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Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Readings: Micah 6:1–8, 1 Corinthians 1:18–31 & Matthew 5:1–12

Wednesday marked the third anniversary of the commencement of my ministry here at St Andrew’s. One of the first things I did when I started my ministry was to open the church every day, except on my day off, and to put a “sandwich board” in front on the church to let people know that the church was actually open, and that everyone was welcome to come in and pray, or to just sit quietly and take time out from the busyness of life. I don’t how closely you may have looked at the board, but in addition to inviting people to enter the church, it also contains a paraphrase of a verse from today’s reading from the prophet Micah. It reads: Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

We rarely encounter the Book of Micah in the three year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary, so I wouldn’t be surprised if people were not familiar with the book at all. Micah was a prophet in the 8th century BCE, and he prophesied the fall of the northern tribes of Israel, and the invasion of Judah. In today’s reading Micah, speaking on behalf of God, brings a legal charge against the people of Israel. He reminds the people that God rescued them from slavery in Egypt, appointed leaders to guide them, and protected them from the Moabites. And what did God ask of them?: only one thing. He did not ask them for burnt offerings, or sin offerings, or any other from of sacrifice. The one thing He asked of them was that they, “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with Him”. 

This means that God wanted them to to actively promote justice, to passionately devote themselves to the good of others, and to humbly submit themselves to His standards in all areas of their lives. This was the form of sacrifice He expected from the people, and in the New Testament Jesus provides the perfect example of this sacrifice through his own life and teaching, as we indeed heard earlier from today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel.

Today’s passage was of course the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. Unlike the Book of Micah, we are probably all very familiar with the Beatitudes. In fact, we might even be too familiar with it, familiar to the point where as soon as we hear the opening verse we might lose concentration and attention because we know the verses that follow. But let’s listen closely to them:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

“Blessed are those who mourn.”

“Blessed are the meek.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

“Blessed are the merciful.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers.”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”

Notice that there’s nothing there about the wealthy being blessed, or the powerful, or those of important social status, or those who are incredibly popular on social media with hundreds of friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter and Instagram. It was just as counter-cultural in Jesus’ day as it is in our day. But Jesus wasn’t necessarily saying anything new, because the people whom Jesus describes in the Beatitudes as being blessed, would probably have been people who “did justice, loved kindness and walked humbly with God”, just as Micah encouraged them to do.

The Apostle Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, describes the counter-cultural aspect of Jesus’ death on the cross when he says, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”. The ‘message of the cross’ was of course that the prophecies about the Jewish Messiah had been fulfilled in Jesus, and that through his life, death and resurrection, the Kingdom of God had been established on earth, and would be implemented fully with the second coming of Jesus. 

For those who were perishing, which meant those who didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah (both Jew and Gentile), this was foolishness. After all, how could Jesus possibly have been the Son of God if he suffered and died on the cross! Of course for those who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and therefore the Son of God, his resurrection after dying on the cross was proof of the power of God. It was proof that God had power over sin, death and the forces of evil, which are personified in the figure of Satan.

Today, as in the time of Jesus, people who don’t believe in God, or that Jesus was the Son of God, still classify as foolishness the Christian belief that God was incarnate in Jesus, and that Jesus died on the cross and was raised from the dead after three days. If the resurrection of Jesus is the proof of God’s power, what is the proof of the Resurrection itself?

I think that’s an easy question to answer. For a start, how do you explain the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus. What would make a man, like Paul, who was a devout Jew and the most committed persecutor of the Christian Church, suddenly become its chief messenger, risking both persecution and his own life to spread the good news of the Gospel to non-Jewish people throughout the Roman Empire?

And what would make the apostles of Jesus, who deserted him in his hour of need for fear of their own lives, suddenly return to the place where Jesus was crucified and begin publicly proclaiming, again at the risk of their own death, that he was in fact the Son of God. In my mind there can only be one answer. Each of these people had witnessed Jesus risen from the dead.

The teaching of Jesus, as communicated through the Beatitudes today, like his death on the cross, is counter-cultural, but it is a reinforcement and reminder of the way that God wants us to live our lives: To do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.

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