Sunday, August 7, 2016

The First Four Beatitudes

I came home today after Sunday School still troubled by why my attitudes don't line up with the BE-attitudes Jesus taught as he opened up his Sermon on the Mount. Digging around on my computer I ran across one of my old sermons on the topic from June 12, 2000. Here's an excerpt...

The Greek word makarios, translated here as blessed, is an interesting word, packed with meaning. Scholars argue about how it should be translated, and even though some translate it this way, blessed does NOT mean happy. Happiness is a subjective state - an emotional state that changes as your circumstances change. To be blessed, on the other hand, is an objective state. In other words, Jesus is not describing what the one who is blessed feels like (“happy”), but instead he is describing what God thinks of that person. A blessing is a divine act bestowed by God or by an agent (say, a Priest) on God's behalf. In this sense better translation of makarios would be fortunate or privileged.

That said, let's look at the first four Beatitudes... 

Poor in Spirit (v. 3)
I don't know about you, but to me being "poor in spirit" sounds terribly unattractive, weak and namby-pamby. I mean, really, who wants to be poor in spirit? Who wants to be around people who are poor in spirit? We like people who are spirited, zestful, enthusiastic and full of life. Being poor in spirit sounds so frail and feeble and lifeless.

That can't be what Jesus meant by this statement. Perhaps instead he meant that the poor in Spirit are those who recognize their dependence on God and who humbly trust Him. They are the humble and not the haughty. Sometimes our understanding of a term is helped by looking at its opposite. This attitude (poor in spirit) is the opposite of being arrogant and self-righteous.

Some years ago a missionary went to live in a remote corner of Africa. He taught the native villagers the Christian faith. He introduced them to Christ. He baptized them and started a church there. Then he set about the enormous task of translating the Bible into their language so they could read and study the Scriptures. Everything went fine until the missionary realized that there was no word for believe in their language. He was stuck. After all, you can't put a Bible together without the word believe can you?

One day as he was struggling with this problem in his hut, one of the villagers came for a visit. The villager was exhausted from a hard day's work. He sat down and then leaned back and in his native language he said how wonderful it is when you are tired to "lean your whole weight on something." Suddenly, a light bulb flashed on in the missionary's mind. He had his answer. That's how he would translate the word believe - to lean your whole weight on God - to do the best you can, the best you know how, and then to lean on God. I believe this humble-minded, trusting attitude is what Jesus meant by "poor in spirit."

Those who mourn (v. 4)
The second Beatitude is probably one of the most startling statements Jesus makes in the Beatitudes.
We all know what it means to mourn. Jesus isn't talking about the grief we suffer when a loved on dies or we suffer some other emotional setback in our lives. Certainly that is mourning, but what Jesus is talking about here is a spiritual matter. Mourners are those who experience sorrow over their own sins and over the sins the world.

In the early days of the church there was something called the "Mourners' Bench." During the service, people came and sat on the bench. Those who felt the pangs of shame and sorrow for their sins they would come, seeking God and forgiveness. The promise in this Beatitude is that those who mourn shall be comforted, and they shall be given a new sense of closeness to God.

Author Alexander Solzhenitsyn tells of a time when he was on the verge of giving up as a prisoner in a Soviet prison camp. He was working twelve hours a day at hard labor. He was existing on a starvation diet and he became gravely ill. The doctors were predicting his death. One afternoon while shoveling sand under a blazing sun, he gave up. He simply stopped working, even though he knew the guards would beat him severely or kill him. He just couldn't go on though.

Cautiously another prisoner, a fellow Christian, moved toward him. With his cane the other prisoner drew a cross in the sand, and then quickly erased it. In that brief moment, Solzhenitsyn says he felt all the hope of the gospel flood through his soul. It gave him the strength and courage to rise again, to continue working and to endure that difficult day. That cross, drawn in the sand, was a quick reminder of God's love and the comfort he needed to carry on.

The Meek (v. 5)
The difficulty here is obviously the word meek. Who wants to be meek today? It sounds so wimpy and weak. Today meekness is a synonym for weakness. But as Jesus meant it, meekness is not weakness, instead it is power under control. A person who is meek is emotionally stable, teachable and kind. The meek are those who are surrendered to God's will. They are like putty in God's hands.

I'm dating myself here, but do you remember "Silly Putty?" Do they still have it? Silly putty was a product that came in a little egg-shaped container. You could bend it and stretch it and make things out of it. You could also make it flat and press it down on a newspaper and it would make a copy of the article or picture you put it on. It also smelled funny (I like the smell though).

Those who are meek are those who are like Silly Putty in God's hands - completely yielded to God. The Greek word for meek is usually used to describe the taming and training of wild animals. The meek, then are those who have been tamed and trained by God, to be used in God's service.

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (v. 6)
The fourth Beatitude describes those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The key here is to understand that these are those whose greatest ambition is spiritual, not material.

There is a legend that tells the story of a young man who wanted to gain great understanding in life so he approached a wise teacher. The teacher doubted the young man's passion to learn. He didn't think the man would persevere - he didn't think he wanted it bad enough. So he told the seeker to follow him down to the river. There they entered the stream together. Suddenly the teacher grabbed the student and thrust his head below the water. He held it there for a long time, then let the student lift his head for only a moment before putting it down again. After doing this several times he let the student go and he began to walk out of the stream while the student protested loudly. "What do you mean trying to drown me like that!" The teacher stopped, turned to the student and said, "When you desire knowledge as badly as you desired air when your head was under water - then you will learn."

When you and I hunger and thirst for God and the things of God as badly as we hunger for air and food and water and "things," then we shall be blessed according to this Beatitude.

How can we incorporate these first four Beatitudes in our lives? Here are four ways:

First, look to God daily to get a clearer picture of who you are. This helps with the first Beatitude - being poor in spirit. It's based on a simple principle. The more you contemplate the goodness of God, the lower you will sink before Him. Time and time again in the Bible when people encounter God, what's the first thing they do? They fall to their knees, or fall flat on their faces before Him. The first words out of their mouths are usually, "I am not worthy!"

This is not about a false humility or about putting yourself down, or the old, "I am lower than a worm" theology. Too many people try to learn humility from studying their own sins and failures - that's not the way. It isn't the badness of man that leads to repentance, it's the goodness of God. We need to stop looking in the mirror when we should be looking to Christ Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. Look to God daily.

A second step, the one associated with mourning is to learn from your losses. God never wastes a hurt. Those of you who've heard me preach more than about three or four times have probably heard me say this before. God isn't responsible for all the hurts we all encounter in life any more than a sidewalk is responsible for you losing the skin off your knee when you fall on it unprotected.

God can and will redeem our failures if we let him. He will take that failure, that loss, that hurt and turn it into something good. Remember Romans 8:28? Paul writes there, "We know all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."

The third Beatitude concerning meekness reminds us to live for an audience of one. Whether we realize it or not, everyone is playing for an audience. You may be playing for your parents, to gain your parents approval. You may be playing for your boss at work. You may be playing for your spouse or some other significant other. You may be playing for your kids. You may even be playing for your pastor. Wasn't it Shakespeare summed up life pretty well when he said that famous line, "All the world is a stage and we merely actors upon it?"

Do you want the peace passes all understanding? Would you like to be described as "emotionally stable, teachable and kind?" Then play for an audience of One. Play out your life for God.

Finally, describing kingdom people as those who hunger and thirst for righteousness moves us to launch out in a new direction. Why? Because our spiritual appetite can never be satisfied by the things of this world.

Here's what I mean by that. Suppose your family decides to have a game night at home, where you are going to play board games like Monopoly, or Parcheesi, or Clue or some other fun game. Sounds fun doesn't it? Well, imagine that you can't decide what to play, so someone suggests that you use the Monopoly board, the playing pieces from Parcheesi and the rules from the game Clue. That would be pretty ridiculous wouldn't it? It would also be very frustrating. Well, that very thing is what many, many people today (including Christians) attempt to do.

They can't decide how they want to live. One part of them wants to view and success through the lens of Christianity. But another part of them wants to succeed according to the world's standard and to live by those rules. And still another part of them (say their parent side) wants to use the values from still another arena. What you get is a schizophrenic mess that is so snarled it seems as though it will never get straight.

Practically every time I go fishing I somehow manage to get what's known as a "birds nest" in my fishing line. I look down after my cast goes nowhere and discover line is hopelessly and completely snarled. Do you know how I handle that? I take out my pocket knife and I cut the line and I start over. I launch out in a new direction. That's what some of us need to do. We need to cut the line of our current condition and start over. The Scriptures promise that every day God's mercies are new. You and I can have that clean, fresh start. We can learn what it means to be poor in spirit. We can learn what it means to mourn our sins and the sins of the world and know that God will comfort us. God will show us meekness and we will hunger and thirst for him as the seeker did for air when his teacher thrust his head below the waves.

The Beatitudes are an important part of God's good news - isn't it amazing how much good stuff is here for the asking? How will you respond?

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