THE BLESSED POOR Matthew 5:1-12 Theme of the Month Ministry/Service/ Stewardship
Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Sharp
Lead Pastor, English Congregation Vancouver Chinese Baptist Church, Vancouver, British Columbia
Sunday Sermon for 19 September 2010
Scripture Passage Matthew 5:1-12
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. 1
The Beatitudes He said: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 10
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. THEBLESSEDPOOR 1
First a Jewish parable: It came to pass that after Adam and Eve had been expelled by the Lord God from the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:23), they wandered all over the earth, hoping to discover a reasonably comfortable area in which to settle down. After a long and arduous search through one desolate area after another, they finally came upon a patch of earth that seemed hospitable, containing rich soil, water to irrigate, and plenty of trees. And so they settled down, and they tilled the soil, and they grew their food with the sweat of their brows. Also they had children and, before long, the world began to populate at a rapid rate. It turned out to be a good life for Adam and Eve. Over the years, they became well-known for their generosity and hospitality, and they were venerated in their old age by all who knew them. in short, Adam and Eve were quite content with the way things had gone. They had accumulated neither too much nor too little, and they wanted nothing they did not need. One evening, after a long day in the fields, they were sitting together outside their little house, watching a glorious sunset. Adam turned to Eve and said, “Eve, I think God was wrong at the very beginning by putting us in paradise where everything was given to us without toil. We were meant to live where we must struggle and sweat, where we must develop and grow, where we must strive and hope, where we must live and die. This is how we humans should live.” Adam became so caught up in his own wisdom that he shook his fist toward heaven and cried out, ‘God, you were wrong!’ And God smiled. The Sermon on the Mount, possibly the most famous thing Jesus ever said, begins by saying that we’re blessed if we’re poor in spirit - reminding us that we are ultimately dependent on God for everything and the most blessed - the happiest persons, the most joy-full persons—are the ones who recognize how poor they are apart from a relationship with God, who recognize how empty their lives are unless they give themselves over to God in utter trust and total dependency. And yet, when Jesus tells us of our need to admit our spiritual poverty, our helplessness, our emptiness, our ultimate dependence on God there’s something inside of us that stands up and says “No, I can’t do that. I haven’t been raised that way. I am not conditioned that way. I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” In other words, we raise our fist and say: “God, you are wrong!” And God, the God of mercy and grace, the God who knows us better than we know ourselves; the God who loves us with an unconditional love, smiles at our foolish pride. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us our blueprint and foundation for Christian living and it is based on the premise that we have come to ourselves, that we have realized and acknowledged our total dependence on God, not just for the life God has given us, but for the instruction in what we should be doing with that life. And let’s admit it - it’s easy reading, but it’s hard accepting. It’s motivating and inspiring, but it is hard to live out. Our human nature is such that there is no way we can follow this blueprint for life apart from an attitude of complete surrender and trust in the divine architect. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke. 6:27). That calls for some powerful trusting in God. “Give to all who beg from you … lend without repayment … be compassionate… do not judge … do not condemn” (Luke 6:30,35,36,37). This is hard stuff. Some would say impossible. The reality is, that according to Jesus, it can’t happen in a life lived THEBLESSEDPOOR 2
apart from a growing dependence on God’s authority to make such demands and dependence on the resources God gives to fulfill these commands. But it’s not a question of blind trust and docile obedience. That’s why the gospel is good news. God reveals himself in Jesus Christ, not as the “God with the big stick” but as the “God with the big heart.” God doesn’t ask us to trust in him and to be dependent on him period. God wants us to be in relationship with him and to trust him and to depend on him because he loves us and we have experienced that love. God wants us to trust him and depend on him because we are confident that God knows what is good for us. In John’s Gospel, Jesus talks a great deal about “life” or “eternal life.” And in the Gospel of John those two terms are the same (e.g John 6:53-54;3:36; 11:24-26). “Life” and “eternal life” is the life that God gives. It is participating in God’s life. Most of us think of eternal life as something “out there” in the future. Life unending after I die. But surprisingly, if you read the Gospel you realize that that is not what Jesus has in mind, primarily. Eternal life obviously has a future reference. But Jesus speaks of it as a quality of life, not simply a dimension of life. Eternal Life is REAL LIFE. It starts as soon as someone turns to Jesus in faith and is accepted by him. It is participating in the life that God gives to us in Jesus and in the Gospel here and now. In John’s Gospel we read, “Eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and him whom you have sent, Jesus Christ (John 17:3). To know God, not just intellectually, not just by hearsay or second hand, but with your whole being; to acknowledge dependence on God for life and for a way of life; to love God; to do God’s will, this is the quality of life Jesus calls “eternal life”. And it is now. It is living in the kingdom of God. And when you know God in this way you can experience this quality of life in the present and in all the circumstances of life. And the good news is that it is possible for everyone without distinction. In his book, The $64 Tomato, William Alexander asks the probing question: “If you were doomed to live the same life over and over again for eternity, would you choose the life you are living now?” He goes on to say: “The question is interesting enough, but I’ve always thought the point of asking it is really the unspoken, potentially devastating follow-up question. That is, if the answer is no, then why are you living the life you are living now? Stop making excuses, and do something about it.” When a 50-year-old man was told that he had a terminal illness, he wrote this to a friend: “I suddenly asked myself, ‘What am I doing with my life? Why am I building up a bank account that will do me no good when I am dead? Why am I pretending to be one way when I feel another?’” He went on to tell his friend about how he was going to change all that. He lived 18 months longer and, just before he died, he said that those 18 months were the best, the fullest, the richest of his life. And he had lived through that entire period with a death sentence hanging over him. It doesn’t happen that way to all people who have a brush with death. Some fall into a state of deep despair. Some report just moving into a gray fog or into nothingness. They give up. They THEBLESSEDPOOR 3
lose their direction, their moorings. What is it that makes the difference? I think that when persons no longer feel that they are in full control, when they realize that this fragile thing we call life is a gift, and they look to the one who is the source of that gift, they become, as the Beatitudes say, “poor in spirit”: more dependent on God for love, more dependent on God for an understanding of life, more dependent on God for a way of life. These are the people Jesus says who are really joyful. It isn’t the brush with death in itself that does this. It is the openness to God that makes it all possible. This is the invitation of Jesus: “Open yourself up to the God who gives you life so that you will know how to live now, and how to die, both.” The Apostle Paul learned this. He didn’t always know this. Like many of us, he was in charge of his life; he was the one who set the course of his life. But finally he came to see that life without God at the center is not life at all. It is merely existence. It is the illusion of life. In his letter to the Christians at Rome, he says this: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:7-8). And the realization of that truth revolutionized Paul’s life. He came to see life as an adventure, a journey with God. Most of us have probably experienced what happens when one of those huge graders goes to work on a highway repair job. When the machine is operating on a busy road, traffic is halted and the cars lined up in opposite directions are allowed to proceed alternately. A veteran operator of one of those big machines decided one day to try to relieve the tension that inevitably results from such a traffic backup. On both the front and rear of his grader he put a sign declaring: “The road to happiness is almost always under construction.” Concerning the obedience of faith, the Christian journey, the way of the follower of Jesus, the road to happiness is almost always under construction. It isn’t a matter of a once-and-for-all experience of professing one’s faith, allowing it to make a difference in one’s life, once and for all, and then living happily ever after. That is not the Christian life and that is not what Jesus promises. The journey, life, is a matter of continuing encounter and response, of continuing calls for new acts of faith, of ongoing change in the way we live, of lifelong challenges to choose between obedience or rebellion, faith or faithlessness. To be blessed is to be consciously involved in a process of continuing growth into greater integrity and honesty and purity of heart; it is to be involved in continuing growth to be more like Jesus. This is the only way possible for our lives to be fulfilling. This is the life that God calls us to and enables us to live. Argus, Utari, Joanne—today with your baptism you have taken a further step along that road of discipleship, of experiencing that gift of life God has given you in Christ. I remember as a boy of 14 stepping into the baptismal pool in Southside Baptist Church in Sarasota, Florida. My heart was pounding and the air was heavy with excitement. I had been a Christian for almost two years, having given my life to Christ and made a decision to follow him one Saturday night while sitting in front of a television set when the evangelist Billy Graham gave an invitation to accept Christ. But entering into that water and hearing again the words “buried with him in baptism” and “raised...to walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4) I knew that I was
confessing, declaring, revealing for all the world to know, that God had touched my life and that life could never be the same for me again; that God had called me on a journey of transformation; a journey that I have been traveling now for almost 48 years. That's what the Gospel is all about. It is about LIFE and the good news is that life doesn't need to be the same. Forgiveness and acceptance, hope and joy, grace and love. All of that is the Gospel. All of that is in the life that God calls us to and gives to us in Christ. And all of that is confessed here in the act of baptism. That is why baptism is so important. There is nothing magical about this water. But there is something powerful and life-changing about this service of testimony and witness. For you and for all of us who witnessed this baptism and have ourselves trusted in Christ, this experience is a challenge. It is a challenge to live up to the gracious calling that we are confessing today. God has called us and continues to call each of us into a fellowship of love and grace, hope and vision, shared experiences and life. It is a fellowship that binds us into a people who are on a journey; a journey that has many twists and turns, ups and downs; a journey through life with a God who loves and cares for us and wants us to share that love and care with those who are around us. So Argus, Utari, Joanne today I want to welcome you into this spiritual family and to thank you for reminding us of our calling and for joining us on the journey of following Jesus.
Reflection Questions 1. What are your thoughts, reactions, feelings when you hear Jesus say: “Blessed/ happy are the poor in spirit?” Does that describe you? 2. Would you say that your life is characterized by utter trust and dependency on God or are you “on the way” to getting there? 3. How would you answer the question: If you were doomed to live the same life over and over again for eternity, would you choose the life you are living now?” Would you say that you are living the “eternal life” that Jesus offers to all those who follow him? If not, why? 4. Could you say with the Apostle Paul: “Whether [I] live or whether [I] die, [I am] the Lord’s”? What does that mean in practical terms? 5. Would you agree that the way of the follower of Jesus, the road to happiness is almost always under construction? In what ways are you still a work in progress? 6. If you are a follower of Jesus, think back on your baptism. Are you living the life now that you promised to God then? If not, why? What needs to change in your life? 7. What questions, thoughts, reactions does this sermon raise in your life?