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The Irrational Season

A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on January 30, 2011.

Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:12

Did you know that in just 216 days – count ’em! – the Arkansas Razorbacks will once again be playing football? That’s right. 216 days. The season begins September 3rd when the Hogs host the Missouri State Bears in Fayetteville. Imagine the hype leading up to the big day, no doubt circled in red by thousands of true Razorback fans everywhere.

In the minds of many, and the hopes of all, the Hogs will go undefeated and win the national championship. We came so close in 2010. We should have beaten Alabama. If only we could take back a play or two. Things were going well against Auburn when a couple of really bad officiating calls went against us. That opened the floodgates. It could have been us facing Oregon in the national championship game, we came so close.

2011, surely, will be our year. Anything is possible before the initial kick-off. After all, it’s going to be a new day with a new quarterback, and hopes will be sky-high. Tyler Wilson will make us forget Ryan Mallett, and this year is the time when Bobby Petrino will put everything together and the Razorbacks will make us proud, bringing home the biggest prize of all.

Isn’t that the way it is when every new season rises in the foreground? It’s not just true of football. You baseball fans know that pitchers and catchers will be reporting in a couple of weeks to spring training camps in Florida and Arizona. On the first day of the Major League season in April everyone is undefeated. Then, when the first games are played and the stats go into the record books, the teams that lose their season openers will remind everyone there’s still 161 more games to be played. That’s the kind of optimism that accompanies the beginning of every new season, regardless of the sport.

I wonder if that is something of what it was like when Jesus came on the scene. For eight hundred long years the people of Galilee have lived under the oppressive arm of their captors. Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans… whoever had the more superior military might just rolled through and took over. Sometimes they carted the Hebrews off into captivity, other times they just took them over and enslaved them in their own lands and homes. The people did not have a government they could call their own. Slowly, but surely, their land was taken away from them, their customs and religious beliefs were eroded under the heavy hands of their oppressors, and life became increasingly difficult. 

Then, along came John the Baptist, who referred to himself as a forerunner, a preparer of the way. He told the people that Someone was coming who would take away their sin and restore them to their rightful place as the people of God. Those who listened to John and believed him anticipated the coming of their Savior with the level of enthusiasm that all those Razorback fans display when they call in to Drive Time Sports or the other radio shows.

Then, one day, as John is preaching and baptizing down at the Jordan River, a man comes up to him and says, “John, it is time. I’ve come for baptism.” John responds by exclaiming, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Play ball! The season has started and the home team is undefeated! They can see a national championship in their near future!

And Jesus doesn’t disappoint. He moves down to the seaside village of Capernaum and hangs out his shingle. Soon, he’s healing people of their diseases and infirmities and even bringing the dead back to life. People come to him from all over, basking in the glory that surrounds the ministry of Jesus. They come to him, as Matthew tells us, from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. Like Saturday morning of game day, when traveling to Fayetteville and you see car after car emblazoned with red pigs, and flags flying from automobile windows showing support for their beloved Hogs, hungry pilgrims come from everywhere to see Jesus, to be healed by him, to hear what he has to say. 

The Nazarene, recognizing that his ministry is not to be composed solely of healing, seeks to establish a context for what he is doing and why he is doing it. He needs to tell the people about this new order he has come to begin, this new government, a kingdom that embodies the presence and the purpose of the One who has sent him. So Jesus leaves Capernaum and goes up the mountain and sits down. The disciples gather in close to hear him, and he begins teaching…

            “Blessed are the poor in spirit…

            “Blessed are those who mourn…

            “Blessed are the meek…

            “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…

            “Blessed are the merciful… the pure in heart… the peacemakers…

            “Blessed are those who are persecuted…

            “Blessed are you when people revile you… Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…” 

And all the people said, “Huh? What?! What is this all about? This isn’t what we’ve come to hear. Poor, mournful, meek, merciful, pure, peacemaker? Is he serious?!” 

You know what it was like that day on the mountainside? It was like being ranked number one pre-season and expecting your team to go undefeated, only to lose the season opener by four touchdowns. That’s what it was like. 

Because of the nature of my work, I don’t get to see very many Razorback games in person. If you look at the 2011 season schedule (you’ll find it on the Internet), you will notice that the only game listed that has a definite time attached to it is the LSU game November 25th. CBS has moved it back to the Friday after Thanksgiving. Did you know that? The last couple of years they had scheduled it on Saturday. The game will begin at 1:30 in the afternoon. Look at the schedule, though, and you’ll see that starting times for all the other games are TBA, “To Be Announced.” 

Do you know why? Because they are at the mercy of television, that’s why, primarily ESPN. The TV sports producers will wait and see what the rankings are, and how teams are doing, before making the schedule definite. It’s all about the money, you see, and they know that winning teams are what draw the viewers. The best teams get the best game times. So we’ll have to wait and see what times the Hogs will play.

That makes planning to attend any of the games quite difficult for me since the Razorbacks play most of their home games three-and-a-half hours away. Saturday night games in Fayetteville are definitely out of the question. I’m not whining about it, just explaining. That’s the way it is.

I do recall the year we went to see the Hogs play Georgia. It was a gorgeous, sun-filled afternoon on September 30, 2000, my first time ever to see a game in Fayetteville. On the very first play, quarterback Robbie Hampton took the snap from center, dropped a couple of steps back, fired a pass to his receiver on the left flank, only to have the Georgia cornerback step in front of the receiver, intercept the pass and return it 25 yards for their first score. Just like that, first play from scrimmage, 7-0 Georgia. The entire stadium let out a collective groan, and then for the remainder of the game sat in stunned silence as the Hogs went down to defeat 38-7. 

You’re wondering where I’m going with this, aren’t you? Well I wonder if that was something of how Jesus’ followers felt that day on the mountainside. 

Jesus has been traveling throughout Galilee, according to Matthew, teaching in the synagogues and proclaiming the good news – good news! – of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. His fame has spread throughout all Syria, we are told, to the point that folks were bringing their sick, “those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.” He cured them! Each and every one. The medical association is up in arms because he’s putting all the physicians out of business. Jesus is just healing people right and left, and all the people are thinking that if this is the way it is in the kingdom of heaven, they’re the luckiest people on earth. 

Now, if Jesus can do that with diseases, imagine what kind of hope he can give to people who have lost hope. He’s going to tell them about this new kingdom that surely will sweep down from heaven and run all those nasty Romans back to wherever it is they’ve come from. Israel, God’s chosen people, will be vindicated and everything will go back to the way it was supposed to be, the way Moses envisioned it, the way their ancestors had fought so hard for it to be. The Promised Land will be theirs once more as they live and flourish under the rule of God. 

But instead, Jesus begins by talking about how blessed they are – not will be, but are – because they are poor and grieving. They are to be meek, he tells them, hungry and thirsty and merciful and pure in heart. He tells them to be peacemakers, and to consider themselves blessed because they will continue to be persecuted.

You know what Jesus is telling them? He’s telling them they are to be happy because things are going to keep on being the way they’ve always been. The Romans will continue to have their way with them, and nothing will be changed. It’s their hearts that need to be changed, Jesus says, not their political situation.

Now, put yourselves in their sandals. Is that the kind of message you would want to hear? In fact, it’s a tough pill to swallow today. Changing hearts instead of the political situation… it’s hard to do.

Madeleine L’Engle wrote a book called The Irrational Season, from which I obviously got the title for this sermon. In it she attempted to make sense of a time in her life, and in the life of her church, that had been really, really difficult.1 We’ve all been there, have gone through some tough patches, only to emerge from the darkness with a renewed sense of hope. That’s where the people of Galilee are. They’ve been through their irrational season – more than one, in fact – and now that Jesus has come they’re hoping to put an end to all that and bask in the light of a new day. Instead, Jesus, in what we have come to call The Sermon on the Mount, is encouraging them to retreat back into the darkness… or so it seems. Talk about irrational!

Turning the other cheek, giving up your coat, being meek and merciful… everyone knows that won’t get the job done. You’ve got to face your enemies – not to mention your demons – step on them and squash them like a bug. It’s the only way to survive. 

You know what that means? It means that here we are two millennia later and we still don’t know what to do with the beatitudes. Except to name them. That’s what we have come to call Jesus’ blessings… beatitudes. Sounds nice… beatitudes. Has a nice ring to it and kinda takes the edge off it, doesn’t it? Beatitudes. In fact, the French word for “blessing” is debonair.2 That sounds even better. 

We just don’t know what to do with the beatitudes, so we read them as if they were poetry, or we needlepoint them, frame them, and hang them over the piano. 

But how much more irrational could Jesus be? Try being meek to a Roman and see how far it will get you. Or, in today’s world, a terrorist. Jesus is counseling us to give up what we have in order to be blessed in his way of life. 

Is it all right if I confess to you that I’m just as perplexed and challenged by all this as you are? You are perplexed and challenged by it, aren’t you? Please say yes because I could use some company here!           

Sometimes, when you’re not sure what to say or do, especially when you are confronted by scriptures that run counter to your nature, it helps to reduce things down to as simple a response as you can provide. Sorta like sifting the sand until you find a few nuggets of gold. So, let me leave you with this. If you are seeking a life that will be blessed, as Jesus defines it in the beatitudes, give this a try: live simply, be hopeful, and offer compassion to those who need it. If you will do this, you may not go undefeated, but you will – when all is said and done – know what true victory is.

Lord, though these words we call the “beatitudes” are familiar to us, we confess that your sense of blessing still seems strange to us. Take us by the hand and heart and show us your way, the way of the kingdom. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.