked God for his blessings and described the big, beautiful house as a gift from God. The Charlotte Observer reports that he told his congregation, “It’s a big house, and it’s a beautiful house, and we thank God for it …. We understand everything we have comes from God.”
I bring up Furtick’s house as an extreme example, not because I begrudge some other preacher’s success, but to highlight the false view of what a blessing from God is. The natural man thinks God blesses by bigger, better, and more. The one who is blessed by God is the last, the lost, and the least. The blessing of God is hidden under the cross, which is to say that God’s work is fully comprehended only under suffering. Because it’s through suffering and death that He delivered His greatest blessing to the world.
So, saint, take a look at your life. Count your blessings. Where are they? If you say it’s your house, or your job, or your happy family, or your good reputation, you might want to visit Furtick’s church—he’ll tell you how you can get more of that stuff. Look instead to where you suffer, where you hunger, where you lack, where you’re least. That’s where God is blessing you. A broken spirit and a contrite heart are the sacrifices He desires and even rewards.
So the natural religion of man is turned on its head by the first thing to come out of Jesus mouth to His disciples. But Jesus isn’t simply trying to be provocative in order to gain a bigger following. There’s a reason why He is redefining what it means to be blessed. In Greek, there are two words that we translate as “bless.” The first is the word used in today’s reading, makarios, which means a transcendent happiness of a life beyond care. The other word is the act of blessing—eulogein—which literally means to speak a good word.
If you noticed, in my translation I read just a few minutes ago, I didn’t say, “Blessed are,” but rather, “Blessed be,” because there’s a particular way to come into that transcendent happiness when it looks like life’s in the gutter. The blessing for all the saints in hidden in the cross, but it’s revealed in the Word of Christ. At the moment that Jesus speaks, though His Word, you are blessed.
Here’s the whole set of beatitudes with the reasons for the blessings included this time:
Blessed be the poor in spirit, for theirs is the reign of the heavens. Blessed be the mourners, for they will be comforted. Blessed be the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed be they who are hungering and thirsting for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. Blessed be merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed be the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed be those who do peace, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed be those who have been persecuted on account of righteousness, for theirs is the reign of the heavens. Blessed are you whenever they should insult you, and persecute and speak every evil upon you falsely on account of Me. Rejoice and rejoice greatly, for your reward is great in the heavens, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (vv 3-12).
Today we especially emphasize the saints who have gone before us and are now enjoying their reward. They are under the reign of the heavens, they are comforted, the earth is their inheritance, they are satisfied, they are shown mercy, they see God, they are called sons of God. They are enjoying their reward and their reward is great. The Good Word of Jesus Christ is now fulfilled for them.
But the blessing of Jesus is also revealed for the saints here on earth. His blessing is also revealed for you because His Word is also for you. You are under the reign of the Son of God, you are comforted by the Spirit of God, the new earth is your inheritance, you are satisfied with the righteousness of God when you see Him face to face in the Holy Sacrament. He shows you mercy, and you are called a son of God by virtue of your baptism. Your reward is very great.
I really think that next year for All Saints’ Sunday, we need to have the Sacrament. Because that’s the place where you saints on earth join together with the saints in heaven. Have you ever thought about that prayer before communion: with angels, and archangels, and all the company of heaven. That means that when you kneel at the altar, you are kneeling with Sts. Michael and Gabriel, Moses and David, Isaiah and Habakkuk, Peter and Paul, John and Bartholomew, Mary and Joseph; with Polycarp and Athanasius and Gregory and Patrick and Luther and Chemnitz and Walther and Pieper, and Sasse; with grandma and grandpa and mom and dad and aunts and uncles and the children that God took before us. You don’t even know all their names. But Jesus does. They are the saints, those whose names are written in the book of life, just a few pages away from your name. Blessed are you, because of the Good Word and promise of Christ.
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard