The King's manifesto - Matthew 5:1-12
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
In December of last year, a report was published which revealed the great shift in thinking that has overtaken our country in the last forty years. The headline for the report was that Britons' belief in God is vanishing, as religion is replaced by apathy. The report polled people on their religious beliefs and provided overwhelming evidence that Britain is now a secular country, as if we needed any proof. For instance in 1968, when a Gallup poll was taken of people's religious beliefs, 77% of the population said that they believed in God. But the present report revealed that only 44% say they do, less than half the population. Interestingly of 18-35 year olds, the figure was only 37%. The rising tide of secularisation has also affected what people think of the after life, with only 38% now believing in a place called heaven. Pollsters were also asked for their views on the monarchy, marriage and education. But what the researchers found most intriguing was that in all these discoveries the biggest was an attitude of apathy and indifference. At the end of the day the majority of the country, it seems, couldn't care less about much in particular. So one journalist commenting on the report wrote this: "Taken as a whole, the findings suggest that "live and let live" is the dominant British approach to religious belief as to so many other things. The relative absence of religious passion in Britain today probably helps to foster this country's atmosphere of easy going religious toleration.
Easy going apathetic tolerance. That's the air we breathe today, and so it is very tempting for you and I as Bible believing followers of Jesus Christ to just go with the flow and unthinkingly accept the status quo. And that is why when it comes to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, which we are beginning to look together this evening, we find it uncompromising and painfully challenging as it rebukes our easy going mediocrity and mild mannered niceness. Because what Jesus calls us to in this Sermon is an unflinching discipleship which goes against the prevailing trends of our culture and ruffles the feathers of the so called religious tolerance of our day.
Now it's very important as we begin, to see who it is that Jesus is addressing in this Sermon. For contrary to what Gandhi and Marx would have us believe, this Sermon is not just a nice piece of ethical teaching for those interested in being better people. Rather it is the King of kings' radical manifesto of what it means to be a follower of him. It's about how to live in the Kingdom of God. Now Jesus has already been attracting huge crowds through his ministry. At the end of chapter 4 we're told that large crowds from all over the land had come to follow Jesus. But now in chapter 5 verses 1-2 he does something strange. Have a look at verse 1: "Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them sayingJesus could have harnessed this huge crowd and swept himself along to power on a tide of popular support. But he doesn't. Instead he sits down and teaches his disciples. For Jesus is not so much interested in the large crowds, but his disciples, meaning not just the twelve disciples, whom he hasn't actually fully chosen yet, but rather all those who would claim to follow him. This is a Sermon about discipleship. It's not about how to get into the kingdom of heaven. Rather it's about how to act as citizens of this kingdom. If you claim to be a follower of Jesus, then you need to be someone who practices the Sermon on the Mount. That's the challenge.
And the gateway into this great Sermon is what we have come to call the Beatitudes, or the "beautiful attitudes" as the evangelist Billy Graham calls them. And we find them in chapter 5 vv 1-12. And it's these beautiful attitudes that we are going to be spending the next few weeks unpacking. Because what we have here at the beginning of Jesus' sermon is the mindset that Jesus requires of all of those who claim to follow him, who claim to be members of this kingdom of God. And that's confirmed by the structure of these beatitudes. For both in verses 3 and 10 we are told that those who adopt an attitude of poverty in spirit and who stand up to persecution for the gospel's sake will enter the kingdom of heaven. And these two beatitudes are the two bookends if you like of this passage. And everything else in the middle is an explanation of the attitudes required of those who claim to be in the kingdom of God.
But before we turn to get a bird's eye view of these beatitudes, I want us to see one very important principle which we have seen marks the whole Sermon. And that is that these beatitudes, like the whole Sermon on the Mount, are counter cultural. Just have a look at the first four of these blessings, as Jesus calls them, and see how they go against the grain of our culture. We're told to be poor in spirit as opposed to proud. We're to mourn instead of rejoice. We're to be meek instead of pushy. We're to thirst after righteousness instead of material gain and the things of this world. Can you see what different standards the Lord Jesus Christ calls us to live by? And Jesus actually calls these attitudes blessings. We will be blessed if we do this. In fact the word really means something like happy or fortunate. But it's not the passing happiness of this world which comes and goes. It is the deep joy of knowing God personally and following him. In that there is great blessing and true happiness. That is what it means to be really fortunate and happy. Do you want to be happy? Do you want to know God's blessing? Then adopt these attitudes that Christ commands of those who claim to follow him. And lay aside that lazy apathy that is the mark of our society. In short Jesus says if you claim to follow me, then you've got be different. And the irony is, as we will see, that in a world of religious tolerance, the one thing that is just not acceptable, is a passionate commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. Following Christ will cost you. So let's turn then to this passage to get an overview of what Jesus says, and then in the following weeks we'll look in more detail at each of the beatitudes in turn. But for today there are three lessons for us to learn:
1) Adopt the Marks of the follower of Jesus
2) Consider the Cost for the follower of Jesus
3) Rejoice in the Future of the follower Jesus
1) Adopt the Marks of the follower of Jesus
So Jesus' first lesson to us is to adopt the marks of the follower of Jesus. Because these beautiful attitudes are to be the characteristics of those who claim to follow Jesus. So as we go through we need to ask ourselves if these qualities are displayed in our lives if we claim to follow him.
a) Humility- First there is humility and that is the shown in the first three of the beatitudes. Verse 3, Jesus says: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Jesus begins here because this is the key attitude which is required of all those who want to enter God's kingdom. It's an attitude which says: "I am a spiritual down and out. I need to fling myself on the mercy of God. I am spiritually bankrupt. I don't deserve God's kindness." To acknowledge we are poor in spirit is admit our sin and trust that God alone can bring us into his kingdom. And that can only happen through what Jesus did for us through his death on the cross. Augustus Toplady was one man who understood this all too well. And in his hymn, "Rock of Ages" he writes this verse. "Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me, Saviour, or I die." It's that attitude of spiritual poverty that Jesus commands us to have if we are to enter into the kingdom of heaven. And if you are here thinking that you are good enough for God and good enough to get into heaven, then you have not understood the very first principle of Jesus' Sermon. That to enter his kingdom you must be poor in spirit. And that is an attitude that carries on right through the Christian life of total dependence on God. Such people admit they have nothing, and yet in reality have everything. Blessed are the poor in spirit, says Jesus, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
And that leads on to Jesus' second beatitude: "Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted." And again at its heart it is an attitude of humility that Jesus wants us to adopt. Now it's not so much mourning in the sense of mourning a loved one, although that is the word that is used. As so often in these beatitudes, we need to take our cue from the OT. And there time and again, mourning is done for sin. Those who truly love God are those who have a deep understanding of their sin and weep over their wrongdoing. And so it's only as we consider the pain we cause God and the wretched nature of our souls, that we find comfort in the good news of sins forgiven. And the more we appreciate the depths to which we have fallen, the more we will appreciate the heights to which God has raised us.
Now again we need to take a moment to consider how counter cultural this really is! Because when was the last time you wept over your sin? When was the last time you truly took stock of the depths to which you have fallen? It's not that Jesus is encouraging a morbid character assassination of ourselves. Rather what he is commanding of his followers is a thorough going realism of our sin. And that is very rare in our culture, and may I say it amongst Christians too, where the emphasis is far more on enjoyment and fun. Now of course we don't want to encourage a puritanical hatred of all that is fun. We have much to rejoice in and delight in as Christians. But the fact is we have swung far too much the other way as we veer towards an entertainment culture even within the church. So if we are not moved by the music group and if the performance of the preacher is not up to scratch then it's been a boring service. But what ever happened to the attitude of our forbears who took their sin very seriously? Listen to these words of the 18th century Christian missionary David Brainerd who wrote in his journal on 18th October 1740: "In my morning devotions my soul was exceedingly melted, and bitterly mourned over my exceeding sinfulness and vileness." Or consider the words of the Book of Common Prayer, for hundreds of the years until recently the standard prayer book in the Church of England. There as we confess our sins we are to say: "We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickednessremembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable." Jesus reminds us that we need to recapture a healthy mourning over our sin. So why not get praying that God would reveal more and more of your sin, so that you might know more and more of his comfort. Because the point is simple. If you don't think you have sinned greatly, then you won't realise you've been forgiven much. For those who mourn, says Jesus, there is great comfort. They weep real tears but find real joy.
And then coupled to the poor in spirit and the mourners, are the meek in verse 5: "Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth." Now when we think of the word "meek" it probably reminds us of weakness and wishy washy spineless defeat. But actually nothing could be further from the truth. There are only two people are called meek in the Bible. One is Moses in Numbers 12 and the other is Jesus in Matthew 11. Neither of them could be called weak and spineless. Both were clear headed and brave leaders. But they did not push themselves ahead of others or push others aside to further their own interests. So meekness is the willingness to put others' interests above your own. It's the willingness to deal with criticism graciously, whereas often our first reaction is to defend ourselves and give as good as we get. The preacher Martin Lloyd Jones sums it up like this: "Meekness is essentially a true view of oneself, expressing itself in attitude and conduct with respect to others." And for the meek there is the inheritance of the earth, that is the gift of heaven which God gives to those who humbly admit their need. So let me ask if you have the first characteristic of the follower of Jesus. Humility. Humility expressed in being poor in spirit, mournful of your sin and meek before others. All so different to the world around us, but a defining mark if you claim to be a follower of Christ.
b) Hunger- But there's another mark of the disciple that Jesus challenges us about and that comes in the fourth beatitude. It's hunger for the things of God. Verse 6: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied." Righteousness in Matthew's gospel means living a godly life. So Jesus says there is great blessing for the person who hungers after the godly life, who pursues holiness and longs to do what pleases God and him alone. It was John Wesley who used to write frequently in his journal: "Lord, cure me of my intermittent piety, and make me thoroughly Christian." His desire was to be wholly sold out for God. And our problem is that again we are so corrupted by the world around us. We are too easily satisfied by the things of this world to see what great gain there is for us in pursuing the righteousness of God. In short we are content with mediocrity in our Christian lives instead of having that passion for holiness and deep hunger for godliness. We're like a child making mud castles in the back streets of his home town, who when invited to come to the beach and make real sandcastles by the sea is content to sit in the mud and carry on building castles in the slime. He's content with his lot, not realising he could have so much more. And in the same way, we content ourselves with our lot, never realising that God longs for us to know more of him, to delight in him more and more, to hunger and thirst for righteousness. For the more you grow, then more you know you need to grow. And that desire, says Jesus, will be satisfied.
c) Mercy- Humility, hunger and then mercy, the next mark of the follower of Jesus. Verse 7: "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." Jesus says the mark of the follower of Jesus is someone who is merciful to others, not condemning but forgiving. It's the attitude which is slow to do others down, which is quick to build up, which is patient with the faults of others. For when you recognise that you have been shown much mercy by God, then how can you be unmerciful to others. To use Wesley again as an illustration, he once bumped into a renowned military general who complained about the weakness of the Christian message of free forgiveness. "Mr Wesley, he said, I never forgive." To which Wesley replied, "Then I hope, sir, you never sin." So what is your attitude like to others whom you find annoying or difficult. Perhaps you disagree strongly with them and think they are wrong. Well if you are displaying a bitter, unforgiving spirit, then you are not displaying this mark of the follower of Christ. You are not being merciful.
d) Purity- But the final mark of the follower of Jesus that he highlights here is purity. And we see that in beatitudes six and seven. In verse 8, Jesus says: "Blessed and the pure in heart, for they will see God." Jesus is asking us here what our hearts are like? He's challenging us to have that sincerity of heart which is pure in motive and thought and action. It's the person who is one thing in public and the same in private. You see if you put on a great show for your Christian friends here in church or at CU, but then are totally different elsewhere, then you are not pure. You're being hypocritical. But for the pure in heart, then they will see God. Those who have a concern for moral purity whoever they are with. Those who are transparent and who hide nothing. Those who long to be pure in their humour and their thought life. Is such purity a characteristic we could say that we have?
And purity is also seen in our dealing with others in verse 9: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God." Another mark of the follower of Christ is the one who makes peace. For if God is the God of peace and we claim to be his children, then we will be marked by a peaceable attitude to others, for the sons of God reflect the character of God. And most supremely we will be men and women, and in deed a church, which is committed to carrying the greatest message of peace to the whole world, that is the good news of Jesus, who made peace through his blood shed on the cross.
So consider these beatitudes which I've summed up in these four marks of the followers of Jesus. Humility, hunger, mercy and purity. How would you say you're doing on each one? Because if you and I claim to be a follower of Jesus, someone who has come into the kingdom of God, then we need to be people marked by these characteristics. We must be people of humility, hunger, mercy and purity. Adopt the marks of the follower of Jesus.
2) Consider the Cost for the follower of Jesus
But you may have noticed that we have left out these last few verses including the final beatitude in verse 10. Well that brings us to our second lesson, and that is to consider the cost for the follower of Jesus. Because Jesus expands his final beatitude to direct the application specifically to his disciples. Notice the subtle change as we read verses 10-12: "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." Verse 10 is fairly general, as Jesus finishes his beatitudes. But then he directs the application right to the disciples. For he says: "Blessed are you, when people insult you." It's as if he doesn't want them to miss the force of what he is saying. The fact is, says Jesus, that if you do verses 3-9, then verses 10-12 will happen to you. In other words, if you follow Christ wholeheartedly, putting into practice the counter cultural teaching of the beatitudes, living the way of the kingdom of God, then you will be hated for it. People will oppose you for it. Its as simple as that. People will persecute you, says Jesus, because of me, because of righteousness, that is because you live God's way. Because you put the gospel first.
And in our world of apathetic tolerance, the one thing that cannot be tolerated is wholehearted commitment to Jesus Christ. Every view is valid, we are told, so long as you don't say that other views are invalid. It doesn't matter what you believe so long as you are sincere. But if you sincerely believe that others are sincerely wrong, then woe betide you. Do you remember what the journalist said in the article that I began with? He said: "The relative absence of religious passion in Britain today probably helps to foster this country's atmosphere of easy going religious toleration." That is until you get passionate, and then you'll be persecuted. People will insult you, says Jesus, people will say all kinds of things against you.
We became aware of this when we were doing surveys of people's beliefs on the university campus back in February. We chatted to hundreds of students in the course of the week, and they were happy to chat, until, that is, you made it clear that truth was at stake, that we were dealing with issues of right and wrong. I chatted with one girl who was training to be a lawyer in Europe. It was clear that she had no belief in absolute truth. Every opinion was valid, which was very disturbing given that she was training to be a lawyer, something I cheekily pointed out to her! And she was happy enough to chat, until I decided to up the stakes and tell her that in Jesus' understanding she was wrong and I was right. And at that point she went mad. She got so angry with the thought that I was saying she was wrong, and I was arrogantly saying I was right, that she stormed off.
But of course it can get a lot worse than that. But notice that Jesus says that if we stand for him, then we will be persecuted. It's a fact. It's as much a part of the Christian life as prayer and reading the Bible is. Do you realise that? So we shouldn't be at all surprised when we get flak for being Christians. And if you and I are not willing to be persecuted for Jesus sake, at whatever level, then we cannot be his disciples. So are you willing to stand for him? If so consider the cost. Because as our country moves more and more from its Christian moorings, then persecution will become more and more intense. It's happened time and again through the Christian church. And if you are unwilling to stand on the smaller matters, to take the name calling and the jibes, then you will not stand when it comes to the bigger matters. Perhaps standing before the authorities and giving an account of your faith. You see we all say: "Yes, I'll die for you, Jesus! I'll go to prison for you Jesus!" But so often we are ashamed at the first hurdle. The much smaller tests. So if you are at college, perhaps a member of Mark 2, are you willing to take the flak for being known as a Christian at school? Are you willing to let it be known you follow Jesus as Lord? If you are a student, will you go out of your comfort zone and be willing to be counted for Christ? Will you take a stand in your house or on your corridor? Yes it might be costly. But Jesus doesn't promise otherwise. Or what about in the workplace? The snide comments, the jibes, even being overlooked for promotion. Would you do it for Christ's sake? But why you ask? Well see what Jesus says in verse 12: "Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." Rejoice says Jesus, because there is reward for those who stand firm in persecution. You are not alone and it is not in vain. And we're to receive such persecution with joy. Because Jesus says there is blessing for those who are persecuted. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Our true home is heaven where we will be rewarded. So hear the second lesson and consider the cost for the follower of Jesus.
3) Rejoice in the Future of the follower Jesus
But that brings us to our third and final lesson very briefly as we finish, and that is to rejoice in the future of the follower of Jesus. Because these beatitudes don't just bring us blessing in this life. They are teaching us that there is far more to come. And again that is radically counter cultural. Because we are told day in day out that we should want everything now. Debt free now! Beauty now! Nice house now! Fitness now! Credit now! But Jesus says the mark of the Christian is someone who patiently waits for the best to come and lives in the present in the light of the future. Listen again to these beatitudes and hear the future blessing that Jesus promises! So in beatitudes 1 and 8 we receive the kingdom of heaven. And that is something that begins now, as we can know God personally, but is fulfilled ultimately in heaven. If we mourn we're comforted now, but that comfort is full and complete only in heaven. As meek people we inherit the earth, partly now as we enjoy life with God, but only fully in the new heaven and new earth God is preparing for his people. If we hunger and thirst, then we are filled now but only ultimately in heaven. And so too for all the rest, we'll know the full and total reality of God's mercy, seeing him, and realising what it means to be the sons of God only in heaven. So being a Christian is a now and not yet experience. We have much to rejoice in now, but we'll only experience the fullness of these blessings in heaven. And it's absolutely vital that we foster that certain future hope in order to strengthen us for the present battle.
So as we finish, let me tell you about one young girl who did just that. Her name was Lady Jane Grey. If you know your history, you'll know that Lady Jane Grey ruled England for nine days in 1553, between the reigns of Edward VI and Mary, until she was executed by Mary for so called heresy. The heresy that Jane died for was the Christian faith and a belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ. For what many do not know was that Jane had a very strong faith. Now when Jane died she was just sixteen. That's the age of someone in Mark 2. And Jane was willing quite literally to put her head on the block for the sake of the gospel. She refused to deny her faith. And just days before she climbed the scaffold to be executed she wrote this to her father: "Although my death may seem to you to be woeful, yet to me there is nothing that can be more welcome than to go from this vale of misery to that heavenly throne of all joy and pleasure with Christ our Saviour." And on the 12th February 1554, she saw her Saviour face to face. Lady Jane Grey was someone who clearly displayed these beautiful attitudes that Jesus teaches us here in this passage. She was someone who was willing to pay the ultimate price and to know the reality of the blessing of persecution. And she was someone who lived in the light of the future hope. And the question is can the same be said for you and me?
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