Psalm 33 and 34, Isaiah 52: 1 – 12 and Matthew 5: 1 – 16
The counsel of the Lord stands for ever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations. Psalm 33: 11
I sought the Lord and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. Psalm 34: 4 and 5
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’. Isaiah 52: 7
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying…. ‘ Matthew 5: 1 and 2
Almighty and Everlasting God, who dost govern all things in heaven and earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of thy people, and grant us thy peace all the days of our life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. Collect for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany
For those of us who live in Scotland, we have no shortage of mountains to serve as a visual aid for the scenes depicted in our readings. As mountains reach towards the sky, they point us to heaven. It is interesting, therefore, that mountains appear in our readings from Isaiah and Matthew. Throughout the gospels indeed, hillsides and mountains feature, often when Jesus needed time to retreat from the constant demands on his time and energy, and to pray and commune with his Father. Significant events are also associated with mountains, such as the Transfiguration, and then of course, the gospels all lead to the hill of Calvary where Jesus was crucified, and finally the Mount of Olives from where he ascended back into heaven.
Usually, where more than one psalm is listed for Evensong, I select just one, but today there is a verse from each that I have quoted to set the scene for our reading from Matthew 5. Psalm 33: 11 places the counsel of the Lord on a pinnacle that lasts for ever. Psalm 34: 4 and 5 meanwhile, speak of our response as we wait on God’s word and allow it to transform our character and confidence.
Isaiah 52 describes the coming of the Messiah, where the mountains will be made beautiful by the benediction of having been trodden by the messenger bringing the good news of peace and salvation. This now leads us to one of the best-loved passages in the Bible, as we think of the Beatitudes.
It is to a mountain that Jesus retreats at the beginning of Matthew 5, after he has been pursued eagerly by crowds from a wide area seeking healing and the excitement of seeing this new itinerant teacher. He takes the newly-chosen disciples with him to begin unfolding the revolutionary new approach to the unyielding religious law. What he shared with the disciples turned everything upside down, just as many of the Old Testament prophecies had predicted. Salvation could not be earned by human efforts or gained through entitlement of birth. Instead, God’s mercy was being extended to the entire world, so Gentile as well as Jew could inherit the Kingdom of God. People needed to recognise they were spiritually poor and come in humility, seeking forgiveness. Then they would be given the wisdom and strength to live to Kingdom standards.
My commentary on these verses in Matthew gives the following headings for the nine Beatitudes.
Sadly, space does not permit longer explanation of each Beatitude, but each heading hints at why the religious and military powers in Jesus’ day found his teaching so uncomfortable or incomprehensible. But, picking up on verse 7 and the consequences of us being shown mercy leading to us showing mercy to others, the author of my commentary tells the story of an army general who complained to John Wesley about the ‘weakness’ of the Christian message of free forgiveness. ‘Mr. Wesley’, he said, ‘I never forgive’. To which Wesley replied, ‘Then sir, I hope you never sin’. The members of the kingdom are known for their likeness to the king. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, may we always remember how much we have been forgiven and ask help to show that same mercy to others.