Sermon Seeds: The Vision Beautiful/Awakening to God’s Reality and Love
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany Year A
Matthew 5:1-12 and Micah 6:1-8
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The Vision Beautiful/Awakening to God’s Reality and Love
by Susan Blain
Who is this Jesus, and who are we who follow him, and where is he leading? What kind of life will we have if we follow? And what is the Way along which he leads? The readings for the Season after Epiphany explore these questions.
The journey of the Magi opens the season. Christ is revealed to the whole world, made present symbolically in the persons of these sojourners from the east who seek, recognize, and adore the Holy Child as the anointed of God. It continues with the stories of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan and the call of his disciples. It concludes with the account of his transfiguration before the closest of his disciples. For those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, the revelation of God in Christ is clear: “This is my child, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The season of Epiphany explores our identities as well: we are those who, like the Magi, seek. John the Baptist poses the question that defines us: “What are you seeking?”
This fourth Sunday after Epiphany introduces Jesus’ teaching ministry with the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5: 1-12. Our focus is The Vision Beautiful — inspired by the title of the series of blessings laid out here, the Beatitudes. Blessings, beauty, bounty imagined and hoped for — all evoked by such a title. What is the vision beautiful? Life knowing the blessing and the presence of God.
Scripture passages selected for the lectionary each week start with the Gospel text — the story of Jesus – and weave around it other passages from the Hebrew Bible and Epistles which are related in theme or imagery and offer insight into the community’s experience of God. In studying the scripture passages which accompany the Gospel this week, we may, like the Magi, be led on an unexpected journey — the way to the “vision beautiful” is marked by a series of surprising turns and reversals leading us ever deeper into God’s mystery and call.
Micah 6:1-8 starts out as a sort of parody of a court case, where God accuses the people of Israel of covenant infidelity. God demands of them: “Plead your case…!” Before Israel can do so, however, God interrupts by making the case for divine faithfulness, beginning with a plaintive lament echoed in Good Friday’s liturgical “Reproaches”: “O my people, what I have I done to you?” God’s presence to Israel in liberating from slavery, in sending leaders (including, unexpectedly, Miriam), in turning curses into blessings, are recounted. Verses 6-8 continue the theme of the unexpected: Micah turns a liturgical formula upside down. The prophet expands on a call and response prayer which pilgrims may have used as they approached the Temple to offer sacrifice or worship. Using exaggeration and irony, he turns the pilgrims’ question into increasingly antic suggestions about what God requires: Prostration or sacrifice? “Thousands” of cattle or “rivers” of oil? Even one’s first born: “the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul”?
After the exaggeration of the pilgrims’ questions, God’s response is simplicity itself, calling Israel back to covenantal faithfulness: in three concise statements, God outlines the program: “Do justice: To be actively engaged in the redistribution of power in the world, to correct the systemic inequalities that marginalize some for the excessive enhancement of others. Love covenant loyalty: the translation of ‘kindness’ is disastrously weak. The word hesed means to reorder life into a community of enduring relations of fidelity. Walk humbly with God: to abandon all self-sufficiency, to acknowledge in daily attitude and act that life is indeed derived from the reality of God” (Brueggeman et al, Texts for Preaching Year A).
The “vision beautiful” in Micah calls Israel to be with God in the world, living out God’s desires for a community of justice and faithful love.
We continue to seek the “vision beautiful” through Psalm 15, another model of the pilgrims’ dialogue on entering the Temple. In this case, too, expectations are overturned. In these liturgies, a pilgrim asks what is required for entering the sanctuary, and the priests, guardians of the Holy, answer from within. As Craddock et al note, “…in antiquity, temples did not operate on the principle “Everyone welcome, all come.'” Instead, access to the sanctuary was governed by family or health status, or purity laws which defined which people and which practices were clean and unclean (see Deut. 23A: 1-8) (Preaching Through the Christian Year A).
One may expect that the response to the pilgrim’s inquiry would have to do with these categories of purity. Instead, Psalm 15 reverses expectations and takes an unexpected tack: requirements for entrance have nothing to do with the purity laws. The ten qualifications listed have to do with community life framed in justice, mercy and peace. Access to the Holy requires the shaping of a whole and good community.
Our lectionary path toward Matthew’s “vision beautiful” takes a wrenching turn with the Epistle lesson. 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 puts before us one of the most compelling reversals in Scripture: the contrast between God’s wisdom and human foolishness, focused in the Cross. Paul asserts clearly: God’s transforming power is shown here, in the death of Christ. The Cross confounds all expectations: those who seek proof in miraculous displays of power are disappointed; those who look for human logic in divine activity are frustrated. Miracles fail, and human logic cannot explain how God’s power is at work in human weakness and vulnerability. The Cross points us to “…a third way: transformation — look for God’s presence in unexpected places: in suffering, weakness and abandonment rather than in signs, wonders, and reason” (Craddock et al, Preaching Through the Christian YearA). Paul doesn’t move us along to consider the resurrection as the manifestation of God’s power (although he does so later); here he keeps our attention on the scandal of the Cross. What can this mean for the vision beautiful?
At last we come to Matthew’s text concerning the “vision beautiful.” After the surprises and reversals we have encountered through its accompanying lections, it is no surprise to discover that “…the Beatitudes turn the world’s values upside down. What is true for those who live in the power of the Kingdom of Heaven is a flat reversal of what is considered to be true in the culture at large. The Beatitudes declare that the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers are the ones who are truly blessed. We live in a world, however, that pronounces the benediction over the self-sufficient, the assertive, and the power brokers. The people whom the world would see as pitiful, the mournful, the persecuted, are the very people Jesus claims are truly joyful” (Thomas Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).
Viewing the Beatitudes through the lens of the Cross, we are invited to seek and find the action of God in the poor, the mourners, the persecuted, the peacemakers. Their lives now, in the present, hold the blessing and transforming power of God, as they live and struggle for justice, peace, and wholeness in their world. Indeed, the theme of all our scripture texts find a kind of fulfillment in this expression of the “vision beautiful” — meeting God through covenant faithfulness; gaining access to the Holy through creation of a whole and just society; encountering God’s power in the pain and struggle and “foolishness” of a world suffering for justice and peace.
Yet one more unexpected turn: The Beatitudes invite us to play with present and future. God is with us, now, in all of our struggles informing our hope, and God is pointing all of us toward the ultimate “Vision Beautiful” of the future Kingdom of Heaven where God is all in all.
The readings this week lead us on a labyrinthian journey toward a vision beautiful with God not only at its center, but God at every turn, upsetting our expectations and challenging us to take another step deeper into the mystery of divine presence dwelling in our world. God is not demanding of us extravagant sacrifice or liturgical purity; God is not to be sought in other-worldly miracles or worldly logic. God is calling us to follow Christ, the Beloved, into the world to engage in a lifetime of faithful, creative, courageous, community-building love. The Vision Beautiful? The joy, the surprise, the blessing of such a life in God.
One caveat remains in any discussion of the Beatitudes. They can often be sentimentalized or overly “spiritualized,” and we may be lulled into thinking that the struggles of the poor and the suffering must be endured until a future promise of God will be fulfilled. One good corrective to this temptation is to read Richard Swanson’s translation in Provoking the Gospel of Matthew. The real crisis of a community living under persecution comes through in his translation choices: “Godlike in their happiness, the poor in breath: theirs is the dominion of the heavens. Godlike in their happiness, the mourners: they shall be called as witnesses” (Mt 5: 3-4 ff). The urgent image of “breath” replaces the usual “spirit,” and mourners receive not the usual comfort, but the comfort of telling the truth. The other verses are equally stark. The reality of the Cross is manifest in Swanson’s “vision beautiful,” and a texture of depth and surprise is added to a familiar teaching.
The Reverend Susan Blain is Minister for Worship and Spiritual Formation with Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ.
It’s regrettable that we often read the Bible in pieces, just a passage here or there, or even just one verse at a time, because we don’t really hear what’s going on around the writer as he or she struggles to express the word God is giving to the people. Long ago and far away, in a culture significantly different from our own – and yet, in many ways, very much like it – the prophets spoke such a word to the people. And just like writers and poets in every age, they used literary devices as “the tools of their trade.”
In this week’s text from the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophet Micah creates a scene that resembles a lawsuit in ancient Israel eight centuries before the time of Jesus. In this courtroom, God is the judge and the prosecutor, the people are the accused, and all of creation – even “the enduring foundations of the earth” – are present to hear the case. We’re not sure exactly what Micah’s role is in this drama – perhaps, ironically, he’s the defense attorney who, in the end, advises his client on what to do to satisfy the court. Or perhaps he’s merely an onlooker who is wise enough to recall the saving acts of God, and to remember the very simple things that God wants in response to all that God has done for the people.
And so the people receive a summons: “Hear what the Lord says” and the witnesses – the mountains and the hills – gather round to hear God present the case against the people – for we are told that God has a “controversy” with the people and will contend with them.
Then, strangely enough, instead of listing accusations and describing wrongdoing, God asks a poignant question: “O my people, what have I done to you, how have I wearied you?” Is it any wonder that we think of God as a parent – how many of us have wearily wanted to ask our children the same question? “After all I’ve done for you….” God recites something of a history of delivering the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, of giving them leaders in Moses, Aaron and Miriam, of being with them as they wandered in the wilderness, and finally leading them to the Promised Land. Remember all of these things, God says, so that you will know me as the God who saves, the God who delivers, the God who shows mercy and compassion.
Now this speech must have had tremendous impact on its hearers, because, without skipping a beat, we hear the people’s response, in the form of a question – much as ancient worshippers, when they came to worship, would ask questions of the priests and religious officials of the temple. The people seem to realize that they have failed to be faithful to their covenant with God. Their consciences appear to be awakened, and they realize they have strayed. So they ask what they should do in order to be close to God once again.
But, if we listen closely, don’t we hear a bit of exasperation in their questions? “What should I do to come before the Lord? Should I bring burnt offerings, young calves, or if that’s not enough, how about thousands of rams, or even ten thousands of rivers of oil? If that’s not enough, shall I even offer up in sacrifice the life of my own child to make up for my sin?” As if massive, over-the-top, but empty ritual – or worship without heart and soul – would be a kind of appeasement of an angry God. But the prophet answers the people with the simplest – and yet most challenging – of answers: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.
Micah’s issue with the people may sound uncomfortably contemporary to us today. In that time of history, in that day, the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. More than that: the rich were getting richer because the poor were getting poorer. Those with land and power were able to foreclose on the small farmers and take away their small plots of lands. Wealth became concentrated in the hands of a smaller group of people, and growing number of those who once were able to support themselves adequately were now being driven into poverty. Compassion and mercy were in short supply, but religious observance – well, pious people just went on “worshipping” like nothing important was happening around them. People went through the right motions, but their hearts were hard and their faces turned away from the suffering of those around them. Their worship, then, was empty.
It would be easy, of course, to read this passage as condemning religious practices, whether we’re talking about the sacrificial system of the ancient temple or the worship we conduct in churches around the world today, more than twenty-seven centuries later. But that would be a mistake. For the prophet knows that God is God and we can do nothing but worship the Source of all life and all goodness. It is clear that a humble walk with God means recognizing just that.
In the 8th century B.C.E., when Micah spoke to the Southern Kingdom of Israel, called Judah, great empires surrounded and threatened to engulf the tiny nation. The people went from day to day, listening to “official” prophets who comforted them and said nothing bad would happen. (You might call them “conquest deniers.”) As we know from the rest of the story, however, those nations, Assyria and Babylon, in time took over first the Northern Kingdom and then, later, the Southern Kingdom with its capital, Jerusalem, and its holy temple. A time of exile and mourning was followed by homecoming and restoration, if only for awhile. By the time of Jesus, as we know, the people of Israel were once again under the thumb of a foreign power, the Roman Empire, and once again they longed for God to deliver them.
All of this, of course, is (literally) ancient history, telling us about the suffering and questions of people long ago and far away. What is the word we hear from the Stillspeaking God as we read this text? What is the word we take out into a world that’s hungry, and thirsty, and hurting, and questioning? Is it possible that we have something in common with the people of Israel in the 8th century b.c.e.? Every day, in this land of affluence and abundance, we confront the reality of those who do not have enough to eat, jobs to support themselves and their families, decent housing, quality education. The words “foreclosure” and “unemployment” are painfully familiar, day in and day out. And childhood poverty, childhood hunger, persist at distressing levels, even as our cities raise shiny new buildings and upscale shopping centers (and claim we don’t have enough money for schools). In the midst of all that, we have more and more children who are in need of our compassion and mercy and generosity. In that sense, how are we different from those people so long ago and so far away?
It seems that part of being “a person of faith” is trying to figure out just what God wants from us. Many of us follow the rules we were given as a child, or the ones that were explained to us as adult converts when we learned “the rules” of religion. And yet, there seems to be a more important moment, or experience, when faith comes to us as something else, as grace, as forgiveness and as a call, but not as rules or expectations. Still, one wonders if we can have a call without expectations. What do the people in your pews think that God expects of them?
The gracious generosity of God has been evident in this season of Epiphany, when we’ve been hearing of God’s invitation and care not only for the people of Israel, not only for the Jews of Jesus’ time, but for “the nations,” for the Gentiles, for all of us today. In our passage from the prophet Micah, we hear that God indeed has something for us to do in response to God’s grace. More than that, God expects a radical reorientation of our lives (if this sounds familiar, check last week’s Gospel reading), a fundamental commitment to live in covenant faithfulness, and that doesn’t mean fastidious religious observance of ritual even if everyone around us seems to be enthusiastically practicing it. It means getting right down to basics: justice, kindness, humbly walking with our God.
Many people love this passage, just as they (we) love the passage about the two most important commandments about love – the ones that make it all sound so simple and clear. We want to strip away all the “extras,” the unnecessary and supposedly empty religious practices, the laws that seem oppressive and excessive, the bothersome rules that only produce guilt. It’s tempting to want simply to quote this passage and the Gospel passage that requires us to love God and our neighbor, and then “not sweat the small stuff.” But can you imagine how hard it is in fact to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God”? (Or, for that matter, to love God and our neighbor the way we should?) If we boil it all down to this, and actually practiced it, what would the world look like? Can we imagine that, together?
What are the really difficult situations in our families, our neighborhoods, our cities and towns, our nation and the world, that would be transformed if these were more than beautiful and familiar words? What if we actually practiced them and observed this command of God? How does God express this same expectation of us today, in the United Church of Christ, in the United States of America? What situations exist in our congregation that need to be addressed with justice, kindness, and humility? What are the small as well as large issues of justice that cry out for our attention? How is God still speaking to us through that cry?
When you read the Matthew text that contains part of the Sermon on the Mount, do you hear blessings on different people in your congregation and in your community? When Jesus climbed that mountain, at this point in his ministry, what do you think he felt when he saw the crowds following him? Why do you think they were following him? Is that what happens when someone heals – do they awaken hope and curiosity and longing in great crowds of people? Why do crowds in your community gather, and what do they long for?
For further reflection:
Sigmund Freud, 20th century
“Impossible.” (after reading the Sermon on the Mount)
Leo Tolstoy, 19th century
“There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness, and truth.”
Martin Luther, 16th century
“This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”
Louisa May Alcott, 19th century
“Simple, genuine goodness is the best capital to found the business of this life upon. It lasts when fame and money fail, and is the only riches we can take out of this world with us.”
Marcus Aurelius, 2nd century
“Don’t go on discussing what a good person should be. Just be one.”
Victor Hugo, 19th century
“Being good is easy, what is difficult is being just.”
Wendell Berry, 20th century
“Perhaps all the good that ever has come here has come because people prayed it into the world.”
Kurt Vonnegut, 20th century
“For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course, that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. ‘Blessed are the merciful’ in a courtroom? ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ in the Pentagon? Give me a break!”
Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
O God, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly,
and do what is right,
who speak the truth from their heart,
and do not slander with their tongue,
who do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath
even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.
Those who do these things shall never be moved.
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
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. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“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.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.