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In the book of Exodus, we read that as God began to lead His people to through the desert to the Promised Land, He called Moses to come up the mountain. The people were not welcome to come along. They were warned that if any of them even so much as touched the mountain, they would be killed.
There on the mountaintop, God spoke to Moses and gave him the Law, the 10 Commandments. 10 “thou shalls,” and “thou shall nots.” Obey them and things will go well for you, and you will live. Disobey them and things will go poorly for you and you will die. It’s all a matter of justice.
Contrast that scene to the one that is our gospel reading for this morning. St. Matthew tells us that as Jesus began His public ministry, “He went up onto a mountain, and when He sat down, his disciples came to him. And as we will see, the great crowds that were following Jesus came along as well. And He opened His mouth and taught them saying, “Blessed are you…”
It’s important to note that these are the very first words of public preaching from Jesus that St. Matthew records. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth are, “Blessed are you…”
They say that “first impressions” are important because they last such a long time. Let this be your first impression of Jesus.
The “Beatitudes” consist of nine declarations of God’s divine favor and pleasure upon His people. They stand as the ‘entranceway’ to the Sermon on the Mount which continues all the way through chapters 5, 6, and 7.
As chapter 8 opens, we read, “When He came down from the mountain, great crowds followed Him.” The multitudes loved what they heard from Jesus and they want to follow Him so that they might hear more. That should be our attitude too.
Some say that the Beatitudes are Matthew’s ‘table of contents’ to his entire gospel, and that the rest of his gospel is organized around these nine statements of divine blessings. It might be a rewarding adventure to try to read Matthew’s gospel with the Beatitudes in mind.
One thing I do know from my own experience is that the Beatitudes are tricky. It’s hard to get them right and keep them right. It’s always tempting to hear them as Law, as though Jesus was just like Moses, who went up on His own mountain to bring down another Law to the people – a more spiritual law than the 10 Commandments maybe. But in some ways, even harder to keep than the 10 Commandments are.
For example, if you’re not careful, it’s easy to turn these nine declarations of fact into nine conditional statements. There are no ‘ifs’ to be found here, but its always tempting to slip them in. “The Kingdom of God is yours IF you are ‘poor in spirit’.” “IF you expect to be comforted, you need to be truly mournful.” “You will inherit the earth, IF you are ‘meek.’” And so forth.
And so what does a conscience Christian try to do with these? He tries very hard to become ‘poor in spirit,’ and ‘sad and mournful’ and ‘meek’ and he looks for ‘persecution from others’ so that he may qualify for all of these marvelous ‘blessings.’
But to hear the Beatitudes as LAW is to rob this wonderful text of its incredible beauty and turn Jesus’ words completely around from what He intends. These are not ‘conditional statements.’ There are no ‘ifs’ at all. This is not LAW at all. It is pure GOSPEL, free gift freely given, totally undeserved, by grace alone, flowing out of the love of God for all who will receive.
Jesus Christ comes from God the Father to give the divine gifts of life and salvation by the forgiveness of our sins. He describes the various aspects of that life and salvation that He gives us in various ways. Some He describes in the ‘present.’ They are yours NOW. “Theirs IS the Kingdom of Heaven.” “Your reward IS great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Some He describes in the ‘future.’ They will be yours LATER. “They shall be comforted.” “They shall inherit the earth.” “They shall be satisfied.” “They shall see God.” “They shall be called sons of God.”
These are not different options that may or may not be added onto the Kingdom of Heaven like you pick and choose options to add onto a car depending on what you can afford or what you like. But Jesus is offering you a diamond, and each time you turn it just a little you see a whole new facet of its beauty, and collectively every facet is included in the one diamond, and it all comes together.
The point here is that Jesus is NOT SAYING, “this is what can be yours IF you become the kind of people I want you to become.” What He IS saying is “I am giving you all of this, even as listen to Me speak these words to You on this Mountain, and in your baptism, and at my table. This is yours, all of it, every facet of it, and it all flows to you out of my hands and my feet and my side, pierced for you, and from my death died for you, and my resurrection risen for you, and my ascension to the right hand of the Father ascended for you.”
Now, the question is not, what must I do to get this gift? You already have it. The question is, what does the life that possesses this divine blessing look like? How does it act? How does it live?
And before we get a chance to answer that question, Jesus answers, “Blessed are you…” “You are blessed…”
It almost sounds as though that’s not quite strong enough a word to describe what our situation. I wonder if, “Blown away are you…” “In fear and trembling are you…” “Overcome with tears are you…” wouldn’t be better a better way to say it. Along with ‘filled with joy are you,’ and ‘happy are you,’ and ‘confident are you,’ and ‘at peace are you…’ But I suspect that all of those and lots more are packed into that one phrase “blessed are you…”
“Poor in Spirit”
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
It only seems right that we would receive this incredible gift of the Kingdom of Heaven, as beggars. We are not like that ridiculous Pharisee who stood before God with his head held high and boasted for all to hear about how thankful he was that he was not a ‘SINNER,’ particularly like that tax collector sitting over there.
No, we are “poor in spirit,” like that miserable tax collector who beat his breast and would only look down, and could only say, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:14). God has brought us beggars into His heavenly mansion to live as sons and daughters, even while we were still sinners, AND WE ARE BLESSED.
“Those who Mourn”
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
It only seems right, having been given life and salvation from Jesus Christ by grace alone, that we should truly “mourn” the fact that we continue to doubt and to question and to sin and do what is evil, and that our sin and the sin of others causes such trouble and suffering and death.
We do not “mourn” so that we may receive the Kingdom of Heaven. We “mourn” because we have and we treat it so carelessly.
But we are NOT like those who act as if everything is a big joke and whom nothing seems to bother. Nor are we like those who “mourn” for ourselves and yet have little sympathy or compassion for the suffering of others.
We “mourn” when we see others suffer, physically, emotionally, psychologically. We “mourn” when we see men and women, boys and girls who live without the knowledge that life and salvation has been given to them from Jesus Christ.
We “mourn,” just as our Lord did when He wept over Jerusalem, “how often I have longed to gather you under my wings as a hen gathers her chicks, but you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)
But even in our deep mourning for ourselves and for others, the One who is seated on the mountain, fills us with His words of deep peace. So that even in the midst of our ‘mourning,’ we know that “ours IS the kingdom of heaven” and “We SHALL BE comforted.” And in that, WE ARE BLESSED.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
“Meekness” is greatly misunderstood these days. We think of someone who is “meek” as being a ‘wimp,’ a ‘coward,’ a ‘milk-toast man.’ None of these have anything at all to do with the biblical concept of ‘meekness.’
To be “meek” is to gladly live under someone one else’s authority and not your own. And for the one who has received his life and salvation from Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ is the one whose authority we gladly submit to and live under.
That means that we will not let our ‘emotions’ rule over us, or our ‘ambitions,’ or our ‘lusts,’ or our ‘prejudices,’ or even our ‘competitive spirit,’ but only God’s Word and Promise. It is God’s plan, and it will be accomplished according to God’s timing and in God’s way, and not ours. And in “MEEKNESS” we are happy to submit to that.
Throughout the Old Testament, there is a constant struggle over land. Even when we come to the New Testament, Israel’s hope is all wrapped up in regaining the land from the Romans. And they were hoping for a mighty Messiah that would reclaim the land for them by force and power.
Jesus did not meet their expectations. Jesus presents Himself as one who, in His own words, is “meek and lowly at heart.” (Matt. 11:29). Rather than call down a legion of angels to deliver Him from the cross, He says nothing and submits willingly, because He gladly submits to His Father’s will. And His Father’s way was the way of the cross and no other.
By all outward appearances, He looks like a ‘wimp,’ ‘a coward,’ a ‘milk-toast man.’ But what strength and courage He has.
He already knows the outcome. And so do we. God had promised Abraham that he would possess the land. And the land would be filled with people who put their hope and trust in God just as Abraham did.
We are ‘MEEK’ because we know that the “kingdom of heaven” is already given to us and therefore we “shall be comforted” and “we shall inherit the earth.” “WE ARE BLESSED.”
We could go through each one of these Beatitudes if we had the time. But the important thing to keep in mind as you hear them and meditate on them, is that they are all the expression of the gift of life and salvation that God has given to us in Jesus Christ. And ultimately, it is He, and He alone who fit’s the description of each one of these perfectly.
Each one of these Beatitudes describes the life of Jesus. He is telling us about Himself and how He will BLESS US.
But they ALSO DESCRIBE us, not apart from Jesus, but as we are in Jesus and He is in us. This is what He has made us. This is who we are becoming and have already become, just because HE HAS BLESSED US.
So, even as we sing, “BLESSED IS HE, who comes in the name of the Lord,” He says, “Blessed are you…” because I have come to you.”