Sermon for All Saints’ Day (observed)
November 4, 2018
Blessed By Jesus
This sermon is the beginning of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s account of His ministry. The only other recorded sayings of Jesus so far in this Gospel are the rebukes of Satan in the wilderness, a general statement that He began to preach, saying, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and then His call to Simon and Andrew, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Here, we have the beginning of three chapters that is all Jesus speaking. The sermon on the mount, as it has become known, is a sermon to His disciples. He had large crowds following Him by this point but it is the disciples that come to Him where He is seated.
The first thing He teaches them is what we call the Beatitudes, or statements of being blessed. He starts with, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” The first word was a catch for the disciples as it is for us. Many things have changed in the last 2,000 years but not the way man thinks about himself and his surroundings. For the Jew in first century Palestine, blessings were the result of faithfulness to God and were reaped in terms of wealth and power. That person that was blessed by God had wonderful rewards in time.
It is not so different today as we may tell one another to count our blessings. What we mean is, “Look around. See all the wonderful things you have. House, car, neighbor. You’re blessed to live in America, blessed with a fantastic job, blessed with the perfect family, etc.” In general, we don’t speak of colds as blessings, or bankruptcy, or divorce. We still see blessings and those things that we possess that in some way are evidences of our being favor with God, probably because we have done something right.
We regard the record holding wide receiver as being blessed with talent, even if he does put in a lot of hard work. He recognizes his blessings too as he points to heaven from the endzone following his latest miraculous touchdown. To say that somebody is blessed has often taken a theological term that speaks of God’s favor and turned it into a general statement, that at its worst, simply means that that person is lucky and so it sparks envy in others instead of thanks directed to God.
For those of us that are Christian, I would say that we would not voice being blessed as simply luck. We do recognize that it is something that comes from God, but even so, we would tend to think of blessings as material things that are given to somebody, most often as a reward for their faithfulness, or just because they are a great person.
If we look to the Magnificat, that song that Mary sings after the angel visits her to announce that she will be with child, we see that being blessed is a status bestowed because of God’s favor and received because of humility. We might say that her blessing is material in that her Son is real, but the blessing is spiritual fulfillment for the eternal salvation of man. Mary being blessed by God has everything to do with Jesus. She is simply the beneficiary of that blessing.
But when we look to Zechariah’s song, the Benedictus, which we sing in Matins, we see that God is the one being blessed, not man. I suppose it is an unfortunate result of language differences and our poetic traditions. Zechariah uses a different word than Jesus and Mary, but both words are translated as blessed. Zechariah’s word choice has to do with praise of God. It is a vocal expression of God’s greatness recognized by what he has done and Zechariah praises God “for He has visited and redeemed his people.”
As Jesus uses the word, it is a status bestowed upon man by the God that has visited and redeemed His people. Being blessed is receiving something from outside that is not intrinsically a part of the person. In other words, it is being bestowed with a special favor or a special gift that is not something already owned and just built upon. We might describe it as altering who or what the person is by God’s decree. To be cured of leprosy by Jesus is blessing, but such is not only material, it is spiritual with material manifestation. In such a healing, Jesus is saving from sin and its consequences. He is blessing the leper with something over which the leper has no control. The leper can only receive it through faith. Blessing is gift that bestows God’s favor, a rescue from the very thing that man cannot escape otherwise. Blessing is salvation and is therefore only given by Jesus.
This blessing is bestowed upon the poor in spirit. Being poor is what most of us want to avoid. We don’t like having little or nothing. We may skip a meal or avoid certain foods to control our weight. We might delay turning on the furnace as the nights grow cold in order to save a few dollars. But we don’t enjoy being hungry or cold. It is not our goal to be poor.
While being poor means that there is something lacking, in this context to be poor in spirit is to lack any conceivable means to escape. It is to be trapped in poverty without the ability to climb out. What to do about the poor and how to help them out of their poverty, has been a political argument my entire life. Do we give them a fish or do we teach them to fish. Arguments can be made for both. Both have been tried, probably just as long as there have been poor among us. It is a conundrum that will likely always remain and probably involves a little of both tactics.
However, the poor in spirit is the one that has been so crushed by demands of the law, that they have reached rock bottom and the only thing that can be done is to give them a fish. There is no climbing out of spiritual poverty. No amount of meditation and positive thinking will help. No training in works of righteousness will elevate the poor in spirit. There is no ladder than can be lowered into that pit offering the spiritually poor a way to climb out. They are destitute and totally dependent upon somebody else to lift them up.
It seems rather odd to call such as these blessed, doesn’t it? How can they who have nothing and no way of getting anything be called blessed? How is it that the very ones that are completely and totally dependent upon somebody else can be called favored by God? Where is the proof? Even more, where is the pudding? They are in the one who is doing the teaching. The blessing is in the God visiting His people and redeeming them. Blessings and being blessed are all wrapped up in the gift of forgiveness. God’s favor is what that person that trusts in Jesus receives to lift him from the poverty that is his own. It is ironic that the goal of the Christian is to be poor – but poor in spirit means that we depend solely upon Jesus for our blessings from God and not upon our own doings. Jesus is not interested in giving us awards for what we think are good deeds, He is interested in saving the lost and rescuing the downtrodden, loving the unlovable. He is interested in us being poor in spirit and so trusting Him to lift us from our poverty and give us the spiritual reward of eternal life.
Note that the blessing for such poor in spirit is not a future reward but a present reward. The kingdom of heaven that is theirs is not a future promise but a present reality. That changes our perspective a bit also about what the kingdom of heaven might be. Remember that Matthew records Jesus as preaching repentance for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The reign of God was imminent. It was not coming in some few millennia but it was a present and real reality in the person of Jesus. Salvation is not just a future possibility, it is a present reality as Jesus is Lord over the poor in spirit.
Last week we sang of fortresses and battles by which Jesus conquers the devil and all evil. The enemy is vanquished but that does not mean that the rule of Jesus and the kingdom of heaven is forcefully extended over all. No, it is graciously given. Citizenship is bestowed upon those that receive a benevolent Sovereign through faith and do not believe that it is their right to belong to such a kingdom. The poor in spirit; the humble and unassuming; those that know they have nothing to offer God but instead trust His means of grace as the gifts of life are the ones that receive the kingdom of God. They are the ones that see Jesus and know Him as Lord.
In celebrating All Saints’ Day, we think primarily of those having lived their lives here upon earth but have now gone to be with the Lord. We should, however, also think about those poor in spirit that do still live here upon earth where the Lord comes to be with them. What we celebrate on this day is not the people that have been saved by Jesus but Jesus who has saved them and saves us.
Blessed are you, the poor in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Amen.