"God's Blessings for the Down-and-Out"

August 14/05 Matthew 5:1-12

Spiritual Insurgents - Undoing the "Great Satan"

The Montreal subway system was reported this week to be installing some 1200 new surveillance cameras. The decision was spurred on by the terrorist attacks on the London England public transit system in July, and the 9-11 attack on New York in 2001. It's scarey to think some suicide bomber might explode a fertilizer bomb carried onto a train in their backpack somewhere in Canada. It was surprising to discover the bombers in London were not foreigners imported for the occasion, but British-born citizens. Al Quaeda like other terrorist groups in the past seeks to win converts from various nationalities to its ideology. Such extremist groups use propaganda to convince inquirers that the United States (and by association Britain) are the "Great Satan", an enemy and threat to their faith, hence a legitimate target. No doubt these groups use catchy little slogans that sum up their convictions, such as Chairman Mao's famous saying, "Power grows out of the barrel of a gun." We find it hard to understand how anyone could be so brain-washed as to view such civilized countries as Canada to be threats justifying radical acts of terrorism. But obviously the extremist groups are succeeding in convincing idealistic and devoted young men and women. The power of the suicide bomber threat (as for any military soldier) arises from the person's willingness to lay down their life for the cause.

Suppose you could turn this picture inside-out and backwards. This recruitment with powerful slogans for a risky cause is exactly what Jesus is doing in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. He's setting forth a revolutionary platform, recruiting disciples for a world-upsetting cause - in a GOOD way. It's as if you could take a negative of what the bombers and Al Quaeda are doing. The Sermon on the Mount outlines a powerful plot to win back from the enemy regions of darkness, reclaiming and transforming lives with the power and love of God's Kingdom (as opposed to killing people). Myron Augsburger comments: Jesus "rejected the more popular messianic expectations and outlined the creation of a new covenant community of God's people, a disciples' community. In contrast to the revolutionary zealots preparing persons for guerilla war, He prepared disciples in grace and sent them out in missions of healing."

So, imagine you're in a secret hide-out, a sort of terrorist-in-training in reverse, primed to learn sensitive material from a Master Trainer (Jesus, not me!) upon which your life depends - handling not bombs but equally powerful blessings that can turn Satan's strongholds upside-down. The crowds of Jesus' day were amazed at the authority of His teaching (7:28f); He embodied that which He spoke, He was living it out right in front of their eyes.

Recognizing the Enemy: Works-righteousness & Heart-rot

The 9-11 hijackers had a clear target in view: the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. But that's not the type of stronghold Jesus was aiming at. The strongholds of His day politically were Roman ruthlessness and Jewish religiosity - the latter represented by Herod's temple dominating the Jerusalem skyline. The prominent religious groups were the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were in collusion with the Romans, and were in charge of the Temple and sacrificial system. When Jesus cleared the moneychangers and sellers of sacrificial animals, the Sadducees and Sanhedrin would be most incensed. Their lucrative lie would be "buy your way to heaven".

The Pharisees, on the other hand, were popular religious teachers who had developed over 600 laws as a "hedge" to the Torah; they expected people to keep these 600+ rules as a sort of mental checklist. They were big on letting it be SEEN that you were doing your duty to God - keeping up appearances in a religious sense. When Jesus pokes fun at hypocrites in chapter 6 for doing their "acts of righteousness" to be seen by others (such as giving to the needy, praying aloud in public, or making it obvious you're fasting), Pharisees would no doubt be feeling hot under the collar. Their unthinking lie would be "earn your way to heaven" by completing your legalistic checklist.

Weren't these Jewish sects, though, based on the law of Moses? Where did they go wrong? There is a strong current in the Old Testament emphasizing that blessing comes as a result of obedience to God's commands. Lev 18(5): "Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them. I am the LORD." Deut 30(16) says those who love God, walk in His ways, and keep His commands will live and increase and enjoy God's blessing (see also Dt 28:1f). Psalm 37(21f, 25f) promises that the righteous will be blessed and generous, while the wicked will be cut off.

So, generally, a dominant theme in the Old Testament is that blessing is the reward for obedience, while sin has negative consequences. This applies overall amongst people and in the light of eternity, but is not always apparent just in this earthly life. For example, Job is the classic example of a faithful man who did everything right. But for some mysterious reason he seems to become the devil's favourite target: flocks and herds are destroyed, children are killed, painful sores cover his body. Job's so-called 'comforters' with very orthodox tones suggest he must have sinned to warrant such awful circumstances. They maintain, for example, that the innocent or righteous don't perish; people reap what they sow; God restores and makes prosperous the righteous; Job shouldn't despise what is obviously the Almighty's discipline; and, if he puts away his sin, he will stand firm (Job 4:7f; 8:6f; 5:17; 11:14f). Yet in the end God criticizes Job's friends for assuming too much.

By the time Jesus is born, this "reap what you sow" theology is well entrenched; the religous leaders reasoned, "blessing comes from obedience, so if you're not blessed you must have blown it." Like Job's friends, they pushed orthodox doctrine a step too far. It was works-righteousness: you can earn your way to heaven if you're good enough, if your obvious performance is up to snuff. And on the other hand, if you keep having trouble - you must be messing up big time. Jesus' disciples reflect this view in John 9(2) when, encountering a man born blind, they ask whether it was the man or his parents who sinned and thus "caused" it to happen. Jesus refutes their hasty conclusion.

In religion based on righteousness by works, it's important to look like you "have it all together". The rules are laid out, so it's just a matter of doing all the required actions; it doesn't matter whether your heart's in it or not. Presenting a good image is what counts. Jesus says of the scribes and Pharisees in Mt 23(5), "Everything they do is done for men to see": wide verse-boxes, long tassels, most important seats in the synagogues, etc. He lambasts them for being "whitewashed tombs" - nice looking on the outside, but full of hypocrisy and wickedness inside (23:27f). They make a ritual of cleaning the outside of their bowls, but "inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence." Jesus warns them to "first clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean." They are imprisoned in appearances: Satan has deceived them into relying on externals. They need radical treatment before their heart rots.

Don't settle for being "respectable": what's God see concerning the truth of your life on His piercing X-ray? "For the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him. " (2Ch 16:9)

Exploding Selfishness: the Disciple's Inner Dynamite

If that's the enemy, here comes Jesus' battle plan. The Sermon on the Mount sets forth His strategy to re-capture people's hearts. It's not about externals or appearances, but what's going on on the inside. The People's New Testament Commentary notes, "The Jew, under the tuition of the Pharisees, cared little for the state of the heart, so that outward forms were duly kept. Jesus, however, demands that the heart, the affections, the mind, shall be purified, as the fountain from whence flows the moral and religious life. A pure heart begets a pure life; an impure heart, a corrupt life."

Christ says "Blessed are..." 9 times in this short passage. Blessing is more than happiness - whcih; it implies a state of hope and joy and well-being. True blessing from God is not a matter of our works or achievements or what we can "earn" (on earth or by religious law); instead, true blessing flows from a transformed heart that knows Jesus, to the point that we identify with Him and are one with Him.

(1) Verse 3 begins by observing the "poor in spirit" are blessed, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven. "Poor" translates a Greek word meaning beggarly, destitute, needy. It's used of the poor beggar Lazarus who's laid at the rich man's gate in Luke 16(20,22), covered with sores. Spiritual "beggars", those poor in spirit, have not a single claim to merit or material goods; they are totally dependent on God. Songwriter Jim Strathdee begins his version of the Beatitudes this way: "How blessed are those who know their need of God..." Jesus says these are the ones to whom the Kingdom of heaven belongs; they experience God's reign in their heart and life, now and after death.

(2) V4 states that those who mourn are blessed, for they will be comforted. Mourning implies a sense of loss, grief, missing something or someone; Jesus promises mourners will be comforted, 'paracleted' like the sheltering wings of the Holy Spirit.

For ten years, New York state firefighter Donald Herbert had been mostly mute and brain-damaged after a roof collapse. Suddenly, one day out of the blue, he said, "I want to talk to my wife." Staff members of the nursing home raced to get his wife Linda on the phone; it was the first of many conversations Donald had with his wife, 4 sons, and other family and friends during a 14-hour stretch. Doctors say such recovery is almost unheard-of after 10 years. The extent and duration of recovery is unknown at this time, but Donald did recognize several family members and friends and call them by name. How exciting! At least for a while, the sense of mourning and loss has been lifted.

And thanks to Jesus' triumph at the cross and the grave, death no longer has victory over the human race; believing in His name, we are born again and have "crossed over" from death to life. (1Cor 15:57; Jn 5:24) We can look forward to seeing in heaven our loved ones who died in Christ.

(3) "Blessed are the meek," Jesus announced, "for they will inherit the earth." Meek doesn't mean mouse-timid or cowering, but a mild disposition, a gentle spirit. Jesus said He Himself was "gentle and humble in heart" (Mt 11:29); such a person isn't a bully, proud, or hyper-ambitious. I'm reminded of the movie Princess Bride and the character played by Andre the Giant: though super-strong, he was very gentle. Such a one doesn't have to defend himself all the time; he's unafraid, not easily intimidated. When we're in God's will, the Almighty is our protector, so we don't always have to have our guard up with people. The lexicon notes "meek" means we "accept [God's] dealings with us as good, and therefore without disputing or resisting. In the OT, the meek are those wholly relying on God rather than their own strength to defend them against injustice...Gentleness or meekness is the opposite to self-assertiveness and self-interest. It stems from trust in God's goodness and control over the situation. The gentle person is not occupied with self at all."

(4) V6 blesses those who "hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." Righteousness means things are as they ought to be in our relationship with God, we're acceptable to Him. Sinners that we are, this is only possible through Jesus putting us right with the Father; Paul writes, "when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son..." (Rom 5:10) And when we are thus justified by His blood, we come to share God's passion to see justice done in human dealings. Jesus says those who hunger for righteousness will be filled: the image is that of an animal being fed all the hay it wants, fully satisfied.

The religious leaders of Jesus' day pursued a righteousness of their own that comes from the law; Paul contrasted this with "that which is through faith in Christ..." (Php 3:9) He knew from his own background that the Jews sought to establish their own righteousness; he had his own impressive list of credentials (Php 3:4ff). But those who depend on a legalistic righteousness find themselves under a curse because of their inability to keep all the law all the time (Gal 3:10). But Jesus redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming cursed for us, so that God's blessing - the promise of the Holy Spirit - might come to even Gentiles by faith in Christ (Gal 3:13f). New Testament righteousness is based not on works or regulations but faith - confessing with our mouth "Jesus is Lord" and believing in our heart that God raised Him from the dead. (Rom 10:9) It's not what I have done that saves me, but what Jesus has done for me. Not my works or obedience, but Jesus' work at the cross, His perfect obedience in my stead. Ephesians 2(8f) sums it up:"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast." We walk in the works God prepares for us to do, but they're a result NOT the means of our salvation. Hunger and thirst for God's righteousness, free as a gift courtesy of Jesus - it's yours for the asking.

(5) V7 says the merciful are blessed, for they will be shown mercy. We recently watched the video Luther - how he longed for a God of mercy, rather than the stern wrathful God of medieval Catholicism. Mercy means identifying with the suffering of others, getting out of ourselves, being so affected or moved by their plight that we render assistance. Mercy means when we're wronged we demand "justice" less and act more "just as" Jesus has had mercy on us. Turn please to Eph 4:32(-5:2); note the two 'just as' and two 'for-gaves': "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." He's shown mercy to us; that's the source for our mercy to others.

How much Jesus considers this to be a priority for His disciples shows in the next chapter: the Lord's prayer asks, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." And right after the model prayer, He emphasizes what a direct connection there is between experiencing and expressing God's grace (6:14f).

(6) V8 says simply, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." Quite a promise! "Pure in heart" here means clean, free from corrupt desire, blameless, unmixed, without alloy. For example, in 6:24 Jesus insists we cannot serve both God and mammon. What competing interests does God face in our life? What unclean camel is trying to sneak its nose under the tent-flap of our heart?

Jesus specializes in cleansing us from all unrighteousness when we name and confess our sins (1Jn 1:9). Those made pure, He says, will see God - not just a glimpse, but go on beholding the Father. If we love and obey Jesus, the Father will love us and they will come and make their home with us (Jn 14:23). By contrast, as someone has said, "Sin befogs and beclouds the heart so that one cannot see God."

(7) V9 says peacemakers are blessed "for they will be called sons of God". The Braid Scots version translates 'peacemakers' by the phrase "makkers up o' strife"; we talk about people "making up" after a fight. Usually this involves some compromise, sacrifice, or movement toward the other person.

Peacemaking is costly. This week a memorial was unveiled in Calgary commemorating 9 Canadian peacekeepers killed by a Syrian rocket back in 1974. Peacemaking also takes time and patience. Also in the news this week, Major-General Andrew Leslie warned that Canadian peacekeeping in Afghanistan is likely going to be a "20-year venture". He added, "There are things worth dying for."

Jesus is not just blowing air; He Himself is the Great Peacemaker. Ephesians 2(14-16) says, "For he himself is our peace, who has...destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility [between Jew and Gentile], by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility."

(8) Last, and perhaps most surprising of all, Jesus said those who are persecuted because of righteousness are blessed; those who are insulted and have all kinds of evil falsely said against them on account of Jesus are blessed. God's kingdom belongs to them; their heavenly reward is great, because that's just the same way the Old Testament prophets were treated. Isaiah according to tradition was sawn in two; Jeremiah was thrown into a dungeon and threatened with death; Elijah was hunted relentlessly by Ahab & Jezebel. Note the persecution isn't because of our skin colour or gender; what marks those in this case is their identification with Jesus, being associated with Him as by the name "Christian". They're maligned and hated because they stand for what's right, and for Him who embodies God's very righteousness. This is unfortunately the case in many areas of the world today: people suffer horribly for their faith in Christ. A presenter on Islam was telling us at family camp that when a person converts to Christianity, it's considered the duty of other family members to kill them if they refuse to renounce Jesus.

When we have bad things said about us, our natural reaction is to defend ourselves and dish out evil in return. Remembering Jesus did not retaliate when others taunted and hurled insults at Him enables us to bite our tongue and pray for the person being mean to us instead. Jesus absorbed the verbal abuse and His Spirit comforts us and helps us do the same.

Living the Kingdom

So, are you ready for your mission? Can you be as positive toward others as suicide bombers are negative toward the "Great Satan"? Jesus' Beatitudes make us realize they're impossible on our own steam; but when we are ready to yield up our own life and receive His supernatural life instead, by His Spirit indwelling us He makes possible these incredibly high ideals. He gives us an internal supply to counter the world's blows and pour out blessing in exchange.

Jesus said, "Blessed are the meek"; but the world doesn't expect stars to be meek. 25-year-old St Louis Cardinal player Albert Pujols has made baseball history. He's the only player to bat .300, hit 30 home runs, score 100 runs, and drive in 100 runs in each of his first four seasons. But such success isn't without its problems. Pujols suffers from plantar fascitis or heel pain. He's undergone countless treatments; one of his only remaining options is shock-wave therapy. He says what keeps him going is his relationship with God. He told Sports Spectrum, "He's my best friend...He's everything to me. Everything that I do on the field is glorifying the Lord. All these numbers...all these records, all that credit is going to the Lord." The only thing he asks of fans and peers is that they "Pray that I would keep my eyes on Jesus and stay humble."

Another person living the be-attitudes is Barry Minkow, now a pastor in San Diego. But that's not how he started out. Back in the 80's he launched a carpet-cleaning and insurance restoration company. In four years he employed 1400 people, yet his company's stated worth of US $280 million was a lie. The company's actual revenues were 90% less than reported. Minkow knew his life was a hollow lie. He recalls, "I leave Oprah, I go home to my 5000 square foot house, ...Ferrari Testerosa in the driveway, somebody next to me in the bedroom - I don't even remember who it was - and I'm thinking, 'Is this all there is?'...I mean, I was an empty shell at that moment. My life was just broken. I knew I was a liar and a thief. Nobody else knew it at the time; I was absolutely morally bankrupt."

Minkow was convicted of fraud and served over 7 years in prison. There he realized, "Nobody ever failed as bad as I did, as young as I did. So I was convinced that I...needed Jesus...I prayed this prayer...I said, 'Lord, if you exist and you are real, will you please make this real for me? I really want it to, but I've been lying for so long and conning for so long, I don't know when I'm sincere and when I'm not sincere anymore; would you make this conversion experience real?' That's a prayer God always answers and He did."

In Jesus' terms, Minkow was 'poor in spirit' - acknowledging his absolute need of God.

Since then, Barry Minkow has helped uncover 20 times more fraud than he ever perpetrated, and has never missed a restitution payment to his last remaining victim. He says, "I don't need a Ferrari to be happy now." He's discovered God's blessing for those who come clean with Him.

Now a pastor, he sums things up this way: "The message of the Bible is this - good people don't go to heaven.Forgiven people go, and God is in the business of changing people." Let's pray.