1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Matthew 5:1-12

Preaching is a fearsome thing, if you do it properly, because you’re trying to talk about the deepest of profound things. It’s worse when you have to follow another better preacher. In this case, I’m following the One about whom I mean to be preaching – the next several Sundays will be based on Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” So why do I even bother? However good I am, however rich my gifts, I’m no Messiah.

Worse still, the Sermon on the Mount is not even a good sermon. There are no illustrations, no rhetorical hook, no heartwarming poem – it’s just a bunch of sayings. Today we have the “Beatitudes.” “Beatitudes”? We should call them “The Assertions”! Don’t you at least want some logic here to string them together? Jesus must have been an awfully good preacher to sell this as “Your nine keys to unlocking the kingdom of heaven today.” This is not exactly a step-by-step guide to happiness. Even ignoring the next two and a half chapters of disjointed sayings (which are arguably Matthew’s fault), what kind of introduction to Jesus’ message is this? It’s surprising anyone stuck around to write this down, don’t you think? “Happiness is to mourn and be persecuted”? No thanks, find me another Christ.

And other Christs, other messages are all around. We hear all about being happy. Three thousand times a day, we hear that happiness is for sale, so spend some money to deaden your aching spirit. Well-meaning friends try to snap us out of our grief and talk us out of our humility, anything to avoid their own discomfort at our truth. Costs and liabilities tie our hands, making righteousness, mercy, and purity look unrealistic, pressuring us to endorse violence as the way of the kingdom. We hear that happiness means social respectability – fitting in, not rocking boat, avoiding the loss of our status – keeping up with the Joneses, whoever they are.

Not that these messages announce themselves that way. They don’t wear a sign saying “false Christ.” They present themselves as happiness, or maybe “pleasure” is a better word. We’re built to seek pleasure because God wants us to be happy, but many things look pleasant that don’t make us happy. It’s much easier to hear the message of false happiness than Jesus’ beatitudes.

But someone heard them – we heard them this morning – and they were true. Challenging, yes, but true. These statements are true despite not making any sense. Jesus talks about the deep values of God’s realm, the path of real happiness, and it speaks to us even though it’s not how our world works. We believe the beatitudes (even if it just feels like wanting to believe) because they tell a truth deeper than what we can see.

Call it self-evident, a truth you don’t need to argue for because you can’t. For example, that phrase came up in the Declaration of Independence, about the “self-evident” truth of human equality – and the document was written by someone who couldn’t abide the equality of white men, let alone women and slaves. The truth of that fundamental statement trumped the facts of daily life. Some truth is so true that it calls other truths to account. It transforms reality, and now people have never not been equal. Now it really is self-evident.

Jesus said that the path of true happiness is truth, humility, righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, and peacefulness, and now it’s always been true. Not because it works – none of this should help us lose weight, make more money, or keep in better touch with friends. This is deeply impractical advice, except that it does work. The people Jesus describes are truly happy.

My friend Augustus is a minister in the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, but he lived for years in Boston. Like many immigrants, he worked at a job far beneath his skills and education level: he was a parking lot attendant. It must have been mind-numbing, and sometimes soul-crushing. I would have asked why God didn’t have something better in store, but Augustus is unfailingly kind and positive – gentle, pure, and peaceful. He radiates Jesus’ values, because he’s centered deeply in Jesus’ presence.

That’s where it comes from. The beatitudes are what Jesus’ life looks like. “Happy are you when you’re persecuted for God’s ways just like the prophets were,” and they turned on Jesus for living God’s ways too. And that’s the Good News: Jesus lived true happiness before we did. Jesus lived this countercultural, absurd message to its fullest, to the very end. And like any absurd story, it ended tragically and beautifully. It ended beautifully because it ended tragically. Jesus died on the cross, proving the depth of his happiness, the depth of God’s limitless love for us.

God’s love is indeed limitless. God is Love itself. That’s what Paul calls “the message about Christ’s death on cross.” It’s what Jesus calls true happiness. Jesus’ preaching makes sense (and it does despite itself) because God is love, because God loves us so deeply that death itself is no deterrent. That’s why Paul preaches about Christ’s death as if it were good news itself, because only that foolishness and absurdity tells the whole truth.

Here’s the whole truth, as absurd as it is: God really is love. Love really is the Lord of heaven and earth. All of life finds its deepest center in God’s love, in giving oneself freely to serve and reconcile with others. It’s crazy, but it’s true. We know it’s true. It testifies on its own behalf, as only God’s truth can. Happy are those foolish enough to trust in God’s love.