Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sermon on the Mount: The Beatitudes

Two notes. Two notes in a symphony ended one era and began another. The first two notes of Beethoven’s third symphony marked the end of the Classical period of music and began another—the Romantic; a highly formalized art form gave way to one rooted in emotional expression.

That’s how revolutions begin: a student dreams of changing history; a composer is hammering at his piano in a hidden room; a single gunshot ignites a battlefield. In 1880, when Edison got the first contract to electrify homes in New York City, he hadn’t yet solved the problem of the light bulb—and then he also had to invent the whole system of generating and delivering electricity to homes and streets. Two years later, in September 1882, they turned his system on at 3 in the afternoon. Within a few hours, the city watched as darkness fell and never came, pushed back with a steady, unblinking light unlike any that had come before.

Today, it’s hard to recognize when such a transformational event takes place anymore. We’re so used to tectonic shifts in technology and communications. But what you find in Matthew 5—the Sermon on the Mount—is no less a revolution: whatever followed those words of Yeshua could never be the same as that which came before.

The photo above is a view of Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) from the heights over the lake. The scenery is in direct contrast with Israel’s grand Messianic visions, yet there is something remarkably fitting about this setting:
not the splendor of Jerusalem but a hilltop view of Kinneret;
no gathering of sages and scholars, but talmidim (disciples) from the ranks of the am ha’aretz (common people);
none of the ranking men of the Sanhedrin to hear his words, but “lost sheep” of Israel in search of a shepherd.

The image of Yeshua is fascinating. Surrounded by those who have followed him and those who’ve been seeking him out; he arrives and does not stand to make an address. He sits down—in the custom of the rabbis—and begins to preach with absolute authority; unlike the rabbis, however, he quotes no one as his teacher except His Father in Heaven.

Many observers see Yeshua presented here by Matthew as the new Moses. He has already spent forty days in the wilderness seeking God—not unlike Moses spending 40 days on Mount Sinai before bringing down the 10 commandments. Furthermore, the opening words of the Sermon are not new commandments—but a powerful testimony of God’s new relationship with His people.

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him and he began to teach them saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the Land (earth).
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
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. (NIV; Matthew 5:3-12)

That word “blessed” is translated in the Greek text that scholars use as makarios (μακαριος)… which is certainly not what Yeshua said; he may have used Aramaic or Hebrew; the word in Hebrew is asher, which is much closer to our word, “blessed.” But the English word “blessed” always seems a bit ambiguous (rooted in the word “blood”—as in consecrate by sprinkling with blood). Blessing can be any number of acts or statements:

• Pronouncing something holy: “And God blessed the seventh day”
• To confer a promise of happiness or prosperity: “We bless you from Zion”
• Express our wishes for happiness: “Bless those who persecute you”
• Invoke or confer spiritual benefit on an object or person: The blessings for a meal
• To extol or glorify with spiritual intent: “Bless the Lord, O my soul…”
• To be esteemed or accounted as a recipient of spiritual benefit: “All peoples of the earth will be blessed through you”

But here the word is translated in its simplest form as “happy.” How inadequate. It’s not only happiness, but all the benefits of blessing. Of course, Yeshua is not simply speaking to his followers of a prescription for being “happy.”

Are these conditions in which we would like to find ourselves?

Blessed are the poor in spirit / for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn / for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek / for they will inherit the Land (“earth”).

The poor in spirit are those whose poverty is overwhelming; but it is not a question of being financially destitute, but spiritually bereft by the knowledge that our human nature is itself weak: weakened by sin, by life’s interminable struggle, by a sense that we feel overcome by one problem, one challenge after another.

Those who mourn are not only mourning for personal loss, but the sheer spiritual vacuum of hope for life in a time of oppression, when Israel’s hills are covered with crosses and the world seems rife with injustice.

The meek are not simply those whose vulnerable state comes from weakness of personality or circumstances—but those who have been weakened by hurt, shame and the knowledge of that they are weak and vulnerable at the core of their being.

Then consider the answers:

The poor in spirit are on the verge of the kingdom of God: they are about to enter the rich abundance of all God’s blessings: personal, spiritual, physical and in its fullest manifestation on earth.

Those who mourn will receive a comfort that will restore their broken hearts and refresh the soul.

The weakest among us will not simply inherit the “earth.” This is a lame translation which I’m sad to say that Gentile interpreters have used to obscure its more pointed reference to Eretz Yisrael—the Land—the “promised land” that God gave to Abraham and which he promised through Moses to Israel. Instead, Yeshua declares here that Israel’s land will ultimately be claimed by God’s people because it belongs first to Him and then to those to whom he has chosen for an eternal inheritance.

What does this say about us?

Are we poor in spirit? Do we know how weak we are to sin?

Are we in mourning for a humanity that is lost and in abject spiritual poverty? And are we of any comfort to them?

Do we trust in God’s provision, or are we so assertive of our own way that we are running over those must be nurtured? Are we able to exercise a character that “meekly” trusts in our Lord?

The next three “blessings” lead us to further question where are we spiritually:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness / for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful / for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart / for they will see God.

How many of us feel spiritually dried up because of the shallowness of our religious life. God calls His spiritual leaders to love and nourish those people who are searching for him; but do people feel that our religious institutions have nothing to offer but hypocrisy and their own self-satisfaction?

Are we genuinely merciful in heart, living amongst others with real “lovingkindness;” knowing others heart to heart, given to whole-hearted relationships that are no longer superficial.

And what of those who have sought to live with purity of heart—that includes those who are truly ashamed of their sin; those who have committed to live prayerfully but fallen short; tried to live faithfully but failed. There are those who live among us with such transparency and accountability—even while they admit they can’t always win this battle.

Yeshua declares a great hope, but it’s not in the current state of Israel’s religion—and it remains just as difficult to find in our religions as well.

It’s true, the pure of heart truly do see God everywhere—but a time will come when they will see Him face to face and the struggle will end.

Those who want to have relationships grounded in the merciful, forgiving heart of God will find that this is the heart which embraces them fully and allows them to embrace others.

And those who are seeking to know and understand the Word of God and hear what God has to say to them will be fully satisfied; their deepest questions will have been heard and understood—even as they will hear and comprehend fully what God has to say to them.

The last three blessings are about the cost of discipleship:

Blessed are the peacemakers / for they will be called sons of God.
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.

The peacemaker is the one committed to bringing God’s shalom—His perfected peace in its most genuine form into the world.

The one who is persecuted for the sake of righteousness is one who sacrifices everything for the God and will surely see the fruit of their sacrifice.

And finally Yeshua applies this prophetic truth to his followers and it’s written here for the larger community of faith in Messiah: words written for those who have followed him faithfully over the past 2000 years ago: how many have endured insults, persecutions and been reviled for the simplest, heartfelt act of trust in Yeshua; such has always been the lot of those who speak with prophetic power to religious institutions that are unwilling to respond to the Spirit of the living God.

Rabbi Yeshua is “stringing these pearls” for us: each is more precious than gold or diamonds. It’s not a set of rules so much as a spiritual vision of the restored heart and mind of those who have trusted in Him.

Some fear these words—they are so powerful—what if they were a set of principles by which a believer could actually obtain the Kingdom? That’s why some theologians like Darby and Scofield insisted they weren’t for our time—they belonged to a future Kingdom.

But I believe that the kingdom revolution is for right now—in the hearts of those who trust Yeshua as Messiah. There is to be no more satisfaction with religion unless it frees us to love and trust God in this way.

And there is a warning here for those spiritual authorities who claim leadership by serving their own ends. The public acts of piety which were so common in Yeshua’s day are singled out for warning: the public prayers and acts of charity or fasting. None of it will be considered adequate for admission to the Kingdom. Yeshua not only warns us of those whose lives bear bad fruit, but those who will later use his name for evil. Those words are just as applicable to TV preachers in expensive suits as they were to ancient teachers in elaborate prayer shawls—to hypocritical deacons as much as to P’rushim (Pharisees) and Ts’dukim (Temple officials.)

There is a power waiting to be released into the lives of those who have gathered round Yeshua—whether it is on a hilltop in Galilee or the local urban jungle: it is the radical power of the New Covenant promise of the Kingdom of God.

There is a tremendous authenticity to this moment: the birth of the Kingdom of God is about to take place. Yet it won’t be a movement that transforms the nation into a mighty army for God, but in the hearts of those who are crying out for God’s reality now.

If there is any familiarity to the scene it’s because in some ways it reflects the very situation in which many of my generation came to faith: the dissatisfied youth whose parents tried to build on the self-satisfied prosperity of the post-war period and instead left their children frustrated with materialism and their lack of spiritual grounding. This is the setting in which revival transformed the world landscape—many of the most powerful global religious movements in many religious traditions were affected: the movements whose leaders are Christian, Jewish and Islamic all date back to this period. Parallel movements took place in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In Yeshua’s time. Israel was also experiencing a time of radical dissatisfaction with its religious leaders: the national leadership, the Sanhedrin, was dominated by two self-satisfied groups—the P’rushim who held sway over Israel’s economic life and the Tsdukim, who were prospering from the Temple. Their king was the nasty, weak-willed Herod, the son of an evil genius who was not even considered a Jew. To add to their shame, the High Priest bought his position every year with a hefty bribe to the Romans.

If we truly take these words of Yeshua to heart, we know that nothing in our lives can remain the same. But each of us needs a catalyst for change. We need the reality of Messiah to confront us.

In the 1740’s, the American colonies had become places that were mired in the remnants of a calcified, Puritan faith. The children and grandchildren of those whose faith had driven them to seek religious liberty in a new country—were now content to live out the appearance of being religious without any particular change of heart. The New England preachers and ther most devoted followers knew it; they’d become an unhappy, dissatisfied lot. Life was easier but the most important values of their faith appeared to be lost on the new generation. Preachers found they were no longer ministering to people of faith; they were talking to the self-satisfied grandchildren of believers.

In July 1741, Jonathan Edwards took the pulpit of his church in a small town in Connecticut and began to preach. His sermon was called "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

Most of the sermon's text consisted of ten "considerations", which Edwards posed and justified through a combination of observations and hellish imagery. They are based on one major principle: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.”

There was an outcry from the elders. The congregation, disturbed and upset, could barely keep their seats. But finally, one of the young women stood up, convicted and grieving, she cried out for God’s mercy. Numerous other young people followed suit. When Edwards finished, nothing was the same.

A revolution broke out—preachers found a way to stir people up. A revolution of preaching the Gospel swept the globe with a series of revivals that transformed the spiritual landscape.

A generation ago, a discouraged missionary from American Board of Missions to the Jews got tired of being irrelevant to a prosperous new generation of American Jews who didn’t appear to have any interest in spiritual values. He took his message to the streets seeking to reach a new generation. He was having a bit of success and then one of his tracts washed up onto a pier where a drug addled young Jewish man who had recently become involved with believers, a man called Mitch Glaser, was contemplating what to do with his life. Mitch convinced a group of his friends to join this guy, named Martin (later "Moishe") Rosen and after awhile, they gave themselves the most irritating name possible: Jews for Jesus. But that’s another revolution.

The next revolution belongs to you.

The gateway to your revolution isn’t in me: it’s not in the preacher; it’s in you. And I don’t know how it can be fulfilled by our efforts, as grandiose and purposeful as we may choose to be, but only by our surrender.

What rights do we have to claim the kingdom of God? None. We are:
• impoverished in spirit
• mourning for sin
• hungering and thirsting for righteousness.

What are you seeking? God’s mercy; a pure heart; greater understanding of yourself before God?

This is the path of faith. It’s not a glory road: it’s a path toward the cursed tree. But it’s your path. Your own revolution.

I have great affection for this story about the composer, Johannes Brahms—he’d written two symphonies and now he had to write a third—and all he could think about was those two notes of Beethoven’s iconic Third Symphony. In his lonely room where there were only two things on the wall, a crucifix and a picture of Beethoven, Brahms drifted into despair. Finally he took a holiday—and while he was in the mountains he fell in love. The melodies poured out of his heart.

Love changed what all his striving could not do.

Fear or love. Whatever path you choose—there is a revolution waiting to happen in our lives. It will change you. It won’t make you popular, or cool. But imagine what it would be like to do something that will leave a mark for God—for the Kingdom.

That’s your life waiting—the one Yeshua was describing on a hill 2000 years ago.