4th Sunday after Epiphany
February 2, 2014
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
The words that we heard in our Gospel lesson are interesting ones, aren’t they? These blessings, or these beatitudes as we often call them, come from Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount.” While the beatitudes and blessings are famous, they can often be some of the most misunderstood words of Scripture when viewed by the unbelieving world. I’ll be honest, these aren’t necessarily the easiest words to understand that Jesus speaks to us. Especially when Jesus speaks in paradoxes, our minds sort of get rattled. A paradox is not a couple or pair of doctors (language joke), but a paradox is something that seems to contradict itself. Up seems down and down seems up. As you heard in the lesson, how can a poor person be rich or a sad person be happy? Nevertheless, Jesus goes on to describe that these people are blessed in God’s eyes. How can that be?
And here we see where the world around us begins to misunderstand these words. As unbelievers read and hear these words, they hear depressing statements or rules that limit fun. Why would anyone in their right mind want to be living in poverty, or sadness, or hunger or thirst? I want to be happy right now! I don’t want to be told how to live or what to believe! I want to live in the moment! Isn’t that the case? The unbelieving postmodern world celebrates religious diversity, as long as it isn’t a Christian agenda being politely shoved down their throats.
On the other side of the coin, the world also begins to misunderstand these words because they think that in their poverty, their humility, or their kindness, they will win the golden ticket to the heavenly party when they die. They think that their suffering earns salvation and they dismiss everything else in the bible and focus on these verses. They view these beatitudes as an equation on how to become Christian and an equation on how to get to heaven.
These words are not an equation for getting to heaven. These words are not “how to become Christian,” but “how Christians naturally are.” We need to remember to whom Jesus was preaching this and the purpose Jesus had in mind. The audience that Jesus was speaking to was primarily Jesus’ apostles and disciples, although it wouldn’t be surprising if some of the large crowds were listening in. The crowds were to hear and know what true disciples of Christ would look like and what qualities they would possess.
We see that an overriding theme in this Epiphany season, and Jesus ministry, is that what the world thinks of Jesus and his followers is not what he and we really are. These words of Jesus go against everything that the world wants and how the world views life. It goes against everything that my sinful nature wants. Satan wants us to be happy with our sins. Our mind tries to rationalize our sinful decisions so that we don’t have to feel awkward or feel bad. Yet, Jesus tells us here that the poor in spirit and those who mourn will be blessed. Isn’t that a little weird? But not for a Christian. We are reminded that our entire life is to be that of contrition and repentance. We grieve as we see our sin unfold before our eyes. We are absolutely heartbroken because of that which we have done in the past. Our pet sins are laid out before God. We are terrified at the fact that God saw that one little thing that we did when we thought no one else was around. We cry over that because our sin has separated us from God. God demands perfection. We are a hopeless cause.
This is why we come before God in humility. And, we remember that Jesus speaks of poverty in the sphere of the spirit. It isn’t a virtue to take on a vow of poverty because poverty nor riches qualify or disqualify a person for heaven. The kingdom is for all people. But we come before God recognizing our spiritual poverty and unworthiness in God’s eyes. We can’t live up to God’s standards of perfection and we deserve God’s punishment. As Christians, we mourn over our sin. We are sad over our hopelessness. Naturally we also are saddened by the grief caused by sin in the world as sin gives us the one-two punch of losses and pain. As long as we live in a world of sin and as long as we sin daily, all we can do is stretch out our poor hands to God’s grace in Christ.
But Christians do not mourn like those who have no hope. The greatest comfort that we have as Christians is the absolution and forgiveness of sins pronounced upon every repentant sinner. Without that forgiveness, every other comfort in this life is shallow and vain. The poor in spirit know that they are also rich because of what they have inherited through Christ’s perfect sacrifice. God credits us the righteousness of Christ and has removed our sin forever! Christ is our Prince of peace and made us his children.
These beatitudes are so interesting because it doesn’t speak of how a believer becomes blessed. But rather, it speaks of how a believer is already blessed. God promises us a heavenly reward. We don’t receive this reward for the work we have performed or the good we have done. The term reward is only the reward of grace. We show Christian love and do good only because it is a fruit of God’s love. Our reward is heaven. We can look into eternity and know that God wants us to be with Him. But we don’t necessarily have to look to heaven for God’s comfort.
We can also look right here around us. In the Old Testament, God promised his Israel nation new land. This new land of Canaan was not only a picture of our heavenly home, but also a place where God would provide for his people’s needs in this world. We can trust in the strength of God and in his promises that he will help us through this life of pain and toil and heartbreak.
Christians are pessimistic optimists. We see the worst in the world and in ourselves because of sin. Sin has corrupted our lives and everything about it. Our health is perpetually deteriorating and we ache in pain. Our relationships are on the fritz. Death lurks around every corner. We see the sadness of losing a friend or a family member. But we are also optimists. We are optimists because of the fact that we have trust in God for the here and now, and for that which is to come. God is always watching out for us, guiding and protecting us for our good. We also have that ultimate trust that God will lift us up on that last day. He will embrace us and say, “You are mine.” I look forward to that Day.
It’s sad to say, but I was reminded of a newer movie that came out not too long ago. It’s called World War Z and it stars Brad Pitt. It’s a movie about zombies attacking. It has the usual context and plot of a zombie movie. Look, a zombie. We should run. Nevertheless, this movie hinted at something that other zombie movies don’t. Now, if you haven’t seen this movie, I’m sorry that I am ruining for you. Brad Pitt discovers that unhealthy people wont be attacked. Zombies only go after the healthy ones. In other words, the weak are really the strong. The weaker we are, the more ready we are to trust in God’s strength and boast in the work he does in us. Therefore, we are strong!
Our text is an example of truths that only God can speak. The world makes observations and may tell you that you may grow stronger from a situation. If you deal with the problems of this world, you may gain persistence or patience, etc. We would agree with that! But, a person wouldn’t see any benefit from being persecuted or being poor, or being in mourning and sadness. Only God can teach us why we can rejoice in the situations we face because of our relationship with Christ. Look at the 3 men we heard about in our lesson from Daniel. These men of God stood before the great ruler Nebuchadnezzar and they appeared weak. They chose the path of following God rather than accommodation. They looked foolish. At the weakest moment in their lives, they trusted that God was their strength and God did not fail them.
The purpose of Jesus’ sermon was to give believers a better understanding of the God pleasing Christian life. The Beatitudes are pure gospel. We are motivated by that gospel to live Christian lives. But we also need to satisfy that spiritual hunger and thirst. Christians know that Jesus is that bread of life, and only he can provide that living water. In other words, in order to be refueled for our daily lives, we faithfully use the means of grace. We read God’s Word and attend worship regularly.
We need to be prepared for the times when the world and its views attack us. This is already happening! We have to expect that we will be persecuted. We may suffer because of saying or doing what is right. Jesus tells us not to expect any good treatment from the unbelieving world. This will never change because the human nature doesn't change. It doesn't want to hear that it is wrong. The sinful nature and the world will accuse a Christian of being old fashioned, bigoted, narrow minded, or intolerant. We will be criticized for what we believe. But, we have that reward in heaven to look forward to. These verses of Jesus give us comfort.
God did not intend these verses to be an equation for getting to heaven. This isn’t how to be Christian, but this is simply how a Christian lives. A Christian always lives trusting in God because without that trust, our happiness is shallow and vain. These verses remind me that I am truly blessed because of the strength God has shown for me.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.