Thursday, June 06, 2013

Today, I start a series of posts which expound the Sermon on the Mount.  

Part One: Surprising Blessings
Matthew 5:1-12

I remember as a brand new believer way back in 1970-something reading the Sermon on the Mount for the first time.  I thought it was weird!  People had been telling me all about God’s love and God’s grace and “God has a wonderful plan for your life” and all that, and here is this flagship message of Jesus in the first book of the New Testament, and it didn't seem to fit with all I’d been told about Jesus. 

It started with all these blessings.  Then Jesus tells people that all the things they thought were so weren't really so.  And everything He says is so seems so much tougher than I expected.  Then he talks about being righteous, and I’d been told that we didn’t need to worry about being righteous—hey, that’s what forgiveness is for, that’s what the cross is all about.  Nobody seemed to have told Jesus that!  He then talks about a narrow gate, and that seemed kind of narrow-minded.  Then He finishes with a story about building your house on the rock instead of on sand.

I was exhausted—and confused.  Just what does Jesus want us to do?

I’m not the only one.  I read an article on the history of the interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount.  Some people say it’s such a high standard that it isn’t even meant for this age.  Or it’s meant to drive us to despair so we realize that we need the grace of God.  Or some see it as the lifestyle requirements of salvation—that’s it’s all the things we have to do to be saved.  (That view isn’t very popular these days, since it’s really hard, and doesn’t reconcile with the rest of what the Bible says.)  One article listed no less than twelve different ways to interpret the Sermon! 

The Sermon on the Mount has given birth to lots of books trying to figure it out.  A friend of mine, Steve Robbins wrote one of them: Transforming Habits.  The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote one of the true classics of Christian devotion as a meditation on the Sermon on the Mount; it’s called The Cost of Discipleship. has well over 100 books on the Sermon.  So this could get really complicated!

I’ve taught on parts of the Sermon on the Mount many times, but what I want to do is go through it quickly—if seven weeks is quick—to get the Big Idea and the Big Ideas of it. 

And what is the Big Idea of the Sermon on the Mount?  It’s this:

Surprise!  God’s ways are so unlike what we expect.  His ways are more demanding, more liberating, more wonderful and more transforming than we ever imagined. 

Jesus is not giving us a religion in the Sermon on the Mount.  He’s upending religion.  It’s really a kind of anti-religion.  It’s an announcement, not a set of rules.  It’s not what we would have ever made up on our own.

I think that when I read the Sermon for the first time when I was 14 or so—that the surprise reaction I had back then—was justified.  What I see here is a series of stunning surprises:

·         Surprising blessings
·         Surprising righteousness
·         Surprising contrasts
·         Surprising deeds
·         Surprising supply
·         Surprising living
·         Surprising wisdom  

What Jesus is saying in this message, the Sermon on the Mount is this: I’ve come into the world, and with My coming, this becomes clear--just about everything you thought about God and how He works and your relationship with Him is backwards.  The message isn’t “shape up”; it’s “be free!”

You really get this sense of surprise when you see how the sermon is framed by Matthew.  In Matthew 5:1-2, we read:

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying:

Now add how it ends, Matthew 7:28-29:

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

At the beginning, we have two important details.  First, the place of the sermon is “on a mountainside.”  The language of the time used the same word for hill and mountain, so we’re looking at a hillside, and there is a place near Capernaum which fits the bill nicely and has been regarded as the site of the sermon.  By being on a “mountain”, Jesus is calling to mind Mount Sinai where God gave the 10 Commandments.  By sitting—well, that’s how a rabbi of the time taught.  He was asserting authority.

And at the end, that’s what had the attention of the people.  The Rabbis taught this way: they’d cite a passage of Scripture, and then say, “Well on this passage, Rabbi so and so says this, but Rabbi thus and such says this and Rabbi what’s his name says that.”  But Jesus just said, hey, here’s what I say.

Jesus was amazing.  He taught with total authority.  And what He said was amazing.  It was surprising.  It blew them away.

So what did he say?  Well, He starts by announcing God’s blessings on people in situations that don’t seem too much like a blessed situation.  We have come to call these the Beatitudes (which just mean blessings), and each and every one is a surprise.  Here they are, Matthew 5:3-12:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called sons of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Each blessing is directed toward the person who’s on the bottom, or is seen as weak or disadvantaged, or even being attacked for their faith. 

These are not so much encouragements to be a certain way as they are announcements from Jesus that God blesses those in these circumstances, already.  Jesus doesn’t day, “You will be blessed if you become poor in spirit.”  That’s a command, and it’s in the future.  The idea is more this: “Right now, believe or not, despite your circumstances and everything you’ve been told, you are blessed.  God has His eyes on you, and it’s OK.  The kingdom of God is available to you right now.”

That’s a surprise!  You see, the idea at the time of Jesus, and for a lot of people today, is that if you want to identify the people that God blesses, well, that’s easy.  Just look at the people with lots of money, good looks, power, a happy go lucky life, and you’ve found them.  There they are!

Don’t you sometimes wish you were like someone else?  Sometimes I wish I looked more like Brad Pitt.  My wife wishes I looked like Brad Pitt.  Instead I look more like a peach pit! 

I want you to think of the people in the crowd that day when Jesus said these words.  These words were like an electric shock.  These words were surprising, amazing, astonishing.  These are the blessed people?

By the way, what do we mean by “blessed”?  The Greek word Matthew uses here is makarios.  The Hebrew word that the Old Testament uses is berakah.  Both words carry the same idea: from “on top”, blessed means “favored by God”; from “the bottom” (where we experience the blessing), it means—get ready—“happy.”  “Blessed” is not some super-spiritual word that doesn’t connect with our lives.  A blessed person is a happy person.  Because God favors you, you’re happy.  Now the surprise is even stronger, isn’t it?  How can you be happy when you’re mourning, or persecuted, or all these other things?

So let’s go through the surprise blessings, briefly, to see the surprise:

#1: The poor in spirit (3)

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The poor in spirit are the people who have nothing.  Out of money, out of luck, out of time.  Nothing to offer, nothing going for them.  And Jesus says, you’re blessed.  It’s OK.  God makes up the difference.  God has this thing called grace that makes up the difference.  The kingdom of God is for you even when you have nothing—especially when you have nothing.

#2: The mourning (4)

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

This means almost the same as “poor in spirit.”  People mourn because of loss.  It’s “I have nothing” plus “and I used to have something, or someone.”

Again, think of the crowd that day.  There were plenty of widows mourning.  Plenty of orphans mourning.  Plenty of people who used to have something or someone who didn’t anymore. 

These were the people that the religion of the time said that God had cursed them—that’s why they’re mourning.  But Jesus says, no, you’re blessed.  God will make it up to you.  He’ll comfort you.  You may have endured tragedy, you may have endured hard times, but God has not forsaken you.  You are blessed and will be comforted.

#3: The meek (5)

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

First thing: the meek are not the weak.  The Greek word here is praus which is used for a wild horse which has been trained.  He has been “broken”, not crippled.  His strength has been brought under control. 

But the meek—let’s face it—the meek are seen as on the bottom.  Kings and emperors and captains of industry aren’t thought of as “meek.”  No one would ever call Donald Trump meek.  They are the people who run the world.  They “inherit the earth.”

No, says Jesus.  They don’t inherit the earth—you do, you meek people.  They are pretenders, impostors,  occupiers, but you, you who trust God, in the final analysis, you receive the land, the earth, your security as a gift from God.  Maybe not even in this life, but the time will come.  You are blessed ones, not the swaggering, goose-stepping tyrants of this world.

#4: The hungry and thirsty (6)    

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Again, you have to get into the lives of the people right there listening to Jesus.  Think there were hungry people there?  Thirsty people?  Sure.  So he has their attention and adds a twist: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  If your spirit churns like you stomach does for being right with God, but you feel like you’re nobody, like you have nothing to commend your soul to God, take heart!  God sees that and He blesses you, and your spiritual hunger and thirst will be filled.  Take heart!

#5: The merciful (7)

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.         

In Jesus’ day, mercy wasn’t held up as a virtue the way it is today.  To show mercy was to show weakness.  The rulers and the powerful weren’t especially merciful.  Jesus says though, that God sees and blesses those who—like God—are inclined to show mercy.  We’ve seen grace in the background in a few of these blessings already, so we shouldn’t be surprised when God says, hey when you show grace in action (mercy) to others, be assured that God likes that and when you stand before God, you’ll experience that same mercy.

#6: The pure of heart (8)

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard famously said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.”  Well, that may be so, but again, think of the people there listening.  They’ve been told that if you want to see God, there are 613 mitzvoth (or commandments) that you needed to master: 365 negative commands and 248 positive commandments.  That’s the pathway to see God, to know Him now and to be with Him forever.  Pray that your obedience to these outweigh your disobedience, and you just may make it.

But Jesus says, look, if you have a heart that’s fixed on God, that loves God, and that earnestly desires God and His kingdom rule, and that loves others as well, the door is open.  You who are confused and struggling and unsure, and are acutely aware of your limitations and even your sins, you’re blessed; be at peace; the door is wide open: you will see God. 

#7: The peacemakers (9)

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

Do you know who they called “sons of God” in Jesus’ day?  The powerful, especially rulers like Caesar or Herod.  These were war-makers, not peacemakers.

Psalm 120:6-7 says,
Too long have I lived
    among those who hate peace.
I am a man of peace;
    but when I speak, they are for war.

Common people rarely want war.  The world rewards the powerful war-makers with titles like “the great” or “the magnificent” or even “son of God”; Jesus says to that common person who wants no honors, no conquests, and says, “Let’s make peace instead” and says, you, yes you, God will honor as His sons and daughters, not those people. 

#8: The persecuted (10-12)

This last one is a little different.  Jesus follows a blessing formula from vs. 3-10, but this last one has the formula blessing and then Jesus expands on the meaning of the blessings in vs. 11-12. 

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Here’s where Jesus seems to be speaking both to the people right in front of Him, and is also speaking about what would come later on, when the church began to be persecuted. 

Again, start with the people there.  Are you hassled for speaking up for God?  Take heart—God sees that, and you are the people of God’s kingdom.  Your present circumstances aren’t signs of God’s curse—they are signs of God’s blessing!

Looking ahead, Jesus says that when you are persecuted because of Him—because you are identified as a follower of the crucified and risen Jesus, not only are you blessed by God, rejoice!  This means that you are following in the footsteps of the prophets of old (who were often persecuted as well) and you’re banking rewards in heaven!  You may have nothing here, but, good news, you’ll have much there! 

The beatitudes are framed by references to the kingdom of God (in v 3 and 10).  Back in Matthew 4:7, at the very outset of Jesus’ preaching/teaching ministry, we read,
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

These blessings are not about, “Do this, and God will bless you.”  It’s more like, “Good news.  God sees where you are now—poor, needy, powerless even persecuted—and He blesses you as you are.”  He has turned the world upside down.  The world does not belong to the rich, the carefree, the powerful, the satisfied, the masters of their destiny; the one who bends the world to their will; that’s a lie.  When you turn the world upside down, then you begin to see the kingdom of God.  The world belongs to God, and He gives it as an inheritance to those who love Him.

That’s amazing.  That’s a surprise.  These are surprise blessings. 

The best way to understand how these blessings work, how real they are, rich, how rewarding, is to see them in action, in real life. Author Philip Yancey tells the story of the late Henri Nouwen, who passed away in 1996.    

Blessed are the merciful. I learned the truth of this Beatitude from Henri Nouwen, a priest who used to teach at Harvard University. At the height of his career, Nouwen moved from Harvard to a community called Daybreak, near Toronto, in order to take on the demanding chores required by his friendship with a man named Adam. Nouwen now ministers not to the intellectuals but to a young man who is considered by many a useless person who should have been aborted.

Nouwen describes his friend: “Adam is a 25-year-old man who cannot speak, cannot dress or undress himself, cannot walk alone, cannot eat without much help. He does not cry or laugh. Only occasionally does he make eye contact. His back is distorted. His arm and leg movements are twisted. He suffers from severe epilepsy and, despite heavy medication, sees few days without grand-mal seizures. Sometimes, as he grows suddenly rigid, he utters a howling groan. On a few occasions I’ve seen one big tear roll down his cheek.

“It takes me about an hour and a half to wake Adam up, give him his medication, carry him to his bath, wash him, shave him, clean his teeth, dress him, walk him to the kitchen, give him his breakfast, put him in his wheelchair and bring him to the place where he spends most of his day with therapeutic exercises.”

On a visit to Nouwen in Toronto, I watched him perform that routine with Adam, and I must admit I had a fleeting [thought] as to whether this was the best use of his time. I have heard Henri Nouwen speak, and have read many of his books. He has much to offer. Could not someone else take over the menial task of caring for Adam? When I cautiously broached the subject with Nouwen himself, he informed me that I had completely misinterpreted what was going on. “I am not giving up anything,” he insisted. “It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from our friendship.”

Then Nouwen began listing for me all the benefits he has gained. The hours spent with Adam, he said, have given him an inner peace so fulfilling that it makes most of his other, more high-minded tasks seem boring and superficial by contrast. Early on, as he sat beside that helpless child-man, he realized how marked with rivalry and competition, how obsessive, was his drive for success in academia and Christian ministry…

All during the rest of our interview, Henri Nouwen circled back to my question, as if he could not believe I could ask such a thing. He kept thinking of other ways he had benefited from his relationship with Adam. Truly, he was enjoying a new kind of spiritual peace, acquired not within the stately quadrangles of Harvard, but by the bedside of incontinent Adam.  I left [there] convicted of my own spiritual poverty, I who so carefully arrange my writer’s life to make it efficient and single-focused. The merciful are indeed blessed, I learned, for they will be shown mercy.

Good news.  God sees where you are, what you’re doing, what you have and don’t have and says, you, yes you, you are blessed.  This is wonderful, so wonderful; it is beyond our imagination.  God is so good.

1 comment:

Lynette said...

I've been going through this, and complaining a lot. No money, limitations, insecurity. Then God gently turned the 'loss' on its head with the knowledge that I have been generously, completely blessed! It's all so worth it. Thank you for reminding me again. God indeed is so good. I'm glad you are writing.