4th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Matthew 5:1-12;
Micah 6:6-8; 1 Cor 1:18-31
A NEW IDENTITY1
Imagine yourself in Galilee, on a windswept hillside near a little fishing town called Capernaum. Flocks of birds circle and land. Wildflowers bloom among the grasses between rock outcroppings. The Sea of Galilee glistens blue below us, reflecting the clear midday sky above. This is the day we’ve been waiting for. This is the day Jesus is going to pass on to us the heart of his message.
Jesus begins in a fascinating way. He uses the term blessed to address the question of identity, the question of who we want to be. In Jesus’ day, to say “Blessed are these people” is to say “Pay attention: these are the people you should aspire to be like. This is the group you want to belong to.” It’s the opposite of saying “Woe to those people” or “Cursed are those people,” which means, “Take note: you definitely don’t want to be like those people or counted among their number.”
His words no doubt surprise everyone, because we normally play by the following rules of the game. These are the rules we are told we need to survive in the ‘real’ world:
Do everything you can to be rich and powerful.
Toughen up and harden yourself against all feelings of loss. (“No crying in baseball.”2)
Measure your success by how much of the time you are thinking only of yourself and your own happiness.
Be independent and aggressive, hungry and thirsty for higher status in the social pecking order.
Strike back quickly when others strike you, and guard your image so you’ll always be popular.
But Jesus defines success and well-being in a profoundly different way. Who are blessed? What kinds of people should we seek to be identified with?
The poor and those in solidarity with them.
Those who mourn, who feel grief and loss.
The nonviolent and gentle.
Those who hunger and thirst for the common good and aren’t satisfied with the status quo.
The merciful and compassionate.
Those characterized by openness, sincerity, and unadulterated motives.
Those who work for peace and reconciliation.
Those who keep seeking justice even when they’re misunderstood and misjudged.
Those who stand for justice as the prophets did, who refuse to back down or quiet down when they are slandered, mocked, misrepresented, threatened, and harmed.
Jesus has been speaking for only a matter of seconds, and he has already turned our normal status ladders and social pyramids upside down. He advocates an identity characterized by solidarity, sensitivity, and nonviolence. He celebrates those who long for justice, embody compassion, and manifest integrity and truth-telling. He creates a new kind of hero: not warriors, corporate executives, or politicians, but brave and determined activists for preemptive peace, willing to suffer with him in the prophetic tradition of justice.
Our choice is clear from the start: If we want to be his disciples, we won’t be able to simply coast along and conform to the norms of our society. We must choose a different definition of well-being, a different model of success, a new identity with a new set of values.
Jesus promises we will pay a price for making that choice. But he also promises we will discover many priceless rewards. If we seek the kind of unconventional blessedness he proposes, we will experience
the true aliveness of God’s kingdom,
the warmth of God’s comfort,
the enjoyment of the gift of this Earth,
the satisfaction at seeing God’s restorative justice come more fully,
the joy of receiving mercy,
the direct experience of God’s presence,
the honor of association with God and of being in league with the prophets of old.
That is the identity he invites us to seek.
That identity will give us a very important role in the world. As creative nonconformists, we will be difference makers, aliveness activists, catalysts for change. The next thing Jesus talks about — which we won’t read until next week’s Gospel Reading — is that we are to be salt and light. Like salt that brings out the best flavors in food, we will bring out the best in our community and society. Also like salt, we will have a preservative function — opposing corruption and decay. Like light that penetrates and eradicates darkness, we will radiate health, goodness, and well-being to warm and enlighten those around us. Simply by being who we are — living boldly and freely in this new identity as salt and light — we will make a difference, as long as we don’t lose our “saltiness” or try to hide our light.
We’ll be tempted, no doubt, to let ourselves be tamed, toned down, shut up, and glossed over. But Jesus means for us to stand apart from the status quo, to stand up for what matters, and to stand out as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. He means for our lives to overcome the blandness and darkness of evil with the salt and light of good works. Instead of drawing attention to ourselves, those good works will point toward God. “Wow,” people will say, “when I see the goodness and kindness of your lives, I can believe there’s a good and kind God out there too.” Might they also say, “I want to be part of that!”?
The way Jesus phrases these memorable lines tells us something important about him. Like all great leaders, he isn’t preoccupied with himself. He puts others — us — in the spotlight when he says, “You are the salt of the Earth. You are the light of the world.” Yes, there’s a place and time for him to declare who he is, but he begins by declaring who we are.
It’s hot in the Galilean sunshine. Still, the crowds are hanging on Jesus’ every word. They can tell something profound and life-changing is happening within them and among them. Jesus is not simply trying to restore their religion to some ideal state in the past. Nor is he agitating unrest to start a new religion to compete with the old one. No, it’s abundantly clear that he’s here to start something bigger, deeper, and more subversive: a new way of being human! A global uprising that can spread to and through every religion and culture! This uprising begins not with a new strategy but with a new identity. So he spurs his hearers into reflection about who they are, who they want to be, what kind of people they will become, what they want to make of their lives.
As we consider Jesus’ message today, we join those people on that hillside, grappling with the question of who we are now and who we want to become in the future — not just as individuals, but also as this little country church of disciples inviting others to join us in the great adventure which Jesus is calling us to. As we listen to Jesus, each of us knows, deep inside: If I accept this new identity, everything will change for me. Everything will change.
And: Will my friends and family and neighbors want to join me? Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, January 29, 2023
1. This sermon is largely based on a sermon by Brian McLaren, edited lightly, from his book We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), chapter 27, pages 127-130.
2. A line from Tom Hanks, the manager, in the 1992 movie A League of Their Own.