This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Matthew 5:1-12
Text Mt. 5:3
Sermon prepared by Rev. Robert Haven, London, Ont.
The Sermon on the Mount has inspired a mountain of books and commentary.
Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist, wrote that if all people would only practice the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, society would be transformed into a utopian kingdom. Mahatma Gandhi, an Indian Hindu, agreed.
Others, such as Julian the Apostate, a fourth-century Roman emperor, saw other opportunities: he reportedly said, "Let us then confiscate all the properties of Christians, for the Bible says, "Blessed are the poor; they will inherit the kingdom of God."
Within the evangelical church, a large segment of people known as dispensationalists look upon the Sermon on the Mount as completely irrelevant to the Christian church. They say all that's for later when Jesus Christ comes again. Others interpret the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus' revelation of the correct interpretation of the Law given to Moses, which, of course, no one can keep. Therefore, they would say, the Sermon on the Mount will drive a person to grace.
Our text for today is part of the first ten verses of Jesus' sermon — the section known as the Beatitudes. Eight blessings pronounced upon all believers. They stand like the overture at the beginning of a symphony — a summary of the character of communion with God.
Actually, I'd like you to think of them as rungs on a ladder — a progression of steps connected to one another — that start from the most basic and fundamental and work up step by step. They progress from the point of greatest need (spiritual bankruptcy) to the point of greatest identification with Christ (experiencing rejection for his sake). For example, I cannot feel another's pain to mourn with them unless I've first felt a poverty of spirit within myself.
Maybe we've heard the beatitudes too often for them to have any lasting impact on us. Beatitudes seem so perfectly suited to "Wall-Plaque Theology", something to be placed in a prominent place in the hallway, but otherwise ignored; soothing words for people for whom they were not intended — relegated to home-deco kitsch.
For many others the reality seems closer to Mark Twain’s paraphrase:
1. Blessed are the poor in spirit; — for they shall be poor in purse.
2. Blessed are they that mourn; for none shall come near to disturb them.
3. Blessed are the meek; for everyone shall give them an opportunity for the
display of their meekness.
4. Blessed are they that do hunger and thirst after righteousness; for they shall never suffer loss of appetite.
5. Blessed are the merciful; for they shall be called greatest of the grand army of the chicken-hearted.
6. Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall not be long in getting cured of it.
7. Blessed are the peace-makers; for they shall reap a plentiful harvest of
8. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake; for they shall have the satisfaction of knowing that they suffer on false grounds.
9. Blessed are ye when people shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely; for then you shall be able to recover damages in a suit for libel.
Mark Twain's reality is that anyone who comes near to having the qualities of poor in spirit, gentleness, purity, or mercy ends up getting it in the ear. Isn't that the way of the world today?
"Blessed are the poor in spirit." It flies in the face of all the benedictions the world pronounces.
Blessed are the powerful.
Blessed are the wealthy.
Blessed are the rich.
Blessed are the blond.
Blessed are the bold
Blessed are the beautiful.
Blessed are the tall.
Blessed are the politicians.
Blessed are the well-born.
And yet Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit."
We aren't used to hearing the word "blessed."
We live in an achievement oriented culture and are much more comfortable saying "Deserving are the rich for they have worked hard." Even the slogan "You deserve a break today" implies you've earned it.
"Bless you" — we seldom say it except when we hear someone sneeze. But blessings are nothing to sneeze at. The first thing we need to notice is that the blessings Jesus is talking about aren't blessings conferred on us by ourselves or by our culture — no, they're blessings given by God. If you've read the Bible even a little, you know it is in God's character to bless: Right at the beginning when he created the world he blessed it:
He blessed the fish and the birds: "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth."
He blessed the man and the woman, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth...
He blessed the Sabbath day — And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
Even after he purged the world with a flood he blessed it. We read, "Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth."
God blesses Abraham as he chooses him and his descendants as His means of blessing the world. "In you all the peoples of the world will be blessed."
God blesses Israel. And He blesses us. "Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. (Romans 4:7).
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
In the Greek there are two words for poor. Penes means "one who is a laborer." At the end of the day such a person has nothing left over. He earns just enough to exist each day. But the Word used in this passage is ptochos, which means one who has nothing and is completely empty, a beggar. And we ask, "What's so blessed about being poor — in spirit or otherwise?" We think poor is bad, rich is good. Poor is weak, rich is strong. Poor is helpless — rich can do what it wants.
And there is only one thing that could be worse than being materially poor and that would be to be poor in spirit. We live in a culture of self-esteem We need to think well of ourselves or — we aren't well. Then we're depressed. We need to medicate or be medicated if we're poor in spirit. Get some treatment. The last thing we want is to feel ptochos — empty. How often haven't you heard someone say, "I've still got my pride" "I have some dignity left."
And yet Jesus says, "Blessed are those without anything — dignity included — for theirs is the Kingdom of God.
In the English text we read, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," but in the Greek it says, "... theirs and theirs alone is the kingdom of God." It reminds you of Jesus’ words: "It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
In other words, only those who are poor in spirit are blessed.
Search as hard as you like but you won't find Jesus saying,
"Blessed are the rich,
Blessed are the arrogant,
Blessed are the pushy,
Blessed are the self-confident,
Blessed are the educated,
Blessed are those who have something to offer.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. They and they alone belong to the kingdom of God and the kingdom of God belongs to them.
As a matter of fact, in a parallel passage in the gospel of Luke, Jesus says
"But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets" (Luke 6:24-26).
Only certain ones are blessed — those who are poor in spirit.
To be poor in spirit means that we see our total spiritual poverty before God and our utter dependence upon Him. Poverty of spirit must be our attitude toward ourselves. I can do nothing to commend myself to God. Apart from Christ I am spiritually destitute.
I may have the finest education money can buy, but be spiritually ignorant.
I may be financially secure, but spiritually bankrupt.
I may run my own business, but be spiritually unemployed.
To be poor in spirit is to recognize that without Christ I can do nothing. It is to recognize that without Christ I have nothing. To accept that before him I am nothing.
Do you remember the story of the Rich Young Ruler who wanted to follow Jesus? Jesus said to him: "Go and sell all that you have and give the money to the poor, then come and follow me." Notice that he didn't say, "Good to have men like you on board — you'll really be an asset with all of your resources." No, first get rid of all that excess baggage — all of those things that seem so important to you being who you are. Then you'll be blessed.
God loves me because...
Not because I've got something to offer
Not because I could do him some good
Not because I could be of assistance
But he blesses me in my poverty of spirit. And that's the only way we can enter into the kingdom of God. It is to come before God with empty hands, humble in heart, seeking only to receive from Him.
Have you seen your own poverty of spirit before God? Have you come to the place in your life where you are tired of trying to do it on your own? It is possible to try and follow God in your own strength, you know. Like that Rich Young Ruler we say "I've played by the rules, but it just doesn't seem to he enough." It won't work — you'll become angry and resentful — because you'll find out that good is never good enough. You'll wear yourself out trying to impress God — trying to get his attention. Because God doesn't pay attention to those who think they can do things on their own.
Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick...I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."
You'll become exhausted because our strength is not sufficient. Your knowledge is never enough. In your attempt to figure God out, you'll put Him in a little box, because that is the only kind of God who can be figured out. You'll reduce God to your limited understanding. And while you might feel safe that way, you’ll have a limited God. And you'll never enter His kingdom — because you'll have one of your own.
If duty and responsibility drive our attempt to follow Jesus, we'll burn out. We become exhausted. This is where we arrive by trying to follow Christ in our own strength. Is that where you are?
If you are there, that may not be a bad thing. Poverty of spirit begins at the point where we see our insufficiency to do it on our own. When we are willing to acknowledge that God must fill us or we will forever remain empty, then we are in a place where God can meet us. Then we are in a place where we can begin to receive from God. You see, without true poverty of spirit we can never enter the kingdom.
How do you become "poor in spirit"? I really don't know. It's not something anyone can make you do — even God. God can humble you. But he can't make you humble. And yet at the same time I know it's not something I can do. It's something that is revealed and something we accept — I am empty before God.
In that wonderful parable Jesus told about the arrogant son who considered his father as being dead and went off on his own to live the life he wanted. Who squandered what God had given him.; who finally hit bottom morally — financially — emotionally. Who truly became "poor in spirit." Standing there envying the pigs who were more fulfilled than him. Jesus says he "came to his senses"-- decided to come home and throw himself on the mercy of his father.
And when we do there is the Father waiting — no — he's running toward us throwing his arms around us. Welcoming us home. Restoring our inheritance. "What is mine now belongs to you," he gushes. Kill the fattened calf! Put my robe on his shoulders! My ring on his finger! You are my child — lost and now found. That's the point at which we experience the blessing of the kingdom of God.
And the other thing I can tell you is this: It's at the point of our "poverty in spirit" that we become truly capable of sharing the Good News of the Kingdom. For only then do we realize that it isn't ours to give away — but it's God's. And blessings are to be shared.
For isn't that the greatest obstacle to our sharing? The fear that if we give something up we won't have enough left over for ourselves? Receiving the Kingdom of God as a blessing and blessing alone means that the Kingdom can never be bought or sold, only given and shared.
Blessed are the poor in spirit — for theirs is the kingdom of God. The greatest blessing we ever get from God is to know that we are destitute spiritually. [Oswald Chambers (1874-1917)]
And isn't that exactly what Christ did? Taking the form of a slave (one who possesses nothing). ( Philip. 2:6-11)
"Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!"
Blessed are the poor in Spirit... "Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
"For to them belongs the Kingdom of Heaven."
Amazing Grace is what it is — and it sounds pretty sweet to me.
Proposed Order of Service
Please stand if you are able
Organist, Pianist or Pre-Service Hymns
God calls us to worship
Call to Worship Isa. 55:1 and 6
Leader: Congregation, in whose name is our help?
People: Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth. Amen.
Prayer for God's Presence: Sovereign Lord, we have gathered in your presence to worship you this morning. We thank you for your call, and ask that you will accept the praises of our hearts and pour out your blessings. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit we ask. Amen.
Opening Hymn #96
Service of confession
Confession and Assurance of Pardon
The Lord's Will for Our Lives
Hymn of Dedication #32
Service of the word
Children's Message and/or Hymn
Prayer of Illumination: Heavenly Father, we pray that you will open the eyes of our hearts by the power of Your Spirit that we may discern your Word of Truth so freely given to us.
Scripture reading: Matthew 5:1-12
Text: Matthew 5:3
Sermon: "Who wants to be poor?"
Hymn of Response #206
Service of Gratitude
Offertory Prayer and/or Hymn Deacons
Conclusion of Worship
Benediction: Lord, we pray that we may leave this place strengthened in our faith and filled with your blessings. Help us to go forth from this place, filled with your Spirit, eager to share the news of your love so freely given in your Son. In his name we ask. Threefold Amen
Moment of Meditation