Prayer and blessing - Matthew 5:1-12

This is a sermon by Malcolm Peters from the Riverside Church service on 21st September 2008.

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Well as many of you know, in my pre-vicar life, I worked for both the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority.  And so not surprisingly, I’ve been following the fortunes, or should I say the misfortunes, of the Halifax Bank of Scotland group this week.    And despite some of the hysterical reporting in the media, the point is that we’ve seen this all before.    In the early 1990s there was a crisis among some UK banks as a result for the recession, soaring repossessions and negative equity.  Later in the 1990s, the Bank of England had to engineer a Dutch bank called ING to buy up a British Investment Bank called Barings, which had collapsed because of massive illegal speculation in the capital markets. 

As the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes put it;  there’s nothing new under the sun.    People have short memories.   And over the last 10 years or so, we’ve been lulled into a false sense of security; we’ve actually believed the lie that governments and politicians of whatever flavour really can solve all our problems and deliver the Good Life. [pause]   So what is the Good Life?  Well if you believe the government and the media, its financial independence and stability.  Enough money not to worry.  the latest mod cons, including of course a flat screen HD-ready plasma tele. Ask most parents what the most want for the children and they will answer:  to be happy.  But unpack what that means, and it usually comes down to money;  they want a good education, so their kids can get good jobs, marry the right people and lead comfortable lives.    The Good life then.    

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And so when the economy takes another nose dive, as it always will from time to time, we’re forced to take a step back and reassess the Good Life.   What is the Good Life?  What does it mean to be happy or blessed?  [pause]

And that’s exactly what this morning’s passage is all about.  The definition of a truly blessed life.    So turn with me if you would to Mt chapter 5 on p[900/        Riv: 1501].

Structure

And the first thing we need to note about the passage is the structure.  We’ve got 8 Beatitudes which all follow the same pattern.  Blessed are ‘so in so’, the first line says and then we have the crucial link word ‘for’; and the ‘for word introduces the reason the blessing is given.   

So in v3 

Mt 5:3  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The blessings in v4-9 are different.  But in v10 we’ve got the same blessing again:

Mt 5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

So the first and last beatitudes are like literary bookends.  Or you could think of it like a literary sandwich.  And so the point is that the Beatitudes are not a random collection of wisdom sayings.  No they're a group of saying that all relate to each other, and most importantly, they all have something to do with being part of the Kingdom of Heaven.   That’s the heart of the Beatitudes then;  the heart of what it means to have a blessed life; to lead the Good Life.    The Good life is all about being part of the Kingdom of Heaven.  So what does that mean?

Being Truly Blessed means being a Christian   (v3)

And the simple answer is that being part of the Kingdom of Heaven means gaining entry into heaven.  It means receiving eternal life.  It means having a new body at the resurrection and living forever in the perfect New Heavens and the New Earth.  And most importantly, it means avoiding being thrown into the fiery furnace where there’ll be weeping and gnashing of teeth for all eternity.  Being part of the kingdom of Heaven means avoiding the awful and eternal destiny of hell. 

And so when we’ve been there 10,000 years as we sing in that old Wesley hymn, when we Christians have been in heaven for 10,000 years, contemplating how grateful we are that we’ve been spared the alternative of hell, we’ll have a very clear focus on what it means to be truly blessed.  Because from the perspective of eternity, it doesn’t matter what happens to share portfolios, how much money you’ve got or how well your kids did at school.  What will matter then is whether or not you’re a Christian.  What really matters in our short time here on earth is whether we end up with God’s blessing; with God’s approval that is.  Because that’s the first definition of a truly blessed life.  Being truly blessed means being a Christian.  Being truly blessed means being a Christian.

And we can see that more clearly as we unpack the first beatitude a bit more in v3.  

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

We know what the kingdom of Heaven is all about;  it's about eternal life.  We know what being blessed is all about.  It’s about being approved of by God.  Being right with God.  Being on good terms with God.   But look on to v48 where we see J’s most challenging commanded:  Mt 5:48:

48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

God is perfect, morally perfect that is, and so He wants us to be perfect.  Morally perfect that is.  Totally without sin.    And Jesus spends a large chunk of the Sermon on the Mount blowing away people’s excuses. 

When I used to work for the Bank of England, I was part of a team that enforced complex rules designed to ensure that bank didn’t overstretch themselves and get into the kind of mess we’ve seen in recent weeks.  But what happened;  well banks employed equally clever people to get round the rules, so that on paper they could tick all the right boxes, while all along some of them were obviously getting away with murder. 

Which is exactly the kind of attitude Jesus is exposing in v21. 

 21"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.

And the point is that the 6th commandment’s ban on murder means so much more than refraining from killing those you find irritating.  No it means positively living at peace with everyone, not least your Christian bothers and sisters.  Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  Which means that I’ve blown it.  Because I’ve been angry with a fellow Christian recently .  OK I haven’t killed them, but I’ve certainly fallen into the Raca trap.  So I deserve hell then.  I deserve God’s righteous judgement.    [pause] And so does each and every one of you here this morning.   Because no matter how well we cover up our sins in front of others, none of us is perfect.  We’re all guilty before the searching eyes of Almighty God.    Left to ourselves, it’s depressing.  Left to ourselves, we’d all be utterly lost. 

And that’s the point of the first beatitude in v3.  What does it mean to be blessed?  What does it mean to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?  What’s the first step on the road to being a Christian.    Well it’s poverty of spirit.   The absence of arrogance and self-righteousness.  An acknowledgement that we’re utterly spiritually bankrupt. 

Like the management of HBOS:  we’re in such a mess that we can’t get ourselves out of it on our own.  We need a rescuer.  We’re utterly dependent on God rescuing us, because we’re utterly incapable of being good enough for God by ourselves.  We simply can’t do it;  be perfect that is, like our heavenly F is perfect. 

We’re like the tax collector in one of J's parables;  and Jesus contrasted the tax collector with the vicar standing next to him;  the vicar thought he was the Bees Knees;  but the tax collector simply beat his breast and said:  Lord have mercy on me a sinner.  Or as the Apostle Paul put it at the end of Rom 7: 

24What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Oh we know that you might be thinking.  We’re back to the basic Gospel again aren’t we. You know:  we’re not good enough for God, so God sent Jesus to die for our sins.  And so we need to repent of our sins so we can receive the forgiveness Jesus offer.  Yeah Yeah, we know all that. 

But as Don Carson puts it in this excellent little book on the Sermon on the Mount: [hold up]

“I suspect that there’s no pride more deadly than that which finds its roots in great learning, great external piety, or a showy defence of orthodoxy” And Carson continues “Pride based on genuine virtues has the greatest potential for self-deception, but our Lord will have none of it.  Poverty of Spirit, [J] insists on – a full honest … recognition before God of [our] personal moral unworth”.  Or to put it more simply:  is our repentance genuine, or simply a religious sham?

Like the prayer at the end of the Sunday school class which had been learning all about that Pharisee and tax collector.   At the end of the lesson, the Sunday school teacher prayed:  “Dear Lord, thank you that we’re not like that Pharisee”.   [pause]

Whether it’s conscious hypocrisy or hard-hearted blindness and self-delusion, it doesn’t matter.  Because only the poor in Spirit will enter the Kingdom of Heaven;  only those who know deep in their hearts that they’re utterly spiritually bankrupt before God.    Because that’s what it means to be a Christian. 

And the rest of the Beatitudes simply flesh out what that kind of heart attitude will look like in practice. 

Being Blessed means growing as a Christian (v4-12)

So, in v3 we’ve seen that being blessed means being a genuine Christian. And in v4-12 as we look at the rest of the beatitudes, we’re going to see that being blessed means growing as a Christian.  Growing as a Christian and displaying Christian virtues which grow out of our poverty of Spirit.

Mourn:      So look on with me to the second beatitude in v4:

4Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

And of course these words are quoted as part of the traditional Anglican funeral service.  But if you die outside of Christ, then there is no comfort for you.  There is no comfort in Hell, only eternal weeping and gnashing of teeth.  So what kind of mourning will be blessed with God’s comfort.   And the answer’s linked back to Poverty of Spirit.    Those who are poor in Spirit, will be deeply sorry, or mournful about their sin.  Like that tax collector, they’ll be beating their breast in sorrow for their sin, seeking God’s forgiveness.  And so in that sense, those who mourn over their sin, will be comforted;  they will be forgiven, because they’ve acknowledge their poverty of Spirit and sought refuge in the Jesus.    [pause]

But it not just an individual thing is it?  As Westerners, we have a tendency to focus on the 'me first' applications before thinking about the corporate.  But in the Bible, Jesus mourned over the corporate sins of whole groups of people;  Jesus wept over Jerusalem.  Before he started his campaign to abolish the slave trade, Wilberforce broke down and wept at the utter depravity our nation had sunk into.  He feared the Lord’s punishment of us as a nation if the corporate sins he was exposing were not rooted out and dealt with.  And so as we know, he devoted his life to doing just that.

But what about us:  how mournful are we about the corporate sins of Britain today:  about the 550 unborn children murdered every day just in England and Wales.  About the exploitation of immigrant workers by unscrupulous middle men;   about the trafficking of children in to the sex trade;  about the spiralling amount of personal debt and gambling;  and so on.  Are we bothered, as Catherine Tate would say?  [pause]

Meek:  And so we move onto meekness in v5.  Genuine poverty of spirit and mournfulness over sin will naturally lead to meekness.  And immediately we see what meekness can’t mean.  Because if we are bothered about sin, then like Wilberforce, we won’t be weak and wishy washy.  After all, Jesus overturned the tables of the money changer, and he was perfectly meek.    No if poverty of spirit and mournfulness over sin affects the way we relate to God, meekness is the outworking of those virtues in the way we relate to each other.  As Paul puts it in Romans:  we need to make sure we don’t think more highly of ourselves than we ought.  Or as Carson puts it again:  “Meekness is a controlled desire to see the other’s interests advance ahead of [our] own”.    So how are we doing on the Meekness front?

Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness:     The poor in Spirit, who mourn over their sin will be meek in their relationships with others.  And to maintain that meekness they will hunger and thirst for righteousness in v6;  they will devour God’s word and seek the Lord’s favour in prayer to be filled with the fruit of the Spirit; to be blessed with the blessings that flow from these Beatitudes. 

On Wednesday, Bethan had the pins taken out of her arm.  And because she might have had to have another general aesthetic, she wasn’t allowed to eat anything after 8am in the morning.  And so by the time the operation was over in mid-afternoon, she was ravenous.  You’ve never seen her eat a sandwich so quickly.  And if we’re as Christians, then we should have that same ravenousness for growth in godliness;  for our growth in righteous.  And if we do, then v6 tell us that the Lord will grant our heart’s desire.   

Merciful:  And it’s the same with mercy in v7.    If we’ve experience the Lord’s mercy towards us as we’ve begged him for forgiveness of our sins, then we’ll naturally be merciful to others.  But the reverse is also true:  if we’re lacking in mercy and forgiveness of others, then it begs the question as to whether we’ve truly experience the mercy of God at the deep level of our hearts.   Makes you think doesn’t it?

Pure in Heart:  And we stay with our hearts in v8:   because we’re told that the pure in heart will see God;  see and experience God, that is, in the new creation where we’ll be dwelling with the Lord forever.    But nothing that’s vile or immoral will be there.    And if we’re there, then He will’ve finished the cleansing process by then.  As Christians in this world, we’ll never be perfect, but there will be a cleansing process going on, and so if you can’t detect progress as you look back over your Christian life, then again you need to start asking serious questions about your faith.  And again, we’re not talking external religiosity.  No we’re talking about what’s deep inside us.  About what we think about when our minds slip into neutral.  About what we watch when no one else is looking.  About what we secretly think when we see someone getting away with deception or fraud.  About how we’re secretly reacting to the smut and cheapness of much of today’s humour.  And so ultimately we’re talking about whether our external words and actions actually match the inner reality of our hearts.  Or are we back to playing religious games like the Pharisee.

Peacemakers:  So what about the peacemakers in v9;  notice it’s not blessed are the peaceful, but blessed are the peacemakers.  And of course, the greatest peacemaker was the Lord JC who made peace between God and His people through His death on the cross.  The best way we can make peace on the earth is through evangelism, through telling people about the Gospel.  But the application goes much wider.  The context of v2-9 is horizontal relationships between people.  And so peacemaking in this context primarily means to be making peace between people. 

One of my favourite TV programmes is Have I got news for you.  And if you watch it, then you’ll know the opening sequences where you see a US President pouring crude oil onto a fire that’s been started in some Middle- Eastern Oil field.  Now I don’t want to make any comment about George Bush or party politics, but that caricature is of course the exact opposite of peacemaking isn’t it? 

And of course the hardest act of peacemaking is when you’ve personally been offended or hurt by someone, especially if that person is a Christian. [pause]  But no one said the Christian life would be easy.  This is when the rubber really hits the road so to speak.    Because our natural worldly hearts will always want to justify ourselves, clear our name or seek revenge and the end result  is that positions become entrenched.   Even a brief look at the Arab Israeli conflict over the past half a century will show us that on a macro scale.  But the wise man of Proverbs which we’re studying in our HGs this term tells us that “a soft answer turns away wrath”.  Christians have responsibility to try and relive tensions, seek solutions and unravel misunderstandings.  [pause]

But as we try to do that, let’s remember the words of the Apostle Paul in Rom 12:

 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath,

If it is possible and as far as it depends on you, we should be acting as peacemakers.   Sometimes, as Philip Jensen has pointed out in [hold up] this book, full reconciliation and restoration of a broken relationship might not be possible, because one or both parties are unwilling to address the underlying issues and take part in the process of mutual forgiveness and repentance. 

We are not responsible for the sins of others, but we are response for how we react to the sins of others, even when we’ve been badly hurt. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Blessed are the peacemakers, they will be called sons of God, because they reflect God’s character of peacemaking.

Persecuted:  And finally, blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness; and v11 makes it crystal clear this means being persecuted for being a Christian and living a transparently Christian lifestyle.    Notice what it’s not saying:   it's not saying that you’re blessed if you’re gratuitously rude or unnecessarily offensive and find that people are resisting you.    I think of someone I used to work with in the City who was passionate about evangelism. Great you might be thinking.  But this person spent loads of work time on the phone organising Christian events, plastered their desk with Scripture verses and Christian posters, and spent lots of work time talking about Jesus to their work colleagues when they were being paid to study the inflation figures or whatever. 

Some opposition or negative feedback we receive is entirely just and appropriate and so when we’re opposed, we need to have the humility to reflect on the criticism and discern how much of it is justified.  However, Jesus assumes that you will be persecuted;  not you might be, but you will be.

I’m currently reading this book [hold up] called Jesus in Beijing.  It traces the explosion of the Chinese church over the last 100 years.  And some of the so-called Patriarchs of the illegal house churches, were locked up for 20 years of more in the last century.  Some were handcuffed in contorted positions for extended periods so that the handcuffs cut right though their skin to the bone.  Other were beaten and tortured daily. 

Now thankfully it’s not like that for Christian in our nation.  But the winds of anti-Christian attitudes by the state are already beginning to blow.    And persecution is not limited to such outward physical injustices.  It can be the snide comments by family, friends or work colleagues.  It can be the social exclusions by those who find your righteousness too challenging.    It could be that you’ve been passed over for promotion or a job move because you’ve taken a certain ethical stand based on the Scriptures.  But whatever form it takes, Jesus assumes that Christians will be persecuted.  And so when we are, we're to remember that it’s always been the case for God’s people through the ages;  and when you are persecuted for being a Christian, remember that you will be blessed eternally with your reward in heaven. 

What’s the Good life.  What does it mean to be truly blessed?  Well first, true blessing means being a Christian.  And secondly, true blessing mean growing as a Christians; progressively displaying more and more of the virtues we see listed here in the beatitudes.  And when we’ve got a proper understanding of these blessing, then we’ll be in a better position to learn about prayer. Let’s pray.

Closing Prayer

Dear HF, thank you that in your word we learn about eternal realities and not simply today’s headlines and fashions, which are here to today and gone tomorrow. Help those of us who are Christian, to retain this eternal perspective and to be forever thankful of the blessings of eternal life.  Help us to hunger and thirst after your righteousness and so may we be filled with ever more fruit of the Spirit.  Give us the strength and endurance to endure opposition and persecution and the humility to discern a just rebuke.  Keep us meek and merciful that we might make peace of the earth and so enjoy your eternal peace in the Heavenly New Creation.  For our eternal comfort but your ultimate glory we pray, Amen.

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