To Bless and Be Blessed

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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.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the 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 children 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.”

-Matthew 5:1-12

Over the next four weeks I would like for us to take a look at the sermon on the mount. It can be found in the book of Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7 and is the longest discourse we have given by Jesus himself. After he fasted in the desert and was tempted by Satan Jesus came out a new man ready to preach to the world – and he did just that.

Today we are going to take a look at the beatitudes, which is a word not actually found in the Bible that we use to describe the opening of Jesus’ sermon. It essentially means “the blessings” and Jesus starts off by giving a list of people he considers to be blessed. He gives examples of what people who live the Holy Life are like and how they interact with the world.

Bless is one of those words that seems to have a hundred meanings. It means to be happy, it means to be made holy, it means to make a sacrifice, it means to praise and speak well of something, it even means to worship – that’s why we say “bless God’s holy name.” But in the passage above from the book of Matthew to be blessed is to be made holy and to be made happy. Seems simple enough – until you actually stop and listen to what Jesus is saying. He starts out the sermon with Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Poor here literally means poor, this could be translated as spiritually bankrupt just as easily. So what on earth does it mean when he says that spiritually bankrupt people are happy and holy? Jesus often talks about the kingdom of Heaven – and the sermon on the mount is about that very subject. We, as Christians, are all citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven and the beatitudes describe what a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

In this new kingdom, this radical kingdom, this counter cultural kingdom, there will be a new way of understanding worth and value. In the kingdoms of his time – and indeed our time- the qualities we value in our citizens are very different from the qualities Jesus describes here. And, as Jesus tells us, when you live a life that is counter cultural it will get you in trouble.

The beatitudes teach us that there is no need for titles, prestige, or social standing. They teach us that political power, determination, and a go-getter attitude are not important. They teach us that the ones who are the blessed citizens of the Kingdom of God are the meek, merciful, and poor in spirit. Those are the exact opposite qualities of what idealize today. Now, kingdom is an old fashioned word based in the monarchies of the ancient world. Today Jesus would probably say the Nation of Heaven, because that’s the sort of language we know today – democracies and republics.

What sort of person is the ideal citizen in our nation today? What qualities make someone a good Canadian? What characteristics do we value in ourselves and expect from others? Are we in line with what Jesus describes in the beatitudes? Our ideal citizen is someone who is confident and self assured – not someone who is meek. Our ideal citizen is someone who is objective, can make the tough choices, and not let their feelings get in the way of necessary decisions – not someone who is merciful. Our ideal citizen is someone who is an upstanding moral person – not someone who is spiritually bankrupt.

The beatitudes are all things which people would have seen as ridiculous when Jesus said them and which I bet we would as well. If I were to write this myself and say to you that all the sad people are lucky and that those who are persecuted should rejoice – you would probably quit reading my blog altogether. If it wasn’t Jesus saying this you wouldn’t even give it the time of day. This sermon starts off with a pretty unusual premise. The beatitudes are a radical paradigm shift and so is the Kingdom of Heaven – one which we have still yet to embrace.

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“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

-Matthew 5:13-16

Jesus goes on to describe his followers as the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In our modern world it is a little strange to think of describing someone as the salt of the earth, salt is something you put on your fries and it doesn’t seem to have much significance. But in the ancient world salt was extremely valuable. In fact, the word salary today comes from the Latin word for salt. Roman soldiers, and many other people, were paid their wages in salt – they received a salary or a salt allowance. When Jesus says we are the salt of the earth he is saying we are something very valuable and important.

But what does it mean when salt loses its saltiness or its flavour? It means that it has lost its value. We are valuable by nature, but we can lose our value if we are not careful. Jesus just described our value in the verses before this. He said blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the meek. The beatitudes describe the flavour he is warning us not to lose.

We are the salt of the earth and the light of the world – we are valuable and needed. Yet, if we lose our flavour, if we hide our light under a basket, we are not useful citizens of the kingdom of heaven. We need to be made of the right stuff and we need to be seen by the world. Because this is how the world will change, this is how the Kingdom of Heaven will be fully realized.

I’d like to delve a little deeper into the metaphor of salt. What are some of the qualities salt has? One quality of salt is that it preserves food. We still use it for that reason today but in the ancient world this was the primary use of salt. They didn’t have refrigerators or deep freezers so they salted their food to keep it from spoiling. In the same way citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, if they have not lost their saltiness, preserve the world and keep it from going bad. When enough people live like Jesus described in the beatitudes the world will be preserved. The kingdom will be sustainable, our nations will be righteous and holy.

Another quality of salt is that is gives flavour. Citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven are supposed to give flavour to the world. We are supposed to take what is bland and give it some pizazz. The flavour of a Kingdom citizen enhances the whole dish. Even just a pinch of what Jesus described in the beatitudes can make the world a much better place. Citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven are meant to give the flavour they possess to the world.

One last quality of salt I would like to look at is that salt makes us thirsty. One of the things Jesus mentioned in the beatitudes was that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed. As citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven we are meant to make the world thirst for righteousness. We are meant to inspire a hunger in those around us for justice and goodness. The flavour we carry in our faith is one which should spur the kingdoms of the world into a thirst for what is right, into a thirst for what Christ offers, into a thirst for righteousness.

As citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven we are meant to preserve the earth from wickedness, we are meant to bring flavour to the bland kingdoms of the world, and we are meant to make people thirst for righteousness. We are the salt of the earth but if we lose our saltiness what good are we?

The way of Christ will be thrown out and trampled underfoot if we do not maintain the flavour of the beatitudes. If we lose the saltiness Christ gave us we will have no impact on the world whatsoever – and we are meant to have an impact on the world! That is why Jesus says we are the light of the world meant to shine for all to see. Jesus says that the world should see our good deeds and through them come to glorify our father in Heaven.

It is not enough to call ourselves Christian, we must retain our flavour and be the salt of the earth. But it is not even enough to do that for we must share our light with the world. We must know the qualities of a citizen of the kingdom of Heaven, we must embody those qualities within ourselves, and we must share them with the world.

We must be poor in spirit – we should not imagine ourselves to be morally sound people, we must acknowledge the spiritual poverty within us. The first instruction in the whole sermon is to acknowledge that you are a sinner. The Kingdom of Heaven can not be yours if you think of yourself as inherently good and righteous.

The second instruction flows from the first. After we truly accept our spiritual poverty we must mourn for the state of our souls and the state of the world. Once we do this we will be comforted. We do not comfort ourselves, but we are comforted by God. In our mourning there is honesty and in that honesty God comforts us with truth.

The humility which comes from this honesty makes us meek. We no longer imagine ourselves to be righteous and so we become gentle and unassuming. We do not force ourselves onto the world because we have realized our own inner poverty.

Instead we live in solidarity with the brokenness around us, of which we are a part. We come to inherit the earth as it is and in our meek and mournful spiritual poverty God begins to work in and through us.

That solidarity with the brokenness of the world leads us to thirst for righteousness. It makes us realize how much work there is to be done. Hunger and thirst can only be satisfied by food and water. If we thirst for righteousness we cannot rest until we find it and there is no substitute. But, in that search God promises that we will be satisfied.

The water which quenches the thirst for righteousness is mercy. We begin to practice mercy and have our thirst satisfied. The brokenness of the world, and within ourselves, requires mercy – for retribution can never fix it.

To find mercy is to lay down our need to make everything fair or even and to embrace a love for our enemies. This is what God does for us every day. Every time God forgives he is saying that love is more important than rules.

Once we have purged ourselves of our false spiritual riches, once we have come to mourn the injustice of the world, once we have embraced mercy both inside and out, then we can say we are pure of heart and we come to see God. To see God is to see the truth, to see with eyes that are open.

Once our eyes are open we know what we must do. We must become peacemakers. Not peacekeepers who avoid conflict but peacemakers who go out into the conflicts of the world and bring peace to them. The true citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven makes peace wherever they go.

Christ is the Prince of Peace and he is Lord over our Kingdom. Peace is the culmination of all the beatitudes – it is the prime directive of our great nation, it is the essence of what makes us children of God.

All this is well and good, but the final blessing of the beatitudes is both a blessing and a warning. Because there are many kingdoms in this world and peace is liked by very few of them. When you proclaim the gospel of the Prince of Peace war mongers and capitalists will insult you. But not only the kings and princes of this world will be against you. Even common people will oppose you when you live a Holy Life. To be a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven who shines the light of God into the world means that you will expose the shadows around you.

There will be people who do not want to see their own shadows. There will be people who fear the power of the light will take away their own petty power. There are people who will falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of your saltiness. Rejoice when this happens, for you are being the light of the world. Rejoice when this happens because you are being a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. Rejoice for your reward in heaven will be great. When you truly work for justice in the world those who profit from injustice will persecute you. That is the cross we must all bear with Jesus, and in bearing it our poverty of spirit is assured and we are named citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.

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