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If you have been in church long enough, *you are probably familiar with the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12). They’re one of most commonly memorized texts in Sunday school and you would have at least heard a sermon or two about it. These eight short sayings (called “beatitudes” because they all begin with the phrase “Blessed are . . .”) lay out Jesus’ core teachings in a significant way, and they show us what God is really about.
*Question 1 (Word Cloud)
Which of the Beatitudes do you remember?
Imagine you are one of the crowds following Jesus and some of you came from Galilee, some from the Decapolis, some from Jerusalem and some from Judea.
*Image of the Mount overlooking Sea of Galilee
You follow Jesus up the mountainside, he sits down and the disciples are gathered around and you’re part of the crowd straining to see and hear him. What is this wise teacher going to say?
He begins with “Blessed are…” and you nod because it’s a familiar way of teaching in the Jewish culture. People would say things like “Blessed are those who eat vegetables for they will not be constipated.” It’s a familiar form of teaching. But as Jesus speaks, you realize it’s a familiar form of teaching but the content is completely surprising, even shocking! He says:
*Matthew 5:3-10 (NRSV)
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kin-dom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kin-dom of heaven.
You’re not sure if you heard Jesus correctly. What is this person saying? It sounds like Jesus is turning the values of the world upside down.
Bless-ed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Bless-ed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. That just doesn’t make sense. *It’s all…upside down. That isn’t how the world is. To be poor in spirit, merciful and meek will get you nowhere in a culture grounded in competition and fear. But I don’t think Jesus is talking about how the world is. Jesus is talking about how the world is meant to be, and what God is really all about.
In God’s kin-dom, those who receive God’s favour are not the privileged classes of the Roman Empire or the Jewish religious establishment. The Beatitudes are spoken to those whom God deems worthy, not by virtue of their own achievements or status in society, but because God says you are worthy regardless of who you are or what you’ve done. You’re worthy just because. And not only that. God chooses to be on the side of the weak, the forgotten, the despised, the justice seekers, the peace makers, and those persecuted because of their beliefs.
Jesus was teaching an alternative wisdom—the Reign of God, the kin-dom of God—which overturns the conventional trust in power, possessions, and prestige. We can see this even in the people surrounding and following Jesus. The twelve disciples were fishermen, which was hardly a prestigious position or career. The crowds of people who followed him were on the margins of society under the Roman empire – the poor, the sick, the afflicted, those possessed by demons – people who were regarded as losers in that society. And these were the people Jesus was talking to. He makes it very clear, “No, you are not losers. You are to be called children of God. Yours is the kin-dom of heaven. You are the salt. You are the light.”
In God’s kin-dom, these people are blessed. So what does it mean to be blessed?
*Question 2 (Word Cloud)
What does it mean to be blessed?
*What does it mean to be blessed? #blessed
What does it mean to be blessed? The word is used often, in a variety of ways. Maybe you have heard or seen someone express how blessed they are on social media! #blessed Whether it is sharing about a new car, or an renovated kitchen or an exotic vacation- it is common for people to share boldly without apology: I’m so blessed! And i want to say there’s nothing wrong with that. We should be grateful for all that we have been given in life.
But let’s be clear- there is a difference between being blessed and being privileged. And many of us are privileged, including me. And it’s important for us to be aware of what comes from our privilege. I guess it would probably be uncomfortable to share incredible photos on social media, saying, I’m so privileged! It would probably be more honest but it would be uncomfortable.
I make this distinction between us talking about being blessed and being privileged because I think about all those who are impoverished and disadvantaged in our world and what would we tell them? That God continually blesses us with expensive meals and trips around the world while they are ignored?
What does it truly mean to bless and be blessed?
The word beatitude literally means- God’s blessings. So, in the biblical sense, a blessing is a favor or gift bestowed by God. And here in the Sermon on the Mount, we hear a list of blessings from Jesus that are quite unexpected and astounding. In fact, they are not blessings that we would usually recognize as blessings. And because we don’t really know how to make sense of them, some would take the Beatitudes and make them into a to-do list or a to-be list. We think of this list as a sort of challenge or new commandments. Perhaps if I’m meeker or mournier or purer or more persecuted, then I can get a blessing. But that’s the wrong way of understanding these statements. There are no ‘shoulds’ or ‘should nots’ in the Beatitudes. These statements describe what already is.
*It was more like Jesus was looking out at all the people who had come to listen and saying, “I see you and where you are, and I want you to know that you are bless-ed.” Not #blessed in the conventional way we understand blessing. Not the type of blessed that is really just religious bragging about how you are living right. This bless-ed isn’t that. In fact, this bless-ed is almost the opposite of that. This bless-ed says that in the face of all that doesn’t seem blessed about your situation, God is with you. God has not abandoned you. God sees you and loves you, and what the world sees as success and “blessing” is different from what God sees.
Nadia Bolz-Weber suggests that the Beatitudes aren’t about a list of conditions but just an actual moment of blessing…of Jesus proclaiming a blessing over the people, as everyone gathers together. They are a starting place for all the teaching that Jesus was about to do. *Perhaps Jesus wanted to encourage them and remind them that what God values is not what the world values. What if Jesus looked out and saw a crowd of people who were hungry and broken, and had come to believe that they did not deserve to be blessed? We know the Sermon on the Mount would go on to tell people a lot about what to do, but what if in those beginning moments, Jesus wanted to start by telling them what they already are – blessed and beloved? Jesus had come from the Jordan where he was baptized by John. Perhaps Jesus, after hearing God’s voice proclaiming his belovedness, was trying to make sure everyone knew they were beloved too.
He begins with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
*Question 3 (Open)
What do you understand “poor in spirit” to mean?
*Jesus says you are blessed when you recognize you are spiritually poor. The poor in spirit know there are few spiritual resources within themselves. They know they can’t do it alone and need help from above. The poor in spirit KNOW they need God and the kin-dom of God.
Notice Jesus uses the present tense: “the kin-dom of God is theirs.” He doesn’t say “will be theirs”. It is a present-day reality. When we acknowledge our spiritual poverty, the kin-dom of God is ours and we are blessed. God’s kin-dom doesn’t come later, it is now.
*Cynthia Bourgeault says from a wisdom perspective, “poor in spirit” means an inner attitude of receptivity and openness; one is blessed because only in this state is it possible to receive anything.
Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind- a New Perspective on Christ and His Message
She shares a Zen story about a young seeker, keen to become the student of a certain master, and is invited to an interview at the master’s house.
The master begins to pour him a cup of tea and the student rambles on about all his spiritual experience, his past teachers, his insights and skills, and his pet philosophies. The master listens silently and continues to pour the cup of tea. He pours and pours, and when the cup is overflowing, he keeps right on pouring. Eventually the student notices what’s going on and interrupts his monologue to say, “Stop pouring! The cup is full.”
The teacher says, “Yes, and so are you. How can I possibly teach you?”
This is a sobering lesson for us too. In our day-to-day lives, are we so full of ourselves that we can’t receive anything from God? So full of our own ego, so full of our worries and anxieties, so full of the demands of life, so full of our own expectations and the expectations of others that we feel overwhelmed? We need to learn to empty ourselves so we can receive from God.
And who better to learn from?
*Jesus and Self-emptying
Jesus is our ultimate role model for self-emptying. He gave up equality with God, the writer of Philippians tells us (Phil. 2:3-7). He emptied himself, was born in human form and became obedient to the point of giving up his life. Jesus modeled the path of kenosis. Taken from the Greek word in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, it means to “let go” or “to empty oneself.” In Jesus, this self-emptying pattern revealed itself as “not love stored up but love utterly poured out.” (Cynthia Bourgeault)
In Jesus, God shows us what it looks like to be this vulnerable, humble, and self-giving. In him, we see one who did not run from the things that broke his heart, nor did he first calculate what he could gain from a situation. Jesus sought instead to give away his life, so he and others might flourish as God intends.
How can we practise this kind of self-emptying like Jesus did?
*This kind of self-emptying requires an attitude of humility.
To be poor in spirit is to surrender yourself to something much bigger than your own ego. It’s about not calculating what you could gain from a situation but asking how you could give away your time, your resources, perhaps even your life so you and others might flourish as God intends. *The great theologian, Walter Bruggemann, explains that to walk humbly with God means “to abandon all self-sufficiency, to acknowledge in daily attitude and act that life is indeed derived from the reality of God.”
To walk humbly with God means we admit that we don’t have all of the answers and are instead seeking to walk alongside the One who does. In faith, we allow God to move us from the places where we are stuck or scared, and into God’s definition of wholeness, with Jesus walking by our side. And that may require us to let go of the illusion of having control in our lives and instead, live with an open heart and open hands.
“Blessed is the poor in spirit for theirs is the kin-dom of heaven.”
*Jesus is saying you are blessed when you are living a simple life with an open heart and open hands. You are blessed when you are willing to let go of the illusion of control and humbly realize that you are safe in God’s hands. You are blessed when you are able to practise self-emptying, and there is space in your heart and your spirit to receive fully from God.
Don’t let your anxieties and worries overwhelm you. Don’t be led by your ego. Don’t be so preoccupied with the successes and demands of life.
You are blessed when there is space in your heart and spirit to receive richly from God.
We all want to be blessed this way – to have space in our hearts and spirits to receive fully from God. But it is so hard to live into this in a culture that values all of the opposites of what we long for. We need daily reminders and a lot of support from our siblings in Christ just to stay focused on living out these desires.
There’s also a part of us that sometimes finds it hard to trust God. Can we really trust God to take care of us? Can we abandon self-sufficiency and acknowledge in our daily attitudes and actions that our lives are truly derived from the reality of God?
To stay open and humble and be willing to self-empty requires us to let go of the idea of control.
*Henri Nouwen says, “It is very hard to allow emptiness in our lives. Emptiness requires a willingness not to be in control, a willingness to let something new and unexpected happen. It requires trust, surrender, and openness to guidance. God wants to dwell in our emptiness. But as long as we are afraid of God and God’s actions in our lives, it is unlikely that we will offer our emptiness to God. Let’s pray that we can let go of our fear of God and embrace God as the source of all love.”
*Question 4 (Open)
In what area of your life do you find it difficult to let go of control?
People didn’t have to be persecuted to receive a blessing, people didn’t have to mourn to be welcomed in the kingdom of heaven. These were not rules for being disciples. The common people who followed Jesus were hungry for a new way to live, a new way to be. Jesus’ words offered them comfort and hope. This word “bless-ed” says that in the face of all that doesn’t seem blessed about your situation, God is with you. God sees you and loves you. We are also a world in transition today. Perhaps in a different way from the Jews in Jesus’ time. But these words still ring true for us. Words of comfort, words of blessing, words reminding us that even when things are not going our way, we are still blessed because God is with us and the kin-dom of God is ours.
As we begin this journey exploring the Beatitudes, know that they all build on each other. Charles James Cook writes, “Jesus meant for the Beatitudes to be for everyone… Living daily into the spirit of Beatitudes involves looking at them as a collection of the whole, rather than looking at each one individually. Each is related to the others, and they build on one another. Those who are meek, meaning humble are more likely to hunger and thirst for righteousness because they remain open to the knowledge of God…they invite us into a way of being in the world that leads to particular practices.”
So we begin this journey knowing we are blessed when we acknowledge our need for God. We are blessed when we stay open and humble, and are willing to let go and self-empty because it is in emptying — in pouring out our love, and creating space that we experience the fullness of God.
*Question 5 (Open)
What does self-emptying look like for you?
Reflecting on what it means to have the attitude of humility is important. But perhaps the most important thing I hope for you to take away from today is that Jesus has proclaimed you blessed and beloved. Whatever you may be facing in life, God is with you and the kin-dom of God is already yours. Like Jesus, we can be lavish with our love and blessings on others as the very first thing.
What if we just looked at each other and said things like:
Blessed are the grouchy, for we love you anyway.
Blessed are those battling with depression.
Blessed are those who are not always sure they are doing okay.
Blessed are the anxious who aren’t certain what the future holds.
Blessed are the worriers who aren’t sure whether things will ever change.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
*“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and God’s rule.” (v.3, The Message)