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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 2/2/2014

Today we climb the mountain with Jesus and we’ll be up there for awhile, for the whole month of February, receiving his instruction.  This mountain climbing is another Moses parallel that Matthew works into his gospel.  In the Exodus story Moses went up on the mountain to receive the commandments from the Lord; today Jesus goes up on the mountain not to receive words from the Lord but to deliver his own words of wisdom in what is known as the Sermon on the Mount.  Throughout February we will work our way through part of this sermon, which isn’t really a sermon but more like a collection of Jesus’ most memorable teaching.

Today though is Super Bowl Sunday.  It’s the only sporting event that is included in the calendar and date book that Thrivent sends to all pastors as the game has become something of a national holiday, a national celebration so even those who don’t much care about football can’t help but be aware of it.  It makes me wonder though; would Jesus watch the Super Bowl?  I know some of you are thinking no, he wouldn’t watch because the Packers aren’t playing so he doesn’t care about it.   You’re wrong though because if it’s true that blessed are the meek as it says in today’s gospel, then Jesus has to be a Lions fan.  However, I digress.

Regardless of whether or not Jesus would watch the Super Bowl, it is a bit ironic that we get the Beatitudes for a gospel lesson today because they don’t exactly represent NFL values.  Blessed are the poor in spirit?  I don’t think so.  It’s blessed are the victors because no one remembers who loses the Super Bowl.  Blessed are the meek?   All due respect to Jesus and the Lions, that’s not how it works on Sunday afternoons in the fall.  Blessed are those who mourn?  No, blessed are those who celebrate and have a parade in their city sometime in a few days.   Blessed are the merciful?  Blessed are those who have the killer instinct and put their opponent away when they get them down. 

When it comes to football, Jesus had it all wrong regarding who’s blessed.  To be fair though, it’s not just football and the NFL; these “blesseds” aren’t anybody’s values which is why the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes in particular have always been something of an embarrassment to the church and to those who try to interpret these verses. 

Catholic tradition got around them by saying they represented a call to perfection that only applied to a select group, those with specific religious callings likes monks and nuns.  Seen that way, the Beatitudes were understood to be beyond the ability of normal people.  The more Lutheran way to get around them is to say that they represent an ideal, an ideal that we can’t achieve but in recognizing our inability to achieve that ideal we are pointed toward our need for grace.  This is sometimes called Luther’s second use of the law; the law reveals sin and therefore point us to grace.  Much of the interpretation of these verses makes use of some version of one of these two approaches and both represent efforts to explain them away in order to get us off the hook.

The trouble is, the Sermon on the Mount, placed as it is early in Matthew’s gospel, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, seems pretty important.  The Beatitudes, placed at the beginning of this so called sermon, also must have been thought to be pretty important, not something to be explained away.   The Beatitudes set the stage for everything that follows in Matthew.  We might like to dismiss them and move on, but an honest reading won’t allow that.

Some of the desire to dismiss the Beatitudes though, is rooted in the mistake of interpreting them as law as that Lutheran explanation does.  Seen as law you do have to dance around the Beatitudes because they represent such a contradiction to the reality of the world we live in.  What seems evident though, is that Jesus didn’t intend this material or much of what follows as law; instead it’s much closer to what is known as wisdom literature. 

Wisdom literature isn’t something we’re terribly familiar with but in the ancient world it was quite popular.  Wise individuals would observe life and reflect on it, then condense their observations into brief sayings.  In the Bible, the book of Proverbs is the classic example of this.  With most wisdom literature, including Proverbs, the saying offered represents what is true most of the time.  Such sayings were used in teaching young people values that would help them live a good life; the theory was that if you tried to live according to the teachings of those purveyors of wisdom, you at least had a better chance of living well.

That however, is not what Jesus offers up in the Beatitudes.  As the comparison with NFL Super Bowl values shows, the Beatitudes don’t reflect what is true most of the time, quite the contrary actually.  If this is wisdom material then, it’s not classic wisdom material, so what is Jesus up to here?  Instead of telling us what is true most of the time, Jesus proposes an alternative. In other words, Jesus does not put a rubber stamp on the values of society, or on how the world defines success, or on who the world declares the winners.  He proposes an alternative, an alternative that I would suggest we are expected to take seriously; serisously but not literally. 

Rather than observe the world in order to determine what is true most of the time as other sages did, what Jesus offers up is actually counter-intuitive.  This is not wisdom derived from observing nature or human nature; it’s wisdom derived from revelation, from listening to God and determining the will of God for the world, a will that is often at odds with values we have come to accept as being normal, values that we often celebrate as we do on Super Bowl Sunday. 

Jesus creates a vision, an alternative vision, a somewhat upside down vision of the world.  It is a vision that we have to take seriously because what it gets at is the fact that there is something wrong.  The first beatitude is “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  In Luke’s version of this he just has “Blessed are the poor” but Matthew has “poor in spirit” which has always raised questions; just what does he mean by “poor in spirit?”  Last week I mentioned the talk Pastor Allan Johnson gave on Matthew for the clergy a couple of weeks ago and in commenting on the Beatitudes he suggested that being poor in spirit could be understood to mean recognizing that something is wrong, recognizing that the world isn’t what it should be.

I found that helpful as it opens the possibility of moving beyond just being resigned to the way things are with no hope for change, a position that I think has become the default position for many people these days.  Understanding poor in spirit as recognizing that something is wrong also leads to another dimension of the Beatitudes.  Besides being a different kind of wisdom literature, the Beatitudes can also be understood as being prophetic.  They represent God’s will, Jesus’ will for transformation, new life, new opportunities.  They represent hope for those in need of hope, those who suffer brokenness and grief, those who are taken advantage of, those who the world sees as the losers.  At one time or another, that’s pretty much all of us.  The wisdom of Jesus tells us that in all of those situations hope is the last word, not despair; the kingdom will be revealed.

It is ironic that we get the Beatitudes on Super Bowl Sunday; it does serve to highlight the contrast between kingdom of God, kingdom of heaven values and the values of the world.  To a certain degree though, that contrast exists pretty much every week.  We all try to smooth it out, to make kingdom values and worldly values the same, but we can’t; they are different.  We see the contrast so we know there’s a problem, but we also know that God’s will is for transformation so transformation will happen.  We are people of hope.

Would Jesus watch the Super Bowl?  I don’t know; he might.  Despite the violence and worldly values and commercial excess there is still much to admire in the teamwork and athleticism.  It can serve as an enjoyable Sabbath diversion and I think for most of us that’s what it is.  Imagine watching it though, with the words of the Beatitudes periodically scrolling across the bottom of the screen.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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