OH THE BLISS
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Oh, the bliss of those who are absolutely destitute in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Oh, the bliss of those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Oh, the bliss of those who are persecuted, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. You are the hot sauce of the world, but if hot sauce has lost its heat, how can it get it back again? It is thrown into the green bin and picked up on Thursday morning by the neon truck.
Imagine starting a sermon like this!
This is how arguably the greatest sermon by the greatest person who ever lived began. The Sermon on the Mount. When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain – the place from which God tends to speak – and after he sat down – the posture of a teacher – his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying… He began to teach them about the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of God. The Reign of God. This Kingdom that Jesus inaugurated. This Kingdom that is here, and this Kingdom which is coming. This is what Jesus preached about. “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” (Matt 4:23). Mark puts it like this – “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14-15) The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news.
This is our invitation.
And it’s important for us to get things right at the outset of this sermon. It’s important for us to talk about what this list is not. This is not a list of things to do which prescribe happiness. I know we like such lists. 10 Steps to a Better You. 10 Ways to Make 2019 Unforgettable, etc. etc. We like such things. They give us the illusion that we’re in control. We might look at the Beatitudes and think that they have something primarily to do with our attitudes. I remember learning these in a Vacation Bible School when I was young and the phrase that sticks in my mind after all these years is “beautiful attitudes”. It’s nice to play around with language and talk about the attitude of beatitude and that kind of thing, but the word beatitude has nothing to do with the word beautiful or attitude. It comes from a Latin root which means “blessed” (beatus) or “blissful”. It’s the same root which gives us the word “beatific” which again has nothing to do with beauty. A beatific smile – blissful. Sometimes this word for blessed (makarios in Greek) is translated “happy” but it goes much further than that. Happiness is very often tied to circumstance. This kind of blessedness of which Jesus speaks goes beyond circumstance. One writer suggests we translate the word “truly well off” or “those for whom everything is good”. Another suggests it means to “be in a good situation.”
It is good to try and recapture something of how shocking Jesus’ words would have been to his first listeners, or to anyone hearing them for the first time if we have heard them multiple times. Here were some beatitudes of Jesus’ day – Blessed is the man who lives with a sensible wife. Blessed is the man who does not sin with the tongue. Blessed is the man who has not served as in inferior. Blessed is the man who finds a friend. These all sound quite good do they not?
The other thing we must keep in mind is what some of the dominant religious thought of Jesus’ day had to say about who God favoured. Some thought that certain people groups were more favoured than others by God, turning religion into an “us vs. them” scenario in which those in the know clearly knew where the lines were drawn between us and them. The recipients of the Kingdom were those who were ritually pure – those who were faithful keepers of the law and who observed the right things and certainly not those who were obvious sinners – tax collectors or adulterers or prostitutes or addicts. The Kingdom was for those who were physically whole and healthy and wealthy. These were actually signs of God’s favour. It’s a good thing such attitudes don’t persist today! If people are poor it’s because they’re lazy and God helps those who help themselves and that’s in the Bible after all right?
There is an ethical component to living in the Kingdom of Heaven. What we do in the Kingdom of Heaven matters. There is an ethical component which is summed up by Jesus at the end of this chapter – Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect. We’ll be talking about the ethical component over the coming weeks. Before we talk about what we do, we need to focus on what God has done and is doing and will do. The first thing that Jesus does is extend a welcome into the Kingdom of Heaven. He does it in a most shocking way:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Oh, the bliss of those who are poor in spirit, for these are the ones to whom the Kingdom of Heaven belongs. How well off are the poor in spirit? What a good situation for those who know their need for something outside of themselves, because the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. These are the people for whom everything is good. In light of all the messages that were out there in Jesus’ day comes this one. In light of all the messages that are out there in our day – Life is what you make it. You only live once. It’s a good life if you don’t weaken, so stay strong. Go make a name for yourself – Jesus speaks about a different reality. A reality that turns the world upside down (or right side up depending on your point of view). A reality in which everyone is invited and welcomed into this Kingdom that is not just solely for the life after this one or the age to come after this one but is also for right now.
Oh the bliss of the poor in spirit. Oh the bliss of those who know their need for God. Oh, the bliss of those who can say with the Psalmist “This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD and was saved from every trouble.” Truly well off are such people. Such people are truly in a good situation.
Maybe you need to be living in such a situation to see it. Wealth can make this truth hard to see for sure. Matthew spiritualizes this truth. Luke has it like this – Blessed are you who are poor. Is this because there is some kind of morality inherent in being poor or that God thinks that it is good for people to be poor? I don’t think so. It is rather I think that finding ourselves at the end of our own resources tends to make us look beyond ourselves for help. When we are materially well off it can give us the inclination to rely on our own materials and it was not for nothing that Jesus will say later in Matthew that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven – though thank God that with God all things are possible, even that.
Because things are crazy upside down in this Kingdom. Truly well off are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Truly well off are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. There’s a personal aspect to this. Paul called God the God of all consolation who consoles us in our affliction so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. This is the truth. At the same time, we mourn injustice and economic disparity – knowing that, as someone has put it, “the God of justice is not asleep. The devastations wrought by human avarice and thirst for power will be remedied.”
Truly well off are the meek. Not to be confused with weak. It’s a word that goes back to a Hebrew word that signified humility, gentleness. It’s a word that was used as a synonym for poor in fact. Again here we have the idea of recognizing our need for God with humility and letting such humility and gentleness characterize our lives.
Truly well off are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. It can be difficult for us to imagine hunger or thirst if we’ never experienced not knowing when or where our next meal is coming. Less difficult for some and less difficult for many to whom Jesus was talking who lived very much a hand to mouth type of existence. A hunger and a thirst for righteousness. For rightness with God and rightness with humanity and rightness with creation. There’s a personal element here. A hunger to be transformed, to reflect the goodness of God in our lives. There’s a wider element to this as well. A hunger for the righteousness and justice of God to be made known. An ongoing restlessness. A hunger to see it and a desire to take part in where God is making it happen around us. To encounter God in this way now which points us forward to the day when those with such a hunger and such a thirst will be filled completely.
Life in this Kingdom affects our relationships this way (horizontally). Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. This is a Kingdom where mercy reigns. Not payback. Not retribution. To live in this Kingdom is to know that we’ve done nothing to deserve God’s mercy. Mercy like love is active. The way of God. “The Lord the Lord, a God merciful and gracious…” is what God said to Moses. “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant as I have had mercy on you?” is what Jesus will say later in Matthew.
Truly well off are the pure in heart, for they will see God. To be clean, pure, unadulterated or unalloyed. To be clean not only of hands but of hearts. To be innocent not only in our actions but in our intentions and our motivations. Too long for this. To ask God for this. Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing, is the title of a famous work by Soren Kierkegaard. To will the good – everything that comes from God. All that is true and eternal and of lasting importance. To Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. To live as a child of God is to know the peace of God. To know God’s peace is to extend it. To live in the shalom of God is to devote ourselves to the work of reconciliation and restoration of relationships. Someone has said of citizens of God’s kingdom - “Where others build walls they painstakingly construct bridges.”
Things are upside down in this kingdom. Even persecution and revulsion are changed. Look to the one who is speaking who would be reviled and persecuted and show that the love of God is stronger than even death.
This is the kingdom to which we are invited. This is the kingdom that is offered freely. The kingdom to which this man Jesus welcomes us. What might it look like for us to live in it? Jesus extends a welcome to his kingdom to those who were excluded. What might it mean for us to extend a welcome to someone who we’ve never welcome before? To create a welcoming space for someone. To accept a welcome from someone. Not in a transactional way or in a “what might result from this?” way but in a way that reflects the welcome that Jesus extends to all. We enact this each time we gather around this table. What might it look like in our own lives as individuals and in the welcomes we take part in as a congregation (like the welcome that’s extended here right now every Saturday night)?
Jesus welcome us into the kingdom of heaven in which everything is turned upside down. In it we find that things are actually right side up. May God continue to plant these truths in our hearts as we sit with Jesus over these weeks.