"Where God Meets Us"
W. Gregory Pope, preaching
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Series: The Sermon on the Mount
The Good and Beautiful Life: Jesus’ Vision for a New World
I wish we had all day to talk about these brilliant, upside-down pronouncements of Jesus we call the Beatitudes. I have been living intimately with them since last summer when I began preparing for this series on the Sermon on the Mount. I will likely return to them sometime in the future and deal with them individually. But today you get a Beatitude collage. And since we don’t have all day - we don’t have all day do we? - then let’s get started.
How do we begin to understand these eight (some say nine) pronouncements of blessing?
Tom Long says the Sermon on the Mount is the constitution of the church and the Beatitudes are its preamble.1 I like that. I wonder if they would get passed in a church business meeting!
Each of the Beatitudes begins with the word “blessed,” which can be translated “happy,” but to me religious happiness carries frivolous connotations. I see a smiling televangelist singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
Glen Stassen translates “blessed” as “joyful;” for each Beatitude begins and ends with joy.
David Garland and David Buttrick suggest that we translate “blessed” as “congratulations.”
Dale Brunner believes that “blessed” is God saying to us "I am with you. I am on your side."
Congratulations, blessed, joyful are you, for you are invited to participate in the kingdom of God, the God who is on your side.
True to Jewish tradition, these blessing pronouncements of Jesus are not afterlife rewards. Like the blessing a firstborn son would receive from his father, they are affective here on earth. The Beatitudes are this-worldly. In six of the eight the nature of the blessing is in the future - but only speaks of a heavenly reward. Jesus is setting forth the future God is bringing to earth.
The Beatitudes are not proverbs or bumper stickers that tell us what we need to do in order to be blessed. They are not instructions, advice, commands, teachings, or information on how the world works. They are more like surprise announcements. Steve Shoemaker calls them annunciations. They are like the angel’s words to Mary: “Greetings, O favored one, blessed one. The Lord is with you.” The “blessing” of the Beatitudes implies a position of favor awarded by God, not earned by good behavior.
The word “blessed” is a plural term. These Beatitudes are directed to groups and communities, disciples, not to individuals. This is a way of life and living together as a faith community in the world.
So to this massive crowd of sinners, prostitutes, and really religious people - the smart and uneducated, the winners and losers - a crowd which includes us all - Jesus says that we are blessed in every condition our culture teaches us to regard as a curse - the poor in spirit, the meek and the mournful, the peacemakers and the persecuted, and those who hunger not to get ahead but whose throats are parched longing for justice and righteousness. These are not qualities our culture admires. They do not win elections. They do not help you climb the ladder. It’s been said that Jesus doesn’t bring a ladder for you to climb, he meets you with a cross. His values that turns the foolish wisdom of this world on its head.
The Citizens of God’s Kingdom
To all who are educated, well-off, Bible believing, God-fearing, Jesus trusting, successful, and well-respected - the kingdoms of this world may be yours, the American Dream may be yours. But it’s a different crowd who receive the blessing of God’s kingdom. Try to imagine what this group of people looks like.
Jesus says, Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek - the destitute poor, those without options and with few resources; the sick and the damaged; those deprived of land, adequate food and nutrition, consigned to desperate daily circumstances; the powerless, the exploited.
The meek are those too poor to own land, who are subject to pathetic, oppressive slum lords. Blessed are you, Jesus says, for the earth belongs to God and it is yours as you need it. We are so pridefully foolish, aren’t we, actually thinking we “own” the land because there’s a deed down at the courthouse, or because we committed genocide and claimed land where others once lived. But only God possesses the earth. We’re all pilgrims, immigrants, stewards, and strangers on the earth.
The poor in spirit are the unclean, the expendables, the throwaways, those at the end of their rope, the spiritually bankrupt, those without a trace of good, the morally empty, those who have nothing left, those whose lives have come apart; those who know their need of God and have thrown themselves on the mercy of God; the beggars in spirit; the kind of people we typically think have no place before God; those who feel marginalized from God.
Blessed are those who have screwed up, who don’t believe, who are sure God’s blessing is for someone else - to all who have had an abortion, been unfaithful to your spouse, to all those who’ve really screwed it up at work, all those who have certain websites you cannot stay away from - the blessing of God is yours; God is on your side, God is with you.
Blessed are those who do not deserve God’s blessing - who among us does? - the blessing of God is pouring down upon them. God is on the side on everybody on whose side God should not be on their side. Those forgotten by society are not abandoned by God. They have already been taken in as citizens of the kingdom.
Blessed are those who hit rock bottom and reach out - and reach up! It’s the first step of A.A.. It’s the beginning of healing.
As Jesus says these words, I can see the eyes that normally looked down in shame suddenly gazing up at Jesus with hope and joy. They are being blessed and welcomed into the kingdom of God.
Why are they, you, me blessed? For no other reason than God is like this. That is the gospel! You find it only when you crash. And it’s terribly disturbing to religious people. But God’s just crazy like that.
Jesus also pronounces blessing on those who mourn because they recognize how far the world is from the way God would like for it to be. They see the suffering and feel the pain of the world. They grieve because they have a greater vision of the world God intends. They mourn over the state of the world because they are pure of heart, they will one thing - the kingdom of God; they hunger for justice and thirst after righteousness so much so it’s a physical craving. Jesus says, “Blessed are you when you ache because the world is not how it’s supposed to be. Blessed are you when your body craves after righteousness. In that ache God is with you.”
This mourning (Gr. penthountes) is not a sadness because of loss, but a sadness that leads to repentance. God says through the prophet Amos, “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, those who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, but are not grieved over the ruin (of the city).” When Jesus blesses those who mourn, he speaks of those whose mourning of repentance is sincere enough to cause us to change our way of living. They strive to conquer the systems of greed and hatred, of apathy and exploitation which destroy human life and human dignity and God’s creation itself.
Blessed are those with such an undivided love and desire for God that their inner and outer lives are one; they are pure in heart. They shall meet the Object of their love and desire. This is not a self-righteous purity, but a heart marked by mercy, forgiveness, and peacemaking. They are the merciful.
If we could only realize our poverty of spirit without God. That we do not attain anything by our own holiness but by ten thousand surrenders to mercy. It is a lifetime of received forgiveness that allows you to become mercy, become forgiveness, because it’s the only thing that makes sense to you, the only thing that’s alive within you. Mercy becomes your meaning.
Richard Rohr says you don’t know mercy until you’ve really needed it. Merton spoke of mercy within mercy, within mercy. It’s as if we collapse into deeper nets of acceptance and finally find we’re in a net we can’t fall out of. We’re captured by grace. And we accept that we are accepted.2
The mercy of God is a loving allowing, a willing breaking of the rules by the One Who made the rules. These are counter-intuitive joyous announcements that your brokenness, poverty, mourning, and sin are the places where God meets you, redeems you, forgives you, saves you, and announces, “Blessed are you my child.” This God meets us where we are.
When God meets you in your brokenness, sin, failure, confusion, and you experience the grace of God at your lowest point, it then becomes hard to be judgmental of others at their lowest point. I can embrace people right where they are because God has embraced me right where I am. God has met us in our screwed-up-ness.
To receive mercy from God in our sin and affliction is to possess a heart that desires and acts to relieve the affliction of others. Someone has said the Beatitudes would better be called DO-attitudes - its about doing, a doing that overflows from our being.
William Barclay says that mercy is the same as getting into someone’s skin - thinking, feeling, seeing as they do; not just feeling sorry for them, but getting in their skin. That’s what our merciful God did through Jesus. We call it incarnation.
If your neighbor is Muslim, get inside their skin. If they are gay, black, or Burmese - get inside their skin and see what happens to your heart.
It is the first step toward peacemaking. Blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus said, not the peace-keepers or the peace-lovers, but peacemakers, those who are willing to suffer and even die for the cause of peace. Those whose passion is reconciliation, those who build bridges and promote understanding. It’s what mercy does. This is not just some inner peace Jesus is talking about, but a peacemaking reconciliation on all levels of human engagement.
In the ancient world the title “peacemaker” usually applied to triumphant rulers who conquered by military power - pax romana, the peace of Rome. But using force to make an enemy bow is not peacemaking. Jesus hands the title of peacemaker over to disciples and to all human beings who know and live the things that make for peace. It’s crazy how in our sick world, peacemakers are often seen as troublemakers; Jesus says they are children of God.
Peacemakers refuse to divide the world by nations, economics, and ethnic groups. The world endlessly hands us two options: Are you with them or are you against them? When the gospel takes root in your life, things aren’t that simple. The same old labeling categories and systems don’t work as well any more. You can no longer live in the world with the same divisiveness - we are good, they are evil. Rather, with purity of heart you will find rightness in their wrongness and wrongness in your rightness.
And that will get you persecuted for such acceptance, for such mercy, for peacemaking, for not taking sides, when you look for a third way.
In the movie Dead Man Walking, Susan Sarandon is a nun who visits and befriends a brutal killer and the parents of the girl he killed. The parents do not understand why she is willing to be the killer’s spiritual guide. They say you can’t be with him and us. She humbly replies that she’s just trying to follow the example of Jesus.
Peacemaking says I’m on neither side because the Jesus thing to do is to embrace both sides.
But be prepared Jesus said. People will persecute you, they will assault you with abusive words (it’s the email in all caps); they will deliberately invent lies about you and speak all kinds of evil against you because you have chosen my way. The empire will strike back.
And that’s not any fun. We want everyone to think well of us, don’t we. We want praise not persecution. But we must ask what exactly is implied if nobody is persecuting us.
Jesus didn’t say, Blessed are those who are nice, who sit on the fence, those everybody likes. But rather, he says, Congratulations to the righteous who are persecuted; blessed are you when people oppose you when you stand for something good and real and vital. Too much praise is probably an indication that what is being proclaimed and lived is not the full gospel.
Eduard Schweitzer says Jesus is talking about those who are defamed and go down to ignominious defeat because of their faith.3
Jesus says, “Blessed are you when you find yourself judged and misunderstood; I’ll meet you there more than ever with blessing.” He doesn’t tell us to just stay strong. He says it hurts and I’ll meet you there.
And then he says, “Rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven. Others will not like it, but God does. All heaven applauds. Besides, you’re in good company. My prophets have always gotten into this kind of trouble.
By the way, this is the first command in the sermon on the mount - rejoice and leap much. As crazy as all this sounds, it is good news!
Now, you may say be saying to yourself: Who can live like this? I can’t. I’ve tried. If that is how you are feeling, you’re exactly where God needs you to be. You’ve just opened the door to the kingdom. You’ve just arrived at the first beatitude: Blessed are the destitute in spirit.
Jesus looked at this crowd of desperate, sad, broken and persecuted people, and called them blessed. And I can imagine this group of peasants looking at one another and thinking, “Am I missing something here? We are the blessed ones? The sinful, the meek, the mournful, the persecuted? Yes, because it is our known neediness that pushes us to search for the God who is always waiting and searching for us.
Jesus is pronouncing blessing on all those our culture would say are shut out of the good life.
Now a lot of us may hear these words from Jesus and say, you know, that’s not really my condition in life. What about the people that are not in that category? What about the well-off and the well-fed and the well-loved and the well-spoken of?
Well, yes, the blessing of the kingdom is available to you too. It’s available to everybody. But Jesus does give a warning that we may need to hear. Sometimes we mistake the blessed life for the well-managed, well-financed, well-thought of, well-dressed, well-educated life. We can start to think that that’s the life that’s blessed. But when we do that, then entitlement and arrogance and pride and exclusivism and racism begin to creep into the community of Jesus. It’s why many Christians look down upon the poor and uneducated and want nothing to do with them.
The Beatitudes invite marginalized people into the kingdom of God. God cares deeply for those who are left out. And so we are called to inclusive hospitality.
There’s a little mat that gets put on the ground before a front door in a lot of homes that people wipe their feet on it before entering. Sometimes there’s only a single word on the mat. We call it a welcome mat. It says to a person at the door: you know, we’re not neutral about your presence in this house; this is your house. You walk through the door and you will not be just tolerated. You’ll find that you’ll be celebrated here. Welcome, welcome, welcome.
Sometimes at homes and even churches there are other signs. I read that there was once a convent and it had a huge fence all the way around it to keep people out. The sign on the gate said: Keep out. Beware of Dog. No Trespassing. Violators will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Signed: The Little Sisters of Mercy.
When Jesus began to form his community, it’s like there was a giant welcome mat out in front of him. And wherever he went it read: Welcome poor. Welcome slaves. Welcome Gentiles. Welcome sinners. Welcome prostitutes. Welcome crooked government officials. Welcome, everybody.
There were those who refused to enter, lots of people who rejected Jesus. They didn’t want his kingdom. It was full of the wrong kind of people.
You are blessed. I am blessed. Not because I have it altogether, because I don’t. Nobody needs the kingdom more than me. I am blessed and you are blessed because we are in a messed up and desperate condition.
If you are rich or if you are poor, if are feeling strong or you’re very weak, if you’re feeling wise or you have been immensely foolish, if you are young or if you’re wrinkled, if you’ve done good things or if you’ve made so many bad choices that you regret, you are blessed. You are blessed for the kingdom of God has come to you. God is here to meet you. What a gospel!________________________________________
1. Thomas Long, Matthew, Westminster John Knox, 1997, 46
2. Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Plan of a New World, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1996, 136
3. Eduard Schweitzer, The Gospel According to Matthew