The Sermon of Alternate Facts

Matthew 5:1-12, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Preached FCCW 1/29/2017

It feels like every year now, the Oxford English Dictionary — which bills itself as “the definitive record of the English language”– is adding new words and phrases.

Actually, it’s not a feeling; it’s a fact. Since 2000, the dictionary has been updated quarterly, and the latest update included 500 new words, including Brexit, hackability and exampling.
Which I’m not positive, but I think is what I just did.
Now, I may be proven wrong about this, but I have a strong premonition that the next Oxford English Dictionary update will include the expression – alternate fact.
According to the present dictionary, a fact is “a piece of information presented as having objective reality.”
For example, (here I go, exampling again) the color of the stole I’m wearing is green. That is its objective reality. It is not a matter of opinion or interpretation. But, according to this trending expression, someone could say that it is purple, and it would not be a false hood. It would just be an alternate fact.
An objective reality that coexists with another objective reality even though they conflict with one another.
If that is anything like the meaning that the Oxford Dictionary eventually assigns to the expression “alternate fact” then, it turns out that it is not really such a new and trendy concept, after all.
Because Christians who take the Bible seriously have been dealing with alternate facts for practically forever.
In his book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller says, “The goofy thing about Christian faith is that you believe it and don’t believe it at the same time. It isn’t unlike having an imaginary friend.”
He goes on to say, “I believe in Jesus; I believe He is the Son of God, but every time I sit down to explain this to somebody I feel like a palm reader, like somebody who works at a circus or a kid who is always making things up or somebody at a Star Trek convention who hasn’t figured out the show isn’t real.”

For a follower of Jesus, his existence is accepted as fact. And the fact of his place in our lives shapes our attitudes and choices. Yet, other people take it as an alternate fact that Jesus does not exist in the way that believers claim he does. As a result, their priorities and choices can differ significantly from ours.

In the first Letter Paul wrote to the Christian Church in Corinth, he talked about how the message of the cross was foolishness to people who didn’t believe, but to those who did believe, it represented the wisdom and power of God. Already in Paul’s time, mere decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, alternate facts about him and his death on the cross were trending in the city of Corinth.
Paul warned that there is a wisdom that comes from God and a wisdom that is arrived at by human deduction. The truth of one is grounded in God’s nature and the truth of the other is based on human nature.

Some years ago the Raleigh, North Carolina News & Observer published an article entitled: “How Do You Measure Up as a Man?” The article stated that some extensive research had been conducted on the modern standards for measuring a man. According to research, a man is measured by these eight qualities:
1. His ability to make and conserve money.
2. The cost, style and age of his car.
3. How much hair he has.
4. His strength and size.
5. The job he holds and how successful he is at it.
6. What sports he likes.
7. How many clubs he belongs to.
8. His aggressiveness and reliability.
For the majority of people who responded to this poll, these represent an objective reality. A fact.

The teachings of Jesus contained in the Sermon on the Mount set down nine principles for measuring the blessedness of a person. They are called the Beatitudes. Jesus’ Top Nine list of traits found in blessed men and women goes like this:
An acknowledgement of their own powerlessness and dependence on God.
The ability to grieve, not only personal loss, but for the state of the world.
A sense of contentment with what one has in place of an  aggressive accumulation of more.
A passion for seeing God’s righteousness and justice done.
Being merciful to others.
A willingness to be transformed into the person God created them to be.
A preference for cooperation over competition.
A determination to persevere in pursuing righteousness even when it is unpopular to do so.
An assurance that being rejected and maligned for their resistance to what is contrary to the Gospel is not a sign of defeat, but of the world’s opposition to the progress of God’s truth.

You may notice that there is a pronounced contrast between these two lists. The first one focuses on material possessions, external appearances, status and power. The second gravitates towards internal qualities, humility, faith and compassion for others. There would appear to be an incompatibility between the popular definition of the successful person and Jesus’ idea of the objective reality of a blessed person. You could even say that according to most cutting edge vocabulary at our disposal, the Sermon on the Mount could be renamed the Sermon of Alternate Facts. Because that is precisely how Jesus presented them. The Beatitudes are written in what is called the Indicative tense, which means they represent facets of an objective reality called blessedness.

To understand what Jesus is saying in the Beatitudes, it’s important to understand the meaning of that word, “blessed.” Sometimes the word has been translated as meaning happy, but happiness is a subjective state. It’s a feeling that is dependent on circumstances. Blessedness is an objective state of being. That is, it is true whether we feel it to be true or not. And, let’s be honest, we can have our doubts about the reliability of the wisdom found in the Beatitudes. What sounds all well and good on Sunday morning can feel hopelessly naive with Monday’s arrival. Sometimes, we need all the help we can get to keep from vacillating between alternate facts depending on whether we are in church or out in the world.
The alternate facts found in the Beatitudes give us a picture of an alternative reality to the reality we are used to; an alternate reality that Jesus called the Kingdom of God. It’s the alternative reality Jesus was alerting people to when he began his ministry by preaching, “Repent (or change the way you understand life) because the Kingdom of God is near.” It’s what Jesus was talking about when he taught his disciples to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
It was the reality by which Jesus lived, all the way to the cross.

When his life ended on a cross, the world that was against him pointed to that as empirical proof that everything he had stood for were falsehoods that only propagated weakness and failure in those who believed in him. But those who accepted the message that he had been resurrected saw an alternate truth when they looked at the cross. They saw confirmation that all the power and strength in the world could not silence God’s truth.

Paul wrote that the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing – or whose facts to live by are shaped by what is temporary. But to us who are being saved—or who live by the alternate facts of an eternal perspective — it is the power of God.

Jesus had a vision of a community that embodied the kingdom of heaven here and now. In the Beatitudes Jesus describes what citizenship in heaven’s kingdom looks like in the present.
God’s wisdom of the cross tells us that serving is better than being served, being weak in him is stronger than relying on our own strength.
The wisdom of the cross tells us that it is more blessed to give than to accumulate and hoard at the expense of others.
That it is more satisfying to forgive an enemy and pursue reconciliation than to nurture resentment and seek retribution.
These are all foolish ideas in a world that sees death as the ultimate reality.
But they represent the very power of God to transform lives for those who see themselves as saved from the power of death for eternal life through Christ’s costly love displayed on the cross.
And so, when life tells us, “Better be safe than sorry” as if it is fact — Jesus tells us an Alternate Fact: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
When the world says “Nice guys finish last” – Jesus replies with an Alternate Fact: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
When we are taught that “Might makes right” – the Gospel proclaims an Alternate Fact:  “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
Any time “Look out for number one” grants permission for complacency about the state of the world — Christ’s Church raises an Alternate Fact: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Where “I’m not my brother’s keeper” closes eyes to the suffering of others – God’s Alternate Fact is: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
When the creed of society is “Money makes the world go round”—Christ’s Alternate Fact says: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
Where “Revenge is sweet” is a truth people hold to – the Alternate fact with which the Beatitudes replies is, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
When the Golden Rule is replaced with “Do unto others before they do unto you” – The Sermon of Alternate facts teaches: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
And when the wisdom of the world encourages avoiding sacrifice and pain at all costs — Jesus’ life stands as testimony to this Alternate Fact: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Friends, the way that the alternate facts of the Beatitudes become facts of life as we know it, is through unlikely prophets like you and me, who, by opening themselves to be transformed by God’s wisdom and power, help to transform the world into God’s better alternative.

© Raymond A. Medeiros 2017