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"An Undeserved Salute"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on June 7, 2020
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2024 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Matthew 5:1-16

A middle-aged man with graying hair and glasses once gave me a gift in an airport. He stood at attention, saluted me, and called me "sir." I realized it doesn't sound like much, but this gift literally opened doors for me. It was a real gift, a tangible gift, a gift of words—not just any words, powerful words and symbolic action infused with meaning and soaked in a shared history.

This man, old enough to be my father, stood at attention, saluted me, and said, "Good luck, sir." It was the first time I'd ever been saluted by unlisted member of the United States military. I was 22 years old. I wasn't even an officer yet. I was still in officer training. Now, if all went according to plan, in six months I would be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force. I'd been visiting with this man as we waited for our flight at the airport.

He shared with me that he was on the other end of a military career. He was an enlisted man, a non-commissioned officer, or NCO as they're called. He was a senior NCO with 20 years' experience in the military.

Now, if you've been in the military or you've been around the military, you know that there exists between senior NCOs and junior officers a special relationship. It's special because senior NCOs have so much experience and junior officers have so little.

I know this from experience because I myself have been newly graduated from college, a second lieutenant, or LT as they're called sometimes affectionately, or derisively. I've done a lot of dumb stuff as a lieutenant.

I have fallen asleep at the "o-dark-thirty" morning meeting with the colonel and elbowed awake by the senior NCO sitting next to me. I've been unprepared to answer the colonel's questions at the meeting and bailed out by the senior NCO sitting behind me. I've worn the wrong uniform, and I've worn the right uniform in the wrong way. I know this because a senior NCO told me so.

And this is what I mean when I say that senior NCOs and junior officers have a special relationship because junior officers, unless they have some sort of prior military experience, are all afflicted with something that we could call "vocational poverty."

Vocational poverty, it's not so much an attitude as it is a condition. You can have a very good attitude and still be vocationally poor. All junior officers have this affliction of vocational poverty, and it's manifested in a variety of ways, but they all have it. It's there regardless of how you feel about it. It's a condition, an objective condition. It's there even if you don't admit it. Every senior NCO will tell you that it's the LT who refuses to admit it. That's the most dangerous one of them all.

Now, this condition of vocational poverty, it can help us understand these words from Jesus—words from Jesus recorded in one of the four biographies in the New Testament, the one called the Gospel according to Matthew.

This talk from Jesus, this sermon as it's called, is one of the most profound and influential sermons that Jesus ever gave. It's recorded in Matthew's Gospel chapters 5-7. It's called the Sermon on the Mount, normally, and it's called that because Jesus gave the sermon while sitting on a mountain, or a hill, if you're from Colorado.

Matthew tells us about this sermon. How Jesus went up and sat on this mountain. We're going to be listening to this Sermon on the Mount over the next several weeks on this program. If you've been following along with us so far, you know that we've spent some time in the book of Exodus. We left off in Exodus 20 when God, the God of Abraham, sat on a mountain and talked. Moses and the people of Israel came and listened to God speak from the mountain, and now we've jumped about a thousand pages forward in the biblical narrative, and Matthew wants to show us how these two mountains are connected—how they are linked by powerful words and symbolic action, infused with meaning and soaked in a shared history.

All along, Matthew has helped us see that Jesus is a new and better Moses. For example, if you remember, Moses, when he was just a baby, he was almost killed by a maniacal king. The same thing happened to Jesus. Moses and Jesus both spent some of their formative years in Egypt until God called them out. Then Jesus was tested in the wilderness just like Moses was tested in the wilderness. All kinds of connections with Moses, and Matthew wants us to see them, but here, in chapter 5, Matthew wants us to see something more because it is Jesus who sits on the mountain, and His disciples, like Moses, go up to listen. Who does that make Jesus? You listen and see how it goes at the end of Matthew chapter 4, continuing into chapter 5.

Now great crowds were following Jesus, and when Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain. After He had sat on it, His disciples came to Him. He opened his mouth and began to teach, saying, "The people who are poor in spirit are blessed. The poor in spirit are blessed because theirs is the kingdom. Theirs is the rule and reign of heaven. The people who are mourning are blessed because they will be comforted. The lowly are blessed because they will inherit the earth. The people who are hungering and thirsting for righteousness are blessed because they will be satisfied. The merciful are blessed because they will be shown mercy. The pure in heart are blessed because they will see God. The peacemakers are blessed because they will be called sons of God. The people who are persecuted because of righteousness are blessed because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. You are blessed whenever people insult you, or persecute you, or falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven. For in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. You are that which salts the earth, but if that salt loses its salty flavor, how will it, the earth, be salted? The salt is no longer good for anything except after it has been thrown out to be trampled under people's feet. You are that which gives light to the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp to put it under a basket. Rather, they put it on the lamp stand so that it gives light to all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people. So that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." The words of Jesus. Matthew chapter 5.

A teacher of mine, Professor Jeff Gibbs, has written a very fine commentary on this biography of Jesus that we call Matthew's Gospel. Professor Gibbs calls this opening to the Sermon on the Mount that we just heard, he calls it the "doorway" into the rest of the sermon.

Think for a minute, the purpose of a doorway. Let's say, for example, that you're building a fortress out of Legos or if you didn't play with Legos, Lincoln Logs. So you're building this fortress, and you're laying the course of the bricks, and you raise up all four walls to complete it, but then you realize that you forgot a critical element. There's no door, and no door means no access. Your Lego figures can't get in.

Think about Jesus' talk from the mountain like a virtual fortress built by God's Word. It's a verbal place of solace and safety: a place where you can go into God's presence, but you can't go in unless you go in the doorway, through the door. The doorway is the opening to Jesus' talk that we just heard, and Jesus Himself is the door. He gives access into God's presence.

He speaks these blessings or Beatitudes as they're sometimes called. Regretfully, this word "blessing" is in our culture somewhat of a casual, inconsequential word. Think about where you hear people use the word blessing: when somebody sneezes, or the speech that someone gives before Thanksgiving dinner, or if you're in the South and you do something thoughtful or cute, someone might tell you, "Bless your heart."

But that's not at all what Jesus means by this word blessed. Blessed doesn't mean happy either. Blessed is a condition. It's there, as a matter of fact, even if you don't fully realize it or appreciate it. To be blessed in the Bible is to be rescued, to be saved, to be delivered from danger. Blessed is a condition.

For example, let's say that someone, God forbid, overdoses on heroin. Now that person is in a condition. It's a real, life-threatening condition, and it's true regardless of how they or anybody else thinks about it or feels about it. They call the paramedics, and one of the paramedics gives them a shot of Narcan to keep the overdose from killing them. We would say that that paramedic saved the person, or if we wanted to put it in Bible-speak, they blessed them.

See, blessing is a condition that's true even if you're not completely conscious of it, or even if you don't fully appreciate it. Only God can bless in this sense. Our blessings are good manners, but God's blessing delivers. Jesus sitting in God's spot on the mountain speaks for God as the Son of God, and He blesses.

Whom does He bless? The poor in spirit. Now this phrase, "poor in spirit," it's like blessed. It's not an attitude. It's not a virtue of humility. It's a condition of spiritual poverty, and it's kind of like the vocational poverty that I experienced as a young officer in the military. The only difference is with some time, and some effort, and some experience, I could overcome my vocational poverty, but that's not how it works with spiritual poverty, according to the Bible.

According to the Bible, spiritual poverty is a lot more like the overdose. You can't get out of it unless someone delivers you, and that's what Jesus has come to do: He's come to bless; He's come to rescue; He's come to deliver from danger, and His blessing is exclusive in this way. It excludes because it's only for those who are poor in spirit, and this is the doorway into the rest of the sermon.

At the same time, the blessing of Jesus is radically inclusive and it includes everyone, because Jesus in fact believes that everyone is in a condition of spiritual poverty. This is the doorway into the Sermon on the Mount. You step into it by confessing that you also are spiritually poor. Now for some, this threshold seems unreasonable to agree with Jesus, to admit that I also am destitute at the core of my being, that I'm unable to do anything truly good on my own—even worse to accept that Jesus was crucified because of my sin. That's an offense some can't get over, and maybe that's how it's been for you.

For others, this is the sweetest, most welcoming blessing that they've ever heard. Because all they've heard up until this point is that religion condemns people like them and that the door is shut, that the door to life with God has been slammed in their face. But then Jesus comes and says that He's for people like them—that He's come to save them, bless them, and welcome them into His kingdom—that He is for the poor in spirit and maybe that's where you are. If so, come on in. The door is open.

At different seasons in my life, I have been blessed to go in and to dwell in this virtual temple built by Jesus' Word, recorded in Matthew chapters 5-7, and I am eager to go through it again over the next few weeks, and I invite you to come with me.

When is the last time that you have let your soul take up residence in Jesus' Words in Matthew chapters 5-7? Maybe the words are familiar to you, like your childhood home, or maybe this will be your first time through it. Whichever the case—Jesus crucified and risen for you—will be there to welcome you at the door.

Notice that when He welcomes you in, He doesn't spend any time belaboring the fact that you and I are spiritually destitute. He quickly takes us from flat-lining, poor in spirit in the emergency room, and brings us into the family room. We go from poor in spirit to merciful, to peacemakers, to sons and daughters of God in a matter of a few lines. It's like Jesus can already see Himself in us. He can already see the work that He will do in us. He's already saluting us as salt for the earth and light for the world.

People have been listening to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount for 2,000 years. It is one of the most influential speeches of human history. Often when people hear it, they ask questions like, "Should we take Jesus seriously?" "Literally, does He mean that?" "If His followers are spiritually bankrupt, then how can they be salt and light?" "Did Jesus mean what He said?"

I think it's a little like that senior NCO who stood at attention, saluted me, and called me sir. Did he mean what he said? I think he did. I think he also knew that I was a 22 year-old kid who didn't know nothing about nothing. I realized that's a triple negative, but that's just how a senior NCO would say it. But he chose to give me a gift: to open a door for me in spite of my vocational poverty.

God's gifts in Jesus are like that. They're like a first salute that you don't deserve, like a highest honor that you didn't earn, a place in the ranks that you can never repay. These gifts, they not only opened doors for you, they do something to you. They change you. They help you to become what you were meant to be.

If you're willing, I invite you to pray with me. Jesus, You know me. I don't know nothing about nothing, but still You blessed me, and You called me into the ranks of Your people. Help us be like You Jesus—salt and light—so that people would see Your goodness in us and give glory to Your Father who is in heaven—to our Father in heaven. Amen.

Reflections for June 7, 2020

Title: An Undeserved Salute

Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour, now in its 87th season of broadcasting. For free online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and much more, go to Once again, here is Dr. Michael Zeigler.

Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. We're starting the series following Jesus' Sermon on the Mount recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew. Joining me today is Dr. Jeff Gibbs. He's written a very fine three-volume commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Now, you've served as a professor at Concordia Seminary for almost 30 years, and you've recently retired. What's something that you'll miss about teaching full time.

Jeff Gibbs: Well, I'll use a word and then explain it briefly, it would be the word "relationships." Now, I want to explain it briefly because when I was a congregational pastor that was the thing I ended up enjoying most. But those are long-term relationships, and you're generally in the same place, the same town, the same congregation. Teaching at a seminary, relationships are formed and then the people leave, but many of the relationships continue. Renee and I have really good friends all over the world, just because we lived in St. Louis and stayed there, and people have come and gone. There's a lot I won't miss about being full-time employed, but I will miss the relationships with students and interacting with the Scriptures with them.

Mike Zeigler: You've been a serious student of the Gospel of Matthew for nearly 40 years.

Jeff Gibbs: A long time, ever since my days in seminary.

Mike Zeigler: As a teacher, I remember you assigned us, your students, to weekly, all-in-one sitting readings of all 28 chapters of Matthew's Gospel.

Jeff Gibbs: I remember.

Mike Zeigler: Why was that an important assignment?

Jeff Gibbs: Well, two things. One is I think that in general, I don't know and Christians just kind of don't know what the Bible actually says on a very basic level. It's a big book. The Gospel of Matthew, as you said, it's 28 chapters, so there's a lot in there, right? Just to become familiar with what the Scripture says, I think is important. But the other thing is that it allows you, and I'll just use a slightly fancy word here, it allows you to interpret the Bible when you know, "Oh, this is in Matthew 9, but I remember what was in Matthew 8, and I know what's coming up in Matthew 10." We talk about letting the Scripture interpret the Scripture, and becoming familiar with an entire book like that. I think it's just a really helpful exercise, and it becomes a foundation on which you can build other knowledge. And then you can go back and like you're doing now with these sermons on the Sermon on the Mount, you can ponder one piece of the Gospel of Matthew or Luke or Romans or whatever. It just establishes a foundation for further interaction with God's Word. I don't think there's anything that can replace it.

Mike Zeigler: It helped me see that it's a continuous narrative and not just a bunch of teachings squished together.

Jeff Gibbs: Right. Right. You can't get that really in church on Sunday morning, because time is limited and constricted. There are other important things going on. So you don't have time to just sit and hear the Word of God in longer stretches, if I could say it that way.

Mike Zeigler: As you mentioned, we're listening to the Sermon on the Mount over the next several weeks on this program. What is something that you would recommend to someone who wants to sit at Jesus' feet, as it were, and listen to His teaching here in Matthew chapters 5-7?

Jeff Gibbs: I want to encourage them to, at all times, keep in mind what Jesus says first in the Sermon on the Mount. Because the teaching gets complex, it gets hard, very hard sometimes. But if the first word that Jesus says really is to be the doorway, as I like to call it, into the rest of the teaching, the first thing He says is, "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the reign of heaven." And if He really means that, it means that I and my poverty of spirit, which I would say means I don't have what it takes; I don't have what I need to offer to God to please Him; I don't have that. But Jesus says, "Oh yeah, people like you are blessed. And I mean, really blessed. Because My reign, My kingly gifts belong to people just like you." If that's ringing in your ears the whole time, I think that ultimately transforms how you hear the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. So I would say, I think that if people can have, as we call them, the Beatitudes properly understood in their hearts the whole time, then that changes how you read the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.

Mike Zeigler: It's a doorway that you might go through many times?

Jeff Gibbs: Multiple times, exactly right. As often as you need to. Sometimes I find I have to leave the Sermon on the Mount when I've been angry, again, with my brother. And I say, "Wait, this isn't right. What do I do now?" I go back to, "Oh, you're poor in spirit, again? Blessed are you. My kingly reign belongs to people just like you, who can't get it done, who don't have what it takes. That's the kind of people..."—It's kind of like, "I'm a physician. I've come for people who are sick."

Mike Zeigler: Jesus will be there to welcome you at the door every time that you need to go through it.

Jeff Gibbs: Each and every time you need it, that's exactly right.

Mike Zeigler: Thank you for joining me.

Jeff Gibbs: Yes, you're very welcome.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Come, Holy Ghost, Creator Blest" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

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