Sunday, January 27, 2008

Good on Ya!

Texts: Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12

DID YOU EVER DISCOVER some exciting club or group you really wanted to belong to?

It might have been that clique of cool kids when you were in Junior High. It might have been the debating society or the basketball team when you were in college. It might have been the elite businessmen’s group when you were struggling to get a foothold in life. And you thought to yourself, "How do I get in? What are the rules and requirements so I can keep them and belong? If I get in, what are the benefits?" Or maybe you knew what the benefits were, you just wanted to know how to get them!

As we learned last week, after John the Baptist was thrown into prison, Jesus returned to Galilee and began preaching, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!" We learned that the "kingdom of heaven" or the ‘kingdom of God" is how things will be when God Himself rules as the only Lord and King in the hearts of all people. The kingdom of heaven is a group really worth getting into! And in our passage from Matthew chapter 5, Jesus seems to be laying out the membership rules and benefits for anyone who wants to try and belong.

We know these chapters 5-7 as The Sermon on the Mount, and verses 3 to 12 of the fifth chapter as "the Beatitudes." "Beatitude" is Latin for "blessed." The word in the original Greek is "makarioi" , and it actually does not mean, "God blesses you if you’re like this"; that would need a different Greek word altogether. No, this word "makarioi" means "Boy, these people sure have a good deal in life! Boy, are they fortunate! You should congratulate them!" Or, as the Australians say, "Good on ya!"

"Good on ya if you’re poor in spirit!" says Jesus. Good on ya if you mourn, if you’re meek, if you’re merciful and all the rest! People should envy you! You’re in the club! You belong to the kingdom of God!

But there’s something very odd about these Beatitudes. Most of them don’t describe a way of life a normal human being would envy. Jesus' standards are totally upside-down compared to the standards of this fallen world.

Let’s look at how Jesus describes what it takes to belong to the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." But the world favors the bold, the assertive, the aggressive. The world congratulates the person who declares he doesn’t need God to be a fulfilled, moral human being. But Jesus says "Good on ya!" to people who humbly yield to God, who bow before Him and accept that He knows better than they do what is best for them. He says "Good on ya!" to people who keep on trusting God even when people make fun of them for it, even when obeying God seems to put them behind in business and personal ambition. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven! And of course it is, for the poor in spirit have willingly accepted God as King!

Jesus says, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." The world understands mourning for lost hopes and lost expectations, lost money and lost loved ones. We sinful human beings may get rail against these things, but we accept that they happen. But Jesus is talking about a whole different kind of mourning. He says, "Good on ya, when the very idea of sin and death make you upset and unspeakably sad. Good on ya, when you realize that it’s the sin in yourself and every human being that makes the world the terrible place it can be. Good on ya, when you shed salt tears over the insult your sin presents to your Creator God. You’re to be congratulated, for you will be comforted with the comfort of God."

Jesus says, "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." The satisfied sinner despises the meek, for he thinks "meek" equals "weak." He’s wrong there, for to make something meek is to take something strong and wild and make it gentle and tame, without crushing its spirit. Think of a wild stallion, that’s been broken to the bridle and bit. "Good on ya," says Jesus, "when your human will has been tamed by the original Horse Whisperer, God. Good on ya, when God and His will are firmly in the saddle of your life. Good on ya, when God can lead you anywhere He wants you to go, and you trust Him to know what He’s doing, even if you don’t know where He’s leading. Good on ya," says Jesus, "when you’re like your forefather Abraham, who left his home and country and believed the promise of the Lord God that he and his descendants would inherit the land." Abraham's descendants thought that just referred to the land of Canaan. "But you," says Jesus, "you who are meek under the reins and the reign of God, you will inherit the whole earth!"

Jesus says, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." The world doesn’t think that’s anything to envy. Speak of righteousness among most human beings, and they’ll think you mean "self-righteousness." The nicer ones will think you mean social righteousness, being good to the poor and the outcast. But that’s not good enough if you want to belong to the kingdom of heaven. "Good on ya," Jesus says, "when more than anything you desire the bright, burning righteousness of God." God’s divine righteousness isn’t content with anything less than perfect holiness, love, and justice towards Himself or towards any creature. "Good on ya, if that’s what you really, really want," says Jesus, "because you certainly will be filled with it to the full."

Jesus says, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." When I think of the world’s mercy, I think of the movie Schindler’s List, where the concentration camp commandant is in the habit of taking potshots at the Jewish prisoners as they cross the yard outside his office. I can’t recall who it is, if it’s his mistress or if it’s Schindler himself, but somebody tells him how much stronger and grander it would be for him to show mercy to the poor prisoners. And for a few moments he enjoys the feeling of himself as a merciful man. And then he goes back to shooting prisoners at random out his window, because he enjoys even more the power of being able to end lives whenever he wants. Either way, he feels like some kind of god. But Jesus says, "Good on ya if you’re merciful, because you recognize and condemn your own weakness and sin before you go condemning the sins of others. Good on ya, when you realize that you’re no better than any other human being, and so you treat others the way you’d want God to treat you. Good on ya, because you’ve put yourself in the position to receive the mercy of God!"

Jesus says, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." The worldly man thinks his heart is basically good. He doesn’t realize that his heart is an idol factory, that it’s split and corrupted by all his desires and cravings and lusts. He doesn’t understand the commandment to love God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength. He thinks he could stroll into God’s presence any time he wants, providing he could make his way to the throne room of heaven. And he probably thinks God wouldn’t be anything special once he saw Him in person. But the natural sinful human is fatally wrong. Almighty God is too pure to look on sin. God on high cannot-- yes, cannot--allow sin to continue in His unveiled presence. He puts up with our sin as long as we are here on earth, but when we stand before His throne, all that is not pure and singlehearted and devoted will be destroyed by the fire of His holiness. So Jesus says, "Good on ya if you’re pure in heart, because some day you will experience the greatest, most inexpressible joy that can come to a human being-- you will see the face of God and live." And, "Good on ya," says Jesus, "because if your heart is focussed on God on this earth, you will see Him working everywhere you lay your eyes. You’ll even see Him in things that are wrong and bad, because they’ll contrast with His goodness. You’ll understand how God is overcoming the evil of this world, and you will rejoice."

Jesus says, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God." In this world, peace means the absence of conflict. To be a peacemaker means to stop people fighting, whether that really solves the problem or not. The sinful person of this world imagines that God is at peace with us, and the only conflict is between individuals and groups and nations. But the fact is, the most horrible war this world has ever known is between all humanity and the Lord God of heaven. We’ve all been in rebellion against Him since the Garden of Eden, and all our human fights and conflicts come out of that great war. And in our sinfulness, we deserve for God to come at us with the whole arsenal of His wrath. We’re not just at war against God; He’s also at war against us.

But in the midst of this cosmic war, God Himself declares that He wants to make peace. Remember what the angel said when Jesus was born? "Peace on earth, good will towards men with whom God is pleased." God makes the first offer of peace, offered to us through the blood of His Son Jesus Christ, offered for us on the Cross. So Jesus says, "Good on ya, if you strive to make peace between God and man by spreading the gospel of peace." He says, "Good on ya, when you bring human enemies into the peace of God. For once they have made peace with God, they can no longer be at war with one another. Good on ya, because my Father is the great Peacemaker, and if you’re a peacemaker like Him, that will show the family resemblance between you and God Himself. You’ll be proving you’re His sons."

And Jesus says, "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." In this worldly life, we reap the bad reward for things we’re doing wrong. We suffer for things we think we’re doing right, but maybe we aren’t. Sometimes we put up with this and realize we’re getting what we deserve. But a lot of times we sinners kick and complain that we’re being persecuted, and whoever’s doing it to us has got to pay. But Jesus says, "Good on ya, when you’ve really got a hold on what God wants you to go and how God wants you to be, and people punish you and scorn you for it. Good on ya, because you’ve transferred your citizenship from the kingdom of this world to the kingdom of heaven."

Well, this is all very well. But I look at myself, and I think, I will never, ever qualify for membership in the kingdom of heaven!

I’m not poor in spirit: I’m full of injured pride! I may mourn, but it’s over my own dead dreams and disappointments! I’m not meek: my will is a landfill piled high with unruly passions! I don’t hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness: I’m greedy for what is miiiiiinnnnnne! I’m not really merciful: it’s only cowardice that keeps me from giving certain people the sharp edge of my tongue! I’m not pure in heart: I make God share a very messy heart room with my idols and desires! I’m no peacemaker: I just don’t like to be bothered with conflict! And if I ever feel I’m being persecuted for righteousness’ sake, it’s only for an earthbound, temporary righteousness, not for the eternal heavenly righteousness of Christ my God.

And you know what? If you search your own heart with the lamp of God’s Word, you’ll find that you’re exactly the same. None of us, not one of us, deserves to enter the kingdom of God. The Beatitudes of Christ are not some quiz in a magazine, where we tick off items to see if we could qualify for some elite group or other. Not a single one of us can say we come anywhere near the standard Jesus sets in His sermon. In our natural selves, we have nothing to be congratulated for, nothing Jesus can say "Good on ya!" about. In our sinful natures, we have no hope of the kingdom of heaven.

How can we ever get in? Where is the key?

The key to the kingdom is located in verse 11 of the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus says, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me."

"Because of me," Jesus says of Himself. That's the secret! "Good on ya, when you are so identified with Me, Jesus of Nazareth, that the people of this world persecute you just like they persecute Me." Jesus Himself is the key to the kingdom, and He gives us an immediate pass wherever He goes.

Jesus is the One who is truly poor in spirit, who humbly trusts in the plan of God. Jesus is the only one who can truly mourn over the sin of this world, and at the cross, He felt all the burden and horror of that sin as if it were all His own. Jesus is the One who has suffered His great power to be tamed and meekened: as He said before going to the Cross, "Not my will, Father, but yours be done." Jesus alone genuinely hungers and thirsts for divine righteousness, for He alone knows what a gloriously satisfying thing it is. Jesus alone is truly merciful, for He shared our human condition that we might be granted the mercy of God. Jesus is the one true peacemaker, the great mediator between God and Man, making peace through the blood of His cross. Jesus Christ is the only Man who can truly claim to have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake alone, because Jesus is the only Man who had no sins of His own to answer for.

But Jesus Christ does not remain alone. He came to earth to bring us into His kingdom with Him. He came to bring us in not as terrified subjects or as slaves, but as His brothers and sisters, as joyful sons and daughters of God. Trust Him to do everything for you that you can never do for yourself. Rely on Him to bring you through all the trials and temptations of the Christian life and install you at last in the riches and joys of His kingdom. Be grateful that you can share His trials; in fact, rejoice and be glad, for you join your brothers the prophets and your sisters the martyrs and all who have suffered for His sake. It is Jesus’ good pleasure to give you the blessings of the kingdom of heaven. Receive His marvellous gift, with His congratulations. Good on ya!

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