Mountain People are Fish People
Our text is the beginning of Jesus' most famous sermon, The Sermon on the Mount. And as you heard, it was specifically spoken to "His disciples," to us. We're mountain people, and there's gold on this here mountain. But not where the valley people think.
Mountain people are knock, knock, knocking on heaven's door. No less than 3 times does Jesus promise heaven itself to mountain people. Think of it, Jesus doesn't promise mountains that reach to the heavens, but heaven itself: where there is no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain; where every tear will be wiped from our eyes. Jesus promises heaven 3 times. He says of the poor and the persecuted "theirs is the kingdom of heaven." He says the insulted are to rejoice and to literally leap for joy "because great is your reward in heaven."
But there are qualifiers, aren't there? Jesus promises heaven not to the poor in pocketbooks, or the Terry poor, poor, pitiful me Clarks of the world, but to the "poor in Spirit" and let's take Spirit with a capital S." A capital S' goes with the persecuted that are promised heaven. Not anyone persecuted for any reason, but "because of righteousness." Likewise, not everyone insulted by anyone has a great reward in heaven, but those says Jesus, "insulted because of Me," and Me' is bold and emphatic. So, if you're persecuted and insulted in the way of Able, Isaac, Jeremiah, Daniel, Paul, or John heaven is yours.
Well, in the words of another Dylan song. "It ain't me." Wait, wait before you answer, collect your thoughts. That's what the Collect of the Day does. A Collect is an ancient form of prayer whose name comes from the Latin collectus. It is a short prayer usually of 5 parts in which the needs of the Church are collected. Today's Collect dates to the 7th century, and was included in Luther's Liturgy of 1529. However, there it prayed as the original did "we cannot at any time stand upright." Queen Elizabeth revised it in 1558 to "we cannot always stand upright" (Reed, 484). Our church body retained this wrong translation through her hymnals up to 2006.
Collect your thoughts. If you pray the Collect as it is on the insert "we cannot always stand upright," then our text is a pep talk. Sure, you didn't have enough of the Holy Spirit this week; sure, you weren't always persecuted for righteousness this week; sure no one insulted you for Jesus' sake this week, but next week, with God's help of course, you'll do better!
But what if the 1,400-year-old prayer collects the truth of Scripture rightly? What if we can't "at any time stand upright?" Read Romans 3: there is none righteous no not one; there is none who seeks God; all have turned aside; there is none who does good. We've all fallen short of the glory of God. Without the "always" in the Collect, this text isn't a pep talk but a death sentence. Heaven is mine only if I admit I have not even a spark of the Spirit in me, and if the only reason I am persecuted or insulted is for Jesus' righteousness or in Jesus' name. But I find that I see myself poor in health, in dollars, in material things. I find when I am persecuted or insulted it's usually because of something I did or said not because of Jesus.
Mountain people are knocking on heaven's door, but when they collect their thoughts they find it doesn't open the way they think. And the answer is "Look at the fish."
I take this phrase from Louis Agassiz, a 19th century biologist and geologist. He is to be remembered for opposing Darwin for scientific reasons. Today I bring him up because of how he admitted students to his classes at Harvard. He would place before a prospective student a fish that had been preserved in some foul-smelling liquid. Agassiz would say, "Look at the fish," and leave the room. He would come back hours later and ask what the student could tell him about the fish. He would listen and then say, "Look at the fish," and leave the room again. In the case of one prospective student this went on for 3 full days (Brave Companions, 25-26).
When this text pushes you up against the cliff that drops off into hell itself, the answer is: look at the fish. As we'll see in Lent, early on the Church used the Greek word for fish as an acronym about Jesus. The Greek letters spelling fish stand for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.[i]
Look at the Fish. He is the One being described first and foremost in the text. Although true God with the Father and the Spirit, the Spirit descended on His human nature at Baptism. Although never having broken one of the Commandments, and therefore perfectly righteous, He was persecuted by church leaders for breaking the 3rd Commandment. He was persecuted as a Samaritan who denied the faith. He was persecuted as if He accepted unrighteousness because He dared to eat and drink with sinners. And it was for the Name of God that He was insulted. Read Romans 15. Paul says of Christ, "The insults of those who insult You have fallen on Me." And yes, the word "Me" is that same empathic, bold Me that is in our text.
Look at the Fish, Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior. He is the One to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs. He was not only poor in Spirit but He was the One who mourned. Don't you remember how He twice wept over the Jerusalem that rejected Him? Don't you remember how He mourned over the worrying Martha saying, "Martha, Martha" poor, poor pitiful you? The Lord has mercy on you. Who was so meek that Jesus was not meeker still? Although the Voice of God according to Psalm 29 breaks cedars, spits out fire, and shakes the wilderness, God the Son didn't lift up His voice in the street.
And though having all righteousness, He told John to baptize Him to fulfill all righteousness. That's because the righteousness, which is holiness, that He hungered and thirsted for was yours. 2 Corinthians 5 tells you what depths Jesus was willing to go to get righteousness for you: It says God made Jesus who had no sin to be sin for us so that in Jesus we might have the righteousness of God. Are you a germaphobe? How about a neat-freak? That's nothing compared to being the holy, pure, unblemished God in flesh and blood. The thought of even one germ to a germaphobe or one speck of dirt to neat-freak is nothing compared to the absolute revulsion the holy God has toward sin. Now picture the germaphobe in a sewer line, the neat-freak in a coal pile. Now see him there not for his sake but for yours. That's what it means to say God made Jesus to be sin so you could have His righteousness.
Look at the Fish. The time allotted me would fail, if I continued through our text to show you how Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior is the One who is described here. Who is the merciful one? Me who might have mercy on the guy who doored my 17-year-old Lexus once or the One whose mercy endures forever? Who is the pure in heart that can bear the sight of God? Me who can't keep a lustful thought out of my head to save my very soul or the One who was declared the unblemished, spotless Lamb of God? Me who can't endure approaching God in His holiness or Jesus who is in the very lap of the Father? Do you think I'm the peacemaker who will be called a son of God? Sure, I can make peace with my neighbor, but what chance do I have of making peace with God? I've broken every one of His commandments, and no matter how many times I die I can't pay for one of them. But on the basis of God the Son being born to a flesh and blood virgin God declares a unilateral peace treaty: Peace on earth the Christmas angel trumpeted.
Look at the Fish. Like Agassiz's students, we think we know all about Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior by a quick glance. Okay, maybe a couple years of Sunday School, and then a couple more years of confirmation, and we've got the whole Fish down. That's all the in-depth looking at the Fish I need. Okay maybe an hour church service once a week, but certainly nothing beyond that. Just how much can there be to a fish? Agassiz's prospective students found out there was far, far more than they ever thought. If that's true of a literal fish, how much more so for the Fish that is a Lamb, Shepherd, Savior, God, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier and Friend?
Look at the Fish and find your righteousness in His life and death, and then hear Proverbs' promise that the righteous are bold as a lion and go forth from here roaring. Look at the Fish and find that since you can't at any time stand upright you must always fear the Lord, and then, as hymn 29 says, in fearing the Lord you have nothing else to fear. And then you'll know why the Proverb says "in the fear of the Lord there is strong confidence." Look at the Fish and find that this single focus delivers you from the curse of modern technology which demands multiple focal points. Yes, we're not just the double-minded man, James speaks of, who is unstable in all his ways. We're double, triple, quadruple-minded, and more. Look at the Fish who calls you to cast your sins, your cares, your hopes, dreams, and fears all and only on Him.
Mountain people are Fish people. I said that this was in contrast to the valley people. Some of you knew right away where I was going with that.
I was going to the late 60s antiwar song "One Tin Soldier." The valley people want the mountain people's treasure. The mountain people are more than willing to share it, but the valley people think it's tons of gold and want it all for themselves. So, the valley people sally up the mountain and kill all the mountain people. There they stand "before the treasure on the mountain dark and red. Turned the stone and looked beneath it. Peace on earth, was all it said."
Imagine their surprise if they had turned the stone over and found a fish? That's the treasure of us Mountain People. We don't find our blessedness in the fact that we can sometimes stand upright if we try real hard, but in Christ Jesus, God's Son, our Savior who always stood upright and gives all the peace, all the righteousness, all the heaven He earned to us. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, texas
Fourth Sunday After Epiphany (20170129); Matthew 5: 1-12
[i] There is debate whether the symbol or the acronym came first (ODCC, 514).