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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.