This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Author: Rev. Charles Kooger of Regina Saskatchewan
Have you ever baked a cake? How about a pineapple upside-down cake? A pineapple upside-down cake illustrates in a pretty good way what Jesus was getting at in the Beatitudes. The word ‘beatitude’ of course means ‘a blessedness’, and this passage is Jesus’ description of what blessedness truly is. The Beatitudes are among Jesus’ first words of ministry, according to Matthew the Evangelist. They take place in the opening weeks of his teaching, and they are Jesus’ introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, which is an extended call to serious discipleship and the basic rule of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Why do you suppose this is how Jesus begins his teaching? It’s because he wants, right off, to set a tone, to establish what his mission is all about. It’s like when we get invited to share a word in honor of someone, at a birthday or banquet or even a funeral. In that moment we want to say something that truly represents the person whom we honor, something that gets at the character of a life, the heart of a person’s quality. And so in the Beatitudes Jesus characterizes the life of the believer. He says, This is the way it is with you. And this how it will be. This is your reality, and your future. Jesus honors those who will believe, when he speaks the truth about us. So, how is it with us? What are our lives to be?
Well, they will not be like it is in the world. Our lives, according to the Beatitudes, will be pretty much opposite from the world’s idea of the good life. The kingdom Jesus invites us into is upside down; you have to stand on your head to make it make sense in this world. It’s like a pineapple upside-down cake, where the filling drizzles out over the outside because you invert it when it comes out of the pan. The kingdom life is an inverted life. When Jesus teaches us and leads us, inner motives are revealed. Every secret thought is opened up, every deed comes under his powerful purifying work. Every heart’s character becomes obvious to all.
Here then is Jesus’ description of the godly person’s inner disposition.
Jesus says that we are blessed when we are of no account in the land, pathetic in the eyes of the world, poor in spirit. This isn’t an emotional judgment, as if Jesus were saying, “People, you’ll really be happier that way. Poverty of spirit is really good for you.” No. It’s not that Christians seek humiliation or poverty. No, this is a statement about our standing with God, about the true realities of life. And Jesus’ statement places him directly against the world’s wisdom.
The world says, blessed are the confident, those strong within, the self-reliant, those who believe in themselves. Jesus says, You are blessed if you have learned to rely only on God, not to be filled with yourself, and not to push yourself forward, to receive the praise of people. You are blessed if you gladly take the servant’s role, because God your Master will raise you up to a place of honour.
Believers, look upon Jesus, our Lord. He did not come to do his own will, but that of his Father. Jesus was not self-reliant, but depended on the daily strengthening of his Father, of the Holy Spirit, and of the holy angels too. Jesus did not have self-confidence, not in the way the world thinks of it. He wasn’t the Little Engine That Could. He was poor in spirit. But he had supreme confidence in his heavenly Father, and he was completely immersed in the mission committed to him by his Father. He trusted the one who had sent him. He humbly relied on him.
This is what the Apostle Paul calls the foolishness of God, that through our humility, through our trust in God alone, we are granted the only gift that will give us true blessedness, real beatitude, which is life in Jesus’ name. Through grasping we lose all, through letting go, we gain all. The same thing is true whether we’re talking about ambitions, or relationships, our health, and our children. It’s God’s own truth that by grasping, we shall never hold on, and that by clutching, all will slip through our fingers.
So Jesus says, Blessed are the meek, those who don’t run with claw-like hands to gather in every cent that falls from the ample udders of the North American economic cash cow. Blessed the foolish, the weak, the lowly and despised, the things that aren’t much in this world. Because such may know that it’s all because, and only because of Jesus that we have hope. One writer suggests, “Here is a chance to bless little, struggling congregations that feel they aren’t worth much of anything because they aren’t Big, Impressive, and Full of Faith!” God bless big, impressive, faith-filled congregations, may they lift the light of Christ boldly. But God is very much with all the rest of us too. Let’s rejoice in our weakness, because when we are weak, Jesus Christ is strong.
Some of our Christian schools make their students write appreciation notes to their pastors at Christmastime, a lovely tradition I must say. One hand-lettered card came from a Grade 8 student to her pastor bearing this greeting: “Dear Pastor. Thank you for coming to lead us in worship in our poor, sad little services.” And she was sincere, too! The pastor laughed with delight at his student’s brutal honesty.
Yes, it’s absolutely true, our worship services often aren’t much in the eyes of the world. A few ordinary people getting together, praying, singing some songs, reading some words, listening to some encouragement. Certainly, it is not very impressive, overall. Doesn’t it remind you of Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 1? “Think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.” Our whole endeavour of faith could be seen as a poor, sad exercise in a big, powerful world. But read 1 Corinthians 1 again, and know how our Lord looks at us. We are the chosen of God, verse 27 says, chosen to shame the world’s values, chosen to display the wisdom and holiness of our indwelling Lord Jesus. Poverty of spirit is an absolute necessity if the light of Jesus is to shine in us!
And then Jesus says, blessed are the meek. They will inherit the earth, this earth. How can that happen? How on earth will the meek inherit this earth? Only through the reversal of all the structure that is now in place. Through the upside downing of what we think we know, what is normal to us. God is going to act again, and this is his job, not mine. He will set all things straight, and right side up, according to the standards of heaven, his own perfect rule, and not the dreams of this world. And we discover that meekness is the quality that restores fallen humanity to our created place on the earth, as its rulers under the blessed care of Jesus. Not human strength, but Christ’s meekness wins the victory, and restores the creation.
God will set things right for those who mourn, whose hearts are breaking, for those who say goodbye to people they love. He will do the same for those who endure mockery and persecution, whose lives are ripped to shreds with violence of words and cruel hands. He will do the same, he will set all things right side up, for all who long for his appearing, and the day of release from bondage to sin, and the shining of Christ’s perfect righteousness. God will set things straight one day. This is what the Beatitudes are about. Not that somehow we have to do better at being meek, or righteous, or suffering, but that we may know that God has acted in Jesus Christ, and we may expect and await his acting again to make everything new.
And this is desperately needed. Because it’s actually not God and heaven that are messed up or turned upside down. It is the world that is gone awry. This world is not right side up the way it is now. Don’t we so often feel like the world is out of whack, and we’re trying to live as square pegs in round holes? Something just doesn’t fit. There are times when we can just enjoy and revel in all the delight of life and of this world, but so many other times when we are uncomfortable, distressed, and sad, looking for the peace of Christ to calm us in some deep inner place. I know we feel that, not the least, at times, right here in church. Even our desire to connect with God and each other is so incomplete, so limited and beyond our grasp. In our planet and our persons we are skewed, off-balance, upside-down.
They say the terrible Christmas tsunami that hit South Asia in 2004 and claimed so many lives, actually caused the earth to wobble on its axis. And when you look at your globe at home in your living room, even as a whole earth, the axis of our terrestrial ball is slanting off about 15 degrees. Of course I know that that’s God’s amazing design to give us the seasons, but isn’t there something suggestive about it too?
C. S. Lewis speaks in his space trilogy novels of the eldil, powerful spiritual beings, whom we would call angels, who do God’s work here among us. On Mars and Venus, they appear as perfectly vertical, shimmering columns of light. But on earth, the dark planet, the eldil are slanted. That is, they are still precisely upright and vertical with respect to Deep Space and the throne of God, but they appear off-kilter because this planet is skewed. The spiritual forces of evil have such a powerful grip on earth where we live, and Lewis reflects this in his descriptions.
Jesus Christ was crucified in order to free Planet Earth, and its people, from that iron grip. He died to set things straight and upright. As he speaks the Beatitudes to us, he looks ahead to his own journey to the cross. He is describing the pathway he was himself embarking upon. For the Beatitudes clearly lead into a crucified life. They challenge the wisdom of the world so radically that the world fights back viciously. The powers and principalities in the spiritual realms, as well as those in our day to day encounters, all rise up against this beatitudinal life, this ‘blessed’ way. Let us then be convinced that for us to live this way, following Jesus, is to die again and again to self, to the aspirations we have for our own accomplishments and glory, or to anything that the world which denies God would aspire to.
We have been using many images and word pictures to get at Jesus’ challenge to the wisdom of the world. We’ve heard many contrasts between the harmony of God’s order and the disordered fallen world. Upside down, awry, skewed, slanted, out of whack, messed up. All of them refer to a situation that needs deep healing. And that deep healing took place when Jesus closed the rift in creation on Calvary. The cross and resurrection of Jesus have become new hope for all people who have despaired of being over-comers on the world’s terms. Let’s now reject those terms, and take up afresh the kingdom Jesus places before us. Let’s take up our cross, and follow Jesus.
If we add another descriptor, then, we might say that a believer lives in the world cross-eyed, the cross before our eyes. The Beatitudes tell us of a crucified life. Christ was crucified, and lives again forever. To be blessed is to be crucified with Christ, and to live in him. The church is crucified daily, sometimes and in places also literally. Life isn’t easy for some one who seeks God. But in Jesus we find him whom we were seeking. In Jesus is all our blessedness and hope. God has acted decisively through Jesus, and we are redeemed.
People belonging to the kingdom of God, be blessed, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Hymns: PH 501, 517, 471