Welcome You Poor In Spirit
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When we consider the Beatitudes, I want us to consider them as a whole new way of experiencing… everything. Life. The world. God. They come in the book of Matthew at the start of Jesus’ ministry. They are the introduction to what is arguably the most famous sermon ever preached. We’ve brushed up against them in the past few years, particularly as we’ve gone through the Gospel of Matthew for Lent.
Speaking of Lent, the church calendar is another way of seeing time. We’re in a period of Ordinary time, of which there are two. This is the shorter one between Christmas and Lent, the birth of Christ, and the death and resurrection of Christ. The colour of this season in the church calendar is green, and this is appropriate for what we’re doing here over the coming 8 weeks. “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak (literally opened his mouth, Matthew really sets the scene here), and taught them, saying…”
I want us to see these next 8 weeks as an invitation to sit in the green grass at Jesus’ feet – an invitation to sit with Jesus and hear his voice. It has been said that Beatitudes contains the whole of the gospel message. The whole of the good news of Jesus. We want to be people who take the Bible seriously and who take the words of Jesus seriously. I want us to see Jesus’ words as an invitation to the kingdom of heaven; as a description of what the kingdom of heaven is like; as a prescription for how we are enabled and called to be; as a description of what God is like; as a description of the life of Jesus; a prescription for the life of Jesus’ followers. I want us to let ourselves to be inhabited by the truths that Jesus is speaking, jarring as they may sometimes seem. These words are for everyone. They are directed toward disciples – followers of Christ or students of Christ – so if you count yourself among that number, these are for you. They are also directed toward a crowd, for whom they represent an invitation. This is what life lived in communion with God looks like. Someone has described the kingdom of heaven (or God) like this – “The kingdom of God is simply live in Christ – not a concept of Christ or trying to live according to principles we think of as Christian, but living in his presence, being aware of him in the people and things that surround us, no matter where we are.” This is what life looks like lived in connection with the divine through the man who is speaking these words of blessing - Jesus. This man who lived, who died, who was raised up, who ascended to his Father, who is coming back at the renewal of all things.
These words are not merely pieces of advice. They’re not for us to look through and pick and choose which ones suit us (“You take peacemaker, I’ll take meek – we seem suited to those!”) These are not simply words of wisdom. How could they be? Blessed are the poor in spirit? Blessed are the meek? Really? We’ll get more into this as we go through these weeks – the dissonance that we might hear here in the Beatitudes as the vision of the world they contain clashes with other visions of the world. They’re counter-cultural, but when we say that we have to keep in mind what culture we’re talking about; whose culture we’re talking about. In noting how Christians often like to have things like the 10 Commandments displayed in public, Kurt Vonnegut wondered why not the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the peacemakers in the Pentagon… Blessed are the merciful in a courthouse…Give me a break” Vonnegut wrote.
We should pay attention to these words. We should memorize them. We should hold them close and ponder them in our hearts. It might affect the way we sense everything; the way we see, hear, touch, taste, smell, everything. We like to start off the year looking at spiritual formation which is another way of saying discipleship which is another way of saying being formed in the image of Jesus – amazing as that seems and may it always seem like something amazing to us. Something that is well beyond our meagre abilities. Let’s ask for God’s help as we take a look at how the Beatitudes start.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” We need to talk about “Blessed.” Makarios is the Greek word. It’s translated “Blessed” very often, “Happy” a little less often. Happy in no way does this word justice. It’s been described as being in a good place, on the right track, going in the right direction, sharing in the life of God, having ultimate joy, flourishing are, how blissful are, congratulations to, even “good on you” to quote the Australian phrase. English writer Elizabeth Rundle Charles put it far better than I could when she wrote these lines, “a heart in harmony with itself, at rest, content, satisfied, full of all the music of which human hearts are capable… all that is involved in all the words expressive of human bliss, reaching up to Divine creative joy.”
Who wouldn’t want this? This is what we have been created for!
At which point we might be saying “How do I get in? I want to accept this invitation and I want to accept it on a daily basis!” What do we have to do? What do we have to bring? Have you ever noticed that when we’re accepting an invitation somewhere, the first thing we ask is “What can I bring?” There may be many different reasons for this which we can discuss among ourselves. I am in no way opposed to host or hostess gifts. They are most thoughtful and kind. When it comes to the kingdom of heaven, however, we must put that question away. It’s not a matter of what we can bring. In fact, we need to empty ourselves of the thought that there is anything we can bring to this table to which Jesus is inviting us. Come with empty hands.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. Flourishing are the poor in spirit – the destitute in spirit, the beggars in spirit, the spiritually down and out. Those who are crying out for someone beyond themselves and look to Jesus. Poverty of spirit clashes with messages of “life is what you make it” or “the power is within you” or “self-sufficiency is the greatest of all wealth.” We’re talking about humble dependence on God. I don’t mean humble in the way it’s often used today. We can toss around words to the point where they lose their meaning. How many people win awards or appear on reality television and say “This is really humbling!” Wouldn’t being recognized by your peers/fans have the opposite effect? We’re talking about humbling ourselves as self-emptying - which again makes us look to the one who is speaking these words who emptied himself of all but love – so that we may be filled. We’re talking about a keen, daily awareness of our need for God, of coming to Jesus with our arms outstretched, our hands empty so that we may be filled with all the goodness of God.
“Nothing in my hand I bring/Simply to thy cross I cling” as the old hymn goes.
Poverty of spirit has been described like this – “It is my awareness that I cannot save myself, that I am basically defenseless, that neither money nor power will spare me from suffering and death, and that no matter what I achieve or acquire in this life, it will be far less than I wanted. Poverty of spirit is my awareness that I need God’s help and mercy more than I need anything else. Poverty of spirit is getting free from the rule of fear, fear being the great force that restrains us from acts of love. Being poor in spirit means letting go of the myth that the more I possess, the happier I’ll be.” It’s the myth of the dream coach that we need to “bigify” our consumerist dreams (or are they nightmares?).
Of course, we’re talking about money now. Cash. Possessions. Many of you have a lot of Bible knowledge and you know that in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, there’s no “in spirit.” Jesus says “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” and later “But woe to you who are rich, for you, have already received your consolation.” What do we do with that? Some will say that Matthew is purely spiritualizing this teaching of Jesus, it’s just spiritual poverty Jesus is talking about so let’s not let it affect the money side. It’s a view that divides life into the spiritual and material and I don’t believe it serves us well. You hear it sometime in the life of the church where we talk about spiritual matters and temporal matters and never the twain shall meet. The kingdom of heaven is for all of life. We’re not called to compartmentalize them. The kingdom of heaven is for all of life. We may be called by God to give up our possessions, it’s not unknown. Wealth can make it hard to see our need for God, but not always. Poverty can make it easier to see our dependence on God, but not always. Neither is held up as an ideal. Accepting Jesus' invitation to the kingdom of heaven means seeing all of life with a new vision, including the money we have or want to have and what we own or want to own. Clement of Alexandria was a 2nd-century theologian who taught in North Africa (Alexandria) had this to say about poverty of spirit and what it means in terms of possessions: “…the person who is poor in spirit is the one who holds possessions lightly ‘as the gifts of God; and ministers from them to the God who gives them for the salvation of men; and knows that he possesses them more for the sake of the brethren than his own; and is … not the slave of the things he possesses; and does not carry them about in his soul, nor bind and circumscribe his life within them,’ and who ‘is able with cheerful mind to bear their removal…’”
A kind of kingdom of heaven version of “easy come easy go.” A kingdom awareness that coming to God with open and empty hands may mean letting go of things, or at least holding onto them lightly.
Poverty of spirit is the ever-growing awareness in my heart – in the centre of my being - that I need God’s help and mercy in my life more than I need anything else.
What then must we do? Let us put ourselves in places where we will hear Jesus’ voice, where we will hear Jesus’ invitation, Jesus’ questions of us. At one point in his life, Jesus was leaving Jericho with his followers. A man who knew his need for someone beyond himself put himself where Jesus would be. His name was Bartimaeus and he was blind. He cried out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” This is a good place to start. Jesus asked him what he wanted. The answer came from Bartimaeus – “Rabbi, I want to see.” “Go,” said Jesus, “Your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.
Dear friends, let us be resolved to put ourselves where we see Jesus and hear Jesus’ voice. In word. In song. In prayer. Coming to this table with empty hands, letting go of all we might believe about self-reliance and self-sufficiency, expressing our need for the sufficiency of Christ. May this be true for us this day and in the days to come, as we sit at Christ’s feet in the green grass.