Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Blessedness of the Kingdom (Sermon on the Mount #1)

(Matthew 5:1-12 NIV) - Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them saying: 
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 be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

An interesting truth about my spiritual learning style is that I learn best by contrast. While I dig out lessons from the lives of Biblical characters and martyrs and missionaries and everyday heroes, I find that the lessons that are most vivid to my spirit are those that come in contrast: “See that reaction? That’s NOT what I want you to be.” “See that choice? Don’t make it.” Those sorts of phrases drop into my heart, often when I’m in prayer about a situation that distressed me. I’ve come to learn that there are just some attitudes and actions God has to let me endure so that I learn “what NOT to wear”, spiritually speaking.

I think that’s one reason the Beatitudes speak to me so deeply. From start to finish, they are in stark contrast to our natural reaction to a given reality. The Beatitudes turn me on my head and shake me around, so that I find that what seems “upside down” is really “upside right”. In a word, they transform my mind.

I’ve been studying the Beatitudes the last few weeks as part of an overall study of the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is essentially Jesus providing glimpses of the kingdom – glimpses of what life can be like if we truly embrace kingdom living now. Jesus didn’t save us so that we can withdraw from the world and wait for His return. Instead, He wants us to be part of the prayer He taught us to pray in this very sermon: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” As followers of Jesus, we are called to be part of His kingdom in heaven coming down to earth – bringing “up there”, down here. Not in its fullness, and not in a worldly political way, but in a very real, tangible, practical way that expresses our faith and trust in Jesus Christ. To either spiritualize or legalize the Sermon misses the point. What Jesus wants us to do is live it.

To truly live these words we have to first understand that our thinking about being “blessed” is all messed up. Think about it – when you hear someone says “God has blessed me” what are they usually referring to? Not always of course, but in the West that phrase often references material prosperity, or circumstances that have gone the way the person wanted them to go. We have an erroneous idea that challenging circumstances are tests we have to pass in order to get to the blessing. Before we can effectively be part of bringing a glimpse of His kingdom to earth, we have to learn what blessedness really means.

The word makarios literally means “a sense of God’s approval”. It’s a contentment that comes from doing what is right in His sight and is rooted in right relationship with Him. A.T. Robertson defines it as "happiness identified with pure character" that pictures the "ideal of a world-wide sympathy and of a happiness realized in ministry." The word is used in the opposite sense of “need” to describe a state of sufficiency and fullness. A literal rendering of Psalm 23:1 reads, “The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing.” This is a perfect definition of a state of blessedness. When we are "blessed" we are fully satisfied. Jesus’ words teach me that this blessedness, this satisfaction, comes when I chose holiness over sin, His way over mine, His presence over popularity; when I live congruently with the new creature He’s made me, then I experience true blessedness.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian who ardently opposed Hitler and the overwhelming majority of churches that gave into Hitler’s schemes. Over time, Bonhoeffer came to see the Sermon on the Mount as a call to a lifestyle of radical discipleship for all Christians. In his insightful book, The Cost of Discipleship, he expounds on the Sermon on the Mount in great detail. Bonhoeffer sees the first two verses as significant:
(Matthew 5:1-2, NIV) Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them saying:

Bonhoeffer observes that while the crowds were present, it was His disciples to whom the message was directed. These disciples followed Jesus (like us!) but lived among the people (also like us!) to preach His call to discipleship. Bonhoeffer sees that the very call to follow Jesus led these men into a status of being poor, afflicted, and hungry – a place they might not have been if they had stayed in their businesses and minded their own business. Ultimately, Bonhoeffer sees the Beatitudes as encouragement for those whose call to discipleship has led them to a place of struggle:  

He calls them blessed, not because of their privation, or the renunciation they have made, for these are not blessed in themselves. Only the call and the promise, for the sake of which they are ready to suffer poverty and renunciation, can justify the beatitudes. (Bonhoeffer, Call to Discipleship, p. 96.)

Yes, Jesus calls the disciples blessed in the presence of the crowd. This becomes a call to all who follow Jesus to live out what He makes us by His promise. For His path to satisfaction and joy has never been a path to more of this temporary, fading existence. Instead His promised depth of satisfaction and joy is directly linked to us bringing a glimpse of His kingdom to this broken, needy world. Through the prophet Isaiah, God painted a picture of what can happen when we pay attention to this call:
(Isaiah 58:6-14 NIV, emphasis mine) - Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter--when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD's holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob." The mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Freedom for the oppressed. Meeting the tangible needs of people.  Trading in legalism and accusations for spending ourselves on behalf of others’ needs. Repairing things at a societal level. Enjoying the presence of the Lord. This is true satisfaction and joy. This is true blessedness.

Are you pouring yourself out today and experiencing unexpected challenges along the way? Check out those Beatitudes again. Hear Jesus speaking to you, calling you out from the crowd to remind you that He sees, He knows – and He calls you blessed because you have heeded the call to discipleship and trusted His great and precious promises.

May you learn along with Corrie ten Boom the most precious of realities: “You may never know that JESUS is all you need, until JESUS is all you have.” And may you be reminded that however the world defines your situation, when you are sacrificing for Him, you are blessed. And it is beautiful.

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