Psalm 112:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1:-12; Matthew 5:13-20
This is the text of the sermon I preached at Lake Tyers Beach Camp Park Chapel on Sunday 5th February 2017.
Midrashim, there’s a great Hebrew word for you, make up a fair portion of the Bible, depending upon which scholar you ask. A midrash is simply a commentary or interpretation, perhaps even a sermon where a rabbi takes a passage from scripture and then interprets and expands it for his or her disciples. There is a suggestion that Psalm 112 is a midrash of Psalm 111:10 which reads [t]he fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice them have a good understanding. And then we read in Psalm 112:1, [h]appy is [the one] who fears the LORD, the one who delights in his commandments. So, what is so happy about these peoples, what are the blessings that come upon such ones? Descendants who are victorious, happy and glorious for starters: in other words, these are people of good reputation. Yet even in his or her own life, for the one who fears the LORD and is gracious and compassionate in the way that God is even in darkness light dawns according to Psalm 112:4. It is well with those who act with the character of God. As we heard last week from Psalm 15:5 so here in Psalm 112:6-8 the righteous are steadfast and will not be shaken nor moved, and neither shall their children who follow in their example be.
They are generous and their good reputation is everlasting because of their generosity and godliness in grace.
But what, exactly, is the meritorious behaviour of the woman or man of God with regard to the commandments? I think that it is not necessarily in obeying them, but in knowing them to be there as statements of wise action. As I said last week this is not so much a regime of demands to be followed but a description of what such a person’s life looks like from the outside. They are reminders of what you already do as a Christian or Jew, not rules that you must learn before you join the congregation. It is all well and good to say “thou shalt not bully”, and for people to obey that, but it is much better to say “the reputation of that man (or woman) of God is kindness, and it will go well with you if you seek to emulate him or her.” It’s this second understanding that I am trying to get across, while in no way undermining the rationale and requirement that the first commandment be heeded. The point is if you act with kindness then you won’t ever be a bully anyway, and to follow this Psalm’s example if you act with generosity and good humour you’ll never be covetous, or adulterous, or murderous, or disrespectful to your neighbour or your parents, and you’ll not go seeking God’s other than the LORD. You just won’t do those things. So, it’s not that evil is forbidden for you, although of course it is, it’s more that you just won’t be in a place to disobey God if you are always living in the reflection of God’s own character.
As with last week so this, we continue our journey with Paul into the intricacies of the church in Corinth and his kind instruction that the Christians begin to act more like the humble Christ and less like snobby self-righteous religious people or puffed up academics. Look at 1 Corinthians 2:1-3 where in effect Paul is saying, “you all know that I am actually quite clever, but I tried not to act like a smart-alec when I visited you. My whole message to you was Christ as the living likeness of God, and Christlikeness as the best model for Christian discipleship, and that’s it.” I really hope you’ve heard that message from me to. I’ve mentioned in passing that I have four university degrees, not because I wish to boast in my intellect but because they are each part of my story. You know I am clever and some of you have been kind enough to comment to me that you enjoy my sermons, that I am obviously well-read and that I put a lot of effort into preparing my talk for you each week. So, thanks for that, it’s lovely encouragement. But my message is never going to be the years I spent at university. my message is the simple truth of Christianity and identical in this regard to the message of Paul. Jesus is nice, God is like Jesus, and God wants us to act like Jesus in the world. Be nice. That is a midrash for you upon the entire Bible. It’s not the only message of course, it says nothing about salvation, but it says all you need to know about discipleship. Act like Jesus, because what you see in Jesus is actually what God is like.
So, let’s see what Paul actually says here. We pick it up at 1 Corinthians 2:6 where Paul begins to use the wisdom that he does have to speak to the academically-minded people on their level. The message of the gospel is very simple, God loves you, love each other; but in that uncomplex statement is more wisdom than all of pages and ages of ramblings from each and every Wisey McWiseface who ever lived. “Clever as they are,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:8, “they don’t get it.” The living image of the only true God comes to the world preaching love and generosity, and the world’s key leaders execute him for treason and blasphemy. There is a word for that sort of behaviour and “wise” is its opposite, says Paul.
Yet love is the answer, and the exercise of love is the truth of all truths. Look at 1 Corinthians 2:9-10. God has such brilliance in store for the generous and the righteous woman or man that it absolutely defies human wisdom. And Paul goes on in his defiance of human wisdom in 1 Corinthians 2:11 to question its very root. Human beings are incapable because of the limitations of their humanity of understanding what human wisdom actually is. In 1 Corinthians 2:11b-12 God the Holy Spirit says through Paul “let me tell you who you really are. Let me, the spirit of God, tell you from above and beyond what humanity really means and what your deepest, strongest sense of rightness is.” At the end of verse 12, which is the end of today’s set reading, the Spirit hasn’t said what that deep rightness is, but it does display more of the nature of God. “You can’t possibly know”, says the Spirit, “but I can and do know and I shall tell you.” God is wise, kind, and generous; doing for us what we could never do for ourselves. That is what salvation is, isn’t it?
Greater in wisdom than Paul, who for all of his insight and guiding by the Spirit, is as human as the rest of us, let’s turn to what Jesus says about God and about the life of a disciple.
In Matthew 5:1-20, and indeed well beyond that stopping point but that’s as far as I’m going today, Jesus speaks to his disciples about what life in the reign of God looks like.
Last week in many churches around the world sermons were preached on the Beatitudes. As you know I chose to focus on Micah and 1 Corinthians, but the lectionary gospel reading was Matthew 5:1-12. Today’s set reading is Matthew 5:13-20, and in the few minutes we have left I’m going to talk about one key point across both readings. Of course, the Sermon on the Mount is a mine of good wisdom, so I could spend days telling you about it all, but as I say my focus this morning is on just one aspect of what Jesus said to his gathered disciples. We’ll see where the next few weeks take us as the lectionary leads us through the Sermon on the Mount until the start of Lent and the lead into Easter from 1st March onward.
This morning I summoned you to worship with the words of the beatitudes. In eleven verses Jesus describes eight groups of people that he defines as “blessed”. In one church, I used to belong to our pastor used to define “blessed” as “happy and to be envied”, and I think that fits both the sense of what Jesus was saying in his sermon and what I have so far been saying in mine. Such people as the ones who follow Christ and act with God’s nature are happy, and they are to be envied. From Matthew 5:13-16 we read where Jesus spoke of his disciples as being salt and light to the earth, in other words a visible example of God’s reign rolling forth. (We addressed these themes last week when we spoke about how we might be useful to God.) And from Matthew 5:17-20 we read of Jesus’ reiteration of the story of the Jewish gospel. Jesus says quite clearly that he had not come to denounce Judaism nor the commandments. The testimony of the prophets, the scriptures, and the legal authorities of the People of God still stood. Even in our day they still do; since the conditions listed by Jesus in Matthew 5:18 have not been met. So, what is Jesus saying? If Judaism is still solid, and the messiah says it is and does not anywhere else say it isn’t, then what is the story for Christians and Jews today?
I think the answer is the same one I’ve been speaking of these past few weeks. Live, publicly, a godly life.
Think of the beatitudes. To each group of people who are acting in generous response to God by:
Matthew 5:3 declaring their need for spiritual insight;
Matthew 5:4 declaring their need for spiritual comfort;
Matthew 5:5 declaring their need for spiritual strength;
Matthew 5:6 declaring their desire to see the way of God become universal in the world;
Matthew 5:7-11 declaring their love for God and the ways of God even when they are actively and viciously opposed;
Jesus offers the promise of a reward in Heaven based on the assurance that if you are being treated like the prophets of old then you’re probably doing what they did, which is to say modelling the life of God and thereby calling the world to account for its lack of godliness.
Into today’s reading the same, keep bringing the God-colours and God-flavours to the attention of the world. Point to the commandments as promises of God’s upholding of your good character and the evidence of your life’s consistency with the divine will.
Jesus is offering a midrash on all Jewish tradition here. “It’s all valid,” he says, “so long as you take the right interpretation from it.” Live with the character of God; you were created in the image and likeness of God so return to your natural being, reflect God’s image and likeness in your behaviour and your attitude. Specifically, be generous, says the Psalmist. Specifically, be wise in the things of God, says Paul. Specifically, model righteousness and know that if you’re facing attack it’s only because your example is convicting the wicked of their own wickedness. The ways of the world are not normal, says the scriptures, it’s not normal to the stingy, conceited, or self-interested.
Once more, as was my conclusion last week, be yourself, the self God made you to be.