By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
February 2, 2020
Matthew 5:1–12 (ESV)
1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Jesus’s teachings are filled with some of the most encouraging and comforting words. The teaching is also filled with some of the most puzzling. Many people look at the teachings of Jesus and they fall in love with them. You can hear words spoken by Jesus uttered by people that would never call themselves followers of Christ, yet they love the teachings that he gave. Have you ever really thought about that? How can someone love Jesus’s teaching yet reject who he is?
In last week’s passage, we saw Jesus beginning his ministry. He did not fully engage in ministry until after John the Baptist was arrested. A great deal could be said about why he waited; I personally believe that John’s ministry needed to conclude before the people of the area were ready to hear the teachings of Jesus.
John was out crying in the wilderness, saying “Repent for the Kingdom is at hand!” Through his teachings he shed light that although the Temple is probably the greatest, most efficient, and most engaging that it had ever been in Israel’s history; things were not as they seemed. Remember that John was the child of a priest. His entire life was dedicated to serving Israel’s God from the moment he was born until the day that he died. John was not just a crazy man in terrible clothes in the wilderness, he made a conscience choice to leave the life and lifestyle that he had enjoyed for thirty years and he took on a lifestyle of poverty to prove a point. No one is worthy and every last one of us needs to turn back to God. For many this message drove them into the arms of God, but for others it caused great discomfort. Especially for those whose lifestyle was supported by the economy of the temple. And eventually that message prompted those who lived lifestyles opposed to John’s message to seek to silence the cries from the banks of the Jordan.
John had just been arrested and at that moment Jesus was ready to start. He began by teaching in a small town on the shores of the sea of Galilee. And as he taught, we walked along the beach and he called out to some of John’s disciples and he asked them to follow him, and he would make them fishers of men. Which means that what he will show them will take them out of the world they have always known and place them in a different perception of life, like fish out of water. Jesus called his first disciples, and then we hear him begin teaching.
He went out into the countryside and crowds were beginning to gather. He had already started little journeys into the surrounding villages, he had already began healing people with diseases, and giving liberty to those oppressed by evil spirits so people had begun to wonder who or what this Jesus guy was. They saw him go out to the countryside and they gathered in the area with him, so Jesus with his disciples climbed up the mountain side and as the crowds gathered below Jesus opened his mouth and began to teach.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” I said that the words Jesus spoke were comforting as well as puzzling. And Jesus begins his most recognizable sermon not with a fancy introduction or clever story to attract the attention of the crowd. He begins with, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
People labor their entire lives not to be poor, yet Jesus is saying blessed are the poor. Matthew and look both include this sermon in their witness of Jesus, but Luke stops with blessed are the poor, where Matthew adds in spirit. Yet they both are saying quite literally that this list of blessedness is privileged or favored, they have honor. Blessed are the poor.
I have been poor my entire life, in the standards of our culture. I have not been in poverty but if there really is a middle class, we just barely hit that rank. I have experienced lack of security. I know full well that if it were not for the generosity of others, I would not and could not continue in my present role. But this condition is not where I would like to be. When I drive Albert to school in the mornings, I drive by land that has had a for sale sign on it for probably ten years. I drive by that sign and every day I think, “If only I could get that land.” I have an entire plan for what I would do if I had that land. I know how much livestock I would obtain; I know where I would build green houses to start growing vegetables to sell, and what parts I would develop into potential plots to build houses. I know what I would like to do, but every day I drive by it knowing it is just a dream. Every day that dream hits me, I become very aware of where I am and how much I need. I realize very quickly that I am not able to survive on my own. And I recognize what Jesus is saying in this puzzling statement.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. It is not saying that its good to be poor. What Jesus is saying is it is good to know your need. Because when you know your need, you can become grateful for what you have, and thankful to those who have helped you. Everyone needs, and everyone has people in their lives that have helped them get to where they are. It does not matter if you happen to be homeless living under a bridge or the CEO of a major corporation, you have needs and you have people that have given something of themselves to help you. Blessed are the poor because they are aware of their need. And the opposite is also true, how sad it is for those people that think they have it all.
There is not one person on this earth that is a self-made man. That is a myth that our culture likes to throw around. Yes, there are people that have taken greater risks with what they have, but there are always people that have helped them along the way. Amazon is the greatest retailer in world. That company started with its entire inventory sitting in one room within the owner’s living space. We praise the genius of that man that so radically changed the way we do business in today’s world; I mean let’s be honest not many of us could have gotten our Christmas shopping done without Amazon. But was Amazon self-made? The answer is no. Computers were created by someone else, the internet was the product by others. The coding used within both were formulated by countless others. Each of those people were taught and inspired by yet more people. And those ideas and products were made to fill a need that others had, and they purchased those products so that they could use them to build on different ideas. Amazon needed the women and men of the previous generations to punch holes in cards so that they could eventually make our modern computers and tablets. And every retailer needs customers to buy their products. There is not one person in this world that is self-made, we are the product of others. But blessed are those that are aware of their need, because they will have the kingdom. They will recognize that those relationships with others are more important than anything else.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” This one verse is often a piercing dagger in the heart of anyone that has experienced loss. The state of mourning is an emotional condition that is so dark we do not really know what to do or what to say. Yet Jesus says blessed are those who mourn. Some in this meeting know this state, some of us know it so deeply that we want to punch those that quote this verse in the mouth because they really do not know anything about what we experience. How can Jesus the creator of the universe say that mourning is a place of favor? As we move through this state of being, we begin to see that there is more. Life does not remain in the darkness. When my sister died around Halloween in 1997, I thought that I would never enjoy Halloween again, and I still struggle with the holiday. But when James was born things began to change. Joy eventually enlightened the day again. I still struggle but I know that light will overcome the darkness, and that the era of mourning will be comforted again. But there is more to this. We do not just get over a loss. This is why we observe memorial services, this is why we have days of remembrance, this is why we bring casseroles by the truckload to the houses of those that have experienced loss. We need the community to cry with us, we need others to walk with us through that dark valley. We need others.
Blessed are the meek. This is one of the beatitudes that most people struggle with, because we have such a poor understanding of the word meek. When we hear the word, we equate it with weakness, but that is not what it is. To be meek is the opposite of arrogance. The meek are those people that are honest with themselves and others. They are the people that build community because they recognize that they need others. This meekness, ties into those that hunger and thirst for righteousness. Those that desire justice. And those that hunger for righteousness, are like those that are merciful.
Mercy in this sense is speaking of those that actively pursue mercy. The people that get involved and act. They are the ones that give the poor jobs, they are the ones that sit with those that mourn, they are the ones that get outside themselves and look for the mutual profit of those around them.
Then we get to the pure of heart. This characteristic is single mindedness or undivided. It is that characteristic of those people that have a goal and the pursue it whole heartedly. Keeping the things that are most important in the rightful place. Often people say that the pure of heart are those without sin, or sinful desires. This is only partially true. If we look at sin as being those things that distract us from God, then yes, the un-diverted pursuit of God is without sin because they are actively seeking God. The pure of heart, those who pursue God whole heartedly will find what they seek, they will see God. They will see God’s hand working all around them, because they are looking and observing.
Which brings us to the most difficult of all the beatitudes, the privilege or favor of the peacemakers. What is peace? What does it mean to be people in pursuit of peace? We can get the idea that this is simply those that refuse to fight in war, but that does not make peace. Later Jesus will say if someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. That concept is that we do not back away, but we do not strike back. Peace is not just the absence of war, but the removal of conflict. To be a peacemaker means that we must actively pursue reconciliation or the removal of those things that drives wedges between or builds walls around others. It is taking the time to find the underlying issues and working through those until there is a resolution, and as we do that, we honor that of God in those around us. Respecting them as individuals loved by their creator just as much as us. Peacemakers are those that will go into a city and combat crime not with the threat of violence, but with education and encouragement. Does this mean we should oppose the police or the military, no. It means we should encourage a higher standard than violence, asking what and why there is conflict and work to remove that.
Finally, Jesus says in a couple of ways, “Blessed are the persecuted.” This is one area we in America really do not understand. We go around thinking that people that say “Happy Holidays” are persecuting us because they are not saying Merry Christmas, but that is not persecution. Persecution is the willful and vengeful acts done to others because they are different in some way. The Jewish people were persecuted in Nazi Germany. They were set up as the scape goats for all the problems that the German people experienced and as a result, they suffered for that. The people of Hispanic decent are being persecuted in many ways in our nation because they have been set up as the reason for all our problems. Lumping entire communities of people together for the misdeeds or perceived misdeeds of some is persecution. Jesus is saying that you are favored when people persecute you because yours is the kingdom. How can that be? The truth will eventually be revealed. And when those that hunger and thirst for righteousness, and the meek and the peacemakers come together with those that are persecuted they will turn the community into something greater, and the pure of heart will encourage them all to stay focused on the truth, so that the mourning will be comforted and the poor will know their needs are covered.
We look at these blessings and we think of them as goals. But the reality is that this is what Jesus says when he said that the disciples will be fishers of men. These are opposed to the world’s standards. The world wants us to believe that we are self-made, the world wants us to believe that there is no hope, that justice is already here, that meekness is weakness, and peace comes through those that have the biggest bombs and fastest jets. The world wants us to believe that we are not the problem, but it is all those other people that are causing our problems and the world would be better off if we just got rid of them. The world says a great deal, and often we are distracted by what the world says. But we are blessed if we open our eyes and seek that we are not alone. We are blessed if we see that all that we have is not only a gift from God, but favor that we have received from those that have gone before us and will be given to those that come after us. We are blessed if we see that of God in those around us and work to ensure that each person is recognized for who they truly are, a person loved by God. They are so loved by God that he sends his son, that his son willingly came to live among us, to teach us, to walk with us, to eat with us and to live life in the fullest sense with us. They are loved that that same son was willing to take on the ultimate shame, to die on a cross not for his crimes but ours, to be mocked and tortured. And he died. And his mother mourned. And his friends hid in a room behind locked doors for three days as Jesus lay in a tomb, buried in the depths of the earth separated from life and from relationship. God so loved those in the world that he sent his son to endure life and death, to endure separation in a grave, but He does not leave us there. God so love us and those in the world that He rose from the grave to new life.
The poor know their need, the mourning will be comforted, the meek will see the kingdom, the pure will see God, those that seek justice will find it, those that pursue peace will have it, and those that are wrongfully accused will have the truth revealed. Because the kingdom is here now and is to come. As we enter this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends let us reflect of the favored life Christ is calling us to, and as we reflect on that life let us live it.