‘Ash Wednesday’

‘Ash Wednesday’

Human relationships on the personal and international level must rate as the greatest challenge for the world’s future. As I remarked this day last year, the invasion of Ukraine reveals an unspoken issue that confronts us: humanity is flawed.

The Russian author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once commented, If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent that continues through to the day before Easter Day. You may find it helpful to use the six weeks of Lent as a special time for daily Bible reading, honest reflection, and prayer.

Indeed, the prayer for Ash Wednesday and for Lent, focuses on God’s forgiveness of the repentant person and spiritual renewal. The Lord Jesus challenges us to know the Scriptures, reflect on them and to pray, not just in Lent but throughout the year.

However, such is our flawed nature that we can all deceive ourselves. We can say one thing and do another. We may read the Bible and pray, attend church, and give to the poor, but our hearts can remain unchanged in our relationship with the Lord, as well as with one another.

Consider Jesus’ warning against hypocrisy in his Sermon on the Mount: “Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).

Knowing better than we, how deceitful our hearts can be (Jeremiah 17:9), Jesus warns us against using our faith to win the praise of others and make a name for ourselves.

In a world where religion is publicly decried, we may not win popularity in the wider community. However, it can be a different story within the life of the church. Preachers and church leaders, musicians and generous givers can generate praise if they work at it. And social media can easily be used to promote this.

It is against this that Jesus warns us. Professing Christians who long for the accolades of others will miss out on the true reward that comes from the living God. All they have is an empty faith, with no lasting value.

Consider what he says about giving and prayer.

Giving. Look at v.2: “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others.”

Trumpets may be a metaphor: we shouldn’t sound our own trumpet or boast about our giving to the needy. But trumpets may also have a literal meaning. In Jesus’ day the Temple trumpets were sometimes blown, calling on people to make a special donation when there was a pressing need. Anyone watching would see who responded.

Giving to support the ministry of God’s Word and providing assistance for those in need is biblical. Here Jesus is saying that to give so others know what we’re doing, whether in church or at a charity function, is hypocritical.

Hypocritical religion is not from the heart. It’s motivated by self-interest. Jesus is saying here that hypocrites give in order to be honored by those around them. And, he states, “I tell you they have their reward.

“But when you give alms,” he says, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your father who sees in secret will reward you.”

To ensure that we’re not proud or smug about our generosity, Jesus uses a vivid metaphor: the right hand should not know what the left hand is doing. No one, apart from God, will know about this private giving. He will see our real motives.

To be rewarded by God is the best kind of blessing. Approval by others is transient. Approval from God is eternal.

Prayer is another area where we can be tempted to look for human recognition. Look at verse 5: “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward…”

Prayers in the synagogues were typically led by a synagogue member. To be invited to lead the prayers was a mark of distinction. But again, Jesus knows how easy it is for anyone leading prayers to draw attention to themselves – perhaps through the literary quality of their prayer or their tone of voice.

Significantly, Jesus focuses on private prayer. He isn’t critizing public prayer, but he well knows that who we are when we pray in the privacy of our room is who we truly are. In praying privately, we can be nothing but genuine and honest before God. And uncluttered, heartfelt prayer is what God hears.

How important it is that on this Ash Wednesday – and every day – we heed Jesus’ warning: “Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” God delights in our honest and heartfelt, loving and loyal relationship with him.

A prayer for Ash Wednesday: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made, and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent: create and make in us new and contrite hearts, so that we, lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain from you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

A prayer for peace. God of the nations, whose kingdom rules over all, have mercy on our broken and troubled world, especially the people of Ukraine and other war zones. Shed abroad your peace in the hearts of all men and women and banish from them the spirit that makes for war. We ask this so that all races and people may learn to live as members of one people and in obedience to your laws; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

A prayer for all in need. Almighty God, we commend to your fatherly goodness all who are in any way afflicted or distressed, especially the people of Turkey and Syria suffering from the catastrophic earthquake. May it please you to comfort and relieve them according to their needs, giving them patience in their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions. All this we ask for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

© John G. Mason

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‘Ash Wednesday’

‘The Hope of Glory…’

Aspects of Christianity can seem far-fetched to our 21st century minds. The miraculous elements can make it feel like the story of Santa Claus or fairies at the bottom of the garden. But before we dismiss the supernatural events of the Bible as fiction, it’s worth remembering GK Chesterton’s words about truth and fiction: ‘Truth must necessarily be stranger than fiction, for fiction is the creation of the human mind and therefore congenial to it’.

I make these comments because today we turn to an extraordinary event recorded in the writings of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

In Matthew chapter 17, verse 1 we read: Six days later,… Matthew wants us to be in no doubt that, just as the previous conversation had occurred when Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (16:15) so did the event that he now records.

Eyewitnesses. Matthew is specific. Jesus took three of his close followers, Peter and James and John, to a high mountain. Unlike what we find in other religions, there was more than one eyewitness to times of supernatural revelation. In this case there were three eyewitnesses to this significant moment in Jesus’ life.

And what an astonishing occasion it was. Jesus was transfigured, literally, metamorphosed before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light (17:2).

The dazzling white light of the sun is Matthew’s metaphor for the brilliance and purity of the bright light that emanated from Jesus. In both Luke and Acts the reference to clothes as white as light speaks of supernatural glory.

Furthermore, two of the great prophets, Moses and Elijah – representing the law and the prophets – were present and spoke with Jesus. (17:3).

In a conversation six days earlier, Jesus had asked the disciples who people thought he was. They had first responded, ‘John the Baptist or Elijah, or one of the prophets.’ And when Jesus had pressed them for their own view, Peter had replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16).

But here on the mountain it was obvious that Peter had not yet worked out what this meant for he said to Jesus: “Lord, if you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (16:4). Peter had no idea what he was saying.

God’s voice. But before he could burble on with something else, a cloud enveloped them all and they heard a voice, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (17:5). God the Father was speaking! Overcome by the awesome scene before them and the words they heard, the disciples fell on their faces and were terrified (17:6).

But Jesus, seeing their fear, told them to get up and not to be afraid. Furthermore, walking down the mountain that day, he commanded Peter, James and John not to tell anyone what they had witnessed until after he had been raised from the dead (17:9).

God the Father’s words confirmed Jesus’ identity as his unique Son. That day Peter, James and John witnessed Jesus’ majestic glory – the glory that reveals the utter holiness and power of the eternal Son of God who had taken on human form.

Much later, Peter writes of the event in his Second Letter: We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ but we had been eye-witnesses of his majesty (1:16).

God’s words not only confirmed for the disciples the divine status of Jesus and his supreme power and authority, but also assured them of the authenticity of all he taught and promised.

Significantly, the scene also revealed that there are at least two persons in the Godhead. The event also unveiled the extraordinary humility of God in his willingness to serve us in our greatest need. God’s Son was willing to put aside his true glory and come amongst us as one of us.

And so we should heed God’s voice and listen to the Son. In the midst of the myriad of voices today it is so easy to get distracted and depressed because we neglect to read and meditate on God’s Word.

As we look at Jesus’ transfiguration through the lens of his death and resurrection and ascension, we begin to see its greater significance. Imagine if Jesus had just disappeared after his resurrection and ascension. The transfiguration is a preview of Jesus in his ascended and kingly glory. It also gives us a glimpse of his glory when he returns.

The transfiguration confirmed Jesus’ status as he prepared for his coming arrest and death. It also informed and inspired the disciples in their mission and their preaching and ultimately, in their writing.

The hope of glory. And there are further implications. The day will come when all of God’s people will share in the glory of Christ! In his Letter to the Romans, Paul the Apostle writes: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God (8:18).

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis puts it this way: ‘If we let Him – for we can prevent Him, if we choose – He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for.  Nothing less.

A prayer. Father in heaven, whose Son Jesus Christ was wonderfully transfigured before chosen witnesses upon the holy mountain, and spoke of his suffering in Jerusalem: give us strength so to hear his voice and follow him, that in the world to come we may see him as he is; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

© John G. Mason

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You might like to listen to Christ Our Hope in Life and Death, from Keith and Kristyn Getty and Matt Papa.

‘Ash Wednesday’


“This world has no importance and whoever recognizes that wins his freedom. And that’s just it—I hate you because you are bound. I alone am free. Rejoice, for you finally have an emperor to teach you freedom…” So speaks the Emperor Caligula, in Albert Camus’ play of the same name.

But did Caligula represent true freedom? History records he used his power in self-indulgent extravagance, no matter how cruel or disgusting. He did whatever he pleased.

Many consider freedom is the ability to do whatever you want without external restraints. For the extreme capitalist it means no market controls; for the extreme socialist it means the power of the collective to impose its will on the individual without restraint; for the extreme hedonist it means the license to follow the lusts of the heart.

In his highly respected Sermon on the Mount Jesus lays out the pattern for living that he expects of his people. Significantly, he doesn’t simply set out a list of do’s and don’ts. Rather he opens up the real meaning of love for God in loving our neighbor. Let me touch on themes we read in Matthew chapter 5, verses 21 through 48.

Anger (5:21, 22): “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’

‘You shall not murder’ is the 6th Commandment of the Ten. But consider Jesus’s words: “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment”. He is saying that our angry and hateful thoughts are just as problematical as the actual action of murder.

“…And,” he continues, “if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

Anyone who thinks or says to another, Fool or Idiot, says Jesus, is subject to the fires of God’s judgment – separation from God and from all that is true and good, a separation he likens to the fires of Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem where the city refuse was dumped and burned. The judgement we think is reserved for the literal murderer, also hangs over everyone who is angry, bitter or contemptuous.

“So, when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23). DA Carson comments, ‘How easy it is to substitute ceremony for integrity, purity and love; but Jesus will have none of it.’ Before going to church, Jesus says, ensure your relationship with others is sorted out.

Lust. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’” Jesus continues (5:27). Society often turns a blind eye towards adultery, undercutting marriage as a lifelong commitment. However, Jesus sharpens the focus: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (5:28). By labeling lust adultery, he reveals a deeper level to the 7th commandment in terms of the 10th which prohibits covetousness.

Jesus is not prohibiting sex: the sexual relationship between a man and woman in marriage is a God-given gift. Nor is he prohibiting the normal attraction that exists between men and women. His issue is with the desires of our hearts controlling our thoughts and behavior.

Oaths. “You have heard that it was said in ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord…’” Jesus says (5:33).

There are Old Testament references permitting oath-taking, even in God’s name. For example, in Deuteronomy 10:20 we read, You shall fear the Lord your God. Him you will serve, to him you will cleave, and you will swear by his name. There are also references in the New Testament: Paul swears on God’s name and calls on God to be his witness – as we read in Romans 1:9;  2 Corinthians 1:23; and 1 Thessalonians 2:5. We also find God swearing oaths – that he will not flood the world again (Genesis 9:9-11); that he will send a Redeemer (Luke 1:68, 73); that he will raise his son from the dead (Acts 2:27-31).

All this swearing points to its real purpose – the importance of telling the truth. As one commentator has noted, swearing an oath makes the truth all the more solemn and sure.

Why then does Jesus speak about swearing falsely? Jewish commentary on the Old Testament law in Jesus’ day set out to define what oaths were binding and what were not. One rabbi taught that if you swore an oath by Jerusalem, you were NOT bound by your oath. If, however, you swore an oath toward Jerusalem, you were bound by your oath.

The swearing of oaths became a game you played. Depending on how you played it, you could get away with lying and deception. It was against this kind of casuistry that Jesus spoke.

By relating every oath to God, because everything is ultimately under God’s direction, he presses the point of truthfulness. Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No’. Who hasn’t distorted the truth – for example, to put others down and to push ourselves up? Or who of us has said we will do something and then reneged on the commitment?

Rights. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth…’” (5:38) – words of the Mosaic law found in Exodus 21 and Leviticus 24.

The law is both prescriptive and restrictive. If an assailant knocked out another person’s eye, one of the assailant’s eyes is forfeit – but not the second eye. The law provided justice but at the same time it prevented the escalation of feuding and bloodshed.

Into this scene Jesus now introduces a radical response: “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person…” Does this mean Jesus’ followers shouldn’t take up arms, enter the police force or become sentencing judges and magistrates?

Commentators agree that Jesus is speaking about personal abuse towards his people. In times where we might suffer because of our faith, we should nevertheless stand up against evil for the sake of our neighbours.

Love. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (5:43).

Behind Jesus’ words lies the deeper truth about God: how good and gracious he is to both the righteous and the unrighteous – he makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. If God is like this, what would our world be like if God’s people prayed for all who oppose God?

Perfection. “Be perfect therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).

People used to say how much better the world would be if everyone got back to the basics of the Ten Commandments. But this isn’t what Jesus is saying. His diagnosis of the human dilemma isn’t a matter of do’s and don’ts. Rather he sees a much deeper problem – the desires of our hearts.

Indeed, under certain conditions the muck at the bottom of our hearts, surfaces. We all need God’s help and, amazingly, this is something God is willing to provide.

We get a glimpse of this where Jesus continues: ‘so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” (5:45). God wants to work within us, to pass on his moral genes. He wants us to bear the fruit of the Spirit – fruit that reveals the work of God’s Word and his Spirit in our lives.

Jesus is telling us that our broken relationship with God has consequences: judgement and the fires of Gehenna. But as we read on in Matthew and the rest of the New Testament, we learn that Jesus himself has paid the penalty of our self-absorption.  Yes, we all like sheep have gone astray, but the Lord has laid on Jesus the penalty we deserve. He did this because God’s nature is also to have mercy. When Jesus died, he took the penalty for our hatred, our deceit, our lust, our insistence on our rights, our lack of love – indeed for all our imperfections.

Where is our hope for freedom – in a long list of do’s and don’ts? Or is our freedom found in confessing our broken relationship with Christ and in a heartfelt desire to honor him?

Camus’ Caligula seemed free to do anything he wanted. But was he really free? The play concludes with Caligula facing his murderers, saying: “I have chosen a wrong path, a path that leads to nothing. My freedom isn’t the right one…. Oh, how oppressive is this darkness!”

True freedom is not the licence to do as we like, but the liberty to do what we know is right.

A prayer. Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much our own ways and the desires of our own hearts, and have broken your holy laws. We have left undone the things that we ought to have done, and we have done what we ought not to have done. Yet, good Lord, have mercy upon us; restore all those who are truly penitent, according to your promises declared to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. And grant merciful Father, for his sake, that we may live a godly and obedient life, to the glory of your holy name.  Amen.

© John G. Mason

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‘Ash Wednesday’

‘Salt and Light in a Troubled World’

Loud voices today insist there is no God, leaving us adrift on the ocean of life without an agreed moral compass. Persuasive voices appeal to our basic, albeit unthinking instincts, while the profounder, wiser voices that speak to the depths of our souls are drowned out.

Into this world of confusion and noise, anger and division, Jesus’ timeless words to all his followers stand out: “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13, 14).

Jesus’ metaphor of salt is double-edged: his followers are to bring out the flavor of what it means to be men and women; we are also to act as a preservative, slowing down the decay of society. Both a tall order!

He has in mind the impact of the counter-cultural lifestyle he has just identified in his eight beatitudes – the ‘blessed’ who would experience the incomparable joys of God’s kingdom (Matthew 5:3-12). They are the people who understand their spiritual poverty before God, who mourn their failure to honor God and who grieve for a world that turns its back on God; they are ones who, instead of engaging in the power play and deceptions of the world, walk the tougher path of humility and service, truth and peace.

Indeed, it was because Jesus knew humanity without God would always spiral away from truth and goodness, that he called on his followers to be the salt of the earth. He expects everyone of us who has turned to him in repentance and faith, to live in a way that exemplifies the beauty, goodness and joy of Godly living, and slow down the rot of self-interest and greed, of injustice and the unchecked power-play of social elites. Today’s world either ignores or simply rejects the reality that none of us is good. We’re all flawed.

As Jesus was all too aware the world needs good and godly examples pointing to him and his kingdom. But this will only happen when his followers don’t become insipid. That’s why he warns against salt losing its saltiness: “…if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet” (Matthew 5:13b).

NaCl is a stable compound. However, in the ancient world, salt was obtained more from salt marshes and contained many impurities. The actual salt could be leeched out, leaving a substance that tasted salty but in fact was worthless. ‘Watch out,’ Jesus warns, ‘that you don’t become insipid, wishy-washy fools’.

How do people view you? Do you claim to be a believer, but your life remains unchanged? Is your lifestyle directed by the culture or by the Bible? Are you just as greedy, unforgiving, and as selfish as everyone around you? ‘If you call yourself a follower of mine,’ Jesus says, ‘let your life be transformed by my words, for “You are the salt of the earth”’.

In his Letter to the Colossians Paul the Apostle writes: Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time… Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone (4:5-6).

Salt here is a metaphor for sparkling conversations that trigger questions about life. Have you considered ways you could use news items and opinion columns to ask questions and spark conversations about the goodness of God and his good news?

“You are the light of the world…” Jesus continues (Matthew 5:14). Negatively he is saying that there is a darkness about our human existence – something we easily forget because we live in an age that has turned away from God’s compass bearings.

Up until the 1970s morality in the West was grounded in the Judaeo-Christian ethic. But now all has changed. Few leaders anywhere would challenge the prevailing assumption that there is no morally binding objective authority or truth above the individual.

Some 700 years before Jesus was born, Isaiah wrote of the birth of God’s King. In chapter 9 he speaks of the people walking in darkness and seeing a great light: On those living in a land where the shadow of death falls, a light has dawned. A child will be born. He will be called “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

Indeed, in John chapter 8 we read Jesus’ electrifying words: “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life”. God, the source of all true light, has come into our world in person. Jesus, the light who reveals God, calls us out from the darkness of our own ego into the light.

But how will our world today come to know him? “You are the light of the world,” Jesus says. “A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house…” (Matthew 5:14f).

‘Everything you are, everything you do,’ Jesus says, ‘must reflect all I have taught you.’ He expects us to reflect the light of God in our lives to the world. Yet do we? Do we endeavor to live out what he teaches in his Sermon on the Mount? Or do we hide the light of our faith?

“Let your light shine before others,” Jesus says, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven…” (Matthew 5:16).

‘Live your life in the light of my words,’ he says, ‘and others will be drawn to my light and love’. It’s an awesome thought. We’re all involved. When we’re tempted to despair at the moral decline around us, we need to ask ourselves, ‘How do my family and friends, my colleagues see me? Just like everyone else, or as someone who knows the hope and the joy of God’s gospel?’

Jesus calls us to two tasks – to be salt and light. As salt we are to play our part as Godly examples of what it means to be men and women and so slow down society’s decay. As light we are to awaken people to God’s truth, with its hope and joy. Beware therefore of sin or compromise that reduces your Godly influence as salt. Beware of hiding the light of your faith through laziness or fear.

How are we to do this in a world that thinks it has all the answers? Ask questions. Ask if there is any real and long-lasting hope in the noise of today. And look for ways to show how good God is.

Pray for God’s grace that the light in your life will shine for everyone to see – in your kindness and care for others; in the way you cope with the challenges of life. Jesus will use our good works and our words to draw people to his light so that on the last day they too will glorify God. “You are the salt of the earth,… You are the light of the world.”

Prayers: God, our refuge and strength, the author of all godliness, hear the prayers of your people: and so grant us that whatever we ask for in faith we may surely obtain; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Teach us, gracious Lord, to begin our works with reverence, to go on in obedience, and finish them with love; and then to wait patiently in hope, and with cheerful countenance to look up to you, whose promises are faithful and rewards infinite; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

© John G. Mason

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‘Ash Wednesday’

‘The King’s Speech…’

Great leaders are remembered for their speeches as well as their accomplishments – George Washington for his Inaugural address as President, Abraham Lincoln for his iconic Gettysburg address, and Martin Luther King for his Washington Speech, ‘I have a dream…’.

Today we turn to the introduction of a most memorable speech – Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount recorded in the Gospel of St Matthew, chapter 5, verses 1 through 12.

In chapter 1 Matthew introduces Jesus as God’s long-promised king, a descendent of the great King David (1:1). Foreigners, the Magi, came from the East and worshipped him as king (2:1-6). At his baptism Jesus is called God’s ‘Son’, a title reserved for the kings of Israel (3:14-17; cp Psalm 2). And by the close of chapter 4, we learn that people have come to hear Jesus from the reaches of the vast empire that David and Solomon had ruled in the golden age of Israel’s history some thousand years before (4:23-25).

But there is something unexpected about the opening chapters: Matthew doesn’t record one word from Jesus himself. It seems deliberate. Matthew wants us to know that when we do hear from Jesus, we are not simply hearing from a ‘nice guy’, but from the great king. The Sermon on the Mount, we could say, is the King’s Speech!

Matthew chapter 5 opens on a new scene. A huge crowd had gathered on a hillside and Jesus used the natural amphitheater to address the two groups of people present – followers and a large crowd of onlookers. And despite the diversity of his vast audience, Jesus’ words are electrifying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.”

Known as Beatitudes each line in his introduction begins, Blessed are … Blessed is sometimes translated happy, but that identifies just one aspect of the meaning. To be blessed is to receive God’s approval and as this is God’s universe, God’s blessing is the greatest honor anyone can receive. From the outset Jesus’ words challenge us. Do we want the blessing that comes from celebrity status because we are perceived to be successful? Or do we truly want, above everything else in life, God’s blessing?

The first beatitude reveals that the really blessed are the poor in spirit. Jesus isn’t speaking here of the materially destitute or the psychologically impoverished, the spiritual elite or the prayerful mystics. He’s referring to the spiritually destitute.

Poverty in spirit is exemplified by the tax collector in Jesus’ story in Luke 18:9-14. Over against the pride of the Pharisee, the tax collector humbly and honestly prayed from a corner in the Temple, ‘God, Be merciful to me, a sinner’. Poverty of spirit is the admission of our failure to love and honor God first in our lives.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”, Jesus continues. These people grieve for personal failure before God. They also mourn because, even dimly aware of God’s purity, they see how the world without God lives in darkness. They weep because of the erosion of truth, because of the greed, cynicism, and lack of compassion evident everywhere.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (5:5). Meekness isn’t a reference to the weak or insipid. It is a strong word, referring to the deep, selfless resolve to serve the best interests of others. Meekness is not insisting on your rights. It’s thinking of others before self – and hence not being on the front foot with criticism. No one of us is perfect. Jesus himself is the supreme example of true meekness.

The meek learn to look at life from God’s viewpoint and are content. Their egos are not so inflated they think they must always have more. In Christ they see themselves as possessing everything (2 Cor 6:10; cp 1 Cor 3:21-23). Furthermore, a billion years into eternity (if we can speak of eternity in terms of time), God’s people in the new heaven and the new earth will still be rejoicing that this beatitude is literally true. They will be grateful that by grace they learned to be meek during their initial threescore years and ten.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness” (5:6). Hunger and thirst are vivid images of desire. Righteousness suggests justice and truth. To hunger for righteousness is to long that our lives reflect the mind and will of God. There’s an inner longing for heaven where righteousness and justice will prevail.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (5:7). Mercy embraces forgiveness for the guilty, and also compassion for the suffering and needy. The promise isn’t mercy from others but significantly from God himself.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (5:8). Throughout the Bible the heart is the center of our being – of who we are. Purity in heart is indispensable for our relationship with God, or to use Jesus’ words, for seeing God.

Purity of heart isn’t outward conformity to rules. Rather, our heart, our thoughts and attitudes need to be pure. ‘What do you think about when your mind slips into neutral?’ Jesus asks. ‘What dominates your private thoughts? Do you let your mind linger on sights that have tempted you? Is the real inner you expressed in your outward words and actions?’

Psalm 24 asks, Who shall ascend unto the hill of the Lord? They who have clean hands and a pure heart,… and in The Letter to the Hebrews we read, Make every effort… to be holy;  without holiness no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).

The pure in heart are blessed in that they will see God. While this will be especially true in the new heaven and the new earth, it’s also true now. Our perception of God and his ways, even our fellowship with him, depends on the purity of our heart.

“Blessed are the peacemakers” Jesus says (5:9). Jesus isn’t talking about those who yearn for peace, but all who work at making peace. Jesus is the greatest peacemaker ever – through his cross, making peace between us and God by removing the stain of sin that separates us. His death also makes peace possible amongst all men and women.

Jesus isn’t only speaking about gospel peacemaking. He is also saying that his followers are to be peacemakers, seeking solutions to ease tensions, to reduce conflict, and to ensure that people understand one another. This isn’t easy, especially when we personally have been hurt by others. It’s very easy to forget that ‘a soft answer turns away wrath’, and that we shouldn’t allow ‘the sun to go down on our anger’ (Ephesians 4:26). To be a peacemaker means that we don’t bear grudges or nurse our anger.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:10-12). Jesus here restricts the blessing to all who suffer persecution because of righteousness — people who are determined to live as Jesus lived. Persecution can take the form of physical hardship, torture, imprisonment, death. But there are more subtle forms: mocking and personal rejection. This beatitude is potentially the most searching, for if we never experience some kind of rejection for our faith in a fallen world, are we truly a follower of Jesus?

Who then are the truly blessed? Jesus expects our lives to change radically. Instead of self-sufficiency in our relationship with God, we need to understand our poverty. Instead of dismissing unbelievers, mourn for a world that ignores God. Instead of playing for power to achieve kingdom ends in a fallen world, walk the tougher path of humility and service. Hunger for truth and righteousness. Show mercy, pursue purity, and work for peace. Reckon on the reality that life won’t always be easy for God’s people. But, Jesus says, stay with me.  It will be worth every bit of it.

Prayers. Lord, you have taught us that whatever we do without love is worth nothing. Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love, the true bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whoever lives is counted dead before you: grant this, for the sake of your only Son, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Almighty God, we thank you for the gift of your holy word. May it be a lantern to our feet, a light to our paths, and strength to our lives. Take us and use us to love and serve all people in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the name of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

© John G. Mason

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