The Fulfillment of the Law

(Psalm 119:9-16Matthew 5:17-20Matthew 11:11-15)

As we come back to the Sermon on the Mount this morning, we’re beginning the main body of the sermon.  Jesus opens by telling us about the way of the disciple—sketching out a picture of the life of one who dedicates his life to following Jesus.  In the Beatitudes, he describes the character of a true disciple, as a person who is living the life of the kingdom of heaven in the midst of the kingdoms of this world, and finding blessing in very different ways and places than the world seeks it.  Then in verses 11-16, Jesus portrays the activity of a true disciple, one who has answered his call to move into the world to give of ourselves for the sake of our neighbors.

So far, so good, but of course it’s not enough to draw the big picture—you have to start filling in the details, which is what Jesus will do over the next couple chapters.  The difficulty is that when you do that, the natural tendency is to collapse back into legalism; it’s natural for your hearers to understand it that way, and quite frankly, it’s natural to preach it in that way.  The language of law is the language we have to describe what we should and should not do, and with the language of law comes the mindset of legalism—of salvation through obedience to law.  So what do you do?

Jesus takes the question head on.  In this section, he sets out his thesis for the main body of the sermon—but what I’ve called an explanatory thesis.  It’s not a thesis which he’s going to try to prove; instead, it’s there to explain the approach he’s going to take as he turns to apply the Old Testament law to the question of what it means to live as a disciple of Christ.  And note this, he doesn’t say—as so many Protestants say—that the law has served its purpose and now it’s done and everything is grace.  He doesn’t set the Old Testament law against the New Testament gospel.  Instead, he makes very clear that they’re all of a piece; far from setting aside the law, he actually intensifies it.

The key is Jesus’ statement that he has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets—which is to say, the whole of the Old Testament.  He hasn’t come to abolish them, but he hasn’t come merely to teach them, either; he’s not just a different kind of Pharisee.  The Law was not the end of God’s plan for his people, or for the world; simply obeying it would never be enough, because law can’t change our hearts.  The Law pointed forward, preparing the way for God’s final answer to the problem of our sin.  That’s why Jesus says, “All the prophets and the Law prophesied until John.”  We understand that the pro­phets looked forward to a time when God would write his law on the hearts of his people and put his Spirit within them; we need to understand that the same is true of the Law.  By itself, it’s incomplete, unfinished; it finds the fulfillment of its purpose in Jesus.

Thus his statement in verse 18:  “Not a yodh, not a stroke, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”  The yodh is the smallest of the Hebrew letters—it is, roughly, akin to the English i and y; the same is true of the Greek letter iota, from which we take our word “iota.”  The stroke is a small mark you find on some Hebrew letters to distinguish them from other letters to which they are otherwise identical.  In other words, not the smallest thing will disappear from the Law, and not the smallest change will be made, until the world ends and everything God intended to do through his Law has been done.

Is Jesus saying, then, that we have to keep all the Law—that all of it is as binding on us as it was on Moses and Joshua and David?  No.  If he’d wanted to say that, he could have; instead, he says that the Law (and the whole Old Testament) has a purpose—one which goes beyond ritual obedience—and that he’s going to fulfill that purpose.  This he did by living a life of perfect obedience to the will of God, culminating in his judicial murder at the instigation of the religious leaders of his own people, and then rising again from the dead to deny sin and death their victory.  After that, the Old Testament continues to be the word of God, and we are to continue to learn from it and obey it fully—but what it means to obey it has changed.

Now, let me make this clear:  this doesn’t mean that we obey a different list of commands in the same way.  That’s the way the legalistic mind hears this—usually with the idea that the list of commands is a lot shorter and doesn’t include the ones I don’t like.  Whoever teaches that even the smallest of God’s commandments may now be ignored because we follow Jesus may still end up in the kingdom of heaven, but they will not be honored there.  Sure, some of the details of regulation and application no longer apply to us; we have indoor plumbing, so we don’t need to take a trowel and go outside the camp when nature calls.  But even those parts still stand as the word of God, because they still show us something of his character.  Living by grace doesn’t mean we keep God’s Law less:  it means we keep it differently.

The key to understanding that is in verse 20.  The scribes were the religious schol­ars, which of course also meant legal scholars; we might also think of them as the regulators, since they were the ones who determined what qualified as keeping God’s Law and what didn’t.  The Pharisees were a reform movement within Judaism dedicated to restoring the moral and religious health and strength of their nation; they were the social con­servatives—we might call them the Moral Majority of their day.  They held themselves to an extremely high standard when it came to keeping the Law, believing they needed to model the holiest way of life possible for the people around them.  These are two distinct groups, but closely linked, and a lot of the same people in both; and they were respected by the people for their holiness and their knowledge of God’s word.

What could it possibly mean to have a righteousness which far exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees?  If you understood righteousness as they did, in terms of literal obedience to rules and regulations, such a thing would be utterly impossible—this must have absolutely floored Jesus’ hearers.  The only way Jesus’ words make any sense at all is if he’s challenging their whole understanding of righteousness.

If you only go as far as literal observance of rules—however good those rules may be—then you fall short of the kingdom of heaven; indeed, at that point, you haven’t even started on the way.  As the New Testament scholar R. T. France puts it, “Those who are to belong to God’s new realm must move beyond [this] to a new consciousness of what it means to please God, one which penetrates beneath the surface level of rules to be obeyed to a more radical openness to knowing and doing the underlying will of ‘your Father in Heaven.’”

You see, the thing about mere obedience to laws and rules is that, however lax or harsh your rules may be, they all have a limit—and they usually have loopholes and grey areas and contradictions, whether apparent or real.  There always comes a point when you can say, “I’ve done enough to keep the law—I don’t have to do any more”; and if you’re sharp, you can often find ways to do a lot less and get off on a tech­nicality.  You can be hanging off the fence from your knees, but as long as most of you is still on this side, you’re just as good with the law as the guy standing in the middle of the field.

This sort of “what’s the minimum I have to do”/“how much can I get away with” approach to the word of God comes out of the idea of law as a bunch of things you have to do and not do in order to avoid punishment and earn reward.  Jesus leads us to a deeper understanding of God’s law, and his word more generally, as a way to know him and to know how to please him.  This is where we get the delight in the law that we see in Psalm 119, a delight which makes no sense if the law is just a rulebook and a checklist; but it isn’t—it’s an opening into the character and goodness of God.

Getting into Trouble

(Isaiah 42:1-9Matthew 5:11-161 Peter 4:12-19)

Blessed are you if you’re slandered and persecuted and abused because you’re trying to follow Jesus.  The church keeps telling people, “Come to Jesus and all your problems will be solved”—but if being a Christian has bought you a whole pile of trouble instead, count yourself blessed.

This is essentially an expansion of the previous verse, the eighth beatitude, with one significant shift:  no longer does Jesus say, “Blessed are those,” he says, “Blessed are you.”  He moves from describing a group of people—much as I might describe, let’s say, the kind of people who live in small mountain resort towns—to personal address; and in so doing, he abruptly connects the Beatitudes to the lives of the people before him.  He has presented the vision, he has given them the goal:  now he begins the challenge.

You see, in the Beatitudes, Jesus has laid out the qualities which characterize someone who is truly his faithful disciple, who is being filled with the life of the kingdom of God—but with the last one, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” there’s a shift.  It still tells us what the life of the kingdom of heaven looks like in this world, but the angle is different; it’s not describing what a faithful disciple of Jesus looks like, but rather what their life will look like.  It belongs among the Beatitudes, be­cause it’s another contradiction to this world’s ideas of what it means to have a blessed life, but at the same time, it doesn’t exactly fit with the rest of them.  It shifts from a description of character to a description of action.

Thus we have the challenge.  It would be possible to be the kind of person described in the first seven beatitudes and have almost no one know it—to stay within a very small circle of friends and family and have very little effect on the world outside.  The eighth beatitude removes that possibility:  those who belong to the kingdom of heaven won’t live that way.  They won’t keep themselves safe from the world—they’ll be out where the world has the opportunity to go after them.  No gated communities allowed.

This is critical, and so Jesus underscores it and aims it directly at the people before him:  “If you follow me, you’ll be slandered and persecuted and abused—and when that happens, rejoice and recognize that you’re blessed.  You’re standing right there with the prophets, and God will reward you for it.”  We often think of good Christians as people who stay out of trouble, but Jesus’ statement is emphatic:  my disciples get into trouble.  Not for doing wrong, sure, but we all know trouble often comes for doing what’s right; that’s why they say, “No good deed goes unpunished.”  If we follow Jesus, we won’t avoid those opportunities—he leads us right into them.  Indeed, he leads us to seek them out.  There are a terrible lot of trouble spots in this world; that’s where the good news of Jesus Christ most needs to be heard, and so that’s where we need to be.

He communicates this by telling us we are salt and light.  These images show us three key things about what we’re supposed to do as his disciples.  First, we are to move into the world.  Salt only does anything when you pour it out of the saltshaker, and light only benefits anyone when you uncover the lamp.  Turn on the light and put a bucket over it, the room is still dark; and while salt is the first great preservative the world ever discovered, it can’t preserve the meat if you leave it on the shelf.  In the same way, we do very little good if we just hang out here in our saltshaker, and our light never gets beyond the front door.  We need to be where the need is.

Partly, that’s a matter of place:  where might we find people who need to be in­troduced to Jesus Christ, and how might we find a way to speak with them?  There’s also the matter of culture.  Let’s say some of us decided we were called to go preach the gospel in Rex’s Rendezvous, or in Zimmer’s corporate head­quarters; in either case, we would find ourselves not just in a different building but in a different cultural environment, full of people who aren’t just like us.  They have different values, goals, assumptions, plans, desires; they might be smarter than us, better educated and more knowledgeable, or they might be rather less so.  How would we earn the right to be heard, and what would we do to be sure we were clearly understood?  We can’t say, “Well, they need to become like us, and then they’ll understand”; but sadly, many churches do.

That sort of attitude develops when we think outreach is primarily about us and our own growth.  In truth, Jesus calls us into the world not to strengthen ourselves but to give of ourselves.  Salt and light work by expending themselves.  Light pours out to be absorbed here and reflected there; salt dissolves in liquids and works its way into the meat; that’s how they fulfill their purpose.

It’s also how God works.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in eternal, self-giving love for one another; he created us to share their love with us, to extend the circle of love.  When we rebelled against him, they raised up Abraham, and through him the people of Israel, to extend his love into the world; then Jesus came to live for us, and die for us—and to make us his people, his body on earth, that we might continue his work, to go out and do the same.  He’s creating us as a community of the self-giving love of God, a people of the cross, who understand that our mission is to give ourselves to others, for others, just as he did.  This is profoundly countercultural; our consumerist society is all about taking, not giving.  If the world doesn’t see it in us, they won’t get there on their own.

Our part is to show the world the love of God, so that when they look at us they don’t just hear us talking about Jesus giving his life for us—they see his sacrifice reflected in the way we live our own lives.  We’re called to go into the world, not for our own benefit, but for the flourishing of our neighbors.  Salt is used, not for the sake of the salt, but for the sake of the food and those who eat it.  Light shines, not so we ooh and aah over the light, but so that we can see where we’re going.  And our work is not for the purpose of our own “success” as an organization, however we might define that, but to resist the decay of the world and to light up its darkness.

Jesus calls us to move into the world to give of ourselves for the sake of our neighbors.  He has given us a mission not to avoid the troubles of this world, but to put ourselves right in the middle of them, to get into trouble for his sake and the sake of the gospel.  He calls us to be salt—to be a spiritual preservative, to fight the sin that corrupts our lives and the lives of our neighbors.  We must do so with care and grace, seeking to draw people away from their sin rather than condemn them for their sin,understanding that we need to earn the right to speak by showing them we love them and that we can be trusted, both in one-on-one relationships and through ministries like the Beaman Home.

That said, we can’t shy away from speaking, even though it’s difficult, because Jesus has made us to be light—to let love and truth shine from him through us into the lives of our neighbors, so that the darkness in their hearts and their actions will be revealed for what it is.  Some will thank us for that, responding with humble repentance, and then with the joy of the forgiven, and they’ll come along and follow Jesus with us.  Others will resent us, preferring the darkness, and they’ll fight back, seeking to turn out the light.  But blessed are you when that happens, says Jesus, because that’s how they treated the prophets—and that’s how they treated me.  Blessed are you, says the Lord, because that means you are where I am.

For the Right Reason

(Jeremiah 11:18-20Matthew 5:101 Peter 3:13-17)

Back in January, I argued that this first section of the Sermon on the Mount is composed of eight beatitudes, rather than nine, and ends here in verse 10.  For one thing, while verses 11-12 are certainly a pronouncement of blessing, they are a very different one, moving in a different direction for a different purpose.  We’ll get into that next week.  My other main reason for this conclusion is that this beatitude and the first share the same promise statement:  “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  As I noted then, this is a simple form of parallelism called an inclusio, which is designed to frame a passage, to put it into a particular context.  These references to the kingdom of heaven—Matthew’s language for the kingdom of God—frame the Beatitudes, and we need to understand them in that context:  these are statements about the life of the kingdom of heaven.  As God transforms us with his life, this is how we come to live.

As I said when we looked at the first beatitude, this promise goes with “Blessed are the poor in spirit” because being poor in spirit is the essential characteristic of the citizens of the kingdom of God:  if it comes down to a choice between God on the one hand, and on the other, your earthly riches, ambitions, desires, and accomplishments, which are you going to choose?  This is the dividing line between those who bow before Christ in love as Lord, and those who will bow in the end, but only because they must.  Here, we have the other end of the process, as you might say:  if yours is the kingdom of heaven, this is how the kingdoms of earth are probably going to treat you.  As Curtis Mayfield would say, “people get ready.”

Why do I say that?  Well, remember the context.  Those who are persecuted for the sake of God’s righteousness are those who hunger and thirst for his righteousness; and if you hunger and thirst for his righteousness, if you live for his righteousness, if you pursue his righteousness above all other things, what are you not doing?  You are not hungering and thirsting for the products this world wants to sell you; you are not living for its applause and its approval; you are not pursuing its agenda or its approved goals.  This means you are not under its thumb, you are not under its influence, it has no lever on you—and that makes you a threat to be neutralized or eliminated.  If you are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, sooner or later, the world is going to rise up and try to change that fact, by any means necessary.

Now, at this point, we must be clear about two things.  First, this verse doesn’t just apply to people who get their heads chopped off by Muslims in Iran or Hindus in India or Communists in North Korea.  Obviously, if you stand up to preach the gospel in someplace as hostile as Iran or North Korea, you can expect obvious, direct and severe persecution; but that’s not the only kind the world has to offer.  Those who pursue the righteousness of God will find that persecution may come anywhere—it’s just more subtle in some places than others.

And I do mean anywhere; as the Holy Spirit reminded me while I was praying about this text, we can’t assume that the church is not the world.  We ought to be able to, but we can’t; there are plenty of people building earthly kingdoms in the church, running the church by worldly methods, for worldly reasons.  Persecution for righteousness’ sake happens surprisingly often within the church—though it shouldn’t really be surprising if we think about Jesus.  He was certainly killed for righteousness’ sake, after all, and it was the religious folk who killed him.

Second, this verse does not in any way imply that persecution is evidence of righteousness.  Jesus does not say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted and claim to be righteous.”  I expect we’ve all known people who claimed they were being persecuted for righteousness’ sake, when actually they were being persecuted because they were jerks.  If you’re an insensitive lout, the fact that you’re quoting Bible verses rather than Howard Stern or Bill Maher doesn’t change the fact that you’re being persecuted for being an insensitive lout, not for being righteous.  Being a victim is not proof of moral superiority, however much our world might think otherwise.

That said, if we are seeking the kingdom of God and his righteousness with any sort of seriousness, we will be offensive to many people, and we will be perceived as a threat by some.  By our very way of life, by the goals we set, by the things we say and don’t say, by the things we don’t laugh at and the joy in our laugh when we do, in the pleasures we pursue and those from which we turn aside, we will challenge people around us and call their lives into question, without ever trying to.  We will make some of them uncomfortable enough that they’ll lash out against us in an effort to break us down or expose us as frauds.

When that happens, our instinct is to react—we’ve been talking about this lately, it’s fight or flight:  we run, we back down, we compromise ourselves, or else we counterattack.  Why?  Because our gut-level assumptions go back to early childhood, where the practical definition of right and wrong is what makes our parents happy vs. what makes them mad, and the expectation is that if we behave, nobody will be mad at us.  Obviously, some people grow up in badly fouled-up homes that don’t work that way at all—but that doesn’t change those subconscious presuppositions.  When someone gets mad at us, our first flash is, “Oh, no, I did something wrong”; that may be followed immediately by, “No, I didn’t—how dare you!”  Either way, it’s rooted in the assumption that if we’re doing what’s right, people will be happy with us.

Jesus here is saying, no—don’t expect the world to applaud you for seeking his righteous­ness, and don’t take it as a bad thing if you’re attacked for it.  Take it as a challenge to examine your heart, first:  is this because I’m being faithful to Jesus, is it a reaction to his right­eousness in me, or is there sin here in my life that I’m not seeing?  If I’m being persecuted, is it for the right reason?  And if it is, take it as evidence of his blessing in your life.  It is because yours is the kingdom of God that persecution has come; and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

Lay Your Weapons Down

(Psalm 34:11-14Matthew 5:9Colossians 3:12-15)

“Blessed are the peacemakers.”  Not “blessed are the peacekeepers,” the appeasers, the people who will sacrifice justice for a little temporary quiet and safety.  Not “blessed are the peace-imposers,” the control freaks, those who create “peace” on their own terms by shouting down or crushing anyone who disagrees with them.  Not “blessed are the diplomats,” the manipulators who practice “the fine art of letting someone else have your way.”  These produce no true peace, just an illusion.  And speaking of illusions, if you heard this and your mind immediately went to nations and governments and global politics, bring it back, because that’s not what Jesus means either.

As we’ve been working our way through the Beatitudes, we’ve seen that they build on each other.  What kind of people are peacemakers?  They are people who are poor in spirit—who recognize their need for Jesus, and find the meaning and value of life in following him.  As a consequence, they hunger and thirst for righteousness:  more than anything, they want their relationship with God to be right, the way it should be, which also means they want the same for all their other relationships.  Thus they are meek, not demanding their own way or what they see as their rights; rather, they are merciful toward those who wrong them, recognizing their own dependence on the mercy of God.

Peacemakers, then, are people who first make peace within themselves, and do nothing to create unnecessary conflict with others, or among others.  They control their tongues, keeping back the word that will only cause trouble and division, strife and mis­trust.  That means no gossip, for one thing; but even more importantly, it means not talking about people instead of to them.

The ministry of peacemaking is the ministry of re­conciliation, and it must begin in our own lives.  If anyone has a fair complaint or grievance against us, we need to do what we can to make amends; and if we have a complaint or grievance against anyone else, we need to take it to them.  Too often, we do everything but; instead of talking to that person, we talk to others about them.  In so doing, we create strife, dissension, disunity, and trouble; we are unrighteous, unmerciful, and arrogant rather than meek.  If we would make peace, we must begin by silencing our tongues, cutting out those words of complaint, and dealing directly and honestly with the person who we believe has done us wrong.

As I say that, I’m well aware that we often use words like “direct” and “honest” as euphemisms for “rude, demanding, selfish and insulting”; and that’s obviously not in view here.  If we would make peace, yes, we must confront people, but we must do it humbly and graciously, and we must do it out of the desire to serve them rather than to get back at them or to extract our pound of flesh.  Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful,” and, “Love your enemies and do good to those who hurt you”; Paul tells us, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he’s thirsty, giving him something to drink.”  If we understand how great is the grace Jesus has given us, if we understand how blessed we are in him, we can look at our enemies and realize—they’re less blessed than we are, at least at that moment.  We can see them as people needing grace, and feel compassion for them.

Now, as I noted a couple weeks ago, the fact that you show someone mercy doesn’t guarantee they’ll accept it; and the fact that you try to make peace with someone doesn’t mean they’ll be willing to make peace with you.  That’s why Paul also says in Romans 12, “If possible, as far as it depends on you, be at peace with everyone.”  If someone refuses to listen, if they refuse to consider that they might be in the wrong, if they refuse to forgive you when you ask forgiveness—you can’t control that.  You’ve done what’s yours to do, and the rest is their problem, not yours.

In closing, let me say one thing about the promise statement for this Beatitude.  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.”  “They will be called” is a divine passive—a standard way for pious Jews to avoid using the name of God; God will be the one who declares that those who make peace are his children.  But note that, because the word here isn’t “children,” it’s “sons.”  Jesus knew he was speaking to men and women both, the point isn’t about gender; rather, it’s about authority.  The children of God are those whom he loves, and those to whom he has given his life, but in that society, sons were something more:  they were those who shared in the authority of the father as his representatives.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are the ambassadors of God, filled by his Holy Spirit, carrying out his mission in this world in his power.

To Will One Thing

(Psalm 24:1-6Matthew 5:8Colossians 3:5-11)

The author, musician and preacher Marva Dawn has called this the most difficult Beatitude for Americans to understand, “because we have absolutely ruined the word ‘heart.’”  I’m not sure I’d agree it’s the most difficult, but she has a point, as she usually does:  when we think of the heart, it’s all about feelings.  We’re ten days past Valentine’s Day, you don’t need me to tell you that.  When we call someone “good-hearted,” we mean they have good feelings toward people around them—they’re kind and sympathetic and caring.  They may also be spineless enablers who make excuses for everyone around them and are easily persuaded to do things that aren’t right, but that’s okay, because they have a “good heart.”  Not according to the Bible, they don’t.

For the biblical writers, the heart was not the seat of the emotions; to the Old Testament writers, that was the kidneys, while the Greeks thought feelings came from the bowels.  The Greek word that meant to be powerfully moved with emotion—won­derful word, splanchnizomai, sounds like a sneeze—basically meant to have your guts knot up on you.  I don’t think it was used literally of a powerful cramp, but it could have been.

When the Scriptures talk about the heart, they mean a lot more.  If you think about the human spirit, we’re three-part beings:  the intellect, the emotions, and the will.  We think, we feel, and we do—though not always in that order, or with all parts involved.  The heart, biblically, involves all three of them, not at the superficial level, but at the core; it is the center of the intellect, the center of the emotions, and the center of the will.  It is the root out of which the rest of our life grows—and as is always the case, the nature of the root determines the nature of the plant.

To be pure in heart, then, doesn’t just mean having certain feelings; it means to be pure in how we think, and what we think about, and what we desire, and what choices and decisions we make.  In part this means not doing certain things, and we see that in Colossians 3; what is merely earthly in us, we need to put to death.  But note the context here.  We read verses 1-4 two weeks ago—seek the things that are above, where Christ is; set your minds on the things above, not on things of earth; for Christ is your life.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Last week, we read verses 12-14—put away anger and malice, don’t lie to one another, don’t undermine one another, but don’t stop there, go further:  be humble and meek, actively patient with one another, and go out of your way to forgive others when you have a complaint against them, because that’s how Jesus forgave you.  Blessed are the meek, and blessed are the merciful.

You see, purity of heart isn’t just the absence of bad things—don’t do this, and don’t do that; it’s a positive reality.  What is pure gold?  It’s gold that has nothing else in it:  it’s all gold, and only gold, all one thing.  What is pure water?  It’s water that has nothing dissolved in it:  100% itself.  So what then is a pure heart?  Psalm 86, we used this for the call to worship earlier:  “Teach me your way, O Lord . . . give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.  I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart.”  A pure heart is a heart that is single, undivided, no additives, no preservatives, no high-fructose corn syrup:  100% set on God.

The Danish philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard captured this in the title of one of his books:  Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.  When our hearts are impure, we desire contradictory things and our wills point us in mutually incompatible directions; we are at war within us, wanting both to follow Jesus and to spit in his face.  We are divided against God and against ourselves.  Purity of heart is singleness of mind and simplicity of will:  no mixed motives, no hidden agendas, what you see is what you get, all for Jesus.

Again, as with the other Beatitudes, this is the Holy Spirit’s work in us.  We can’t purify our will by force of will—our wills cannot purify themselves, for they cannot create a purity which they do not possess.  Only a perfectly pure will can do that; only a per­fectly pure heart can purify our hearts.  Only Jesus can do it, by the power of his Spirit; and he is doing it in us, day by day, as we walk with him.

This is important, because it is the pure in heart who shall see God.  Indeed, as the psalmist tells us, it is only the pure in heart who can, for God cannot tolerate impurity in his presence.  At the end of all things, when this world is remade, those who belong to him, whom he has purified by his love and power, will be able to stand before him and see him face to face, as we now see one another—something which we could not now endure.  Now, we are able to come to God in prayer because the blood of Jesus covers us, and he has declared us pure in him; but then, his work in us will be finished and we will fully and finally be what God in Christ has declared us to be, and we will see God with our own two eyes, with nothing in the way.

That’s a powerful truth; but I don’t think that exhausts the meaning of this Beatitude.  It isn’t just that the pure in heart will see God in the new heavens and the new earth; it’s also that they are able to see God in this world in a way that others cannot.  God is at work in this world through the body of Christ on earth, the church; his Holy Spirit is at work through us, and also in many other ways.  God is still sovereign, he is still in control, and he is still fully engaged with this world he has made.  The only question is, can we see him?  To the extent that our hearts are divided and impure; like impurities in glass, the impurity of our hearts blurs and blinds our vision.  The more God clears our hearts, the more we are able to see him in the church and in the world.

The Cycle of Mercy

(Exodus 34:4-6Matthew 5:7Colossians 3:12-14)

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”  Does that mean that those who are not merciful won’t receive mercy?  You can certainly find support for that idea in the Bible—in the very next chapter, in fact, where Jesus says, “If you don’t forgive others, your heavenly Father won’t forgive you.”  Mercy and forgiveness aren’t the same thing, but they’re closely related; is Jesus saying that we have to earn mercy?

Clearly, that isn’t the point.  For one thing, remember what we’ve been saying:  these are descriptions, not commands, and we need to be careful not to read them as commands.  For another, remember the context here—remember the first beatitude, which sets the stage for the rest of them:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” blessed are those who know they have no riches of themselves, that everything they have is of God and from God.  These aren’t descriptions of things we’re able to achieve, but of the character that God is forming in us by his Holy Spirit.  And third—mercy, by definition, can’t be earned.  We cannot read this as law.

To understand this, first note that, like last week, Jesus does not say, “Blessed are those who perform certain actions.”  It isn’t “Blessed are those who show mercy,” it’s “Blessed are the merciful.”  You might think that’s a small difference, but it isn’t; it’s the difference between outward action and heart attitude—between law and grace, really.  If the blessing is on those who do specific things, then the blessing is contingent—you’re only blessed as long as you keep it up.  If once you fail to show mercy, you lose the mercy of God, at least until you correct your error; and then too, of course, you get into all the arguments about how much you have to do for it to count as mercy, and whether or not this or that act qualifies.  That sort of hair-splitting is of the Pharisees, not the gospel; and the blessings of God are not contingent, they are absolute.

This is important .  God makes it clear all through Scripture that his blessings are conditional—they are for those who seek him, who obey him, who are faithful to him, and he will not bless those who rebel against him—but they are not contingent on us, they are not dependent on chance.  His blessings are absolute and certain; God pronounces what he has already done.

We should also note this nuance:  our English translations don’t say, “they will be shown mercy,” but “they will receive mercy.”  That’s a translator’s choice, either is possible from the Greek, but I think it’s a wise one.  Just because you show someone mercy does not guarantee they will receive it; often people don’t, out of pride, or fear, or mistrust.  Or, worst of all, out of their hardness of heart and lack of mercy for others.  If you’re familiar with the story of Les Misérables, think of the suicide of Inspector Javert:  to accept the mercy shown him by Jean Valjean would be to accept and confess that his entire life to that point had been wrong.  He would have to repudiate the person he had been—to die to self in Christ, as it were—and he couldn’t do it.  He found it preferable to reject the mercy that had spared his life, and simply to die.  When we harden our hearts against mercy for others, we harden our hearts against mercy for ourselves, too.

The point here, as in all the Beatitudes, is:  “Blessed are those whose hearts are being changed by the power of God.”  I like the way the great British preacher D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it:  “Our Lord is really saying that . . . the one condition of forgiveness is repentance.  Repentance means . . . that I realize that I have no claim upon God at all, and that it is only His grace and mercy that forgive.  And it follows as the night the day that the man who truly realizes his position face to face with God, and his relationship to God, is the man who must of necessity be merciful . . . to others.”

If we truly understand our need for Jesus and his grace, if we see ourselves in the light of his goodness and holiness and if we hunger and thirst for his righteousness, won’t that change how we see everyone around us?  As Dr. Lloyd-Jones says, “Have you not felt sorry for people who show from the expression on their faces the bitterness and the anger they feel?  They are to be pitied.  Look at the things about which they get angry, showing that their whole central spirit is wrong; so unlike Christ, so unlike God who has forgiven them everything.  We should feel a great sorrow for them, we should be praying to God for them and asking Him to have mercy upon them.”  That’s not a com­mand, it’s an observation:  the more we understand that we owe everything to God’s mercy, the more this will be our heart toward others, and the more we’ll see others in this way.

As well, the more we grow poor in spirit and the more we hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God, the more we come to understand that our real treasure is something no earthly person or power can take away from us—yes, this points forward to a later section of the Sermon on the Mount—and the less we see other people as threats to us.  The more we realize how blessed we are in Christ, the easier it is to be merciful.

Blessed are the merciful, not because being merciful is a precondition to receiving God’s mercy, but because the merciful are those who have already received God’s mercy, and are being changed by it.  Blessed are those who show the mercy they have been shown, who live out the mercy in which they live, in the confidence that they won’t lose out by being merciful to others, because the mercy of Christ pays for all.

The Blessing Is the Thirst

(Isaiah 55:1-3Matthew 5:6Colossians 3:1-4)

We have a problem with this Beatitude:  there might not be anyone in this room who understands the kind of hunger and thirst Jesus was talking about.  We have super­markets and water mains, restaurants and drinking fountains—in the course of normal life, we have food and drink everywhere around us.  We may be the first society in world history in which the great nutritional problem for the poor is obesity.  When pundits talk about “food deserts” in this country, they don’t mean places where you can’t get food, they mean places where you can’t get fresh vegetables; the problem is too many calories, not too few.  And as for thirst—well, I’ve read about what it’s like to suffer extreme thirst, but I’ve never come anywhere close.  Lack of water just isn’t a daily concern.

That was not so for those gathered around Jesus.  Theirs was a dry land, especially in the hot summer, and travel was far harder and more dangerous than it is in our day.  They knew the sort of story Kenneth Bailey tells of a trip into the Sahara in which it was 110° in the shade and there wasn’t any shade, and then one of their goatskin waterbags leaked.  As he says, “my mouth became completely dry, and eating was impossible because swallowing felt like rubbing two pieces of sandpaper together.  My vision became blurred and the struggle to keep moving became harder with every step.”  The only thing that kept him and his companions moving forward was the desperate desire to reach the well that lay at the end of the journey; its water was their only hope of life.

What would it mean to desire righteousness as our only hope of life?  What would that look like?  Let’s be clear, this isn’t about earning our salvation, and it isn’t about having a certain lifestyle; Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed are those who live righteously.”  This is not a blessing on those who think they have everything together, it’s on those who know they don’t; the all-surpassing desire for righteousness is the point.

So, again, what does that mean?  Well, the first thing to understand is that the Hebrew word for righteousness, tsedaqa, doesn’t refer to some sort of abstract ethical standard that we just have to measure up to, which I think is how we tend to think of righteousness.  Rather, it’s a relationship word.  Every relationship we’re in—dating, marriage, parent-child (from either end), friendship, work—makes certain claims on us, because the other person in that relationship has the right to expect certain things from us.  When we honor those claims and answer those rightful expectations, when the relationship is right, then you might say we are righteous in that relationship.

You can see that isn’t just a matter of law and duty.  Is it my duty to go home to my wife in the evening, or to tuck my kids into bed at night?  In a sense, yes, but that’s not why I do it; I do it because I love them, as an expression of love.  If I came home grumbling about being ordered around and having better things to do with my time, if I put the kids to bed in an angry and resentful spirit, that wouldn’t be to the point at all.  And so it is with righteousness before the Lord.

Of course, we understand that our righteousness is not from us; rather, God has declared us righteous in Christ Jesus and given us his righteousness by the work of his Holy Spirit.  He has acted in righteousness as the Mighty One who saves to give us a status that we could not earn on our own; he has established us and claimed us as his people whom he will pronounce righteous in the final judgment.

Which means, if every relationship makes claims on us, that his infinitely great gift of acceptance in his presence rightly deserves our unending gratitude and love; and if we live in love for God and gratitude to him, that will have a powerful effect on our behavior.  We will do what pleases him, not because we think we have to or because we want to get something, but because we want to please him.  I don’t go home because I want to manipulate my wife and kids, I do it because I love them and want to be with them.  Our righteous behavior is our grateful response to God’s righteousness in us.

At this point, the Greek gives us a blessing.  In Hebrew, righteousness and justice are two different words.  We’ve talked before about the Hebrew word for justice, mishpat; Paul Hanson, an Old Testament scholar at Harvard, has defined it as “the order of compassionate justice that God has created and upon which the wholeness of the universe depends.”  Actions in keeping with mishpat are those which advance the restoration of the original created order of the universe, when “everything was right, just, whole, in accordance with God’s perfect will.”  The Greek brings these together, with one word for both righteousness and justice:  dikaiosune.  The one who is righteous in the Lord, the one who lives to please him, is the one who does justice for others.

Note that:  it is to do justice for others, not to demand justice from others.  We have been shown incalculable mercy and infinite grace, by the righteousness of God; this is the model for how we should treat others.  This isn’t about demanding what we think we deserve, but about setting that aside to serve others.  It is, however, about standing up to do justice to those who are suffering injustice, and to show the mercy of God to those who are broken, suffering, or in need.  You may not have thought of the ministry of our deacons as a ministry of righteousness, but it is.

So what does it mean to hunger and thirst for righteousness?  Do I always passionately desire to please God?  No, I don’t.  But I want to get there.  I want, first of all, to be filled with wonder at God’s mighty act of salvation in my life, to be grateful to him as I should be and to be moved by that gratitude.  I want to love him more than anyone else, and to desire to please him above all others.  I want to live a life that pleases him, because I see the beauty in that.  I want to be free of my own unrighteousnesses, of the ugly places in my heart; I want to be pure and clear and undivided in his service, not struggling against myself, my own worst enemy.

And as part of this, I want to see God’s righteousness in others; I want to see justice done, the poor and oppressed lifted up, the sick and wounded healed, and those who are lost in the darkness brought into the light.  I want to see the redeeming work of God; I want to see him making all things new—and I want to be a part of that.

Can I honestly say I hunger and thirst for righteousness?  Some days; some days I’d rather have a burger and a Coke.  But I want the hunger and thirst, if you know what I mean.  And I have experienced enough of it that I’ve come to understand something very important:  “they shall be filled,” “they shall be satisfied,” does not mean “they will cease to hunger and thirst.”  Rather, it means that our hunger and thirst will only grow.

That might sound like an addiction, but the thing about addictions is they give you increasing cravings for diminishing pleasure; that’s because they lead only to death.  In God is only life, and so the more we hunger and thirst for his righteousness, the greater the joy and delight we find in his righteousness, and in his presence, and therefore the more we hunger and thirst.  Psalm 37, which we read last week, says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart”—because the more you delight yourself in the Lord, the more that becomes the desire of your heart.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, not because the time will come when they will achieve righteousness and won’t need to desire it anymore; rather, blessed are they, for the hunger and thirst are themselves the blessing.  The blessing is the thirst.

Strength Restrained

(Psalm 37:1-11Matthew 5:5)

Meek.  What sort of word is that, anyway?  Sounds like a mouse:  “meek, meek, meek.”  Kind of looks like one, too, as Andrea Skowronski pointed out to me the other day.  Rhymes with “weak.”  I go looking for definitions, I find things like “overly submissive or compliant,” “spineless or spiritless,” “deficient in spirit and courage,” “easily imposed on,” “tame,” “lacking in self-assertion,” and “docile under provocation from others.”  So . . . blessed are the wimps?  Blessed are the doormats?

In a word, no.  Meekness is not weakness, and it has nothing to do with being “deficient in spirit [or] courage”; though it does have to do with being poor in spirit.  We might say that if we are poor in spirit toward God—if we find all our riches in Christ, if we let go our self-protectiveness and self-defensiveness and just follow him, trusting that he will take care of us—then we will be meek toward those around us.  Meekness is expressed in how we exercise our strength, to what purpose we use our courage, and which Spirit is guiding us as we do so.  The meek are not those who are never angry, because anger has its proper place as a response to injustice; rather, the meek are those who don’t let anger drive them to sin.

There are two aspects to this.  First, meekness is strength harnessed to the will of God, serving his purposes rather than our own desires.  It doesn’t mean we don’t get angry when we see injustice done—even when that injustice is done to us; this is not about making ourselves victims—but it means that we submit ourselves in humble obedience to the authority of God.  We give up our claim to pronounce our own judgment, and we renounce any right to demand—or inflict—pun­ishment on others, but we do not simply accept injustice.  Rather, we let God’s justice judge our sense of justice; we let him be the one to decide if we’ve been done wrong, and we leave the doing of justice in his hands.

Thinking about our strength harnessed to God’s will, Andrea gave me a good image this week for this.  I’ll admit, I don’t know much about horses; we see a lot more sheep imagery in the Bible than horse imagery because sheep were a lot more com­mon, so you don’t get this in seminary.  In dressage, which is a form of equestrian competition, there’s a movement called piaffe—basically trotting in place.  As Andrea explained it to me, “It’s very physically demanding because horses are built to move forward.  In this movement, the horse pushes off almost straight up with two diagonal legs (for example: left hind and right fore).  Ideally, he actually hovers in the air for a moment before landing and pushing off with the other diagonal pair.  Since the horses usually used for dressage can easily weigh 1200 pounds, it requires a great deal of strength.  However, it also requires patience and complete trust in the rider.”

Second, meekness is strength restrained by the human will submitted to God, so that—while we do not try to enforce our own idea of justice—we become agents of God’s justice.  Kenneth Bailey, in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, notes that this was an important concept for Aristotle, who defined meekness as “the virtue of acting halfway between recklessness on one side and cowardice on the other. . . .  The one who is truly [meek] is the one who becomes angry on the right grounds against the right person in the right manner at the right moment and for the right length of time.”

Part of this is that the meek are those who have learned the self-control not to just react when they are challenged or attacked.  We talked about this a little during Advent, that when we perceive a threat, instinctively the fight-or-flight reaction kicks in; either we counterattack, or else we back down, deny, pass the blame, or just plain run.  By the grace of God and the work of his Spirit, however, we can learn to stop and catch ourselves—and once the impulse to react rolls past, to think and pray, and do something constructive.  Of course, it then remains to follow through in obedience to the will of God; but once the first reaction is over, that becomes much easier.

Now, note the blessing Christ pronounces on the meek:  “they shall inherit the earth.”  Or, as his original hearers would have understood it, “they shall inherit the land”—which is to say, the Promised Land, the land of Israel.  The Jews believed the land was theirs simply because they were the descendants of Abraham; the Romans believed it was theirs because they’d conquered it.  The family of Herod considered it theirs because Rome had given it to them to rule.  There were those in Israel—the Zealots—who were planning to make it theirs by taking it back from the Romans.  They actually thought they would be able to do it, and so not too long after Jesus’ day, within the lifetime of his disciples, war would break out between them and the forces of Rome.

In contrast, Jesus says, no, it isn’t those who have the right ethnic heritage who will inherit the land of God’s promise; it isn’t those who would claim it by brute force and the willingness to kill, either.  Joining the Zealots who sought fiery revolution wasn’t the way to go, and neither was supporting the corrupt powers that be.  Instead, Jesus says, God’s promise will be fulfilled to those who aren’t seeking it for themselves and their own gain.  You don’t inherit the land, you don’t receive the promise of God, by seeking the promise; you only receive it by seeking God, his kingdom and his righteousness.

What Breaks the Heart of God

(Ecclesiastes 7:2-4Isaiah 61:1-4Matthew 5:4)

The world has some clear ideas about what blessing looks like and what it means to live the good life, but Jesus offers us a very different picture.  As I said a couple weeks ago, the key thing we need to understand about the Beatitudes is that they aren’t commands and they aren’t promises, they’re descriptions.  The Sermon on the Mount is not a collection of laws, and these are not a list of things to do.  Rather, they give us a picture of the blessed life, which is in stark contrast to this world’s expectations and desires.  As Jesus says elsewhere, those who strive to save their lives will lose them, while those who lay down their lives for his sake and the sake of the gospel will find them.

Now, that doesn’t just mean those who die for Christ.  That’s certainly part of his meaning, but only part.  The broader sense is what we might call a divine self-forgetful­ness, letting go of our lives in the day-to-day to follow Jesus.  It means releasing control over our lives and living life with open hands—not clenching hard to our prerogatives, our rights, our desires, our position, but letting go and trusting that if we follow Jesus, he will provide for us and we will be satisfied in him.  Indeed, it means letting go because we understand that what he has for us is better than anything we can provide for ourselves, even if it doesn’t seem that way to the world around us.

This is what it means to be poor in spirit; and I think we can call this the blessing that opens up the rest of the Lord’s blessings, because it enables us to see blessing where the world doesn’t.  To the world, the statement “Blessed are those who mourn” is an immediate turnoff—and in our society more than most.  As we’ve noted before, we live in a death-denying culture; we sequester the sick, the infirm and the dying away from the rest of our society, and we spend billions every year to make ourselves look younger than we are.  We don’t want to face the pain of the world, and so as much as possible, we don’t.

It’s understandable that we don’t like suffering; it’s understandable that we don’t like grieving.  It’s particularly understandable that we don’t like facing up to our own sin, and the damage that we do.  But our efforts to avoid all that, just to make the pain and anxiety go away as quickly as possible, don’t do us any favors.  We try denial, refusing to admit there’s a problem or telling ourselves (and others) that we’ve gotten over our grief; we try problem-solving, looking for an expert who will make everything all better.  Too often, we end up with no way to handle pain and grief except to try to get rid of them.

This way of thinking creeps into our faith.  We see friends and family sick, or in pain, or struggling with some issue, and we define that as a problem and ask God to fix it.  Certainly, I believe in asking God for physical healing, and I’ve seen him do some amazing things; but if our horizon for prayer goes no further than that, we have an issue.  When God doesn’tremove the problem, we think he hasn’t answered our prayers, because we can’t imagine that he might have anything better in mind; we may wonder if he’s heard us, and start to question his love, or perhaps his power.  Pain is a problem, grief is a problem, and if God really loved us, he’d make them go away.

What we fail to see is that as long as we stand in this broken, sin-haunted world, God is not interested in keeping us from pain, or helping us avoid mourning.  God wants us to learn to mourn.  “The heart of the wise”—the wise being the one who is attentive to God, who knows his ways and follows him—“is in the house of mourning.”  Why?  Be­cause our world is an obstinate disaster and an incubator of nightmares.  Because we have each done great evil, and suffered great evil, and that matters.  Because the pain we have suffered is real, and so is the pain we have caused, and both are significant.  Because our sin was the many-headed lash that ripped open Jesus’ back, and the nails through his wrists.  Jesus died, quite literally, of a broken heart, and his heart was broken by our sin; and it is well that our hearts should be broken by what breaks the heart of God.

This is not to say that we should go around miserable all the time, or that it’s somehow wrong to laugh and enjoy ourselves; there is much good and beauty and pure pleasure in this world, and God made those things, and we honor him by delighting in them.  It is to say that we need to face our own sin, and the pain we cause ourselves and others, honestly, with our defenses down; we need to let it grieve us, and let God teach us to mourn the ill that we do.  It means that we need to face the hurt that has been done to us, and the losses we have suffered, with equal honesty, and let ourselves weep.  And it means that we cannot harden our hearts against the pain of the world, but let them break.

But note this:  that isn’t the end of the story.  Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed are those who mourn because mourning is good for them”; he says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  Two key things here.  First, only those who mourn are com­forted; to deny or avoid mourning is to foreclose the possibility of comfort.  That’s just how it works.  God’s healing and peace come only as we move through our pain, not by any other road.  God doesn’t do shortcuts.

Second, his comfort doesn’t just make our mourning bearable; Jesus doesn’t say, “Those who mourn will be OK, for they will be comforted.”  No, he says, “Blessed are those who mourn.”  Out of our mourning, in the midst of our grief, God will comfort us, and his comfort will be so great that it will make even our mourning a blessing, to us and to others.  Stop and think about that:  you can be so powerfully comforted in your suffering that the pain and loss are worth bearing for the sake of the comfort God gives.

This is most true when we mourn for our own sin; for then the comfort we receive is the assurance of God’s grace and his faithfulness to forgive us, and the promise that he is at work by his Holy Spirit to purify our hearts and make us holy.  Indeed, it’s when we’re truly and deeply grieved by our sin that we’re most open to the Spirit’s work.  To face our own sin honestly and weep for the wrong we have done, and the wrong we desire to do, opens us up for the greatest work of healing and comfort possible in our lives:  the healing of our sinful, divided hearts by the love and grace of God in Christ Jesus.

Compared to Christ

(Isaiah 66:1-2Matthew 5:3Philippians 3:4b-12)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  What do we make of that?  What does it mean?

One common answer is to note that the parallel to this verse in Luke just says, “Blessed are the poor,” and then to read Matthew accordingly:  “Blessed in spirit are the poor.”  In the Roman tradition, this is an argument for monasticism—only those who take a vow of poverty have this blessing.  In some strands of Protestantism, it becomes a call to social justice, or a promise of material prosperity for the poor.

The problem is, the idea that material poverty is a spiritual advantage isn’t biblical.  Rather, we see Scripture—and especially prophets like Isaiah—using the language of the poor to refer to those who are humbly dependent on God.  Thus Isaiah 66:2 reads, “This is the one to whom I will look:  he who is poorand contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.”  The word is the one used in the Law of a person who has lost the family land, but our English versions translate it “humble,” because they understand that Isaiah’s not talking about what you have in your bank account; and so it is with Jesus here.

Taking this as a spiritual statement, some have read it as a command to self-denigration.  That can result in false modesty, in people going on at some length about how they’re really quite unimportant and don’t have much to contribute; these are the sort who are humble and proud of it.  More seriously, you’ll sometimes see people whom God has clearly gifted for his service hesitate to use their gifts, or even turn aside from them altogether, because they think that to do so would be to put themselves forward, and to call attention to themselves in that way would be wrong.

There are two problems with this approach.  One, it misunderstands humility; we’ve talked about this before, and we will again, that biblical humility has nothing to do with putting yourself down.  Two, being poor in spirit isn’t about our relationships with other people—though it certainly affects them; it isn’t about what people think of us.  It’s about our relationship with God, and how we understand ourselves in light of that.

You see, we all have things that we value, and things that we treasure.  I’m using the word “things” quite broadly here—stuff we own and money in the bank, yes, but also family, friendships, careers, skills, reputation, pleasures.  By our natural human inclination, we think of these things as ours, and we build our lives on them.  We make our major decisions based on them—will this give me a better career, will I make more money, will I have a more enjoyable life, will my kids do better in school, and so on.  We put our trust in these things, and we look to them for meaning.  Even as Christians, we do this.  When we say we’re putting our trust in God, what that often really means is that we’re putting our trust in something we don’t currently have—new job, new relationship, good health—and we’re asking God to give it to us.  Which is better than nothing, but isn’t the same as trusting God whether he gives us what we want or not.

By contrast, look what Paul says in Philippians 3.  He lays out an abbreviated version of his CV—just the highlights are enough to tell you that he had a lot of reason to be impressed with himself.  He was a Jew, one of God’s chosen people; more than that, he wasn’t just a good Jew, he was everything a Jew ought to be.  He was the kind of guy you put in the ads and the recruiting posters.  And what of it?  “I count all of it as filth; I’ve lost all of it, and I’m glad to see it go.”  Why?  “Because of the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”  Compared to Christ, he says, it’s all worthless.

He uses strong language in this passage; in one case, the word the NIV translates “rubbish,” he’s flat-out vulgar.  No G rating for Paul.  He does this to hammer his point home:  all his accomplishments, all his reasons for pride, all those things he valued and in which he put his trust, he now regards as disgusting and abhorrent.  Was it bad to be a Jew, or to be dedicated to keeping the law?  No, but:  now he has seen the Lord, he has been captured by the glory of Christ, and he understands that even the proudest moments and the greatest achievements of his life are as vile trash in comparison.

What Paul is saying here is rather like Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen declaring, “I could show you hills, in comparison with which you’d call that a valley.”  Alice tells her it’s nonsense—hills and mountains point up, valleys point down—but can you imagine the sort of mountain that would actually make you say that?  That’s how good and great and glorious Jesus is, that’s how much it’s worth to know him, that set beside him, even the biggest hills we can pile up look like valleys.

When we see that, that’s what it means to be poor in spirit.  That’s why Jesus says in Matthew 13, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up.  Then in his joy, he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.  Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”  To be poor in spirit is to find all our riches in Christ—to be so captured by his glory and greatness and goodness that we realize we have nothing that can compare.  It is to live without reference to our worldly goods, seeking only to follow Jesus wherever he leads.

This is what it means to be poor in spirit; and it’s not a matter of what we have or don’t have, or of acting in a certain way, it’s a complete change in our mental and emo­tional assumptions.  The poor in spirit are those who have seen the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord, and nothing else in life ever looks the same again.  It reminds me of taking Lydia to the zoo when she was younger than Iain.  We were working on teaching her some signs, including a sign for “elephant,” since there were elephants in a couple of her books; she was interested in them, but hadn’t used the sign.  We got out of the car, I was carrying her, and right at the front gate was an enclosure with this huge bull elephant.  She looked at it, and just looked up and up and up, and with a look of complete awe on her face, signed “elephant.”  She couldn’t stop staring at it.  If that for an elephant, how much more for God?

This is not our work in our lives, it’s the Holy Spirit’s doing.  Our part, to borrow from Spurgeon, is to look to Jesus until we cannot look away.  It’s the Spirit who opens our eyes.  This underscores the truth we talked about last week, that the Sermon on the Mount is not law.  If you try to turn the Beatitudes into rules to be obeyed, you’re in a bind right from the first sentence, because you cannot make yourself poor in spirit.  You can’t.  You can try, but it’s the spiritual equivalent of performing heart surgery on yourself.  We work on our lives from the outside in; this has to happen from the inside out.

This is God’s blessing in our lives, by his grace.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  This is true for eternity, because this is the essential characteristic of the citizens of the kingdom of God.  This is the dividing line between those who bow before Christ in love as Lord, and those who only bow because they must.  But Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, because theirs will be the kingdom of heaven,” he says, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Not just someday in the future:  now.  To be poor in spirit, to count all things as loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord, to care more about being faithful to him than about money or career or reputation or any of the things of this world, is to live the life of the kingdom of heaven now, in the midst of all the powers of this present age.