Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Blessed Life

Matthew 5:1-12
The beatitudes found in Matthew 5:1-12, our gospel lesson for today, are often misunderstood. They're often seen as a list of virtues we need to pursue. But that isn't really what they're about at all.

In them, Jesus isn’t saying, “Act this way and you’ll be saved.” Instead, He’s saying, “Because You have been saved by God’s grace through faith in Me, this is how You’ll be set free to live.”

The beatitudes show us what disciples set free from sin, death, and the darkness of this world, look like.

Disciples, Jesus will say repeatedly to us today, lead blessed lives. Scholars tell us that the word we translate as blessed, makarios, means to be favored by God. This blessed life is connected to having faith in the God we meet in Christ. To live in a faith relationship with Christ is to be blessed, now and in eternity. That doesn't mean that everything in this life will go well. Remember that Jesus has told us: "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).

But in Revelation 14:13, part of John’s vision of heaven, we’re also told: “‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.’”

According to Jesus, the blessed life depends entirely on faith in Him. So, let’s look at Jesus’ portrait of how He blesses the lives of disciples.

Matthew writes: “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him and he began to teach them. He said: ’Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’”

When people spoke of being poor in first century Judea, just like today, it meant to be without, to be impoverished or beggarly. But Jesus here (unlike in Luke’s gospel, where Jesus' sermon on the plain is recorded) says that those who are "poor in spirit” are the blessed ones. What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”?

It means to be utterly dependent on God’s grace. It means to have no pretense of personal perfection.

In a parable in Luke 18, Jesus shows what unpretentious dependence on God's grace this looks like. Two men go to the temple. One is a Pharisee, who tells God: “I thank You I’m not like other people,” then goes on to catalog all the rotten things other people do and lists the good things he does. But Jesus says that in the temple is a tax collector, a member of a class of people known for their shifty ways and their vast wealth. The tax collector, Jesus says, is so humble before God that he can’t lift his eyes toward heaven and prays simply, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus says in Luke 18:14: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Despite his wealth, the tax collector was “poor in spirit.” We are poor in spirit when we recognize that we’re nothing without God, that we desperately need the crucified and risen Jesus to justify our existences.

Arrogance leads to hell; humble faith in Christ yields everlasting life with God.

Verse 4: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

The word translated as comforted is, in the original Greek in which Matthew wrote, paraklethesontai. It means to come close beside or to call, encourage, or exhort from nearby. To me, it brings to mind the image of a coach like John Wooden, his hand on the shoulder of a player, either exhorting him to do better or encouraging him to buck up under the weight of it all.

This word translated as comforted is related to one of the words that Jesus uses for the Holy Spirit, Paraclesis, the Comforter.

When disciples grieve over loved ones lost (or over any loss), the Holy Spirit comforts them with the promises of God, promises authenticated by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Promises like: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you." [Deuteronomy 31:6]

Or, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” [John 11:25-26]

Christians grieve their losses, of course. But we “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” [1 Thessalonians 4:13] Even in our mourning, we are blessed, favored, by the reality that the Savior in Whom we trust has secured everlasting life for all who turn from sin and follow Him. That’s true comfort!

Verse 5: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

The word translated as meek doesn’t mean weak. To be meek is to be gentle, reserved, to exhibit God’s strength under God's control. Picture a jet engine that possesses enormous power. But that power is harnessed for the the purpose of carrying people or goods from one place to another. Jet engines are, except in tragic situations, subject to the will and the dictates of the pilots who fly them and the engineers who design them.

Meekness is like that. Jesus' disciples--you and I who believe in Jesus Christ--are filled with the power of God. But God calls us to only use that power for His purposes, according to God's will.

When the meek brag, it's only to brag about how good God is. Paul exhibits meekness in 2 Corinthians 11:30 when he writes: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” Paul knew that God shines through, not our arrogance, but our weaknesses.

The meek don’t bully or gossip. They don’t need to play those games: The meek are confident of their place in God’s kingdom because they know what Christ has done for them and they place their total trust in Christ.

The meek look out for others because they know that God is already looking out for them.

Our world, our country, and our churches would be better off if there were more people who lived out the meekness of Christian discipleship.

Verse 6: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

There is nothing a disciple of Jesus Christ more craves than being in a right relationship with the God revealed in Jesus. It's to give us and to keep giving to us that relationship that Jesus tells us to “repent and believe in the good news” of new life through Him. [Mark 1:15]

It’s why daily repentance and renewal--daily midcourse correction--is to be part of the Christian’s life.

Those who hunger and thirst for rightness with God pray with the psalmist: “Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.” [Psalm 25:4-5]

This is the disciple's prayer because disciples want nothing to stand between them and God. In Psalm 73:25, Asaph confesses to God: “earth has nothing I desire besides you.”

This is why a daily quiet time with God, in which we repent for our sins, read and reflect on God’s Word as it applies to us each day, and ask for God’s help has become like breathing for many Christians. It helps to satisfy the disciple’s longing for God!

Verse 7: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

To be merciful is to be compassionate, living in the light of what God has done for us in Christ. The disciple says, “Because God is eternally merciful to me through Jesus Christ, I will be merciful to my neighbor.”

Verse 8: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

Disciples pray with King David: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” [Psalm 51:10] To be pure in heart is to be a sinner covered in the forgiveness God makes available to us only through Jesus.

Disciples know the truth of Acts 4:12, which says of Jesus: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

Verse 9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

From the perspective of heaven, a peacemaker isn’t someone who negotiates the ends of wars, important though that is. A peacemaker isn't someone who refuses to argue because, truly, there are some things worth arguing about.

To understand what Jesus means when He talks about being a peacemaker, we have to understand the Bible's understanding of peace.

Peace, or shalom in the Hebrew of the Old Testament, eirene in the Greek of the New Testament, is peace with God.

To have peace is to be in sync with God and His will.

We lay down our rebellion against God’s will.

We accept the Lordship of Jesus over our lives.

We accept that, as our Maker and Redeemer, the God we know in Jesus has every right to tell us what do in our relationships, our work, our leisure, our money, even our sex lives.

Peacemakers are ambassadors for Christ. One scholar says that a peacemaker “bravely declares God’s terms [for peace] which makes a person whole.”

Those terms are simple: Repent and believe in Christ.

Paul says that God “has committed to us the message of reconciliation [or peace with God]. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” [2 Corinthians 5:19-20] Peacemakers are evangelists, witnesses for Christ. That’s what peacemakers do.

Verses 10 to 12 tell us: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

It seems a strange thing for Jesus to say that we are blessed or enjoy God’s favor when we’re persecuted. We think that we’re blessed when everything goes our ways. But sometimes the things we want, the things that we’re sure are what’s best for us, aren’t the things that God says are best for us. “‘...My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD” in Isaiah 55:8.

Our ways are often easy, selfish, self-destructive.

But God’s ways always lead us life, to becoming our better selves. Jesus calls disciples to take an eternal view of things.

“What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Jesus asks [Matthew 16:26]

The world may applaud or even reward people for being self-promoting egotists. But all the money and security this world may give to those looking out for number one will vanish the moment we draw our last breaths.

And eternity is a terrible place to go without God!

Sometimes, those who follow Jesus are persecuted or put down for their faith. They may lose their lives. They may have to make sacrifices of their time, money, or status with others. They may run into opposition when they tell others about Christ, read God’s Word, pray in public places, stand against injustice, fight on behalf of those who can’t fight for themselves, feed or house the homeless, or welcome those hated by others. But Peter, one of the first to hear Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, writes: “...if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.” [1 Peter 2:20]

Disciples know that the God Who has saved us from sin and death through Jesus Christ will have the final say in our lives. We are blessed!

Let’s pray each day that God will help us to display God’s grace and goodness through lives devoted to loving God, loving neighbor, sharing Christ, and making disciples. Around here, we call all of that reaching up, reaching in, and reaching out. That’s the blessed life for which Christ has saved us.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This was the message during worship this morning.]

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