Humble Beginnings #3: Sermon on the Mount: the Beatitudes
Isaiah 55:1-3a, 6-11
We are continuing to follow the narrative lectionary in the Gospel of Matthew. We have been talking about the humble beginnings of Jesus’ ministry. He first humbles himself to be baptized by John and when this happens the Holy Spirit descends like a dove. In the Holy Spirit’s descent, God further humbles Gods' self to bring peace through Jesus to the world. Then last week we saw that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. He responded to those temptations by humbling himself to wait for God’s timing. He did not take the temptations but humbled himself to follow God instead. Those temptations were either fulfilled later in the Gospel of Matthew or prepared him for more difficult sacrifices he would have to make later in the Gospel of Matthew. Today we begin three weeks in the Sermon on the Mount. We will continue these weeks in the Sermon on the Mount as part of our series on Jesus’ humble beginnings. We will see that what Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount is the essence of humility. That yet again, Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians 12:9 ring true: “God’s power is made perfect in weakness.” This is shown in the Gospel of Matthew through Jesus’ humble beginnings which now lead to these teachings on the essence of humility.
Just like last week, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry surprises us. We thought that since Jesus had been baptized, then he would go out in power. But instead he went into the wilderness, to be lost, and to be tempted. And today we think, ok, now we have Jesus’ first teaching. He’s going to teach the leaders, and the rich, and the powerful and he is going to teach them how to be the best, how they can have success, how they can win. But that is not at all what Jesus’ first teaching is like. In order for us to really grasp the meaning of the sermon on the mount, we have to remember who it is that Jesus is actually speaking to.
At the end of chapter 4, Jesus goes throughout Galilee healing people. Large crowds come to him, full of who? In chapter 4:24 it says, “all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics.” These are the people who, back then, people thought had been cursed. Even today, we would say that people in this list are unfortunate and we feel sorry for them. These are the people in the crowds. And when Jesus sees them at the beginning of chapter 5, he decides to teach them. And what he says is not what we would expect.
Jesus’ first teaching to this unlikely crowd is called the Beatitudes. Beatitude means the transformation of a person who has been blessed by grace. Let’s find out what Jesus has to say to these unfortunate people.
The first word he says is the Greek word makarios: blessed. Makarios does not mean happy. It means blessed and blessing is receiving divine favour, receiving grace from God. Now, when we think of being blessed, we think of having wealth, or good health, or good fortune. But Jesus declares that certain people are blessed and they are not who we would expect. I want to read through the Beatitudes for us, starting in verse 3:
“‘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 receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.'”
Jesus is again upending the values of society by calling people like this blessed. Why is he saying that these people are blessed? What does he mean by that?
He means that God meets us in our suffering and in our sacrifice. Let’s take the first one, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Poor in spirit means, “spiritual poverty, a sense of depletion, a sense of emptiness, a sense of despair or discouragement.” And to someone who feels like that, someone who is poor in spirit, Jesus says, “Makarios; blessed are you.” When we are poor in spirit, God comes to us and meets us there. When we feel poor in spirit, when we feel empty or despair, we often think that God has abandoned us. But Jesus says, “Not so, God is coming to meet you there, Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The blessing is not in feeling poor in spirit, but in God’s presence with you during that difficult time.
The kingdom of heaven that is meant here is a double sense. When we die, through Jesus, we will go to the kingdom of heaven with God for eternity. But there is another sense to this. Remember the Lord’s prayer, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” God calls us, Christ followers, empowered by the Holy Spirit to bring the kingdom of heaven on earth in this life as a taste of what’s to come. That’s why we do things in this life to alleviate suffering. It’s a foretaste of what’s to come in heaven when God will wipe away every tear. But now in this life Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.” When we are poor in spirit, God meets us there, that’s why we are blessed, and leads us out to the kingdom of heaven. God will alleviate our suffering and bring us into the kingdom of heaven on earth and in heaven.
The next beatitude says, “Blessed are those who mourn.” Again, not because those who mourn have lost, but because God will meet us there. And what will God do? Jesus says, “you will be comforted.” What we have in the Beatitudes is a theology of the cross. In the cross, Jesus enters into human suffering. In the empty tomb, Jesus leads us to new life. Blessed are those who mourn - I am with you in your suffering. For they will be comforted - I will lead you to new life. The surprising and humbling thing about the beatitudes is that Jesus is saying that God is with people who conventional wisdom says that God has abandoned.
In all of these declarations of blessing in the Beatitudes, Jesus is saying God is with people like this. What kind of people? The poor in spirit. Those who mourn. The meek or the humble. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. This word righteousness also means justice. So it’s people who hunger and thirst for good to be done and for wrongs to be righted. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The merciful. The pure in heart. The peacemakers. Those who are persecuted. Notice it is people who have suffered loss or made sacrifices, who we often call cursed, but God is saying blessed, I am with you. The blessing is not in the loss or in the sacrifice, but in God’s presence. Because God is with us when we are poor in spirit, when we mourn, when we are humble, when we hunger and thirst for righteousness, when we are merciful, when we are pure in heart, when we are peacemakers, and when we are persecuted. And what does God’s presence mean? It means the kingdom of heaven, comfort, inheriting the earth, being filled, receiving mercy, seeing God, being called children of God.
(Inspired by the Working Preacher Podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=1099)
The theology of the cross is that when we suffer God enters into our suffering and leads us to new life. This teaching in the Beatitudes, that in suffering and in sacrifice we are blessed because God is with us, is something that is hard to understand until we suffer. I had these verses highlighted in my Bible very shortly after I came to Christ in college and I thought I lived by them. But it wasn’t until 2009 that I realized that I never understood what they meant. On September 5, 2009, I had a stillbirth and thirty minutes after returning home that day, Brett and I had to rush Micah to the children’s hospital for croup. (It’s an illness that constricts the airways.) Micah was hospitalized for three days and we thought he was going to die, too. My whole faith just came crashing down because I thought that if I followed Jesus nothing bad would happen to me. I thought that being blessed meant that only good things would happen. But I didn’t realize that I thought that until something bad happened and I decided that I couldn’t believe in God anymore. It took a period of years, but it was through that suffering, of being poor in spirit and mourning, that God taught me that bad things happen in this world. God does not promise that they won’t. What God does promise, what Jesus promises right here in the Beatitudes is that God never leaves us or abandons us. We are blessed in the midst of our suffering because God will be there with us to help us through it and lead us out. In fact, I think that the experiences of being poor in spirit and of mourning prepare us to be meek and humble, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to be peacemakers, and to survive persecution. The blessing is not in the loss or the sacrifice, but in God’s presence with us.
Kingdom people, those who follow Jesus in this world, are not the powerful and the strong in the conventional sense. They don’t win. But, rather, they enter into human suffering with God and God works through them to bring about the kingdom of heaven on earth. They are meek, or humble, they hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice, they are merciful, they are pure in heart, they are peacemakers, and often they are persecuted for being this way.
Today, we are being told to hate our enemies, but Jesus said in Matthew 5:43-45, which we didn’t read this morning, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Jesus calls us to a different way, not to hate our enemies, but to love them and to pray for them. To be peacemakers. To be a peacemaker requires sacrifice. As we read before, in 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” What does it look like to really live this out? To be people of the Beatitudes?
There is an Christian organization called the Global Immersion Project that is dedicated to training people in how to be everyday peacemakers. They live out the beatitudes. They learn from people who are peacemakers on the Israel/Palestine border and the San Diego/Tijuana border. They have learned to be peacemakers by “seeing the humanity, dignity and image of God in every person.” They don’t avoid conflict, but “move towards conflict with tools to heal rather than to win.” They “contend for justice not by getting even, but by getting creative in love.” And they “share tables with former enemies to celebrate the big and the small ways that God is healing our broken world.” In this life, there is “war, division, violence and fear.” We have a choice about who we are going to be in the midst of that. (Quoted from https://globalimmerse.org/ video.)
Jesus is calling us to be children of God. Jesus is saying, “Be a people of the beatitudes. Follow me. When you are poor in spirit and when you mourn, I will be with you and you will be blessed. Follow me in a life of meekness, humility, righteousness, justice, mercy, pure heartedness, and peacemaking and I will be with you. Then you will be blessed. Then you will be children of God.” Amen.