02/02/20 – The Blessing of Humility

The Blessing of Humility

February 2, 2020
4th Sunday after Epiphany
Micah 6:1-8; 1 Cor. 1:10-18; Matt. 5:1-12
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones


For most of my life, Feb. 2 was Groundhogs’ Day – a secular observance based on the superstition that when groundhogs pop up from their underground abodes on Feb. 2, the presence or absence of its shadow foretells the next six weeks of weather. It wasn’t until I met Tom, a former Episcopalian choirboy that I learned it was also a Christian feast day.

Candlemas celebrates two special events: The infant Jesus’ presentation in the temple and Mary’s purification after Jesus’ birth. These events are recorded only in Luke’s gospel. In synagogues today, this presentation of an infant is referred to as the naming ceremony. It is one of the most important Jewish rituals. In Jesus’ time, a woman could not enter the temple until 40 days after the birth of a son. It was 60 days for a daughter. I did not do a further search of a reason for the different lengths of time and I doubt I would have liked the answer. After the 40 days, Mary would have dipped herself in a pool of water to be purified. After the ritual, she went to the temple with Joseph and the infant Jesus for his presentation when his name was announced to the priest. This was a revolutionary act of faith. By bringing their child, Jesus, to be blessed by the priest before God, Mary and Joseph declared their devotion and obedience to God, not to Caesar, not to the Roman gods and the ways of the world. The choral benediction today is set to the text of Simeon’s announcement that he had seen the child who would become the Savior of the world and could now die in peace.

Today, the Jewish naming ceremony celebrates the birth in the presence of the congregation. At this time, the congregation promises their support and commitment to the well-being of the child. There is a similar ceremony in the major world religions Islam and Hindu, and perhaps other religions. In Christianity, infant baptism serves the same purpose and more.

Like Christmas and Easter, the timing of the Christian celebration of Candlemas supplanted a pagan holiday. In pre-Christian times, it was the festival of light. This ancient festival marked the mid-point of winter, half-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. This was when candles for the home were blessed. It was believed that the weather on that day predicted the weather for the rest of the winter. Thus, the date comes full circle to a secular holiday, Groundhog’s Day.

Throughout its history, religion has struggled with secular culture. We have read about the trials and tribulations of the ancient Jewish prophets who sent God’s announcements of displeasure with the kings of Israel and the warnings of punishment for the people who supported and prospered from the injustices carried out by the kings and their minions.

Jesus set himself against the values of the Roman Empire and the Jewish leaders who accommodated those values, either to avoid conflict or to prosper themselves. Throughout history, when Christians stood firm in their faith and followed Christ against the values and norms of the social, economic and political systems of the empire, they were persecuted and punished. When Christians have acquiesced, they have committed merciless acts of injustice and oppression against their neighbors. The Ten Commandments start with: “You shall have no other gods before me and continue to spell that command in more detail in the next four commandments. Commandments six through ten all concern the just treatment of one’s neighbors.

Our reading from the prophet Micah is written in the style of a courtroom drama. Micah was a prophet cum community activist who spoke up for the oppressed and the poor. He spoke out against the powerful and privileged who oppressed and exploited others to enhance themselves. The greed of those at the top trickled down hardship and hopelessness where it puddled at the bottom of Israel’s socio-economic ladder. God serves as both judge and plaintiff and indicts Israel for breaking the covenant. God demands the defendant to “plead his case.”

But then the courtroom proceedings become more conversational. God lectures Israel like a judge before sentencing a repeat offender. “Why have you wasted your opportunities. I have shown you mercy when you got into trouble. Remember how I freed you from slavery in Egypt. Remember how I turned the curses King Balak sent Balaam to deliver upon Israel into blessings. And now you behave like this!?’ Israel responds petulantly: “So what do you want from us? God, the wise judge answers: “What I want from you is for you to be good people. Treat others with the kind of justice and kindness I have shown you. Or to use Micah’s words: 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?  (6:8)

What God was asking of the recalcitrant Israel was a change of heart and a change of direction. Israel had stopped worshipping God first and foremost, tempted away by worldly gods – you know them — wealth, power, prestigious titles, national security, personal security, luxurious houses, fancy cars, trendy clothes. God seemed to have moved farther and farther away from the Israelites, when in fact, it was Israel that was doing the walking, none too humbly, away from God.

When the Israelites no longer felt God’s presence, they forgot who God was and who they were in relation to God. We read in the Hebrew Scriptures that God is the very definition of justice and embodies kindness. This is the script from which Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah and revealed his divine nature in human form in his first service in his hometown synagogue.

In our gospel reading from Matthew, we read that Jesus went up to the mountaintop to reaffirm God’s promise that justice and kindness – read also mercy and compassion – will ultimately prevail because that is who God is and that is what God does. In the first of five discourses in Matthew, perhaps representing the five books of the Torah, we have what is known as the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount.

The Galilean audience to whom Jesus spoke were not living a life of comfort and ease under the Roman Empire. It was hard to remain faithful as a religious minority in an empire of pagans whose values were in opposition to their own. The empire honored power, dominance, wealth and violent aggression against anyone who threatened their security of privilege. As 21st century American Christians, we are not a religious minority, but the privilege of majority status has made us even more susceptible to chasing after the gods of state and culture.

It is important to understand that the values of Middle Eastern culture were founded on the honor-shame principle. The word, “beatitude” comes from the Latin word “beatitudo.” Matthew was not the first to include beatitudes. You will also find them in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, particularly in Proverbs and the Psalms. Matthew never used the term, beatitude, but he does use the Greek word, Makarios, translated as “blessed.” There are many possible translations for the Greek word used here. One of the more popular translations is “happy.” In the honor-shame culture of the first century, the word “honored” would be a better translation than “happy.” Jesus was bestowing honor on people that the rich and powerful of society shamed. He did that a lot during his ministry. In this week’s Epistle, Paul asks rhetorically: “Has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world?” The Beatitudes turn worldly wisdom on its head and make it wise to be a fool for Christ.

By worldly values, no one would choose to be one of those Jesus called blessed. The poor in spirit. Those who mourn. The meek. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The merciful. The pure in heart. The peacemakers. Those who are persecuted.  Jesus told the crowd gathered that these are the ones upon whom God would bestow honor and make inheritors of the kingdom. Jesus was not calling his disciples to purposely become victims of society; he promised those whom society victimizes, they do not suffer in God’s kingdom. The beatitudes are a promise in addition to being a blessing. Jesus makes this promise to all people in every time and place who put loyalty to him before that of the state, culture, political ideology, or privilege.

At the time Matthew wrote, many of the early Christians believed that the kingdom of God would be ushered in by a great war and a mighty show of force, but Jesus reveals the nature of the kingdom of God is not one of domination but of God’s mercy and justice. Now, the world is pushing closer to a competition of domination. With each pact broken, with each temporary alignment formed based on exploitation rather than mutual well-being, the world becomes the battleground of a few nations competing against one another at the expense of all others. But, the kingdom of God is for the humble, those who have total dependence on God. The kingdom is marked by peaceful interdependence with one another, demonstrated by kindness and mercy.

Jesus was not talking about the distant future beyond the world. He proclaimed that with him, the kingdom of God had entered the world. To make his point, Jesus followed his lesson with a demonstration. On this occasion, the first thing Jesus did when he came down the mountain was to heal a leper (at the beginning of chapter 8).

Jesus tells us we are blessed when we follow God rather than the devices and desires of our own hearts when we glorify God by our actions to promote peace, justice, and mercy among God’s children. God blesses us to be a blessing to others. Who are the poor, the persecuted, the ones who mourn and hunger and thirst for righteousness in our community? These are the ones Jesus calls us to feed, to free, to comfort, to heal.

The Apostle Paul delivers the most counter-cultural, anti-empire message yet. The cross, that brutal tool used by the Romans to inflict death and humiliation to secure its domination, is the source of God’s redemption. In a pastoral letter, Paul attempts to address some of the sources of conflict in the Corinthian church. The unity of the congregation had been broken over arguments about when and who should eat meat, about the meaning of the Lord’s supper, about the gifts of the Spirit, the work of the cross, the triumph of love, and the diversity of the body of Christ. With a “my way or no way” attitude, the congregation had lost its focus on Christ and concentrated on bending others into submission over self-centered issues concerning doctrine and worship practices.

Paul saw the need for individuals to be “right” or “superior” had caused the congregation to turn in the wrong direction. Paul countered with the message that Christ had taught them it is blessed gift from God that we need each other. Paul refuted the social, political and economic systems of the empire with Christ’s example that the power of God is stronger than human strength and God’s wisdom is wiser than human wisdom.

Jesus, on the last night of his life, took a loaf of bread from the table, where he was sharing the Passover meal with his disciples, and broke it. Then he took the wine and poured it into a cup. He declared to his disciples that these elements of basic human need represent his gift he was giving to them. This gift was his very own life given for the salvation of the whole world. Jesus is telling us that for his body to be whole again, we must recognize our need for this gift in one another.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2020, All Rights Reserved
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